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John Berger
Ways of Seeing at 50

Extracts from Ways of Seeing - Chapt5

­­­­Oil paintings often depict things. Things which, in reality, are buyable. To have a thing painted and put on a canvas is not unlike buying it and putting it in your house. If you buy a painting, you buy also the look of the thing it represents.

This analogy between possessing and the way of seeing, which is incorporated in oil painting, is a factor usually ignored by art experts and historians. 

The term oil painting refers to more than a technique. It defines an art form. The method of mixing pigments with oil has existed since the ancient world. But the oil painting as an art form was not born until there was a need to develop and perfect this technique (which soon involved using canvas instead of wooden panels) to express a particular view of life for the methods of tempera or fresco were inadequate.


When oil paint was first used - at the beginning of the fifteenth century in Northern Europe - for painting pictures of a new character, this character was somewhat inhibited by the survival of various medieval artistic conventions. As a result, the oil painting did not fully establish its norms, its way of seeing, until the sixteenth century.

The art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class. So if we were saying that European art between 1500 and 1900 served the interests of the successive ruling classes, all of whom depended in different ways on the new power of capital, we should not be saying anything very new.


What is being proposed is a little more precise. It is a way of seeing the world, which was ultimately determined by new attitudes to property and exchange. It found its visual expression in the oil painting and could not have found it in any other visual art form.

Berger illustrates his argument: with two paintings, The Ambassadors and Mr and Mrs Andrews.

What is a love of art?

Let us consider a painting which belongs to the tradition whose subject is an art lover.

What does it show?

The sort of man in the seventeenth century for whom painters painted their paintings.

What are these paintings?

Before they are anything else, they are themselves objects which can be bought and owned. Unique objects. A patron cannot be surrounded by music or poems in the same WaY as he is surrounded by his pictures.

It is as though the collector lives in a house built of paintings. What is their advantage over walls of stone or wood?

The show him sights: sights of what he may possess.

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Gallery of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in Brussels, David Tenier the Younger, 1651 (click image for enlargement)


The Ambassadors, Holbein, 1533 (click image for enlargement)

mr and mrs andrews by Gainsborough.jpg

Mr and Mrs Andrews, Gainsborough, 1750

Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533) is painted with great skill to create the illusion of looking at natural objects and materials. Every square inch of the surface of this painting, whilst remaining purely visual, appeals to the sense of touch. The eye moves from fur to silk to metal to wood to velvet to marble to paper to felt, and each time what the eye perceives is already translated, within the painting itself, into the language of tactile sensation. The two men are confident, and many objects symbolise ideas, but the materials, the stuff, by which the men are surrounded and clothed dominate the painting.

Except for the faces and hands, there is not a surface in this picture which does not make one aware of how it has been elaborately worked over - by weavers, embroiderers, carpet-makers, goldsmiths, leather workers, mosaic-makers, furriers, tailors, jewellers - and of how this working-over and the resulting richness of each surface has been finally worked-over and reproduced by Holbein, the painter.


This emphasis and its skill were to remain a constant of the tradition of oil painting.


Works of art in earlier traditions celebrated wealth. But wealth was then a symbol of a fixed social or divine order. Oil painting marked a new kind of wealth - which was dynamic and which found its only sanction in the supreme buying power of money. 


In the foreground of The Ambassadors is a mysterious, slanting, oval form. This represents; a highly distorted skull: a skull as it might be seen in a distorting mirror. There are several theories about how it was painted and why the ambassadors wanted it put there. But all agree that it was a kind of memento mori: a play on the medieval idea of using a skull as a continual reminder of the presence of death. 

Mr and Mrs Andrews is about money, possessions and power. It is 18th century English class society laid bare on canvas.


This young couple opted to celebrate their marriage, and combining their families' fortune by commissioning a relatively unknown painter named Thomas Gainsborough to paint their portraits. Little could they anticipate that within a few decades it would be the artist, and not them that would make their portrait famous. 


A couple are shown relaxing in their best leisure clothes against the backdrop, not of a Capability Brown designed landscape garden, but their farmland. Gainsborough shoves his subjects to the side; they are at odds with, rather than part of, the land and sky sweeping away from them. In their posh clothes, they look artificial, unconvincing.


Thomas Gainsborough, who eventually became a brilliant flatterer of the English aristocracy, painted a squire showing off his wife and land in 1748 or thereabouts. As a twenty-two year old he had not yet learned subtlety. Or perhaps it was the Suffolk rawness of Mr and Mrs Andrews themselves that dictated the surprising frankness of his painting of them on their estate: The Auberies, on the Suffolk-Essex border. They wanted to get it all in - the agricultural richness of their land, its scope, their absolute ownership - as they pose in front of an English oak tree. They wanted the world to know they were wealthy.


Gainsborough’s portrait is typical of “conversation pieces;" informal group portraits which gained popularity in the middle of the 18th century in England. The "conversation piece" usually presented a small group of individuals in an outdoor space, engaged in discussion and unaware of the viewer’s presence. Mr and Mrs. Andrews diverts from that tradition, as its sitters are clearly reacting to Gainsborough’s presence, but their relaxed poses and location in the English countryside connects them to the "conversation piece" tradition.

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