What I learned about Art from reading Walter Pater


Today I discussed The Renaissance Studies in Art and Poetry, by Walter Pater, with my painting group.

Pater wrote this book in the 1800s and includes chapters on various Renaissance artists and writers. We discussed the Da Vinci chapter only and it made me think about the artist.

Two Things Pater Wrote

  1. Pater says the role of the critic is to determine the type of genius an artist possesses
  2. Pater tells the story of the entire life of the artist – the character and life of the artist are inseparable from the art.

The Genius

The genius of Da Vinci, as Pater sees it, is a combination of appreciation of beauty and curiosity. This idea of Genius as a combination of qualities is very thought-provoking for me. I now think of other artists, like Picasso or Matisse, and wonder about their genius. Picasso is something about line and innovation or vision, Matisse about color and objects. I am just riffing here.

The Life

We live in a time when how an artist lives their life is as important as the art. And many people, including myself, will not look at or support artwork that contradicts their values. But this is something more. The expression of life is similar to the expression of art.

It reminds me of the Jungian concept of individuation. For Jung, In the plant kingdom, roses all become roses, but with humans, each person can individuate into something completely unique. There is no blueprint.

Curiosity and Beauty

Walter Pater writes that not only was Da Vinci interested in beauty, but he himself was also beautiful. As a child, he would buy birds from the market and let them fly free.

Da Vinci’s notebooks are filled with descriptions of the natural world, like how water flows. He observes all the different ways that water flows around rocks and in rivers. He speculates why water moves the way it does.

Nature Today

Today we understand a lot about water flows. We have mathematical models that can recreate water flowing down a river in animated films.

Today, the artist-scientist does not just have water. Nature today is the invisible and distant: dark matter and black holes. We look through instruments and our instruments comprise our art: Video art and Installations, and generative art and NFTs.

I think about what would Da Vinci write today in his journal. What are the mysteries of nature now? How much can we appreciate them with our senses? How much do the instruments get in the way? Or how can we use the instruments to see more clearly?