Reading Art: The Benefits of Looking More Closely

Discovering art’s secrets by paying closer attention

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Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1560) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. Source WikiArt

The pleasures of art are numerous. One of the simplest and best is when you notice something in a work of art that you hadn’t seen before — especially when that detail seems to unlock a vital clue to the artwork’s meaning.

Sometimes you see it for yourself, and sometimes it takes another person to point it out. Either way, the act of looking more closely is almost always rewarded by a better understanding of the work in question.

Take as an example this painting by Édouard Manet. It shows a scene from the Folies-Bergère, a cabaret music hall located in Paris just a little south of Montmartre. When it first opened its doors in 1869, the Folies-Bergère was a modern pleasure venue where a typical show might include ballet, pantomime, operetta and animal acts.

Manet’s painting shows a counter where a barmaid has come to serve a customer. To the right of the painting we can see the reflection of this exchange in a mirror. The setting is one of modern urban recreation; Manet’s painting takes us into the territory of a familiar and public world, of the coded transactions of amusement and high-society.

The rest of the image can be a bit more difficult to decipher, until perhaps you notice one particular detail that is easy to miss. It appears in the top left-hand corner: a pair of legs with green shoes belonging to a trapeze artist performing above the audience.

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Detail from ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ (1881–1882) by Édouard Manet. Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

Now it’s possible to see that the audience reflected in the mirror is sat on a balcony overlooking a stage, and that the barmaid is serving at a counter facing this balcony. In fact this was a feature of the Folies-Bergère: guests were invited to sit around a raised ‘promenade’ lined with bars and couches overlooking the performance.

The legs of the trapeze artist indicate that the evening’s show is in full flow. For me, the trapeze artist gives the work an extra energy: the sense of a lively, raucous evening underway. Manet’s brilliance is that he leaves the image open to perpetual questioning. The barmaid, for instance, maintains an ambiguous demeanor somewhere between assertiveness and disenchantment. She stands and meets our gaze, yet also looks away, perhaps at the trapeze artist as she swings back and forth. Such ambiguities, along with the bold composition and quickly applied brushwork, keep the work intriguing, even a century-and-a-half after it was made.

Another pair of legs is the key to this painting, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel, painted around 1560. If you look towards the bottom-right of the picture, you’ll see a tiny pair of legs disappear into the water.

The subject of the painting is mankind’s most famous tale of reaching for the skies — the story of Icarus and his father Daedalus.

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Detail from ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ (c. 1560) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. Source WikiArt

The story goes like this: the craftsman Daedalus and his son Icarus had been imprisoned by King Minos of Crete. In an attempt to escape, Daedalus fashioned a pair of wings from feathers and quills. He also made a pair for Icarus so they could escape together. As he fastened the wings to his son, he warned the boy to not fly too high in the sky nor too near the sea. “My son, I caution you to keep the middle way, for if your pinions dip too low the waters may impede your flight; and if they soar too high the sun may scorch them.”

The father and son flew from their imprisonment, but Icarus “bold in vanity” began to soar on his wings. The heat of the sun began to melt the wax holding his wings together and he plunged headlong into the sea.

The story of Icarus and his father Daedalus has been represented many times in literature and art. Two alternative themes emerge, transforming the tragic tale into one of moral allegory. The first is as a symbol of man’s inventiveness and aspiration. The second is the one favoured by Renaissance moralists, of Icarus’s fall from the sky as an allegory of pride, youth and the dangers of going to extremes.

In the work by Bruegel, Icarus is a tiny detail in the bottom-right corner, of two legs disappearing into the water. Otherwise, the farmer continues to plow his field, the shepherd attends his flock and trading vessels go about their commercial business. In other words, the folly of ambition is a trivial event compared to the livelihoods of everyday society.

Another artist, working nearly 300 years later, used landscape to impart a different sort message. On the surface, Thomas Cole has painted a natural wonder: the winding course of a river across a low-lying valley, with the dramatic addition of changing weather conditions, giving a sense of the artist having ‘captured’ a fleeting moment. But there’s a lot more going on here, if you look closely.

Cole’s painting of an oxbow in the Connecticut River Valley has a light and a dark side. The storm that is sweeping across the left hand side of the painting — a storm that has passed — contrasts tonally with the sun-bathed expanse that it leaves in its wake.

Painted in 1836, the artist produced a vision of a landscape in a state of transformation. In fact, the painting supplies three overlaid time-frames: the rapid onset of a storm, which arrives and departs in a matter of minutes or hours; the clearing of trees and wilderness to be replaced by agriculture and towns, a process that occurs over years and decades; and the far slower geological process of a river flowing over flatlands and slowly silting up, so creating curves that eventually turn into oxbows, the great horseshoe meander that gives the painting its subject matter.

The high vantage point from Mount Holyoke gives us a sweeping panorama, so that, as the viewer, we are invited to widen our eyes at the beauty and breadth of the scene. The sunlit plains are occupied by a pastoral scene of fields and farmlands, suggestive of the prospects of landscape cultivation for development of the American nation: the land is ploughed into fields, houses have been built, smoke is rising from chimneys, and in the distant hills, tree clearings scar the slopes.

The work was first shown at the National Academy of Design in 1836 with the title View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm. Painting the American landscape was a new facet of American art. Once seen as a place of peril and hardship, it is a paradox of the American landscape that it was only as it came under threat from mankind that it began to be treated as a spectacle of beauty. This is the fate of all natural territories, of course, and in the same manner as European landscape art was a reaction to 18th century urbanisation and the scientific Enlightenment, so American landscape art took root as the American frontier was pushed further westward into the wilderness.

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Detail from ‘View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow’ (1836) by Thomas Cole. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Source Wikimedia Commons.

Cole is inviting us to consider the magnitude and consequences of the changing landscape, and one particular detail of the painting ought make us think twice.

On the hill in the far background, logging scars in the forest appear to form Hebrew letters, a detail that was only noticed many decades after the painting was first displayed. From our perspective it reads as Noah (נֹ֫חַ). If viewed upside down, as if from God’s perspective, the word Shaddai is formed, ‘The Almighty.’

Cole’s painting — and this detail in particular — should perhaps remind us that no matter how much the human race “conquers” nature, we shouldn’t forget that greater forces still hold sway over us.

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Christopher P Jones is a writer and artist. He blogs about culture, art and life at his website.

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Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”

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