Equipe :

Michel Menu, Clotilde Boust, Elisabeth Ravaud, C2RMF – MCC and PCMTH-IRCP (CNRS ENSCP, UMR 8247)

Jean-Marie Schaeffer (UMR 8566 EHESS/CNRS), Georges Roque (UMR 8566, CNRS), Pierre-Olivier Dittmar (EHESS)

Etienne Anheim, EHESS, Romain Thomas, art historian, Associate Professor, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre

Michel Blay (ENS)

Charlotte Guichard, IHMC (CNRS ENS UMR 8066)

Pantxika de Paepe, Curator of the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar

Michel Paysant, artist

Momoko Seto, artist, Research Engineer (CRAL, CNRS/EHESS)

Lorraine Mailho (Conservation Department of the C2RMF)


Présentation (EN)


The visual exploration of two-dimensional figurative representations activates universal visio-mimetic capacities, but these capacities are always implemented culturally and historically. By combining psychological and cognitive studies with historical studies (visual as well as written sources) the project wants to address the question of the historically variable “forms of intentionality” (Michael Baxandall) of our ways of looking at paintings. The goal is to study how our vision of paintings simultaneously addresses these two levels of pictorial experience and specifically how the notion of a “period eye” (Baxandall) can be accommodated with the neuro-physiological constancy of human vision across times. If experiencing paintings is a multilevel and polyphonic process, it can only be studied in an interdisciplinary perspective. This is reflected by the composition of our team made up of art-historians, restoration experts, conservation scientists studying the materiality of paintings, social scientists, aestheticians, and artists also.

The first step of the program will consist in the creation of a common vocabulary in order to describe the aspect of artistic paintings, colour, brightness, glaze transparency in an interdisciplinary way, as well as to understand how aspect might be correlated with a historical aesthetics. This first step will also study the problem of the historicity of the scientific categories we use when our aim in looking at paintings is to gain knowledge about them.

The second and central step of the project will be an extensive empirical case-study: the Issenheim altarpiece realized by Mathias Grünewald (1512-1516). This particularly complex, powerful, and historically important work can be seen as a “boundary-object”3: as such it is actually adequate to allow the cooperation of groups from different disciplines. Due to the interdisciplinary composition of our team, the Issenheim altarpiece will be approached by different methods and through different questionings which will be brought together in order to reach a more comprehensive understanding of the creativeness of Grünewald, of the phenomena that affected the “posthumous life” of the altarpiece, i.e. how some colors have faded, how aging has induced degradations (as a conservation operation is supposed to be realized in the forthcoming years, it should be of great interest to follow and record the changes of aspect and appearance of the painting), as well as of the historically evolving ways in which the altarpiece has been constructed as a cultural object.). The collaborative work already undertaken by some of the team members has already enabled us to comprehend the genesis of the painting, the impressive technical know-how of the German Renaissance painter and, concurrently, has allowed us to produce a precise description of the phenomenal image.


Through this case study, the research program will address two theoretical questions:

  1. Visual exploration is central to our experience of painting, not only because perceptual acquaintance with the painted image is the source of our experience, but also because it remains the focus of attraction throughout the whole experience, top-down conceptual information being fed into it and becoming part of it only if it is experienced by the spectator as being perceptually incarnated in/by the painting. The aim of our study is to understand how bottom-up visual and top-down cognitive processes – which are culturally, historically, and socially diverse – interact at the level of the pictorial experience of the Issenheim altarpiece, and specifically to what extent conceptual top- down information is able to guide or bias our visual exploration.
  1. Our experience of painting is always a visual experience of form and of colour combined with an experience of content (this is true even of abstract art). Since the Renaissance, the Western tradition draws a sharp distinction between formal principles and colour (seen as a material sensation), viewed mainly as a dichotomy between line and colour. This opposition, which seems “natural to us,” has not always existed in this form: for example, the Middle Ages, which had a more Aristotelian, i.e. hylemorphic, outlook on the relation between form and matter, had not drawn such a strong binary opposition. Classical art-history, which is heir to the Renaissance, has been more interested in form and content than in colour, often reducing colours to their instrumental value for the form or the content. More recently colour has of course been the object of ground-breaking research by cultural historians or semioticians (Gage, Pastoureau, Roque, etc.) as well as by specialists of the materiality of paintings (Menu). We nevertheless still largely ignore what exactly the (historically variable but anthropologically grounded) role of colour-experience in the holistic experience of paintings is. The aim of our project is to study how colour plays into the global experience of paintings. As the Issenheim altarpiece is currently the object of an extensive restoration campaign, and as changes in colour-components of paintings are the most visible changes resulting from restoration, it gives us the possibility of engaging a direct comparative study of the influence of colour on the experience of paintings.

Our project has three characteristics which render it, in our view, innovative and especially promising:

  1. As indicated the project is centred on a case study, the Issenheim altarpiece. Several reasons account for this choice: the altarpiece by Grünewald is compelling through the technical skill which went into it as well as through the very complex cultural symbolism with which it is imbued: therefore, it is a perfect object for an interdisciplinary research-project; it is currently undergoing a restoration-process and is the object of an extensive material study by one of the participating research groups (C2RMF). This will allow us to engage in a comparative study of how different experts « see » the same painting; the restoration process makes the Issenheim altar-piece particularly suitable for a comparative study of the influence of colour on our experience of paintings. But our aim is to use this case study as a test study for a research-methodology which can be generalized for other works of art, and even for whole corpora. Thus, one of the important outputs of the research will be
  2. A second innovative feature of our project is that it uses two experimental designs which are very powerful instruments in the context of an interdisciplinary. The first one is the use of the eye-tracker. In fact, the interdisciplinary dynamics of the team will be partly constructed by the shared use of this device. Eye- tracking is a versatile instrument which can be operated at different levels of cognitive resolution: it is used in strictly controlled experimental designs (in lownoise contexts) as well as in qualitative studies combining the results of eye- tracking with « classical » social-science methodologies (self-commentary, questionnaires, etc.). This versatility recommends it as a tool for achieving interdisciplinary research. Our project will combine the different levels of cognitive resolution of eye-tracking: we will realize strictly experimental- quantifying studies (the comparative study of visual explorations of the Issenheim altarpiece before and after restoration) but also more qualitative research (comparative studies of the visual explorations of the altar-piece by different types of spectators.) We will conduct experiments testing three variables. The first one will be the different cognitive backgrounds of spectators (neophytes, informed amateurs, art-historians, specialists of material studies of painting, conservators, specialists of colours, medical doctors experts in central nervous system). The second variable which will be tested will be social difference: we are interested more specifically in the relationship between the social variable and the cognitive one. The third one is the influence of neurodegenerative perceptual and cognitive impairments related to aging on the visual experience of painting. This third variable will be studied in collaboration with the second structuring program of CCS developed in common with the program Aging and arts. The second innovative experimental aspect of the program is the use of computational models in order to analyze visual perception. Such models are useful insofar as objective measures usually match the subjective perception of an observer. We propose to use this kind of model to study the perception of some paintings analyzed at the C2RMF, and in particular to compare the painting before and after its restoration, in order to examine how the restoration modified its perception. Special emphasis will be put on color perception. From this point of view, the detection of ROI (Regions of Interest) plays a crucial part in perception; this detection, indeed, rests on both neurological and cognitive processes. Likewise, visual attention is stimulated by the saliency of color. As a result, it is important to be able to measure the changes in color perception after restoration.
  3. As indicated our team will also include artists. In this respect, our research program exemplifies the general principle of the CCS project which consists in integrating artistic experience as a cognitive endeavour in its own right. Michel Paysant, who has developed the oculomotricity method in an original way in order to “draw with the eyes,” will be part of the research team. Applying this method to classical paintings allows him to approach the underlying drawings4. We also have contacted the video-artist Momoko Seto (CNRS, EHESS), who has participated in a program using oculometry undertaken by some of us between 2012 and 2015 at the EHESS and who is the winner of a short-film prize at the Berlinale of


Scientific output:

  • Scientific papers by the members of the research team
  • A collective research seminar starting in October 2016
  • Artistic experimentations by Michel Paysant and Momoko Seto
  • Two symposia: one about colour on the model of the one organised in 1954 by Ignace Meyerson “Problèmes de la couleur”5 that has never really reproduced so far; one about the relationship between bottom-up and top-down processing in the experience of paintings
  • A collective publication specifically centred on the general value of the research methodology tested on the Issenheim altarpiece
  • A re-drawing of the masterpiece by the contemporary artist, Michel Paysant