Nannette V. Maciejunes, executive director of the Columbus Museum of Art, briefly explained the history of painting and walks us through what we should observe in two very different paintings currently on display at the museum.

Nannette V. Maciejunes, executive director of the Columbus Museum of Art, briefly explained the history of painting and walks us through what we should observe in two very different paintings currently on display at the museum.

Old Master painters

"Old Master paintings" is really not an official term. It means loosely art from the Renaissance up to Impressionism, and really sometimes up through the early 19th century.

In the Middle Ages artists were primarily engaged in creating art related to their faith. The interest really was in illustrating the subject, and it was very heaven focused: your soul, and after death. The Renaissance keeps the Christian context but rediscovers the world. They develop a style of painting that holds from the 15th century through the first half of the 19th century. It's the idea that the canvas of the painting is a window, and you are looking into a believable space. They developed one-point perspective, which is a tool by which you create the illusion of three-dimensional space, so things look like they recede. There's a mathematical formula by which you create one-point perspective. One-point perspective is meant to trick you into the way you see the world.

The other thing is light. You have a light source. It works the way the world works; they're using light to reinforce the idea of the real world. Everything about these paintings is, how do we create a believable, real world?

Old master painters were not very interested in moments in time. They were interested in things that look sort of permanent and eternal. Even the still life – where obviously the fruit is going to rot – it's not painted in a way to make you think about rotting fruit. It's painted in a way to make you think that this moment of bounty and abundance could last forever. There's this idea of eternal permanence, which is very different from the Impressionists, who were interested in this snap of the moment.


What happens is, sometime in the middle of the 19th century, people are running out of ideas. Think about using a set of tools; you can only do so many things. This was a pretty rich toolbox; it holds for five centuries. But at some point it's getting boring, and the paintings are getting a little tired. The breakthrough comes with Monet.

Monet has the insight and says, "Guess what. This is not a window looking into a believable space. This is a painting. It's paint on canvas." The Impressionists literally take the toolbox, pitch it out and get a new toolbox. That's why impressionism is so important is that these are the artists that created the toolbox, and that toolbox is carrying us still. The idea is that there is no picture window.

Monet said a lot of this whole idea of a picture window isn't really based on vision. It's based on your brain; it's your brain working with your eyes. Monet said, "I'm interested in what your brain is telling you. I'm interested in what your eyes are telling you. I'm interested in optical reality." That's why impressionists were fascinated with trying to create light effects. When you look outside on a bright, sunny day, the world looks different than it does on a cloudy day. And that's why Impressionists like to paint in high sun, they like to paint rain, they like to paint snow. They like to paint weather effects because weather affects light, and light affects how you see the world.

Originally when Monet and his friends started to paint, they would only paint for 30 or 45 minutes at a time, because the light changes. They started painting outside. Every one of the Old Master paintings were painted in a studio. The Impressionists move outside and paint on site.

The past 100 years

What happens [right around World War I] is that you move from objective visual reality to what we call abstraction. By 1912, they're no longer trying to invoke a visual experience, like Monet. These guys are trying to invoke an experience of the world, but they're trying to invoke an intellectual experience of the world. They're cued to the real world. They're playing with your vision and your mind and your brain. Technically, abstraction is cued to the real world but it doesn't look like it. You're playing with it or turning it around. Nonobjective painting begins in the days right around World War I, which means that you're not going to make it connected to the real world at all. You're just simply going to make it about color and form. But we keep coming back to the visual world. Nonobjective painting gets a big boost after World War II. That's when you get the abstract expressionists.

[With more recent art], people often say, "I could do that." But it's very difficult. Most of the time what the artist is doing is very deliberate. So even though Jackson Pollock is dripping – it's called action painting – there is a deliberateness about that. It wasn't just random drinking beer and spraying paint.

Maciejunes' tips for enjoying the museum

- You don't have to look at every painting equally in a gallery. I run into a number of people who feel like they have to go to each painting. Really, you should go to a gallery and you should find the works in that gallery that you respond to.

-Once you find a work of art that interests you, spend some time looking at it. Look at the date, and kind of think about history in big chunks. Is this the Renaissance, or is this a modern picture or a contemporary picture? Modernism is generally Impressionism through World War II.

- If you're here talking with a friend, you'll get much more out of a picture than you will if you just go, "Oh, that's kind of nice." Ask each other questions, and relate things to yourself. Relate a painting to a great story in your life or in your friend's life.

-If you're by yourself, ask yourself questions. It can be very meditative. After 9/11, museum attendance went way up because you have people wanting to find beauty and peace.

-With many pictures, it's still good to get up close. The challenge is that you see them in museums, and then if you get really close, then all of the guards come and go, "What are you doing?!" My recommendation is that you get a little closer and put your hands behind your back, and lean over and look a little closer. It scares the guards considerably less.

- If you don't want to take a tour with a docent or use the museum's cell phone tour, the guards in the galleries are now trained to answer your questions.

-Thursday afternoons are a nice, peaceful time to visit the museum, which is open until 8:30 p.m. All other days the museum closes at 5:30 p.m.

An Old Master painting

This is a 17th-century Dutch picture ["Still Life," by Carstian Luyckx]. This kind of painting has all of this great stuff in it. It's the great feast picture.

1. In the 17th century, smoking was considered a pleasure. So a pipe with the roll of tobacco - this painting is fundamentally about evoking all of your senses. You think about music, the senses of your mouth watering with all the great food, same thing with smoking. And at the same time the painting itself invokes your sight.

2. It's a big to-do to create bubbles in drinks. It's a show-offy thing the painter did.

3. Touch is invoked in the ability to create all of the different textures. The glean and the glisten of the hard shell of the lobster, and the rough texture of the lemon and the oozy quality of the oysters. Many viewers would know that this is an aphrodisiac. It's very likely that you're also invoking physical, sexual pleasure. It's everything about how great life is.

4. Because it's a 17th-century picture, it's going to be painted by a Christian or is intended for a Christian. Butterflies live a very brief life. This is a reminder that life is short, eternity is long, and yes this is all great, but I as the painter have to remind you that you're going to die and you have to pay attention to your soul as well. Some painters will put skulls in the painting; it's the same symbol. It's a way of painting great stuff but staying within the cultural context. You stick the butterfly in and you're like, OK, the church isn't going to be after me.

An Impressionist painting

American impressionist Childe Hassam painted "Winter, Midnight," in 1894. Impressionism, which was invented in the later 1860s, early 1870s, has been around for a while. So this is an artist taking that tool box and trying to extend what you can do with it. At first impressionists were very abhorrent of black. He's trying to create that moment, and it's a fleeting moment, when things are still white. In a few minutes the storm stops; it abates.

1. He's fascinated by the whole effect of a street lamp. It's night. Impressionists love nighttime, because it's part of the whole effect.

2. The placement of the lights helps you get some distance. You do get the feeling that the carriages are moving and going into the picture a little bit.

3. The snow is whitish-blue. Snow does that - it's an optical effect that snow looks blue.

4. You can almost feel the difficulty of moving through the snow, and yet it's a beautiful picture. He's not giving you too much realism.