Old Master Paintings

How to Look at Old Master Paintings

By Tom Marks

Chantal Brotherton-Ratcliffe is an Old Masters expert and has served on the faculty of Sotheby’s Institute of Art since 1989. She currently lectures for the MA Fine and Decorative Art and Design program in London. In conversation with Sotheby's Tom Marks for The Apollo Podcast, she spoke about some of the unusual teaching methods she has adopted, and why you really ought to wear sunglasses the next time you stand in front of a Caravaggio painting. To listen to the full podcast episode, click here. Below are some highlights from the conversation.

Befriend the Old Masters
Over the years, one issue that Chantal has increasingly encountered with her students is that they have less and less of a religious background, as a large portion of the Old Masters tend to portray religious subjects, the students can feel excluded. However, it is not vital to know every saint or every classical history story; students and viewers can still appreciate a painting for its intrinsic qualities and beauty. "Old Masters paintings are first of all fabulous objects that are to be looked at and enjoyed for what they are," Chantal says.

Put Down the Phone
Technology has made it very easy to "see" art from all around the world. Chantal remembers a time when she used to learn in black and white, as color photography for artwork was not always available. When studying black and white reproductions of art, it was quite easy to remember that the painting was not being viewed in person. But the better technology becomes, the more that line blurs. As a result, one of her challenges as a teacher is to encourage students to put down their phones and to go see the actual work, to take in the brush strokes and to experience the scale – and only then to pick up their phones and take photos for the memories.

Spend Quality Time with the Art
There are a number of exercises that Chantal likes to give her students while visiting galleries. In some classes, she instructs students to draw in sketchbooks to analyze drapery folds (Baroque drapery falls very heavily compared to a Rococo drape, which has a lot more movement.) In others, she will present students with a selection of photographs of details, such as the leaves from landscape paintings by a number of 17th-century landscape painters such as Claude, Poussin and Cuyp, and then set them the task of wandering the galleries to identify the hand that produces leaves like that. These exercises are designed to encourage students to look at details and paintings closely. Chantal often quotes John Ruskin’s mantra: "If you haven’t drawn it, you haven’t seen it." It is her trick to make someone stand in front of the work long enough to really take it in.

Understand the Effect of Time
When thinking about Old Masters paintings, there are two aspects that must be considered: conservation and restoration. In London, Sotheby’s Institute has a collection of teaching pieces – paintings, ceramics and furniture – that are used to lead handling sessions with students. They are able to touch the works and study under a magnifying glass what restoration took place. Understanding what’s changed in a painting’s history is key, as ignoring these changes can be misleading. For example, Chantal considers a painting’s varnish that might have become "discolored to a very dirty yellow over a blue sky, which makes it look like a stormy night sky. All we have to do is clean it and we come to realize it's a perfectly blue day."

Put Your Sunglasses On
No Old Master painting was meant to be seen by electric light. For this reason, Chantal makes her students wear sunglasses when they are in the Baroque rooms of any brightly lit gallery. In Baroque painting – and especially with Caravaggio paintings – there's incredible depth in the figures that loom out of the darkness. But the more the painting is lit, the less this technique works. These "Caravaggio sunglasses," as Chantal calls them, help to bring back some of that depth.

Get Closer
Despite loungey sofas or benches in the middle of galleries, Chantal encourages her students to not be persuaded to gaze at artworks from those inviting seats. Instead of looking at paintings from the middle of the gallery, overcome the distance barrier, get closer and aim to see the canvas grain. Remember, paintings are 3D objects, even though one dimension is extremely slender.

Don’t Be Afraid of Connoisseurship
Connoisseurship is not an easy word, and it certainly takes a lifetime to develop. But Chantal is not afraid to admit that she deliberately starts her students on that path. She teaches them to pay attention to materials, canvas grain, provenance and the history of collecting. Attention is key. The amount of knowledge that opens up when you take the time to engage with paintings in that way is tremendous.

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