The recent coincidence in time of two exhibitions - Cezanne, the father of modern art, and Lord Leighton, that polished exponent of the tail-end of the Renaissance tradition - drew attention to two seemingly antipodean contemporaries. But a different conceptual filter can change the way we look. Stephen Kern focuses our attention on eyes and the meaning they convey. This simple idea, here brilliantly developed, uncovers patterns of composition which unite the French Impressionists with late Victorian artists. A courtship scene by Manet is mercifully free from the sticky sentiment found in John Horsley's "Blossom Time". But both artists make use of the interrogative gaze, and similar pictorial conventions, to pose the age-old question: "Will she or won't she?"
The term here coined - "proposal compositions" - proves apt. Kern shows how artists, when positioning a man and woman in amorous relationship, consistently gave the eyes of the woman greater prominence. Frequently, the man's face is shown in shadow or in three- quarter view. As often, the woman, turning slightly away from the man, is shown full face, her eyes conveying a mixture of emotions, including reserve, doubt and moral reckoning. Whatever is being proposed, be it marriage, sexual seduction or blackmail, the woman seems to have the wider view. Likewise, in novels of this period, women's eyes receive more attention than men's. Flaubert's Emma Bovary, for instance, has "an open gaze that met yours with fearless candour", while her husband Charles has merely "a timid look". In Daniel Deronda, George Eliot devotes much of the opening chapter to the analysis of a glance, that which in Gwendolen Harleth first caught Daniel's attention.
One of Kern's achievements is to make the reader look differently at familiar paintings. Renoir's sun-dappled "The Swing", hitherto a delightfully easy portrayal of leisure, becomes a complex document in human relations. The man standing with his back to the viewer looks at the woman holding the ropes of a swing. She leans slightly away from him, the side of her body pushing against one of the ropes, and instead of returning his gaze she looks aside, as if lost in reverie. As Kern observes, "her minimal activity is full of subtle resistance". Similarly, Kern turns "The Umbrellas", one of the best-loved Renoirs in the National Gallery, into a psychological minefield, again chiefly by making us look at those expressive signals, the eyes. …