How to read a painting

Styles of painting:

Renaissance – Allegories, Gods, tells story.

Creation Of Man – Michelangelo

This painting depicts God reaching out to Adam with his right hand, and Adam is mirroring his action, a reminder that man is created in God’s image (from Genesis in the Bible). They are not actually touching. This represents God and Adam are not on ‘the same level’, unlike if they were shaking hands or hugging etc. One of numerous theories behind this painting is that the woman underneath God’s arm is Eve, because of the way she is painted to make her stand out from the other people and also the way she is looking at Adam.


Gothic – In situ, spiritual, biblical illustrations.

Haywain Triptych – Bosch

The Haywain Triptych is a three panel painting which is common in Gothic art. This painting is very similar in terms of content to ‘ The Garden of Earthly Delights ‘ and other similar art works from this era. The painting itself depicts Heaven, Earth and Hell in the three sections (from left to right). There is so much going on in this painting, like other pieces of his art work.


Baroque – Power, mythological, splendor.

The Fall Of Phaeton – Rubens

This painting depicts the story of Phaeton, the son of Apollo in the Chariot of the Sun when the horses went out of control, resulting in them scorching the Earth below with the Sun’s heat. Rubens painted The Fall of Phaeton in Rome. His study of works by Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo influenced his evocation of complex poses and a powerful sense movement. The painting is very bold and powerful which is what the meaning is behind Baroque art work.


Rococo – Theatrical, soft, feminine, flamboyant.

The Swing – Fragonard

The Swing is a painting of a higher class woman being pushed on a swing by an elderly man. Another, younger man is hidden from the old man in the bushes and appears to be secretly flirting with the woman, and she sems to let him peek under her dress. This type of painting is typical of Rococo characteristics. The image is softly painted and the subject is theatrical and flamboyant.


Neo-Classical – Theatrical, power.

Apotheosis of Homer – Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

This painting shows Homer (guy in the middle being crowned) receiving homage from the great men and women of Ancient Greece Rome and at the time of this painting. Examples of figures in this painting include Plato, Socrates, Mozart, Michelangelo, Alexander the Great etc. This painting has a pyramidal composition, which is a common composition of paintings in this time period and before. It adds structure and can easliy communicate power depending on the subject.


Victorian – Photo realistic, history, science. PRB (pre-raphaelite brotherhood)

Ophelia – Millais

The painting depicts Ophelia, a character from Shakespeare‘s play Hamlet, singing while floating in a river just before she drowns. Ophelia’s pose, her open arms and upwards gaze, also resembles traditional portrayals of saints or martyrs, but has also been interpreted as erotic. 


Art Nouveau – Nature, growth, women.

Primrose – Mucha

This artwork is of a woman smelling a bunch of primroses, with a circle motif of primroses (or a ‘halo). This painting was part of a series called ‘Flowers’. Mucha’s work looks very unique and you can tell it is his work just by the elegant, floral style of it (well, if you know his work in the first place). When I first saw this painting, I thought it was made later than it actually was, it looks ahead of it’s time and different to other paintings, from the 1890’s. Sort of like the Wassily chair I mentioned in my ‘HOW TO READ AN OBJECT’ page.


Art Deco – Geometric, machine aesthetic.

Jeune Fille En Vert – Tamara De Lempicka

Tamara de Lempicka, the leading Art Deco painter, painted elegant women who emanated allure. This painting, along with others of hers, are in a soft cubism style (especially in the hair), which is less abstract than normal cubism, and gives it a modern, machine aesthetic look and the clothes the woman is wearing look typical of the time this painting was made.


Modernism – Expressive, blocks of colour.

The Gate – Hans Hoffman




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