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How to Read Paintings

How to Read Paintings

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How to Read Paintings

109 pages
53 minutes
Oct 22, 2020


How to Read Paintings provides a fascinating analysis of a variety of paintings made in the Western tradition.

From works by Raphael to Monet, this wide-ranging book will introduce you to a selection of paintings and teach you how to understand their meaning.

Explore the meaning of fifteen different artworks by taking a look at what the pictures actually show, including their symbolism, stories and composition.

Dip in at random or read from beginning to end, How to Read Paintings is an accessible tour of some of the most beautiful objects in art. Whether you are a complete beginner or an experienced art-lover, this book has something for everyone.


About the author

Christopher P Jones is a novelist and art historian. He has been looking at and writing about art for over 20 years. His particular areas of interests are 20th century German Expressionism, 19th century French art, and contemporary painting. He is currently working on an idiosyncratic guide to the National Gallery, London.

Oct 22, 2020

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How to Read Paintings - Christopher P Jones

Christopher P Jones

How To Read Paintings

From famous artworks to lesser-known masterpieces, a new way of looking at art through close-reading of individual paintings

First published by Thinksheet 2020

Copyright © 2020 by Christopher P Jones

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, scanning, or otherwise without written permission from the publisher. It is illegal to copy this book, post it to a website, or distribute it by any other means without permission.

Christopher P Jones asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

Christopher P Jones has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party Internet Websites referred to in this publication and does not guarantee that any content on such Websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.

First edition

This book was professionally typeset on Reedsy

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1. How to Read Paintings


2. The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

3. The Penitent Magdalen by Georges de La Tour

4. The Last of England by Ford Madox Brown

5. Apollo Pursuing Daphne by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

6. Self-Portrait by Albrecht Dürer

7. The Oxbow by Thomas Cole

8. Paris Street; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte

9. Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi

10. Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

11. Assumption of the Virgin by Titian

12. Monet’s Water Lilies

13. The Long Engagement by Arthur Hughes

14. The Alba Madonna by Raphael

15. Moonlight, Strandgade 30, by Vilhelm Hammershøi

16. Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cézanne


17. Tips For Visiting Art Galleries

18. Art is an experiment

19. Art Appreciation & Books

Find Out More

Image Credits

About the Author




How to Read Paintings

The central purpose of this book is to celebrate the act of looking more deeply. My overwhelming piece of advice for anyone new to looking at art is this: take your time to actually look.

Artworks can seem like mysterious things, but often, with a few minutes of attention, their mysteries will easily open up.

My own initiation into this way of thinking occurred more than two decades ago, when I was on a college trip to the Tate Britain gallery in London. I was seventeen at the time. It was a small but lasting lesson in how to look at art, and since then I’ve never forgotten it. It taught me a lot about patience, about the possibilties of art, and about myself too.

There I was, a seventeen-year-old wandering around this huge art gallery, not really knowing what to make of it, when I found myself standing in front of a Mark Rothko painting. Mark Rothko was an American painter who made experimental images by applying layers of paint in abstract bands of colour. On first sight, his works can be confounding, since there is little to grab hold of. This particular painting had thick bands of yellow, red and orange running horizontally across the canvas.

At this point, my art teacher came over and suggested that I take a seat. He must have seen me wandering around in a daze. There’s a bench over there, he said. Why don’t you get comfortable?

So I sat down on the bench and began to look at the painting. My teacher said, I want you to look at this painting for as long as you can manage. Stay here for at least half-an-hour. See what happens.

Half-an-hour sounded like an extremely long time to me. But I did it anyway. I looked at the painting until I got bored, then I looked at it longer still. I looked until my back ached and my mind began to fidget, float and daydream.

Then, at a certain point, a strange thing happened: I became entranced. The colours of the painting began to swarm and pulsate. I saw new colours being born, as if the layers of paint were revealing themselves to me. It probably sounds odd to say it, but the object appeared to come alive. The bands of colour began to blend, and beneath them new colours began to emerge. Perhaps it was the genius of Mark Rothko or perhaps my eyes were inventing something new. I didn’t think to question it. I was simply grateful to my teacher for making me push my attention span longer than a few seconds so I could see beyond the surface glance.

Ever since then, I’ve always tried to stay a bit longer. To take my time and try to see beneath the surface. And in many ways, that’s what I celebrate when I write about art. I don’t go in for the latest fad; I like to explore things that have taken time to ripen, deepen and unfurl.

How to use this book

I don’t want to promise that every work of art will provide the same sort of magical experience as the Mark Rothko painting did for me.

And yet, all the paintings that I’ve chosen to examine in this book are all remarkable in one way or another.

In actual fact, I think it’s possible to find something remarkable in any painting you might chose to look at. Every image has a history behind it, a history of place and time, of meaning, technology and technique.

That being said, the paintings contained here are some of the most important and iconic images that Western art has produced. What I hope this book can do is to help you see beneath the surface of these very famous

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