How to do visual (formal) analysis in art history

– [Steven] We’re in the
National Gallery in London, standing in front of Giovanni Bellini’s the Madonna of the Meadow. This is a Renaissance
painting from Venice. But we wanted to talk about it, as a vehicle to highlight
the tools of visual analysis. – [Beth] So here’s what
we’re not gonna talk about. We’re not gonna talk about iconography, how this painting fits in
with the history of paintings of the Madonna and Child. We’re not gonna talk about the
symbolism that we might see in some of the animals in the background. We’re not gonna talk about the commission or who the patron was. – [Steven] We’re not gonna
talk about the political, social, or economic context in
which this painting was made. Instead we’re gonna focus
on the things we can see. So we’re gonna talk
about scale, composition, pictorial space, form, line, color, light, tone, texture, and pattern. – [Beth] Let’s start
with the issue of scale. So here we can talk about
the scale of the painting, and the scale of the figures, and what we see in the painting. – [Steven] Well, we’re in
a gallery with paintings of all different sizes, there
are very large altar pieces, and there are some very
small paintings as well. This is a moderately sized painting, and that changes where we stand in relationship to the painting. When you stand in front
of a very large painting, you tend to stand back,
we want to take it all in. Whereas when you walk up
to a very small painting, we tend to come in very close,
to see as much as we can. – [Beth] We see a female figure who’s smaller than life size. – [Steven] But she fills
a third of the frame. – [Beth] And that brings
us to the composition. Not only does she fill
a third of the frame, but the clothing that she’s
wearing, the drapery spreads out across the bottom length of the painting. – [Steven] Creating,
in essence, a pyramid. The base of a pyramid is broad. – [Beth] And pyramids
are a very stable form. We also notice that the
child in her lap is contained within the pyramidal shape of her body. So there is a intimacy that is created between the female figure and the child. – [Steven] The artist
has placed her very close to the foreground, so that she
towers over the horizon line, and is clearly the primary subject. But there is also a
significant amount of landscape that surrounds her, that,
in a sense, frames her. Bellini has created this
pyramidal foreground, in front of a series of what
are really horizontal bands, that move back into space. You see a band in the
foreground of greenery, then there’s a band of pebbles, then there’s a band of tilled farmland, and even the clouds create
horizontal bands in the sky. – [Beth] She’s framed
on one side by trees, and on the other side
by the vertical forms of the architecture. – [Steven] Another way we
can talk about composition, is to think about the
way in which the artist has composed the bodies of the figures. Look at the lovely, gentle
tilt to the Virgin Mary’s head, which corresponds to the angle
of the Christ Child’s head. But I’m also struck by the
volume in between the hands of the Virgin Mary, who holds
her fingertips together, defining an internal space,
that has the same kind of volume as her own head and that of the child. – [Beth] The diagonal
line that forms the slope of her right shoulder
corresponds to the diagonal line of her forearm, and the diagonal
line of the child’s body. So we have this echoing of forms, that helps to unify the composition. – [Steven] Let’s turn
next to pictorial space. – [Beth] We should acknowledge that we’re looking at a flat surface. And that what the artist is doing is creating an illusion
of three-dimensional form and an illusion of space
on this flat surface. Let’s start with the figure, she’s seated on the ground
with the child on her lap. So we have, immediately,
a sense of one thing in front of another
because of overlapping. – [Steven] But in addition,
the pictorial space is defined by what we would call atmospheric and linear perspective. If we look at the sky at
the top of the painting, the sky that is closest to
us, it has deep, rich blues. And as the sky moves back in space, towards the horizon, it becomes paler. Look at the mountains in the distance, how they’ve become paler and bluer. This is a technique
that’s meant to replicate the natural phenomena of
looking at a great distance, looking through more atmosphere. Details become less vivid,
color becomes paler, things become bluer. – [Beth] We also notice a
little bit of linear perspective if we look at the plowed field. Where we see diagonal
lines that appear to recede into the distance, that lead
our eye back into space. – [Steven] Those lines
are called orthogonals. They meet at a vanishing point, which in the context of this painting, is obscured by the Virgin Mary
and Child in the foreground. But which nevertheless
creates a sense of logic, and places us, the viewer, in
a particular point in space, in relationship to the
image that we’re seeing. – [Beth] Let’s turn next
to the question of form. – [Steven] Generally,
when we speak about form, we’re thinking about the
representation of solids in space, and it’s instructive to think about the variety of types of form that the artist is representing. – [Beth] Well we have the
natural forms, we have trees, and grass, and fields,
and mountains, and clouds. We also have figurative forms, the Madonna and Child in the foreground, but we also have built forms, we have the architecture
in the background. Some of these forms are
rounded and curvilinear, like the Virgin Mary and
the the Christ Child, or even the clouds. And some of them are rectilinear
like the architecture in the background. – [Steven] Some of them feel very solid, like the figures in the foreground. And some of the form is far more delicate, look at the handling, for example, of the leaves on the trees. – [Beth] Those forms are established just by touches of color
from the artist’s brush. – [Steven] Now form is
often defined by line. – [Beth] And, in fact,
there are contour lines used to demarcate and separate forms. So, for example, separating
the Virgin Mary’s drapery from the grass that she sits on. And we also have places where
we have line on its own, for example, in the branches of the tree. Line is also sometimes
the corners of forms, I’m looking at the line
that forms the edge of the squared turret. – [Steven] Next we wanted
to talk about color. – [Beth] One is immediately
struck by the rich blue of the Virgin’s mantle. But also the deep blue of the sky. And that contrast with the earth colors, the browns and the greens
that we see in the fields around and behind her. – [Steven] There are essentially
three main color groups. There’s the brilliant blue
of the Virgin’s mantle, of the sky, of the mountains. There’s the red of her undergarment. And then there’s the yellows of the flesh, of the fields, and of the architecture. These are the three primary colors. – [Beth] We see white in
the shawl that she wears around her head, and also in the clouds. So Mary is connected with the heavens. – [Steven] Color is in
someways a function of light, and here the artist has created a sense of the broad light of a clear day. – [Beth] The light from the sun seems to be coming from the left,
maybe a little bit forward from the figures. – [Steven] And high in the sky. – [Beth] And we see the
clouds illuminated from above, there in shadow below,
similarly with the Virgin Mary, if we look at her right forearm, it’s illuminated from
above, but in shadow below. – [Steven] And so the artist
has taken pains to create a consistent of use of light and shadow. That is, shadow is always in accordance with the source of that light. – [Beth] Look at Virgin Mary’s face, her right cheek is illuminated, but the left side of
her cheek is in shadow, and we have the sense of moving tones from light into darkness, what art historians
often call chiaroscuro. And this helps to create a form that looks three-dimensional, that appears to exist in space. – [Steven] But light and color are both closely related to tone as well. – [Beth] And tone refers to the amount of light and darkness in a color. – [Steven] And we can
see that in many parts of this painting, we
can see it in the cloak of the Virgin Mary, but it’s
probably most subtly handled in the representation of flesh. Looking at the beautiful rendering of the Virgin Mary’s face,
and the smooth brushwork, makes me aware of the variety of textures within this painting. And the contrast that
the artist is creating between the smooth textures of the flesh, or of the cloth that the figures wear, in comparison to the rough, pebbly surface that we see in the middle ground. – [Beth] Or we could
look at the featheriness of the leaves on the trees
which are yet another texture. – [Steven] Texture’s a
tool that artists can use to create a sense of veracity, as they define different kinds of form. – [Beth] And texture is intimately
related to the materials that the artist is using. Here, we know it’s oil
paint, which is well suited to the depiction of different textures. – [Steven] Let’s talk next about pattern. You might not expect to
see pattern in a landscape, which is filled with natural forms because pattern is the repetition of a form over and over again. Often to create a decorative field. – [Beth] Here, we see ornamentation in the Virgin Mary’s blue robe,
we see some gold embroidery. – [Steven] But if you look closely, there is a soft, organic pattern, especially in the
foreground, in the foliage. – [Beth] We do see the
repetition of leaf forms, and grass forms, that
look almost like a carpet, like a decorative field, than
the unruliness of nature. – [Steven] And one of
the results of pattern, is that it is often in
conflict with pictorial space, with the illusionistic depth
that the artist renders. And even here, it seems as
if that green field stands up a little bit, in a way that remind us that this is in fact a
two-dimensional surface. So by looking at scale, at
composition, at pictorial space, at form, line, color, light, tone, at the textures and the patterns, we have an opportunity to
look closely at the painting. But these are only a few of the tools that art historians use to
discuss and explore works of art.

Comments 51

  • Wow! We we're just about to start this in my art history class. Good timing

  • What differentiation should we make between the illusion of texture here and the real texture that we find in Van Gogh's impasto and the thick paint and other objects in somebody like Pollock?

  • I enjoyed this analysis, wonderful job. As usual, the background voices are a good choice.

  • Mary's hands are like that 'cause she's about to fire a kikōhō to test Jesus's power level.

  • very interesting, thank you

  • Thanks for doing a video on formal analysis–it's an invaluable approach for looking at and appreciating paintings, and all too often gets sidelined by what may be a slight over-emphasis on socio-politico-historical approaches.  Excellent choice with Bellini's "Madonna," and a very thoughtful and thorough analysis–can't believe you fit all that in in under 10 minutes!  Grateful for all your videos!

  • Espectacular video! muchísima precisión.

  • These videos are so well scripted. Excellent teaching, with real passion in your voices!

  • more videos like this!!!!

  • So in depth. Incredible.

  • Thank you. ❤️

  • This was super helpful 🙂 thanks!

  • Glad that I can have this video before my exam!

  • hello to anyone watching this for dr flanigan's medieval art course

  • The baby looks like he's about to fall from her lap. She isn't touching or interacting with him, which is odd.

  • OMG awesome channel! Thank you!

  • This is just a perfect video on how to appreciate art. Really this is amazing. Are there any vids following this model done by yourselves which is stripped of all biographical and historical background? Anyway, many thanks and keep up your great job

  • this is such a great video!!!

  • ………….. thank u

  • This would help me alot with my exam! Thank you guys so much!

  • Now we only need a video on how to analyze abstract art 🙂

  • subscribed….Thank you

  • 19 blind people disliked this

  • Wassup my BC niggas watch this at 2.0 speed for BS Experience Fuuhck

  • What if Jesus’ niggas made a ur mom joke? Lil nigga finna get smote.

  • All the things they're not concerned about are the ones that interested me the most…

  • these guys are nerding tf out. So much info

  • I was skeptical when the presenters dismissed history and iconography. But the analysis of the composition was incredible. Thank you.

  • Watching this for a history class and I am surprised at how much people look into art (O_o) I just look at the painting and decide whether its pretty or not (OwO)

  • The contrast between almost every edge of her blue garment and what is next to it looks artifical. Look at 8:41. The blue triangle versus the red sleeve.

  • Super helpful for my art composition class, thanks! 🙂

  • This was way too complicated for my very simple mind. Like me: painting. Nice.
    You guys: Look at that cloud, it’s lighter and has less detail. Look at how the buildings are rectangular. Look at the leaves. Look at the line of her shoulder, hand and the babies body. Her weird hand pose. The corner of the squared—
    If this isn’t talent idk what is

  • What’s the name of the intro song

  • Thank you…

  • What does that crow on the tree symbolize?

  • Nicely done, Drs. Zucker and Harris! Recommended!

  • This is my fifth year on Academy of Arts, unfortunately I had only one professor who could describe paintings and artwork as these two art historians can. You are rare people, I appreciate every one of your videos, thank you for the knowledge you provide.

  • What if the artist was still alive was like “hell, I just painted it. Wasn’t even thinking about all that.”

  • This channel is a gift to humanity. It aint snobby or pseudo-intellectual-ish, instead the videos have passion and knowledge and respect for the audience and the artform which some channels dont have. Thank you for this.

  • Fantastic introduction to visual analysis! So concise and well done, and just over 9 minutes!

  • Hi! I would really like to know a bit more about pattern and why it clashes with the three dimensionality of the painting.

  • So far in my first year in post-secondary I've written two historical essays, and through no prior association, I happened to watch a video of yours for each, both of which put me on the right track. Great job guys, and thank you.

  • 🙂

  • Okay is it just me or does the guy sound like Mr Jefferson from Life is strange

  • Thanks so much for this video, as a student in the history of arts, (in France, but it doesn't matter) it is very helpful !
    Do you have one that explains how to analyse the first points that are mentioned at the begining ? I have searched on the channel but did not find one.

  • This was incredibly helpful! Thank you!

  • Thank you for the great videos, you two. I have a quick question for you (or anyone in your audience) about differentiating between composition and pictorial space. You discussed the dynamic between the angles in the figures' heads as part of the composition but the orthogonal lines in the field as part of the pictorial space. Both discussions identify geometrical patterns. Is the difference between the two the element of depth? That is, if you were talking about the relationship between Mary and the human figure resting in the background, would you discuss their locations in pictorial space because they exist at varying depths in the world of the painting or would you discuss their arrangement in the composition because they exist at varying places in the scene? Would I be wrong to discuss both in separate discussions, i.e. in regards to separate interpretations? Also, since Mary's eye-line is so much higher than the other figure's eye-lines and she is taller than the horizon, would you say this painting employs the hieratic scale–specifically in a way that exemplifies the presence of a religious figure? I've been fascinated for a long time with Mughal, Ottoman, and Persian miniatures and often find in them both radical manipulations of hieratic scale and repetition of color create what seem like obvious spectrums of holy/important figures–perhaps not unlike this Bellini painting.

  • absolutely brilliant! Coming from a background in cultural history, I usually find myself more drawn to the context surrounding works of art, rather than technical analysis. this is super helpful for me!

  • Wow this was so helpful thank you!

  • How does ones brain comprehend all this? Great video btw~

  • I like how she says "diagonal" 🙂

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