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Brushstroke and Emergence

Courbet, Impressionism, Picasso

No pictorial device in nineteenth-century French painting more clearly represented the free-ranging self than the loose brushstroke. From the romantics through the impressionists and post-impressionists, the brushstroke bespoke autonomous artistic individuality and freedom from convention.

Yet the question of how much we can credit to the individual brushstroke is complicated—and in Brushstroke and Emergence, James D. Herbert uses that question as a starting point for an extended essay that draws on philosophy of mind, the science of emergence, and art history. Brushstrokes, he reminds us, are as much creatures of habit and embodied experience as they are of intent. When they gather in great numbers they take on a life of their own, out of which emerge complexity and meaning. Analyzing ten paintings by Courbet, Manet, Cézanne, Monet, Seurat, and Picasso, Herbert exposes vital relationships between intention and habit, the singular and the complex. In doing so, he uncovers a space worthy of historical and aesthetic analysis between the brushstroke and the self.

176 pages | 38 color plates, 4 halftones, 6 line drawings | 7 x 9 | © 2015

Art: Art Criticism, European Art

Cognitive Science: Neuroscience

Media Studies


“Herbert’s lively, engaging prose delves deep into the material and semantic intricacies of his pictures, which are carefully selected to showcase some of the most remarkable reimaginings of the brushstroke in modern painting. The descriptive intensity of the writing alone makes the book a worthwhile read, and the reproductions are top-notch, including some stunning details that make long-familiar paintings appear refreshingly strange.”

Critical Inquiry

“Nuanced, incisive and illuminating. . . . Herbert shows that attention to application of paint can upend conceptions of the social and semiotic status of artworks, conceptions that are deeply embedded in existing accounts of modern French painting.”

Art History

“Herbert’s new takes on a series of apparently familiar paintings make the book an important counter to the overly-confident analyses prevalent in standard histories of the moment.”

Times Literary Supplement

Brushstroke and Emergence is subtle, rigorous, and original—a sustained meditation. Against the established concepts of a unitary painting and a unitary artist, each whole and unto itself and manifest in a creative act, Herbert looks for moments in paintings when some form or other bubbles up, erupting on the smooth surface of things. His idea of emergence opens up familiar pictures in new ways. This is an important book.”

Alexander Nemerov, Stanford University

“A must-read. Herbert’s work intersects effectively with highly contemporary concerns such as the psychology of depiction and neuroaesthetics, addresses foundational considerations in art history and criticism, and makes a significant contribution to understanding the artistic culture in question. Brushstroke and Emergence will be widely interesting to art historians, image theorists, and general readers.”

Whitney Davis, University of California, Berkeley

“This is a succinct and elegant study that asks us to rethink what we assume we already know—the semiotics of the brushstroke. Focusing on a few key modernists, Herbert gives us a fresh view of how matter comes to have its own meanings, and how we often overdetermine the most basic relations of maker and mark. For anyone who assumes they already know how to look at a painted canvas, this is essential reading.”

Elizabeth C. Childs, Washington University in St. Louis

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Brushstroke and Emergence
Index of Principal Discussions of Featured Paintings

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