“Picture”

A picture of Martin, which can be yours for $750

In a short New York Times essay about his personal art collection some time back, Steve Martin wrote,  “There are great pictures mixed in with good pictures, mixed in with oddballs, but I endorse and have found something worthwhile in every one of them.” In all he used the word picture or picture fifteen times, always as a synonym for painting.

This is a distinctly British, U (in the sense of U vs. non-U) and old-fashioned sense of the word. John Ruskin wrote in 1852, “Every noble picture is a manuscript book, of which only one copy exists or ever can exist.”

Wilde didn’t call his novel The Painting of Dorian Gray, after all. In that book, Lord Henry Wotton, after seeing the title portrait for the first time, tells the man who painted it, Basil Hallward: “You must certainly send it next year to the Grosvenor. The [Royal] Academy is too large and too vulgar. Whenever I have gone there, there have been either so many people that I have not been able to see the pictures, which was dreadful, or so many pictures that I have not been able to see the people, which was worse.”

Most Americans tend to use painting for paintings, reserving picture for photographs, drawings or what children produce at nursery school. But the Ruskin-Wilde-Martin picture crops up now and again, for example in the title of Richard Wollheim’s 1988 book Looking at Pictures the Old-Fashioned Way: Painting as an Art.

And then, as is often the case with NOOBs, there is The New Yorker, which is quite fond of pictures, as in a 1935 Talk of the Town piece: “A cold cop wandered into one of the most elegant art galleries in town the other day and asked the lady in charge if he could stay until his hands got warm. He walked around for a while, blowing on his hands, and looking at the pictures.”

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27 responses to ““Picture”

  1. When I was a child, paintings and photos were both pictures to me. Now, since “picture” is relatively generic, I’m finding (and using) the more specific terms, particularly when posting photos and graphics (such as logos and icons) online, where “image” is now the more likely generic term instead of “picture”.

    U? Sorry, I don’t get the reference. “U” for “University”? A join (union) symbol from set theory? What?

    • Here’s another example of the use of “picture” as generic, in this case covering both “image” and “photograph”. Yesterday, a friend sent me a link to NASA’s “Astronomy Picture of the Day,” where “Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.”
      And not to stop there, some of the “images” are “moving images” in the form of “videos”.
      Here’s the top link: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html . And in case WordPress messes with it, that’s apod dot nasa dot gov.

  2. I also notice that Brits refer to the product of Paramount, Shepperton and their rivals as “the pictures” and Americans call them “the movies”. Of course, the intellectually/artistically pretentious refer to them only as “films”….

    • As an IMDb.com “reviewer,” I use both “movie” and “film” for variety. I’d like to have more variety, but “picture” just seems so antiquated.

    • At Amazon.com, one of the search categories is “Movies & TV”. The analogous category at Amazon.co.uk is “Film & TV”.

      • Ah, a variation on the collective noun issue – that which epitomizes the description of two peoples separated by a common language – the Brits use the plural verb for such words and the Yanks use either an “s” at the end or the singular verb…plus the use of pictures is decidedly viewed as more “Eastenders” than “Downton Abbey”… so Amazon UK would choose the more upscale term…

    • Using ‘picture’ that way is, IME, archaic. Sounds 40s-ish… I haven’t encountered anyone who uses it, anyway. ‘Film’ is quite common but a bit more formal/intellectual (‘film studies’), and ‘movie’ probably equal in popularity but more colloquial- and to me still very American. Mainly I say ‘film’ because it’s shorter.
      However, plenty of people still ‘go to the pictures’ (i.e. go out to the cinema), but never call the thing they’re going to see a picture.
      Unless it’s the Rocky Horror Picture Show, possibly.

      • Ah, cinema. I have noticed that the use of pictures is not common in younger age groups, but their elders – over fifty – tend to use it, particularly working class. When I think of TV Brits using “cinema” they tend to be public school girls.

  3. . . . and then there’s “image,” which is art-history talk, but covers everything.

  4. I’m not convinced yet that there is any stark differentiation in usage re: BrE “picture” vs. AmE “painting.” Seems to me I hear “picture” referred to frequently in the US galleries and museums I find myself in. I will grant that “picture” in AmE, when referring to a painting, is definitely informal and not what you would ever read in an exhibition catalog. Does anybody across the pond know whether British exhibition catalogs employ the term? Then I’d be convinced that there’s something to this.

    Tangentially… as for motion pictures: I believe lots of directors and studio moguls typically refer to their products as “pictures” in a colloquial way, not just in the 1920s and 30s but even today.

  5. Hal: As in Nancy Mitford.

  6. Hal, forgive me, but Elizabeth Yagoda told me about this and this is the first opportunity I’ve had to use it: http://lmgtfy.com/?q=u+and+non-u

    Peter, that “picture” in U.S. is indeed sometimes used informally, but the usage I’m talking about is something quite different, to indicate membership in art in-group, as with Steve Martin. As for movies, it’s insiders as well who refer to one of their productions as “a picture.” No one has referred collectively to “the pictures” since the 1930s. And the hoity-toity “motion picture” is hauled out at award season, aka now.

  7. You’re quite correct that Americans don’t go to the pictures, but in second reference, when discussing a film, in my personal experience, I, and people of my acquaintance, routinely say, “I liked(disliked) the picture because..” as for “picture” for “painting,” I’ve nerver heard anyone in the US refer to one as a picture.

  8. I notice that the percentage of AmE users who refer to movies as films or pictures are more serious movie goers than most. I tend to use the word film (especially when I am posting a review on IMDb – mostly because I like to have a variety of terms in a review – using “movie” all the time is just not acceptable if you want people to read what you write – but I occasionally use picture or production)

    The vast majority of Americans use the term movies almost exclusively – in my own personal experience, that is.

    • I don’t know about others, but with respect to movies (or films, whichever one prefers), I think of one as a production only as it is being made, as “in production” or “in post-production,” but not once it’s a finished product (except when it’s intended to be some grand or ostentatious spectacle). Also, one tends to think of a production as coming from a major studio, but hardly from an independent film maker on a shoestring budget.
      “Production” leads me to consider the business side of things, but when enjoying, or even evaluating, a film, I prefer to focus on the artistic qualities of the work, rather than being influenced by the box office receipts, as it were. I leave that concern to the producer(s).
      In the performing arts, however, such as an opera or ballet, when a “production” is mounted, it may have several “performances,” each of which, though largely similar to all the others, is somehow unique due to its not being by its very nature an exact replication of any that came before it. Films, on the other hand, though they are “moving pictures,” they are nevertheless static in the sense that, unless something goes wrong in the projection booth, every showing is exactly like every other.
      I hope this posting was not too far off topic.

      • Excellent clarification – I use production very infrequently, and try to put it into a proper context – as in “the production would have benefited from less amateurish special effects” – usually to avoid using the noun movie or film or even picture one more time…

  9. I’m an American who has lived in London for nearly a decade, and I can honestly say I’ve never heard a Brit refer to art piece in a museum as a “picture”, but rather “painting”. I actually did a quick survey and most of my friends also agree that “picture” conjures up a photograph rather than painting. With respect to pictures for films, that is something I haven’t heard since I was a kid as my mother and her generation used it all the time. In Britain, yes, they do prefer “film” over “movie”, but movie is gaining ground very quickly!

    • Haints, that does not surprise me. “Picture” for painting is very U and pre-War Oxbridge–it comes up a lot in Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh novels. Judging from the Steve Martin quote, I would guess that it survives in the art-world in crowd on both sides of the Atlantic. If anybody traffics in that world, I would be interested in hearing from you.

      One other distinction that came to mind is that even in U.S. “picture” is commonly used for paintings and drawings (but NOT photos, interestingly) to mean “depiction”–e.g., “‘Nighthawks’ is a picture of a desolate diner.” The thing I’m talking about here is “picture/s” by itself, e.g., “It’s a great picture” or “I love looking at pictures.”

      • I used to be a “member” of the American Film Institute — I gave it up a couple of years ago — so out of curiosity, I searched AFI.com for “picture” and came up with “About 4,520 results (0.27 seconds)”, far too many to sort out the word’s application in each instance.

      • Good points, Ben. I did do a scan of some reviews by some of the top art critics over (e.g. Brian Sewell at the Evening Standard) and they do use pictures, but interchangeably with paintings. Almost as if they were trying to spice of their writing by using another word as the constant use of painting is a little dull. They’re also fond of “canvas” and “drawing”. A few of my friends are intimately connected with art world, but are under 40 so I think there could be a generational shift to the use of paintings. I’m waiting to hear back from a friend of mine in the US who used to write an arts column to get her opinion. I’ll report back!

    • Indeed, if I want to watch a film, I prefer to go to the movies rather than waiting it to come out on DVD, although my spellcheck hates me for it.

  10. “Canvas” is a good example of what Fowler (of Modern English Usage fame) called “elegant variation”: an arcane synonym writers use for the express purpose of not repeating a word. He did not approve.

    • I’ve heard “canvas” used in this context primarily in films of the mid-twentieth century, both British and American.
      This also brings to mind another difference, however. I’ve heard Brits use the term, “broad canvas” where Americans would say, “big picture”.

  11. OK, this is my last post on the subject and apologies if someone else has already referenced it, but my friend the art critic referred me to articles regarding “The Pictures Generation” which seemed to consciously eschew the use of words like painting to describe what they did, so I concede to the use of pictures in the wider art world. Here’s an article from the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/24/arts/design/24pict.html

  12. You know what? Never mind. I now see that Ben’s original post on this subject contains one, too. I’m going to have to investigate this further.

  13. Is is an interesting one, its an example of the american usage of “painting” and “picture” being more specific than ours, i.e. “picture” would cover both items for us, but a “picture” can still be a “painting”. This is one example of where I would welcome adoption of the american usage.

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