Reading Art: The Benefits of Looking More Closely

Discovering art’s secrets by paying closer attention

Christopher P Jones
7 min readDec 16, 2019

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.

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

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.

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…