I’ll never forget when I first discovered the nearly microscopic ant perched on a leaf in Gerard van Spaendonck’s Basket of Flowers on an Alabaster Pedestal, one of the magnificent still life paintings on view in In Bloom: Painting Flowers in the Age of Impressionism. I’d been spending some quality time with the works on view in anticipation of training our docents to give member tours, and as my eye scanned the elaborately detailed painting, it rested on this easily overlooked detail. There it was: a teeny tiny ant, hardly bigger than a staple, which I hadn’t seen in the images of the painting I’d been studying for the past year. My excitement grew when I noticed that an even teenier, tinier shadow of the ant’s body was cast on the leaf on which it is perched. Eureka!
I am the first to admit that I don’t always linger in front of works of art when I am exploring an exhibition, and that’s okay. It’s great fun to hop from painting to painting, taking a quick “taste” before moving on to the next work on display, or avoiding those that don’t interest me at first glance. Studies show that museum visitors spend something like 15 to 30 seconds looking at a work of art before moving on to the next. However, as recent trends in “slow looking” and my own experience of sloooowing down to take in the view that In Bloom paintings have to offer, I must admit it becomes seductive once you give it a try. Though the 50-plus paintings are of the same subject–the bouquet–they offer an extraordinary amount of beauty and visual interest when one pauses to explore the details more carefully.
Here are some ideas for extending a quick glance into a lingering look. You might be surprised at what appears before your eyes when you spend time just looking at one of the paintings for a single minute, two minutes, or (I challenge you) five.
Scan the painting. Move your eyes from left to right, top to bottom. Where does the eye want to settle? What pops out of the picture as your eye wanders?
Get close, step back. What do you notice when you are within arm’s reach of the painting versus a few feet back?
Check out that paint. Do you see any trace of the artist’s brush on the canvas? Or, are parts of the canvas even peeking through the paint? What textures do you notice?
Consider color. Spend some time with one of the Impressionist bouquets. There’s a chance you’ll discover the colors of the rainbow in a single painted flower.
Change your focus. As one of our docents suggested, take a spin through the exhibition looking only at the vases in the paintings, another looking only at a single flower in each work, or perhaps the table tops in each vignette.
Seek out details. How many butterflies, bees, birds, and other critters can you find buzzing, flitting, and nesting in the paintings? What about those dew drops that look perfectly poised to roll off of impeccably painted leaves?
Whether it’s an itty bitty critter or an inspired swoosh of color, the delight is in the details. So… can you find that little ant in the van Spaendonck painting? You’ll have to check it out in the exhibition with your own eyes!
Image credit (top): Antoine Berjon (French, 1754-1843), Bouquet of Lilies and Roses in a Basket on a Chiffonier (detail), 1814. Oil on canvas, 26 3/16 x 19 1/2 in. (66.5 x 49.5 cm). Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, Paris, RF 1974-10.