Controlling the Viewer
Realism vs Impressionism

he difference between these two fundamentally different artistic techniques is analogous to aspects of our visual-perceptual mechanism. We "focus" on what grabs our visual attention. The focus is seen in detail (realism) while everything outside of the focus is blurry (impressionism).

Actually it's not "blurry" ... it's "unattended" by consciousness. In order to identify an item as blurry, we must attempt to focus on it and then fail to do so. We then pronounce it to be blurry. But if you attempt to focus on that which is presently "out of your eye's focus", it will become "realistically in focus".
Arnofini Marriage - Jan Van Eyck
Van Eyck - See exactly what is there.

Realism (especially it's 20th century incarnation, photo-realism) is a failed idea as we shall shortly see. It's direct counterpart (19th century impressionism) is also a failed concept. On the one hand we have a camera focus set to infinity

... and on the other ... set much too close.

Haystacks, End of Summer, Morning Effect 1891
Monet ... See whatever you wish to see.

"Art" is selective not all inclusive as in the above examples. A master work of art has a center, a locus of realism, around which there is at least a partial blurring of reality in order for the artist (qua philosopher) to show his selection of what is worthy of being contemplated.

Do I mean that the above works are bad works?

Emphatically no. I mean that they fail in this one narrow aspect of qualifications possessed by great works of art. I would estimate that one might make up about a dozen such categories that would cover about 99% of the value contained in an artwork ... grade the work on a 1-10 scale in each ... add up the scores and divide by the number of categories. This will give you a reasonable "greatness score".

No painting I know of excels in all categories. Some are contradictory. For instance, A truly great painting should have a single "main" focus for the viewers attention. However, how could one accomplish this in a group portrait like Rembrant's "Nightwatch"?

The quickest definition of a great work of art ... without going into detailed categories ... was given by Leonardo DaVinci. He said that an artist must be able to paint the thing represented, i.e. if an artist clearly wants to paint a squirrel and the resulting representation is an embarrassment ... then the artist is a failure. Of course this will not grade the fundamental attribute of complexity of subject matter.

Obviously, there must be some adjudication involved in evaluating a well drawn apple and a not-so-well drawn "School of Athens"-type painting. Like high diving, the score must take into account difficulty as well as execution.

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892-93) This is perhaps the best painting I have seen which depicts the concept of focus as I wish it to be understood by the reader.

John Singer Sargent's portraits excel at presenting a realistic face (what he gets paid to do) with draperies and clothing which serve to perfectly support that face while being no more than sloppy brushstrokes so adroitly positioned as to cause the mind of the viewer to accept them as fully rendered cloth when that viewer focuses on the face ... and only on the face.

Focusing directly on the chair for instance, would yield only disappointment to the viewer (and perhaps a sense of being cheated) because that chair is purely impressionistic. So that, in this particular painting, the artist forces the viewer's eye to the face by leaving nothing left to examine closely.

Here is what is meant by "Controlling the Viewer".

You have something to say and you do so through your painting. Then, you direct the attention of the viewer at exactly what it is you have to "show". And if you have nothing to say ... well then ... the viewer might as well look anywhere on the canvas. Everyplace being equally realistic or equally impressionistic means that you are saying everything is equallly important (realism) or equally unimportant (impressionism).

Note here that there are other reasons for making a realistic or impressionistic painting as "for hire" or to explore the ability of the mind to "fill in the details".
To be a great artist, one must be a philosopher as well. One must have something to say about the human condition, i.e. our conceptual characteristic which separates us from all other species. It is not sufficient to love one's craft and be a superb draftsman-techinicain. One must also infuse the work with one's internal philosophical insights. In the above case (Sargent), the subject possesses a "light" behind the eyes, a viable being worthy of contemplation. Certainly he would have failed utterly if her head were replaced with that of ... Alfred E. Newman ?

A Typical Bouguereau The greatest techincian of all (in the realm of oil painting) ... Adolf Bouguereau ... lacked such insight in the bulk of his work (as did many of the French school painters). However, he did indeed love his work passionately.

See many more of his works at:

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