Patterns of Intentions



Baxandall’s Patterns of Intentions is an attempt to answer the question, what is the nature and basis for the historical explanation of paintings? Adding to Aristotle’s vocabulary, Baxandall provides the language to explain the social, cultural and economic circumstances facing an artist with terms like Brief, Charge and Troc. Understanding the environment and the specific problem an artist may be attempting to resolve help the audience comprehend the choices in style and form the artist made. In a way, Baxandall is proposing a method, a triangulation of description, explanation and socio-historical context as a means to arrive at the intention of the artist. While this method highlights some causal determinants, what is certain is the myriad ways an artist has to solve a problem. Using the construction of the Forth Bridge as a model to re-construct the builder’s account of cause and effect of his choices, Baxandall illustrates the utilitarian choices and the ancillary aesthetic choices Baker made when building the bridge. With an obvious problem such as spanning a chasm and limited options for medium, with the added constraints of durability, stability, and public safety, Baker’s purpose and audience are clear. Yet even with the narrowly defined purpose and static problem, the historical recreation of circumstances is still only suspect when trying to pinpoint intention.


Applying this same process of analysis to visual art yields even less certain results. With a painting, new problems emerge with each brushstroke, conveying the complexity of analysis. Thus the end product of a painting, its patterns of color, line and form an artist chose, do not reveal the problem the painter was trying to solve nor his intention. Problem solving becomes problem finding and the two interpenetrate one another. This process of analysis of a painter’s intention highlights the tendency for description to provide more insight about one’s thoughts of the picture, not the picture itself. This equates to viewers responding less to the object itself and more to the mental engagement and memory of it.


The second half of the book focuses on the systematic ideas of the time influencing the artist, namely the scientific and philosophical underpinnings. Understanding another culture and period is an added layer of analysis. Baxandall highlights the necessity of taking the context of the painting into consideration, the negative examples influencing the artist as well as the aesthetic choices when trying to arrive at the artist’s intention.


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