Three Principles for Considering Paintings: A Reflection after Visiting the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C.

By Jeremy Hausotter

April 30, 2022

I recently visited the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., and it was such an incredible experience. There is a joy in experiencing genuine artists and their works, and, of course, seeing some of the works in person that we use on our website. It was inspiring to see Botticelli, Monet, Bierstadt, Martin, Rembrandt, Cole, Raphael, and others, and to make new acquaintances such as Vernet. I also found the impressionists to be fascinating, to analyze and scrutinize Cezanne versus Manet or Renoir, Monet and van Gogh, etc…

In analyzing these artists I learned three principles or conclusions. The first is thus, that true art is living. Those works of art which truly transfix the human imagination are living. What do we mean by art as living? By definition, a painting is not animate, not ensouled, and yet how some paintings are quickened while others remain dead! Some artists are dead artists and others are living, even if they perished a thousand years prior. And this principle of life can even vary within the artist from painting to paint. The works of Cezanne I witnessed were all dead works, while Renoir’s was a mixture, some living, some dead; whereas with Monet it seemed as if each painting was its own unique expression and principle of vitality and fecundity, though of course in varying degrees. 

Living paintings possess their own vitality, a vitality that is self-communicative, one which enraptures the viewer. The viewer is drawn in, captivated by the life experienced. A living painting self-communicates its life to the viewer such that he feels a quickening pulsating within his soul. Life is a flourishing principle, and the living painting opens the soul to this flourishing dynamism. The painting communicates life, and in this communicating man experiences an inner movement of spiritual dimension that ennobles him. 

Part of this living experience through the encounter with the painting is the captivation by the senses and the transportation into the painting. One lives within the painting like Niggle and Parish. Spiritually, this living within the painting is a foretaste of immortality, for life is immortal. That is what Christianity reveals, that God is the God of the living, and if He is Life itself, as Christ stated in John’s Gospel, then true life is immortal. Living paintings are hence a signpost indicating a divine reality beyond this world. They direct us towards what is immortal, even if only implicitly. Life is a principle that opens outwards, transcending the self towards Life itself, God. 

Materially, we experience the painting from the inside, we feel as if the moon is shining upon us, that we can hear the wind rustling the trees, branches, and leaves, that we can smell the heat of the day or the cool of the night, the spray of the sea, its roar, and smell the salty air, feel the movements of life within, such as the mirth of a campfire revelry or the heroic struggles of war. We clearly sense and perceive these. Physically, before me are the sense datum of a museum, but within me is the life of the painting itself. 

Paintings hence have a tripartite ontology. On a strict material level it is composed of canvas, paint, and the required work of the artist. Paintings possess a second material level which is the matter treated within, the subject of the painting and the attempted depiction of life. The third involves the nonmaterial, including the possession or nonpossession of the life-giving principle and the various values incarnated by the painting. We can hence dare say that a painting, when alive, is a pseudopsychosomatic entity. Pseudo refers to the fact that a painting is not an actually living thing in the manner of a plant, animal, or human for example. In this case, they are strictly nonliving, inanimate things. Soma refers to the paintings material makeup, whereas psyche refers to the soul of the painting, that principle which gives it life. Again, we are not using soul in the traditional sense and placing paintings amongst living creatures; such is an absurdity. Nor do we wish to confuse the two meanings of soul here. Rather, we are attempting to probe the vitality some paintings possess while others are quite clearly dead, to give a name and expression to the principle by which some paintings are living while others are dead. The term soul here serves as a decent analogate given the traditional meaning and role of the soul in animate being.  

A painting does not need to be beautiful to be living. Monet’s paintings of the Rouen Cathedral are not beautiful, but when experienced in person we can discern some level of vitality. All truly ugly paintings, on the other hand, are dead works. The Rouen Cathedral painting marks the border between dead and alive. The vitality of a painting is not a sufficient condition for its beauty, for the range of aesthetic values is larger than beauty alone, since aesthetic values include values such as the poetic, comedic, tragic, and elegant. 

Another important theme concerning a painting’s life is its capacity to inspire rest. When man is transported into the painting, he rests within its being, and this actuality produces a rest within the soul. Living paintings bring rest and peace, a kind of recreation in the truest meaning of the word. 

A defining feature of true art is its ability to inspire rest. We as a society have forgotten this meaning of leisure. Music, paintings, literature, and other works of art in order to be true art produce a kind of resting in the being of the work of art that inspires rest and relaxation. Anymore, leisure is more and more understood in terms of excitement and pleasures for our entertainment; which while not bad in of themselves, these principles become abused when they usurp the domain of the true restful dwelling within art. This tendency left unchecked slowly steers us away from rest. We become unnoticeably more agitated and anxious, and the temptation is to fling ourselves into entertainment with more passion, if not enthusiasm, to alleviate this state. 

Our society is so used to music and other artistic endeavors that agitate us, put us on edge, arouse passions and instincts, or inflame vices. This very being of agitation cannot produce rest. Agitation is opposed to rest, for it is intrinsically a movement, a motive principle that brings about a motion. Agitation appears to be more in common with mere entertainment, while not being per se opposed to the production of art. 

A second principle is not so much such, but an observation on the artistic genius of Monet versus van Gogh. Standing up close, the blobs of paint composing the painting are rather unremarkable, and even ugly at times to being borderline repulsive. But, as one steps back, away from the painting, the blobs lose their individual thematicity, and the thematicity of the painting itself begins to speak. When one is fifteen to twenty feet away, the painting speaks with life. The mass of blobs is almost magically transformed and the ingenuity of Monet is revealed. He is a master of light and color, expertly making blobs so that his vision is actuated from afar. This transformed painting thus oftentimes becomes a living thing. 

Monet’s paintings up close are dead things, but as one steps back and away, they take on a life of their own and reveal another nature. Some paintings remain unremarkable, others throb with vigorous life. The works of Monet capture movement, and this locomotive force within the painting is one of the principles for determining an art piece’s possession of vitality and life. 

Van Gogh’s work at the museum was rather limited, and so my thoughts here are based on only a handful of paintings. In these works there was also movement. Van Gogh’s style is one of locomotion through his brushstrokes. Accomplishing motion within a painting, however, does not automatically imply that the painting has life. Van Gogh’s paintings appeared as a moving lifelessness. They are movements of ugly contoured faces or plants and tree branches, but no vital force emanating from within. 

This I believe is part of the genius of Monet, to be able to capture vitality as an impressionist painter. His works are the most consistent in capturing this vitality. Manet, Cezanne, Renoir, and van Gogh seemed to either be inconsistent or entirely incapable to accomplish such. Is it a matter of personal styles? A case that impressionism makes such harder to achieve? Is it a problem of rebellion against forms in painting or a combination of all or some of these possibilities? Further observations and studies are required. 

Our third principle is that one cannot strictly judge the aesthetic value of a painting based upon a picture of that painting. There is a twofold peculiarity with this phenomena: first, photographs cannot necessarily capture the beauty of a painting, and if they do, oftentimes only partially. Second, photographs also have the difficulty of capturing the life of a painting. Many paintings have a life which pictures thereof fail to capture. 

This third principle has some practical applications. There is a trend today to see digital portrayals of art pieces such as the van Gogh and Michelangelo tours. These endeavors face the limitations of being digital representations of the works. While being a great opportunity for exposure to great art, these attempts cannot nevertheless replace the actual works themselves. When we judge a picture of a painting, the risk arises that we judge the aesthetic properties of the image as those of the painting. The same painting can very well appear with different aesthetic values or disvalues all because of the image itself which we can be tempted to confuse as actually judging the painting itself. 

The Shipwreck by Claude Joseph Vernet
Wikimedia Commons