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"Visual Thinking: Art as a Form of Thought": Hanneke Grootenboer (Keywords: Art; Aesthetics; Space)

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 4 ("Thinking Otherwise").

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What is visual thinking? This question is at the heart of an ongoing debate on the relation between art and philosophy whose roots can be traced to the early modern era. One key question in this discussion concerns whether art is the handmaid of philosophy, or vice versa. Theodor Adorno once wrote that art needs philosophy in order to explain what the works themselves cannot “say”. His view evokes a tradition, beginning with Horace in antiquity, that understands painting as a mute form of poetry, unable to speak for itself. To clarify and articulate their meanings, do art works require scholars? Or is it instead the case that images trigger thoughts that call not for interpretation or understanding, but for an entirely different process, namely thinking as such?

A wide range of philosophers have argued that images are crucial for the development of thought. In classical antiquity we find Aristotle, in On Memory, claiming that thinking is impossible without images. The Italian friar and scholar Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) declared that true painting was, in fact, true philosophy, while the Amsterdam-based Czech pedagogue and theologian John Amos Comenius (1592-1670), whose credo was “seeing is believing”, designed a new method of learning languages that was based on the connection of ideas with images rather than words. Later, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) proved himself a great advocate for visual thinking, using images to articulate complex conglomerations of concepts and ideas.

Complementing these thinkers are various art-historical examples of painter-philosophers – learned artists who, it was said, express philosophical thinking in realistic compositions. Influenced by Stoicism, Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) sought in his history painting a harmonious balance between reason and passion; Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was renowned for the sense of interiority and introspection with which he endowed his sitters. Rembrandt also created a series of (fictional) portraits of philosophers who appear to be deeply sunk in thought, and in the act of looking their viewers are invited to become pensive as well. Preliminary drawings are often understood as revelations of the artist’s thought processes at the very moment of creation. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) traced over his tiny sketches of a virgin and child so many times that the image turned black and has almost disappeared under the many pen scratches, giving the impression that we are seeing, in our own moment, how the great artist was thinking. The French painter Pierre Bonnard (1869-1947) would sometimes work on his interiors or landscapes for years, layering paint as if his perceptions of his subject were in continual flux.

Whatever the practices of certain modern artists such as Bonnard, the close kinship linking art and philosophy in the early modern period began a gradual process of unravelling in the nineteenth century, when the disciplines making up the Humanities began to coalesce. Aesthetics fell under the dominion of philosophy, while the study of art was subsumed under the auspices of history. Friedrich Schlegel must have sensed this development when he wrote, perhaps jokingly, that “one of two things is usually lacking in the so-called Philosophy of Art: either philosophy or art”.

Aesthetics fell under the dominion of philosophy, while the study of art was subsumed under the auspices of history.

However, art and philosophy have never truly let go of each other. The 20th century has provided a few prominent examples of thinkers who demonstrate the essential position of visual art in their thought. Martin Heidegger implies that we need painting to be able to initiate a process we call thinking, a view evident in his discussions of Vincent Van Gogh’s depictions of shoes; while Maurice Merleau-Ponty has demonstrated how Cézanne’s paintings philosophize about the enigmas of visual perception. Later, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari declared, in What is Philosophy?, that art – just like science and philosophy – represents a mode of thinking.

We should make a distinction, however, between the representations of thinkers such as those created by Rembrandt or August Rodin, and art works that seem not to depict some narrative or reveal some particular meaning but rather bring to light a thought process. Roland Barthes and Jacques Rancière have asserted that photographs can be pensive in the sense that a process of thinking seems to be happening within them. Viewers looking at such photographs become aware that many thoughts are to be found within them. What remains unclear, however, is who is doing the thinking. And yet thoughts are evidently in the picture. Is this what is meant by “thinking visually”?


Mental images must be clearly differentiated from actual images. To the first group belong the images evoked in philosophical writing that are meant to assist the articulation of ideas. The important question here concerns the nature and status of the image in philosophical writing – what is the role played by images and art works in the formation of philosophical ideas? The second group comprises artworks that express ideas or contain thought. The main question here is whether art is capable not only of reflecting thought but also of shaping concepts in visual terms. In my recent book The Pensive Image: Art as a Form of Thinking, I argue that artworks hold the capacity to philosophize on their own terms so as to offer us a thought, in addition to a narrative or a meaning. Though the argument holds for art in general, I make the specific case that painting is a form of visual thought. In the book, I explore art as a form of thinking in different modalities: as an image or model of thought employed by philosophers; as vehicles that trigger a thoughtful encounter for viewers across history; as sites providing a space for reflection; and as models of integrated thought.

Artworks hold the capacity to philosophize on their own terms so as to offer us a thought, in addition to a narrative or a meaning.

An example of a proponent of art and thought in the first category is Herder, who used images extensively to illustrate – or, rather, to formulate – complex concepts in his writings. He refers to these images as Sinnbilder or Denkbilder (which can be translated “thought-images”), which were likely inspired by the baroque emblem or by its larger, more intricate nephew, the hieroglyph. Another philosopher who put his faith in the latter concept was Denis Diderot, who defined the hieroglyph as an image evoked in the mind of his readers via his poetic ekphrases or description of art works. In the early twentieth century, Walter Benjamin used the notion of Denkbild to characterize the sudden flash of deep theoretical insight that banal images from everyday life can evoke. Daily life scenes of playing children or a display in a shop window are like stumbling blocks that arrest him on his rounds around the streets of Berlin when a Denkbild emerges. Unlike Diderot and Herder, however, Benjamin believes that Denkbilder do not initiate a flow of thoughts, but are rather what stops the rush of thinking.

Another form of visual thinking can be found in art works that trigger a thoughtful encounter with the viewer. An example is seventeenth-century still life paintings that display an array of often mundane, everyday things and foodstuffs. If we look at Still Life with Gilded Beer Pitcher (1634) by the Dutch artist Willem Claesz. Heda (now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam), we see a tabletop partly covered with a green cloth, on which a large roemer glass, filled with white wine, is flanked by a silver tazza and a gilded beer pitcher with its lid left open. A pewter plate, holding two olives, is placed at the far left corner; another such plate in the foreground presents the viewer a slice of lemon, freshly cut from the fruit with a knife. Some cracked nuts can be found between the objects. But that is all there is. The composition has been rendered in muted colours utterly lacking in brightness. Why was this picture painted?

It is estimated that thousands of so-called breakfast pieces were painted in the first half of the seventeenth century, so this image must have been appealing, compelling even. The longer we stay with this painting, the more we realize that the composition has been carefully crafted and that it possesses a certain logic. Except for the roemer glass and the knife, all other elements have been arranged as unequal pairs: two hazelnuts on the left rhyme with the two olives, but perhaps even more strongly with the two walnuts on the right, accompanied by pieces of their shells, as if they wish to display their coats as well as what lies within. The lemon has been subjected to a similar treatment, its full form as well as the process of its dissection revealed in the spiralling peel. The tazza, traditionally used for pompous presentation, carelessly lays on its side, its position allowing the viewer to glimpse its usually unseen bottom. A piece of chain is dangling from its right handle, weakly echoing the suspended lemon peel. It is as if we are seeing things in different modalities: both as entities and as things broken or opened up. Even the tablecloth invites us to ponder synesthetically the division between the covered and uncovered portions of the tabletop, to see how the bare surface would feel, how the wine might taste, how the lemon might smell, how our teeth might pierce the skins of the olives. Clearly, this is a painting to contemplate in solitude. Despite the various pairs of objects gathered here, the table has been laid as a meal for one, as the single knife indicates. Are we invited to muse over choices among relatively equal categories? Shall we rest our gaze on the wine in the Roemer glass or the beer in the gilded tankard, on the hazelnut or the walnut, on the lemon or the olives?

Art forces us to think. Deleuze states this dictum in Difference and Repetition, and many works of art embody it. For instance, seventeenth-century still lifes featuring skulls in combination with books, musical instruments, golden goblets, flowers or time pieces are traditionally understood as vanitas imagery conveying the message of memento mori (“remember you must die”). A biblical reference to the phrase “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” in Ecclesiastics 1:2, vanitas paintings confront the beholder with the brevity of life and the inevitably of death. The riches and earthly delights presented by expensive objects, musical instruments or exotic fruits cannot be taken to the grave. Good Christians should aware of death not as an end of biological life but as a start of the spiritual life. Instead of pursuing riches, people should prepare themselves for the afterlife by focusing on Christian virtues. Despite the clear message, vanitas images are often a genuine feast for the eyes, and thus present the viewer with a paradox of interpretation: if one enjoys the beautiful objects, does that mean that one gets, or does not get, the message? In addition, many vanitas paintings contain pieces of paper with the Latin phrase ars longa, vita brevis – “life is short, but art endures”. Are viewers encouraged to contemplate their own mortality vis-à-vis the things in the painting, or by the act of painting as such? These ontological questions raised by vanitas images trigger people to think. Another route still life painting offers towards philosophizing is by contemplating the thingness of things as such. Heda’s Still Life with Gilded Beer Pitcher could be called a phenomenology in paint. The viewer wonders how the nuts, lemon or roemer might feel, smell or taste, how the decorative pattern of the silver tazza might be touched by our fingertips, how we can know these objects through our senses.

Recently, in Crowning Glories (2019), Harriet Stone has argued that Netherlandish still life is characterized by variety and difference. The objects in Heda’s piece are all made of different materials of silver, glass, pewter, carrying a variety of different textures and surface qualities, that have been documented with almost scientific precision. In contrast to the allegorical art of the French court, where Louis XIV is portrayed in imaginary, mythological settings, Dutch art is realistic and results from the artists’ perception of daily life and the world of things immediately around them. The art of the Dutch Republic shows us how people perceived the world around them. For Stone, objects in Dutch still life do not only demonstrate the reigning taste of the merchant class that collected these works, but also point to a way of classifying and understanding the world. Comparing the large-scale French fictional portraits glorifying the Sun King to the intimate, highly realistic arrangements of things, Stone argues that these two artistic modes not only reflect two distinct models of thought but have helped constitute these models as well.

If one needs a dwelling place to start thinking, an artwork can serve as a kind of shelter where thinking can take place.

Another modality of painting as a form of thinking are those works that invite beholders to “enter” their pictorial realms. Such works link the representation of physical interior space with mental interiority. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), Jürgen Habermas famously demonstrated how the changing architecture of the bourgeois family home in eighteenth-century Britain resulted in a change in social formations as well as in subjectivity. Unlike previous residences built around large central halls and courtyards, the bourgeois house comprised smaller spaces that each possessed particular functions – the family room, private bedrooms – and ushered in a greater sense of individualism. In The Poetics of Space (1958), Gaston Bachelard had already shown how domestic spaces such as attics and cellars are not only concrete, physical spaces but are also containers of memories and ideas. As such, these spaces offer models of intimacy upon which the understanding of human interiority and subjectivity is based.

A painting such as Interior with Women beside a Linen Cupboard (Pieter de Hooch, 1663) invited its seventeenth-century viewers, as much as it does their counterparts today, to enter its serene space, a domain governed by overall order and cleanliness. The lady of the house and her maid are putting away bleached, freshly dried bed linen in a cupboard, to which she keeps the key. The front door ajar, a sunny street can be glimpsed beyond the rooms of the house. Is this where we want to go? Or would we rather search out greater privacy by taking the spiral stairs up to the floor above? This painting, and others like it, serves as a refuge from the busy bustle of seventeenth-century daily life. In this way it can and will, to a certain extent, house thought. Even to today’s viewers pausing before it, the painting creates a space to think. Notions of privacy and intimacy are not just reflected in these images: such conceptions have been shaped by them.


On various occasions, Heidegger presented painting as way of guiding thought. In An Introduction to Metaphysics (1935), asking the most fundamental of questions, “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” he gives the example of a painting of shoes by Van Gogh. This painting basically shows us nothing: just a pair of old shoes. And yet, Heidegger writes, “you are immediately alone with it as though you yourself were making your way wearily homeward.” While there is “nothing” in the painting, it takes us somewhere immediately, and in fact not just anywhere – it takes us home. If one needs a dwelling place to start thinking, as Heidegger argues, an artwork can serve as a kind of shelter where thinking can take place.

An encounter with a pensive image leads not so much to meaning or to knowledge production as to the unknown, the as-yet unthought.

Heda’s still life, or the images of De Hooch’s interior and Van Gogh’s shoes, are paintings that I call pensive images. They do not represent thought but rather seem to shape ideas in visual form, so that the beholder can start looking “according to” rather than “at” the image. We are so accustomed to approaching art with the aim of interpreting it, of turning our looking into an act of deciphering, of meaning production. Many art works indeed ask us to decipher and interpret them. But pensive images are among those art works that do something else. An encounter with a pensive image leads not so much to meaning or to knowledge production as to the unknown, the as-yet unthought. They make us think.

Hanneke Grootenboer is Professor of the History of Art at Radboud University Nijmegen and the author of The Rhetoric of Perspective (2005); Treasuring the Gaze (2012); The Pensive Image (2020) all published by the University of Chicago Press, and the co-authored Conchophilia (Princeton University Press, 2021).


From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 4 ("Thinking Otherwise").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


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