Let’s consider Context
First of all we need to consider the artist himself; his attitudes, beliefs, interests, training and biography including his psychological state, if that is possible. As with content the understanding of context requires some knowledge, particularly of the history of the period in which the painting was produced. For example, attitudes to the painting of peasants changed markedly during 19th century France, as new socialist ideas often promoted them to the central theme of some paintings (Millet and Courbet) as opposed to being merely bit players. Of course, if you are considering a recent painting you have already experienced to some degree the context of the work, so bring this to bear in your judgements.
Remember technology can also play a part; a large amount of topographical painting would not have been possible without the camera obscura. The Impressionists preference for painting out of doors would have been a problem without the invention of the paint tube. Where would artists of the 20th century be without the invention of acrylic paint, mechanised screen-printing, computers, video and film? The important point to remember is not to expect paintings to deliver what was not technically possible at the time. So if the perspective on a work by the great medieval painter Giotto 1267 – 1337 looks a bit dodgy, remember the geometry of perspective was not actually invented until around 1420.
Another important element to think about is whether the painting was commissioned and if so by whom, or did the artist have a patron. Patrons can be incredibly influential in the development of an artist’s work or even a movement in art. Charles Saatchi is an obvious modern example; the multi-millionaire marketing guru almost single-handedly created the Young British Art movement of the 1990’s by his patronage. We might ask whether Damien Hirst would have come to the fore if Saatchi had not paid him £25000 for his floating shark? Or whether much of the shock element of the YBA’s work would have been so prominent if Saatchi had not bought the work and thereby influenced other wealthy collectors to jump on the collecting bandwagon?
These are difficult questions to answer, but this issue has been around for centuries. Extremely wealthy or powerful patrons have always patronised particular artists. We need look no further than the Medici’s in Italy to realise that without their wealth, much of the fabulous art of the Renaissance might not have been created. The question to be asked here is whether the values of the patron are reflected in the artist’s work? Or has the artist remained true to his own convictions?
Issues such as the social, religious and political attitudes are also very important elements to get to grips with. We have only to look how regimes such as fascism and communism sought to control and influence artists. Many artists played along with these attitudes for obvious reasons, others risked their lives in opposing them. The same applies to the religious conflicts in centuries past. All have an influence on the artist’s output.