This blog describes why art matters. You will develop a set of tools enabling you to see the art in works of art. You will learn to see the way artists’ see. You will transform the very world you thought you were seeing every day into visual adventures. You will be equipped to do this work by learning to see.
Monday, January 6, 2014
Don't Judge a Painting by its Subject
My previous post, “Don’t
Judge a Book by its Cover,” asked you to apply your objective analysis
tools to Young Mother, a Renoir
painting in The Barnes Foundation.Thank
you for sharing your perceptions.
As I pondered how to tackle this post, I fortuitously read a
letter to the editor of The New York
Times.Mark Slouka, a published
writer of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, wrote:
Art is a supremely individual
expression.It doesn’t ask permission;
it doesn’t take an exit poll and adjust accordingly.Artists say what they know, paint what they
see—they have no choice in the matter—and it’s
our privilege to be brought into their world, so distinct from our own, and to
be altered by that experience. (12.30.13, A16)
A good place to start, I thought.
About mid-term, I test the students who study objective
analysis with me by asking them the following question: what is the first thing
you must do to understand the art in a painting?My goal is to confirm they have mastered the
tools I have taught so far.I usually
get many apt answers: (1) describe the rhythms; (2) describe the relationships
of color, light, line, and space; (3) state the picture idea.
I push on: “the first thing?” I ask again.
Finally, someone gets it: “Look at it,” the star student
Yes, look at it.
No matter your first reaction, whether positive or negative,
whether you like the picture or hate it, you must first look at it to have any
chance of understanding its aesthetic meaning and any possibility of
determining whether all aspects of the picture are successfully resolved—down
to the smallest units, individual brush strokes.
Jumping to conclusions, based on personal preference, will
not get you there.
Here is the painting:
Young Mother, 1881, Barnes
To be honest, most of us start with the obvious: what the
subject was.In this case, you may feel
charmed by the lovely young mother and the chubby baby she cuddles on her
lap.Or you may feel irritated by the prettiness
or cuteness of the very same subject facts.You may know, or research, when and why Renoir painted this picture and
what he said about it.For example, in
the autumn of 1881, during his visit to Italy, Renoir painted in Naples, and he
wrote this to Paul Durand-Ruel: “I am very content and think I’ll bring you
back some pretty (jolies) things.I am back on my feet again.It’s going very well.I have begun a figure of a young girl with a
child, if I don’t scrape it out.” (quoted in Renoir in the Barnes Foundation, p. 103)
To do our work, however, we must subdue the subject facts,
set aside information about the artist, and look at the picture facts.I find this easier to do if I invert the
Here it is, upside down:
Upside down, it is easier to see how space recedes dramatically
to the left of the figures and, in contrast, ascends vertically to the right of
On the right, a bright orange vertical plane (when inverted,
it is now at the top) sets off two projecting and contrasting units of color
and shape: a dark blue-black oval backed by a wider, lighter green-gray-tan
circle.These, in turn, float in front
of a continuing rectilinear plane of lighter orange-tan-green, a horizontal
band of blue-gray, a narrower band of orange and green dots and stripes, and a
wider rectangle of light blue-pink with small decorative dabs of deeper orange
dots and green stripes.
Light bathes this picture and combines with the warm/cool and
rich, vivid color contrasts to produce rhythmic luminous patterns throughout
the canvas. Most obvious: the fiery red-orange floor contrasted with the blue
of the mother’s dress.Most notable:
examine the slanting brush strokes modeling the mother’s dress and the basin
and jug.The slanting brush strokes
create volume and solid, three-dimensionality:the mother’s thighs combined with the baby’s legs create a series of
solidly three-dimensional rolling bulges; the slanting brush strokes convert
the jug and basin into convincing three-dimensional solid, contrasting
dark/light glowing color volumes.
Now examine the painting right side up.The slanting brush strokes create planes of
space in ((1) the background wallpaper; (2) the receding background wall; and (3)
These decorative patterns of brush strokes, superimposed on
units of color and light, retain sufficient connection with the textures
themselves to make more convincing the expression of each unit’s specific
quality.Check, for example:the heavy fabric of the mother’s dress vs.
the smooth, shiny surface of the dark blue jug; the supple, softness of the
baby’s flesh; the patent leather shine of the mother’s shoes; the lightness of
the cloth hanging in the space at the top right.
The painting of the basin, jug, and floor exhibit broad pronounced
brushwork and superimposed units of decoration.These units help determine the specific picture idea that unifies the
painting:the tile floor becomes an
upward slanting, lightly gridded area of orange-red glowing color units
interspersed with floating patches of white-gray-green; the jug and basin slip
behind the child’s extended leg moving to the left in a one-two-three beat; the
child, the mother, and the chair echo the one-two-three beat as they recede to
In minor keys, the orange of the mother’s neckpiece
contrasts with the short, blue-black, curly stripes on it.These stripes echo the curls that cover her
forehead;they echo the stripes of blue,
purple, orange, and red fanning out from the part in her hair; they echo the gray-pink
highlights in her dress; they echo the shorter blobs of pink on the baby’s
dress; they echo the wider blobs of pink and red-brown on the jug; they echo
the stripes of green, white, and orange on the basin and the edge of the chair;
in the background they echo the orange-pink dabs accented with green stripes
which float in front of the pink/blue geometry of cubes and planes as they
recede into the right corner of space.
John Dewey, in Art as
Experience, labels what I just described as the “substance” of the
painting.Be honest: are you wondering
what this analysis so far has to do with a mother holding a baby?Why subject that subject to aesthetic
feelings about space recession, decorative stripes and blobs, color/light
contrasts, and lively, luminous color/light activity?
Renoir presents the seated woman bending slightly forward,
the baby enveloped in her arms and held in place by her right hand supporting
the baby’s raised right arm and her left hand sandwiched between the baby’s
left arm and left hip.Her head,
slightly lowered, is directly above the baby’s head.The baby’s head turns to the right.The chair and the mother’s lower body tilt to
the left. So do the baby’s legs.The mother’s right foot sinks into the floor
at the lower left; her left foot, balanced on its toe, sets back on a diagonal to
the right.The two chair legs repeat
this, but the diagonal tilts slightly to the left.While the upper half of the woman’s body together
with the upper half of the baby’s body form a stable pyramidal composition, the
entire ensemble of both figures, the chair, the jug and basin, the background,
and the space of floor between the woman’s feet form a diamond
composition.This gives the ensemble
both stability and an in-and- out, back-and-forth, dynamic movement.
If you go back and examine everything I describe, you will verify
the subtle, ingenious, creative ways Renoir adapted a traditional subject of
mother and child to express visual ideas that alter our visual experience or,
as Violette de Mazia said, provide us new ways of seeing.