One of the things that gets me about paintings is the sense of the painter still hanging around. You can almost see the artist dabbing away, limning long strokes, feathering a gradation, taking a sandwich break.
Go as far back as woolly mammoth days, and paintings already have that quality. G. K. Chesterton wrote about the Lascaux cave-paintings:
They were drawings or paintings of animals; and they were drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist. Under whatever archaic limitations, they showed that love of the long sweeping or the long wavering line which any man who has ever drawn or tried to draw will recognize…
Even highly conventionalized painting like the stuff they where turning out back when Egypt was top of the heap can’t completely sublimate the individual. Sure, professional tomb decorator, Fek-At-Fut, didn’t get to stamp a personal cartouche on his pictograph of Hoptha the Ibis, but you can detect Mr. Fut in his graceful precision, his easy discipline in drawing out the curve in the ibis’s beak, or the arc of Bastet’s feline back. Those lines aren’t just beautiful because of how the creatures look; they’re beautiful because they are how we move.
More recent stuff doesn’t make you work so hard to sense the artist. You see a Van Gogh, you think “ear.” To stand before a boxcar-sized painting by Turner and imagine the eminent Victorian in top hat and tails swabbing away at it with a mop of paint is part of the fun. And can you look at a Renoir, or Pissaro, or anything by everyone’s fave, Claude Monet, and not feel a sort of kinesthetic sympathy that almost makes you raise your own hand in imitation of the artist’s daubing?
That’s why I took the picture of Monet’s signature above . There’s the guy himself. His mark is so his own. At once casual and as formally binding as a signature on an Imperial Fiat. It looks as though M. Monet, finished with the canvas, couldn’t quite bring himself to lay down his palette, but indulged in this one last sequence of graceful gestures to keep the ball rolling a few moments longer.
Addendum: See the entire Monet picture — it’s called The Stroller — by clicking on the photo way at the top, or, if you worry that the energy expended scrolling up the entire page contributes needlessly to Global Warming, thereby dooming the higher life forms on the planet, no problem! Stay right where you are, concerned citizen, and click on the words MONET PAINTED THIS.