In the Details: Whether Creating or Enjoying Creation

May 5, 2020 Updated: May 5, 2020

Capturing the festive May Day ritual, 19th-century painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s “Spring” depicts a procession of beautiful girls and women carrying colorful flowers and wearing floral wreaths, descending the stairs of a classical marble structure. The classical-subject painter re-envisioned the Victorian custom of children gathering flowers from the countryside on the morning of May 1 and placed the opulent scene in ancient Rome. In this way, he suggests the festival’s great antiquity, through architectural details, dress, sculpture, and even the musical instruments based on Roman originals.

Spring by Alma-Tadema
“Spring,” 1894, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Oil on canvas; 70 1/4 inches by 31 5/8 inches. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. (Public Domain)

In the foreground of this large canvas stands a girl in a pale hydrangea-blue dress, playing a flute. On very close examination, we see that the silver flute’s mouthpiece is shaped like a tiny creature. Such a tiny detail is almost incomprehensible! How and why does Alma-Tadema put such meticulous effort into this minute detail?

We may find redemptive answers if we apply the precious gift of focused attention on details. These can prove healing, calming, and enlightening. Quieting the outer noise can help us bear witness to and, if we are artists, then record the magnificent phenomenon called life.

Detail of Flutist in Spring
Detail of the flutist in “Spring,” 1894, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. (Public Domain)

Details Make Art Come Alive

When we invest ourselves, especially in masterworks, we get so much in return. The viewer feels cared for, gifted by treasures that slowly reveal themselves to those who pay attention.

Jacqueline Woodson, an award-winning writer, has been quoted as saying: “The more specific we are, the more universal something can become. Life is in the details. If you generalize, it doesn’t resonate. The specificity of it is what resonates.”

The more authentically rendered the seemingly small details are, for example, in the painting “Spring”—a little girl’s foot poised just off the ground or the gestures and gazes of the faces—the truer painting is, and the more we can identify with it and believe it.

Details are especially important when what is depicted is unfamiliar to us, as in the case of creating fantasy or worlds of the past.

Why do we feel that “Spring” and the ancient May festival is so alive to us? Because Alma-Tadema himself had invested in learning as much—as many details—about the ancient Greeks and Romans as possible.

Alma-Tadema’s appetite and curiosity about the ancient world were insatiable. The knowledge he acquired was incorporated into over 300 paintings of ancient archaeological and architectural designs. His commitment to accurately depicting history offers us incredible information, conveyed, in the case of “Spring,” through the details of clothing, instruments, and architectural structures. Taken together, these give us a feeling of what it might have been like to be in the ancient world.

As Alma-Tadema said, according to The Dublin University Magazine of 1879: “If you want to know what those Greeks and Romans looked like, … come to me. For I can show not only what I think but what I know.”

Acknowledging the Creator

In an online video, New Masters Academy instructor Glenn Vilppu says, “You don’t really see something until you draw it; you think you see something, but you’re not really seeing it.”

Vilppu is talking about seeing things deeply and how that allows a kind of devotion to the craft and to the subject before one; it enables a commitment to telling the truth about a subject and, in doing so, revealing a deeper truth about it—a beauty or an essence.

Similarly, we can train our eyes to notice beauty anywhere and everywhere by lovingly observing nature’s details. This, in turn, fosters and nurtures a deep appreciation of life and our natural world.

By study, with undivided attention, it is as if our consciousness can be transported into the smallest of spaces. Perhaps it is even a form of prayer, or an act of sanctifying creation and the Creator by offering our devotion.

According to orthodox traditions, the point of the arts is to praise the Creator and creation. To extrapolate on this idea, then, to depict with great attention the smallest of details is a sacred act. Michelangelo said, “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.” Acknowledging and admiring the details of the natural world honors the Creator, and thus the creator in us. In this way, we are reminded of the splendor and wonder that is creation.

Reaching for Eternal Patience

Getting the details right takes time and effort, and that requires great patience. We build our facility for patience, fortitude, resolve, and steadfastness in describing and viewing these seemingly small details.

Taking the time and making the effort to get the correct angles of perspective, the proper proportions of the anatomically accurate bone structure of the hand, to see and duplicate all the varied shades of green and pinks in the bouquet of roses on the table, to understand the slight and drastic shifts of lights and darks of the folds of cloth—these are the myriad details that will improve our skills, improve our capacity for patience, develop respect for truthfulness, and cultivate a love of beauty that makes us strive even harder to portray it. And thus, in turn, we will engender these feeling in others.

We can be tempted in our throwaway, immediate-gratification world to feel as though this kind of effort is not worth the trouble. When our efforts put into these details are not acknowledged, is this an efficient use of time?

Yes. In the book “At the Ballet: On Stage, Backstage” by Sandra Lee, Thomas Hunt, and Tom Hunt, a San Francisco Ballet costume designer is asked, “Why do you spend so much time on the tiny details of the costumes if the audience will never see them?” And she answered, “The dancers will see it and will dance better because of it.”

Thus, the time and effort we put into work will, in some way, express itself positively.

“Genius is eternal patience,” Michelangelo said.

Details Inspire

Alma-Tadema’s paintings enjoyed popularity when his large, panoramic depictions of Greek and Roman life caught the attention of Hollywood. Certain scenes in Cecil B. DeMille’s film “Cleopatra” (1934) were inspired by the painting “Spring.”

When we take the time to do things well, whatever task we are charged with, then the attention to preparing a meal, grading tests, caring for people, or creating art will, in turn, inspire others to want to do the same—their best.

And in paying attention to what might seem like insignificant details, we demonstrate great care for ourselves, each other, and the world.

Masha Savitz is a freelance writer and filmmaker in the Los Angeles area.