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How to view art like an expert: Breaking down a Van Gogh painting at BMA

Editor’s note: This article is part of a three-part series. For an explainer on classical music, click or tap here. For an explainer on Baltimore Club music, click or tap here.

A painting of a pair of worn boots coated with mud is lounging about the Baltimore Museum of Art with insouciant disregard for its spotless surroundings. So meticulously rendered is every detail that you can practically smell those boots from where you’re standing.

“For God’s sakes, get those disgusting things out of my kitchen,” you can imagine yourself saying. “I just mopped the floor.”

But chances are that you have a pretty good hunch who painted this canvas. It’s the work of that 19th-century Dutch madman, Vincent Van Gogh.

But stop and think for a second. What exactly was it that tipped you off? What did you see on that canvas that practically shouts the name of the man who made it? (Aside to smart-aleck readers: We mean apart from the signature.)

The point is that you already know how to analyze a work of art. You just did it, even if you can’t put into words exactly how. You don’t need to take a course, read a catalog or listen to a lecture on art history to appreciate a great painting. (Not that we’re discouraging any of these activities.) You just need to look at it, and maybe think a little bit about where your impressions are coming from.

We asked Jay Fisher, the BMA’s chief curator, to do exactly that. The formal qualities that Fisher describes below are good topics for art lovers to focus on when examining any painting. For this exercise, Fisher selected an artwork, Van Gogh’s “A Pair of Boots,” that’s a favorite of museum visitors, a painting as comfortable and familiar as — well, as an old pair of boots.

Genre

Clearly, this isn’t a portrait or landscape — it’s a still life. But choosing to paint the boots this way tells you something about the challenges that Van Gogh set for himself. He’s memorializing something very different from the quintessential still-life subject — flowers in a crystal vase resting on a lace tablecloth, or a bowl of ripening fruit.

“These aren’t fancy shoes,” Fisher says. “They’re normal, everyday boots that he put on a table. These boots have been walked on. They’ve been out in the fields. Why would he honor an old pair of boots like that?”

Come to think of it, those boots rather aggressively make the point of just how utilitarian they are. The man who wore them clearly couldn’t wait to rip them off. The boot on the left is tipped over. The boot on the right is partly unlaced. And doesn’t it almost appear to be sticking out a long and lolling tongue at the viewer?

“Van Gogh was aligning himself with the peasants,” Fisher said.

Movement

Our eyes are hard-wired to respond to light, so most viewers instinctively focus on the brightest part of any canvas — in this case the cluster of metal studs on the bottom of the left boot. Notice the way they pull your eyes up and slightly to the right on the diagonal.

The physical movements people make when they look at a work of art might seem accidental. But in reality, most artists intentionally direct their viewers’ gaze first this way and then that. The skill with which they move their audience around is almost a form of choreography.

As Fisher studied the painting, he performed a small, continuous dance: Step forward. Back away. Shift. Repeat. It was almost as though he was adjusting his posture in response to signals he was getting from Van Gogh’s composition.

“The ‘still life’ keeps moving back and forth,” he said. “It’s not frozen. It moves away from us, and then towards us again.”

Layers and detail

“This isn’t a painting that he rushed off,” Fisher says.

He noted that the surface of the canvas is built up of different layers of paint. Look closely at the toe of the left boot. It was originally painted a light beige. Van Gogh waited for the paint to dry. Then, he brushed a brighter orange over some areas of the boots to suggest a clay-colored mud. He waited for that layer to dry. Then he added other colors: dabs of a bluish-green, an area of darker brown to indicate where the sole had worn off.

That takes time. And it took time to paint those hobnail studs. Some are outlined in black. Some are shadowed in gray. And those little ovals weren’t just dabbed on with the end of a brush. They were precisely drawn. Van Gogh took great pains to get those boots just right.

Emotion

Van Gogh’s paintings radiate a sense of urgency, and much of the emotion is conveyed through the swirling lines filling his canvasses. It may be that quality, more than any other, that identifies an artwork as his. By Van Gogh’s standards, “A Pair of Boots” is relatively quiet and restrained. But, compared to most other artworks in the room, it still seems to leap off the wall.

Look at those shoelaces. Doesn’t the way they loop and swirl remind you of other objects you’ve seen him draw: stars and clouds and trees? Those shoelaces are a force to be reckoned with; they cannot be contained. They actually go AWOL, dropping out of the bottom of the frame and jaunting off to who knows where.

“The shoelaces are marvelous,” Fisher says. “They add energy and emotion and turmoil to the composition. Looking at them is like being on a roller coaster.”

Signature

Van Gogh didn’t sign and date all of his artworks, Fisher says. But this one he did. Look at how large that signature is, especially the capital “V”, the “t” and the “7.” Notice, above all, the line underscoring his name, how thick it is, and how it moves exuberantly up and to the right like a shot arrow.

“Everything in this painting has a role to play, including the signature,” Fisher says. “It’s so big you can’t avoid seeing it. He was very, very proud of this painting.”

mmccauley@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mcmccauley

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