What does ‘psychological aesthetics’ mean? Although the term may be unfamiliar, it refers to the relation between the actual (aesthetic) qualities of painting, such as line, colour, handling, composition and so on and the inner (psychological) effects that these have on the spectator. ‘Aesthetic’ in this sense is grounded in the material properties of painting, rather than referring to some disembodied realm of judgements about beauty or truth. ‘Psychological’ also refers to a somewhat different range of experience from the traditional psychology of perception. Here it suggests the complex and shifting array of sensations, feelings, fantasies, thoughts and other less easily categorisable events of mental life that accompany all our perceptions, whether we are aware of them or not. This is something that could be called the ‘psychological lining of experience’.
Such reverberations are in evidence wherever art reproduces some life event or situation of human interest, most obviously in the narratives of literature, drama or film. But it is also present even in passages of apparently inert description, and this is especially true for painting. Certain landscapes or still lives, even though they seem to have the same immediacy and transparency as language, still offer a source of pleasure in the visual illusion they provide. Even the most factual or impassive of such representations still carries a psychological lining: the scrupulous, glassy neutrality of a Saenredam interior or a Canaletto view, for example, conveys a certain cool detachment and ‘objectivity’ which has its own psychological nuances.
Hence, no matter how realistic a painting is or how impressive its subject-matter, it is never simply a souvenir or recreation of the original moments when this psychological lining of experience was felt: it translates and intensifies them in its own particular ways. These depend crucially on the aesthetic qualities of painting mentioned above. For example, Van Gogh wrote in a letter about the sky of his ‘Sower’ (1888) as follows: ‘The sky chrome yellow, almost as bright as the sun itself, which is chrome yellow 1 with a little white, while the rest of the sky is chrome yellow 1 and 2 mixed. Thus very yellow’ In the same letter he goes on to say: ‘There are many touches of yellow in the soil,