Skip navigation

Art History Lecture

COMPOSITION IN ART: Seeing the Whole Picture

In 1783 the president of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, wrote: "Composition, which is the principle part of the invention of a Painter, is by far the greatest difficulty he has to encounter".

Too true! A good composition can make, and a bad composition break, a painting.

But what is a good composition? Is it about balance or harmony? Is it the mysterious Golden Section? Might it involve colour and tone as well as line and shape? Could it control the way our gaze is led around an image? Do we read paintings, like words, from left to right?

Perhaps it is at the whim of fashion: there have been trends for symmetrical compositions, pyramidal, diagonal, curvilinear and, even, all-over compositions. Modernist painters had to learn to love their edges!

This lecture explores a wide range of paintings to 'see the whole picture'