I believe that most of us have never shed a tear or had a very intense emotion in front of artworks. We are thrilled when we see pictures. They’re perplexing. Some are beautiful and soothing to gaze upon. The greatest are stunning, captivatingly beautiful, yet they barely last for a minute or two before we go on to something else. Our intriguing issue is our lack of intensity. I’d like to know why it feels OK to brush aside the amazing accomplishments of eminently holy, luminously ambitious, and oddly obsessive artists with a few sardonic remarks.

Are images just pretty patches on the wall or, for those in my field of work, index cards for thought-provoking discussions? What does it mean to be so infatuated with paintings—even to live among them your entire life, as professionals do—and yet feel so small? Is it not concerning that we find it difficult to connect emotionally with paintings if they are so valuable, replicated, adored, and viewed so frequently? The dramatist Georg Büchner has a great phrase about how people are so sparing with the little moments of emotion they do have, and how lifeless they have become. “We’ll need to begin measuring our spirit using liqueur glasses,” one of his personas remarks, gesturing to a little shot glass.

Most of us have never shed a tear in front of artworks

Büchner is correct in saying that the majority of us have so few really affecting encounters with art that they stand out among the phalanx of ordinary days spent at museums. These days, going to the museum offers the chance to learn something new and perhaps indulge in a little pleasure. That’s okay for some kinds of art.

However, a lot of artists from different eras would be completely repulsed by us. That is not necessary. As I intend to demonstrate in this book, paintings return the favor of drawing attention to them; the more you look, the more you feel. This is not a sob handbook. Though it’s impossible to teach intense emotions, much less sobbing, I’ve attempted to depict the mental states that have caused individuals to weep.

Paintings have a peculiar power to captivate the imagination, but it requires patience and an open mind to weird things. I don’t intend to imply that any image may make you cry or that holding a handkerchief while touring a museum is a smart idea. Images can convey a lot of information, and even the most serious history lecture may be enjoyable. Books about Monet can tell you that he started off by sketching caricatures and even that the small river that flows through his garden is called the Epte, and he painted it several times. I like history, and I wouldn’t trade one bit of its depth for anything.

However, paintings may also function in other ways, in ways that are difficult to describe, that come and go, and that appear to make their way upward up the brain from somewhere below. In other words, paintings have the power to shift the tone of your mind rather than modify what you say. That other sort of encounter has the power to pierce your mind and make you cry. That’s the one I’m hoping to locate in this book. Thankfully, there is ample proof that people have responded strongly to images.

It turns out that, for various reasons and with varied images, people wept in front of paintings during the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, as well as once more in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It appears that hardly many centuries have been as resolutely tearless as ours. Paintings portraying a tiny group of individuals who are essentially invisible among the throngs of uninterested museum goers yet make some people cry.

I looked for them by posting questions in newspapers and magazines, requesting accounts from anybody who has shed tears in response to a painting.