Editorial Feature

The Art of Capturing Our Attention

Beaux Arts Magazine writer Malika Bauwens explores the different ways facial expressions are used in paintings

Painters are masters of effects and illusion, who use their characters' expressions to convey certain messages that go beyond emotions. But beware of appearances: those seemingly genuine eyes that engulf you, and that expression that draws you into a carnival of color, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hidden meanings. Here we uncover a few of the tactics used by painters to get our attention.

Wow the Onlooker

Take a look at this scene:

Children's Games by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (From the colleciton of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien)

You could spend quite some time examining all the details and looking at each of the 230 characters: a child playing jacks, another who prefers a rag doll, and those playing blind man's bluff and fighting. And have you spotted the little rascal entertaining himself by sticking his blowpipe through a gap? This spectacular work, painted in 1560, is as complex and rich as a Hollywood blockbuster. Pieter Bruegel the Elder certainly learned the lessons of the Renaissance, and he skillfully demonstrates them here, in Children's Games.

Taking a bird's eye view is anything but an accident. Inspired by humanist ideas, Renaissance artists invented perspective, mainly in Italy but also in Flanders. Their brushstrokes created new ways of representing characters where expressions couldn't be seen. And the ideal setting? A party or banquet.

The Wedding Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (From the collection of Detroit Institute of Arts)

In The Wedding Dance, once again Bruegel concocts a real feast for the eyes. People are eating, drinking, and enjoying the music in a scene teeming with life. Everyone wants to be part of the wedding. To make this clear, Bruegel has taken care to cover up the painting's vanishing point. Notice the door at the back of the painting where countless people are squeezed together. The technique had such an impact that centuries later it would be replicated by Asterix creators Uderzo and Goscinny in the inevitable farewell banquet that ends Asterix's time with the Belgians!

Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (From the collection of Kunsthistorches Museum Wien)

Make the Colors Pop

Long before chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul discovered simultaneous color contrast (that would later feature in Georges Seurat's pointillist works), Renaissance painters intuitively understood the key role that color plays in grabbing our attention. They made their paintings vibrant in order to arouse emotion within the onlooker. One artist who did this was Paolo Caliari, also known as Paolo Veronese, who dominated Venetian 16th-century artistic life alongside Titian and Tintoretto. Veronese stood out from the competition thanks to his dazzling use of color.

The Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee by Paolo Veronese (From the collection of Palace of Versailles)

Take a look at the almost-phosphorescent reflection of the robe of the Venetian on the right in The Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee (above). Veronese's secret weapon? A green with a copper neutral acetate base known as verdigris, Veronese green, or verde eterno in Italian. To bring his characters to life and hold the viewer's attention in this complex work—which is over four meters tall and almost 1,000 meters long—Veronese paints light in an almost artificial manner. "We painters take the same liberties as poets and madmen," he declared in 1573 at a tribunal set up following outrage at his treatment of episodes from the Gospels.

Use Detail on the Eyes to Create a Sense of Mystery

When we look closely at a painting, the artist often wants us to draw out a hidden meaning. But what could be more unfathomable than the human soul? To help us gain an understanding, the greatest portrait artists often used facial expressions to uncover their subject’s deepest secrets. Heavy eyelids, delicate eyelashes, shining eyes, sparkling pupils—the care taken over each detail is important because the eyes are capable of transmitting not just an emotion but even a psychological state. See how melancholy is reflected in the expression of Flower of the Fields, painted by Louis Janmot in the 19th century. The eyes of this woman, who sits in a rural landscape with a mountainous background, truly draws the onlooker in.

Flower of the Fields by Louis Janmot (From the collection of Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon)

Giving a character's eyes a coquettish look, or, more cleverly, arranging their body in a provocative way, can also help make them stand out and increase their sense of mystery. An example is that most enigmatic of paintings, Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (From the collection of Rmn-Grand Palais)

As well as featuring that legendary smile, this masterpiece notably creates movement by means of the "twisted pyramid" effect, invented by da Vinci to give the illusion that the character is alive and her gaze is following us around the room.

A Trickster's Body Language

Painters also encourage us to read between the lines. Let's take this fortune teller encountering a gentleman as an example painted by Caravaggio. Rich velvet fabrics, leather gloves, a goose-feather headdress, and white collar and cuffs demonstrate the man's high social standing. His face is also in the light, giving him an angelic air. Caravaggio has portrayed the perfect victim!

The Fortune Teller by Caravaggio (From the collection of Rmn-Grand Palais)

Glances and hands are key in Caravaggio’s work, and create a dialogue between each other. The composition is refined and the characters are shown from the waist up, highlighted by the light which beams down on the neutral brown and gray background. It is left to the viewer to deduce the real subject of the painting: innocence scorned.

The same technique is evident in the work of Georges de La Tour, who reiterates this theme, which is typical of this style of genre painting in around 1630.

The Fortune Teller by Georges de la Tour (From the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Georges de La Tour sends glances racing around the scene and highlights the complicity between the scammers. The old gypsy lures in the victim while her accomplice watches and two shadowy characters begin their assault. The moral of the story: keep your eyes open!

The Look that Says it All…

Look at these rich fabrics carelessly thrown off by the Young Woman Going to Bed, painted by Jacob van Loo in the 17th century. A pearl necklace (symbolic of Venus, the goddess of love) lies in the foreground, and open scarlet curtains serve as a backdrop, as a viewer we’re almost asked whether we should follow her to bed. Although the lady's expression may be discreet, the sense of voyeurism is expressed in a range of symbols.

Young Woman Going to Bed by Jacob Van Loo (From the collection of Rmn-Grand Palais)

The naked body offers painters a starting point for disseminating their messages—and during that time also caused a stir. Painted in 1863 and exhibited for the first time in 1865, Édouard Manet'sOlympia did not go unnoticed. And yet, at first glance, there's nothing particularly shocking about it. The scene is inspired by the Venus of Urbino, a 1538 work by the Italian master Titian. It has the same layout, the same bracelet on the model's wrist, and the same hand position coyly covering the groin.

Venus of Urbino by Titian (From the collection of Uffizi Gallery)

One difference is that in Manet’s version, the heroine brazenly stares out at the onlooker. What's more, she isn't some kind of allegorical muse, but rather an ordinary naked woman, more specifically Manet's favorite model, Victorine Meurent. This is the same woman who sits center stage between a pair of dandies in Luncheon on the Grass, another scandalous Manet masterpiece.

Olympia by Edouard Manet (From the collection of Rmn-Grand Palais)

In the guise of Olympia, the supposed nickname for 19th-century prostitutes, the provocative redhead with jet-black eyes poses in an unmade bed. A maid brings her flowers from a client who we imagine to be hiding behind the curtain. Notice the glowing yellow eyes at the bottom of the bed, it’s a cat lurking in the shadows. This feline replaces the innocent dog who appears in the same place in Titian's Venus to symbolize loyalty. Manet's cat has its tail up, offering a different interpretation. At the time, critics denounced the painting as obscene. In response, a band of artists, led by keen defender of modernity Émile Zola, made Manet's work into a flag. Olympia marked a new departure, that of realism. "I painted what I saw," explained Manet at the time.

Leave us Confounded

Over the centuries, developments in the field of optics, such as Newton discovering that white light actually consists of a prism of colors, made their mark on the work of painters. As a result, the onlooker became subject to a variety of jokes and pranks. It suddenly became all about illusions and deception!

The sad eyes of this life-sized, slightly clown-like Pierrot painted by Jean-Antoine Watteau in 1718 moves the onlooker. Absorbed in his own thoughts, he looks at us without truly seeing us. But what is this famous figure from classic Italian commedia dell'arte theater really telling us?

Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles by Antoine Watteau (From the collection of Rmn-Grand Palais)

To try to decipher this masquerade, we must look at the characters moving below, to whom our Pierrot remains indifferent towards. They are also characters from the commedia dell'arte: on the right is Isabella, her lover Leander, and Il Capitano, that devilish braggart in red. Their body language suggests they are plotting some dirty trick. Are we witnessing a tragedy rather than a comedy? On the left the laughing doctor is riding a donkey. The animal's large eye shines with a striking humanity. Could it be our conscience calling? You decide!

Malika Bauwens is a writer at Beaux Arts Magazine

Words by Malika Bauwens
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