With Time a Painting’s Secrets Appear

This is one of the many wonderful memories I will cherish from our recent trip to Scotland. We had the most animated conversation about a painting that proved much more interesting than it seemed on first glimpse.

slow looking

I recently read an article in AARP The Magazine titled “Slow Art,” in which AARP’s travel expert Samantha Brown admits to racing through many museums around the world. She’s beginning to wonder if she might have enjoyed those visits more if she had visited just one painting that felt special to her in each museum. I would tell her that it’s absolutely worth trying (and she can even choose two or three paintings, not just one). We discovered many years ago that the strategy that works best for us when we visit a new museum is to first go into the gift shop and peruse the works that are depicted in the postcard display. Are there any pieces of art we absolutely want to make sure we see? Then, we walk through each gallery room on our own, making sure to keep our eyes open for the work we really want to see. Sometimes something unexpected draws our gaze and we slow down to spend some time with it. Sometimes we seek each other out to come look at a work that has especially captured our hearts or minds. Sometimes we find a bench and take a break and end up discovering things about a painting we might have walked by otherwise.

This is a painting that I wouldn’t ordinarily spend much time looking at. But I did because my feet were tired. All I can say now is: Thank you, feet!

We were visiting the exquisite National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland with our friends Andy and Mary Jo. I ended up beckoning everyone over as I began to notice things that I hadn’t noticed on first glimpse. Did everyone see the man that the artist seems to have wanted to erase? And what did they think about the woman looking off to the side? Did she look like she had been added at the last minute? And what is she looking at anyway? Could she be looking for the erased man 🙂

face appears

added face

We ended up having the best time discussing all of the possible scenarios — Why was the man obscured? Why was the woman added? Why are the Cardinals the only ones looking directly at the painter? Who seems to be missing? Who is the woman holding the baby?

“If your goal is to feel good, energized, and connected with the art,” says James Pawelski, director of the University of Pennyslvania’s positive psychology program, “spend a long time with one particular work rather than a few seconds with hundreds of them.” He suggests first doing a walk-around to choose an artwork that speaks to you. Then spend 20 minutes silently observing and savoring it.

I’ll be writing a post soon about a few paintings that made me pause, ponder and savor…


  • Carolyn Goodart

    Your experience reminds me of how Sister Wendy visits museums and how she questions what she sees. She takes time to analyze the setting and the subject. And I’m always amazed at her conclusions! I would call it “active art appreciation!”

    • TwointheMiddle

      I love Sister Wendy! She absolutely showed people how to see things in paintings they might not otherwise see.

  • Linda Ching-Ikiri

    Pamela, your posting is timely…Covenant started a mindfulness class and this reiterates some of the leader’s teachings!

    • TwointheMiddle

      I am so glad that Covenant has started a mindfulness class. People need supportive voices encouraging them to slow down, because there are too many hurry-up voices out there!

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