Up Closer

Ernst Gombrich, cultural historian, once remarked: ‘One never finishes learning about art. There are always new things to discover.’ In 'Up Closer', art historian Wieteke van Zeil shows us details in paintings that we wouldn’t normally notice. She discusses their symbolism and shares her own associations with us, stimulating us to go back and look more closely.

Wieteke van Zeil
Original title

We live in an information culture in which millions of images fight for our attention. Pausing to examine a detail in a painting can refresh the way we see the whole; this is the idea behind Up Closer. There are odd details in so many paintings, from the bored-looking angel in a Rubens’ painting, to the rhythmical way Van Gogh places his sunflowers, which can be viewed in much the same way as listening to music.

In Albrecht Bouts’ Jesus in his crown of thorns, the thorns look so deeply embed- ded that we want to turn away, just as we want to turn away from the world’s horrors shown on our screens.

Up Closer features fifty-two paintings, each with a zoomed-in detail and Wieteke van Zeil’s short observations. She makes connections between the Old Masters and our modern world, bringing each painting vividly to life and changing how we view the world. She stimulates our imagination and curiosity, so that we go on to find other details that aren’t immediately obvious. By concentrating on a cow’s velvety nose, or on men bathing naked in the corner of a seascape, the whole painting not only becomes more stunning, but the viewer will also understand it better. She opens up a world of meaning.

Wieteke van Zeil writes vividly and enjoyably, making connections between art, actuality, literature, the Bible, fashion and films. She switches lightly between literary prose, amusing asides, street language and professional jargon.


Van Zeil opens the door to a world of meaning, symbolism and associations. Art changes the way you look at the world.

Wieteke van Zeil
Art historian Wieteke van Zeil (b. 1973) worked in museums and ran debates. From 2010, she started taking photographs with her iPhone, details in paintings, and realized how often we miss the essential details about how people live, suffer, love, struggle and find enjoyment, as much hundreds of years ago as today.
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