How Long Does it Take To Look at a Painting? (James Elkins)

Weeping Madonna, Workshop of Dieric Bouts
James Elkins is the E.C. Chadbourne Chair in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the author of several books, including Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students and The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing.

Elkins has a particular fascination with how we look at things, from paintings to everyday objects. His new series on that subject for the Huffington Post opened with How to Look at a Mondrian.

The second column in the series is How Long Does it Take To Look at a Painting?, in which he considers the time individuals devote to looking at a painting, from the cursory (the Louvre reports that people look at the Mona Lisa for an average of 15 seconds) to the kind of extended interaction with a painting that takes place over the course of a lifetime.

He focuses in particular on a beautiful little 15th Century devotional painting, Weeping Madonna by Dieric Bouts.

(His description of the painting, particularly the handling of the eyes, prompted me to think of another painting, very different in some ways, similar in others, by Rogier van der Weyden.)

Elkins invites comments on the post (login necessary) from readers who have had experiences with spending long periods gazing at a painting, getting lost in the work, or returning to it repeatedly.


12 Replies to “How Long Does it Take To Look at a Painting? (James Elkins)”

  1. This painting (the Weeping Madonna) is my all time favorite at the Art Institute of Chicago. It is fascinating that he picked this painting because it captivates me and I find myself pulled into the painting and I can not stiop looking at her. It is not only a work of art, but for me, it is a devotional painting. I pray in front of it and ask for the intercessions of The Mother of God. I often wonder how many people pray before the religious paintings on display in the art museums. I guess only God knows! :-)… Thank you for posting this!!

  2. Thank you for finding this article Charley! I posted a link to it and your blog on Facebook today- my favorite line of the article is “Time, patience, immersion: these are qualities that some art continues to call for” and I couldn’t agree more! It is an amazing experience to sit quietly in a museum and just stare in awe and wonder at a beautiful piece of art…

  3. Great topic.

    In our age of instant gratification, 15 seconds to look at the Mona Lisa probably feels about right for most people, even for those who traveled across the ocean to make that 15-second pilgrimage. But for many others a quarter of a minute seems ridiculously inadequate, including those who practice what has come to be called in some quarters “slow art” (oil painting.)

    Of course it’s not just artists who want to spend time “appreciating” a piece of art. Collectors collect for the very same reason. And what we can’t afford to collect we buy as reproductions.

    When we find a great work that resonates with us, the cumulative time spent looking doesn’t appear to have any limit.

  4. I suppose that there is a point, with some images – specific to the individual, where we cease to “look at” it and are “touched” by it – from then on it stays in our mind, or better imagination for good. This depends on what the viewer brings to the image…

  5. Excellent. The redness of the eyes is extraordinary.

    Interesting that you say “(His description of the painting, particularly the handling of the eyes, prompted me to think of another painting, very different in some ways, similar in others, by Rogier van der Weyden.)”. When I first began looking at this painting I could only think of the work of Dino Valls (who I truly admire).

    I, ike many, love all aspect of a beautiful work but there is something about the “eyes” that causes me to want to look for hours, many hours and often.

    Well done,


  6. I thought the same Charley! Van der Weyden!

    Whenever I go to El Prado, I spend a lot of time staring at the “Descendimento” from him, with so gorgeous tears, pearls, golden ribbons, folds…amazing.

  7. I feel that most viewers miss the opportunity to fully appreciate a painting, especially a Reuben’s, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, etc, by not taking enough visual time. For me, and I have my favorite works, the experience includes visually receiving the power and emotions transferring from the image into your own emotional translation and appreciation. It is a wonderful experience to find a painting that absorbs your attention like that. And, you will find yourself going back for more.

  8. Depende do ponto de vista de quem ver,pois ver
    todos podem mas o olhar é com a alma,vamos no arquétipo profundo da imagem.Acho que quando olhamos para algo que nos agrada a persistência da imagem permanece por longo tempo nos olhos de nossa memória.

  9. Art looks the way it does because of how it was made obviously, when you look at a finished piece you miss all the little steps involved. I really like ugly messy, mistake, riddled sketches. You get to see all the markings, the ones that made it and the ones that didn’t.

    I am well aware that when I am done with my art the only connection anyone else is going to have is just a glance if I’m lucky. I do try my best to make the work I do pleasing to the eye with every little trick I know, from rounding off corners so the eye is not trapped by corners, conturing my stokes in the direction of the focal point, connecting areas via matching textures and so on. I think it has a lot to do with the subject too, I will look at a nude much longer then I would a sunflower, because I am a dude.

    Interesting topic, thanks for sharing.

  10. I think that great paintings deserve to be looked at at least the same amount of time it took the artist to make them.

    Btw, at first millisecond I also mistook this Bouts’ masterpiece with Van der Weyden’s Deposition, like other posters. Btw, Google Earth users can see the ultra high resolution of Prado’s Deposition, along with some other masterpieces from the museum.

Comments are closed.