Book notes – A Short Guide to Writing about Art – Barnet

My tutors recommended this book after my first assignment. I managed to get a copy quite cheap on ebay, not the most recent version but hopefully that wont matter too much. My tutor commented that I should be more reflective when writing, and I should include how the work of art made me feel. I saw that I had been purely regurgitating a list of facts and there was very little original thought in it.


Chapter 1 – writing about art

What is art? Is something a work of art because the creator or the culture says it is. This is dependant on the context of the society. eg we now include certain ethnic objects in the definition of art which previously would have been defined as artefacts.

Why write about art? To clarify and to account for our responses to works of art that interest, excite or frustrate us.

Imagine who your audience is. This will help you decide what is necessary to explain and what is already known. Decide which terms you need to define and what degree of detail you want to go into.

A successful essay begins with where the readers are and then goes on to take the readers further.

Functions of critical writing: not just to find fault but also excellence. WH Auden (the dyers hand 1963) said the critic should:

1 introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.

2. convince me that i have undervalued an author or a work because i have not read them carefully enough

3. show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which i could never have seen for myself because i do not know enough and never shall

4. give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it

5. throw light upon the process of artistic making

6. throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion etc.

Your analysis may not be provable but has to be more than an opinion. You need to provide some kind of evidence – enough to make the reader take another view of the painting. eg Rembrandt “self portrait with Saskia” 1635. At first glance may be scene of jolliness but may actually have other meanings as evidenced by the items included in the painting and the fact that this style would have been inconsistent with his normal work.

A good essay will help the reader see what the artist had been trying to show us by giving a context of the artist and his views.

See sample essay “Millet’s The Gleaners” by Robert Herbert. Pg11

Evaluation or judgement. Analysis – separation of the whole into its parts. Comments on what is happening in the picture. Advance a thesis or main idea – not the assertion of a known fact but the thesis statement names a topic and makes an assertion about it that the writer will support with details later in the assay. Tries to persuade by offering an argument with supporting evidence. Organized writing.

  • Opening paragraph contains detail, some of which is not particularly relevant but sets the scene. These facts can be related to the main idea.
  • 2nd paragraph close look at aspects of the picture. Mentions social context.
  • 3rd paragraph comparisons with other paintings in the exhibition
  • last paragraph recapitulates the main point but also enlarges the vision – references contemporaries who shared the artists vision – and then returns to artist.

Outlining the essay can help organize and expand.


The artists meaning may be very different from the meaning that a viewer may have in another century for eg.

The artists interpretation may also limit the meaning as they may not be consciously aware of what they are including? The ideas of the society use the artist as a conduit to create the owrk.  NB is this why in galleries it is unusual to find an explanation of a work of art. I’ve always been frustrated by this. One of the reasons I enjoyed Peter Doigs exhibition is beacuse there were explanations for each of the paintings and what the artist was meaning. It helped me enjoy the pieces but did it limit my understanting. Maybe if I had more knowledge I would be able to make up my own mind about paintings but I’m still at the stage where I need to be guided or at least I want to be. I dont have the confidence in my own analysis.

The reception theory – that the perceiver makes sense of the image and interpret it in different ways according to their historical, social and psychological state. A work of art does not have meaning in itself but rather means something to someone in a context.

This argument reminds me of reading about reviews of certain paintings and questioning just how they know that’s what the artist intended when they painted a specific element there or included another item here. How do they know the artist didn’t just chose a particular colour because he had some left over. So maybe it doesn’t matter because its how our society perceives it now? I’m still not convinced.

Thus it’s important not to attribute intention to the artist eg “the artist was trying to show…” eg Georgia O’Keefe insisted that her paintings of lilys were not symbolic of sexual organs but theorists ignore this. If the viewer percieves this then it is true.

A curator Paul Taylor said that (pg 18) pictures do not have meanings, they are given meanings by people. Its the outcome of a set of historical circumstances and thus its meaning will change with age.


Peggy Guggenheim

I visited the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice a few years ago and not only did I enjoy the building and art collection inside, I was also fascinated by her story, how she began collecting art during WWII and her later friendships (and sometimes marriages) to the artists in her collection.

When I got home I quickly ordered her autobiography “Out of this Century – Confessions of an Art Addict”. I haven’t read it from cover to cover, only dipped in and out. It’s quite a hefty book, 385 pages of small print, which seems considerable for an autobiography…or not…she led such an amazing life, there was so much to fit in. The book kindly has an index which is very useful and just shows that it has been written, or at least edited, with the aim of being a reference book in mind.

The chapters are titled with the relevant parts of her life: “End of me life with Lawrence Vail”; “My life with John Holmes”; “Death of John Holmes”, so it’s easy to follow the events.

I have to say I didn’t really enjoy the book, it’s a struggle to read and it’s difficult to identify with her privileged and chaotic life. She comes across as not a very nice person in fact but perhaps this is her way of writing. Its a very fact oriented book, which makes it difficult to get into. I think I will search for a biography of her life rather than an autobiography.

Peggy’s grandfather, Meyer, was born in German Switzerland, and came to America in 1847. He began as a lowly peddler but ended up founding a mining company and later a smelting company, resulting in the family’s fortune being one of the largest in the 19th century. One of Meyer’s sons, Benjamin, Peggy’s father married her mother Florette Seligman much to the disapproval of her well-to-do family (despite her grandfather on the other side equally lowly beginnings in America).

She talks of extremely eccentric behaviour on her maternal family history. Her favourite aunt appears to have had a variety of mental health issues ranging from OCD to gambling which ultimately led to her husband attempting to kill her and then drowning himself on its failure. Another Uncle ate only charcoal and whiskey and also committed suicide.

Growing up in New York, neighbours of the Rockerfellers, Peggy had a privileged upbringing. She describes in details the luxurious decorations in the house: tapestries on the wall, bearskins and tiger-skins on the floor. A library with portraits of her grandparents and the whole fourth floor just for her and her sisters. Despite this she defines her early life as “excessively unhappy”. Mostly home tutored until the age of 15, she talks of one period where she had lessons with another child who’s art collector father clearly made an impression on her. Her greatest treasures of her past is her two portraits by Lenbach which this man commissioned. Growing up she had various medical problems which appears to have affected her a lot.

Her young adulthood was the stuff of movies. She married Lawrence Vail in 1922 and proceeded to travel around the world and party hard with all of his bohemian friends. Having children didn’t seem to hinder this much as they would leave the children with a nanny for long periods of time. She drops names constantly throughout this period such as Marcel Duchamp who was dating her friend, giving the reader a hint of what’s to come. Despite this there is very little reference to art or artists in this early period. She is clearly surrounded by art and bohemians but she it has not defined it. Instead the text is depict her lifestyle and social interactions.

The death of her sister in childbirth is written very poignantly in contrast to her flippant writing style . One can really understand quite how much it affected her despite the fact they lived on different continents. Lawrence did not allow her much time with her sister and she mentions how much she missed her frequently. Around this time Peggy starts selling recycled lamps in New York made by her friend in Europe. This venture is very successful and they end up opening a shop. It is here we can see the business woman that she will become.

The book goes on to describe her dysfunctional relationships, she seems to go from one relationship to the next and it’s difficult to sympathise with her. I have read that there is a film of her life as well which would perhaps be a better option as I found this book such a struggle to read. I have to admit I didn’t even get to the later part of her life, which was the most interesting to me.






Book notes – Contemporary Cultures of Display, Barker E

This book discusses how the way that art is presented to us contributes to our appreciation of the subject. It employs different case studies to cover three areas: museums; temporary exhibitions and the wider context of art today.

The book starts by examining key themes, such as “the museum without walls”, a concept by French writer Andre Malraux to describe how photographic reproduction of art has vastly changed the way in which we observe it. There are two views to this concept: Malraux’s idea that photographing art allows the viewer to somehow standardise art so that they can be compared equally, removing scale, setting, function and texture, and the opposing view proposed by cultural theorist Walter Benjamin, that it “undermines the quasi-magical aura of the unique work”. This counter theory is supported by the observation that many people visit the Mona Lisa and are disappointed by its size and lack of impact compared to the many reproductions that are produced.

Another theme is that of display. Museums impose meaning to works of art by classifying them into genres, nations, chronologically, by artist etc. In addition their very inclusion into a collection categorises them as worthy. Museums can also display works in different ways using specific exhibitions to group certain works in order to contextualise them in some way. One painting could be included in an exhibition of still lifes from all eras and also in another exhibition of works of art by Dutch artists. Also discussed in this theme, are tools used by museums, like spotlights in otherwise dull rooms, often to give religious images an air of mystery.

The subject of spectacle in the sense of providing a show, enhanced by the use of mass media as a tool, that “dazzles and deceives, seducing or stunning the spectator into submission”

“institutional power of the museum works against the levelling effect of photography and continues to uphold, however problematically, the distinction between what is and what is not art”.

Book notes – Ways of Seeing, Berger J

This is an interesting little book in format as well as content. The first thing I noticed when flicking through to was the font which is bold and larger than normal and there are large spaces in between paragraphs. Then I realised that some chapters consisted of images only. I think this approach makes the reader think more about the text and images, considering the link between them and the story they tell. I then found out that the book is a script of a television series of the same name which perhaps explains the format.

The books starts by introducing the concept that how we view art works is dependent on the context of our society and background.

Berger states “the way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe”. This context of how we view art not only refers to our beliefs but also includes more immediate aspects: “We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.” So we may examine a painting of a historical event with a certain bias because of our own beliefs about the outcome of that event but also from the bias of when and where we see it or if we can personally relate to the objects and people in the painting.

A painting of an object or person is not an exact replication of that object or person, instead it depicts how that object or person was viewed by the artist. In this was “an image can outlast what it represented”.

Introducing the concept of a photographic reproduction of a painting, Berger discusses the environment in which we view the painting: “The uniqueness of every painting was once part of the uniqueness of the place where it resided……When a camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of the image. As a result the meaning changes. ” An example of this is an altarpiece that was designed for a specific position in a church. Remove this and place it in a museum and its meaning has altered from an object of religious worship to an item of cultural interest.

Another example is how the information given in a museum plaque can guide the viewer to think a particular way. For example consider Van Gogh’s painting Wheatfield with Crows. A viewer with no prior information about this work may look at it and consider the colours and texture and what the image shows. If the words “This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself” are placed next to the painting, the person will undoubtedly view the image differently. The image now “illustrates the sentence”. This example particularly hit home to me from when I recently visited the Van Gogh Museum. Having spent the afternoon examining his paintings and learning about his life to then look upon this work knowing that this was his last work (although this and Van Gogh’s tortured mental state have been disputed recently) lent it a great deal of emotion.

In this way, reproductions can be used for political reasons to demonstrate a particular message that has nothing to do with its original meaning.

Chapter 2 is a collection of paintings and photographs of women. There is no text and the reader flicks through trying to puzzle out the meaning of this. We then start to examine the images more closely. If there were text it is possible that the readers eyes would move over the images without really looking. The lack of text makes us look for meaning and try to link them into a cohesive story.

The images, consist of advertisements and nudes (with the occasional seemingly unrelated image such as a crowded escalator) make the reader consider how women are shown in our culture. They span all realms of society from the newspaper and magazine reader to the cultured museum visitor. It becomes clear when looking at these images brought together in this way that their ubiquitous nature has contributed to the way that women are perceived in society. Sexual innuendo and gratuitous  nudity in these dated advertisements is juxtaposed next to the all too familiar Judgement of Paris by Rubens allowing the reader to compare the two types of nudity, one of which we now frown upon but the other is revered as high culture. Are the two so different? The myth depicted shows the three goddesses try to persuade Paris of their beauty and attraction while he looks on in judgement. The photo below it shown Maralyn Munroe posing for a mass of photographers, the media being the judges on her beauty.

The subject of women in art is discussed in the next chapter suggesting that the difference between men and women’s depiction stem from society’s views and this has been apparent since Eve was punished for her nudity in the bible while Adam became the agent of God.

Themes which has appeared regularly in art such as Susannah and the Elders and the Judgement of Paris have maintained this difference. These female nudes are surveyed and observed as passive objects versus the male who is depicted as the surveyor and his presence suggests an active role. The hypocrisy of the artists depiction is highlighted by Berger “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the paintings vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”

If a man feature together with a female nude then her gaze is normally directed at the viewer rather than the man in the picture. In this way the owner of the painting is the most important person in this relationship, he can fantasise that she prefers him to the man in front of her.

“In the art-form of the European nude the painters and spectator-owners where usually men and the persons treated as objects, usually women. This unequal relationship is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women. They do to themselves what men do to them. They survey, like men their own femininity.” This fact is useful to remember when looking at nudes painted by women. The woman painter, particularly the historical one, will have been brain-washed in a sense and will have the same view as a male painter.

Berger suggests that the depiction of nudes changed with Manet’s Olympia and compares this with the painting it was based on, the Venus of Urbino by Titian. Olympia shows a very different vision of nudity, a realistic vision. Olympia is a prostitute and displays a certain pride in her nudity. The Venus of Urbino rather is a traditional depiction, her nudity is acceptable because she is defined as a lady by the presence of her maids and the surroundings.

olympia manet

Manet – Olympia, 1863



Titian – Venus of Urbino


Berger gives us a perfect experiment at the end of the chapter. Pick one of the nudes in the book. Exchange the female nude with a male and note the changes in the assumptions of the viewer. I tried this with Venus of Urbino and my first reaction was actually of revulsion. The nude was transformed from coquettish innocence to quite a sinister impact. A male in this pose making eye contact with me as a woman is more akin to a predator. It’s actually quite shocking.

The fourth chapter is again a selection of images. Starting with religious paintings featuring Jesus as a baby it moves on to the death, with Gericault’s severed heads and Manet’s dead soldier. From this we turn the page to see still lifes of banquets and food which is as much a shocking change as if it were the other way round. The next few pages show mythological scenes depicting love and desire which then moves on to formal portraits of well to do men and then to court fools, well to do women, a fmeal servant and a mad kidnapper in that order. Four self portraits follow ending with Magritte’s “Not to be Reproduced” which appears to be a subversion of the self portrait by showing the back of someone’s head standing in front of a mirror that does not show the mans reflection but rather the back of his head again. The order of these images is clearly telling a story, perhaps of the human psyche, from birth to death and the things we need to survive and to reproduce. The images then seem to move on to what society deems as important, the wealthy house owners down to the mad criminal at the end. The self portraits then turn the question around – how do we see ourselves? As a dandy like Durer or an old sad man like Rembrandt or even as a faceless paradox.

Chapter 5

This chapter deals with the value place on oil painting as a possession rather than as a technique for painting. Although oil painting remains a popular technique now, Berger states that the time of oil painting stretched from 1500 until 1900. At this point, the tradition was undermined by Impressionism and Cubism and photography.

A collection of paintings says something about the collectors pride and self respect.


I was watching a program about Jeff Koons and I realised what a perfect example his work was for describing the importance of considering the context of art. His vacuum cleaners and other electrical objects were to be seen from the view of objects of desire, brand new appliances that will never fullfill their purpose.

But do we look at them like that? A vacuum cleaner is a standard boring appliance these days but in the 1950s it was a luxury item. The items are all so dated to us now, we look at them and see more, a window into 1950s life or memories of your childhood perhaps. So the context of when these pieces were created is more important that the piece itself in some ways. Time changes the meaning of objects.

The same can be said for the objects in a Dutch still life, an orange or lemon has a very different meaning now from when it was a luxury food but this association is more accepted and easily understood. Koons vacuum cleaner because it is an item not normally found in art really helps to explain this concept.

Assignment 5 – Tutor’s comments

I have highlighted important segments in red so I can refer back to them and make the relevant changes.

Overall Comments

Thank you for your final assignment and well done for completing the course!
This submission demonstrates a broad understanding of the subject content, knowledge of the applicable cultural evidence and research skills. You have also developed your ability to engage constructively with theoretical arguments/debates, showing increased confidence when integrating objective analyses and intuitive personal responses. You have displayed good working habits (such as the keeping of a learning blog).
Check through your work (especially your essay) to ensure that you have formatted everything correctly in line with the Harvard Reference system.
Citing sources within the text of an essay: When making reference to an author’s work in your text, their name is followed by the year of publication of their work. Where you are mentioning a particular part of the work, and making direct reference to this, a page reference should be included. E.g. Callen (1995) argues that… OR for quotations: “Quotation” (Callen, 1995, p.33). You must also indicate a source even when paraphrasing. If you want to include text from a published work in your essay then the sentence(s) must be included within quotation marks. The quotation should also be emphasised (especially if it runs to 50 words or more) by indenting it.
Citing illustrations: Each image you use should be captioned using this layout (or a version similar to it): Figure number, Artist, Title (in Italics), Date, Materials, size, Collection or location
Including a bibliography and a reference list: It is not always necessary to use both, but for your essay your reference list should record the resources you have made direct reference to in your review. Your bibliography should list all the sources you have consulted but which you have not specifically referred to in your work (i.e. your background reading).

Feedback on assignment

Assignment 5 – Women in Degas’ art & the role of the spectator

*Make sure that you include an essay title! (This comes before your introduction and should be underlined and centred.)
This was a solid essay with clear communication of ideas and organisation of information. You produced a logical and coherent narrative – you clarified your main points to provide an engaging ‘map’ for the reader to follow. (Before submitting your work for assessment, try to rework your introduction. It is important not to rush it as it sends a very clear message to the reader about your discussion. It should provide a formal summary of your topic, including the problems and issues you will address.) Although you adopted an ‘overview’ format in places, there was evidence of consistent reflection when addressing the research topic, and you showed familiarity with visual arts terminology.
As I mentioned in my comments on Assignment 3, writing an art history essay involves creating an argument about what you see (e.g. using the terms ‘how’ or ‘why’ in the essay title). Check through your work to ensure you have developed an interpretive thesis based on close visual analysis of a select number of artworks (provide additional reasons for your choice of images). Your text could also benefit from reference to more of a range of secondary sources.
Investigation, knowledge and understanding of the topic studied: You placed Degas’ paintings into a dialogue with the social and economic realities of C19th France (ref. capitalism, bourgeois comfort/fixation on material goods, technological change), focusing on conventional C19th notions about femininity and sexuality in relation to Degas’ dancers, laundresses and bathers. (I.e. you acknowledged that the artist’s perceptions and those of his contemporaries were, of necessity, circumscribed within a certain sexual economy.)
Your examination of Degas’ ambivalent artistic approach toward women (sometimes reinforcing accepted values, sometimes questioning them) was sensitive, and it was good to see you consider the ways in which Degas’ portrayals of dancers, for example, with their emphasis on work (capturing the complex mid-movement [pirouette en dedans], the basic steps and the dancer in ‘reposte’ – languidly lounging to the side of a stage), contrast with the customary renderings of the Parisian ballet dancer as flirtatious and sexually available. (Ref. the idea of dancers as criminally Other, born into the sinister underclass that Paris’s elite males entered for sex.)
You briefly alluded to revisionist social art historical and feminist readings of the artist’s treatment of his subject matter, and you outlined how recent scholarship places Degas in one of two camps: first, the notion that Degas is inherently misogynistic; second, that Degas did, in fact, privilege his women with more agency than they would have otherwise been afforded. In terms of the former, it would be worthwhile recording that the notion of Degas’ misogyny was established and given its classic literary formulation in the late C19th by writers like Huysmans and Paul Valery, and few scholars since have expressed discomfort with this label, or evaluated its sources or questioned directly its validity. Given the primary theme of your essay, I would recommend examining and commenting on the following three key articles: Broude’s ‘Degas’ “Misogyny”’, and Lipton’s ‘The Laundress in Late-Nineteenth-Century French Culture: Imagery, Ideology and Edgar Degas’ and ‘Degas’ Bathers: The Case for Realism’.
You included the artist’s remarks about women, recording his disparaging comments on Berthe Morisot’s work, and his description of female models as “animals” and “tools”. You did mention Degas’ observation that he intended to show a bather as “a human creature preoccupied with herself – a cat who licks herself”, but could you say a bit more about this? Read the rest of the quote, which continues: “hitherto the nude has always been represented in poses which presuppose an audience, but these women of mine are honest and simple folk, unconcerned by any other interests than those involved in their physical condition… It is as if you looked through a keyhole.” Reflect on the two main points we can take from this:
1. the contradiction between Degas’ stated desire to represent the nude in a way which denies its traditional voyeurism and yet which reinstates voyeuristic looking in an even more intense way as if ‘through a keyhole’ (i.e. the body on display is to be replaced by peeping into the intimate and hidden world of women)
2. the artist’s precise reproduction of the ideology of women as nature (fertile, unthreateningly and ‘naturally’ erotic), absorbed in their physical beings – like cats they perform purely instinctual and reflexive rites of cleanliness
Your section on Degas’ depiction of a female subject in the act of seeing, Woman with Field Glasses, and how the work draws the viewer’s focus to the importance and the subjective nature of looking, added a new and interesting dimension to your study of the voyeurism theme. (Degas claimed “one sees as one wishes to see. It’s false; and it is this falsity that constitutes art”.) Spend a bit more time analysing this picture – there is something scrutinizing, inquisitive, and perhaps even threatening about the way the woman looks out at and confronts the viewer. It is worth mentioning that this act is bold and purposeful, even more so for a woman in the late C19th, when the ideal, ‘proper’ woman, was expected to be docile, and did not leave the house unless she was escorted by a chaperone. You could argue that a woman behaving as brashly as the one in this picture is breaking free from confining passivity to establish an unprecedented new standard.
One area to work on is making more explicit the significance of the works you are using by closely relating the way that the images are made to what they represent. You covered, but could extend your material on, the key features of Degas’ compositions, including the unusual viewpoints (note that Degas often seems to indicate the inferiority of his bathers by placing himself, and the viewer, above them, thus reinforcing longstanding societal norms regarding class interactions), cropped figures, angularity, asymmetry, and compressed spaces. (I.e. we cannot find a ballet painting whose focus is not
dispersed, whose viewpoint is not dizzying, whose figures do not slide uncontrollably about.)
Try to expand on Degas’ use of specific materials and media. For example, a few extra comments on the remarkable number of ways in which he worked in pastel would have been good. (Ref. the artist’s early, smooth and highly finished pastels in comparison to those of the 1880s, which are rougher in texture and more vigorously executed.) You could refer to Degas’ layering of loose pastel strokes, smudges, hatching and finger marks (applied in close striation so as to give a sense of intensity, movement/rhythm and to embellish the silhouette/add patterned detail). In relation to his bathers, note how these layers of mediation lead the viewer onto the figure’s body, to feel the textures and volumes they create (ref. tactile looking activity). (Even in oil painting, Degas experimented with a number of unusual procedures and effects – a brief comment on one or two of them would have been useful.)
Overall, you did a good job of chronicling the artist’s ‘uncompromisingly contemporary’ images of women and how he stripped away idealised conventions to challenge societal myths, but I would like to have seen you expand and substantiate your own views more.
Project 1 – Visit to a public interior: Glasgow City Chambers
This was a very good piece of work supported by images, sketches and further research. You talked about the historical context of the building and its role both in expressing the wealth and industrial export-led economic prosperity of Glasgow, and in acting as an emphatic statement of Civic pride (projecting the city’s identity).
Focusing on the imposing Banqueting Hall, you observed the eclectic style employed (with Italianate references) and richly elaborate features such as: the ornate barrel vaulted ceiling, the use of gold leaf and wood paneling, the stained glass (including the use of leaded Venetian glass), the chandeliers, and how the carpet design reflects the roof pattern.
Your study of the large murals by artists from the “Glasgow School” (Walton, Lavery, Henry and Roche) depicting the history of Glasgow, was detailed. (Lavery’s mural, Shipbuilding on the Clyde, is an uncharacteristically industrial work by the artist, showing in detail the construction of a warship for the Imperial Japanese Navy.) You scrutinised the mural representing the granting of the city’s charter, and the images depicting the four principal rivers of Scotland. (See also the small panels of various Virtues.)
You referred to the way in which the art does not sit passively, but has an active relationship with the space that it inhabits. You also thought about how the effects of the interior decoration provide the atmosphere in the room/create a sense of energy that befits its function (e.g. entertaining dignitaries).
Points to consider: the integration of functional and aesthetic values; how both art and architecture manipulate the visitor; how public interiors can change the
nature of our encounter with art and graft new meanings and interpretations of history onto images (ideology and value systems).
Annotated Images
De Hooch – Woman with a Child in a Pantry: Making good use of the journal articles you had sourced, your annotation surveyed the figures, the rich colour scheme, the interplay of light and shade (creating depth [giving shape to the space], casting shadows, and making the tiled floor shine), and the economical use of perspective.
As you stated, de Hooch’s speciality was the ‘see-through door motif’, revealing secondary and tertiary views into other rooms/the street beyond to create a more complicated architectural space. (Think about how this relates to Alpers’ observations on pictorial codes in C17th Dutch genre painting. She argues that a C17th painting is not so much a window on the world as a system of lines determining where objects and figures are to be placed on the flat plane.)
You also alluded to the disciplined organisation of the home. For more on this see Schama, who refers to the way in which the Dutch made a fetish of domesticity (he cites moralists of the time who called the home the “tabernacle of virtues”, a morally purified and vigilantly patrolled terrain).
I particularly liked your comment on the single detail in the painting which alludes to the presence of the father: the portrait of a man over the chair in the front room. It is worth noting that placed in a room that opens to the outdoors, this picture links the man with the world of (masculine) activity beyond the house. The portrait, which implies that the man is responsible for the household even when he is absent, also links the feminine interior to the city outside. It implies a larger familial and socioeconomic context for the intimate image of the woman and child.
Your additional material on the influence of Fabritius and the similarities between de Hooch’s work and the paintings of Vermeer (e.g. the compositional dynamics [the calculated interrelationships that combine to form a balanced geometrical organization], the modelling, and the emphasis on spatial recession) was thorough.
Vuillard – Madame André Wormser and her Children: Drawing parallels between Vuillard’s and de Hooch’s renderings of intimate domestic scenes, you described the elegant details of the drawing room, including: the chairs covered in green brocade, the patterned carpet, and the dark green walls hung with various pictures in the family collection, each faithfully noted by the artist, including works by Monet, Degas, Renoir, Roussel, and Manet. (Reflect on the influence of Renoir’s celebrated Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children.)
You referred to the grouping of the children in the brightly lit area on the right and the slightly removed figure of the mother. (One critic describes the mother’s pose as complacent and the overall arrangement of the relationships in the work as stiff – do you agree?)
In addition to recording the complexity of the artist’s palette (ref. colour harmonies) and the intricacy of the brushstrokes (Vuillard experimented with their aspect in order to convey variations of texture), think a bit more about the realistic style of the picture, or how this work forms part of a series of group portraits with children by the artist (see Madame Weil and her Children and Madame Jean Trarieux and Her Daughters).
Your appraisal of the pose of the child with the musical score in her hands in relation to Vuillard’s Interior: Mother and Sister of the Artist, in which the figure of the mother sits in a confident, masculine pose, legs apart, hands on knees, menacingly commanding the claustrophobic space, was perceptive.
Reflections and comments on the course
As your remarks revealed, you have experienced the study of art as an enjoyable and rewarding activity, and have found the course useful. You have increased your appreciation for the process of making and displaying art and shown adaptability in response to feedback.
In terms of showing how you have become more of an active and aware learner, you might like to reflect further on some of the following questions: Which aspects of your work on this course did you think were most successful? How have you used and evolved your critical thinking skills? Do you think you are more confident in discussing aesthetics/using visual language? How would you judge your fluency in new ways of thinking, working, reasoning, and investigating? How difficult was it to use different techniques/approaches in your studies?
Learning Logs or Blogs
You have gradually created and incorporated a range of learning materials into your blog to expand your understanding of the subject. You have developed a more reflective stance, and shown an ability to ‘un-pack’ images and write-up your findings intelligently.
In recording your progress against the assessment criteria, it was good to see you comment on what you have learned about the importance of context, how you have deepened your research (via reading and viewing), and your appreciation of the need to critically engage with and apply different art historical theories.
Your section on Claude (Landscape with David at the Cave of Adullam and Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca) offered a comprehensive overview of the artist’s skillful devices and techniques for composition (e.g. stage-like wings, overlapping planes [refined transitions], bits of human/architectural incident, elegant positive and negative relationships). You also mentioned how the eye travels through his images, and the effects of colour (ref. harmonious, modulated greens, browns and blues) and light (diffused through the atmosphere, softening the solid forms). You also noted the importance of the perspective as an allegorical signifier, and thought about general questions such as the creation of mood. (See T.J. Clark’s observations on the use of tiny figures in Claude’s art: “What are these miniature figures about? Why do they come and go in perceptions? Why, once seen, do they matter so much? …I think they are best understood as different proposals about recognition and interpretation, about ‘picking out’ what is human in a human and non-human world, about the way humans belong to their surroundings…”)
Your section on Whistler’s Nocturne: Grey and Gold Westminster Bridge covered the artist’s palette (its limited number of pigments, all mixed together in varying proportions, enabled the artist to restrict the range of his colours and tones), the simple modelling, the use of shadow, and how the painting is not bound to topographical realities or mimetic accuracy. (Ref. Whistler’s highly subjective responses to his surroundings/his concern with the landscape as a site of emotional transference.) You registered the musical allusions (i.e. nocturnes resurfacing in later music history as calm, often expressive and sometimes rather gloomy, as in the works of Chopin).
Your piece on a country house refurbishment incorporated an extensive selection of artworks, and in terms of your research on trompe l’oeil, your use of local examples was good. Your landscape visit material (Loch Lomond and the Trossachs) and the resultant artwork was impressive. Your experiments (including with watercolour) really showed how you were thinking about colour, the impressions of natural forms, and how to develop strong structural rhythms. Your tree drawing demonstrated a confident and expressive use of line, resulting in a striking image.
Suggested reading/viewing
Brook, T. (2009) Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World. London: Profile Books
Cogeval, G. (2002) Vuillard: Master of the Intimate Interior. London: Thames & Hudson
Langdon, H. (1989) Claude Lorrain. London: Phaidon Press
Pointers for the next assignment
I hope that everything goes smoothly in the preparation and submission of your work for formal assessment. (Carefully read through the guidelines.) I wish you luck in your future studies and do hope you continue to enjoy Art History.

Reflection on Assignment 5

I have now reached the end of assignment 5 and along with the expected relief is some sadness that it is finished. I’ve given up so many personal things to do this course and it’s been incredibly hard to complete it while caring for a pre-schooler and working but I am so glad I did and that I chose the History of Art as I’ve discovered a love for the subject that I wasn’t aware of.

Regarding my future studies, unfortunately I am not able to continue with further studying at the present time. The new regulations limiting the time to complete a degree course are too short for me, taking 2/3 years to complete one module would take me up to 2023 by my calculations!

I will certainly continue to visit exhibitions and galleries and I now have the knowledge to understand the context and subtle comments of works of art so this experience will be very different. Perhaps, I will continue my studies when my daughter gets older but for now I’m looking forward to spending some well earned time with her.

Self Assessment

Demonstration of subject based knowledge and understanding

This is something that can only be developed with experience and time spent reading about and visiting art. I certainly have done both of those and feel my knowledge is much greater than it was. One thing I hadn’t considered at the start was the amount of history involved and this is a subject I haven’t studied other than early school years. I now realise now how essential and enriching it is to consider the political and social history of the time the piece of work was created in as well as the history of the the genre or artist themselves. This new knowledge of historical events has created a wonderful web-like network of connections that I can place works of art into and consider them in the context they were intended to be seen. This historical knowledge has  also improved my understanding of all aspects of life from news items to books and tv programmes.

Demonstration of Research Skills

At the start of the course I did most of me research on the internet. Quickly realising that many websites were not to be trusted, I concentrated on the museum  and educational websites which I have found extremely useful. I particularly liked video clips and programmes and these are easily and quickly accessible.

I also discovered a wonderful resource in the University of Glasgow library which I am very lucky to have access to as a member of staff. I used the library a lot although as I live and work at the other side of the city, this was not always easy (not considering that fine art is on the 11th floor and the lifts are never working!). Interestingly I found many books, such as Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Barker’s Contemporary Cultures of Display in my local library which was really useful although the 2/3 week lending period made it a bit difficult.

One of the best resources, I discovered in assignment 5 was the libraries online database of journals and articles. Unfortunately I didn’t use this tool until assignment 5, not realising I had access to the art journals (scientific journals are accessed through specific departments). Once I discovered it, it was really useful for investigating specific ideas and theories very quickly although this obviously depended on the University’s subscription. Books are clearly an essential resource but for speed and specificity these databases are invaluable.

Demonstration of Critical and Evaluation Skills

I think this has been the hardest aspect of the course for me. It relies on both the two element mentioned above – knowledge and research but then being able to process this information and apply it to the subject at hand. I find it difficult to judge how good I am at this but I have definitely improved from the beginning of the course. In my review I tried to analyse Degas’ works and apply different concepts and interpretations on them.


I have developed my skills in writing about art. Coming from a scientific background, writing and research is very literal both in language and analysis so this is something I’ve struggled a great deal with. I often find the style of writing overly complicated and expressive which frustrated me at first but this is something I’ve got used to and hopefully I have been able to incorporate more of my own emotions about the subject in my writing. Often I realise when analysing a picture that I am not listening to my internal dialogue so I have tried to channel this more and conveys these subtle thoughts.