Art Theory as Visual Epistemology II

Art Theory as Visual Epistemology II

Session chair:

Harald Klinke, Ph.D., Lecturer, Department of Art History, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany,



S16 Art Theory as Visual Epistemology II: History

Making the idea visible: Drawing as an epistemological medium in Bellori’s Lives

Elisabeth Oy-Marra, Ph. D., Professor

Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz, Germany

Giovanni Pietro Bellori is usual known as one of these authors of art theory and life writing, whose aim is mainly to emphasize truth in art. In his famous academic speech, L’ Idea, delivered 1664 at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome and afterwards published together with his Lives of the modern painters, sculptors and architects in 1672, as it is known he relies on platonic and neoplatonic ideas about art claiming that the truth of an image depends on his capacity of the artist to build an idea of the image in his mind before. But this approach is not limited to his academic speech, but we find it in his Lives as well, were Bellori judges the images he describes very strictly by their truth. Most impressive are the descriptions of Caravaggio’s pictures, which in his opinion are merely made of sensational impressions, the painter had before his eyes. For Bellori, the production of true images has to go further and require therefore a serious study of nature instead. The artist is therefore due to acquire a true knowledge in order to produce true images, which not only seduce the eye quickly, but represents the result of his studies. It goes without saying, that these images pretend also an attentive and skilled beholder.

Bellori’s approach to the truth in art was until now mostly interpreted from the point of view of the Idea, in German art history especially in the tradition of Erwin Panofsky, although American authors such as Elizabeth Cropper offered a new approach towards the understanding of Bellori’s famous speech. Nevertheless nearly nobody asked about Bellori’s estimation of the different media in play and their relationship to truth. Bellori, in fact, emphasizes very much on drawing as media, which represents the effort of artists to build themselves an idea of something. It is interesting that he describes those artists he admired the most, like Domenichino or Andrea Sacchi, as artists who were mostly occupied with thinking and drawing, which he sometimes treats as equivalent.

Astonishingly, in his new book Le plaisir du dessin (Paris 2009, German translation Vienna 2011) Luc Nancy offers a similar approach claiming among other things that drawing is the shape of thinking. Therefore, this paper shows Bellori’s understanding of drawings and how it serves as an epistemological medium either to acquire knowledge or to make it visible.


History, biography, translation, interpretation?

The literary theory of art and the nature of portraits

Martin Olin, Ph. D.

Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden

A popular genre of painting since the Renaissance, portraiture was seldom given any serious consideration by art theorists. Theories of classicism did not offer much of use, the combination of the best body parts from a group of beautiful people not being a method suited for the genre. The concept at the core of Mannerist theory could not be adapted without conflict to the basic demands of portraiture, as demonstrated by Michelangelo in the Medici Chapel. From a Platonic point of view, a documentary portrait was the obvious case of the undesirable secondary image, “the copy of a copy”. When contemplating the relationship between sitter and image, theorists were generally content to repeat commonplaces about likeness and decorum, also the aspects most likely to interest patrons. However, most major artists occasionally practiced as portrait painters and subsequently enjoyed the prestige and financial remuneration following from the association with noble and powerful patrons. These circumstances, together with the simple fact that the subjects of portraits were humans, meant that the theoretical position of portraiture could not be ignored by humanist theory in the same way as still life or animal painting could.

One way of understanding portraits was to compare with literature. The sculptor and writer Vincenzo Danti (1530-76) took up this position, distinguishing between ritrarre, to portray, to represent following a natural model, and imitare, to represent something not as we see it, but as it should be in its perfection, idealized. There is reason to see Danti’s two terms in the light of Aristotle’s juxtaposition in the Poetics of the poet and the historian: poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. The seicento classicists had a continued interest in Aristotle and often returned to the passage in the Poetics where the philosopher states that “Since tragedy is an imitation of men better than the average, one should imitate the good portrait painters; for they, while making their portraits ‘like’ by rendering the individual appearances of the sitters, paint them better-looking”. The translator Ludovico Castelvetro commented (1570) that he thought idealization could never be virtue; artists should just make sitters “like”, a statement for which Bellori chastised him in his Idea (1664).

This paper will follow the outlined debate and pay particular attention to the original contribution made by the English poet and playwright John Dryden (1631-1700). Dryden’s prose translation of Charles Du Fresnoy’s poem De arte graphica was published in 1695 with the introduction A Parallel betwixt Painting and Poetry, where the author enthusiastically introduced the ideas of French and Italian classicism to and English audience. Dryden draws on his experience as a playwright and discusses the creation of stage characters and their relation to the characters on which they are based, either they are historical or fictitious. Confronted with different literary accounts of a person, what Dryden calls “a better likeness and a worse”, the poet should constantly choose the better one.


„Mental Images“ of Jonathan Richardson– an 18th century forerunner of Bildwissenschaften?

Bärbel Küster, Ph. D.

Staatliche Akademie der bildenden Künste Stuttgart, Germany

The term „mental images“ or „mental pictures“ is drawn from the writings of Jonathan Richardson the elder (1665-1745). In his art theory Richardson operates with a deeply conceptual idea of art that was located in a certain English situation at the beginning of the 18th century. Though „mental image“ continually reoccurs in his texts, Richardson has not extended on that topic at large and actual research on one of the most important art theorists at his time did not notice its fundamental significance until now. Richardson, as well a famous painter, located the image between the idea and its materialization, between copy and original painting, nature and copy, drawing and oil painting. However although indebted to a Vasarian concept of IDEA, Richardson’s use of the term „mental images“ reveals a far more modern conceptualization, because it releases the image of its materiality focussing on its impact on both viewers and creators and their worlds.

The first aim of this paper is to localize Richardson’s theory in a specific, British visual culture of the early 18th century: One, that is dominated by a polite society and its public and moral purposes to educate with regard to a better state of Nation. One, whose art and artists are deeply rooted in an emblematic way of thinking (R. Paulson). My second aim is then to show, that Richardson’s concept of „mental images“ has prefigurated central presuppositions of nowadays Bildwissenschaften. Richardson’s art theory enables us to direct the crucial question onto our contemporary approach on images/pictures as well as on art history: how can we differentiate between the visual and the conceptual (e.g. moral, politic, historic//contextual) parts of the image without falling apart in the outdated bias of form and content? Hans Belting has referred to “mental pictures” in a double sense of inner personal pictures and their remembrance and to external pictures of collective symbol-strategies (memory). He encounters the difference between image and media on the most basic reflection, that the human body and his activities of perception and remembrance are the sole place (?) for the image. Belting has separated the German Bild from the idea of media (as the material support) and sees the body as the place of linkage between all forms of media and images. So far a concept that meets Richardson’s ideas before 1720 in a certain way. But Richardson emphasizes the involvement into social structures, political and moral ideas of “civic humanism” (Brewer). Can “mental images” that are connected with older ideas of emulation meet political ideas today?


The Epistemic Potential of the Image in Seventeenth-Century Italian Art Theory

Ioana Magureanu, Ph. D. cand.

National University of Art, Bucharest, Romania

The way the field of knowledge, and especially natural inquiry, is structured and restructured during the early modern period determines a process of reconsideration of the epistemological status of visual arts and of the discourse about them. During the investigation of 17th century Italian art theory, I started questioning how writers on art, both scholars and artists, responded to the rising distrust in the sense of sight and in visual images and to the gradual anxiety about the objectivity of the image.

The focus of this paper is on late 17th century art theory treaties written in Rome (Bellori, Passeri) and how they record a different stance in respect to earlier 17th century artistic literature. Art theorists and natural philosophers share the concern for the rationalisation of the image and of the process of visual perception, for the condensation of information in an image, through the conjoint action of memory, analysis and synthesis. Thus they both stress on the centrality of the concept of giudizio (or intendimento, ragione), leading to “choice”, “selection” and allowing “knowledge of the best”; Bellori’s Idea, having its origin in matter, not in the upper spheres, is thus profoundly distinct from that of the Mannerists; disegno is understood as an instrument of giudizio and functions in painting, just like it does for naturalists, as an instrument of knowledge. The secondary significance of colore in respect to disegno conforms to a hierarchy between visual delight and intellectual comprehension (corresponding to a hierarchy of respective types of audience), based in a distinction between the common, corporeal and passive sight, and a superior sense of intellectual sight (for which the lynx in the emblem of the Accademia dei lincei stands) capable of understanding the essences in nature. The discussion of art as cognitive tool and of its functioning in relation to the faculties of the mind supports the idea of an intellectual culture that writers on art and scientists share.