How to Look at a Painting

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Which of us, when finding ourselves in the presence of a painting, has not sensed that we lack the keys to decipher it? We feel an emotional response, but the work still seems to evade our understanding.

Francoise Barbe-Gall combines a nuanced understanding of the way viewers respond to paintings with a rich knowledge of their context and circumstances of their creation. The result is like a tour of a dazzlingly eclectic museum in the company of a gentle yet authoritative guide.

She takes as her point of departure the impressions that we all feel when confronted by a canvas and takes us on a voyage of discovery fired by her own passionate enthusiasm for the subject. What is the painting’s relationship with the real world? Has the artist idealized nature, or distorted it? Did they want to shock the viewer, or provide consolation? With a clear approach and straightforward yet subtle analysis, the meaning of each work slowly becomes clear.

From Raphael’s penetrating character study of Castiglione, through Hopper’s cinematic take on the wee small hours of the morning Barbe-Gall begins by covering a number of ostensibly realistic works, made from the stuff of everyday life. Going in quite the other direction, she looks at the way paintings can express moments of heightened reality, from the perfection of Boticelli’s Primavera to the arresting glance of Vermeer’s girl with the Pearl Earring. She discusses paintings that distort the visible world (Parmigianino’s Madonna with an improbably long neck to Dali’s melting clocks) and those that sow confusion to make us more vigilant and pay closer attention to the real world (Cezanne’s depiction of a forest glade, or a mysterious fifteenth century altarpiece). Questions of history, style, iconography and composition are not neglected and are dealt in context of the paintings she discusses.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Frances Lincoln (March 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0711232121
  • ISBN-13: 978-0711232129
  • Product Dimensions: 6.8 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds

Customer Reviews

beautifully illustrated!

3 people found this helpful.
 on April 9, 2013
By Elaine D'Agostino
Both paintings and text in this magnificent book are mind stimulating. Delicious food for the mind, body and soul and the author imparts some very useful information on art and how to really look at it. This is money well-spent!

The Tao of painting

40 people found this helpful.
 on June 2, 2011
By Gustav Nilsson
Being seriously interested in photography, I bought this book to deepen my understanding of visual expression, in the hope that doing so would improve my photographs.

A clearly written insight

11 people found this helpful.
 on January 23, 2014
By Phyllis Rizzi
Very well organized and comprehensive. I spent 6 years in art school, courses each year in art history. This book distinctly analyzes each of the works in a manner that opens new insights to each of the chosen works and the period in which they were painted. Proves that one can never know it all.

Five Stars

2 people found this helpful.
 on January 10, 2017
By Jeff Phillips
This is a grand little book; it’s authoritative and attractively produced. I am learning a lot from it!

Will use it as reference in an Art History course

5 people found this helpful.
 on July 7, 2014
By Juan Manuel
The book is organized in a way that makes it easy to use it as reference in a classroom. It’s a good companion for a big textbook on Art History. I would recommend it for this purpose. However,it might be useful for other purposes as well.

Art appreciation points from an excellent writer.

2 people found this helpful.
 on January 29, 2016
By Chauncey Gardener
It is presumptuous to review Fransoise Barbe-Gall. ,Like other’s in his series, well written. Doesn’t bog down in academic muck.

French best seller is terrific

One person found this helpful.
 on October 14, 2015
A wonderful book!

Fine book.

 on June 5, 2015
By Janet F. Guerrin
Useful and well written.

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