Art Appreciation

When I ask students to analyze artwork, I always discover how amazingly different their responses are. For instance, the woman in this portrait is either “astonishingly beautiful” or “impossibly ugly,” depending on an individual viewer:



Female students tend to like her looks more often than male students, for some reason. It is also curious that students very rarely see her as powerful. More often than not, they believe she is a victim of oppressive societal forces that persecute her in a variety of tragic ways. Many say she is pointing at the little dog to signal that both she and the dog are objects that are used and discarded at will.

The following piece is always interpreted in a variety of unexpected manners:



Today, however, one student came up with a reading that stunned even me, a jaded old prof. This student believes that the woman is a housewife whom the man is forced to provide for. The owl is the spirit of anti-feminism that does not allow this unhealthy relationship to be dissolved.

This is a writing exercise, so I only grade the quality of the writing, not the readings of the pieces. What is curious is that almost everybody’s writing in this assignment is better than in any other assignments. It seems like engaging with a piece of art creatively helps students shed this stilted, wordy, bombastic way of expressing themselves that they believe to represent a good writing style.

30 thoughts on “Art Appreciation

  1. I think the woman above is ugly.

    As for the 2nd picture, could you translate what is written below it? Is it in Spanish? In which book did it appear? A novel, a folk legend?

    You made my day, or rather night, with the spirit of anti-feminism btw. ๐Ÿ™‚


  2. And, last question so far, have you studied art theory about paintings? Have your students studied it somewhere? I never did and it’s kind of scary to give interpretations without knowing anything about it.


    1. I have studied a lot of stuff. ๐Ÿ™‚ But for the students, this is simply a writing exercise. I need to get them to write by any means possible, and this is a surprisingly productive exercise.


        1. I remember this great course on Western painting that I took. Every piece of art in this course depicted women who have my exact body type. This is was very enjoyable. ๐Ÿ™‚

          But I can’t say I ever saw a single textbook or anything like that.


  3. Well I think the first painting (and the woman) are really quite beautiful. I love her hair and dress. So I guess that makes me an undergraduate female. ๐Ÿ˜‰ The second painting reminds me of some of the artwork by William Blake. My first thought was that this was a depiction of Hephastus and Aphrodite.


    1. I really love this portrait, too. Many students have this obnoxious tendency to refer to her as “a girl.” Given that the Duchess was 33 when she posed for the portrait (which is something that I mention in the lecture), this is a very weird thing to do. If she is a girl, then I guess so am I. ๐Ÿ™‚


      1. My first read of the portrait was this woman was important (because she was painted), maybe not in her own right, but she definitely wasn’t a powerful man’s mistress (because those portraits tend toward mythological nakedness).

        Upon image googling, apparently the 13th Duchess of Alba was married to the wealthiest duke in Spain at the time and Wikipedia describes her as eccentric.

        In the portrait her gaze is far too self possessed to be young or powerless. She looks like she’s ready to tell someone what to do, even if it’s just the dog (going by her body language).

        Portraiture is amazing when it’s done well.

        The second image just looks like a bodice ripper cover shoot gone comically wrong. Old timey 50 Shades of Grey.!


  4. An art historian recommended a book to me when I was writing about art. It’s called “Look” — here’s a link to it on amazon:

    The book has been helpful to me when trying to figure out how to write about art. (I know that is not the point of your post, but I figured I’d pass it on to your reader who seemed to want to know where to look for such a text.)


  5. It seems like engaging with a piece of art creatively helps students shed this stilted, wordy, bombastic way of expressing themselves that they believe to represent a good writing style.

    I thought Spanish prose was supposed to be wordy and bombastic.


  6. Iโ€™m glad that your students appreciate art unlike some neo-liberal bureaucrats such as the new emergency manager for Detroit, Kevyn Orr, appointed by the Republican Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, in March of this year to deal with the municipalityโ€™s estimated $18 billion in long term debt which is far beyond the financial capacity of a city that is expected to run out of operating cash this year. He has asked for an appraisal of the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts (owned by the city) last week after the many artistic masterpieces had been re-designated as โ€œnon core assetsโ€. This reminds me of Oscar Wildeโ€™s comment about โ€œthe man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.โ€

    The point Iโ€™m mentioning this situation is one of the items expected to draw attention in the prospective sale is the Detroit Industry fresco cycle by Diego Rivera. For a Marxist who believed that art should be brought to the masses by way of murals, I wonder what he would have thought if the pieces that he considered the best of his career would end up gracing the walls of some plutocratsโ€™ private collection. A bit of irony here but sad for those who enjoy art such as your students.


    1. Jesus. This is too low even for Republicans. Peddling off the artistic legacy like it’s some useless junk. Who does this idiot think he is to squander the state’s treasures in this way???

      I’m absolutely appalled.


  7. Also, I just wanted to say that I have also fund that the arts tend to engage students. I always incorporate relevant paintings, pieces of music, or examples of the performing arts in my courses. And on those days, the discussion is intelligent, lively, and electric. It really surprises that art history is a dying major at most institutions (including mine.) I think it’s such a wonderful field…. I actually sometimes fantasize about going back for a second PhD in Art History. ๐Ÿ˜‰


  8. The ability to actually stop, look, think and take in is lost to most people, who want to hurriedly come up with an answer to show they are socially adept.


  9. “Female students tend to like her looks more often than male students”

    The males students’ attitude might be influenced by the new aesthetic which equates female beauty almost entirely with ั€rะพn star attributes. I remember much broader and elastic standards from my undergraduate days and now. Young men (and women) seem now to be trained to equate beautiful with ‘hot’.

    As for the rest I don’t know enough about the language of portraiture in general or in Spain at that time to be able to interpret how powerful she was on her own (Spanish women at that time had a lot more rights and ability to gain power than for example English women but still….)


  10. Goya’s duchess of Alba, I prefer her naked on the divan ๐Ÿ™‚ or on her white dress and yellow coat lying on the divan. She looks true to herself in those paintings.

    The second image reminds me of Allan’s poe the Raven. Not sure it’s the same epoque but I bet it is. Enlightenment time!


      1. Oh, It’s my favorite too! I love mentioning it to the girls who have seen it somewhere but don’t remember or didn’t realize at the time it’s a masturbation scene ๐Ÿ™‚


        1. I don’t think anybody can masturbate in this position. ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ Unless her arm is three times as long as the other one and uncommonly strong.

          Of course, there is no reason to suspect the author of understanding female physiology. ๐Ÿ™‚


          1. Oh, artists don’t always like to leave things too clearly ๐Ÿ™‚
            The key for me is the blissful expression on her face. OK It’s always up to the interpretation of the viewer. And besides it has created the desired effect for me ๐Ÿ™‚


            1. That’s the most important thing. ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚

              On a serious note, this is what I struggle to get my students to see: who cares what the author meant or intended? What matters is what you are getting out of this work of art!


  11. She looks like a doll to me. Something about her face, her pallor, her incredibly thick, curly hair, the big bows on her dress and in her hair, her tiny hands and the stiffness of her posture all give me that impression. It’s probably also the smallness of the picture, though, such that even when I click on it and enlarge it I cannot see her face very well. Perhaps if I looked at it life-size, and could see her expression and her eyes better, she’d look more like a real person to me.

    Her posture looks commanding to me, though, even if her outfit and tiny dog are somewhat comical.

    And I think she is lovely. Her hair astonishes me: so thick, so wild.


  12. Her hair is messy, but not in a way that happens to a woman. This is a nurtured, cultivated mess. It sits awkwardly on her head and frames an expression that seems to be asking for approval.


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