Art Appreciation 101

Be Good Looking (at artwork)

Allegory of Sight looking at artwork
Jan Brueghel, Allegory of Sight, 1617, Museo Nacional del Prado (Madrid, Spain). Photo via (Public Domain).

As an art lover, I’m always trying to improve my skill in looking at artwork. And I believe that every other art lover should do the same. Art is a visual medium, and all the reading and writing about it in the world don’t mean anything without a visual experience first. I’ve addressed this topic before, but I think it merits some more sophisticated discussion.

I hate leaving a museum and feeling like I didn’t absorb everything there was to see. With so much art in the world, it’s not feasible to repeatedly go back to the same sites because I’ve inefficient at looking at artwork while I’m there. The problem, as I see it, is that it’s impossible to know you’ve missed something until you realize it exists in the first place. Take the painting above, for example – Allegory of Sight by Jan Brueghel. There’s so much in the scene that I’m sure we’re all missing many things, but we have no idea what. Therefore, it seems like a good idea to increase my chances of having things pointed out to me.

Catskill Mountain House looking at artwork
Thomas Cole, Catskill Mountain House, date unknown, private collection. Photo via (Public Domain).
A Few Ways to Do That
  • Take a tour with a live guide or audio device. These will point out key features while you’re standing in front of the artwork. In lieu of this, reading a pamphlet or wall text helps, too.
  • Bring an art-appreciation buddy and take to each other about what you see. The two of you will probably notice different things. Recently, someone I went to a museum with asked me a question about an artwork I had completely failed to notice, despite thinking I’d seen everything the room had to offer. That incident largely inspired this post.
  • Art-related knowledge usually clues you in to the possibility that certain things will appear. On a recent trip to NYC, I noticed so many more architectural details than I would have six months ago. I’m pretty sure this is because I’ve spent so much time studying architectural history for my art guides. I’m simply more familiar with certain things now, so I can’t help but appreciate them when I see them. I firmly believe that you can enjoy artwork without extensive study, but there’s no denying that a little bit of reading can greatly enhance your experience.
  • For those of you who are planning a big vacation that will include looking at art, I would suggest doing a little reading about the types of art you expect to see. If you’re willing to spend your time and money on a great trip, why not put in just a little extra effort to have the best experience possible?
Aurora Borealis looking at art
Frederick Edwin Church, Aurora Borealis, 1865, Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery (Washington D.C.). Photo via (Public Domain).
Some Other Strategies
  • Spending a long time in front of an artwork doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll pick up everything. It’s possible to stare at something for ages without actually seeing it. Instead, try browsing the entire gallery first and then returning to things that interest you. You’ll get two first impressions (sort of), and they can be quite different from each other. Rushing past something quickly pretty much guarantees that you’ll miss things.
  • I’ve come to the conclusion that trying really hard to actively look can actually be counterproductive. I have caught myself working so hard to make sure my eyes land on each and every detail that I forget to process those details. Instead, I try to to put myself in the optimal frame of mind for looking at artwork. Of course, I’m still experimenting to figure out what mindset that actually is!

Do you have any good strategies for looking at artwork? What are your art-viewing habits when you go to a museum? Let me know in the comments section.


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