Navigating the Cognitive Philosophy of Michael Fried

by Hasan Niyazi

CARAVAGGIO AND HIS FOLLOWERS IN ROME has arrived at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Those unable to experience the majesty of the Baroque in person are left to ponder the substantial catalogue recently published by Yale University Press.

Featuring essays by exhibition organizers and notable scholars of the Baroque, Michael Fried’s contribution,  Notes Toward a Caravaggisti Pictorial Poetics, will be seen by some as riding on the critical success of his 2010 study The Moment of Caravaggio. That work on the Caravaggisti was first delivered as a lecture at the National Gallery of Art, Washington. The current essay mirrors Fried’s 2010 volume, which drew on a series of lectures from 2002.

As  explored previously by Studio Matters, initiation with Michael Fried can be a jarring experience. That there is a resonant, perhaps even profound message in his work is undeniable; yet its mode of delivery can be hard going for readers more accustomed to an historiographic approach to art.

It is interesting, albeit challenging, to read an art historian who seems to persistently refuse to write in an art historical mode. Those familiar with the cognitive sciences and the history of rhetorical dialogue will see much that is familiar in Fried’s approach. Fried came to art history from a background in art criticism; nevertheless, whether his esoteric approach to art writing is suitable for such a catalogue is a matter for debate.


Valentin de Boulogne "Fortune Teller"

Noting Fried’s use of language, the textual antics of humanist rhetoricians come to mind,  particularly the work of Sperone Speroni and his Dialogo della Rhetorica (1542) and Apologia de dialogi (1574). These commentaries on dialogue and rhetoric are fascinating journeys into a tradition with origins in antiquity. As Speroni deftly summates:

Through the confrontation over some topic, the one uses his reasons to strike the opinions of the other, not unlike the iron to the stone or the stone to the iron. This occurs through dispute, and although the sought truth will not spring out openly and entirely, we shall inevitably witness some of its sparks, because truth by its nature always shines.

That Fried employs just such a technique is perhaps where his training as an art historian is most clearly evident. Art history, as a discipline, is replete with underlining past contributions that gel with an author’s own take or crossing out those that do not. From the outset, Fried outlines his mission: a search to clarify something missed by predecessors. Referring to Valentin de Boulogne’s 1628 Fortune Teller in the Louvre:

The overall impression – I am seeking to express a consensus among Valentin’s commentators – is that of an anthology of stock figures, motifs and anecdotes (to use a loaded term which I shall disparage shortly) somewhat crammed together in a shallow, minimally articulated space.

That Fried seeks to draw attention to wonderful things often ignored by other art historians is probably his greatest strength. With Valentin specifically, he goes on:

Valentin is a superb colourist, his touch is invariably strong, his figures have remarkable  realistic and naturalistic “presence” ; in short, one is aware of his pictorial gifts virtually in every brushstroke.

Response to Fried’s methodology has been mixed. Praised (and occasionally derided) by critics with a literary bent, the appeal of his work to researchers and students is less tangible. Part of an art historian’s primary role is to mediate between the physical object and historical evidence, and to present a synthesis palatable for instructional use. Consequently, the target audience becomes a key consideration. Are these collations for other scholars, students, the public or all of the above? A work like Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of The Artists has proven enduringly popular because it is relevant to artists, scholars and the interested public alike.

While Fried readily acknowledges previous works that look at the role of artists and spectators in early modern art, his language signifies that he sees something new and unprecedented in Caravaggio.  Those familiar with the work of Hubert Damisch, Marcia Hall, John Shearman and Alexander Nagel, among others, will be aware of this subjective approach to early modern art. Yet these works are arguably easier to navigate; they are prefaced by an historical context that elaborates the dynamic between artist and patron.

In both The Moment of Caravaggio, and the catalogue essay, Fried seems to focus almost entirely on the object, calling for contemplation of internal mechanisms to explain the stylistic developments of the period.  The inevitable question hence arises: can an art historian write about the 17th century in a manner that places little emphasis on the history of the period?

Where other essays in the catalogue use archival transcripts, Fried describes the pictures themselves, plus others  like them.  This seems to be the key difference between the modes of art history at play. That one approach is more viable than the other is relevant to the beholder’s aims. Readers who enjoy musing on the creative process may find something interesting in Fried’s approach. Others, adept at plumbing text for glimpses of the past may find a lot of Fried’s content unsatisfying.

There is an historical thread to Fried’s arguments on the evolution of the picture gallery, and subsequently the nature of the gallery picture. In an earlier section of the catalogue, Sandra Richards explores Caravaggio’s Roman Collectors. While not a symbiosis of any sort, her essay provides historical counterpoint to Fried’s more internal contemplation.  Yet, even Fried’s commentary on this process could most certainly have benefitted from placing this period in starker contrast to the famous private galleries and pictures of previous eras.

Readers familiar with the art, history or literature of the Baroque period will invariably reflect on what  is award-winningly new about Fried’s conclusions (apart, that is, from the jargon he adds to Baroque studies).  Fried insists that Caravaggio—and subsequently his followers—invented a new type of artistic language which, while present in glimpses in previous eras, fully blossomed under the Lombard Master. To support his claims, Fried shies away from the voluminous archival records of the day. There is no quoted epistle from a Cardinal to the painter confessing  the work’s revelatory nature (Though they perhaps exist, as other essays reveal).  The closest we get to this from Fried is the famous comment ascribed to Poussin: that Caravaggio sought to destroy painting. The comment largely referred to his methodology, and to a degree to his subject matter.

From the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance—particularly in the guise of works now known as ‘mystery painting’—the relationship between patron and artist transcended the traditions observed in devotional works before that time.  Artworks became baubles of wealth, embodiments of devotion, intellectual status and ego. Contemporary records tell us of learned men puzzling over the iconographical constructs of artists from van Eyck to Titian.


Jan van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait" (1434)

The end of this mode of ‘mystery painting’ is often linked with the publication of emblem books, such as Alciato’s Emblematum Liber (1531) and the later Iconologia (1593) by Cesare Ripa. These books effectively revealed the visual code previously used by writers and artisans. It has been argued that their distribution in print took the fizz out of the mystery painting genre.

Stripped of a complex symbolic language and often confined by edicts such as those by the Council of Trent, later artists came to rely more heavily on optical factors to draw attention to their work. Hence, drawing from dynamic predecessors such as Tintoretto and adopting the play of light on sculpture, Caravaggio’s signature style makes sense as a natural stylistic progression of these forces.

Yet to read The Moment of Caravaggio or his catalogue chapter, Fried seems to insist that his historical myopia is a gift that allows him to introduce a new layer of jargon into a discipline already replete with the detritus of centuries of verbose banter in several languages. His essay on pictorial poetics is littered with particular words graced with quotation marks to indicate that Fried has anointed them to transcend their natural meaning. “Address” and “presence,” in particular—even “into” and “be”—are elevated in this fashion. The success of this approach is dependent on how willing the reader is to acquiesce to Fried’s modus operandi:

By now I hope it will not seem tendentious to suggest that the combined effect in these and similar paintings of the depiction of absorbed states of mind and body and of the sense of temporal protraction or dilation that goes with those states also serves the end of the pictorial “presence” ; the effect, one might say, is of a sustained density of being that is more than simply physical.

That Fried is enamoured of rhetoric is obvious. He often seems to be adrift in his own musings, almost oblivious to his audience. While this may add to the romance of his approach to art history, one can contest its relevance in a catalogue volume also intended for public consumption.

A brief note should also be made about Fried’s piece in the context of the catalogue as a whole.  One could argue a successful catalogue is one which captures the aesthetic and historical significance of the period in question and does this in a manner that is useful for educators, artists and general visitors to the exhibition. In all of the other essays, from commentators such as Museum director David Franklin, and Caravaggio experts  Sebastian Schütze and Rossella Vodret, the voice of the writer is relayed through historical records, or an exploration of depicted themes.  In Fried’s section even his most ardent admirers will notice the stark juxtaposition of his approach. The words “I” and “my” never appear more frequently in the entire catalogue than in his chapter.

There are of course valuable segments in Fried’s presentation.  When he puts his descriptive skills into capturing the works, his writing can charm. Witness the way his description of a work by a somewhat obscure Caravaggio follower, Valentin de Boulogne, brings it into sharp focus:

Between the two principal figures and a few feet beyond them a boy sits at a table covered with an oriental carpet, his left elbow resting on the table as he supports his head with the back of his left hand ; he too looks neither at the gypsy and her client nor at the viewer, but instead gazes off towards his right….behind the gypsy a shady character in a cloak and hat carefully extracts – that is to say steals – a chicken from the pocket or sack at her side.

If Fried could be similarly concise with his thematic content,  he could go a long way toward achieving some of the greatness of Sydney J. Freedberg, to whom he often pays homage. (Fried has been both a student and junior colleague of Freedberg at Harvard) Freedberg, whatever his foibles may have been, was a superlative communicator on Early Modern art. His most well known  Painting in Italy 1500-1600 is still a landmark text on the topic. Freedberg’s contribution to the Baroque, particularly Circa 1600 – A Revolution of Style in Italian Painting, is perhaps the germinal seed of Fried’s endeavour. And it is easily a more approachable text.

That Fried will have an enduring legacy in art history is not in question; whether his approach to the Baroque will radiate an influence beyond his own publications remains to be seen. Fried has since returned to subjects perhaps more suited to his approach, with his new book Four Honest Outlaws, a look at the work of four contemporary artists.



Hasan Niyazi is an independent arts writer based in Melbourne, Australia. He first fell in love with Early Modern art and history after finding a copy of Panofsky’s Meaning in the Visual Arts on the ground at age 9. He explores the interface of art history and the information age at his blog, Three Pipe Problem.  He is also currently working on an online open educational resource (OER) dedicated to Raphael studies and tweets as @3pipenet.

He wishes to thank Benjamin Harvey for his assistance and advice.

An overview of the entire catalogue, Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, by Monica Bowen, is available at the art history blog, Alberti’s Window.



  1. Nice to have something to get our teeth into. Niyazi’s own site has engaging commentary on Caravaggio. Caravaggio filtered through Fried is deadly.

  2. Are we sure Fried has a “cognitive philosophy”? His real subject, if previous work can be called into play here, is not the work at hand—in this case, Caravaggio. It is the kind of overblown academic rhetoric that intimidates (the uninitiated) more than it informs. Can we stick to Freedberg, please? Or Friedlander?

  3. Jarring, yes. Profound? Jury is out on that. Fried cashes in on his prior association with Freedberg (glad to see it mentioned). But, in the main, he offers less insight than contemporary academese. Didn’t Roger Kimball (not someone I like to quote, but hey!) say the same thing back in 2002 in “Art’s Prospect.”?

  4. I have not read the catalogue so perhaps Fried’s discussion of Valentin is broader than I can glean from the quote. But any really useful commentary on “Fortune Teller” should reference its relation to the genre–literary no less than pictorial–of the trickster. I am thinking of de la Tour’s “The Card Players” from the 1630s.

  5. Some readers (like me) will view Hasan’s comments as clear and incisive. Others will dismiss them as irrelevant. And so it goes…! Michael Fried is perceptive (in his way) and highly intelligent (in his way) but (to borrow a line from Raymond Chandler), “When do we get to the part about why I am supposed to care?” An essential question, as Hasan notes, is the appropriate role and function of exhibition catalogues. I used to buy them as a matter of course, for the illustrations and (heaven help us!) THE FACTS. But that was then and this is now!

  6. The role and function of exhibition catalogues? To permit tenure track faculty an opportunity to impress their tenure committee. That is THE FACT that underlies all the others. Unless we approach visual art as an archeological artifact, much of what constitutes catalogue writing is cranked out for institutional reasons. And with an eye on pension planning.

  7. Thank you for linking to the review on my site! Having read this catalog entry by Fried, I have to admit that I found many of his comments to be insightful (although not too different in content from other publications that I have read by him). Admittedly, though, parts of his essay were rather dense and verbose.

    I think H Niyazi has hit at the crux of the issue with Fried and his varied appeal. He is not interesting in analyzing art history from a “social historical” approach (which is considered part of traditional art historical practice). He is a postmodern theorist and is interested in encouraging the viewer/reader to think about the process of looking at art. Although I do think that Fried’s essay seemed out-of-place in conjunction with the other social historical essays in the catalog, I got the sense that the catalog editors were trying to appeal to both “Old School” and “New School” approaches to art history.

  8. Many thanks to all for the insightful comments.

    @Dionisio/Beatrice – Fried’s style is overblown and rhetorical in passages – if we are to add “academic” it should be qualified that it is the language of an academic of another genre and approach to art (as Alberti’s Window highlighted). Anyone can easily pick up and read John Shearman’s “Only Connect” or Marcia Hall’s “The Sacred Image in the Age of Art” (two sterling Early Modern academics) and not be ambushed by academic language. It seems to come down to a conscious choice by the author. As we see in the descriptions of the paintings themselves, Fried can be crisp and concise if he wants to…though his interest seems to be in the internal (cognitive) processes related to creating and viewing art – an interesting topic but unfortunately obscured in dense language.

    @Ed – ha! even if you did not append your name to that comment I would have known it was you. Many thanks for reading, and the characteristically wonderful insight!

    @From.the.stacks – I would venture to say that type of thing is not isolated to the academic publishing industry! Many catalogue volumes are valuable resources for students and scholars alike. The NGA exhibition volume on the Venetian Renaissance, or the NGLondon catalog on Renaissance portraits are great examples. Overall, this one is pretty good – I focused on Fried’s piece for this post because it did seem out of place, or at best, experimental (from a publisher perspective).

    @Mickey D – cheers for the mention – there are in fact even more posts on this topic from 2010 – since described as “the year of Caravaggio” – as my site has a Renaissance/Baroque focus – it was unavoidable. They can all be accessed from this link:

    @Rob – The genre you speak of is explored in greater depth in the catalog proper. Fried does go into more detail, but is less concerned with sources. You can actually listen to Fried’s presentation on the Carravagisti – which his catalog entry is based on – at the NGA Washington podcast site (free):

    @Albertis Window – I wonder if more Early Modern publications will be so daring and throw in another dense theoretical essay among the social history stuff? We’ll have to wait and see!

    Many thanks to Maureen for the opportunity to post at Studio Matters. It was an honour and delight.

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