A painting is not just art. A painting is fundamentally a recording tool to deliver information such as history, landscape, philosophy, and emotion; in every great painting, there is a silent message from the artist. An artist who understands these features well utilize a painting as a window to their own world, thereby, unlimit paintings’ capability beyond the two-dimensional limit and deliver not only a message, but experience. However, to the audience, their messages are often lost in space and sometimes transform as it is delivered through ambiguous symbols. With this process of thought in mind, I ask this question to myself whenever I am examining the arts; what is the artist trying to say?
An artist’s message gets more distinct as the painting’s purpose and representation is clear and focused, and there is no other form of painting than a portrait to demonstrate this point. A portrait is designed to focus on one model, and its sole purpose is representing and persevering a moment of a model’s life. Understanding autobiographical characteristics of portraits, Hanneke Grootenboer describes the portraits as a fragment of biography throughout his book “How to become a picture: Theatricality as strategy in seventeenth-century Dutch portrait” (323).
In the same book, Grootenboe introduces the framework of theatricality which is a technique implemented by artists to achieve a particular effect on the viewer. Due to the limit of the painting, one frame of expression, this technique is well used among portrait painters to include the history and character of the model. According to Grootenboer, “To sit for one’s picture, is to have an abstract of one’s life written, and published” (Grootenboer 323).
Charles van Beveren, Portrait of Louis Royer, 1830, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum
So multiple theatrical clues such as items, colors, or perspectives are planted within the painting as an abstract form of one’s life in a portrait. As painting is not a written art, clues are often rudely scattered in ambiguous forms, and it is the audiences’ role to find and connect them. It requires examining the art carefully to its detail. When the clues are well connected, the whole story of the painting would appear.
The first identifiable theatrical item in “Portrait of Louis Royer” by Charles van Beveren is Royer’s red cap and coat. Although the message is unclear yet, red might represent fame and wealth. The hammer in his left hand is explicitly expressing the importance of its appearance. The sculpting tools on the table and sculpture are obviously placed intentionally as well. Connecting the dots, it is safe to infer that he is a sculptor, perhaps a famous one. The sketch or engraving on the wall behind Louis could mean that the location of this painting is his studio. The white marble powders scattered on his desk and work clothes symbolize his passion and effort, perhaps he was working until he was getting painted. Maybe his collapsing posture and lost eyesight are due to tiredness. I said maybe because even though I was able to pull the story out by connecting the clues, it is not defiant.
“Theatricality owes its value as a critical term to its open-endedness” (Grootenboer 323). The beauty of theatricality is in its open-endedness. Oftentimes each audience receives a different, unique story even from one art which is called augmented art. One might interpret the marble powder, tools, dirty working clothes, and the hammer is not only placed to demonstrate Royer’s occupation or his studiousness but also to indicate he is currently working as getting painted. Royer’s eyesight may seem lost, because he is focused on his model, perhaps the painter. His posture demonstrates him planning what to sizzle next while getting painted, and his dimmed smile is due to this interesting situation where artists are working on each other simultaneously. Like this, there could be multiple interpretations even from one single focused portrait.
Augmenting characteristics of the painting amplifies when theatricality is applied to a more ambiguous format than a portrait, such as landscape. There are multiple focused objects and purposes other than capturing the beautiful panoramic view is often unclear in landscape painting. Thus, it generates more diverse interpretations among audiences. To examine landscape paintings thoroughly, Celeste Brusati suggests using a technique called Spherical field of view through his book “Perspectives in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real-Time ”.
Multifocal panoramic landscapes which are when the artist generates dynamic optical engagement throughout punctuating multiple perspectives that mobilize the eye, especially used in landscape paintings. Moving focus around those punctuated multiple perspectives in a visual path is called a spherical field of view. “My eyes viewed the painting by focusing on one point at a time and eventually circled back to the first point where I started” (Brusati 917).
Willem Van De Velde II, The “Gouden Leeuw” before Amsterdam, 1686, oil on canvas, Amsterdam Historisch Museum.
Examining the beautiful landscape painting of 1686 Amsterdam harbor by Willem Van De Velde II, my focus is initially drawn to the large vessel on the left-center. Its comparably large size among others and the Dutch flag-waving by lake breeze captures my attention. My focus moves toward the semi-cloudy sky. Theatrical light coming from the right side of the painting draws more focus to the large vessel’s mainmast. The sky is comparably large and bright to the busy harbor; maybe the sun is about to go down. I see various ships anchored at the harbor. Knowing that Amsterdam was famous for global trade at that time by such companies like East India Company, these must be international trade merchant vessels. My attention moves to the ship with smoke coming out on the fat left then back to the huge ship where I started examining. There I finished my spherical field of view.
Using this analytical tool I was able to identify various items the artist intentionally placed in the painting. However, the job of connecting the dots and constructing the message is still left to audiences. Some might claim that this painting is expressing hard workmanship. As the sun is coming down, busy working ships are anchored to the harbor and sailors are going back home. Some might say the joy of work or even the prosperity of Dutch. Although the message is still unclear, Velde II clearly is expressing the active business and productivity of Amsterdam at that time.
Another tool to examining art is the historical context. Historical context can add a deeper layer of understanding and reveal things that are not given out. The Gouden Leeuw or Golden lion in English is the name of the large vessel in the left-center. After years of loyal service to the city and country throughout Eighty years’ war and Dutch golden era, Gouden Leeuw, the warship of Admiral Cornelis Tromp, is retiring its service. This painting is a depiction of its final homecoming for demolition. With this information in mind, the vessel’s meaning is transformed from productivity to loyalty in my mind.
“The Gouden Leeuw before Amsterdam” was commissioned by the High Commissioners of the Walloon in the Schreierstoren. Accounting for their high involvement in the international trading scene at that time, it is safe to say that the purpose of this painting is to structure productivity as value, expressing prosperity of the trade, thereby giving legitimacy to trade. “Martine painting foremost – acknowledged its more significant basis in overseas trade and colonial ventures” (Westermann 112). And due to the dualism of trade, this painting could also be interpreted very differently to some audiences.
Author of the book “Blacks in the Dutch World”, Allison Blakely would be one of them. She would unveil the history of the slave trade concealed in this painting. As most ships depicted in the painting are trade vessels, some of them are inevitably a black slave merchant vessels. Blakely would penetrate this fact. She would focus on persecuting the history of other nations behind the Dutch’s prosperity. Thus, this peaceful view of Amsterdam harbor could have seemed disaster to her. Due to the open-endedness characteristics of the painting, even the historical context generates various interpretations rather than one clear message.
A painting is a window to the artist’s mind. Depending on the era, geographic location, personal background, or even their current mood, view from the window varies to each audience. Various analytical tools allow the audience to guess close to the artist’s true intention, but not enough. Thus, the only way to completely appreciate a painting is to insert ‘you’ into a painting. In this logic, maybe it is best to feel and experience the art rather than logically understand. One clear fact is that there is no wrong way of trying to understand art.
Brusati, C. “Perspectives in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real Time,” Art History 5 (2012).
Westermann, M. (2007). A worldly art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Grootenboer, Hanneke. “How to Become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Portraits.” Art History, vol. 33, no. 2, 31 Mar. 2010.
Allison Blakely, Blacks in the Dutch World : The Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society Indiana University Press, 1993.