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 shouts. 

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.

Let’s begin.

Here is the painting:

Renoir, 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 picture.

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 the figures. 

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) the floor. 


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 the right.

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?

Here’s why.

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. 

And that is the art in this picture.

1 comment:

  1. If we can agree that the subject of this painting is "mother and child," then we know that it is different from Mary Cassat's many depictions of "mother and child" and different from the many ways Mary holds Jesus in numerous paintings of " holy mother and child." Clearly the subject is not the raison d'être for this painting's existence. So the next determination has to be why did the artist paint this picture and what was he/she saying with light, line, color, space and composition? Mother and child, the subject, then becomes secondary to what and how the artist expressed what the subject was and not the subject itself.