What Is a Painting: Painting As Information

Leo Segedin   |   June 14, 2017 |   Print this essay


If we had taken art history courses seventy years ago, we would have learned to look at paintings as if they were primarily examples of art historical styles and periods. Our professors taught us that Renaissance art was followed by the art of the High Renaissance, then the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern periods. Styles had historical lives. They were born, grew, matured, declined and died. They had meaningful, visual characteristics. One—point perspective and chiaroscuro in Renaissance painting reflected Humanist concern with the physical world, idealism, individuality and a revival of Classical values. Paintings were ‘Works of Art. They were the major ‘Fine Art’, superior to the crafts, which were ‘Minor’. They were characterized by their unique, aesthetic quality, the response to which required educated taste and special sensitivity. Unlike science and mathematics, the Fine Arts were to be appreciated rather than understood. We took Art Appreciation courses for this purpose.

We learned that paintings were beautiful and expressive, that they represented transcendent, universal values. They were the creations of artistic geniuses and the highest achievements of a culture. Originality and authenticity were their prime value. W. Eugene Kleinbauer, in his introduction to the anthology, ‘Modern Perspectives in Western Art History, wrote:
“A work of art can be defined as a man—made object of aesthetic significance with a vitality and reality of its own. Regardless of the medium of expression, a work of art is a unique, complex, irreducible, in some ways even mysterious, individual whole“.
We took for granted that these ideas referred to fundamental realities. But later we found out that many of them were not true. We learned that paintings did not represent universal, human values, that they really represented only those of Western European culture. Paintings were not only to be appreciated. They could also be understood within the contexts of Marxism, Capitalism, Feminism, Racism, anthropology, sociology, psychoanalysis, structuralism, post—structuralism and deconstructionism. Paintings were symbol systems. They were also products of the artist’s subconscious. But photographs, advertisements and comics were also ‘Art’. Today, painting shares identification in the Fine Arts, not only with sculpture, architecture, music and poetry as it had in the past, but also with the performing arts including theatre and dance, with ‘film, photography, video production/editing, design, sequential art, conceptual art, and printmaking’. The unique history of Fine Art paintings really could be seen as part of the history of all images.

Although some of these ideas had objective correlates, most could not be verified by observation or knowledge of the painting’s origin. They actually reflected different, cultural values. Paintings were seen in terms of cultural assumptions, the beliefs about the meanings of paintings that the viewer brought to their perception. Viewers saw what they believed the painting to be, rather than what it actually was.

The question I want to consider in this paper is: to what extent is it possible to treat paintings and beliefs about them as separate entities? Is it possible to look at paintings as if they were simply physical objects rather than cultural products, as independent of the meanings we attribute to them? What would we see and know as distinct from what we believe them to be? Would such knowledge affect our perception of paintings?


Unlike written and spoken language in which meaning is fundamental to its structure, paintings have no intrinsic significance. They can present images, but cannot articulate their meanings. As a result, all meanings must be projected into them. Meanings of paintings thus are projections of belief, of fantasy. of myth, of faith. Non-Western societies take for granted the meanings of their images, but in our society, such meanings are debatable issues. We must be told what paintings mean. At various times over the last 400 years, Western commentators on art had established meanings by focusing on the painting’s aesthetic or expressive qualities, the response of the viewer, the painting’s social function and, most recently, the artist’s intentions and creative processes rather than his accomplishments. For us today, however, meanings of paintings are products of a loosely connected, inconsistent and often contentious ‘artworld’, a social structure which consists of ‘everyone involved in producing, commissioning, presenting, preserving, promoting, chronicling, criticizing, and sellingÊfine art.’ It is what recognized art authorities in this ‘artworld’ claim it is and, therefore, especially over the last several years, different authorities with different agendas have presented different meanings. Today, such meanings are based on the responses of artworld professionals to what they see in particular art museums, where paintings, selected by art museum curators from the selections of gallery dealers, are exhibited. The meaning of a painting, thus, is not only what philosophers have said it was in the past or even what artists say it is today. It is also what art critics, art historians, art museum curators and gallery dealers publish in exhibition catalogues, scholarly books and journals.

Such meanings are not merely academic issues. They have had a major impact on the status and economic value of paintings in our culture. In fact, we can even say that, at the present time, in the literature describing painting, meanings of paintings are what the major dealers in the art market say it is. In their attempt to increase their economic value, gallery dealers use highbrow, often intellectual language to project profound significance into the art objects they are selling. And in order to camouflage the crassness of its underlying commercialism, euphemistic language is used to neutralize and to elevate the commercial function of its practices. Art dealers thus become ‘curators’ or ‘gallerists’; a sales gallery becomes a ‘space’. Paintings are not bought and sold; they are ‘sourced’ and ‘placed’.

Also, art dealers use language to place their products in art history. Traditional art historians had always described the history of painting as moving in a direction. In the 19th century, led by what was called the ‘avant—garde’, this direction had become increasingly revolutionary. Although they continued to sell the work of dead artists, art dealers made the work of young, radical artists economically valuable. During the 20th, and especially this century, the idea of being at the head of this history, the significance of the latest, the most original and experimental, became the dominant salesÐpitch of the upscale, art market. The most saleable artists are now described as those who ’break new ground’, are ‘cutting edge’, produce ‘seminal, radical, iconic or landmark works’. Thus, the language of the art market creates meanings of paintings.

Although thousands of painters continued to work during the last 60 years, until this year’s influential Whitney Bi—annual Exhibition, where paintings appeared for the first time in several decades, paintings had lost their special status and had joined all kinds of other objects into which artistic significance had been projected. While the price of paintings by famous artists had risen fantastically, painting itself had disappeared as an independent art form in the artworld. Meanings of paintings today, therefore, are not objective descriptions of a particular kind of object, but are products of different and often conflicting social values and beliefs.


Theories defining consciousness have a long history. For hundreds of years, What do we actually know about painting as objects independent of their cultural significance? What is a painting physically? How does its physical state affect what we see and how we respond? For over 40,000 years, humans have been painting images on cave walls, plaster walls, wood panels, copper sheets, stretched fabric and paper. They have made paints out of ground earth, rock and clay, plant root and coal tar derivatives mixed with water, spit, fat, gum Arabic, lime, beeswax, gouache, milk, egg, acrylic, turpentine and oil. Over the last 500 years in the West, oil paint on fabric has been the most popular medium. We can define a traditional oil painting as a two dimensional object made out of cotton or linen canvas stretched on wooden sticks and covered by pigments suspended in linseed or poppy seed oil. Economically, although some pigments such as lapis lazuli, the basis of ultramarine, are rare and more expensive, art materials have little intrinsic value.

As physical objects, oil paintings change chemically over time. Although it is possible to identify historical paintings as from the hand of particular artists, there can be no oil paintings that look the same as they did when they were originally painted. Not only can sunlight and carbon dioxide from human breath cause paintings to fade. Chemically, oil paint continues to change (oxidize) for hundreds of years. It becomes transparent with age and turns yellow with sulfur in urban air. Underpainting, drawing and corrections (pentamenti) will show though. Pigments — especially 19th and early 20th century madder root and coal tar derivatives such as alizarins, madders, lakes and asphaltum, as well as copper derivatives (resinates), will fade or turn brown as can be seen in many 19th century landscape paintings, in works by Turner and Ryder and especially in Seurat’s, ‘La Grande Jatte’. The green dots (copper resinates) in ‘La Grande Jatte’, which were applied during the last 6 months of its painting, have turned brown. The yellows and oranges have also faded. These changes were noted by Felix Feneon, Seurat’s great champion, within a few years of the painting’s completion.; The white background in Van Gogh’s, Irises, in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, was once (lake) pink. The pool table in his ‘Night Café’, at Yale, which was originally a bright green (according to Van Gogh), is now a tan color. The yellow (chrome) of his Sunflowers was once brighter. In fact, he painted some of his paintings brighter than he ultimately intended them to be because he knew that they would fade. In 1948, the paint in one of his Cypress series was still soft and, therefore, its final color had not yet been established. In Renoir’s ‘Mother and Children’ at the Frick, the reds in the flowers in the background and in the flesh tones (except for the vermilions in the lips and cheeks) have disappeared. The violet in the mother’s dress is dull and muddy, and the ultramarine blue dress on the doll one of the children carries has turned almost black.

Whistler’s ‘Harmonies’, ‘Arrangements’ and ‘Symphonies’, (‘Whistler’s Mother’, ‘The Pacific’, ‘Portrait of Mrs. Leland’), also at the Frick, have all faded, destroying their original subtle relationships. The blue in Hopper’s trees, in ‘Cape Cod Evening’, at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., which might have been interpreted as twilight, was originally green, but the yellow (lake) pigment in the green mixture faded. If you respond to the blue trees as a metaphor, you would be mistaken. The mystical projections into Rothko’s five large murals at Harvard (painted in 1962 — removed in 1980 and replaced in 2015 with colors restored by light projections) had to be revised. The original crimson had turned to pale blue because he used lithol red. His 14 large, now almost “black” panels in his chapel at St. Thomas University in Houston installed in 1971, some months after he committed suicide, which were interpreted by some to reflect his depressed state of mind, were originally an “optimistic” red on red, but the pigments faded.

Brown varnish was used in the 18th century to give paintings the ‘old master’ look. This technique was sometimes called the ‘brown gravy’ school of painting’. When attempts were made to remove it in the 20th century, often, the fugitive glazes used by English artists like Sir Joshua Reynolds, if they had not previously faded, came off with it. Varnishes and siccatives (driers) also can turn yellow or black. The black backgrounds of 18th and 19th century French and English painting and the grey tonalities of some early 20th century American painting were not the artist’s intention.

Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’ is a faded relic of what it once was. Mona now has a greenish, crackly look, colorless lips and cheeks, receding hairline and no eye brows and does not look at all as Vasari (who may never have seen her) described her in the 16th century, but although the painting has been over painted many times, it is doubtful that it will ever be restored again because, not only is it a cultural icon no matter how it looks, the results would probably be too shocking to our contemporary taste. It is a cultural icon, the significance of which does not depend on its appearance.


Restorations are often inadequate. After two years of painstaking work, any resemblance of the Leonardo’s restored ‘Last Supper’ in Milan to what it originally looked like is still hypothetical and superficial. The less said about it the better.


The accumulation of dirt can affect the appearance, and, therefore, the meaning of paintings. Contrary to traditional interpretations, Michelangelo may have been a colorist as well as an outstanding draftsman if the restored Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are any indication. The great controversy over the results of its cleaning was because no one was really sure what the originals looked like. They were shocked to discover how colorful they probably were and some experts still think that too much dirt had been removed. Also, before it was cleaned, the gradation of dark dirt from the outer edges of the ceiling to the relative cleanliness at the light center was interpreted to mean enlightenment from the darkness of ignorance of all the ‘begats’ after Genesis to the light of knowledge of Christ. All that assumed symbolism had to be reinterpreted after the dirt had been removed.


Paintings have also been intentionally modified by humans. Restorations are often incompetent, done with inappropriate materials and reflect the taste, concepts and moral principles of different restorers. As a result, what we see is not what the original painting looked like, and, therefore, its original significance has often been lost or distorted. Paintings have been mutilated by censorship. ‘ Not long after Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgment’s completion, the Council of Trent condemned nudity in religious art, decreeing that “all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust.Ó Clement’s successor, Pope Pius IV, complied with the tenet, and in 1565,the year after Michelangelo’s death, had the more controversial nudity painted over by Daniele da Volterra, earning the artist the nicknameÊIl Braghetonne, “the breeches—maker.” Da Volterra also substantially repainted the figures of Saint Catherine and Saint Blaise, whose positions were considered unseemly. (In the original, St. Catherine was nude. St. Blaise was glaring at St. Catherine. In the revision, he is gazing at Christ.) Further coverings were added in the 17th and 18th centuries.’

‘When the Last Judgment was restored between 1980 and 1994, many expected the work to be returned to its original state before the censorship. But da Volterra had scraped away the offending parts and painted on top of freshly—applied plaster, which meant that there was nothing left underneath to restore, so his additions were retained. Thankfully, the art—loving Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, afraid that the original was going to be destroyed, had commissioned Marcello Venusti to paint a copy of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in 1549. This tempera painting on wood is now our only guide to what Michelangelo’s work looked like before it was censored’.


Why paintings look the way they do may differ from what we have been lead to believe. We usually attribute the composition of paintings to the aesthetic, philosophical or stylistic considerations of the artist, but they are often due to practical concerns. For example, during the early Renaissance, a mural paid for by the square feet was different from one paid for by the cost of materials and the time and reputation of the artist. The price of a painting often determined the number of figures in it, and, therefore, the composition. For example, paintings of the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ traditionally contains crowds of people. However, in 1611, the Baroque painter, Guido Reni, painted one in which there are only seven. They are arranged in a composition which has been considered as typical of the Baroque style. However, the composition may also be attributed to the fact that the patron was only willing to pay for seven, full length figures.

We can interpret Renaissance concern with three—dimensional representation of people as a reflection of Humanistic concern with visual reality, individuality and Classical revival. The composition of Renaissance painter Piero da Francesca’s ‘Flagellation of Christ’ is traditionally attributed to the application of the Golden Section — a Classical conception — but it more probably can be explained by the 16th century Florentine merchant patron’s way of calculating the volume of barrels of produce in terms of simple mathematical formulations about which Da Francesca wrote a text.


We idealize famous artists as independent geniuses who expressed their personal ideas. Their paintings are assumed to reflect such characteristics. ‘Leonardo da Vinci has often been described as the archetype of the “Renaissance man“, a man whose seemingly infinite curiosity was equaled only by his powers of invention. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time and perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived.’ This assumption implies that Leonardo was a self—determining, autonomous genius, and, as a painter, produced priceless, unique masterpieces like the ‘Mona Lisa’, ‘The Last Supper’ and ‘Madonna of the Rocks’. However, in 1483 Milan, in spite of his great, recognized talents, he was considered to be a craftsman working on contract, like any other laborer. The appearance of the painting was in part determined by the patron. The contract he signed to paint ‘Madonna of the Rocks’ required that he produce an altarpiece with ‘mountains and rocks’ in the background ‘our lady in the middle… her upper garments of ultramarine blue brocaded with gold’. Although he did paint most of it, Leonardo was only one of three artists working on the project. He and the other artists sued the patron because the carver of the wooden framework for the altar was being paid more than they were. In other words, not only was the ‘Madonna of the Rocks’ not an autonomous masterpiece by a genius painter, as it is now displayed in the Louvre and in its other version, the National Gallery in London; Leonardo was one member of a team of craftsmen and paid accordingly.


Cultural developments can change the appearance and meanings of paintings. The transformation of paintings from functional objects into independent, aesthetic ‘masterpieces’ occurred in the 18th century. During this period, new market economies and the rise of the middle classes had caused enormous changes in Western culture. Plutocrats, bankers and merchant, replaced aristocrats as patrons. The possession of wealth replaced royal and ecclesiastic prestige as signs of status for artists. After being a commissioner of art for thousands of years, the patron became a consumer. Rather than being the product of commissions, the prices of which were determined by cost of materials and the artists’ time and effort, paintings now were saleable items, their cost determined by the market. Paintings became portable and collectible commodities. Like any other commodity, price was determined by what a buyer was willing to pay. Artists, who were no longer hired craftsmen, were free to follow their own inclinations, but they now had to sell their paintings. The disappearance of royal and church patronage required them to establish new rationales for the high, cultural status, and, therefore, economic value, of their works. The result was that the artist’s personality and originality replaced religious ideas and social status as the meanings of paintings and became their most valuable and saleable assets. Painters were now identified by their unique ‘artistic temperaments’. They had original, fertile imaginations, sensitive feelings and personal ways of seeing. They were ‘inspired’. Paintings were no longer made; they were created. Paintings became known by the names of the artists who made them. People went to art museums to see ‘Rembrandts’ and ‘Rubens’. Public museums, which were originally intended to display national and private collections, became almost sacred places for contemplation of art masterpieces by these artists. Paintings which were originally anonymous, religious icons seen in churches became aesthetic objects created by genius artists in art museums. In the 18th century, paintings acquired aesthetic quality and, in the 19th century, Art History, as a new discipline in German universities, reinforced this belief by developing the idea that painting was an autonomous Fine Art with identifiable characteristics and history.

The assumption underling these changes in the significance and value of paintings, thus, was based on the belief that original works of art have exceptional qualities that fakes and copies do not have. Only originals reflect the artist’s vision. Since the hand of the individual artist is assumed to reflect these qualities, such works are unique. Unoriginal works, therefore, cannot have the same value and significance. Because it was not always possible to tell the difference, attribution thus became a vital function of art historians and critics. The art market, a multi—billion dollar business, and the high cultural status of art museums for the last seventy years could not have been maintained without assumptions that the objects exhibited are original. To illustrate this point: the following is from a popular art textbook, Art and Civilization, by Bernard Meyers, about a painting called “The Man in a Golden Helmet”, formerly attributed to Rembrandt: Rembrandt’s ability to evoke spiritual contemplation, to fathom the depths of the soul and its identification with the universe is felt in such a work as the celebrated “Man in a Golden Helmet”.

Unfortunately for Professor Meyers, the painting wasn’t by Rembrandt. Even though some people continue to believe that the painting is beautiful and profound, when it was de—attributed in 1985, its value fell from $8 million to $377 thousand. Also, since the number of paintings attributed to Rembrandt has ranged from 48 to 988, it is obvious that belief in the significance of ‘originality’ is of more than academic interest.

The famous art historian, Bernard Berenson, made a fortune authenticating Renaissance paintings for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum of Art in Boston. ‘Berenson was a major figure in the attribution of Old Masters, at a time when these were attracting new interest by American collectors, and his judgments were widely respected in the art world. Recent research has cast doubt on some of his authentications, which may have been influenced by the exceptionally high commissions paid to him.’


Like religious relics, paintings had become secular relics with economic powers based on authentication by ‘official’ Art authorities. Paintings that could be established as being from the hand of Old Masters and of artists like Picasso, Van Gogh and Matisse are especially valuable. Last month, a painting by Jean—Michel Basquiat, who died in 1988 of a heroin overdose at the age of 27, sold for almost 111 million dollars. But anything associated with these artists, anything they owned or where they lived, also takes on special significance. Like an ‘authenticated’ splinter from the ‘True Cross’, Van Gogh palette is displayed in his museum in Amsterdam. The buildings in which they lived have become sacred sites for tourist pilgrimages. The Art Institute of Chicago recently recreated and displayed Gauguin’s studio. In spite of their lack of intrinsic value — paintings still sell for millions of dollars. Over the last several years — even though their unique value has been challenged by the rising status of other arts, such as prints, tapestries and photographs and of the arts of other cultures such as Chinese and African art, the economic value of high status paintings continues to rise. Rather than lowering the status of paintings, the cultural and economic status of these other arts in our society has risen. What we know about paintings then, rather than challenging our beliefs, has added to their economic value. We can conclude then that, although it possible to distinguish knowledge of paintings from our beliefs about them, such knowledge is an intellectual consideration which for most people has not changed their perception.

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© 2017 Leopold Segedin. All rights reserved.