What makes a painting sad?

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Here are two claims to be examined in detail in this thesis. The first claim is that whenever we see pictorial content, what we see is mediated by a pictorial perspective. The second claim is that adequately seeing expressive content in paintings mandates imagining a persona occupying the pictorial perspective. In this thesis, I develop an argument to show how these two claims weave together to explain what makes a painting sad.

My thesis, which concerns seeing emotions in paintings, appeals to considerations about perspective-taking that are also relevant to seeing emotions in faces. I challenge the widely held view that ‘emotion’ refers to a state, ‘expression’ to the dynamic effect of that state, and ‘artistic expressiveness’ to the mere presentation of outward characteristics associated with the state. I show how this mistaken way of understanding what expression is, is put to work by theorists to explain how paintings can be expressive while failing to be expressions proper or failing to emanate from the kind of thing that can undergo an emotion. My work draws on a range of foundational issues in philosophy of perception and the philosophy of art to provide an account that corrects a common misconception about how we directly and immediately see emotions. I apply this account to a productive examination of the painterly case.

My proposal is that the phenomenon of expression is explained by invoking a constitutive persona theory. Viewers must or do see the picture from a persona’s emotional perspective. This is what we mean when we call a painting sad and expression cannot get going without it. The arguments in this thesis aim at establishing this conclusion.
Date of Award1 Sept 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorSacha Golob (Supervisor)

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