Dylan Brooks

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Dylan Brooks
Dr. Elmore
English 105 C
September 26, 2006
   Perception and Interpretation: Bringing Life to Artwork
       Art is an interpretive medium. Through colors and patterns, it tells stories, evokes

memories and raises emotions, all while standing on a pedestal or hanging on a wall as a

frozen snapshot in a constantly moving world. How can an image so immobile be so

powerfully moving? Our collective interpretation adds another dimension, combining the

images we see and what we associate them with to make art come alive.

       In this light, some images evoke a more powerful emotional response and seem to

not only come alive but also take lives of their own. In particular, images that draw a

solemn response from viewers have helped commemorate the less glorious events in

history for reflection and reminisce. Whether a photo of soldiers raising the American

flag at Iwo Jima or a painting of the destruction at Guernica, some of the most

memorable works of art seem to represent not only what they actually display, but also all

the surrounding circumstances and events that helped make the scene so tragic.

       Despite utilizing different artistic styles—reflective of the different eras in which

they were painted—Peter Frederick Rothermel’s Cortes’ Invasion of Mexico (Cortes

before Tenochtitlan) and Alexandre Hogue’s Drouth Stricken Area both bring life to

major tragic events in North American history. Through these paintings, one can

experience the Spanish conquest of Mexico or the Dust Bowl to an extent in which one

could imagine him or herself being there. These paintings help us transcend time in a

manner that neither books nor oral descriptions ever could: off of a piece of visual

evidence. We do not have to visualize the scene, since that is provided for; we only must

visualize the surrounding events.
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        Ironically, Rothermel himself based Cortes’ Invasion of Mexico off of a text’s

description. According to Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by

James Grant Wilson, John Fiske and Stanley L. Klos and seen as posted on, Cortes’ Invasion of Mexico was a part of “a serms of

paintings illustrative of William H. Prescott's „History of the Conquest of Mexico‟ (about

1850).” (Par. 1) Additionally, the biography states that while Rothermel spent significant

time in Europe, the Pennsylvania based painter never actually traveled to Mexico; thus,

all elements of the paining are from Rothermel‟s apparently vivid imagination, including

the distinctive landscape.

        Cortes’ Invasion of Mexico has an overly gloomy tone to it. The entire canvas

glows of fire, with the left half fading into a fiery red sky background and the right half

billowing black smoke, partially due to the presence of the smoking Templo Mayor in the

center, which divides the two destructive elements of the painting by symbolically using

both of them; the fire is hidden inside the temple pyramid while the smoke adds to the

black effect of the right side of the painting.

        The fiery glow reflects off of all the streets and buildings of Tenochtitlan (the

ancient ancestor of Mexico City) with such an effect that it looks as if there is a faded

fiery red stream connecting the activity towards the bottom of the painting with the

background of the distant sky. The Spanish conquistadores sit in their symbolic position

of attained power atop a hill in the foreground of the painting. It is quite a spectacle to see

the victors sitting in front on the destruction they have just wreaked upon the ancient city;

the snapshot transcends time to tell the story of the city’s conquest.
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       The expressions on the faces of the conquistadores vary between fiery, exhausted,

calm, consoling, dejected and uplifting. No one has the same expression. One man leans

over his sword, almost as if he is catching his breath after an exhilarating battle. Another

man, dressed conspicuously like a priest, holds a cross aloft, symbolizing the victory of

Christianity over the Aztec faith. The raised cross was a sign akin to the raising of a flag

after a military victory, as Charles Gibson explains in his book The Aztecs Under

Spanish Rule: A History of the Indians of the Valley of Mexico.

               Spanish imperialism sought to justify its acts by its Christian mission. The
               conquest was a Christian enterprise because it destroyed a pagan
               civilization, and encomienda and corregimiento were Christian institutions
               because they ensured a Christian society. With the papal consignment of
               the New World to Spain, all aspects of Hispanic colonization became
               subject to a Christian interpretation and subordinated to a Christian
               function. (98).

The presence of the cross symbolizes not only that the Spanish have won, but also that it

was their destiny to do so. This arrogant undertone only adds to the darkness of the


       About 90 years after Rothermel finished his series of paintings about the Spanish

conquest of Mexico, Alexandre Hogue painted his own series reflecting destruction.

Hogue’s Erosion series reflecting the damage caused by the 1930s Dust Bowl in the

lower Midwest is probably more accurate in its depiction than Rothermel’s series; this is

true in no small part because Hogue—who was raised in Texas—saw the events he

painted firsthand instead of through a historian’s prose. The Erosion series, however, is

as much a personal statement from Hogue as it is a depiction of the destruction the Dust

Bowl caused. As the Dallas Museum of Art’s website

( states:
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               Hogue blamed the region‟s problems on man‟s inept and thoughtless
               overcultivation of the land, and viewed the plow as the principal agent of
               the disaster. In his words, prime grazing lands had been destroyed “first by
               fence, then by overplowing, now by drought.” Between 1933 and 1936,
               Hogue worked on a series of six paintings he called his Erosion series,
               examining variations on this theme. (Par. 1)

Hogue saw the Dust Bowl as partially created by man—through overplowing and

partitioning of land with fences—and for this reason, he excludes all humans from the

paintings in the series. Therefore, paintings such as Drouth Stricken Area are desolate

and eerily gloomy.

       Stylistically, Drouth Stricken Area is of a higher definition than Cortes’ Invasion

of Mexico. Elements of the painting do not blend together, and segments partition the

canvas. The upper quarter of the painting is covered by mostly light blue sky, with four

black crows flying near a single cloud in the center. Another slightly smaller sliver of sky

below it is a faded melon orange and stretches to the mostly barren horizon. Most of the

land is a faded brown wheat color, and is also barren, as it has been transformed into sand

dunes by the heavy dust bowl winds. Towards the bottom of the painting, the landscape

becomes considerably hillier. A house is hidden behind a large sand dune in the

foreground, highlighted by a light blue roof with a small brown chimney and heavy black

shadows from the late day sunlight. In front of it stands a half broken windmill (which

also casts a heavy shadow), along with a water trough sitting in the midst of the sand. The

only signs of life on the ground are a cow leaning over the trough and a vulture perched

on a fencepost. The cow is starved to the point at which its ribcage is visible, and when

this is combined with the presence of the vulture, the painting has a similarly gloomy feel

to Cortes’ Invasion of Mexico.
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       How is it that we can observe a work of art and universally feel the same

emotion? How do we all instantaneously understand the tone of the artwork, even before

observing the cues? In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell tackles this issue, partially by

stating that there are multiple levels of thought processing ranging from long, drawn out

cognitions to snap decisions. Gladwell also states that snap decisions are often quite

accurate, occasionally to points at which they are more accurate that carefully considered

thoughts. In addition, snap decisions are used to determine our opinions of something we

have never seen before.

               Whenever we meet someone for the first time, whenever we interview
               someone for a job, whenever we react to a new idea, whenever we’re
               faced with making a decision quickly and under stress, we use that second
               part of our brain. (Gladwell, 12)

Therefore, we often use snap decisions to determine elements such as opinions and initial

emotional reaction. So when we’re asked what our first reaction to a new piece of

artwork is, we’re actually making a snap decision, which will determine the way in which

we interpret art, and in turn make the artwork come alive. However trivial it may seem,

our initial cognitions to new stimuli are actually the keys to our imagination and visual

expression. Trust your first opinions!

                                    QuickTime™ and a
                          TIFF (Uncompressed) decompressor
                             are needed to see this picture.

                                      Drouth Stricken Area
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                                  Works Cited
   Dallas Museum of Art, Staff. 28 September, 2006
   Gibson, Charles. The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule: A History of the Indians of the
    Valley of Mexico. Stanford: Stanford University P. 1964.
   Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Little Brown
    and Company. 2005
   Wilson, James G., et al. “Peter Frederick Rothimel” Virtual American Biographies
    2001. 26 September 2006.
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CRITICAL THINKING: Students develop an interpretation, argument, analysis, and/or
synthesis, springing from observation and research. (For this assignment, description,
analysis, and interpretation are the focus.)

1) On a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being the best), how effective is the writer’s overall
description of the artwork?

2) On a scale of 1-10, how effectively does the writer answer the “so what?” question?

CONTENT: Students consider audience and purpose while fulfilling assignment
requirements deliberately. The writing is focused, issues are contextualized, and
examples and illustrations provide support for clear statement of thesis, analysis, or
interpretation. Key terms and concepts are effectively integrated and evidence in the
form of original ideas, quotes, or paraphrases from significant and credible sources is
skillfully incorporated.

3) On a scale of 1-10, how well does the essay meet the assignment requirements?

4) On a scale of 1-10, how effective is the writer’s use of research and quotations?

5) On a scale of 1-10, how well does the paper conform to MLA format?

6) How effective is the writer’s incorporation of art terms in the paper? (“solid” or
“needs more”)

ORGANIZATION: Students construct writing that displays a logical organization with
an effective introduction and conclusion and clear transitions between ideas,
paragraphs, and sentences. Students experiment with various rhetorical strategies,
avoiding the predictability of the five paragraph format. Form and structure are
appropriate to content and purpose.

7) On a scale of 1-10 how effective is the title of the piece?

8) On a scale of 1-10 how effective is the introduction of the piece?

9) On a scale of 1-10 how effective is the conclusion of the piece?

10) On a scale of 1-10 how effective are the transitions and overall flow of the paper?
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LANGUAGE: Students develop an authoritative, consistent, academic voice appropriate
for a university-level audience. Writing is clear and features varied sentence structure,
appropriate punctuation, precise word choice, and consistency of tone. [Please note: all
writing at the university level should contain “reasonably correct prose”; where
students have problems with sentence level correctness or the production of standard
written English, they are expected to correct and master these features before the end of
the term.]

11) On a scale of 1-10, rank the level of sophistication of the language (including
vocabulary, grammar/spelling/punctuation, and sentence variety, among others), keeping
in mind that the author is writing for a university audience:

12) Did the writer use a variety of words throughout the paper? (excellent variety,
adequate variety, needs more variety)

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