Art Evaluation: How to Appreciate Art?
How to Judge a Painting.

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Art Education Series

This article, written by
our Editor Neil Collins, is designed for art students
and art schools as part
of our new series on art

For biographies of artists listed
in this educational review, see:
Old Masters (c.1200-1800), or
Famous Painters (c.1800-present).

Blue II (1961) (Part of Triptych)
By Joan Miro. One of the
greatest 20th-century paintings
at National Museum of Modern Art
Pompidou Centre, Paris.

Art Evaluation: How to Appreciate Art?


What is Art Evaluation?
Art Evaluation is Not Simply Liking or Disliking
How to Appreciate a Work of Art?
When Was the Painting Created?
Is the Painting Abstract or Representational?
What Type of Painting is It?
What School or Movement is the Painting Associated With?
Where Was the Picture Painted?
At What Point Was the Artist in His Career? What Was His Background?
Where Was the Intended Location of the Painting?
What Materials Were Used in the Creation of the Painting?
What is the Content & Subject Matter of the Painting?
How to Appreciate Composition in a Painting?
How to Appreciate Line and Shape?
How to Appreciate Colour?
How to Appreciate Texture and Brushwork?
How to Appreciate Beauty in a Painting?
How Does The Painting Compare With Others?
Tips on How to Appreciate Abstract Art
How to Evaluate Art: A Few Final Questions
History of Art Criticism: Famous Critics
It's Impossible to Appreciate All Art!

For two essays on sculpture
appreciation, please see:
How to Appreciate Sculpture
3-D art from Stone Age to 1850.
How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture
19th/20th century sculptors.

For a discussion, see:
Meaning/Definition of Art.

Definitions, forms, styles, genres,
periods, see: Types of Art.

For a list of masterpieces
by famous artists, see:
Greatest Paintings Ever
For a list of the finest
sculptures by top sculptors,
see: Greatest Sculptures Ever.

See our compilations of the top
creative practitioners in history:
Best Artists of All Time
The greatest painters & sculptors.
Best History Painters
Top 10 Narrative artists.
Best Portrait Artists
Top 10 portraitists ever.
Best Genre Painters
Top 10 exponents of genre
painting, notably Dutch Realists.
Best Landscape Artists
Top 10 view painters and
plein-air specialists.
Best Still Life Painters
Top 10 exponents of still life

For information about the world's
most highly priced works of art
and record auction prices, see:
Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings.

What is Art Evaluation?

The task of evaluating a work of art, such as a painting or a sculpture, requires a combination of objective information and subjective opinion. Yes, it's true that art appreciation is highly subjective, but the aim of evaluating a picture is not simply to ascertain whether you like/dislike a picture, but WHY you like/dislike it. And this requires a certain amount of knowledge. After all, your assessment of a drawing produced by a 14-year old child in a school playground, is likely to be quite different from a similar drawing by a 40-year old Michelangelo. Similarly, one cannot use the same standards when evaluating the true-to-life qualities of a realist portrait compared with an expressionist portrait. This is because the expressionist painter is not trying to capture the same degree of visual objectivity as his realist counterpart. To put it simply, art evaluers need to generate facts upon which to base their opinions: namely, facts about (1) the context of the artwork; and (2) the artwork itself. Once we have the facts, we can then make our assessment. The more information we can glean about the context, and the work of art itself, the more reasoned our assessment will be.

Definitions & Terminology
Please note that in this article, the terms "art evaluation", "art assessment" and "art appreciation" are used interchangeably.

Art Evaluation is Not Simply Liking or Disliking

Before going into detail about how to evaluate art, let us again re-emphasize that the whole point of art appreciation is to explain WHY we like or dislike something, not simply WHETHER we like it or not. For example, you may end up disliking a picture because it is too dark, but you may still like its subject matter, or appreciate its overall message. To put it simply, saying "I don't like this painting" is insufficient. We need to know the reasons behind your opinion, and also whether you think the work has any positive qualities.

How to Appreciate a Work of Art

The easiest way to get to understand and therefore appreciate a work of art is to investigate its context, or background. This is because it helps us to understand what was (or might have been) in the mind of the artist at the time he created the work in question. Think of it as basic detective work. Start with these questions.


A. How to Evaluate the Context/Background of the Work?

When was the Painting Created?

Knowing the date of the work helps us to gauge how it was made, and the degree of difficulty involved. For instance, landscapes produced before the popularity of photography (c.1860), or the appearance of collapsible tin paint tubes (1841), had a greater level of difficulty. Oil painting produced before the Renaissance, or after the Renaissance by artists of modest means, will not contain the fabulous but astronomically expensive natural blue pigment Ultramarine, made from ground up mineral Lapis Lazuli.

Is the Painting Abstract or Representational?

A painting can be wholly abstract (meaning, it has no resemblance to any natural shapes: a form known as non-objective art), or organically abstract (some resemblance to natural organic forms), or semi-abstract (figures and other objects are discernible to an extent), or representational (its figurative and other content is instantly recognizable). Obviously an abstract work has quite different aims to that of a representational work, and must be judged according to different criteria. For example, a wholly abstract picture makes no attempt to divert the viewer with any naturalism and thus depends entirely for its effect on its formal qualities (line, shape, colour and so on).

What Type of Painting is It?

Paintings come in different types or categories (known as painting genres). The established genres are: Landscape, Portraiture, Genre-Paintings (everyday scenes), History, and Still Life. During the 17th century, the great European Academies, such as the Academy of Art in Rome, the Academy of Art in Florence, the Parisian Academie des Beaux-Arts, and the Royal Academy in London followed the rule laid down in 1669, by Professor Andre Felibien, Secretary to the French Academy, who ranked the genres as follows: (1) History Painting - with religious paintings being perhaps an independent category; (2) Portraiture; (3) Genre Painting; (4) Landscape Painting; (5) Still Life. This hierarchy reflected the moral impact of each genre. Experts believed that a moral message could be conveyed much more clearly through a history picture, a portrait or a genre painting, rather than a landscape or still life.

Other types of painting, in addition to the above five, include: cityscapes, marine paintings, icons, altarpieces, miniatures, murals, illuminations, illustrations, caricatures, cartoons, poster art, graffiti, animal pictures, and so on.

A number of these painting-types have traditional rules concerning composition, subject matter and so on. This applies especially to religious art. Christian themes, for instance, which appear many times in Renaissance and Baroque paintings, are obliged to contain certain Holy figures, and must conform to certain compositional rules. In addition, painters often hark back to earlier pictures within the same genre (Francis Bacon's Screaming Pope was modelled on one of the greatest portrait paintings - the Portrait of Innocent X by Velazquez). Because of all this, paintings are best evaluated against other works of the same type. For more tips, see: How to Appreciate Paintings.

What School or Movement is the Painting Associated With?

A "School" can be a national group of artists (eg. the Ancient Egyptian School, the Spanish School, German Expressionism) or a local group (eg. Delft School of Dutch Realism, New York Ashcan School, Ecole de Paris), or a general aesthetic movement (eg. Baroque, Neoclassicism, Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Pop Art), a local or an artist group (eg. Der Blaue Reiter, New York School of abstract expressionism, Cobra Group, Fluxus, St Ives School), or even a general tendency (realism, expressionism). Alternatively, the School may concern itself with a particular genre (eg. Barbizon School and Newlyn School, both landscape groups; Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, historical or literary-themed pictures), or painting method (eg. Neo-Impressionism, based on Pointillism - a variant of the colour theory of Divisionism), or aspect of the natural world (eg. Constructivism, devoted to reflecting the modern industrial world), or politics, or mathematical symbols (eg. the austere Neo-Plasticism).

Knowing which of many art movements the painting belongs to can give us a greater understanding of its composition and meaning. In the school of Egyptian art, for instance, painters had to adhere to specific rules of painting concerning composition and colour. Thus figures were sized according to their social status, rather than by reference to linear perspective. Head and legs were always shown in profile, while eyes and upper body were viewed from the front. Egyptian painters used no more than six colours: red, green, blue, yellow, white and black - each of which symbolized different aspects of life or death. Other cultures and cultural schools have their own specific guidelines. Dutch Realist artists valued exact, true-to-life replication of interiors and surroundings - except in portraiture, where the aim was to flatter the subject: cf. The Night Watch, by Rembrandt. Impressionist painters typically valued loose brushwork in order to capture fleeting impressions of light. Cubists spurned the normal rules of linear perspective and, instead, disassembled their subject into a series of flat transparent geometric plates that overlapped and intersected at different angles. De Stijl artists like Piet Mondrian only used geometrical forms in their pictures, while lines were always horizontal or vertical - never diagonal. And so on.

Note that Occidental art is very different from Oriental art. Chinese Painting, for instance, focuses on the spiritual inner essence of things rather than exterior appearance.

Where Was the Picture Painted?

Knowing where and under what circumstances a painting is created can often improve our appreciation and understanding of the work concerned. Here are some examples.

Balancing dangerously on top of rickety scaffolding, Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (a gigantic area of 12,000 square feet) virtually unaided, during the course of 4 years between 1508 to 1512. Knowing that this masterpiece of Christian art was created in situ, rather than in a nice warm studio, helps us to appreciate the enormity of the task.

Monet, the leader of French Impressionism, devoted his life to plein-air painting. In his later years, he had a Japanese water garden with lily ponds laid out next to his house, and it was here that he produced his huge series of water-lily paintings. Pissarro also painted mostly outdoors and therefore always had a large number of unfinished paintings, because the light often faded before his work was done. This explains why he painted the same scene or motif (to capture the different light) and why his brushwork was so rapid and loose. On the other hand, Manet and Degas were both city folk and worked exclusively in their studio, where they could polish and perfect their work. Other exceptional plein-air painters included the Scandinavians Kroyer and Hammershoi (known as 'the painters of light'), who produced a number of exceptional landscapes at Skagen in Denmark.

Surroundings can have a major impact on an artist's mood, and therefore on his painting. Van Gogh and Gauguin are cases in point. In his 10 years of painting, Van Gogh relied on dark colours while he was painting during the difficult days in Holland (eg. The Potato Eaters, 1885); switched to lighter, brighter colours in Paris as he came under the influence of Impressionism; turned to vivid yellows when he was painting in Arles, near the Riviera (Cafe Terrasse by Night, 1888); before reverting to darker pigments in his final period (The Olive Pickers, 1889, and the ominous Wheat Field with Crows, 1890). In 1891, one year after Van Gogh's death, the French artist Paul Gauguin set sail for Tahiti and the Pacific Islands, where he spent most of the last 10 years of his life in acute poverty. Nevertheless, his return to nature infused his paintings with enormous life and colour, as well as a Primitivism which found echoes in Picasso and others.

A particularly interesting artist is the French Intimist Edouard Vuillard, who lived for 60 years with his mother, a dressmaker, in a series of apartments in Paris. His mother ran her corsetiere from home, giving Vuillard plenty of opportunity to observe the patterns, materials, colours and shapes of her dresses. All this was carefully reflected in the patternwork of his paintings.

Once, during his artistic youth, the pioneer Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg was (allegedly) so poor that he stayed in his apartment and painted the quilt on his own bed, decorating it with toothpaste and fingernail polish. The iconic work was entitled Bed (1955).

At What Point Was the Artist in His Career? What Was His Background?

Knowing whether a painting was created early or late in a painter's life can often assist our appreciation of the work.

Artists typically improve their painting technique with time, achieve a high point sometime in mid-career, and then fade in later years. Some artists, however, have died at the height of their powers. Such artists include: Raphael (1483-1520), Caravaggio (1571-1610), Jan Vermeer (1632-75), Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28), Van Gogh (1853-90), Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98), Isaac Levitan (1860-1900), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Nicolas de Stael (1914-1955) and Jackson Pollock (1912-56), to name but a few. On the other hand, some artists blossom early and, while they might continue painting for decades, fail to repeat their early success. In this category we might find modern artists like Marcel Duchamp, Georges Braque, Oskar Kokoschka, Andre Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Kees Van Dongen - even, arguably, Picasso. Only a relatively small proportion maintain their creativity into extreme old age, in the manner of Tintoretto, Monet, Renoir, Joan Miro and Lucian Freud.

Understanding the background of the artist can also explain a huge amount about his/her painting.

The Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch reportedly never recovered from a number of early deaths in the family. His consequent neurotic, morbid nature can be seen in many of his works. The Mexican painter Frida Kahlo never fully recovered the use of her right leg after contracting polio at age 6, and at 18 suffered serious injuries after a bus accident. This helps to explain her endless series of self-portraits, capturing her lack of mobility.

Paul Cezanne (Mont St Victoire landscapes, Bathers, and still-lifes) and Edgar Degas (ballet dancers) painted endless painstaking versions of certain subjects. One probable reason for this, is that neither depended on their art for their living. Certainly neither attempted much portraiture, which was the most financially rewarding of the genres. On the other hand, both men were more classicist in their outlook than their Impressionist colleagues, which helps to explain their precise and meticulous methods of working.

Where Was the Intended Location of the Painting? (if any)

Obviously a painting designed to occupy a large space on the wall of a 16th century Spanish monastery dining hall (monumental, inspirational religious picture) is going to be radically different from one intended for the study of a prosperous textile merchant in 17th century Amsterdam (small-scale, polished portrait, interior or still life). Likewise, a painting designed for the reception area of a hi-tech software in California (large modern abstract picture, possibly geometric or expressionist) is likely to be different from one installed in the boardroom of a private bank in the City of London (traditional 19th century landscape). Of course, these suggestions are no more than stereotypical possibilities, but they serve to illustrate the role and characteristics of site-specific works of art.


B. How to Evaluate the Work of Art Itself

See: How to Appreciate Paintings.
See also: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Once we have investigated or researched the context of the painting, we can begin to appreciate the work itself. Knowing how to appreciate a painting is itself an art rather than a science. And perhaps the most difficult aspect of art evaluation is judging the painting method itself: that is, how the actual painting has been done? It is with great humility therefore that we offer these suggestions for how to evaluate the actual painting technique used.

What Materials were Used in the Creation of the Painting?

What sort of paint was used? What type of ground or support did the painter employ? The answers to these questions can furnish interesting information about the intentions of the artist. The standard materials are oil paint on canvas. Oil because of its richness of colour, canvas because of its adaptability. However, acrylics or watercolours are used instead of oils when thin glazes are required, and acrylics are also better when large flat areas of colour are called for. The American abstract expressionists Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, both famous for their monumental coloured canvases, experimented in the 1950s with a mixture of oil and acrylics. Watercolour and acrylic paints also dry much faster than oils, and are therefore ideally suited for rapidly worked paintings. Wooden panel paintings are sometimes used as an alternative to canvas when very precise paintwork is intended (miniatures were/are still painted on wood, copper or even slate panels), or in conjunction with tempera or acrylics when the artist wants to build up the paint in very thin layers.

Sometimes the painting surface, its support and its frame is made a specific feature of the work of art. In the early 1960s French contemporary art was dominated by the far-left avant garde Supports-Surfaces group, whose members painted large-scale canvases without stretchers (the physical support behind the canvas), while materials were often cut, woven, or crumpled. The Italian painter Lucio Fontana also made a name for himself in the 60s with his "slashed" canvases, allowing the spectator to see through the picture plane to the three-dimensional space beyond, which itself becomes part of the work. Recently, Angela de la Cruz, one of the contemporary artists nominated for the 2010 British Turner Prize, has become noted for her canvases which, after being painted, are then taken off their stretcher support and crumpled, and rehung.

What is the Content & Subject Matter of the Painting?

What is being depicted in the painting? If it's a historical picture or mythological painting, ask yourself these questions: What event is being shown? What characters are involved, and what are their roles? What message does the painting contain? If it's a portrait, ask yourself these questions: Who is the sitter? How does the artist portray him/her? What features or aspects of the sitter are given prominence or attention? If it's a genre-scene, ask yourself these questions: What scene is being depicted? What is happening? What message (if any) does the painter have for us? Why has he chosen this particular scene? If it's a landscape, ask yourself these questions: What is the geographical location of the view in the picture? (eg. Is it a favourite haunt of the painter?) What is the artist trying to convey to us about the landscape? If it's a still-life, ask yourself these questions: What objects - no matter how seemingly insignificant - are included in the picture? Why has the artist chosen these particular items? Why has he laid them out in the way he has? Still lifes are known for their symbolism, so it's worth analyzing the objects painted, to see what each might symbolize.

How to Appreciate Composition in a Painting?

Composition means the overall design (disegno), the general layout. And how a painting is laid out is vital since it largely determines its visual impact. Why? Because a well composed painting will attract and guide the viewer's eye around the picture. Painters who excelled at composition were invariably classically trained in the great academies, where composition was a highly regarded element in the painting process. Three supreme examples are Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), J.A.D Ingres (1780–1867) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917).

Lack of space prevents us from going into detail here, but we recommend a study of the following works: The Holy Family in Egypt (1655-7, Hermitage, St Petersburg) by Poussin; The Bather of Valpincon (1808, Louvre, Paris) by Ingres; and Absinthe (1876, Musee d'Orsay) by Degas.

In the first work - which shows Joseph and Mary resting next to a temple in a town - Poussin's demonstrates his amazing ability to position everything in the painting exactly as it should be, for maximum optical harmony, and to convey important messages that are consistent with the overall theme. Put simply, everything in the picture has a very specific purpose, and a specific position. In the second work - a simpler interior of a windowless bedroom in which we see the back of an anonymous female nude who is sitting on the bed - Ingres creates a highly symbolic arrangement of colours, forms and angles, which infuses the picture with voyeuristic mystery. The third picture - one of the greatest genre paintings ever - depicts a prostitute sitting in a Paris cafe, with a glass of absinthe in front of her; another man sits next to her; both are lost in thought and in their own world. In this work, Degas uses a series of angles and lines, as well as gloomy dark colours, to capture the cell-like isolation and depressing solitude of individuals in the heart of a major metropolis. All three works offer a number of important insights that will help you to appreciate the composition of paintings.


How to Appreciate Line and Shape in a Painting?

The skill of a painter is often revealed in the strength and confidence of his line (outline), creating and delineating the various shapes in his picture. In a famous story, an important patron sends a messenger to Giotto, the great pre-Renaissance painter. The messenger asks Giotto for proof of identity, whereupon the artist produces a paintbrush and a piece of linen, on which he paints a perfect circle. He then hands it to the messenger, saying: "your Master will know exactly who painted this." Line is a crucial element in the structure of a painting, and explains why drawing was regarded by all Renaissance experts as the greatest attribute of an artist. In fact, when the great European Academies of Fine Arts first opened, students were not taught painting (colorito) at all - just drawing. Some of the finest draftsmen were portrait painters, whose line could be almost faultless: a modern example is the classically trained portraitist John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) who was a master of the "au premier coup" technique - one exact stroke of the brush, with no re-working. Among modern artists with no classical training, the paintings of Van Gogh and Gauguin stand out as having exceptionally strong and confident lines.

In figurative painting: (1) examine how the artist uses chiaroscuro to optimize the 3-D quality of his figures; (2) see whether he uses tenebrism as part of his plan of illumination in order to put the spotlight on certain parts of the picture; (3) look if the painter is using the technique of sfumato in the blending of colour.

How to Appreciate Colour in a Painting?

Colour in painting is a major influence on our emotions, and therefore plays a huge part in how we appreciate art. Curiously, although we can identify up to 10 million variants of colour, there are only 11 basic colour terms in the English language - black, white, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, brown and grey. So talking precisely about colour is not easy. Incidentally, as regards terms: a "hue" is a synonym for colour; a "tint" is a lighter version (eg. pink) of a particular colour (red); a "shade" is a darker version (eg. magenta); "tone" is the lightness, intensity or brilliance of a colour. Incidentally, many works by Old Masters are beginning to darken with age, which makes them look less attractive. It can also make even the best art museums look extra gloomy!

Colour is used by painters in several ways. Take Mark Rothko's paintings for example. Rothko was one of the first painters to create huge abstract canvases saturated with rich colours - yellows, oranges, reds, blues, indigos and violets. His aim was to stimulate an emotional response from the viewer. And why not? After all, colour psychology is already exerting a huge influence on interior designs for hospitals, schools and other institutions.

Historically, Impressionism and expressionism (notably Fauvism) were the first international movements to exploit the full potential of colour. Academic painters adhered to conventional colour schemes - green grass, blue/grey sea and so on, but modern artists painted what they saw (Impressionists) or how they felt (Expressionists): if that meant painting red grass, so be it. Figurative art was given the same treatment as landscapes: thus the "Russian Matisse" Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941) set new standards for the use of colour in portraiture, while Degas used colour to add gloss to his ballet stars, and despair to his absinthe drinker. Other artists employ a monochrome tonal colour scheme across the whole picture in order to create a particular mood. Supreme exemplars include Corot's romantic landscapes, Atkinson Grimshaw's nocturnal scenes, Whistler's tonal nocturnes, Peter Ilsted's interiors, Kroyer's landscapes, Hammershoi's interiors, and the "Blue" and "Rose" period works by Picasso (1881-1973), to name but a few.

To sum up, painters use colour to stimulate the emotion, capture the naturalist effects of light, lend character to a figure or scene, and add depth to an abstract or semi-abstract work. It may also be used to attract the viewer's eye. If you want to learn how to appreciate paintings, pay close attention to how the artist employs colour. Ask yourself: Why has he/she chosen this/that particular hue? How does it contribute to the mood or composition of the picture? How do the differing colours used relate to each other: do they create harmony or friction?

How to Appreciate Texture and Brushwork in a Painting?

When it comes to learning how to evaluate texture and brushwork in painting, there is no substitute for visiting a gallery or museum and seeing some canvases for yourself. Even the best art books are incapable of replicating texture to any extent. Once again, it tends to be classically trained painters who excel at differing textures, and use of impasto. Ingres would even choose certain subjects (eg. The Valpincon Bather 1808, La Grande Odalisque 1914) in order to show off his skill in capturing the texture of materials like nacre, mother-of-pearl and silk. At any rate, how well a painter handles texture is a good guide to the strength of his/her painting technique.

Brushwork can be tight (slower, precise, controlled) or loose (more rapid, more casual, more expressionistic). It is largely determined by the style and mood of the painting, rather than (say) the temperament of the artist. Caravaggio had a violent hot temperament, yet his paintings were models of controlled brushwork. Cezanne had a slow temperament: he painted so slowly that all the fruit in his still lifes rotted away weeks before he finished. Yet the brushwork in many of his works is exceptionally loose. Generalising wildly, we might say that the brushstrokes of realist painters tend to be more deliberate, and more controlled than expressionists. When the Impressionists held their first exhibition in Paris, in 1874, critics and spectators were horrified at what they called the "sloppiness" of the brushstrokes. They had to stand much further away from the paintings before the exact image took shape. Nowadays we are quite at ease with Impressionism, but in the beginning its super-loose brushwork caused a scandal.

When it comes to evaluating a picture, the question to ask is: Does the brushwork add or detract from the painting?


How to Appreciate Beauty in a Painting?

Aesthetics is an intensely personal subject. We all see things differently, including "art", and especially "beauty". In addition, painting is first and foremost a visual art - something we see, rather than think about. So if we are asked whether we think a painting is beautiful, we are likely to give a fairly instant response. However, if we are then asked to evaluate the beauty (or lack thereof) of a painting - meaning, explain and give reasons - well, its a different story. So to help you analyze the situation, here are some questions to ask yourself about the painting. Most are concerned with the harmony, regularity and balance that is visible.

What Proportions are Evident in the Picture?
Greek art and Renaissance art was often based on certain rules of proportion, which accorded with classical views on optical harmony. So maybe the beauty you see (or not) can be partly explained by reference to the proportions (of objects and figures) in the work.

Are Certain Shapes or Patterns Repeated in the Painting?
According to psychologists, repetition of pleasing shapes, especially in symmetrical patterns, can relax the eye and the brain, causing us to feel pleasure.

Do the Colours Used in the Painting Complement Each Other?
Colour schemes with complementary hues or tonal variations are known for their appealing effect on the senses.

Does the Picture Draw You in? Does it Maintain Your Attention?
The greatest paintings are the easiest to look at. They attract our attention, and then "signposts" guide our eye around the work.

How Does the Painting Compare With Others?

Everything is relative. So how does the painting in front of you compare with similar types of painting by the same artist? If it's a mature work, you may find it improves on earlier ones, and vice versa. If you can't find others by the same artist, try looking at similar works by other artists. Ideally, start with works painted in the same decade, and then gradually move forward in time. You can't look at too many paintings!

Tips on How to Appreciate Abstract Art

Abstract paintings are not easy to evaluate. It's okay when they follow a general theme, like Cubism, or when they include recognizable features, but purely concrete art - which uses only geometric symbols - tends to be too cerebral for comfort! That said, many abstract painters have made a huge contribution to contemporary culture, and we need to try to understand them. So here are a few tips.

Wholly abstract painting frees us, the viewers, from any optical associations with real life. (This is why many artists work in the abstract idiom). So we are not distracted by anything outside the painting and we can concentrate exclusively on the painterly aspects of the work: that is, the line, shape, colour, texture, brushwork etc.

In particular, ask yourself: (1) How does the artist divide up the canvas? (2) How does the artist direct our eye, and where does it linger? (3) How does the artist use colour to create depth, attract attention, or endow certain shapes with particular significance or meaning? (4) What specific forms does the work contain, and what do you think they mean? (5) Sometimes abstract artists use colour very sparingly, and deliberately create a minimalist look. If you find yourself unable to say much about such works, don't worry: everyone has difficulty with them! The best thing to do is to research one particular work, and find out what a top "art expert" thinks about it. You may still not like it, but at least you will know what to look for. (6) In general, abstract paintings are much more cerebral than other works. They need to be deciphered! So instead of throwing up your hands and saying - "I don't understand this awful painting!", treat it like a puzzle and see if you can work out what the artist is aiming at.

See also: How to Appreciate Paintings.

How to Evaluate Art: A Few Final Questions

After investigating the context of the painting, and the work itself, we come to a few final questions.

What is the Painting Trying to Say?
This general question involves everything you have discovered or decided about the work.
How Does the Painting Make you Feel?
This focuses exclusively on your subjective reaction to the work.
Is the Impact of the Painting Mostly Visual, or Mostly Cerebral?
This obliges you to analyze your reaction.
Would You Like to See it Hanging on a Wall in your house?
This allows you to consider the work from a different angle.
Would you Like to See More Examples of Similar Types of Paintings?
You might not be wild about this work, but you might like the style.

History of Art Criticism: Famous Critics

You don't have to know anything about art critics or their history in order to know how to appreciate art. So we won't bore you with details. However, a few snippets might help to reassure you that even experts can disagree about whether a painting is a work of genius or complete rubbish.

Denis Diderot (1713-84) is regarded as the founding father of art criticism, due to his editorship of the Encyclopedie (1751-2). Rather sentimental in his artistic taste, he did lots of important things, most of which are too boring to mention.

Theophile Thore (1807-69) is more interesting: he was the French art writer and historian who famously 'rediscovered' Jan Vermeer (1632-75) and established him as one of the greatest ever painters. Not much help to Vermeer, though. The poor man could hardly pay his bread bills, made no money from his painting and fell into obscurity after an early death.

Another celebrated art critic was the 19th century poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67). He famously launched the career of Felicien Rops (ever heard of him?), and also singled out the artist Constantin Guys for special mention (never heard of him, either). Nice one Charles. He was also a regular writer on the annual Paris Salon, whose old fashioned authorities banned all the really good artists who eventually staged a number of rival exhibitions including the Salon des Refuses (1863), the Salon des Independants (1884-1914) and the Salon d'Automne (1903-onwards).

In Switzerland and within the German-speaking world, arguably the greatest art historian after Johann Winckelmann, was Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97), Professor of History at Basel University. His most famous book - "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy" (Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien), published in 1860 - explored the totality of the Italian Rinascimento and had a major impact on 19th century art critics.

Over in England, the greatest 19th century art critic was John Ruskin (1819-1900). A talented artist and beautiful writer, remembered for classics like his 5-volume Modern Painters (1843-60), the Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and the 3-volume Stones of Venice (1851-3), he eventually went mad, but not before he lost a famous libel case to Whistler.

See also: Greatest Modern Paintings (1800-1900).

Roger Fry (1866-1934) was a highly influential English art critic who had a beautifully mellifluous voice. He built up his reputation as an expert on the Italian Renaissance and became curator of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1906-10). However, in 1907 Fry 'discovered' Cezanne, and switched his interest to Post-Impressionism - becoming the movement's greatest champion. In London, in 1910 and 1912 he curated two seminal exhibitions of Post-Impressionism. Many visitors thought Fry was insane. His chief apostle was the writer, art critic and formalist Clive Bell (1881-1964).

Herbert Read (1893-1968) was a famous 20th century English art critic and the foremost interpreter of modern art. Published numerous works including The Meaning of Art (1931), Art Now (1933), Education Through Art (1943), A Concise History of Modern Painting (1959) and A Concise History of Modern Sculpture (1964). Enough said.

Back in France, the leading art critic of the early 20th century was the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918). A brilliant propagandist of Picasso, Cubism, Orphism, Marc Chagall, Giorgio de Chirico, Andre Derain, Henri Matisse, Henri Rousseau and Marcel Duchamp, his art evaluation was impeccable.

Surrealism had its own in-house propagandists like Andre Breton (1896-1966), and by the time World War II broke out just about every artist had left Paris and gone to New York, which now became the World centre of art. Its leading art critics were Clement Greenberg (1909-94), Harold Rosenberg (1906-78) and John Canaday (1907-85). Greenberg, a former Trotskyist, favoured abstract works like Jackson Pollock's paintings and wrote Art and Culture (1961) along with monographs on Miro (1948) and others. Unfortunately while he certainly knew how to appreciate painting, much of the avant-garde art he liked so much is almost indecipherable - rather like Greenberg himself. Rosenberg, like Greenberg, was a follower of avant garde abstraction. Canaday, the New York Times art reviewer, was one of the few influential critics of abstract expressionism.

Kenneth Clark (1903-83), despite being more of a traditionalist than most 20th century critics, was arguably the most influential, due to his creation of the award-winning BBC TV documentary series "Civilisation" which was highly successfull in both Britain and America, and across the English-speaking world.

It's Impossible to Appreciate All Art

French Impressionism is one of the most successful and influential art movements of all time. Yet in the beginning it was met with derision, not just by the critics but by all sections of the viewing public. Monet, Renoir and Pissarro nearly starved. Sisley died in poverty.

In the Spring of 1913, the Armory Show - the greatest exhibition of modern art ever seen in the United States - was held in Manhattan, before travelling to Chicago and Boston. About 300,000 Americans saw the 1300 exhibits, which featured the most up-to-date European painting plus a selection of the best contemporary American art. Opinions varied enormously, especially when it came to Cubist and other 20th century works. Riots broke out in response, and the artist Marcel Duchamp was physically attacked by a mob who were determined to burn down the show.

The lesson? Not all high quality art is easily appreciated or understood.


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