Secrets in Masterpieces
Secrets in Masterpieces
  • Kee Seong Eunhye
  • 승인 2008.10.07 16:51
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When you go to an art museum, what methods do you use to appreciate the paintings?  Do you have any idea how to appreciate them?  If not, how about choosing one of these six methods that will help make your art experience fun rather than boring?  It is not difficult to practice. 

Six Ways to Appreciate Paintings
1. Topic
Pictures can be divided according to the subjects that the artist painted.  Did he/she draw a person sitting on a chair?  Did he/she draw trees and flowers?  Did he/she draw something we cannot recognize?  In this way, paintings can be separated into such branches as portrait, landscape, genre painting, history painting, still-life painting, and abstract painting.

2. Material
Most of masterpieces we usually see are oil paintings.  Oil painting is loved by many painters due to its special quality: convenience of custody and facility of correction.  However, there are pastel, pencil, charcoal and watercolor drawings also.  Depending on the materials, the impression is changed. 

3. Ratio, Balance, Harmony And Composition
If the picture was drawn with proper ratio, balance, harmony and composition, you think that it was well-drawn before figuring out the real measurements.  In this way, you can focus on those things when you appreciate paintings, as in ‘the apple and vase are composed in balance,’ or ‘It is stable because of the triangular composition.’ 

4. Shape
Drawings which seem real catch our eyes at first sight.  However, seeing how painters change shapes in their works is as interesting as when they draw realistically.  For example, the depiction of women in Pablo Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon’ is very different from the actual appearance of women. 

5. Color
Before Impressionism, artists usually used their subject’s own true color, but during the Impressionist phase, they expressed colors which are changed by light.  After Impressionism, artists chose colors depending on their feelings.  In the Abstract era, people started experimenting even more with color.  If you focus on the change of colors from age to age, you can experience more enjoyment.  

6. Light
Sometimes, an artist artificially changes the position of light and makes a work looks very new.  It is a special ability of the artist.  Master painters Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Vermeer were geniuses in their use of light.  When you appreciate paintings, look for the different ways of expressing light. 

These six methods focus on the internal aspects of artworks.  However, they are not the only ways to appreciate paintings.  There are three methods which focus on the external influences on masterpieces: history of art, the historical background, and the artist.  Now, the Sookmyung Times will introduce you to the background stories of four famous masterpieces which are fully related to those three aspects.  Are you ready?  Let’s hit the road to artistic treasures!


The Fruit Borne from His Most Painful Time
- Where Do We Come From?  What Are We?  Where Are We Going?

1897-1898, Museum of Fine arts, Boston




Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903) left his family and stable life and jumped into the life of an artist.  But it was really hard for him.  People knew that he was a great artist but this fact did not bring him wealth and fame.  When he left for Tahiti, he was convinced that he would return to Paris brilliantly.  However, six years later in 1897, he was informed that his lovely daughter Allen had died of pneumonia.  Soon after, his health failed and he suffered financially also.  In December of that year, he attempted suicide by swallowing arsenic which he had stored for such a moment, saying, “God, if you really exist, I will prosecute you for your injustice and bad-temperedness!” 

Before he tried to kill himself, he painted his famous work ‘Where Do We Come From?  What Are We?  Where Are We Going?’ which channeled his passion. 

Usually people look at the painting from left to right; but when you observe this work, you have to look at it from right to left.  The drawing contains three answers to the questions: where are we from, who am I, and where are we going?  On the right side are a child and three women.  In the middle, a young man picks the fruit of experience.  On the left side, an old woman waits for death.  A statue in the background stands for endlessness. 

Gauguin said, “I wanted to protest problems with the root of human beings, the existence of human beings, and the destiny of human beings by painting this work.  From now on, I cannot make any work exceed this one.”

Joint Work of Ideology and Actuality
- Liberty Leading the People

1830, Musee du Louver, Paris

On September 16, 1824, Charles X ascended to the throne of France.  He was the younger brother of Louis XVIII, who, upon the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte and by agreement of the Allied powers, had been installed as King of France.  However, Charles X broke up the assembly, interrupted freedom of publication, and limited qualifications for elected officials.  It triggered a mass struggle which was later named the July Revolution.  In this revolution, government troops were defeated by the citizens due to a lack of soldiers caused by the Battle of Algiers.

This is the background history of Eugene Delacroix’s (1798 ? 1863) ‘Liberty Leading the People.’  Why is his work called Romantic Art?  It is because the goddess of liberty is not real, but fanciful.   Also, this painting vividly depicts the cruelty of war in its corpses and explodes with emotion.  This is Romantic Art.  

Many people think that Delacroix just drew an ideology, and the goddess appearing in the center of the painting symbolizes it most.  However, in a pamphlet published in 1831, Delacroix said he got his inspiration from a young woman who worked as a laundress. 
She had lost her younger brother during the disorder of revolution.  She wandered from place to place looking for her sibling, wearing only a petticoat because she was out of her mind.   However, the brother was found dead, with 10 gunshots in his body.  The laundress decided to kill 10 Swiss soldiers as revenge for her brother’s death.  When she had only one soldier left, she was killed by her last enemy.  This story shows that Delacroix’s goddess predicates not only ideological freedom, but is a real reflection of the concrete conception of women in reality.  

Romantic Art
This was a tendency of art and philosophy which happened all over the Europe from the late 18th to early 19th century.  Opposed to Classicism, which observed strict rules; this new trend placed much value on objectivity rather than subjectivity, sensibility rather than rationality.  Liberal use of colors, brushstrokes, and dramatic themes are features of Romantic Art. 

Birth of an Unattainable Desire as Sunflowers
- Sunflowers

1898,National Gallery, London

Vincent van Gogh (1853 - 1890) was born in the Netherlands and became an artist in France.  His father was a pastor so he was strongly influenced by him.  He tried many jobs but finally decided to become a preacher and started to study at a college of theology.  However, religion turned out not to provide the peace he needed to console his soul.  In frustration, he went to Paris to be a painter. 

In Arles, he called together artists with whom he had associated in Paris because he wanted to work with them.  At that time, he rented what he called the ‘Yellow house’ since there were lots of sunflowers around the house.  During the time that he lived there, he painted many paintings of sunflowers.  

In Western art, sunflowers were often drawn after the 17th century.  It was a symbol of faith, love and piety because every sunflower blooms towards the sun.  In this way, there was another reason why Van Gogh drew sunflowers; he had not yet given up his dream of becoming a preacher.  Maybe this passion created his great work, ‘Sunflowers.’  

A western art researcher, Shimada Norio said, “There is important meaning in the yellow vase and in the 12 or 14 sunflowers in his paintings.  The yellow vase symbolizes the ‘Yellow House’ where Van Gogh wished for a communal life and the 12 sunflowers indicate the 12 artists that he wanted to work with.  Lastly, the 14 sunflowers symbolize those 12 artists, Van Gogh himself and Jesus.”  
(Reference: Riddles in Masterpieces, 2006)

Outlet for His Impression
- The Scream

1893, Munch Museet, Oslo

Edvard Munch (1863 - 1944) had a deviant father and he lost his mother and older sister when he was young.  Those series of misfortunes affected his body (neurasthenia), his mentality and his work.  He drew about life and death, fear, anxiety, solidity and sorrow, using strong colors and distorted expressions of shape.

Munch described the origins of his painting ‘The Scream’: “One day, I was walking along the road.  On one side, there was the city, and under my feet there was a fiord.  I felt tired so I stopped and stared at that side of the fiord.  The sun was setting and the clouds were dyed in blood red.  I felt a ‘scream’ penetrating and skimming over nature.  I could hear the ‘scream.’  I drew this on canvas.  I colored the clouds in real bloody red.  The colors cried bloody murder.  It became ‘The Scream.’”

He drew his own experience on canvas.  In his work, a man is screaming, wrapped up in solitude and fear.  We can understand his feeling through his gesture of putting both hands on his face.  Also, his face looks like a skull which is distorted in the painting.  This work is a fully expressed drawing of Munch’s life being seized with worry and the fear of death during his whole life. 
(Reference: Chosun Ilbo, February 15, 2007)


This was an art movement which developed mainly in Germany and Austria in the early 20th century.  There are two main characteristics of Expressionism; one is emphasizing the theme of the subject and the other is exaggerating or omitting harmony of shape and object/color and composition.  



As you can see above, there are background stories to all masterpieces which are related closely to history of art, the historical background, and the artist.

First is history of art.  To see the stream of art, we need to know the fundamental history of art.  Art is the creation of a new idea.  History of art is a constant attempt to develop the art of former days, and of finding new ways of drawing.  It is interesting to know to how human beings have continued developing one area of our life over such a long time.  

Second is the historical background.  Artists lived in specific periods so we can notice signs of those ages in each artwork.  In many cases, paintings are the only records we have of the clothes, the dishes, the streets and so on of a particular period in history, because there was no camera at that time.  Their works make us understand that past age.   

The last is the artist.  Even though two different artists may have lived in the same age, they have different styles of painting because their interests, backgrounds, and thoughts are different.  Also, artists change their interests during their lifetimes, and it affects their works.  For instance, Claude Monet drew only women in his early years, but later, he just drew landscapes.  If we know more about an artist’s life, we can appreciate his paintings more deeply. 

If you have some background knowledge about an artwork: history of art, the historical background, and the artist, will be better able to appreciate and enjoy viewing paintings.  These four examples that we have introduced to you are just small part of the whole, so there are more secrets for you to uncover.  If you feel bored when you see masterpieces in an art museum and you don’t know how to appreciate paintings, how about doing some research on masterpieces right now?  More secrets wait for you.  

Photo Reference

-Where Do We Come From?  What Are We?  Where Are We Going?

-Liberty Leading the People


-The Scream

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