Roads and paths (also rivers, and other routes that people actually walk or ride along on in real life) are very often used metaphorically in art, representing such things as life's journey, a spiritual journey, etc. But whether or not they're used as metaphors, they're often used as "entryways" into the picture. There are many ways to catch the eye and direct it around a picture, but a road or path not only pulls your eye in, it almost makes you feel as though you are walking or riding into and through the scene rather than just observing it from afar.
It often starts at or near the foreground, at the point where the artist wants you to begin your "journey" through the picture, and along the way you "feel" every bump and pothole and dip and curve and so on. If it's flat and smooth and mostly straight and there are no obstacles, you feel you're speeding along; if it's narrow and bumpy or curvy, etc., you proceed slowly. The road or path (of whatever kind) serves as a directional arrow that tells you where to start looking at the picture, and directs your eye toward where you're supposed to look subsequently on your way to the main subject. It can also make a view seem very deep, going far back into space.
On the other hand, a path or road can work against you if you put one in the wrong place. For example, if it's heading out of the picture it can take the viewer's eye right out of the picture, too. Also, a path that's going from one side of the picture to the other (rather than "into" the picture) can stop your eye right at that point as if it were a wall, or at least slow you down considerably, making it difficult for you to get beyond that barrier - sometimes you want that to happen, but often you don't. Another mistake is to include a path that goes directly from front to back and seems to "leave" the scene without having made your eye stop to look around en route, as this can cause the viewer to miss the main subject and, indeed, most of the picture.
A road or path or river, or any other type of route that humans can feel as if they're actually following, or riding along on, is one way to achieve the goal of catching the viewer's eye and moving it through a scene in the way an artist wants you to go through it, and very often this kind of route that makes you feel as though you are participating in the scene is particularly appropriate and useful. Of course there are many other ways to bring your eye into a picture and take it where it should go, and often the artist uses some of these other methods, sometimes with or sometimes without a recognizable human-usable "path" in the picture also.
Below are some pictures I've gathered under which I'm going to add my own comments regarding the use (or non use) of paths or roads in these particular views. They are just my own thoughts, so please don't quote me if you are looking for the opinions of an expert. I have studied and thought a lot about this subject, though, so I believe that my ideas have some validity. As I've written elsewhere in this blog, I write for my own benefit as much as for anyone else, in order to bring things forward from the back of my mind to consciousness, where they can be more useful to me. I don't write as an expert.
Camille Pissarro, Caribbean-born French Painter (1830-1903)
The Jallais Hills, Pontoise, 1867
Picture source: Elibron
In the picture (The Jallais Hills, Pontoise) above, Pissarro painted a wide, rutted path in the foreground, aiming toward the hills. This helps give great depth to the picture, not only providing a path to "walk upon" toward the background, but giving a feeling of quite a lot of space between the edge of the path and the houses and hills beyond. The path quickly curves to our right and out of sight but there is someone walking toward us right at that point, which stops the eye from going too far, and in fact she's wearing a light-colored dress which is the same hue and value as the sides of the houses and some of the fields in the distance, so our eye goes from her back toward the main focus of the painting, following a "path" of light spots. The curve of the path and also its clumps of grass and rutted condition keep us from zipping along too fast toward the distance (how alarming it would seem if it were smooth and straight, with the obvious drop where we might fall over the edge).
Vincent van Gogh, Dutch Painter (1853-1890)
Village Street and Steps in Auvers with Figures (1890)
Picture source: Elibron
In Van Gogh's picture above, there is a wide walkway that leads us from the foreground into the center of the picture. There is nowhere else to go once on this path; it's almost as if we're being sucked into the middle of the painting. This walkway looks rough and undulating, rather difficult to navigate while walking along; that makes our eyes slow down and look around and we can then notice who's on the path (along with us). Although the path veers to the left in the middle distance of the picture, our eye doesn't try to go left with it because our view of the path is abruptly blocked by a wall that it disappears behind, and also there's a long stairway (in a light yellow color as is the path) leading down to just that point coming from the right background and this then catches the eye. The stairway is very curvy and a man in black is making his way down it with a cane, so although our eyes would normally zip right up the stairway after "walking with difficulty" down the foreground path, it seems instead that it takes a long time to find our gaze finally making it up to the top of the stairs and then falling upon the houses in the background, where we reach a complete stop. It seems that no matter where we look from there -- to the right, to the left -- our eyes want to go back to the center of the picture (where the wide entrance path meets the bottom of the stairway). I think that this is probably because there are splashes of light yellow paint in the foliage on both sides of the picture that lead us back to the light yellow (and green) walkway, which then, again, leads us to the center. So the "path" that leads us from the background back to the foreground and center is a path of light yellow colors. The idea behind the route that we follow through this painting (which includes the path and the stairway and also the splashes of light yellow color in the foliage) seems to be to keep us going, slowly, with much to observe and be careful about, around and around in this scene, making the town seem very cozy (or, perhaps, you might say "claustrophobic") and self-contained.
Vincent van Gogh, Dutch painter (1853-1890)
Wheat Field with Crows, 1890
Picture source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page
The painting above is one of Van Gogh's very last paintings. He was soon to kill himself, and so one wonders what was on his mind while painting this. It looks particularly ominous with the swarming crows, and because the tortured-looking trail seems to end, abruptly, and oddly, in the middle of a field. Certainly the trail adds depth to the picture, and that adds to the drama - It seems to drag you into the center, far away from where you're standing. This path is not inviting, as so many roads and paths are. The way it seems to writhe like a snake doesn't exactly make us want to hike out there, and in fact although of course the picture is fascinating to look at, I think that if I were actually in a place like that (in a bad dream, perhaps), I would want to turn around and go quickly in the other direction.
Camille Pissaro, Caribbean-born French painter (1830-1903)
Boulevard Montmartre, Night, 1897
Picture source: Elibron
Camille Pissarro's night scene in Paris, above, shows a busy street with lots of carriages and people. The street narrows quickly as it goes into the distance, like an arrow, and this could lead us right into the background and out of the scene he wants to show (nightlife in the city, I'd say), but it doesn't do that because all the warm and bright colors and detail in the bottom half of the picture - and the large dark tree down the street (and the general grayness and lack of detail back there) - keep us from looking too far into the picture and missing the real subject. Yet the "arrow" effect is still there (provided by the lines of the buildings as well as the street) and it gives depth to the scene.
Camille Pissarro, Caribbean-born French painter (1830-1903)
Picture source: Elibron
The path in the Pissarro painting above is, itself, the subject of the picture, and so the people and the surrounding objects are depicted in a subdued manner, with a lot of texture but very little detail. It's even difficult to tell whether the people are coming toward us or going in the same direction we are. We enter the picture via the left foreground and follow the narrow, curvy, rough, steep path toward the top of the hill. It looks (actually, it "feels") like it's very difficult to walk on and so even though it is very easy to see and follow, you are slowed down by the realization that you are trudging uphill, and it's going to take some time to get to the top. The textures and the lack of recognizable detail also slow you down because you're trying to make out what's there. Although the dirt path stops well before the top of the picture, your eye continues into the sky area which is the same light shade as the path. In other words, you are continuing on a "light path" from the light brown colors of the path to the light bluish colors of the sky, which takes you to the right side of the picture and back down toward the bottom of the hill again, via the only slightly darker blue buildings. (The cloud forms seem to tug your eye toward the right after you've reached the top of the path, too. I personally see in them the shape of a person leaning toward the (our) right and looking directly at the chimney of the top gray building.)
Georges Pierre Seurat, French painter (1859-1891)
Rue St. Vincent, Montmartre, in Spring. (c. 1884)
Picture source: Elibron
In the Seurat picture, above, the walkway is again the subject of the picture, as well as leading the viewer into the scene and giving it depth. To me there is a great feeling of coziness in this painting, because of the enclosed, protected feeling you get from the walls at the sides of the path and from the trees growing overhead. I wish I were there and could stay in that spot for a while.
Although the walkway continues beyond the walls and you can see quite far into the distance, your eyes keep coming back to the foreground. The dark blue shadow just past the walls stops your eyes, and when you peer beyond that shadow the steps (or are they shadows that have the appearance of steps; it doesn't matter as the effect is the same) slow you down. Besides that, in the far background it is all very light and looks very open-spaced and impersonal and unwelcoming in comparison with the foreground scene.
Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin, Russian Painter (1832-1898)
Before a Thunderstorm - 1884
Picture source: Elibron
There is a path only in the foreground in the painting by Shishkin, above, not leading further into the picture. It looks like it would bring you down to the water's edge. The path is close, appealing, and noticeable enough (notice the brightly lit "point" of it) so that it is obviously what you're supposed to see, and follow, before anything else. It brings you into the picture, from left to right. I'd like to follow that path. The subject isn't the path, however, so our eye isn't meant to stop there. The subject is "Before a Thunderstorm."
The path happens to be aiming toward a tree on the other side of the water that's leaning at a 45 degree angle and "pointing" toward the middle of the picture, which is quite a distance away. That area is lit up in the same way as the foreground, so you'd see it eventually whether or not you followed the path; however you get there more slowly and in a more interesting way when you take the path route rather than "jumping" directly across the water into the background. Once your eye settles upon the brightly-lit meadow in the middle background, you immediately become very aware of the weather conditions (the subject) due to the contrast of the sunny spot in the meadow with the dark stormy sky and cloud shadows.
Paul Cezanne, French painter (1839-1906)
Maisons au bord d'une route, c. 1881
Picture source: Web Museum http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint
In the Cezanne picture, above, the subject is "houses along a road." The road leads you right into the picture, giving it depth, and making you wonder what's around the bend. This looks like an expensive suburban enclave to me, dirt road or no dirt road. However, at the same time it looks "cozy" because of the walls and trees, and houses not far from the road, all of which make it seem like you're in an enclosed area that's safe and comfortable - this is obviously a very primitive response to this kind of scene (maybe you're not as primitive as I am, but that's how I always feel when I look at this picture).
There are no people or vehicles on this road, not even a dog or a cat - That's what makes me think that this is a suburb, not a town where people work or go shopping or to have their shoes repaired or hair cut or go out to be entertained.
The gentle curves in the road help make the picture appealing, at least until you really think about what a sterile-looking neighborhood this is. Believe me, I have always liked this picture, and I still do. Sometimes sterile-looking things make wonderful pictures; it depends on the artist.
Claude Monet, French painter (1840-1926)
The picture by Claude Monet, above, has an "implied" path in it. One assumes that there must be one under the snow, leading up to the gate. Gates are like magnets for the eyes, as you know there's something beyond them that could be interesting. The shadow of the gate seems to be where the the path is, to make it even more obvious. Because of the "implied" path leading to and away from the gate and because of the contrast of the dark magpie and gate against the snow, there is not the slightest doubt as to what the subject is (a bird on a gate), even if you didn't know the title of the painting. The fact that the gate is closed helps stop the eye there, too; if it were open enough for a person to fit through, in our minds we would fit through, too and "walk right on by" down toward the background - the bird wouldn't be nearly as noticeable on an open gate. After we've looked at the gate and the bird the eye might well go down the path on the other side of the gate to what looks like a frozen lake, and it might wander around the rest of the picture, but shapes in the picture keep leading us back to the point where that path and gate come together so that's what we see first and last, and that's why the magpie, the subject, was put right in that spot.
William Merritt Chase, American (U.S.) painter (1849-1916)
Picture source: Elibron
People don't need a path to gain access to a common, coming at it from all around, so of course he didn't paint one into the scene. In fact, though, this picture demonstrates what happens when there is nothing directing your eye around (though there is the line of trees and buildings in the background which serves to stop the eye from going right up and out of the picture). There is just the grass, that's all, and that is the subject, and so it's appropriate that your eyes stay on the grass and aren't distracted. A hungry rabbit might well love this scene. "Ah!! Look at ALL THAT GRASS!" But I myself look at all that grass and think about how awkward it would be to walk across all of it, and how it's such a long, long way to the other side. I, personally, prefer a view that has a more inviting subject, but I know this is considered by many to be a good painting, and what do I know. There is a message in it, to me: It tells me that there is a huge amount of grass in this spot that nobody is using.
Arkhip Ivanovich Kuinji, Russian Painter (1842-1910)
Elbrus - Moonlit Night - 1898-1908
Picture source: Elibron
This painting by Arkhip Kuinji, above, shows no path at all, and from the looks of things you doubt that there is a path (or road or river, etc.) anywhere nearby that leads to the subject, Mount Elbrus. According to Wikipedia, Mount Elbrus is a volcano that has been dormant for about 2,000 years, and it is the highest mountain in Europe ("the west summit stands at 5,642 metres [18,510 ft]" and "the east summit is slightly lower: 5,621 metres [18,442 ft]").
Although the painting has very little contrast of tone, the mountain stands out because of the white snow (the only thing white in the picture) on it. It looks like everything between the bottom of the picture and the mountain lies in a desert, and the air is filled with blowing sand.
The implied "path" in this picture starts in the left foreground and to me it looks like this "lead in" to the mountain was meant to hold us back and keep us from zipping right over to Mount Elbrus. The artist, in my mind, wanted us to take time to compare the barren, windswept, desert-like foreground with the very tall cold mountain loaded with snow, and so he has these rocky outcroppings of different heights, which look like they're made of sandstone, catch our eye first of all. It seems that he's made a kind of "stairway" out of these outcroppings, but instead of stepping toward the mountain, they step down back toward the foreground so that instead of looking immediately toward the background (and distant mountain), you "jump" from one outcropping to another back toward the bottom of the picture. The bottom "step" is quite a lot lower than the others and so you leap from that one down to the floor of the valley. From there we are led, slowly, via horizontal shadows of different shapes and sizes which keep us from speeding toward the background, to the tall mountain. This slow route to the background gives a feeling of great distance between the foreground and the mountain, and it thereby helps make us realize how big Mount Elbrus is, and how remote it is from civilization. Of course their are other factors involved in giving us this feeling of distance and remoteness, but the "pathway" the artist has provided us is as important as any of the others.
NOTE: The eyes don't usually actually follow a path so much as they become "aware" of that path. The eyes skip around, looking at whatever attracts them. As they do this, they become aware of "paths" and where they lead. The effect is the same as if they'd followed the path from beginning to end without looking elsewhere.
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