[Solved] formalist and contextualist approaches

            Just like any form of art, painting is profound representation of the messages that are intended to be conveyed by the painter. A single painting speaks a thousand words, so to speak.

            Since the pre-history period, we have seen some significant paintings in the history which do not have only aesthetic value but social value as well. Paintings usually depict social issues more than the personal state of emotions of the painter.

            A painting could be described and interpreted, basically, in two ways. First is through Formalism Approach which tells about the physical characteristic of the painting. It mainly dwells on the color, lines, composition and other visual qualities that could be observed on the painting being observed.[1]

            Second is through the Contextualist Approach. This kind of approach focuses on the underpinning messages subdued on the painting which considers the social and cultural characteristics of the painting. [2]

            And in some cases, these two are combined which we call the Comprehensive Approach.

            Below is an analysis of three paintings where both the Formalist Approach and Contextualist Approach were used.

The Proposition

            Painted by Judith Leyster, the Proposition is on the form of Oil on Canvas. Today, the painting is also known as the “Rejected Offer.”

The Proposition features an old man displaying coins to a young woman who is sewing beside a lamp. The painting shows that the hand of the old man is resting on the shoulder of the young woman. This implies that the old man is not offering a payment for the labor of the seamstress. This is one of the intriguing paintings during its time.[3]

            The common interpretation offered to this art work is that the old man was asking the young woman to have sex with him but the young woman ignores the proposition. This is Leyster’s critical response to the stereotype that was imposed upon women during that time. Women are considered as mere sex objects.

            On the other hand, it can also be viewed as a mere reflection of the Dutch tradition of offering a woman some coins as a form of invitation to court.

            The slouching posture of the young woman suggests that she is humiliated and alienated by the old man. The painting also shows that the young woman is not interested or aloof with the old man’s offer.

            Another social implication of the painting is that women are considered inferior in the society especially in the Dutch history during the seventeenth century.

            The surroundings in the painting used the painter Leyster even emphasized the crookedness of the old man’s proposal or proposition.

            The background of the individuals in the painting seemed to draw attention to the “main character” of the painting who is the young woman sitting. Colors used are darker that would lead the attention of those looking at the painting to the woman sitting on a chair. The wall in the painting was also void of any distractions that would possible grab attention away from the young woman.

            The intensity of the young woman’s white blouse is intended by the painter for her to be one of the foci of the painting. The high intensity of the white blouse is made even perfect by the contrasting backdrop.[4]

            Both the faces of the old man and the young woman are illuminated by the candle beside them to show their facial expressions and to high light “what is going on.”[5]

            Leyster used well-define lines and colors which gave emphasis to the messages the she wanted to convey.

            “The Proposition” is an attempt of a woman to unveil the repression that was evident in the society during that time. The attempt was successful in sending in the message that women will not always be inferior in the society.

The painting depicts the ability of the women to challenge the status quo and their ability to cast away all the weaknesses and stereotypes that were imposed against them during that repressive century.

Forming the Fifth International

            May Stevens featured a double portrait in her painting “Forming the Fifth International. In the painting are the images of her mother, Alice Stevens, and an revolutionary theorist and activist, Rosa Luxemburg. [6]

             In her project Extraordinary. Ordinary, Alice and Rosa represented the Family Quartile and the Discipline Quartile, respectively.

            Evident in the painting is Steven’s use of dark tones of colors especially on the background. The emphasis is seemed to be given to Rosa Luxemburg by using relatively lighter tones as compared to those used in depicting the painter’s mother and the other details of the painting.

            The combination of light and dark tones in the background aimed to break the monotonous tone of the background. The background was also void of any visible

distraction that would make the attention veer away from the two subjects in the painting.

            The illumination of the colors used on Rosa’s image would also catch the viewers’ attention. It appears that Rosa is a dominant figure in the painting. Meanwhile, Alice, the painter’s mother, seems to be inferior when one would look on the color composition used in her image. The colors used are bleak and dark as compared to those that are used on Rosa’s image.

            Based on Steven’s artwork, she is implying two of the most important aspects of the society: Family and Discipline. Perhaps, she aimed to convey to her audience that the family is equally important as discipline in the society.

            Rose is a known activist who aims social change for the betterment of the society as a whole. While the image of her mother represents the importance of a family is fulfilling the greater goals that we are up to.

Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses

            Painter Georgia O’Keeffe featured fossilized formations and saturated colors in her art work “Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses” as she always did.[7]

            The painting shows a fragile bovine skull which appears to be ghostly remnant. At the center of the canvass is a funereal strip which hangs stark against the bovine skull. There are also floral accents surrounding the fabric folds which were presented exquisitely fine. This painting is considered as the most enigmatic work of O’Keeffe.

            O’Keeffe used light colors for the bovine skull and the Calico roses while used a dark tone as a contrasting element on the funereal strip.

            Attention would surely be gleaned on the bovine skull which appears to be a sign of death.

            The message which has been intended to be sent by the painter is a symbolism of both death and rejuvenation. It is a part of the mythical world of the American West which is known for enduring allure.

             The irony that could be observed in the painting is too profound. It explains that in death, one can also find rejuvenation. The painting presented another aspect of death.

            Meanwhile, the painting could also be interpreted as a sign of death that was caused by an animal. The painting was featured as the cover of a magazine which tackles about diseases. The painting could also depict a deadly disease that was inflected by an animal. The Calico Roses in the painting could also mean death, in this case.


         Although paintings, like any other works, are subjected to subjectivity in gleaning its truest essence, we could always infer a meaning that would be culturally fit to the viewers of the painting.

            Also, the Formalist and Contextualist Approach of looking at paintings would always be connected to each other. The visual qualities of a painting are a vital factor on how a viewer would comprehend the contextual meaning of the work.


Bersson, Robert. Responding to Art: Form, Content, and Context. McGraw-Hill, 2003.

Chicago, Judy and Edward Lucie-Smith. Women and Art: Contested Territory. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1999.

Cohen, Kathleen. “The Proposition.” World Art Kiosk, 2007.

Hartt, Frederick. Art, a History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. New York: Prentice Hall-Abrams, 1993.

Mathews, Hans. “Colour and Will.” Frontline August 1-14 1998.

[1] Bersson, Robert. Responding to Art: Form, Content, and Context p.10. McGraw-Hill, 2003.

[2] Bersson, Robert. Responding to Art: Form, Content, and Context.p.10 McGraw-Hill, 2003.

[3] Cohen, Kathleen. “The Proposition.” World Art Kiosk, 2007.

[4] Mathews, Hans. “Colour and Will.” Frontline August 1-14 1998.

[5] Cohen, Kathleen. “The Proposition.” World Art Kiosk, 2007.

[6] Chicago, Judy and Edward Lucie-Smith. Women and Art: Contested Territory.p. 228 London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1999.

[7] Hartt, Frederick. Art, a History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. p.117. New York: Prentice Hall-Abrams, 1993.



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