You don’t expect a lesson in art appreciation from Netflix. But a BuzzFeed report of the media service’s instant replay feature, which lets you watch your favorite moments from popular TV shows, is also a useful way to approach painting.

Background checks

Not every Old Master painting is great, but parts of it often are. For example, the significance of Da Vinci’s portrait of the Mona Lisa eludes me, but the velvet-fogged alpine scene in the background, looking breathed rather than painted, is haunting.

Cherry-picking memorable parts of any of the arts is not all that unusual.

We do it all the time when it comes to, say, a song or the refrain in a poem. Applying this approach to an easily overlooked painting by Sofonisba Anguissola in an all-female show starring Artemesia Gentileschi at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum provides a show in itself.

In write-up after write-up about this show of Italian female painters at the Wadsworth, much is made of work by Gentileschi. While this is not undeserved, the background of a self-portrait by Sofonisba Anguissola warrants write-ups, too.

The eyes have it

At first, what you see is the artist at her easel, but looking at you and in such a way to suggest she stopped painting to see why you interrupted her. She shows no facial expression, as if to say, “I’m not the point of this picture,” as if to direct your attention past her to the picture she’s painting.

And you’re glad for the hint because it’s a showstopper.

What you see is a rendition of Mary and Child – admittedly a common theme by countless Old Masters – but made extraordinary by their focalized attention on each other. I’m going to stop here for a moment to ask you something.

How many times in your life have you seen such a fixed look?

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Fleeting looks, passing glances are the norm in a self-absorbed world. But when it comes to a newborn’s ability to make out the face of his mother for the first time as she nurses him, it’s an absorbed look of another kind.

I’m thinking of my own children as infants. The way they scrutinized me when I came into focus took my breath away.

Odd that in most Renaissance paintings of Mary and Child, that singular gaze is missing.

The other remarkable part of Anguissola’s painting is that she packed so much intensity in the infant’s stare on such a small scale.

The human element

This is unexpected because while Medieval Marys are stiff and flat, and hold their infants like sports trophies, Renaissance Marys interact with their Child. Even at that, though, painters usually stop short of showing the infant concentrating attention on his mother.

Consider Domenico Puligo’s "The Virgin and Child with St. Benignus and St. Placidus" which describes the typical infant wiggling in his mother’s arms, and the typical mother holding onto his legs to keep him from falling.

Even if you find an Old Master that pays attention to the infant’s focus on his mother, it’s not the up-close kind that Anguissola described. For example, Gaudenzio Ferrari’s “Holy Family with A Donor” shows mother and child looking intently at one another, but they’re not together so you don’t pick up on the emotion in their exchanged looks.

Maybe Anguissola captured that wordless exchange between mother and child because she experienced it. Maybe Old Master painters being male did not.