Our visual powers

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Wang Yuanqi, Landscape after Wu Zhen. 1695. Hanging scroll; ink on paper, 42¾ × 20¼ inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bequest of John M. Crawford Jr.

Typical of many of the great Chinese landscape scrolls, Wang Yuanqi uses his brush and ink prodigiously, finding a powerful energy in shaping the rising mountains and its trees. The presence of tiny houses and rising pathways to the heights places humanity in a secondary role in relation to nature and to the visual power of the mountain itself.

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Botticelli, Venus and Mars. 1483. Egg tempera and oil on poplar, 27.2 × 68.3 inches.

Botticelli’s painting combines media to achieve a heightened detail and radiance. In ancient myth, Venus, the goddess of love, and Mars, the god of war, are often in conflict. Botticelli portrays them here with love clearly having conquered war. The satyrs, fertility figures in myth, are playful children celebrating a victory.


The elements are the basic building blocks of a medium. For painting they are line, color, texture, and composition.1 Before we discuss the elements of painting, consider the issues raised by the Perception Key associated with Botticelli’s painting, Venus and Mars (Figure 4-8).


The subject matter of this painting is the struggle between the sexes, a scene after lovemaking by two mythical gods.

1. What powerful ideas do Venus and Mars represent? Would you know this painting pictured a power struggle if you knew nothing about the mythic characters?

2. Mars is reduced to a snoring lump of flesh. Venus is dreamy but alert. What does this tell you about their struggle?

3. How does the clarity of the line in this painting help you understand the significance of the action? For which of these

figures is clarity of line more revealing of character?

4. Compare this Botticelli with the paintings by Cimabue, Giotto, and Michelangelo (Figures 4-1, 4-2, and 4-3). All are about gods. What makes the concerns of Botticelli different from those of the other painters?

1 Light, shape, volume, and space are often referred to as elements, but strictly speaking, they are compounds.

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Line is a continuous marking made by a moving point on a surface. Line outlines shapes and can contour areas within those outlines. Sometimes contour or internal lines dominate the outlines, as with the robe of Cimabue’s Madonna (Figure 4-1). Closed line most characteristically is hard and sharp, as in Lichtenstein’s Torpedo . . . Los! (Figure 2-9). In the Cimabue and in Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, the line is also closed but somewhat softer. Open line most characteristically is soft and blurry, as in Frankenthaler’s The Bay (Figure 4-6) and Renoir’s Bather Arranging Her Hair (Figure 2-17).

PERCEPTION KEY Goya, Frankenthaler, and Cézanne

1. Goya used both closed and open lines in his May 3, 1808 (Figure 2-3). Locate these lines. Why did Goya use both kinds?

2. Does Frankenthaler use both closed and open lines in The Bay (Figure 4-6)? Locate these lines.

3. Identify outlines in Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire (Figure 2-4). There seem to be no outlines drawn around the small bushes in the foreground. Yet we see these bushes as separate objects. How can this be?

Line can suggest movement. Up-and-down movement may be indicated by the vertical, as in Parmigianino’s The Madonna with the Long Neck (Figure 4-4). Lateral movement may be indicated by the horizontal and tends to stress stability, as in the same Parmigianino. Depending on the context, however, vertical and horizontal lines may appear static, as in Wesselmann’s study for Great American Nude (Figure 2-20) and Lichtenstein’s Torpedo . . . Los! (Figure 2-9). Generally, diagonal lines, as in Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire (Figure 2-4), express more tension and movement than verticals and horizontals. Curving lines usually appear softer and more flowing, as in Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (Figure 2-16).

Line in Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (Figure 4-9) can also suggest rhythm and movement, especially when used with vibrant colors, which in this painting are intended to echo the neon lights of 1940s Broadway. Mondrian lived and worked for twenty years in Paris, but in 1938, with Nazis threatening war, he moved to London. In 1940, with the war under way, he went to New York. He was particularly attracted to American jazz music. He arrived in New York when the swing bands reached their height of popularity and he used his signature grid style in Broadway Boogie Woogie to interpret jazz visually. The basic structure is a grid of vertical and horizontal yellow lines—and only vertical and horizontal lines. On these lines, and between these lines, Mondrian places patterns of intense blocks of color to suggest the powerful jazz rhythms he loved so much. Even the large “silent” blocks of white imply musical rests.

An axis line is an imaginary line that helps determine the basic visual directions of a painting. In Goya’s May 3, 1808 (Figure 2-3), for example, two powerful axis lines move toward and intersect at the white shirt of the man about to be shot: lines of the rifles appear to converge and go on, and the line of those to be executed moving out of the ravine seems to be inexorably continuing. Axis lines are invisible vectors of visual force. Every visual field is dynamic, a field of forces directing our vision, some visible and some invisible but controlled by the visible. Only when the invisible lines are basic to the structuring of the image, as in the Goya, are they axis lines.

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