Harold Edgerton, Stroboscopic Photography and the Question of What is Art

(This is a reprint of an art history paper written for London Art College)


The item for my last paper is the above original 1959 stroboscopic photograph of Harold Edgerton holding a balloon with a bullet being fired at it.  The back has the original information sheet from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  I pick the photograph because it involved a new way to look at the world and because it touches on the questions of what is art.  Edgerton did not consider himself be to an artist nor his photos to be artworks, but many collect his photos as artworks and they are hung in art museums.

Harold Edgerton was an American professor of electrical engineering at MIT who became world famous for his invention of the strobe light (the basis for today’s flash photography) and stroboscopic photography.  The latter is a form of ultra high speed photography using strobe lights.   This image was photographed at 1/2,000,000th of a second.

Edgerton was studying turbine engines in his 1930s Cambridge Massachusetts lab and wanted clear stop-action images of the engines in motion. However, camera systems of the day could not take such high speed photographs because their shutters opened and closed too slowly. A turbine is many times faster than a camera shutter. Instead of ‘clicking’ photos of high speed objects, Edgerton’s new process turned off the lights, opened wide the camera’s shutter and, in the darkness, shot quick flashes of light from his strobe light onto the moving subject. The camera film would thus show a series of instantaneous and frozen-in-time shots of action.

At the advice of a student, Edgerton started taking stroboscopic photographs of everyday objects and revealed a world never before seen by human eyes.  He showed still, unblurred images of things that move far too fast to be clearly perceived by human eyes.  This included speeding bullets, hummingbirds’ wings in mid flap, atomic explosions, smashing glass, the swing of a golf club and the splash of a milk drop.  


atomic explosion


Woman with her pet humming birds

Not only were these photographs scientifically revealing and important– and that was Edgerton’s purpose–, but non-scientists found them fascinating, sometimes beautiful and some were even considered to be works works of art.   His photographs are auctioned by Sotheby’s and Christie’s and exhibited by museums including the Museum of Modern Art.  Many people I asked consider some of his most famous photos to be art.

Though intended and used by Edgerton as a purely scientific device, his novel technique can be compared to historical novel artistic methods of looking at and depicting the world, including the ‘blurry’ brushwork and colors of impressionism, John Constable’s use of color and brushwork to better depict reality, Caravaggio’s use of lighting, pose and hyper reality to depict scenes in a new and visceral way.   Some stroboscopic photos reveal the subject in a series of snapshots, closely resembling Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.  (See the later shown Edgerton photo of a tennis player and Elliot Elisofon’s 1952 stroboscopic photo of Marcel Duchamp descending stairs).  

All these novel techniques expand our minds and view of the world, give us more information about the subjects and give us new aesthetic experiences.  The novelty alone produces an aesthetic and emotional reaction (sometimes good, sometimes bad).  Edgerton said the photos often revealed unexpected results and details.  Science– and Edgerton considered his photos to be science– can expand our minds and give us wonder similar to art.  Pure mathematicians often say they get an aesthetic and sublime emotional response to doing their work– though they also say accurate results always trump beauty.


Tennis player by Edgerton


Duchamp descending stairs by Elisofon

Not only do many consider some of Edgerton’s photographs to be beautiful, but they often find them profound and inspiring as they reveal a once secret world that happens beneath our very noses.  Many may find the images bring up philosophic topics of time, reality and perception, and perhaps give religious inspiration (‘God’s  details’).  

Others may not consider them art, but still find them fascinating and worthy of hanging on a wall– or at least taping to the refrigerator door.  Some may call them eye candy not art, but, as I say about movies, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be entertained.  I think Edgerton’s photos are fascinating, but more eye candy than art. Though I also know art is subjective and if a viewer considers them metaphysically and emotionally profound, I won’t argue with them.

What is particularly interesting is Edgerton firmly called himself a scientist not an artist and, while he no doubt found many of the images striking and even beautiful, did not consider them artworks.  He said “Don’t make me out to be an artist.  I am an engineer. I am after the facts. Only the facts.”   

If people call his photos artworks, it had nothing to do with his intent or design.   In fact, I bet he would have said that, as a scientist doing scientific tests, thinking about about making them artistic would be dangerous.  Predetermined results, aesthetic aims, trying to get final results that are pretty and pleasing to the senses and emotions makes for bad science.  That some of the photos came out aesthetically pleasing and would look nice hung on a wall were fine, but Edgerton thought the aesthetics to be beside the point and the focus on it dangerous to his work.

Further, not all of this photos are considered ‘art’ and this gets into the nature of why people consider some things art and other things not.  Some of this photos are fairly ugly or mundane, if still fascinating. I picked the 1959  photo in part because it is not terribly attractive. Interesting but not ‘beautiful.’

I showed a friend two Edgerton photos: his famous milkdrop photo (shown below) and this original 1959 photo.  She said the milkdrop photo was art, but not the 1959 photo.  They are both similar high speed photos, so how is one considered art and one not?  Because one was ‘beautiful’ or aesthetically pleasing to her taste and the other was not.  Her response was immediate. She didn’t have to mull it over or do research.  Is the definition of what is art this superficial?  Or was she mistaking eye candy for art?  Is her seeming superficiality and gut emotional reaction an example of why Edgerton, the scientist doing scientific work, had a clinical distaste of the word artist and art?


Edgerton’s Milk drop

As discussed in my earlier papers on Renoir,  Kandinsky and the article on neuroaesthics, some neurobiologists believe that our aesthetic and emotional reactions to art and nature is in major part based in hard wired neurological reactions to basic qualities.  The viewer’s wonder, awe and attracted attention at the novelty of the above image is natural and evolutionary, as is the emotional pleasingness of the symmetry, colors and ‘texture.’  The neurobiologists would say it is natural that the simple, balanced milk drop photo is more aesthetically pleasing than the dark, muddled 1959 photo.

While it was a scientific device for Edgerton, other photographers intentionally used his high speed techniques for artistic purposes.  Famed Life magazine photographer Gjon Mili was the first photographer to use the techniques for aesthetic purposes.  All modern art photographers who use flashes have Edgerton to thank.


‘Woman in raincoat’ (1941) by Gjon Mili

Edgerton was no dummy (MIT professors rarely are) and made high quality prints of his most beautiful images and sold them as signed limited edition works.  These are what are sold at auction and displayed in museums.   Whether or not this was a jaded money grab can be debated.  He may have thought the photographs neat looking and, as a well known promoter of science to the general public, was happy to fill the public’s need for scientific eye candy.

Though not pretty, the 1959 photograph has value amongst some collectors, not as an artwork but as a historical artifact.  Collectors of antique artifacts and memorabilia do not only collect objects of beauty but objects of historical or other non-art interest. Most of Edgerton’s signed and limited edition art photos were made years after the images were shot, and vintage original examples such as this are rare.  Vintage original photos with Edgerton himself in the photo are even rarer.  The 1959 photo was used as an ephemeral press release by M.I.T. and it was chance that it was not lost or thrown out over the years.  It wasn’t until recent years that press, news and wire photos, some by famous photographers, became collectable and financially valuable.

If not art, this 1959 photograph would be desirable to collectors of science and history of photography memorabilia.  That the back has the original M.I.T. tag on back makes it even more desirable to artifact collectors.

In fact, many collectors of historical artifacts would have no desire for the signed limited edition photos, because they are not vintage.  They are history collectors who want artifacts from the period and might dismiss the later made art photos as reproductions.  Some would scratch their heads why someone would pay good money for a photograph made years after the image was shot.  A collector of American Civil War memorabilia wants a battle flag, sword or photograph from the time of the war, not a reproduction made one hundred years later.  How attractive or physically accurate is the reproduction does not matter to them. For history collectors, age is an essential quality.  

Due to the two types of collectors, the later made art photo and the ‘dingy’ but original 1959 photo have about the same financial value.  One because it is a limited edition ‘work of art’ signed by the famous scientist and photographer, and the other because it is a rare historical artifact showing a rare scene.  One could be displayed in an art museum and the other in a science and technology museum.

Responses versus Answers

To a question, there are two types of responses: An answer and a response. An answer is the correct answer to the question. A response is not the correct answer, but a response or reaction to the question.

While perhaps relevant to the question and offering useful information, a response does not answer the question. It could be said that to a question there is either an answer or anything else (a response).

Question: “What does 1 + 1 equal?”

Answer : “2”

Response : “I’m sorry, I don’t know. I was never good at math. Give me a geography question.”

The “2” is the answer. It gives the correct answer to the question. The “I’m sorry, I don’t know ….” is a response. It does not give the correct answer or attempt to give the correct answer. It’s not so much that the response is wrong, but that it gives an answer to a different, unasked question.

Saying “Are you trying to insult my intelligence?” is a response to the question, rather than an answer. Saying “I don’t have to answer your stupid questions” is a response rather than an answer.

Question: “Johnny, did you take a cookie from the cookie jar?” (Johnny took a cookie from the cookie jar.)

Answer: “Yes, I did.”

Response: “I don’t know. I did a lot of things today. I don’t recall taking a cookie, but it’s possible I might have taken it and forgotten about it. What kind was it?”

Response: “What if I did?”

As shown above, while a response doesn’t give an answer, it can offer information and even unintended insight into the psychology of the responder. The response “What if I did?” neither answers nor attempts to answer the question, but reveals defiance in the responder.

* * * *

Many questions cannot be answered by humans. They usually are unanswerable because the answer is beyond human knowledge and sometimes comprehension.

The following are unanswerable questions.

“Exactly what number of grains of sand make up the Sahara Desert at this moment?”

“In square miles, what is the exact volume of the universe?”

Unanswerable questions can only receive responses. Even if you correctly guess the exact number of square miles in the universe, neither you nor anyone else will know that your guess is correct, and likely neither you nor anyone else will assume the guess incorrect. An unknowably correct guess is classified as a response. Obviously it can’t be identified as an answer, as the answer is unknown.

* * * *

Many questions are unanswerable because the questions are skewed, sometimes misworded.

Question: “What is the best color?”

Response: “I can’t say what is the best color, but green is my favorite.”

Response: “I don’t know, but blue is probably the most popular.”

Response: “Red.”

There is no absolute, objective answer to the question. Any answer to the question is a response. Any pick of color a subjective response. The first two responses offer perhaps useful information, but don’t attempt to answer the question. The response “Red” is also a response cloaked as an answer.

As with earlier unanswerable questions, the responses can give related information and reflect upon the responded. The first two offers information about the popularity of colors. The ‘matter of fact’ answer of “Red” reflects on the personality of the responder.

* * * *

The following are common unanswerable human questions:

“What is the meaning of the universe?”

“Why am I here?”

“What is my purpose on this earth?”

There can only be responses to these questions. Religions and many political and social systems are responses to these and other unanswerable questions. They may present their responses as answers, but they are responses. Calling a response an answer is part of the response.

Much of science is a response to unanswerable questions, often the same questions that religion, philosophy and art respond to. Categorizing living things is a response.

* * * *

Responses to unanswerable questions shouldn’t be judged as answers, but as responses. Considering it is impossible to know the answer, is this response to the question legitimate and reasonable? Is this response a fair way to respond to the unanswerable?

I would classify the earlier response “I can’t say what is the best color, but green is my favorite” as fair. It is not an answer, but a fair enough response to an unanswerable question. As suggested before, I don’t think much of the “Red” as it’s posing as the answer when there is none. The green guy is happy to give you his opinion, but readily acknowledges he doesn’t have the answer. That seems to be a fair response.

I’m an art historian, and in art and collectible authentication, perhaps the number one rule is the expert should never make up an answer when he doesn’t have one. He shouldn’t say he’s 100% sure, when he’s only 75% sure. If you don’t know, you don’t know and, considering no one knows everything, there’s nothing deficient about an expert saying he doesn’t know. Find a self-proclaimed expert who has all the answers and you’ve found someone whose opinion you should be wary of. This should help explain why I didn’t much of the “The best color is Red” answer. If she said “I have no clue” she would have gotten high marks. If she said “I don’t answer dumb questions,” she might have gotten even higher.






While identifying facts and making accurate perceptions are important parts of the human function and survival, the human mind is not entirely about this or perhaps even mostly about this.

To survive and function, the human must do other things such as act and guess in ambiguous and mysterious situations. Many of these functions are not about identifying facts and assessing truth, but making speedy and practical decisions. In fact, humans are in part hard wired to make speedy intuitive decisions in the face of lack of knowledge.

As an example I use way too often, avoiding instant danger is often about how to react to the unknown and unknowable. If a mysterious large shape is moving quickly at you, taking the time to accurately identify the shape (‘gathering the facts’) is the opposite of what you need to do. Get out of the way right now, then worry about identification later. If it turns out to be nothing harmful, say just a shadow, no big deal other than you might look a bit foolish. If it turns out to be a boulder or falling board, you’ve saved yourself from harm or worse. And this is the natural and automatic subconscious self-preservation instinct of humans.

This is just one example of how truth finding is not always the priority of the mind and in fact can get inhibit function. Survival is commonly said to be about erring on the side of safety– as it takes only one time being hit by a speeding car or falling off a cliff to be dead. The key word there being ‘erring.’ In this case, the mind is designed to err.

The human mind has limited capacity and capabilities, and human function can be inhibited by too much information including facts and truths (see How Humans Use False Information and Made Up Beliefs to Produce Personal Achievement). If your task is to move across a room, trying to identify and learn the history and “truth” of everything and everyone in the would lead to you dying of old age before you reached the other side. Humans must actually block out and distort information in order to function. In order to read a complicated passage or do math, people cover their ears to block out noise or tell others around them to quit talking.

And don’t forget that humans are social animals and functioning, thriving and surviving involves interaction with people and other animals that are full of cognitive biases, delusions, limited information and viewpoints, emotions, selfish motives, social politics and order, subjective tastes and irrational drives. Humans survived and thrived as a species because they work as social groups.

Early economists made the fatal mistake of basing their models on the assumption that humans act entirely rationally when making economic decisions. Later economists realized the models had to be thrown out, because they learned that humans do not act entirely rationally when purchasing, selling, investing, valuating and saving.

In short, the commonly voiced sentiment that the human is by nature a truth seeker, and that is its key function, is highly debatable.

Wassily Kandinsky’s Composition VI


Wassily Kandinsky was one of the first artists to make completely abstract paintings.  His 1913 oil painting on canvas Composition VI is an example of his non-representational works.  

Kandinsky is another step in the progression from the previous artists Constable, Renoir and Boccioni.  Constable, Renoir and Boccioni used recognizable figures and scenes, but used new and often abstract techniques to express perception, feelings and ideas.  Kandinsky took it to the next level, dropping recognizable things and trying to express his ideas and feelings entirely through pure colors, shapes, lines, marks and composition. Not only did he want to express his ideas in non-representational art, he felt that was the only way to do it.  

Kandinsky was a devout Orthodox Russian and felt colors and other qualities not only affected the emotions and aesthetic experience but resonated with the soul.  He aspired to have a communion between art, artist and audience, and the act of painting was an emotional and spiritual experience for him.

Europe was in a time of turmoil, of industrial, artistic and philosophical change, and the upcoming World War I.  This affected many artists, including Boccioni, who saw the world as changing and saw the world in a new light.  They tried to express and address the changes in new aesthetic languages.  The old languages were outmoded, artifacts of a world that no longer existed.  A new world needed new languages.  Many artists were as much philosophers and theorists as artists.  As a deeply religious person who saw things differently that the average person, Kandinsky felt he was a prophet bringing people to a new art, language and era. He felt that today’s avant garde understood by few was tomorrow’s common knowledge, and he was a leader bringing a new knowledge and rebirth out of the day’s turmoil.

In previous painting essays I have discussed how neurobiologists believe humans naturally and neurologically react to basic sensory qualities, including colors, symmetry (or lack thereof), shapes, angles, etc., and this is a major part of our aesthetic and artistic experience, along with how we perceive the natural world.  These are the things that Kandinsky worked in.  He was trying to communicate entirely this way, using what he felt were natural inborn reactions to basic qualities,  He wanted to make an art that communicated beyond culture and historical perspectives.  

While Kandinsky was concerned with resonating on an emotional, aesthetic level, he was a theorist and academic and his works involved much academic study, research and planning.  He was a law professor before turning to art, taught art design courses and was a theorist who wrote extensively on how colors, shapes etc created meaning.  He experimented with and tested how colors and other basic qualities resonated with him and, he hoped, resonated with others (Though this shows how his theories and color rules were in part subjective to him.  Whether or not they apply to everyone’s mind and eyes is debatable.).  Composition VI involved six months planning.  It also was finished with him repeating a mantra (‘flood’) to get over a mental block and free his subconscious.  This illustrates how his work was both academic and intuitive.

He compared visual art to music and wanted his art to be like music.  He said music is abstract yet evokes specific ideas and emotions.  And this is true.  Combinations of notes and instruments can communicate ideas such as speed, physical landscape, danger, drama, evil, happiness, joy.  Music can be sad and it can be funny.  And much of this reaction to sounds in inborn in humans. Our reactions to thunder and songbirds, loud low notes and soft high ones are natural.  This is what Kandinsky was trying to achieve through colors, shapes and visual composition.

Kandinsky had synesthesia, where people see or strongly associate colors with musical notes, tastes, other.  He saw colors when he heard notes and heard notes when he painted color.  In fact he associated specific colors with specific notes.  This clearly was an influence on his art and theories, and other artists have had synesthesia including Duke Elliott, Vladimir Nabokov and Frank List.   

Beyond just emotions, he was trying to express complex ideas and stories. Composition VI is about the apocalypse, a giant flood and rebirth– depicted all at once! As with Boccioni, he was trying to show many, often conflicting and juxtaposing ideas and qualities in one work.  The apocalypse and rebirth are conflicting– one is about turmoil, violence and terror, while the other is about peace and happiness.  His work is like trying to depict the “calm before the storm,” but with the calm and storm happening at the same time.  In writing about Composition VI, Kandinsky said how there were many different feelings, conflicting and juxtaposing emotions from the different colors and shapes.  It is telling a complex story with many parts and details.

This painting was a challenge for me– in part because it is so complex, busy and non-representational.  However, when I looked at his other paintings, I did get different reactions and feelings from them, and saw how colors and shapes evoke aesthetic feelings and aesthetic responses.  And Composition VI is supposed to be complex.  It is is supposed to take thought and examination.  Kandinsky even said the painting had three centers.  He also said the meaning and feelings one gets from it change as you look at the different parts and move closer to the painting.  This is comparable to Boccioni’s sculpture where its form changed as you walk around it.  

One way the work is harder to understand than Boccioni’s is there is no clearly recognizable representational anchor.  It is, after all, non representational.   Boccioni’s sculpture was complex and abstract, but it clearly was a running figure. Your reading and interpretations started from this anchor and easy to understand theme. Though once I read about Composition Vi being about the apocalypse, flood and rebirth, that was something from which I could start.  And in fact, once this theme is known, many visitors to a museum may enjoy discussing how it shows this and if it shows it well.  Boccioni is also better understood and appreciated when you know his philosophy and what he was trying to thematically express in his art

The painting certainly perplexed me at first.  But looking at his other paintings and watching a youtube video where his paintings were shown with Schoenberg music gave me a better handle.  I like some abstract art, especially music.  This includes Schoenberg, Gyorgi Ligeti and noise music (try listening to the drone metal band Sunn 0))).  It can greatly resonate with me.  The Kandinsky didn’t, but that’s all subjective and I do understand and appreciate what he was trying to do.  I also have bad color vision, which won’t help.

The painting is valued as an artwork and a new artistic movement.  Further Kandinsky studied and showed how we communicate and perceive things, including emotionally and aesthetically,  through basic qualities.  This helps teach us how all art works, including centuries old representational works.  Even representational works use qualities of color, angle, shape to express ideas and emotions.  And art involves reactions that are beyond the literal and conscious.  Kandinsky’s works and theories help us look at past art, but also how we look at the world and how artist can do things in their own works even when representational.

Though I didn’t entirely get into Kandinsky, some of his works remind me much of Hieronymous Bosch’s works, which I do like a lot.  Bosch’s great paintings on similar religious themes used identifiable if fantastical creatures, but were complex and busy stories like Composition VI and produce visceral, sublime reactions from the audience.  Bosch speaks to the subconscious. He had a way with composition and details that to me is Kandinsky-esque.  And, as mentioned, really all art communicates to us using these devices.  All art connects to the subconscious and communicates feelings and ideas that are beyond the conscious.  That is what is the art.

Renoir’s ‘Le Moulin de la Galette,’ and Impressionism Theory and Techniques

Pierre-Auguste_Renoir,_Le_Moulin_de_la_Galette (1)The 1876 4’4” by 5’9” oil on canvas ‘Le Moulin de la Galette’ is one of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s most popular and impressive paintings, and a fine example of his early impressionist era. It demonstrates many of the aims, qualities and techniques of impressionist painting.

Though regularly portraying beautiful and happy scenes (Renoir famously said “Why shouldn’t art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world.”), nineteenth century impressionism was a radical departure from the prevailing French academy.  The preserver of French art standards, the academy promoted historical and religious subjects, with still lifes and landscapes ranked low. The academy valued formally composed scenes, made with careful and preferably invisible brushstrokes that made the image look realistic even upon close inspection. The figures were to be clearly defined and the colors were expected to be restrained and often toned down by varnish.

Pollice Verso, by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Pollice Verso (1872) Jean-Léon Gérôme. An example of the highly detailed, ‘stuck in time’ style preferred by the French Academy.

Influenced by, amongst others, Delacroix, the experimental brushwork and spontaneous landscapes of Constable and Turner, the outdoors scenes of the Barbizon school and the colorful and candidly composed Japanese ukiyo-prints, Renoir and fellow impressionists wanted to paint different than academic subjects with different looks.  They wanted to paint fresh landscapes, normal people in normal, happy, brightly colored situations. They skipped historical and mythical subjects for contemporary life. Most importantly they wanted a new, spontaneous, realistic way of depicting at the world, reflecting the impressionistic way humans really see the ever changing visual information in front of their eyes. They loved and wanted to portray the ephemeral nature of the world, movement, the changing plays of light, color and shadows on a scene, how light filters through fluttering leaves and dances on the subjects.

Despite the academic standards, the world isn’t frozen in time. Human visual perception involves processing ever changing, limited and ambiguous visual information. The human eyes don’t see everything in focus. We focus on some information, see other information only in the periphery. We get hints of things, vague shapes of things. Far away objects are shadowed and missing detail. We take a second look at things that catch our peripheral attention and they have changed. Light fleetingly shines off a distant shard of glass.  

Pierre-Auguste_Renoir,_Le_Moulin_de_la_GaletteIn fact, such qualities as color, blurriness, angle, balance and placement are an essential and integral part of how we judge things such as distance and movement. In the real world, a quickly moving object will be blurred, a distant object will be shadowy or a different color and out of focus. You can’t read a book page being moved about. You have to hold it still and close. Impressionism more closely resembles real perception, and not the then French academic standard of everything in perfect detail and frozen in time. The academic standard of showing a scene of movement but having everything in perfect detail is oxymoronic. That’s a fiction, not the way things really work with human eyes.

The eyes detect only a limited range of light, and cognitive psychology shows how humans perceive– or make judgment of identify, movement and qualities– subconsciously and automatically from this limited and often ambiguous information. We don’t need to see a perfectly detailed horse on a distant hill to identify it is a horse. From context, movement, general shape and our memories, we can identify a distant horse, plane or bird.  We certainly can’t make out the feathers, eyes and beak on a crow flying in the distance, but we can identify it as a crow.

Further, our automatic interpretation and perception of visual information isn’t just about physical identification. It also involves emotional, aesthetic and even moral perception and judgments. Colors, shapes, composition, blurriness, patterns of light and dark not only allow us to perceive identity, size, distance and movement, but give us emotional and often artistic reactions. We find the spots of light on the people in Le Moulin de la Galette to be beautiful. We love the fresh colors and the natural composition.


Mark Rothko

Prominent University College London neurobiologist Semi Zeki said that great artists were neuroscientists even if they didn’t realize it. He said that artists played with shapes, colors and tones, angles, arrangement and other qualities to elicit perceptions and emotions in the audience. The impressionists showed what basic information was needed for the viewer to make perceptions, and pointed the path to future perceptual and informational experiments, including post-impressionism, cubism, abstract painting and Op art. We can see the impressionists influence on everyone from Cezanne to Picasso to Mark Rothko.

The impressionists had a shared interest in painting landscapes and contemporary daily life and, unusually, painted outdoors– not just the preliminary sketches as with John Constable, but the entire paintings. This required quick work and focusing on the essentials, which went hand in hand with the impressionist view of things.

The natural broad impasto nature of brushwork was conducive to impressionism. Far from trying to hide the brushstrokes as the academy wanted, the impressionists used the broadness and impasto to its advantage. The solid colors, blocks and dabs of color, vague shapes helped mimicked the impressionistic way people viewed the world.

Along with using short, thin, clearly visible brushstrokes, they did not clearly define the borders of the figures and objects. The borders are blurred. In some of Renoir’s paintings, it is hard to tell where a figure ends and another begins.

Color was an essential part of impressionism. Influenced by new scientific color theories from chemists and physicists, Renoir and the impressionists experimented with color and color application. The impressionists discovered that putting colors side by side, instead of mixing them together, gave different color and visual effects. They created the perception of gray not by making gray paint but by laying side by side complimentary non-gray colors that created the illusion.  They also painted on a light background to make their images brighter.  Monet’s ‘Impression, Sunrise’ places side by side the complementary blue and orange in the sky to give a glowing effect.  The side by side color effects, picked up by the eyes but often blurred together from a distance, is best exemplified by the later pointillist works of Georges Seurat.


Renoir’s 1883 Children at the Beach


detail of a Georges Seurat pointallism painting

Friends who often painted together outdoors, Renoir and Monet, further learned that shadows aren’t brown and black as commonly portrayed in art, but a reflection of the color of the object creating the shadow. For example, shadows on snow are usually blue. A critic specifically noted that the shadow on the face Renoir’s The Blue Lady was green. Impressionists avoided black paint, in part because they discovered that it rarely exists in the natural world.


Snow with blue shadows by Monet

Their experiments in color and brushwork were enhanced by new paints. Paints were introduced in already mixed tubes, so they could more easily paint outdoors. Before, artists had to mix their colors themselves. Also, new and often striking colors, such as cobalt blue, were introduced and first used by the impressionists. It caused a bit of a sensation when Manet first used cobalt blue in a painting.

273641B100000578-0-image-a-195_1428100239033Photography was a profound influence on impressionism. Wishing to depict real life scenes, impressionism often mimics snapshot photos, with natural, unposed and unbalanced compositions, people in natural, candid positions, photographic-like angles and figures cropped at the borders. Though Le Moulin de la Galette was composed with Renoir’s friends as models and is a carefully assembled series of portraits, it much resembles a photograph. It resembles a snapshot of real people unaware they are being photographed. As with a snapshot, we see this as a cropped image from a larger scene, some people not entirely making it into the shot.

Further, 1800s photography revealed the impressionist, subjective view of physical reality, In photographs, some things are in focus, others are not. There are levels of visual depth and focus. Light and shadow cast upon the figures, sometimes hindering identification, sometimes creating exquisite artistic effects. Photographers were (and are) regularly surprised at how the final photograph turns out. Further, photography showed that many human ideas about reality as expressed throughout the centuries in art were wrong, The most famous example is that photography showed that standard artistic portrayal of a horse’s legs positions during galloping was incorrect.  Horses aren’t positioned like rocking horses when running.

It is noteworthy that fellow impressionist Degas was an avid photographer and photo collector. His paintings have a snapshot look, in the compositions, angles and that the people are portrayed in natural, candid poses.


A Degas painting with several photo qualities, including angle, cropping and snapshot-like action.

Renoir came from a poor background and was often the proverbial starving artist, and Le Moulin de la Galette shows fellow middle and working class people on their time off. It celebrates their lives and shows the joy and fun it could contain. Along with his other paintings, it showed that he loved life and the beauty of ordinary life. His paintings are filled with friends, lovers and family. Wanting to portray movement and the way people really view the world was both aesthetic and philosophical. Much as with John Constable, he saw beauty in the world as he saw it, not is some idyllic academic contrivance.

As noted in the beginning, Le Moulin de la Galette is an example of Renoir’s early impressionist period. Renoir went through several periods, both outside of and variations within impressionism.

His works from the 1860s most fit the academy’s definition of art, with mythological-like subjects, clear definition, formal composition and fine detailing. By the 1870s, he had entered into his early impressionist period as exemplified by Le Moulin de la Galette. An 1881 trip to Italy with a viewing of the Renaissance masters, especially Raphael, made him change his approach. He left impressionism and returned to a more formal and disciplined style, though retained the bright colors. He later returned to impressionism, but in different and changing forms and subjects than his original impressionistic style. He used the same color techniques, but the subjects were more formal and clearly defined. His final period uniquely combined the formal traditions of the Renaissance with the impressionist colors and brushwork.


An 1866 Renoir, before impressionism.

Today Le Moulin de la Galette is valued for its aesthetic appeal: a fresh, spontaneous, joyful look at Parisian life. It is valued as one of the most impressive of his works. It looks fresh and candid, yet is a complex image with many ‘moving parts.’  It is valued for its theoretical experiments of color and perception, and as a historical step towards later modern art. Neuroscientists, such as Semir Zeki, actively study how impressionism and other artistic techniques affect the mind and human perception. Looking at how we perceive reality shows us how we perceive art, and looking at how we perceive art helps show us how we perceive reality. I even found a website teaching web design that discussed how the color theories used by impressionists should be used by web designers to make websites more user friendly.


Zatista.com article on color theory

Designforhackers.com article on impressionist color theory

WIkipedia articles on Renoir, Le Moulin de la Galette, neuroaesthetics, Semir Zeki, The Blue Lady

Artble article on Renoir’s technique and style

John Constable’s The Hay Wain (1821)

The 1812 over four by six foot oil painting on canvas ‘The Hay Wain’ is one of the English artist John Constable’s works that greatly influenced the French Romantic and later impressionist movements, and helped, with J. W. M. Turner’s works, usher in landscapes as a worthy subject matter.

Constable and his art are dichotomous in our minds.  He was conservative, loved the old fashioned rural life and his landscapes of everyday rural life seem lovely and picturesque to modern eyes.  Yet Constable was a strong willed  visionary with controversial ideas about art. His subject matter and techniques were radical and distasteful to the stodgy British Royal Academy.  He had great influence on other experimenting artists and movements, including Romanticism, impressionism and even the years later abstract movements.  

Weymouth Bay (c. 1816)

Weymouth Bay (1816)

In Britain at the time that Constable came onto the scene, landscape itself was considered a low level genre of art or was used merely as a backdrop for sentimental mythical and biblical scenes.  Landscapes often consisted of maudlin, artificially perfect and unnaturally balanced images of mountains or exotic far away places.  These works were composed entirely in the studio from the artist’s imagination and resemble fairy tales.

Constable strongly rejected this.  He felt that natural landscapes, local scenes depicting local daily life, was an important subject.  Beyond his new painting techniques, this itself was a great departure from tradition.  Though he made the final works in his London studio, he made preliminary sketches in the field and strived for accuracy.  He painted his landscapes as giant ‘six footers,’ giving them the grand importance of historical paintings.  Their large size itself was a statement.

Further, he aspired to paint things as he saw them.  He was a champion of science and scientific accuracy in his works.  He was the first artist to study meteorology, in particular cloud formations, and made endless studies of clouds.  His preliminary sketches included notes on the weather, including sun and wind direction, and he loved that nature and weather changed.  He loved that no two leaves or snowflakes were alike and that a scene looked different hour to hour and season to season.  He considered his own paintings ephemeral snapshots.  He found beauty in nature as it was, not as imagined in the artist’s head.  His paintings included the mud, fungus and rotting posts that he was familiar with having from his rural childhood.    

He introduced painting techniques to give his works realism and that were controversial with the British Royal Academy.   To make things appear as the eyes see them, he used broad brushstrokes and impasto, and mixed colors to depict movement.  To the Royal Academy, brushstrokes were supposed to be invisible and his style made the paintings appear unfinished.


Another radical thing he did was to use natural colors.  The British Royal Academy at the time wanted landscapes to be painted in ‘coffee colors’ so as to mimic the Old Dutch Masters. This is humorous, because the brown tones of the old paintings were due to the toning and dirtying of the varnish over the years and the original colors were likely much more bright and colorful.  Constable did the radical and unapologetic thing of painting the grass green and the sky blue.  He even once put a fiddle on the ground to demonstrate to critics that grass was green not brown.  It says all you need to know about the British Royal Academy that they wanted painters to paint paintings that looked 200 years old.

Along with scientific accuracy and depicting nature as it really appears, Constable also wanted to express his emotions and beliefs, particularly his love of nature.  He felt that the towering realistic skies and clouds expressed emotions and, to modern viewers, the skies give his paintings emotional and dramatic weight.  The paintings are accurate but also full of emotion.  Though his studio was in London, his heart was with the farm and rural landscape of his boyhood.  In the age of the Industrial Revolution and urbanization, he disliked manufactured parks and longed for the rural.  

So for Constable, his paintings were both about scientific objectivity and deep emotional expression. These at first seems to be in conflict with each, but, to Constable, the accurate, scientific depiction of nature was an expression of his emotions, love and aesthetic beliefs.  He philosophically and psychologically aspired to mimic and celebrate nature as it is, and rejected human made artifice in nature and art.

His interesting coupling of scientific accuracy and the emotional attachment and love of nature is shown in his competing  quotes.

“Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not a landscape be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments?”

“Painting is another word for feeling.”

Other quotes show his love of the beauty of nature and disdain for manufactured versions in cities and art.  

“There is nothing ugly; I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may, – light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful.”

“A gentleman’s park is my aversion.  It is not beauty because it is not nature.”

“The climax of absurdity to which art may be carried when led away from nature by fashion.“


Seascape study

The Hay Wain depicts a normal farm scene, with natural colors, normal daily activity and the mud and grime of a real scene.  Unlike the previous paintings in this course, there is no central focus.  It is an objective depiction of a real scene with many things going on  and existing simultaneously.  Everything and nothing is the focus.  The viewer surveys the scene in any way he or she wishes, as if examining a map.

The Hay Wain was dismissed by the British Royal Academy and went unsold in Britain.  However, early French Romantic artist Theodore Gericault saw and championed his works.  At a 1824 Paris exhibition, the Hay Wain was awarded a Gold Medal by King Charles X.  France had many new Romantic painters with new rebellious ideas who saw Constable’s landscapes as a breath of fresh air.  The French writer Stendhal gushed that his works were “the mirror of nature” and Eugene Delacroix was particularly enamored with Constable’s works.  Himself a controversial iconoclast at odds with the conservative French academy, Delacroix was struck by Constable’s free brushstrokes, novel use of colors and the spontaneous depiction of clouds, and reworked the sky on the painting he was working on.

The Romantic movement was a diverse and difficult to describe movement covering different subjects, but was a reaction against the Industrial Revolution, the political norms and the stale artificial order and balance of Neoclassical painting.  It championed nature– real, wild nature– and the artist’s emotional expression.  Unlike Constable, the Spanish Romantic Francisco Goya focused on people, but paralleling Constable he depicted normal everyday people realistically and as he saw them.  Romantic paintings often used flowing broad brushstrokes and impasto and brilliant colors, and these were often tools to express the artist’s emotions.  Much of these things can be seen in and traced to Constable’s works.

His brushwork and colors depicting what the eye saw at the moment can also be seen in the years later impressionism.  Further, his in the field preliminary sketches for his six footers, which are more sketchy and abstract, are often seen as a forerunner of the abstract movement.  While we today see his works as lovely landscapes, Contable, and fellow British landscape and brushstroke and color experimenter artist Turner, are seen as visionaries and forerunners of the modern and abstract painters.  Their landscapes are still fresh and spontaneous to today’s audiences and their techniques still inspire artists.



British National Gallery– nationalgallery.org.uk

Artble.com article on Constable’s style and technique

Wikipedia articles on Constable, Turner and Delacroix

Khanavademy.org article on Constable and lanscape painting


Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes


Caravaggio’s circa 1598-9 145 cm × 195 centimeters oil painting on canvas ‘Judith and Holofernes’ is one of the early examples of his dramatic and visceral religious paintings that helped usher in the Baroque period.  The painting is Caravaggio’s interpretation of the Biblical  story about how the widow Judith saved her people, the Israelites, by seducing and getting drunk the Assyrian general Holofernes before decapitating him with a sword.  The painting is a reflection of Caravaggio’s strong personality and revolutionary artistic vision and the Catholic church’s then new aesthetic philosophy.

Caravaggio was a strong-willed, independent person with a  tempestuous and often violent personality. He led a life of both acclaim and trouble.   He was jailed numerous times, killed a man in a brawl, was badly injured in another brawl, had a death sentence put on his head by the Pope and spent his last years on the run, though painting all along the way.  He sued other artists who he felt copied his style and was said to be difficult to get along with.  His strong and dark personality is shown in his art, and, as his life became more desperate, his paintings became more and more sensational.

Caravaggio and Baroque painting went against the Renaissance tradition.  As exemplified by Botticelli’s humanists works, Renaissance paintings idealized its subjects and were based in gracefulness, harmony, symmetry and order.  Caravaggio didn’t idealize his subjects, but instead made them realistic, often showing bruises, scratches and wrinkles.  He was influenced by the realism of Northern European art.  Further, his religious scenes were sensational, immediate and often imbalanced, showing realistic action.   His scenes were snapshots from the most intense moments of the events.  His models were people from the streets, and the model Judith likely was a well-known prostitute.  Unorthodoxically, he did not make preliminary sketches, but painted directly from the models, drawing outlines in the paint with the end of his brush as he needed.  This technique and that his figures were so realistic and unidealized was controversial to many fellow artists.

Caravaggio lived at an opportune time for his artistic vision.   The Catholic church was changing their aesthetic philosophy, wanting religious paintings that emotionally connected with the parishioners.   Further there was much construction going on, with a need for many murals and artists.   

Caravaggio’s paintings were a sensation at the time due to their realism, immediacy and emotional directness.  Caravaggio had great success, but not without controversy.  The church enjoyed his paintings, but sometimes felt he went overboard in the violence and realism.  Still, even the paintings that were rejected were bought up by wealthy collectors.  Often called Caravaggisti or Caravagesques, other artists mimicked his style, and Caravaggio was an influence on such great painters as Rubens and Rembrandt.

Caravaggio was famous for use use of chiaroscuro and tenebrism, which helped with the drama and emotions of his subjects.   Chiaroscuro uses shading to give the figures a three-dimensional effect.  Tenebrism makes large areas  black, which focuses the viewer’s attention of the desired figures and action.  Along with the realistic and often gritty depictions of humans, these two techniques brought the scenes to life and made the audience emotionally connected to the familiar Biblical scenes.  Even today’s audiences are emotionally connected to the scenes.

Judith Beheading Holofernes has for centuries been a regular subject for artists, including in paintings, sculptures and even stained glass.  It was a subject long before Caravaggio and is still today.

Though Judith is considered by Christians to be an important and brave heroine, her portrayal in art had varied and developed over time before Caravaggio’s treatment.   She was originally portrayed as an entirely  wholesome Mary figure, sometimes praying, but was later developed into more of an ambiguous Eve– a heroic but somewhat fallen and sexualized figure.  Still, many of the art works before Caravaggio, and even after, showed her as stoic and aloof,  removed from the dirty deed.  The scenes are often cold, bloodless and sanitized in a highly stylized way.  They come across more as icons than realistic depictions.   

Caravaggio_Judith_Beheading_HolofernesIn Caravaggio’s version, he makes the scene immediate and dramatic using many techniques.   Unlike many before or after after the decapitation versions, he shows the moment of the decapitation, the sword half through the neck and blood spurting onto the white sheets.   Holovernies is screaming out, his body contorted, one hand desperately clutching the sheets.   Judith’s face shows both determination and disgust at what she is doing, perhaps having mixed feeling.  Behind her, her maid is full of anger and vengeful bloodlust, firmly holding the bag for the head.   

Judith is by definition the center of the story and scene.  She is the first name in the title and the protagonist of the Biblical story, something the audience of the time and was well aware of.    In the painting, she is shown as the central figure in that she she is most brightly lit, the only one entirely (laterally) in the scene, raised above the others and she is the one holding the weapon and performing the deed.  However, Caravaggio does include the others as key characters, which was often not the case for this subject.   In many earlier and later paintings of the scene, Judith was nearly the entire focus, with the severed a minor ornament or afterthought.  In some depictions you have to look hard to find the severed head.  Caravaggio has all three as integral actors of the action scene.  It is not a posed shot, but a snapshot of ongoing action.

The large size of the painting gives the scene power and presence, and the horizontal length makes it an action scene.  

This chiaroscuro and tenebrism makes the scene jump out at you and focuses on the action.  The surrounding darkness gives it a dark mood, and also give the theme of Judith sneaking in from the dark.  Western viewers tend to read text and pictures from left to right, so we see Judith and her maid sneaking into kill him.  That Holofernes is not entirely in the scene and the maid is cropped as she is entering the scene give the sense of action and movement, like a photographic snapshot.

Unlike the balanced Renaissance paintings, the figures are not balanced.  This makes it seem like a realistic scene, not unlike one of Caravaggio’s real life brawls, with the two women rushing in and ganging up on the single foe.

There is a shallow dark background  and a spotlight on the action.  This focuses attention and give drama, like actors spotlit on a darkened stage.   

In the inky background is a blood red cloth, a billowing banner of victory and glory, but also of bloody murder.  Judith herself is draped in both virginal white and red, symbolizing the Eve-like dichotomy.  In an earlier version, Judith is bare breasted, suggesting she had just left the bed and slept with the General.  She is strong and determined, with her sleeves rolled up, but she also keeps the dirty deed at arm’s length, a sign of her distaste and repulsion for the job.  The mixed emotions and symbols makes her complex and ambiguous, unlike the many other single-minded, one-dimensional  caricatures of her in earlier paintings.

It is noteworthy that many believe that Caravaggio saw the public beheading of Beatrice Cenci, a young woman who helped killed her insenstous father in a controversial and sensational case.  This historical footnote not only accounts for the realism in the beheading of Holofernes but perhaps says that there may have been mixed emotions about beheading.   Many at the time thought the beheading of Cenci was unjust, as she was a victim too, but the Pope said she must be killed.

People today value this painting for many reasons.  As with the original audiences, we enjoy it as an as immediate and visceral telling of a famous Biblical story.    It is fascinating to compare it to other depictions of the event, before and and after.  There are many takes on this story, showing many different views of Judith.   It is valued as a landmark in art, a departure from the Renaissance and the beginning of the Baroque period.   It is valued as a great influence on later art, including today’s.  The work is imitated, often satirically, today.   You see the tenebrism and the spotlight effect in many of today’s movies and photography.

Wikipedia articles on Caravaggio, Beatrice Beheading Holofernes and Beatrice Cenci