Tag Archives: Musee d’Orsay

Paul Cézanne, Museum Fatigue Advocate

Have you ever experienced museum fatigue? I thought that I made up this term to describe my own experiences, but upon performing a quick Google search, I discovered that this is actually a phenomenon first described in 1916 (Gilman, 1916).

Interior of the Musée d’Orsay (Image from TripSavy.com)

Going to a museum may seem like a passive process, but to me, it is actually quite a bit of work!

Navigating large crowds and carrying a heavy backpack for several hours is enough to wear me out. But even more so, interpreting piece after piece of artwork—each of which leaves a lot of room for interpretation—is a laborious effort leading to mental exhaustion. Though it is uncomfortable, I think that this is the way it should be. If you don’t experience some fatigue, are you fully engaged with and appreciating the art?

Exterior of Musée d’Orsay (Image from SortiraParis.com)

One particular French artist I have learned about in class is Paul Cézanne, and he seems to have been an especially avid proponent of museum fatigue; although his works were rejected from museums during his lifetime, it seems as if he were intentionally inducing this exhaustion. In the Post-Impressionistic style (abandoning the detailed, picture-perfect landscapes characteristic of Realism), Cézanne produced blurry, unfinished images in order to accentuate the mind’s interpretation process. Leaving blank spots peeking through the blobs of color is a technique called nonfinito, and it’s a bit like trailing off in the middle of a sentence—a visual ellipsis. In this way, the viewer’s interpretation is unique to the way the mind fills in the gaps at that particular moment, influenced by all of the emotions and experiences one brings to the table.

It turns out that this reflects how the brain works when interpreting all visual stimuli: even looking at the same things twice may trigger different responses from neurons dedicated to processing visual information (Jeon et al., 2018).

First, let’s start with some background information about vision and how our

The occipital lobe, shown in yellow (Image from The Science of Pscychotherapy.com)

brains process signals coming from our eyes.

Light enters the eye and reaches the retina at the very back. There, it stimulates light-responsive cells called photoreceptors (rods and cones). Signals from all these cells go through the optic nerve, the optic tract, a structure called the thalamus, and eventually reach the part of the brain that deals with visual information. This area is called the occipital lobe, and the section that is first to receive these signals is called the primary visual cortex, or V1. Here, there are cells that have been shown to respond to basic details of a scene like the width and orientation of lines (Gawne, 2015). Each cell is “tuned” to respond best to a certain width and a certain orientation, and logically, this is called neuronal tuning (Butts and Goldman, 2006). The conditions determining the responsivity of the neurons get more and more complex as the signals are processed (Tsunoda et al., 2001).

The perception of visual information (Image from Slideplayer.com)

As one views the same image, it would make sense that the same neurons respond each time. But, this is not exactly the case: In one experiment by Jeon et al. 2018 in the journal Nature, researchers found that the same neurons aren’t reliably activated by the same stimuli.

In the study, the researchers showed mice lines of different orientations and widths. Using a technique called two-photon calcium imaging, they looked at the activity of neurons in the V1 (Jeon et al., 2018). This technique involves installing an apparatus on the head of a mouse. Based on the movement of fluorescing ions, it lets us see what neurons are active as the mouse is awake and interacting with the world (Mitani and Komiyama, 2018).

Some of the images shown to mice in the Jeon et al. (2018) experiment (Image from the journal Nature)

Tracking around 300 neurons, the researchers determined the qualities of the image (such as the angle and the width of the lines) for which a neuron was most likely to respond. Then, performing the test one week later and again two weeks later, they compared the preferences of the neurons. While the majority of individual qualities were relatively stable over time, the researchers found that fewer than half of the neurons had exactly all of the same preferences as before.

What does this all mean? In the past it has been shown that the visual cortex is highly plastic, or able to rearrange and reorganize its connections based on new information (Hofer et al., 2009).  However, these results provide even more insight into how our visual systems adapt and change: some parts can remain stable while others change their responsivity in order to incorporate new information, altering our perception of the world around us.

So, our perception of static scenes is actually not static at all; it is being altered constantly! That boulangerie we pass on the way to class is not perceived by our brains in exactly the same manner every day.

Portrait of a Woman by Paul Cezanne (Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

That leads me to wonder: especially when looking at one of Cézanne’s paintings—since he left so much for the viewer’s mind to fill in—do we ever experience the same thing twice?  This may very well be the most intriguing thing about his work, making it both timeless and malleable. A perfect excuse to visit the Musée d’Orsay just one more time.  The unfortunate result is only that this “museum fatigue” may become an increasingly common affliction. However, it’s likely already a common experience for all the museum-goers of the world, and I’m not afraid. It certainly won’t deter me from absorbing all of the Post-Impressionism art I can while I’m here!



Butts, D.A., Goldman, M.S. (2006). Tuning curves, neuronal variability, and sensory coding. PLOS Biology. 4:92. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0040092.

Gawne, T. (2015). The responses of V1 cortical neurons to flashed presentations of orthogonal single lines and edges. Journal of Neurophysiology. 113:2676-2681. doi: 10.1152/jn.00940.2014

Gilman, B. I. (1916). Museum Fatigue. The Scientific Monthly. 2:62–74.

Hofer, S. B., Mrsic-Flogel, T. D., Bonhoefer, T. & Hubener, M. (2009). Experience leaves a lasting structural trace in cortical circuits. Nature. 457:313–317.

Jeon, B. B., Swain, A.D., Good, J. T., Chase, S. M., Kuhlman, S.J. (2018). Feature selectivity is stable in primary visual cortex across a range of spatial frequencies. Nature. 8:15288. doi:10.1038/s41598-018-33633-2.

Mitani, A., Komiyama, T. (2018). Real-time processing of two-photon calcium imaging data including lateral motion artifact correction. Frontiers in Neuroinformatics. 12:98. doi: 10.3389/fninf.2018.00098

Tsunoda, K., Yamane, Y., Nishizaki, M., Tanifuji, M. (2001). Complex objects are represented in macaque inferotemporal cortex by the combination of feature columns. Nature Neuroscience. 4:832-838. doi: 10.1038/90547.


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Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Mount Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cézanne.

The short time that I’ve been in Paris has felt so much longer than a few weeks. Last week, I spent several hours at the Musée d’Orsay, where I finally fulfilled my dream of viewing impressionist masterpieces face-to-face. A few nights later, I was looking through the photos that I’d taken during my recent travels, when one particular photo of a building caught my eye. Something about the image irked me. The asymmetry, I realized, was throwing my mind into a sort of desire to fix the photo. I began to wonder: What makes something beautiful, and what does symmetry have to do with it?


A building I saw when walking to the Soup Bar and thinking I didn’t like the way it looked.


A study by Makin and colleagues used a “gaze-driven evolutionary algorithm” to examine three factors: 1) Do people evaluate symmetry instinctively? 2) Do people prefer perfect symmetry or slightly imperfect imagery? 3) When people grow familiar with symmetry, do they lose fascination with it? Researchers employed eye-tracking technology to observe for factors that attracted 54 test subjects’ gazes (Makin et al.,2016). Observation of event-related potentials (ERPs) following exposure to abstract patterns suggested that ERPs responsible for aesthetic evaluation (beautiful vs. ugly) did not fire during evaluation of symmetry. In regards to the three questions initially posed, overall results suggested that, though symmetry was a significant factor in participants’ selection, 1) people do not automatically evaluate symmetry, and rather prefer slight imperfection; 2) people do not express marked preference for either symmetry or slight imperfection; 3) people’s interest in symmetry does not change following familiarization.

Based on this study, it seems like symmetry plays a part in all of our visual imagery preferences, though likely not to a critical extent. Perfect isn’t perfect. The question of aesthetic preference brought my thoughts back to what I’d seen at the d’Orsay. I began thinking about Cézanne and Monet, and what I’d read.

When Cézanne split from the impressionist project of “worshipping light” (Lehrer 103), he began a ceaseless quest to mimic the fleeting nature of the physical world. The images we see slowly take shape as they filter from V1 to V5. As Jonah Lehrer writes, “If the mind didn’t impose itself on the eye, then our vision would be full of voids” (Lehrer 117). Cézanne’s nonfinito technique taps into this process. Unlike the classic impressionists, Cézanne’s use of blank space mimicked the brain’s process of filling in emptiness to create meaning in otherwise meaningless sensory information.

Take, for example, a thin gray stripe, a “fragile scratch against the sprawling void” (Lehrer 115). Alongside the ambiguous forms of trees, a river, and the sky, it adopts a sensible identity as a mountain range, as our mind has already identified a coherent nature scene. Cézanne’s art alludes to the senselessness of reality and our capability — and need —  to make sense of it.

Vered Aviv concludes that abstract art promotes new meaningful neural connections that lead to higher-level brain states. The brain process after viewing abstract art “is apparently rewarding as it enables the exploration of yet undiscovered inner territories of the viewer’s brain” (Aviv, 2014). “‘The eye is not enough… One needs to think as well.’ Cézanne’s epiphany was that our impressions require interpretation; to look is to create what you see” (Lehrer, 2008).

Research by Hochstein and Ahissar proposes that “Vision at a glance reflects high-level mechanisms, while vision with scrutiny reflects a return to low-level representations” (Hochstein and Ahissar, 2002). Impressionism attempted to recreate an ‘impression’ of nature, a fleeting moment. Though Cézanne’s works outgrew impressionism with its abstract techniques, Monet’s works remained comparably decipherable and photographic. One might compare Cézanne’s works with what Hochstein and Ahissar call vision at a glance, and Monet’s to vision with scrutiny, a prolonged observation and interpretation of a perceived landscape. If “Cézanne’s art was a mirror held up to the mind” (Lehrer, 2008), then “‘Monet [was] only an eye’” (Lehrer, 2008), a lens.

Lehrer writes that “[Cézanne] forces us to see, in the same static canvas, the beginning and end of our sight… The painting emerges, not from the paint or the light, but from somewhere inside our mind” (Lehrer, 2008). Though recent research has since revealed much more about art, visual interpretation, and various other related processes, Cézanne was an anomaly of his time, a painter with a vision that was simultaneously humanistic and scientific.

When photography first developed during the era of impressionism, French painters rebelled because “the camera was a liar… Because reality did not consist of static images. Because the camera stops time, which cannot be stopped” (Lehrer, 2008). I wonder what Cézanne would have thought in my position. Maybe he would have already identified by then the inherent futility in taking the “perfect” picture, or recognized that my disappointment in the photo lay in the inherent dishonesty of photography.

Or maybe Makin and colleagues were onto something when they suggested that symmetry isn’t a necessary condition of beauty. After all, it was the imperfections and the fleeting nature of Cézanne’s fruit and Monet’s flowers that left them floating through my consciousness long after I returned to my apartment. In the end, I guess, beauty is in the eye — and the brain — of the  beholder.


Makin ADJ, Bertamini M, Jones A (2016) A gaze-driven evolutionary algorithm to study aesthetic evaluation of visual symmetry. i-Perception March-April:1-18. https://doi.org/10.1177/2041669516637432.

Aviv V (2014) What does the brain tell us about abstract art? Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8:85. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00085.

Hochstein S and Ahissar M (2002) View from the top: Hierarchies and reverse hierarchies in the visual system. Neuron 36(5):791-804.

Lehrer J (2008) Paul Cézanne: The process of sight. In Proust was a neuroscientist (Reprint ed.). pp. 96-119. Mariner.

Image 1 (Lehrer, 2008)

Image 2 was taken by myself.