In Painting as an Art, which began as the 1984 Andrew Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., philosopher Richard Wollheim transcended the boundaries and habits of both philosophy and art history to produce a large, encompassing vision of viewing art. Wollheim had three great passions--philosophy, psychology, art--and his work attempted to unify them into a theory of the experience of art. He believed that unlocking the meaning of a painting involved retrieving, almost reenacting, the creative activity that produced it. In order to fully appreciate a work of art, Wollheim argued, critics must bring to the understanding of a work of art a much richer conception of human psychology than they have in the past: "Many [critics] . . . make do with a psychology that, if they tried to live their lives by it, would leave them at the end of an ordinary day without lovers, friends, or any insight into how this came about." Many reviewers have remarked on the insightfulness of the book’s final chapter, in which Wollheim contended that certain paintings by Titian, Bellini, de Kooning, and others represent the painters’ attempts to project fantasies about the human body onto the canvas.
Reviewing the book in the Los Angeles Times, Daniel A. Herwitz asserted that Wollheim had "done no less than recover for psychology its obvious and irresistible place in the explanation of what is most profound and subtle about paintings."
"There are books aplenty on painting and art, but this is the first to explain seriously what makes painting an art, and it is our good luck to have it from a notable philosopher who is also on an intimate footing with the tradition of Western painting and who knows how to stand in front of a painting and spin tales that sparkle with truth. . . . Mr. Wollheim's interpretations are bold, revisionary and cogent. Only a philosopher of his rare gifts, and a connoisseur with his command of the art-historical tradition, could possibly have the confidence to bring off his feat of virtuoso interpretation."--Flint Schier, New York Times Book Review
"It is one of the achievements of Richard Wollheim's superb book that it offers an extremely subtle sense of the mind's functioning, while providing a theory of critical relevance: it shows how psychological and cultural factors enter a painting's content, and how arguments on relevance can be conducted in difficult cases."--Michael Podro, The Times Literary Supplement
File created: 2/2/2015