Tag Archives: Post impressionism

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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Name that Painting

Bonjour from France! I am so excited to be posting my first blog here in Paris. I have had such an amazing first week and a half. This city is so beautiful and has so much to offer. One of the parts of Paris I was so excited for before coming here was the art. Paris is known for its beautiful art and amazing museums. One of my favorite artists is Van Gogh (cliché, I know. But his paintings are beautiful). So you can imagine my excitement when we had the opportunity to go as a group to the L’Atelier des Lumières. This is a beautiful experience where art is projected onto the walls of the room, with background music and movement as opposed to the normal still painting. One of the exhibits is called Van Gogh Starry Night, and it includes many of his different paintings come to life before your eyes.

The Olive Trees by Van Gogh at L’Atelier des Lumières

One of the things that has always fascinated me most about Van Gogh’s paintings, and post-impressionist paintings in general, is the ability for us to recognize the scene even though it is never perfectly clear. I realized this is an amazing task that our mind is able to achieve through object recognition. Object recognition is just what it sounds like, but the mechanisms supporting it are very complicated, interesting, and intricate. Object recognition calls on many regions including the visual cortex as well as many structures in the temporal lobe of the brain (Bar et al., 2001). Object recognition calls on bottom-down processing, which is a process in which we receive visual information and then call on higher processes to understand the full picture. However, it has also been observed that top-down processing is more important than previously realized. Top-down processing is when higher functions, or previously stored information, affects the perception we are creating. For example, our memory can have an effect. Our brain takes information from our memory system to fully fill in the details of the image we are looking at (Bar et al., 2007). This may explain why I could recognize which painting was being displayed in the exhibit even before it was fully in my view.

Only Part of Starry Night shown at L’atelier des Lumières

Along with this, partially analyzed images or incomplete images can be recognized before all of the information is received (Bar, 2003). This is why even when an object in a Van Gogh painting isn’t blurry or not the full picture, we can still recognize the scene in front of us.

Wheatfield with Crows by Van Gogh. The image is blurry and a bit unclear, but you can still tell what it is.

Another fascinating thing about object recognition is the emotion we feel when viewing certain objects. I am sure everyone has an experience with art that has made them feel some sort of emotion, as I did at the L’Ateliers exhibit. Before studying this topic, I would assume that the emotion we feel comes after we are able to detect an object. However, there are multiple studies that now say our emotions can actually affect our final perception of an object. One study says that our prediction of an object includes its relevance and value, before we are consciously aware of the object we are observing (Barret and Bar, 2009). Another study expanded on this, looking at our emotional perception of faces and the way it can be influenced without our knowledge. If a happy or negative face is shown quickly and not entering consciousness, then we will perceive a neutral face shown directly after as having more emotion (Siegel et al., 2018).

This was very interesting to me, because it means the context or environment around us, or even the mood that we are in, may completely change our perception of an object. The feeling that I perceive when looking at Van Gogh’s Starry Night will be different than someone else’s. Also, as stated above, our different memories and experience could change the way in which we perceive the painting as well.

It is amazing what our brain is able to accomplish. Not only are we able to recognize objects before we have the entire picture, but our emotional processing of that object starts very early on in the process as well.  This is just part of the reason Van Gogh’s painting have always amazed me. He has the ability to create a scene that isn’t quite right, but we know what it is showing anyway. He is able to let your mind fill in the rest of the details. Not only this, but each perception of his paintings are completely different based off our own experience. I know my personal experience leads to a beautiful painting with lots of emotion.

Self Portrait by Van Gogh shown at L’Atelier des Lumières



Works Cited

Bar, M., Tootell, R. B., Schacter, D. L., Greve, D. N., Fischl, B., Mendola, J. D., . . . Dale, A. M. (2001). Cortical Mechanisms Specific to Explicit Visual Object Recognition. Neuron,29(2), 529-535. doi:10.1016/s0896-6273(01)00224-0

Bar, M. (2003). A cortical mechanism for triggering top-down facilitation in visual object recognition. J Cognitive Neuroscience,15, 600-609.

Bar, M. (2007). The proactive brain: Using analogies and associations to generate predictions. Trends in Cognitive Sciences,11(9), 372. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2007.08.004

Barrett, L. F., & Bar, M. (2009). See it with feeling: affective predictions during object perception. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences364(1521), 1325–1334. doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0312

Siegel, E. H., Wormwood, J. B., Quigley, K. S., & Barrett, L. F. (2018). Seeing What You Feel: Affect Drives Visual Perception of Structurally Neutral Faces. Psychological science29(4), 496–503. doi:10.1177/0956797617741718

Image 1,2 and 4-  my own images

Image 3: Wheatfield with Crows – Van Gogh Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0149V1962