I’ve learned more about history, religion and culture from looking at and reading about art than I have through most other resources.
Artistic expression hits the soul, the very core of what makes us human and allows us to relate to one another. In the context of history, it shows what was culturally important, how we lived, what life was like before we were intimately connected on a global scale. But most importantly, it shows us that no matter how much time goes by, we never really change.
Sure, things around us change. Dwellings, infrastructure and industries shift, giving rise to new inventions and devices that alter our mannerisms, colloquialisms and interactions. At the heart of everything though, the very nature of human beings remains relatively unchanged.
While at the National Gallery of Art in D.C., I noticed this painting from across the room in another gallery and was immediately drawn to it for its crisp linear perspective and gentle illumination of the interior of the building.
But upon closer inspection, even with all the technical skill displayed, it was the painter’s choices for the narratives within that stood out.
*Disclaimer: I have done no scholarly research on this painting or its painter other than brief searches and light reading about it. But as a fellow human being, there are a few things I can assert.
It may have been common for dogs to run around in public spaces, but de Witte made a choice here. Instead of only painting a dog’s likeness, he chose to paint a dog in the bottom left corner, urinating on a column in the revered church.
I couldn’t help but smile as I studied the painting. Could there be a reason de Witte made that exact choice? He’d done other paintings of church interiors with animals roaming freely, but none desecrating the space. So, what motivated him to do it in this painting? Was it just an honest representation of a scene de Witte witnessed himeslf? Or could it be a subtle commentary? About the church? About the people nearby, oblivious to the dog’s unabashed marking? Or perhaps (although highly unlikely) de Witte was not a fan of his patron, or he was just having a lousy month, so he cheekily committed his frustrations to the canvas.
Maybe it’s not the greatest example of my point, but I like to think sometimes it’s the little details that give us insight about humanity’s past, and perhaps comfort in knowing that generations before us were not so different. Hopefully, scholars have already figured out the meaning behind the choices de Witte made. And if not, I hope there’s someone trying to understand them.
After all, that’s the really fun part. Asking “Why?” and then piecing the answer together by understanding all of the factors that impacted the final work of art. Trends of the time, wealthy patrons, religious beliefs, an artist’s psychological and physical health, feelings of affection and affinity or hatred and disgust— every detail down to the kind of materials available to create the actual work. Each detail is a sentence intricately written into a greater story.