The Magpie, or how Claude Monet has changed our sense of vision

Claude Monet. The magpie. 1868-1869. Oil on canvas.
Claude Monet. The magpie. 1868-1869. Oil on canvas.

Paul Cézanne once said: “Monet is just an eye, but my God what an eye”, and it’s easy to see what he meant. When looking at this painting, “The Magpie”, one is overwhelmed with the sheer variation of colour in something as self-evidently white as a field of sunlit snow. It is less visible in reproduction, but luckily it is now available on the Google Art Project website, where you can zoom in to see all the details (it’s still not the same that seeing the original, but there is a bonus: no museum guards to warn you sternly away the moment you step closer to the painting than their rules allow).

But was it really Monet’s eye that just happened to have more sensitivity to colour than most of us are born with?

I am not sure how literally Cézanne meant his remark to be understood, but one often encounters a somewhat overly simplistic reduction of colour vision to the sensitivity of the eye, and its individual mix of photoreceptors. Had it been so simple, each of us would just have to be content with what we are genetically endowed with — there seem to be no way to change this mix of photoreceptors. Yet, with possible exception of some cases of colour-blindness, the very experience of looking at this painting shows the beholders that it’s not their eyes that usually prevent them from seeing these nuances of colour in snow — because, after all, we do see them in the painting, don’t we? And this means our eyes are capable of perceiving this variation — but we don’t have access to this ability most of the time. Why?  And is it possible to change this?

Eric Kandel writes in his book, “The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present”:

“The brain’s Creativity is evident in the visual system’s ability to reveal the same picture under strikingly different conditions of light and distance. As we move from a brightly lit garden into a dimly lit room, for instance, the intensity of the light reaching the retina may decrease a thousandfold. Yet in the dim light of the room, as in the bright light of the sun, we see a white shirt as white and a red bow tie as red. We see the bow tie as red because the brain is interested in acquiring information about the constant characteristics of an object, in this case its reflectance. How is this accomplished? The brain adjusts for the changes in light; it recomputes the colour of the tie and of the shirt to ensure that those critical identifying features are maintained under a wide variety of circumstances.”

Claude Monet. Rouen Cathedral at noon. 1894.
Claude Monet. Rouen Cathedral at noon. 1894.

Obviously, all these creative adjustments happen well below the threshold of consciousness: one will see snow as uniformly white because that’s what their brain is interested in. And it has a point: it probably is (or at least was) much more essential for survival to recognise snow as snow (as opposed to, say, earth or asphalt) than to get immersed in all the nuances of light and colour. But Claude Monet spent his long painting life unrelentingly undoing this specific aspect of the brain’s unconscious creativity — for himself and for us. That’s what his famous series (his haystacks, Waterloo Bridge, Rouen Cathedral) are all aboutseeing (and showing) how breathtakingly different the same thing looks from one moment to another.

But what is the point of undoing the evolution’s hard work of fine-tuning human brains for perception of colour constancy?

Here is the rub: in presenting us with recomputed uniform colours, however useful this might be in some circumstances, the brain, by the same token, robs us of one of the purest delights this life has to offer, of the pleasure of witnessing, moment to moment, the glorious interplay of light and colours all around us. Could it be, then, that Claude Monet’s work is not undoing the evolution’s work, but rather continuing it, pushing it forward? Now that the immediate pressures of survival are not that pressing anymore, wouldn’t it be grand to adjust the vision system of the brain to make our life more joyful and (literally) more colourful?

Let’s have a closer look at how this system is organised. Kandel writes:

“Vision <…> begins in the eye, which detects information about the outside world in terms of light. The lens of the eye focuses and projects a tiny, two-dimensional image of the outside world onto the retina, a sheet of nerve cells covering the back of the eye. The data emerging from specialized cells in the retina resemble the visual world in the same way that the pixels in the image on your laptop computer resemble the actual image that you see on the screen. Both the biological and the electronic system process information. The visual system, however, creates representations in the brain (in the form of neural codes ) that require far, far more information than the modest amount the brain receives from the eyes. That additional information is created within the brain. Thus, what we see in “the mind’s eye” goes dramatically beyond what is present in the image cast on the retina of our real eye.”

Kandel emphasises that the information on the retina is insufficient for creating an image in the brain, but what’s important for us here is the opposite: it is, at the same time, a much richer information about light and colour than what will eventually reach the level of consciousness. These “raw data” are available to the brain (if not necessarily to the conscious mind). This conclusion coincides with what we have learned from looking at Monet’s painting: I see more colours in Monet’s snow than I would have seen in the real-life snow on the same day. The context of looking at a painting — as opposed to freezing on a snowy day and dreaming of a cup of hot tea or mulled wine — somehow changes the way my brain processes all these neural codes, so that I get a better, more direct conscious access to the raw data of my eyes.

How does the brain recompute these raw data? It seems to be rather a complicated and multilevel process; I don’t know about you, but just Kandel’s list of brain regions involved makes me a bit giddy, and this is just a short summary of what is known:

“The nerve cells that process visual information are grouped into hierarchical relays that send information along one of two parallel pathways in the visual system. These relays begin in the retina of the eye, go on to the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus, continue to the primary visual cortex in the occipital lobe, and then to some thirty additional areas in the occipital, temporal, and frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex. Each relay performs a particular transformation process on the incoming information. ”

One of these parallel pathways has to do with what we see (including colour), the other determines where these objects are located. For now, we are interested only in the first one, and here is what happens when its information reaches the higher regions of the brain:

“<…> it is reappraised. This top-down reappraisal operates on four principles:

  • disregarding details that are not behaviorally relevant in a given context;
  • searching for constancy;
  • attempting to abstract the essential, constant features of objects, people, and landscapes;
  • and, particularly important, comparing the present image to images encountered in the past.”

I have added bullet points to Kandel’s plain list of four principles, because they all seem very important in my quest to transform the vision system of my own brain. To begin with, the concept of “behavioural relevance in a given context”  offers a clear explanation of why we see in a painting what we usually miss “in real life”: the painting creates a “sanctified place” where other behavioural concerns are suppressed by the very process of seeing. I imagine it somehow sends a “top-down” signal to the brain to pay attention to nuances rather than to search for constancy and for familiar objects.

A different — but not less rewarding — change of context happens in the very process of painting, especially en plein air. I know from experience that my colour vision changes perceptibly between the “in-painting” mode and  the “default”, outside-painting mode (it is possible, though, to switch to the “in-painting” mode of paying attention even outside the context of painting, and enjoy it for its own sake).

Lilla Cabot Perry recalls in her reminiscences of Claude Monet (in “The American Magazine of Art”, March 1927) that he once said to her:

“When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact colour and shape, until it gives your own naive impression of the scene before you.”

She also recalls that he wished to have been born blind, and then suddenly gain sight, so he could paint without knowing what are the objects before him. It sounds to me like he tried to consciously switch off the third principle in Kandel’s list, that is, to train his unconscious vision system not to search for “essential features” of objects and people, at least not in the “in-painting” mode. Or maybe that is impossible — I don’t know — but the system can certainly be trained to focus on a completely different range of “objects”: these squares of blue, and oblongs of pink, and streaks of yellow.

Be it as it may, the last principle — the relevance of past visual experiences — gives us hope that once we have seen colours in snow (instead of always seeing it as plain white), the brain may begin to “get” that that’s also interesting and rewarding, and so gradually learn to make more colours from the raw data of the eye accessible to the conscious mind.

This, I believe, is how Claude Monet changes the unconscious vision system of the beholder — and that’s how he has changed our reality.

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On Marc Chagall’s “The Blue House” as commentary on Self

Marc Chagall. The Blue House. 1917. Oil on canvas. 66 x 96.8 cm.
Marc Chagall. The Blue House. 1917. Oil on canvas. 66 x 96.8 cm.

[feature_headline type=”left” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””] “… the strange blue creature that is barely visible inside the house gradually begins to emerge as a realistic depiction of Self.”[/feature_headline]


The contrast between inner and outer, soul and body, substance and showthat same duality Art has the power to overcome — this contrast is one of the central motives in Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence (just as it is a central motive of our lives). Can a painter express this contrast in colour, which is, after all, nothing but “show” par excellence?

This is exactly what Marc Chagall does in “The Blue House”.    

Marc Chagall. La Mariée. 1950. Gouache, pastel.
Marc Chagall. La Mariée. 1950. Gouache, pastel.

“The Blue House” is as it were duality embodied: the house and its surroundings don’t really belong together; they come as though from different sides of reality.

Of course, combining things that don’t belong together is a hallmark of the twentieth century painting, and Chagall was no stranger to this trend.

But “The Blue House” is different: unlike violin-playing goats, houses naturally belong to landscapes (and cityscapes). So where does this tangible feeling of non-belonging, of separateness come from?

It is achieved (almost) entirely through colour: the yellow-green-red landscape versus the monochrome blueness of the house. There are touches of blue here and there in the landscape, but that’s because there are certain insurmountable limits to disintegrating a single painting into two clashing parts, which, apparently, even Chagall could not break. As someone who has attempted this kind of disintegration many times in my own paintings, I am almost sure that he did try to make it work without any blues outside the house — but the painting needed these blue patches in order not to fall apart completely. So he confined these blues to roofs and fences, and made his point by not letting any appear in the sky, even though the overall child-like, honey-and-milk quality of the landscape seems to call for a bright blue sky.

Apart from these patches of blue, the colours on the left are straightforwardly realistic, albeit in their child-like, somewhat too straightforward, way. There is nothing unexpected in this yellow ground, green river bank, the white walls and red foods of houses, and (last but not least) the brownish dog in the foreground enjoying the sunny day. It’s all as it should be.

Vincent Van Gogh. The Yellow House. 1988. Oil on canvas.
Vincent Van Gogh. The Yellow House. 1988. Oil on canvas.

But the blue house? In contrast to, say, Van Gogh’s “yellow house” — which, we may assume, was yellow “in real life” — the blueness of this house belongs decidedly to the painting, not to the thing being painted. We see that the house is bare wood; its “true” colour would be close to that in “The house in grey” (below), from the same year (quite likely, another approach to the same pictorial motive). The blue of the house comes into the painting as though from another world entirely — not from the visible, but from the invisible.

Marc Chagall. The house in grey.
Marc Chagall. The house in grey. 1917. Oil on canvas. 68 x 74 cm.

And the house is not just blue – not in the same sense Van Gogh’s house is yellow; not as a “real” blue house would look like in a realistic or impressionistic painting. It is monochrome (with blue standing for black), without any variations in hue. That’s how we see things in the darkness, when the cones of our retinas don’t have enough light, and only rods are doing the seeing.

The landscape and the house are painted in two quite distinct value ranges, as though they existed in different lighting conditions: the landscape is light, the house is dark. There is nothing unusual in contrasting value areas in a painting; what is unusual here is that both light and dark areas are rich with essential details. Painters generally avoid this, because the human vision works in such a way that we cannot see both sets of details simultaneously:

1-the-blue-house-1918Concentrate on the landscape, and your eyes adjust to its sunlight, and then you notice the reflections in the river, and the grazing cows on the other bank, and the dog.

1-the-blue-house-1917Concentrate on the house, and your eyes adjust to its darkness, and then you see a strange, lonely, human-like creature inside.

We experience this adjustment of vision in real life when we enter a dark house on a sunny day, but we would normally expect the outside of the house to be just as sunlit as its surroundings. Here, it is as though the outer walls of the house, not only its interior, are lit not by the sun outside, but by some meagre blue light source within.

There is an additional effect of this blueness which might not be obvious when you look at the painting on your computer screen, but would be quite conspicuous if you were to look at the original: blues “recede”. This is because, in real life, the farther away something is from us, the bluer it looks; reds, yellows, greens — they all disappear with distance. This effect is commonly used by painters to suggest distance in landscapes to the viewer’s eye, but Chagall does quite the opposite — almost all his reds are reserved for the distant vista, almost all his blues, for the house in the foreground. We know that the house must be closer to us than the cityscape, but this effect of receding blues still works on another, unconscious, level.       

To strengthen the near-split of the painting into two separated realities, Chagall defies one of the major laws of composition and divides the pictorial space right in the middle of picture plane. He couldn’t have known it in 1917 (at least not consciously), but a modern scientifically-minded viewer might notice that if they view the painting as a whole, it’s the left eye (hence the right hemisphere of the brain) that sees the landscape, while the right eye (and thus the left hemisphere) is presented with the blue house. If a viewer spares this painting but a brief glance (as, unfortunately, people often do in museums), the two sides of their brain would, for all we know, go away with two nearly opposite impressions of what is actually depicted in the painting, let alone its overall mood.     

While writing the above, I even began imagining an experiment to check this hypothesis, but, of course, it is far more interesting to know what the painting conveys to an attentive viewer — someone who would spend some time switching between two conflicting views and letting a coherent impression emerge in its own time, as the two sides of their brain try to integrate these two quite different pictures into a coherent image through their (rather narrow) channels of communication.

For me, the viewing of this painting feels like switching between two states of mind: the state of complete, child-like openness to the visible world, with all its richness of colour, and the state of being immersed in my own thoughts, in the dialogue between me and myself; the mind directed outside and the mind focused on itself; vita activa and vita contemplativa. And then the strange blue creature that is barely visible inside the house gradually begins to emerge as a realistic depiction of Self.

Maybe even somewhat too realistic for comfort…

P.S. If I was briefly tempted to offer an explicit interpretation of the message Chagall wanted to convey to the viewer in “The Blue House”, he himself dispelled this temptation with a small detail of “The house in grey”. You might have missed it if you don’t read Russian (and even if you do), but there is a graffiti message on the fence, right in the center. It says, in capital letters: FOOL.  

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On Titian’s “Man with a glove”

[feature_headline type=”left, center, right” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h5″ icon=””]…the magic of painting is in this alchemic unification of all layers of meaning and expression; the essence of co-feeling is in this temporary fusion of minds between the sitter, the painter, and the viewer[/feature_headline]

A portrait is an act of love. It suspends the ordinary boundaries between two people, between the subject and the object, between the body and the soul. It is a state of co-feeling; sym-pathy in its original Greek etymology, but an asymmetrical one: the roles of the painter and the sitter are distinct but inseparable, like yin and yang, like the knower and the known.

I know it’s an act of love because I cannot do it unless I love my sitter in the deepest sense of the word to begin with. At a risk of sounding too biblical, I cannot do it unless I love the sitter as myself. Incidentally, it means I also know that I cannot love a random neighbour as myself; maybe when (and if) I can, I will finally be able to do portraits of strangers.

Titian, quite obviously, could. But at the time of painting this portrait, in the early twenties of the sixteenth century, he was yet to become this universal (and universally sought-after) portraitist we know from the art history, the prince of painters and the painter of princes. So he was painting portraits of friends, of people close to him in age and sensibilities; people to whom he must have felt a natural, easy sympathy as a living human being, not as a master painter or as a sage proficient in universal love; a kind of sympathy one can easily identify with, co-feel.

Art historians don’t know for sure the identity of this young man — there are several competing hypotheses. This uncertainty eerily resembles the enigma of Shakespeare’s young man, but here, at least, one can be certain that there existed one, very concrete and very individual, young man who, somewhere in the beginning of the sixteenth century, was sitting for this portrait holding his glove with easy elegance. The sonnets, for all we know, could have been addressed to different young men, or to none in particular. Shakespeare, this master of creating living, breathing individuals in his plays, gives you next to nothing about the young man of the sonnets and so sets you free to imagine him as you like it.

So I am free to imagine him as Titian’s “Man with a glove”. Of course, this boy is Italian or Spanish (not English and not even Welsh), and time-wise, too, it’s not exactly right: he could have been Shakespeare’s young man’s grandfather or even great grandfather. But he is also young, beautiful, elegant, rich; and he, too, belongs to the age of Renaissance. And in the end, these objective differences and similarities don’t really matter: there is something deeper, more fundamental, that connects this portrait to Shakespeare’s sonnets and their young addressee.

There is a seductive quality in the portrait, born out of two contradictory forces. One is the tangible psychological closeness, the illusion of sharing in his feelings and thoughts, of knowing him. Immersed in the portrait, I find myself as though within this act of love, understanding, sympathy which was happening at its conception. For a brief time, I can be one with both the painter and the sitter, experiencing my own looking at the portrait as essentially the same act as this young man’s looking at something or someone I don’t see, and as Titian’s looking at his sitter in the process of painting. In this safe, sanctified space created by the painting, I surrender my own mind to both of them: co-feeling with the sitter, co-knowing with the painter.

TItian. Man with a glove. Oil on canvas. 100 x 89 cm. ca. 1520-1525.
TItian. Man with a glove. Oil on canvas. 100 x 89 cm. ca. 1520-1525.

I know, even though I am not directly conscious of it, that some neurones in my brain “mirror” the pose and the facial expression of the young sitter as though he were really here, while others react to the painter’s representational choices. And one of these choices is to impose a distance, a separation the sitter from the viewer — the second force that contributes to the power of the portrait. This boy with his glove is completely in his own space, separated from me by the marble pedestal.

The pedestal has Titian’s signature on it — and even as just now I felt myself within the flow of sympathy between the painter and the sitter, this feeling is spontaneously replaced the next moment with being thrown out from this space, the painter putting an impenetrable barrier between me and the sitter. In marked difference with Titian’s later portraits, this man doesn’t engage with the viewer in any way; he doesn’t make eye contact — he looks resolutely elsewhere, at something I don’t and can never see, completely within his space and his moment in time, undisturbed by my gaze.

This tension between closeness and distance, attraction and alienation, love and estrangement, heat and cold — that’s, I believe, what gives the portrait is seductive strength, and also connects it with the sonnets and their emotional roller-caster.

TItian. Man with a glove. Oil on canvas. 100 x 89 cm. ca. 1520-1525.
TItian. Man with a glove. Oil on canvas. 100 x 89 cm. ca. 1520-1525.

Titian uses the distribution of whites in the painting to underscore this contrast: with the background so uniformly dark, it is the whites that play the lead in establishing the viewer’s relationship with the sitter. And here, the whites make two very different gestures. One is the sharp triangle of the boy’s shirt, which points to the face directly and straightforwardly: if you trace its edges upward in your imagination, they will enclose the face. The opening of his coat is like opening of his soul to the viewer.

The other gesture is the graceful, indirect, discontinuous curve which begins at the bottom of the painting, with the cuff on the right hand, goes slightly up and to the right, through the exquisite greys of the gloves to the other cuff, and then up and leftwards, to the collar, and only then to his eyes; the invisible continuation of this curve is the direction of his gaze.

And then, of course, there are hands: the right, gloveless, hand with energetic, direct movement of the index finger and the relaxed left hand, covered by one glove and carelessely holding the other — probably the most straightforward expression of the contrast between openness and aloofness. He is here, and yet he is not. I feel like I am one with him, and yet he is distant.

These compositional devices work, it would seem, at different layers of the painting. The sitter’s own nature with its combination of sincerity and aloofness, simplicity and elegance: the viewer pays attention to the expression of his eyes, his pose, the gesture of his hands as if he were sitting right here in the same room, in flesh and blood. The relationship between the painter and the sitter, with its sympathy and distance: the painter absorbs the sitter, both his outward appearance and his inner world, but he cannot let himself be absorbed (otherwise there would be no painting); the sitter lets himself be lovingly observed, but looks away — he keeps his distance, too. And finally, the relationship between the portrait and the viewer: the time-defying connection established right here and now, as you look at the portrait. So where, in whose mind, does this tantalising, seductive feeling, the contrast between attraction and separation, belong?

I don’t know, and that, in a sense, is the point: the magic of painting is in this alchemic unification of all layers of meaning and expression; the essence of co-feeling is in this temporary fusion of minds between the sitter, the painter, and the viewer.