Art and Detecting Come Together

A recent article in The New York Times caught my eye. It was about Amy E. Herman, an expert in visual perception, who has written a book titled Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life. She teaches medical students, business executives, and those who work in local and federal law enforcement how to use art as a tool for critical inquiry: What am I seeing here? How do I attach a narrative to it? Her goal is to teach people how to notice details they might otherwise miss.

Because I used to take my film students to the art museum to do something similar, I was totally intrigued by the reactions of a group of police officers Ms. Herman took to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Interestingly, she says that law enforcement officers are more forthcoming than doctors and medical students when it comes to talking about paintings. Doctors seem much more inhibited because “they don’t want to be wrong, and they never want to show that they are ignorant about anything.” Dear me!

She says police officers tend to look at the paintings through the lens of their work: Who has done what to whom? Where is the perp?

One police officer, who was visiting an art museum for the first time in her life, said she had learned “how to sit down with colleagues and deal with the fact that they can perceive things so differently from each other.”

Here are some of the paintings they looked at and the reactions, which I LOVED reading:

“The Horse Fair” by Rosa Bonheur. “It appears to be daytime, and the horses appear to be traveling from left to right.”

Rosa Bonheur

“At the Lapin Agile” by Picasso. “They appear to have had an altercation,” said one officer. Another officer added, “The male and female look like they’re together, but the male looks like he’ll be sleeping on the couch.”


“The Purification of the Temple” by El Greco depicts Jesus expelling the moneylenders amid turmoil and mayhem. One officer said, “I’d collar the guy in pink because it’s clear that he’s causing all the trouble.” The “guy in pink” is Jesus.

El Greco

“Mrs. John Winthrop” by John Singleton Copley. Everyone sees that this is a woman with fruit, but most missed the mahogany table and the woman’s reflection in the table.

John Singleton Copley

“Mistress and Maid” by Vermeer. Ms. Herman says, “Analysts come away asking questions — ‘Who’s asking the question? Who’s doing the talking? Who’s listening’ — while the cops say — ‘It’s a servant asking for the day off.'”

These are a few of the questions I’d ask my film students while viewing Vermeer’s painting: What close-ups would you shoot (e.g. the faces of each woman, the piece of paper in the maid’s hand)? Where would you place the camera to film each of the women? Is there anyone else in the room? What’s the background like behind the seated woman? What do we hear in the room? What sounds do we hear coming from outside the room?


One Comment

  • Carolyn Goodart

    This article reminds me of Sister Wendy who pops up on our TV now and then. She usually focuses on a few works of art at a particular museum she happens to be visiting. I enjoy hearing her share her thoughts but am always surprised at her insights. Sister Wendy seems like a very unworldly person but brings serious thought to her analysis of paintings! She has an amazing imagination and depth of the human mind.

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