January 2011

Istoria Paintings: Here’s Looking at You, Kid

I’m getting ready to teach a lecture on Alberti’s theories regarding the type of painting called istoria (also seen as historia). In his treatise On Painting (1435), Alberti argued that istoria painting is the highest goal and achievement for an artist. An istoria is a narrative painting which includes a complex composition and a large number of figures. Furthermore, these figures should be displayed in several dramatic and emotive poses. Alberti felt that “everything the people in the painting do among themselves, or perform in relation to the spectators, must fit together to represent and explain the ‘historia.'”1

One of Alberti’s most interesting ideas about istoria has to do with how the painting communicates and involves the viewer. Alberti found that an istoria painting is most effective if there is a figure in the painting who directly communicates with the viewer. He wrote, “I like there be someone in the ‘historia’ who tells the spectators what is going on, and either beckons them with his hand to look, or with ferocious expression and forbidding glance challenges them not to come near, as if he wished their business to be secret, or points to some danger or some remarkable secret, or by his gestures invites you to laugh or to weep with them.”2

I think one of the best ways for istoria figures to communicate with the viewer is through an outward glance (as if the figure was actually looking at the viewer).3 I know that there are tons of examples of such outward glances, but here is just a small sample of my favorites:

Two figures gaze outwards (while one of them beckons toward the viewer – Alberti would be so pleased!) in Ghirlandaio’s Adoration of the Magi (1488). The staring figure near the top of the detail is a supposed self-portrait of Ghirlandaio.
Christ stares out at the viewer, amid all of the hustle and bustle found in Veronese’s The Wedding Feast at Cana (1562-63)
An alleged self-portrait of Botticelli. The artist is gazing at the viewer from the foreground of his painting, Adoration of the Magi (c. 1475)
This one is also a supposed self-portrait of the artist Perugino, found within his painting Christ Giving the Keys to Saint Peter (1481)


I think it’s interesting that so many painters decided to include themselves as the token “communicating figure” within their paintings. The examples by Ghirlandaio, Botticelli and Perugino are a small sampling of the staring/communicating self-portraits which exist. (To give you an idea, other such self-portraits were done by are Jacopo Pontormo (see here), Raphael (see here) and Fillipo Lippi (see here and here). But, the more that I think about it, the inclusion of the self-portrait is very fitting for historia painting, particularly when considering Alberti’s thoughts on communication. After all, if at least one figure is responsible for communicating to the viewer (and drawing the viewer into the scene), shouldn’t that figure be the artist?!? Makes sense to me.

What about you? What paintings do you enjoy where a figure is staring outwards at (or beckoning toward) the viewer? I know there are tons of them out there – especially from the Italian Renaissance period!

1 Leon Battista Alberti and Martin Kemp, On Painting (New York: Penguin Press, 1991), 78. Citation available online at:
2 Ibid., 77-78.
3 It should be noted that many painters followed Alberti’s advice by including a figure in communication with the viewer, but not directly looking at the viewer. For example, Ghirlandaio’s Adoration of the Shepherds (1485) shows a shepherd who is pointing (to communicate with the viewer), but the shepherd’s gaze is toward another figure in the painting.

James Hampton and Audience

One of my friends recently saw James Hampton’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millenium General Assembly (ca. 1950-1964, shown left) on display in a folk art exhibition. Her mention of this piece brought back two memories for me. First, I remembered being struck by this piece a few years ago when visiting the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I was impressed to learn that Hampton created his altarpiece over a period of fourteen years. Hampton wasn’t an artist by profession; he worked as a janitor. He kept his creation in a rented garage and continually built up the piece with found objects and discarded materials. Hampton then collected and then covered with shimmering metallic foil and purple paper (the latter now faded to a tan color).

When my friend mentioned seeing this work of art, it also brought back a second memory: a conversation that I had with an art history student last spring. We were discussing whether it is important for a work of art to have an audience, and this student brought up the example of Hampton. My student felt that Hampton was not interested in having anyone see his work: Hampton worked for years to create this piece, and yet he seemed to have kept his project a secret. His relatives did not learn about his project until after Hampton had died of stomach cancer. Even the man who owned Hampton’s garage seemed unaware of what Hampton was creating in the rented space.

I can understand why the student had come to this conclusion, but I pointed out a few things which indicate that Hampton intended his work to have an audience. For example, it has been noted that he hoped to open a storefront ministry and use his artistic composition as the centerpiece for the ministry. This is a pretty sure indication that he wanted his art to be viewed by others. But we can also look to the work of art for clues that a viewer/audience is presupposed. One could argue that the phrase “FEAR NOT” (at the top of the central piece) is a visual indication that Hampton wanted an audience, since he obviously wanted those words to be read by someone (most likely someone other than himself).

Nonetheless, I’m the first to admit that there are some baffling things about Hampton’s altarpiece. The work contains notebooks, plaques and tags that are written in some kind of secret language (which one scholar has called “Hamptonese“). Did Hampton intend for his audience to see this secret writing system? Or were these written areas intended only for Hampton to see? Does this supposed gibberish indicate that Hampton was mentally unstable? I suppose we’ll never know.


Picasso and Paul McCartney

Pablo Picasso, The Old Guitarist, 1903
Did you know that a Picasso painting helped to inspire a Paul McCartney song? Today my little brother sent me this short clip of Paul explaining when/where/why he came up with the idea for the “Two Fingers” song:
I’m pretty sure, though, that Picasso didn’t have a specific chord in mind when he painted The Old Guitarist. In fact, it has already been discussed how Picasso’s lack of musical training is evident in his other depictions of musicians (for example, instances in which violinists hold their instruments with the wrong hand, as is seen in his Three Musicians (1921, PMA version)). Nonetheless, it’s fun to know that Picasso had a little influence on Paul.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.