Art History

Period Eye: Seeing Old Art With Modern Eyes

Cover image: Leonardo da Vinci, Female head (La Scapigliata), c. 1508. Galleria Nazionale di Parma in Parma, Italy. [Public Domain].

We all know that things have been different in the past – worldviews, cultural preferences, technological capabilities, and more. But have you ever considered how that impacts the way you look at art?

In his delightful book Living with Leonardo: Fifty Years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond, noted Leonardo da Vinci scholar Martin Kemp made this observation while discussing questions that arise during art restorations.

Even if we indulge in a rather extreme thought experiment (or envisage a brilliant digital reconstruction) that would somehow restore the Last Supper to its actual appearance in 1500, we would be seeing the ‘original’, but not in the original way. We are spectators from the second millennium. We know to varying degrees about the history of ‘Art’. We are likely to have acquired some knowledge of Leonard – most probably knowing that he was a universal genius. Inevitably we know something, right or wrong, about the Mona Lisa. This, and much other baggage, we inevitably bring to our looking. […]

The modern viewer of the Last Supper has different eyes from anyone in Leonardo’s period. One of the jobs of the art historian – perhaps the key job – is to set up criteria that enrich our modes of looking in terms that are analogous to those of the period itself. Ultimately, to look with a period eye is an impossible quest, but much profit and delight is to be gained from trying.

Kemp, Martin. Living with Leonardo: Fifty Years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2018. P. 68-69.

Period Eye

Kemp is referring to a phenomenon called period eye, a term coined by celebrated art historian Michael Baxandall (1933-2008). Baxandall tells us that whenever we look at an artwork, we bring along a lot of subconscious baggage. These assumptions, preferences, associations, attitudes, etc. play big roles in how we react to art even if we’re not aware of having this baggage at all. Think of it like tinted glasses through which we view the world.

Much of this baggage is culturally determined – dependent on the prevailing conditions and attitudes in our own time and place. Thus, people who live in different eras or cultures acquire different sets of baggage. This means that historical people saw artworks through different lenses than we see the very same pieces today.

Let’s consider just a few of the many ways life has changed since Leonardo’s time. Kemp has already mentioned one – Leonardo’s world-wide celebrity, which is nearly impossible for a modern viewer to forget when looking at his art. There’s also the fact that the clothing, hairstyles, and settings in his paintings were fashionable at the time but look antiquated to us today. Additionally, all the technological and artistic innovations of the past 150 years – photography, videos, abstract painting, bright synthetic dyes and paints, and the general bounty of images now available online – have fundamentally altered our expectations in a way that Leonardo’s contemporaries could never have imagined. Of course they didn’t see The Last Supper in quite the same way we do.

The Last Super Leonardo
Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, oil, tempera, fresco, 1495–98. Show in situ at Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. Photo by Joyofmuseums via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Why This Matters

The concept of period eye suggests that we cannot assume any part of our reaction is universal, no matter how much it feels that way. For example, most of us view medieval gargoyles and grotesques as funny, charming, and cute, and it can be difficult to imagine seeing them any other way. However, art historians generally believe their original audiences saw them as much less benign.

This can be difficult to wrap your head around, especially when you’re asked to disregard your strongest instincts and reactions. It’s also a concept that is sometimes stretched to the breaking point, at least in my opinion. But to be fair, it’s difficult to know when it applies and when it doesn’t. One of the fun things about art history is how it connects us to people from far-off times and places while also revealing fascinating differences. (Look at this portrait, with her combination of lavish historical clothing and highly-relatable expression.) It’s just sometimes hard to tell what has universal resonance and what doesn’t

As Kemp said, it’s impossible to look at old artworks exactly the same way people did in the past. But Baxandall suggested that historical research can at least get us closer to understanding their point of view. However, the further we are separated from the original owners and makers, the more difficult and speculative this proposition becomes. That said, it might be fun to try. You might stand in front of a dramatic landscape painted from on high and try to imagine how different it would be if you weren’t so used to seeing similar vistas in the movies. Or visit an old portrait and imagine that you and the people around you are wearing similar clothes, or what life might have been like for the subject of the portrait. Naturally, the more you know about the historical and social context involved, the better.

Different ways of seeing

Of course, you can still enjoy artworks on your own terms, and your own perspective is always valid. Art viewing is a living tradition, where objects are constantly gaining and losing meaning as time goes by. Even the oldest artworks are never static, and that’s wonderful. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with liking an artwork because of your 21st-century reaction to it. As the end of Kemp’s quote hints, though, trying to understand how people originally saw an artwork can be fascinating and rewarding, so I highly suggest giving it a try.

At the very least, I hope that the idea of period eye can make all of us more comfortable with the fact that there’s always more than one way to view an artwork. Simply put, we can’t and shouldn’t expect everyone to see things the same way we do. That’s an idea that can serve us well far beyond the art museum.

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