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A Beginner’s Guide to Appreciating Fine Art

To get the most out of your gallery experience, think “love at first sight”

Steven Gambardella
Mar 9, 2019 · 10 min read
‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ by Tiziano Vecellio (known as Titian), 1520–23. Image: VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

It’s a sad fact that many people won’t ever step into art galleries and museums. Some are reluctant to do so because those places can be intimidating. Even contemporary art can have a snooty, rarefied air about it that feels cold and uninviting.

Art is important because it’s part of the story we tell about ourselves; it’s our culture. It’s something that can be enjoyed in a spectrum of senses, from titillation to edification. But it’s often just not easy to “get into,” and that’s partly because of snobbery, but it’s also because art really is sophisticated and therefore demands time and effort.

Getting started, however, doesn’t have to take much. While there’s no one way to look at art, I’ve laid out a basic guide that essentially is the advice I wish I could have given myself when I was younger — because I was once intimidated by art too. The method and tips here can empower people to walk into an art gallery without the reluctance of imposter syndrome.

When you visit a gallery or museum to see art in the flesh, pick only a few pieces to focus on. Some places have collections of thousands of works of art, and if you try to take in hundreds or even just dozens of them, you will quickly feel fatigued. Especially when there are multiple galleries in a museum, really concentrate on a few and just take a look at the others. Think in terms of love at first sight, and take note of what catches your eye. Better still, preplan by visiting the museum’s website and picking the pieces so you can make a beeline for them on your visit. And keep in mind that you may be able to visit the museum again.

Once you make a selection and really start looking at it, my advice is to start simple. Many people find art so intimidating or difficult because they look too hard for complication. Think again about love at first sight—that experience of being attracted to something before you really know anything about it. All you know is how the look or essence of it makes you feel. And then you can progress to a complicated analysis if you want.

Simple approaches:

  • The overall size and shape of the artwork
  • Whether it’s abstract or realistic
  • The shapes within it
  • The colors
  • The tones

The painting alone isn’t going to tell you the whole story of what is happening.

More complicated approaches:

  • The style of the artwork
  • The theme of the artwork
  • What the artwork represents
  • The allusions the artwork makes to other things
  • The wider cultural meaning of the artwork

Visitors in an art gallery will often take a quick look at the artwork, read the interpretation panel for a while, take a longer look at the artwork, and then walk away. That is, they tend to skip straight to the complicated stuff, trying to get into the meaning of the piece and what it represents before they really get to grips with how the piece works.

My advice is to look at the picture for a long time before you read the interpretation panel. Ask yourself: What is the artist trying to make me do? Where is the artist leading my eye? How does the artist want me to feel or think, and how are they achieving that?

Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne is a beautiful painting in the collection of the U.K.’s National Gallery. Working through some of the approaches listed above, here are eight ways to look at the painting with increasing complexity.

1. Overall size and shape

Bacchus and Ariadne is considered medium-sized because the picture doesn’t require much movement from the viewer; you can stand in the same spot and take it all in. It’s also almost square, which is a format that compresses the elements to give the picture a feeling of drama before you even know what you are looking at.

Huge pictures or sculptures with life-sized figures tend to either involve the viewer in the action or were designed to be placed far away but still seen. In contrast, small pictures demand intimacy. Medium pictures like this one, however, can give some detachment. They allow a person to consider the artwork without much interaction with the piece.

2. Shapes within the image

Some broad shapes in the picture can be spotted if you look at how the elements are clustered. Notably, in this piece, there is a strong triangle shape that divides the picture in half diagonally. This is common in paintings. Most of the figures here are compressed into a wedge that thins from right to left. By noticing the wedge, you realize even more that attention is drawn to two principal figures: One is half-in and half-out of the triangle, and the other’s feet are at the bottom left corner.

3. Color tones

The triangular composition also marks a division between the cooler blues and greens of the sky, trees, and other greenery and the warmer colors of earth and flesh. Taking this a step further, when the painting is pixelated to help us see past the details, it stands out how the two principal figures are also paler than the rest of the figures are. So tone is also functioning in the painting to concentrate our attention.

4. Intended movement

Painters, sculptors, and other artists often try to make your eye move around their artwork. They do this using the composition and the way the parts of the piece interact.

In Bacchus and Ariadne, my gaze always rests on the figure in the air for a moment, but his strong gaze to the left pushes mine to the woman. I’m then drawn down to the urn, then the dog that also in the near foreground. The dog’s attention is on the young satyr (a mythical creature that’s half-human, half-animal), and so my gaze goes there, then to the revelry behind the satyr and right up to the break in the trees at the top right corner. From there, my eye is drawn to the leaping figure’s cloak and back to his eyes again.

This creates a cycle that moves both around the picture and in and out of depth—from the pile of drapery in the very close foreground to the figure asleep in the background.

We can start to get a bit more complex here by meshing this movement with our previous shape and color observations. Titian has used the placement of cool and warm colors to animate a viewer’s eyes. The warm tones are compressed in their space in the bottom right while the cool ones expand in their space in the top left. (This effect is one that happens in everyday life, too: Think of the difference in feeling when a room is painted all red and feels closed in versus when it’s painted a pale blue and feels more open.)

Using color filters like the ones below, you can get an even clearer sense of the contrasts and how they are distributed around the composition. The push and pull of warm and cool in the painting ensures your eyes never settle for long.

5. Style

Like most paintings from the 16th century, this one is realistic. It depicts people and animals in a way that mimic their outward appearance to us. They are pretty much anatomically correct, but there is a clear element at play that makes it feel like a window into a mythical world. This is when it’s worthwhile to read the panel next to the painting. This one was made in the time (early 16th century) and place (Italy) of the High Renaissance, a detail that can (and will later in this list) lead to much more complexity.

6. Theme

The theme of Bacchus and Ariadne is an ancient Greek legend, but the painting alone isn’t going to tell you the whole story of what is happening. To fully appreciate a painting like this, you’ll need to do some reading or listen to a gallery educator talk about it. Bear in mind that the people the painting was made for would have already known the background story well. This is essentially a snapshot of a moment in the story where Ariadne—the woman at the far left who the artist draws attention to so skillfully—has just been abandoned by her companion Theseus but meets the god Bacchus.

The bigger story is that Ariadne, a princess, fell in love with Theseus when he volunteered to go kill the Minotaur in a maze. She had given him a ball of thread so that he could find his way out. After Theseus killed the Minotaur, he and Ariadne escaped to an island called Naxos, but once there, the goddess Athena woke Theseus in the middle of the night to tell him to leave because the island was the home of the god Bacchus. In the painting, you can see Theseus’s ship sailing away on the extreme left.

What’s so beautiful about this painting is how it condenses the story to an instantaneous but key moment.

Upon awakening, Ariadne was upset, and this is the moment of the snapshot. Bacchus arrived with his entourage of satyrs and maenads. At first, Ariadne was scared and turned in fright, but Bacchus, attracted to the princess, leaped out of his chariot. When the two made eye contact, they fell in love at first sight. Because Ariadne was mortal, Bacchus granted her eternity, and she became a constellation of stars shaped like a halo—which you can spot in the painting at the top left.

What’s so beautiful about this painting is how it condenses the story to an instantaneous but key moment that’s emphasized not just by guided attention, details, and movement but is even conveyed by an implied sound—the maenad in the middle has just clashed a pair of symbols.

7. Allusions

Following its Greek theme, the painting contains allusions to classical art. For a start, Bacchus’ entourage resembles a frieze, a common Roman relief technique that shows figures in profile. The perceived “flatness” of this entourage allows Bacchus and Ariadne to stand out; they are twisting in opposite directions, which dramatizes the surprise of seeing each other.

Notice also that the satyr in the foreground is entwined with snakes. This is an allusion to the Roman poems the painting is based on, but it also has a resemblance to a sculpture of the mythical Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons, which is believed to date from the second century B.C. That sculpture was displayed in Rome in 1506 shortly after it was unearthed, so Titian would likely have seen it. There’s no evidence the painter based the satyr on the statue, but the general influence of ancient Greek and Roman art on artwork during the Renaissance is indisputable.

8. Cultural meaning

As noted, this is a Renaissance-era painting. Renaissance means “rebirth,” and it came at a time when Greco-Roman culture was literally being unearthed and rediscovered through the migration of people. Broadly speaking, before the Renaissance in the 14th to 17th centuries, Western culture was almost exclusively in the service of Christianity.

Owing to a series of historical events, innovations, and discoveries—like the Black Plague, the Ottomans’ sacking of Constantinople (essentially the last bastion of living Roman culture), and archaeological discoveries—Western culture was starting to put humanity at its center. Without getting too complicated, the Renaissance painting styles were notable for their anatomical accuracy, influence by Greco-Roman sculptures, vivid color (thanks to the invention of oil paint), and linear perspective. All of those are evident in Bacchus and Ariadne.

Just think about how the artwork affects you physically as well as mentally.

The timing of this painting in particular falls in the High Renaissance, roughly 1495 to 1527—the artistic apogee of that era and notable for the artists alive at the time: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Giorgione, Bellini, and, of course, Titian. Linear perspective in particular was an innovation many of these artists used to change Western art forever. Paintings before were more decorative and flat, but with perspective, they became “windows” into a scene thanks to the spatial depth the technique creates.

You now know a lot more about Bacchus and Ariadne and Titian, but I hope you also now know a lot more about how to approach art. With any artwork, you can start simply and keep a distance from the intimidating wealth of information that comes with it. Just think about how the artwork affects you physically and mentally. Eventually, you can soak up the more complicated information.

We live in an era where artwork is available to the masses rather than the tiny fraction who are super-rich—as it was for thousands of years. That is precious. See art. Learn from it, enjoy it, and appreciate how lucky we are.

The Sophist

A Collection of Posts by Steven Gambardella

Steven Gambardella

Written by

The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Feel free to get in touch: stevengambardella@gmail.com

The Sophist

Lessons from philosophy, history and culture

Steven Gambardella

Written by

The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Feel free to get in touch: stevengambardella@gmail.com

The Sophist

Lessons from philosophy, history and culture

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