In this article, see how to analyze a painting through a practical application example. Learn what elements to take into account from the formal, content and symbolic point of view.
Text: Yolanda Silva, author of the online course Analysing Art.
how to analyze a painting
To answer the question of how to analyze a painting we chose the painting Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, by Thomas Gainsborough (eighteenth century).
But before we start, let’s remember what we must take into account during the analysis. Then, how to analyze a painting ?
- Identification (name of the artist, title of the work, date and site of production, previous and current locations);
- Technical data (dimensions, materials, general condition);
- Structure (frame and pictorial area, technique);
- Composition (design, colour, light, ...).
- Identification of the subject;
- History of the subject;
- Relation between iconography and shape.
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Now, let’s see how to analyze a painting with the exemple.
Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, by Thomas Gainsborough (18th century).
Learn how to analyze a painting in the formal point of view.
Painter: Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788)
Title of the painting: Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Production site: [no data; supposed probability England]
Production date: between 1785 and 1787
Previous locations: initially property of the Sheridans; acquired by Edward and Harriet Bouverie (family was owner until 1872); sold at auction to Alfred de Rothchild (family owned the painting until 1936); sold to Duveen Bros. in London (1936); acquired April 26, 1937 by the AW Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust (Pittsburg, USA), which donated it to the National Gallery of Washington (Washington DC, USA)
Current Location: National Gallery of Washington (USA) - since 1937
Dimensions: 220 x 154 cm
Materials: Oil on canvas
General condition: [no data; assumed in good condition]
Portrait of Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Elizabeth Ann Linley Sheridan), aged 31, integrated in a bucolic landscape.
She is surrounded by trees, dressed as a lady of high society and sitting on a rock. The fabric of her fine garments and her wavy hair are floating in the wind, like the leaves on the crests of the trees. In the background, the sunset is slightly obscured by a distant solitary tree.
The posture of the depicted woman is in accordance with the melancholy of the scene.
Portrait executed for private purposes.
No data on the frame itself.
The technique used by the painter is one of many romantic portraits of the time, with quick brushstrokes, often only suggesting details (note the hands, fingers tangled in the silk scarf: they are defined by summary brushstrokes only giving a slight suggestion of form). The diaphaneity of the strokes is essential to the painter, conveying rhythm to both colour and shape.
The composition line is diagonal, defined by the seated figure. The design excels for its diaphanous and free lines, organising the composition around Mrs. Sheridan’s face (and thus also eyes and expression).
There is symmetry between the character and the landscape. The idea of movement and instability revealed in the natural landscape as well as in the main character is a dominating feature – the wind is noticeable in both the hair and the silk scarf as well as through the leaves of the trees and flowers around the portrayed woman.
There is also a certain symmetry between the colour of the garments and those of the sky (where the sun sets) – shades of pink and gold; and the portrayed woman seems to counter symmetrically with the very tree that hides the setting sun.
The dominant colours are autumnal and are distributed diffusely, suggesting the romantic idea of melancholy that, according to reports of the time, matched Mrs. Sheridan’s temperament. The faltering light of a setting sun (left) reinforces this idea.
Learn how to analyze a painting in the symbolic point of view.
Identification and History of the subject
Elizabeth Ann Linley (1754-92) was a singer and a friend of Gainsborough's since childhood. She fled to France to marry playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816).
She was known for her beauty and melancholic temperament and famous for her singing skills. Daughter of Thomas Linley and Mary Johnson, both talented musicians from Bath, England.
Married to Sheridan in 1773 (presumed date), with whom she lived a tempestuous marriage due to temperamental differences.
Relation between iconography and shape
Gainsborough uses the instability of the brushstrokes to create the very instability of the scene and thus also reinforce the idea of melancholy – popular at the time and according to the character of the portrayed. This is a painting with psychological intensity.
The strength of the strokes used to paint the facial features reveal a serious, well sculpted, and dignified face, with a kind gaze. This seems to force the focus on these features, rather than the surrounding. The brushstrokes, from the firmer to the more diffuse, capture Mrs. Sheridan’s delicacy and charm, showing us that this is a woman of elegance and status.
The setting of the sun is symbolic of her melancholy, again reinforcing the idea of the mood of the portrayed. Similarly, a distant and solitary tree (left), opposed to the woman can be interpreted by its sense of displacement and isolation - perhaps she herself is looking for something that is to her distant or unreachable.