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Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings

8 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0415970532
ISBN-10: 0415970539
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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

A much different exploration of the meaning of painting is found in Elkins's Pictures and Tears. Elkins (Sch. of the Art Inst. of Chicago; What Painting Is) asks why some people cry in front of paintings. Using both historical sources and solicited examples, he spins out various generally unconvincing hypotheses. Admitting that he himself has never cried in front of a painting, Elkins fails to get to the heart of the matter. Noting that other forms of expression (theater, music, novels, film) are more likely to elicit tears, Elkins attempts to explain their absence in our own time as a peculiarity of the 20th century. The examples of contemporary tears that Elkins resents are largely self-selected (solicited through ads in various publications) and neither prove nor disprove his theories. A rambling and often obtuse style makes this already rather intangible topic even more slippery. Art Matters is recommended for academic and public libraries with a demand for art theory; Pictures and Tears is not recommended. Martin R. Kalfatovic, Smithsonian Inst. Libs., Washington, DC
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Why are some people moved to tears by paintings while others, including most art historians, remain dry-eyed? Elkins has been conducting a provocative and felicitous inquiry into how and what we see in a string of outstanding books, including How to Use Your Eyes [BKL N 1 00], and in preparation for his latest foray, he invited people who have cried in front of paintings to share their experiences. The 400 letters he received form the foundation for an enlightening analysis of the qualities in paintings that arouse the ultimate emotional response, but the most arresting facet of his unique investigation is his charting of the declining value society places on heartfelt reactions to art. Fluent in a great range of works, from Rothko's abstract canvases to a painting he loved as a boy, Bellini's Ecstasy of St. Francis, Elkins elucidates subtle concepts of pictorial time, presence, and absence; criticizes the bloodlessness of most art-history texts; and indicts the marketplace atmosphere of most museums. Prized by the Romantics in the not-so-distant past, art-inspired tears are disdained in our brittle, ironic milieu, a psychological and spiritual diminishment Elkins boldly and rightly decries. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 286 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge (February 25, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415970539
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415970532
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.7 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #336,992 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Note: information on reaching me, on unpublished texts, etc., follows this bio.

James Elkins grew up in Ithaca, New York, separated from Cornell University by a quarter-mile of woods once owned by the naturalist Laurence Palmer.

He stayed on in Ithaca long enough to get the BA degree (in English and Art History), with summer hitchhiking trips to Alaska, Mexico, Guatemala, the Caribbean, and Columbia. For the last twenty-five years he has lived in Chicago; he got a graduate degree in painting, and then switched to Art History, got another graduate degree, and went on to do the PhD in Art History, which he finished in 1989. (All from the University of Chicago.) Since then he has been teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is currently E.C. Chadbourne Chair in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism.

His writing focuses on the history and theory of images in art, science, and nature. Some of his books are exclusively on fine art (What Painting Is, Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?). Others include scientific and non-art images, writing systems, and archaeology (The Domain of Images, On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them), and some are about natural history (How to Use Your Eyes).

Current projects include a series called the Stone Summer Theory Institutes, a book called The Project of Painting: 1900-2000, a series called Theories of Modernism and Postmodernism in the Visual Art, and a book written against Camera Lucida.

He married Margaret MacNamidhe in 1994 on Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands, off the West coast of Ireland. Margaret is also an art historian, with a specialty in Delacroix. Jim's interests include microscopy (with a Zeiss Nomarski differential interference microscope and Anoptral phase contrast), optics (he owns an ophthalmologist's slit-lamp microscope), stereo photography (with a Realist camera), playing piano, and (whenever possible) winter ocean diving.

Contact information:

Hi, most everything about me, including unpublished texts, is here:

That site also has a contact form:

And that website also has my travel calendar, in case you live outside the US:

(Amazon won't let people link their Google calendars to their profile page: don't know why.)

I'm also very active on Facebook:

And I am active on Library Thing (posting reviews of contemporary fiction):

PS, I also have an Amazon "aStore," a special site for buying books:

And last, I also have an Amazon Listmania! list:

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Grady Harp HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 8, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Jame Elkins has written a book that should be in the librairies of schools, art historians, incipient and experienced art lovers. In a winning conversational style of writing Elkins makes the case for subjective response to paintings, both past and present. And in doing so he gives a brief course in at history (he is an art historian, actively teaching) that is less a chronological evaluation of politics and sociology and techniques of painting than it is a survey of how people have responded to paintings through time. His precis: we are in this century prevented from "experiencing" paintings, so immersed are we in swallowing the opinions of scholars and critics and our own spiritual aridity. He examines why certain people are able to cry in their encounter with paintings, others are moved to physiologic reactions, while others speedily walk past image after image in their need to huury past another obligatory check point in claiming cultural awareness. In many ways this is a sad treatise on the fact that we have arrived at a time when we don't embrace our vulnerability, don't admit that something so apparently inanimate as an old master painting - if given the quantity and quality of time to absorb it - can touch inner secret caves and cause us to light up our souls and our existence by responding with unfettered eyes and heart.
Elkins investigates the various responses (including his own) to the Rothko Chapel, to Giotto, to Renaissance paintings, to the Romantics, to Friedrich, and to Picasso's "Guernica". These are in the form of summation of letters written to him in response to his question "Have you ever cried at paintings?" sent to previous students, art historians, and friends.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By GiovanniGF on February 9, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The topic is fascinating, and when Elkins talks about specific works of art he is great. Unfortunately, when he talks about emotions he doesn't say much and he repeats his few points insufferably; a good editor would have trimmed this book by a quarter. That said, Elkins' thesis that we've forgotten how to engage with paintings emotionally - and the role that museums and art historians play in this development - will stay with you and affect the way you look at art in the future.

Also note that the formatting for the Kindle is terrible. Particularly galling when the publisher is charging twice the usual rate for ebooks.
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8 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Timothy C. Wingate on February 8, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This book is beautifully illustrated with paintings by Caravaggio, Greuze, Bellini (Giovanni), Bouts, and Friedrich along with a picture of a chapel designed by Mark Rothko.
As the blurb states, it is a "strange and wonderful investigation into paintings and the emotions they conjure."
The book is eloquently written by the author James Elkins who is a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has also authored "How To Use Your Eyes" and "What Painting Is".
This is a highly affecting book and will give hours of pleasure to those discerning readers who have the privilege to read the author's opus.
Timothy Wingate from OTTAWA CANADA
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Michael Saur on April 23, 2009
Format: Paperback
"Pictures and Tears" is a rare book, smart, knowledgeable and soulful, an eloquent homage to the mysteries of art. I bought it several times and gave it to friends, most of them painters. I also gave it to Oliver Sacks, who I interviewed for a German magazine, after he told me he was working on a book on tears.
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