How To See A Painting

Cestello Annunciation / Sandro Boticelli / 1489 / Tempera on Panel

First, go to a museum. Enter a gallery. There should be paintings on the walls; look them over. Are there any that draw your feet closer? Surely there must be at least one. Do not resist — go to it.

Now look. Look at it like you looked at your brother: your unblinking eyes fixed on his, determined not to be the first to look away. The painting is your opponent: treat it accordingly. Document every detail. Note its frame, its size, and its colors. Ask questions of it. Entertain answers to those questions long enough to realize their inadequacy. Look at the painting as though it conceals a secret. Your only weapon is your obstinate attention. Wield it well.

Soon you will realize that you can’t possibly win. The painting has beaten every would-be opponent since its first day in a gallery. And before that it bested the artist, who had stared until she could bear it no more. Prolong your defeat a little longer and look at the painting now as if you were the artist. A single detail hides hours spent painting and scrutinizing and re-painting this portion of the canvas. The painting itself hides a room, where an artist went, day after day, to make what you now see before you. Look with this in mind. As with the artist at the end of a day painting, you will reach a point where your fondness fades and you want to be free from your work.

Look away. Wander around the gallery. The other paintings are worthy of your attention too; give them some. But do not give yourself to them. Flirt, but chastely: they are not yours and you are not theirs. Notice the red in that painting, the way that one looks like a photograph, how the light falls in the gallery. Soon you will be back before your painting. Prolong the separation a bit longer and read the description of your piece.

Now look again. Don’t content yourself with a single vantage point. Like a precious stone, a painting only reveals its full glory when seen from every angle. Move around. Find a point in the gallery where the painting shines its particular light. Stay there. People will start to notice you. Good. Then people will start to notice what you’re looking at. Even better. Stay past when people apologize for walking between you and your painting; stay until they don’t see you anymore, until you become part of the furniture of the gallery, like the guard ropes around the paintings or the guards themselves, unseen until a visitor brushes up against a rope.

You are invisible. Only now can you know what it feels like to be passed over by the hordes, or pointed at and then forgotten. As you stand with your painting, as its fellow, you are now privvy to what was a mystery before. Attention is no longer a weapon to wield, but the hand you extend in friendship. And as with a friend, nothing needs to be done. You can be content to stand in its presence. Before you believed the painting held a secret; now you know that the painting itself is the secret.

Look just a little more. In a few moments you will begin to wonder whether it is you or the painting who is looking. Then, flee!