How to Look at Art, Part 1: An Example from my Wall

Looking at a water installation at MONA in Hobart, Tasmania

Last week, I wrote about how to visit a museum or gallery, and in that post I mentioned that you really need to look at the art. Like, for a while. But just staring at something doesn’t necessarily bring profound revelations— you need to know how to look and what to look for. So this post is about how to look at art; what art historians call “visual analysis” and “historical and biographical context”.

Sounds pretty dry, right? Ah no, it’s magical. Decades ago, I was sitting as an undergraduate in my first art history course. The lights were down in the massive lecture theatre, giving the impression that I was all by myself with the huge slide projection.¹ As I stared at the art, the disembodied voice of the lecturer was guiding my eyes, showing me what to look for, pointing out (with the help of a laser pointer) particular features. Then the voice would talk about the artist, what the painting was for, who it was intended for, why it was done the way it was done. I was enchanted. Something that had initially seemed foreign, strange or just boring to me five minutes before suddenly had new depth and poignancy. It had transformed before my eyes. Or, more accurately, I had changed to see it properly.

In future posts I plan to go in-depth into the different kinds of analysis art historians use, but for now I thought we could start with something fun: let’s look at a painting together. I’ve posted it below. First, let’s just look at it. What do you see? What do you think? Would you cross the gallery to see this, or would it be a definite skip?

I will now play the role of the disembodied lecturer voice. A-hem…

J.R. Herbert, R.A. Mary Magdalene, 1859 (For reference, you may want to open this image in a new tab.)

The Basics

This picture was painted in 1859 by John Rogers Herbert. It has two titles, Mary Magdalene with spices approaching the tomb of our Lord; study for a part of a picture of the holy women passing, at daybreak, over the pace of crucifixion or Mary Magdalene for short. (The 19th-century had a thing for loooong titles…) It is oil on canvas, 79 x 53.3cm, and was painted and exhibited in London. It was recently at the Maas Gallery in London, but is now in a private collection. (Not MY private collection, but more on that later…)

It depicts a woman dressed in robes carrying several ceramic containers. A hazy cityscape, darkened hills, and a bright sky are seen in the background.

Formal Analysis

This is where we look at the forms of the painting, i.e. the physical techniques the artist has used. For painting, these include composition (how and where objects are placed), coloursize (massive? tiny? bigger than a bread box??) and line (is it “blurry” looking? Sharp? Is the paint thick on the canvas or so thin you can see through it?)²

So, looking at line, we can see that this is “sharp” looking. They would have called it “finished” back in the day. It means that the lines are clean and blended, as opposed to, say an impressionist work, which can do away with lines altogether. The overall effect is very smooth, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of texture visible on the canvas. Though this was a common technique in the 19th-century, it was difficult — it took years of training for artists to reach this level of technical mastery. This kind of smooth, almost realistic technique allowed the viewer to interact with the painting as viewers today interact with a film: taking the “reality” of what they see for granted.

The size, as we noted is 79 x 53.3cm (31 x 21 inches) This is slightly smaller than life, and a comfortable size to hang at eye level in a normal room. Why is this important? Because we know the size will help the viewer look the woman in the eye, a much more intimate feeling than if she was huge or tiny.

The artist has used a colour combination of dark blues and greens on the bottom of the canvas, moving to lighter pastels, especially pale turquoise blue with hints of yellow,  purple and pink on the top. It gives the impression of anchoring the figure, and our eyes travel almost immediately to her face. A bright dash of earthy red in the middle (on the jar and her belt) brings the viewer’s eye back to centre of her body.

Both colour and composition help direct the viewer’s eye. Composition is the most subtle formal element of a painting, but one that is arguably the most important. In this painting, the artist uses a series of diagonal and horizontal lines. As I don’t have a laser pointer at the moment, I’ve drawn it out for you:

Composition lines

First, follow the lines, where do they lead? You’ll quickly see that one prominent part of a painting, (the bridge of Mary’s nose, for example) will have an invisible line to another important part of the painting (the large green jug). This isn’t an accident. Those diagonal lines keep your eye moving around Mary, so you’ll take in all the detail of the figure, and your eye will constantly be moving around her. The horizontal lines in the background (made by the buildings, hills and wispy clouds) are a calming influence. They indicate a peacefulness. So the figure is drawn with more energy than her background.

Historical Context

Though this may look like a random portrait, this is a painting with a Christian subject, mentioned in all four Gospels of the New Testament.

Mary Magdalene is recorded in the bible as being a follower of Jesus. Though often cited as a prostitute whom Jesus helped, there’s no evidence she was a sex worker— these accounts of her originated centuries later, in an attempt to discredit her claims to be an official Apostle. (More on the amazing Mary M here.) She played a key role in the Easter resurrection story, being the first person to discover that Jesus’s tomb was empty.

Because Jesus was executed on a Friday afternoon, and working on the Sabbath (Saturday) was forbidden, Mary had to wait until Sunday morning to prepare Jesus’s body according to Jewish burial custom. In this painting the viewer sees her heading to the tomb in the early hours of the dawn, with the ceremonial spices and perfume in her hands.

She expects to find the dead body of her friend and mentor. However, the viewer knows how the story ends: Jesus is alive. Mary will soon discover this wondrous plot twist, but for now she is consumed in her own sorrow.

Artist Biography

John Rogers Herbert (1810-1890) was a pretty famous artist in his day, though he is little remembered. His heyday was the 1840s and 50s, when he was a relatively young member of the British art scene. His early conversion to Catholicism in his twenties, and his earnest desire for art to communicate God’s “truth and beauty” was completely on trend for the 1830s and 40s. In fact his best friend, A.W. Pugin, is still remembered for his devotion to these principles. For Herbert, art always had a higher purpose, and he tried to be a holy and pure artist in order to make holy and pure art. This was sometimes a bit OTT, as the woman who posed for Mary told one of Herbert’s friends:

She said she had been sitting to a funny little old man [ed. Herbert was only 49 at the time!] with a long beard, who was dressed in a long, dirty dressing-gown, and she then related the following conversation:- Herbert to model: “You come from the East?” “Sir?” “You come from the East, from Jerusalem?” “No, sir; I come from Suffolk.” “Ah, no, you come from Jerusalem- I am sure you come from the East. Now, you are going to sit to me for the holy Magdalene, she who was at the foot of the cross on the day of the Crucifixion. You must be very holy while you sit; you must think you are at the foot of the cross; you must put on a holy look and have holy thoughts.” “And then, “ she said, “the funny little old gentleman knelt down, and looked up with his eyes to heaven, and crossed his arm upon his heart, and after a little time the large tears rolled down his beard on to the old dressing-gown, and it seemed so ludicrous somehow that I burst out laughing.” ³

Cultural Context

This is also called “reception” in art history circles. How it would the painting be understood by those who first saw it in 1859? Well, they liked it a lot. In fact, it became one of Herbert’s most successful paintings. It received mostly positive reviews in the major art newspapers. Even John Ruskin, who was notoriously anti-Catholic and therefore didn’t like Herbert, gave some props to Mary Magdalene:

Very beautiful, and an interesting example of the noble tendency of modern religious art to conceive scenes as they really in probability occurred; not in merely artistic modification or adaptation. The picture tells its story sufficiently, and needs no comment. It is not of high artistic merit, but a sincere and gentle conception, adequately, and therefore very touchingly, expressed. – John Ruskin, Notes on…Pictures Exhibited in the…Royal Academy, 1859. 

The Victorian public loved subtle emotion that told a story, and here was a perfect example. For them, these paintings were a kind of cinema, and they looked for the drama in every corner.

There are aspects of the painting that would certainly not be okay today.  With all Herbert’s attention to detail in the costume he didn’t seem to mind (and nor did anyone else!) that he painted Mary Magdalene as white. She was NOT a white person. Certainly not a redhead from Suffolk. So yes, you could argue there are aspects of racism and colonialism in this painting as well.

My Own Thoughts

So, now that you’ve got the basics, I’ll tell you my own take on this painting. The reason I chose it is because Herbert was the subject of my PhD, and I’m currently writing a book on him, so I thought it best to start with something I know really well.

And this is probably my favourite painting. The reason I love it so much is because it is about hope. Here’s Mary, distraught, heading to the tomb to do one last act of love for her friend. Her gaze points downward, to the dark bottom of the picture. She can’t see that beautiful dawn breaking behind her, the sky lighting up and the sun’s first rays gently stroking her forehead. Look at that light! Herbert makes a brilliant contrast between the glorious dawn and the darkness of her despair. How many times have we been consumed in our emotion or grief and failed to see the beauty around us? Or, in a theological sense, the beauty that will overcome every darkness.

Our living room wall!

I called this post “an example from my wall”, and though I would love to own the original (does anyone have £25,000 or so to donate to this worthy cause?) I have the next best thing. When I received my PhD, a good friend had a copy of this painting done for me. Of course, it’s not up to the standard of the original, but it still holds pride of place on my wall and reminds me of that beautiful lesson of hope.

Apologies for this post turning into a bit of a monster. That’s what happens when I get talking about art. Hope you enjoyed the looking. See you next time!


¹ This was pre-PowerPoint. I am old. At least the slides were (mostly) in colour!

² These are some of the formal elements of painting. Other forms of art (such as sculpture, film or soundscape) will have different formal elements that apply.

³ From artist Richard Redgrave’s memoir, 1891.

3 thoughts on “How to Look at Art, Part 1: An Example from my Wall

  1. Nancy, this is so interesting and insightful! I enjoy art but know very little about it … I’ll look at a painting on my own wall tonight with new eyes. Thank you!

  2. Hi Nancy
    Ian finding this very interesting and am looking forward to the next instalment

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