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November 16, 2009

Edvard Munch and the Motif of Death - Part 1

Part 1 - Spring (painted in 1889)

I would very much like to show the painting I'm going to write about here, but since it's apparently under copyright in Norway until 2014 (though it is already in the public domain here in the U.S.), I'm going to have to add a link to it instead. The painting was made by painter and printmaker Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863-1944). It was painted in a realist style as Munch, although he had been experimenting with it hadn't yet fully developed his mature symbolist/expressionist style (and, besides, he hoped by means of this picture to get a scholarship to study in France and a less conservative style would probably have not have helped) -- yet it was of a subject that he depicted many times, mostly in an "unrealistic" manner.

Munch's pictures on this subject do not all show the same scene (though he did repeat each scene several times, in variations); nevertheless, they all show a room with people in it in which there is a sick and dying - or just-deceased - person included. That person is sometimes his mother and sometimes his sister, both of whom died long before he began making these pictures of them -- his mother when Munch was five years old and his sister when he was fourteen (she was fifteen). The other people in the room, in the pictures, are grieving family members.

The particular picture I'm going to begin with is called Spring. It's a very large painting, approximately 5-1/2 feet tall by 8-1/2 feet wide. It was painted in 1889 when Munch was 25 years old. Please click here to see it on the CGFA site.

I wish I could show it on here. The picture is horizontal and quite wide, with a woman and an older girl on the left side; both of them sitting in chairs which are turned toward the right side of the picture, but they are not looking in that direction; the girl is facing the front of the picture and is staring toward the floor, and the mother is looking at the girl. The girl, Munch's sister, is obviously very ill. She is sitting up in a chair with a pillow behind her head, looking weak and resigned. Her mother is very close by, very tense, and entirely focused upon her daughter. Both of them are dressed in black. On the right side, facing the two women and toward which their chairs are turned, is an open window with billowing translucent white curtains through which you can see brightly lit yellow-green new spring growth beyond the house, and on the sunny windowsill are pots of flowering plants. The right side, in other words, reflects the title of the painting: Spring. The left side looks like the dead of winter in comparison, dark and practically lifeless although the light from the window touches both faces and the mother's hands. Neither the young woman nor her mother pay any attention to the lovely scene at the window and beyond, though, nor do they seem enlivened by the fresh air. In contrast to the light, airy, sunny scene at the right side of the picture, the left side is all grays, faded pink, dark blood red (mainly the large cabinet behind the girl) and touches of white...and stillness.

Without making the picture appear to break into halves, Munch has contrasted the right side with the left side in several ways to create tension and poignancy. As already mentioned there is the contrast of the lightness and the spring-warmth of the colors on the right with the dark somber grays and blood colors of the left. Then there is the presence, on the right, of things that tell of new life (warm sunshine, pots on the windowsill, open window, flowers, the yellow of new spring growth outside the window) that contrast with an almost-bare table, the girl and the woman in plain black dresses, the invalid's stiff square pillow, deep shadows, etc. A trickle of light from outside reaches into the left side of the picture as if deep into a cave, but one feels that the air does not reach that far and the atmosphere seems stifling on that side of the room.

There is also the bulge of the curtains on the right that suggests movement, while on the left the verticals (and horizontal of the top of the cabinet) against the wall and the almost solid mass of darkness that weighs down the two figures suggests something entrenched, locked in place, that cannot be moved. Also, the lively diagonal where the dark floor meets the white window wall, which makes us feel we could easily step into that part of the room contrasts with the very bottom-heavy, solidly structured (he had the Cartesian grid in mind) "wouldn't move in an earthquake" composition of the grouping on the left side -- There is no diagonal to lead us in, and no room to walk in, in that area; it seems filled with a dark impenetrable mass.

I find this painting very moving because of these contrasts. Spring, of course, symbolizes "renewed life" and "optimism." But obviously for the people in the room it is completely unnoticed because it doesn't apply to their lives. One might think at first glance that the open space in the room between the left and right side would have allowed at least a little spring/hope to reach the subjects of this composition, but at closer look even the viewer loses hope, seeing that in nearly the exact center of the picture (between "hope" and "reality") the girl's limp ashen-gray hands hold a bloody handkerchief, giving away the state of her health. (She had tuberculosis.)

Her mother's hands, in contrast, are ruddy and active (she seems to be knitting). Also, they are lit by the sunlight that reaches across the room.

The daughter's face is as pale as her hands; her mother's face is pink.

In fact, Munch's mother died long before her daughter (her oldest child) died, but Munch has put them together here. I understand that he used his mother's sister as a model for his mother, and one of his younger sisters as a model for his sister who died.

His mother's younger sister -- the model for the mother in this picture -- did in fact take Munch's mother's place in the household after she died. She had already been helping out when her sister died, and kept up the role full-time from then on. She apparently didn't marry Edvard's father, but ran the household and acted as substitute mother to the five children.

In a future post (or two posts) I'll write about more of Munch's death-themed pictures.

"In pictorial space, things are made to coexist for a more important reason than that they occurred together in a story or setting. They are united by the picture's theme, and it is that theme that authorizes the story to serve as subject matter. I am saying, to use another example, that in paintings of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel and Mary appear in the same room not because such an event did in fact occur; rather, the scene 'was made to take place' because the Virgin Birth had to be announced." -- Rudolf Arnheim (in his book Parables of Sun Light, 1982, p. 295)


1) Here is a long and thorough biography of Edvard Munch, by Marit Lande, on the Munch Museum site.
2) Size of the painting (Spring): 169 x 263.5 cm (5.54 ft. x 8.64 ft.)

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November 14, 2009

The Essential Vermeer Website

The Essential Vermeer Website

Artist Howard Kerber recommended this site to me. (Thank you!) I have barely opened the door and looked around in this huge mansion of a website, but I've seen enough to know that it's great fun to poke around in and probably would be for anyone who has any interest at all in Vermeer. It's not just "fun," though. It's serious and there's quite a lot of interest and much to learn.

The "Author and Webmaster" of Essential Vermeer is artist Jonathan Janson.

There is so much related to Vermeer on the site that I don't know how to explain it without making long lists of so many things you can find here, but you can more easily see for yourself and don't need long lists from me.

There is not only what you'd expect to find on a site devoted to a single artist (links to books, bibliographies, posters and prints, etc.), but also such things as "Vermeer's paintings in scale" (see them all hung side by side on a virtual wall to see the difference in sizes of Vermeer's paintings), several interviews with experts on Vermeer, a section on Vermeer's painting techniques, and on and on....and how is this for something different: He offers free Vermeer and Delft Wallpapers for your computer. (I'm going to try one of those myself, but I haven't decided which one yet.)

Of course there are reproductions of Vermeer paintings on the site, too, in "The Complete Vermeer Catalogue." Just be warned that if you click on the small-size picture trying to get to the large version, you will get to a page that says you are in the wrong place -- You must click on the title of the painting (which is not underlined, so it's not obviously a link).

There is also a link on Essential Vermeer to Jonathan Janson's own website, which shows many of his paintings including "interiors" which are present day versions of Vermeer paintings, with titles such as "Young girl writing an email, "Girl with a baseball hat," and "Young man in front of a computer screen." These may sound like jokes, but really they're quite nice.

There is oh-so-much-more on the site, or reached via the site, but you will want to discover these things for yourself. Here it is: http://www.essentialvermeer.com.

View of Delft

Jan Vermeer
View of Delft - 1660-61
Source: Wikimedia

October 27, 2009

Composition - Relating to the Outside Edges

Lessons from Edvard Munch's The Murderer in the Lane.

The outside edges of a painting play a major role in determining what your picture is about.

We can't just start painting without considering how the edges affect the subject we are trying to portray. What is inside the picture must be related to the outside perimeter of whatever we're painting or drawing on from the very beginning ... as well as to the center of the picture (but of course we only know where that center is when we know where the edges are).

Usually, when we are not just practicing we paint (or draw, etc.) in order to present a subject in such a way that other viewers might see it as we do and respond to it as we wish them to.

I think that all artists have these object in mind, though some who may be earnestly trying to get their message across may not realize how they are sabotaging their own efforts by ignoring the edges of their pictures, not taking them into account at all except as places where they must stop painting because they've run out of room.

Before we even choose the size and shape of the surface upon which we'll be painting, we must have in mind exactly what we're trying to say with our picture. What is it that has impressed us with regard to the subject that we want to impress upon others? Once we have that in mind, we can think about how we will accomplish this.

There are many things to think about when composing a picture, but one of the most important and probably the first to be considered is where the main subject will be placed and how large or small it will be, etc. in relation to the center and to the edges of the picture (as well as to everything else that's going to be in the picture). If you just paint whatever is "out there" that you are looking at (or what you're thinking about) until you get to the edges of your canvas, the intent of the picture will probably be unclear, to say the least. In fact my personal opinion is that it's not "art" unless you have planned for it (whether consciously or intuitively) to say what you want it to say.

If you have nothing to say, except perhaps that the subject of your painting is beautiful or interesting (though you can't think of exactly why and otherwise it has no particular meaning to you), you might as well just take snapshots or make sketches. You can always use the photos or studies later, after you've thought about what you want to say about this subject.

Why must we worry about the edges? Why can't we just put our main subject in the middle of the picture and paint outward from there until we reach the edges of the canvas? Because, as Rudolf Arnheim points out in his book The Power of the Center, "the nature of an object can be defined only in relation to the context in which it is considered." That context includes the surface you're painting or drawing on, right out to its outer limits.

"[T]he character, function, and weight of each object changes with the particular context in which we see it," writes Arnheim. Further, he says: "A frame of a particular size and shape defines the location of the things within its space and determines the distances between them." He is not talking here about the kind of frame you put a picture in and attach to a wall, but about the outside edges of the picture, or the "boundaries" of the picture, and how everything in the painting relates to those edges.

I'll give an example. If your subject was a very distressed murderer leaving the scene of the crime in great haste, would you put him in the middle of the picture? Perhaps. It depends on what else you do in the picture (with colors, values, rhythm, shapes, etc.) and what else you want to say about him. But take a look at the picture painted in 1919 by Edvard Munch (1863-1944), called The Murderer on the Lane.

Here you can see how large the painting is, as this page shows a recent photo of the original painting in a gallery with people looking at it -- Scroll down to the bottom picture on the page to see it.

In the painting we see just the head of someone hurrying down a dirt lane lined with frightening-looking trees, away from a dead body. His or her simple, almost cartoon-like face shows concentration and anxiety.

Assuming the head you see (a man's? a woman's?) at the bottom of the picture is that of the murderer (not a horrified passerby), you may wonder why (let's call this person "he") isn't somewhere near the middle of the picture rather than just barely seen at the bottom edge - After all, isn't the murderer the subject? I don't think Munch would put a murderer in the most "stable" part of the picture (the center), or anywhere near it. Whatever is in the center would look like it's not going anywhere soon, if at all; it would be as if planted there with no intention of movng away. The killer is crazy -- quite unstable -- and he's leaving the murder scene (and leaving it rather empty, except for that dead body), hurtling himself toward me (the viewer), in fact, and so near the bottom edge (with most of him out of sight) that his advance toward me seems unstoppable; he is "falling" right out of the picture, pulled by gravity, so to speak...as we associate the pull of gravity with the bottom of a picture (and the effect is even stronger if a significant amount of ground shows, as it does here).

In fact, if the murderer was in the center and also much larger in relation to the size of the painting, he might look like he was paralyzed, hardly able to move, the more so the bigger he was in relation to the outside of the picture. If his head filled the whole canvas so that it reached the edges it might look as if he were going to explode...but that is not the same as looking as if he were intent on getting the heck out of that place (and in fact there would be no space left in the picture in which the scene he was leaving could be depicted).

If he were situated very near or even touching the top edge of the picture rather than at the bottom he would probably not seem threatening to us at all. That edge would "hold him" up and away from us (like a helium balloon stuck to the ceiling), especially if it were toward the right side of the picture (the left side is where action usually begins, and it unfolds -- or appears that it will unfold -- toward the right, suggesting that whatever is happening will be completed by the time it reaches the far right side...unless it seems to be crashing down toward the foreground, perhaps, as in this painting).

Of course there are other things you can do with a picture to indicate the state of mind of someone, or the trajectory of his path, the likely escape route, or etc., but these are some of the ways in which the edges work ... you can modify or cancel the effects with other things you do, but let us see how the edges can work for us; it is useful to know these things if only to make sure we are not inadvertently saying something we don't want to say by where we're placing things in a picture.

In this painting the artist has made the murderer's head small in relation to the whole picture, and left plenty of room behind him so that we can see what he is fleeing from, and he has placed his head right at the bottom edge, almost out of the picture.

One reason that having the subject at the bottom edge of the picture is very effective is because, as mentioned, he seems to be uncontrollably leaving the scene. It's also effective because it's such an odd place to find the subject that it makes it very conspicuous...especially since it's only a head, with no body in sight. It's scary, and riveting.

The very dominant, large thick tree just to the left of the center of the picture is in a place and of a size such that it balances (visual weight-wise) the murderer's head that's just to the right of (and below) the center. (And the tree also looks something like a person, with a face on the thick branch at the right -- a witness to the murder, watching the murderer as he rushes away -- maybe it even represents the murderer in the act, with its branches upraised like arms perhaps wielding the knife.) There are other tree witnesses further up the lane. These trees not only play roles in the drama as witnesses, but they are lifting themselves and their branches up to the very top edge of the picture (and beyond), balancing the murderer who is running out of the picture at the bottom edge, so that the picture is not bottom-heavy, and so we look upward to the rest of the picture as there is so much in it that we need to see besides the murderer's head.

The picture shows the lane behind the murderer, where the dastardly deed was done (with the dead body still there to prove it), and although we see that the lane is not on a hill, there is still a "hill-like" effect that we feel since it starts at the horizon and comes toward the foreground (and continues beyond it out of the picture in our minds) ... Although we realize this is flat land being portrayed, we can't help but get a feeling that things are starting "high" (because the end of the path is up high in the picture) and coming "down" (to the bottom of the canvas) toward us. Also, we have a view of the murderer from slightly above his head, looking down on him, which increases the feeling that he is going downhill. What is in the foreground near the bottom edges of the picture is strongly affected by gravity in our "unconscious" minds if not in reality. An artist like Munch knows these things if only intuitively. And so the lane delivers (dumps?) the murderer into our laps.

The relatively calm (but not silent) area at the left side of the picture balances all the action on the right.

Note that the horizon (where all looks peaceful and humdrum) as well as the four edges of the picture (and the vertical trees - and there's even a square in the sky that appears to be the moon...what else could it be) are based on the Cartesian grid - These horizontal and vertical lines -- as I say, including those of the outside edges of the picture -- stabilize the picture and serve as contrast with and intensifiers of all that is bizarre and unnerving in the painting; they also determine for us what is up and what is down...We must know this in order to "feel" the gravitational pull at the bottom [this is something that we perceive below the level of consciousness] that is ridding the scene of the murderer.

All of the eerie, nervous lines and the sickening colors and so on in the picture that cause anxiety in us are more effective because of this contrast, i.e. chaos and anxiety contrasted with seeming permanence and stability of vertical and (especially) calm, non-threatening horizontal lines.

I have hardly begun to touch on the ways considering the edges (and center) of the picture can make our pictures more effective, but it's a beginning, and certainly enough for one post.



1) The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts is a book by Rudolf Arnheim published by the University of California Press.

2) The Murderer in the Lane is also called The Murderer on the Lane and Murderer in the Avenue.


The Artchive - Commentary on and Pictures by Edvard Munch. There is very interesting commentary here on Munch.

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September 20, 2009

Round Artworks

Before you start reading this post...

First (bear with me!), I'll provide a very short review of the Cartesian grid and the concentric system -- Not so boring as you may think! (Okay, maybe a little boring, but not complicated.) -- and then some examples of round artwork (tondos) are analyzed, below. You may be surprised at how helpful this might be if you're an artist and aren't already aware of how some subjects are more suitable for a round format than a rectangular format, and that there are different things to consider when you're composing a round picture.

There are two previous posts that you might want to read before you read this one (or you may prefer to go ahead and read this, then go to the others to understand this post a little better if the subject interests you). Here are the earlier posts:

Art, Gravity, Life, and the Cartesian Grid

The Tondo

In reading this present post (on this page) for the first time, you may want to zip through or even skip the first part (about the Cartesian grid and the Concentric system), or just look at the pictures and read the "In a Nutshell" parts. You can always come back to the first part if you're interested in learning more.


Planet Earth as seen from Apollo 17
Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

We live on a round world but because of gravity we make use of a very non-round spatial system, the Cartesian grid, for practical purposes, in order to make things, understand things, etc. (see my earlier post, Art, Gravity, Life, and the Cartesian Grid to understand why).

IN A NUTSHELL: Although the earth is round,
"in the parochial view of its small inhabitants, the curvature of the earth straightens into a plane surface, and the converging radii become parallels." (Rudolf Arnheim in the book The Power of the Center) -- The Cartesian grid represents the parallel verticals and horizontals that are so important in our lives here on Earth.


The Cartesian Grid "A co-ordinate system whose axes are straight lines intersecting at right angles"(Ref.)

However, when free of the constraints of gravity (either in real life or in our art), we use the concentric system to understand (and make understood) relationships between things.

IN A NUTSHELL -- "Cosmically we find that matter organizes around centers, which are often marked by a dominant mass.....A concentric system is, by definition, organized around a center....The central point allows for orientation....It creates a hierarchy." (Rudolf Arnheim, in POC) -- The concentric system represents matter or forces of some kind that are concentrated around a center, e.g. the planets circling the sun, or children surrounding their mother, or the fruit of a peach around its pit.


Concentric System (above)

In art we usually make use of both systems, combined.

IN A NUTSHELL: "Together they [the Cartesian grid and the Concentric/centric system] serve our needs perfectly. The centric system supplies the midpoint, the reference point for every distance and the crossing for the grid's central vertical and horizontal. And the grid system supplies the dimensions of up and down and of left and right, indispensable for any description of human experience under the dominion of gravity." (Rudolf Arnheim, in POC)


Combined systems (above)

Depending on what the subject is, what we're "saying" about it, and the shape of the "frame" (or outer edge of the artwork), the artist will focus more on one system, or more on the other.

A tondo (plural: tondi or tondos) is a round painting or sculpture or other circular work of art. The word comes from the Italian "rotondo" (round, or rotund). The tondo's round shape is particularly suitable for pictures that are not about life here on earth - that are, instead, about gods, fantastical space creatures, fairies, etc....things to which gravitational constraints do not apply.

"Not surprisingly we found that the concentric model of composition is enhanced by the tondo format. This does not mean that the Cartesian grid, so strongly advanced by all terrestrial subject matter, is simply suppressed. To be sure, the more fully realized are the compositional requirements of the tondo, the more the grid recedes as a self-sufficient system." (Arnheim, in POC)

Round (or spherical) things in nature and in art are considered "perfect" and "complete" and "stable within themselves" as well as able to be easily moved, intact, from one place to another (and if they're resistant to gravity, or even, at least effectively, not affected by it at all due to being out in space beyond gravitational pull, or in an imaginary realm where gravity doesn't apply, they have no real need for the horizontals and verticals of the Cartesian grid).

Some Examples of Tondos, Analyzed

Madonna and Child, painting by a follower of
Sandro Botticelli (Date c. 1500-1510)
El Paso Museum of Art

The tondo above clearly shows both systems being employed. Note the straight lines of the "throne" behind the Madonna and child. Those show strong evidence of the Cartesian grid system. It looks a bit awkward, as if the throne were painted in its entirety, then cut off using a circular template, but the straight lines of the throne do give a great deal of stability to the design, making the woman and child look very secure.

In this picture, the exact center does not just happen to be the point where the Madonna's womb and the child who came from it meet in the picture; if the artist didn't plan this consciously, he no doubt did so intuitively. This point is the center of the larger "center" which is made up of the child and his mother. The "throne" in the background snugs up around the larger center just mentioned, composed of the mother and child together. This is my own interpretation based on what I understand from the Arnheim books I have studied (as are the other interpretations below, except what is contained in quotes by Arnheim), but I feel quite sure that I am right.

A Desco da Parto Masaccio (1401 – 1428)

The tondo by Masaccio, above, also shows clearly that the Cartesian grid was the basis for the composition (note the strong verticals and horizontals and the perspective lines). It looks as though this "round" scene is just a portion of a rectangular scene, and while the arches are sympathetic with the roundness of the overall shape, and there is nothing "wrong" with using part of a scene that was first designed in a rectangular shape if it looks right, it shows that the artist had adapted his Cartesian-grid-based composition to the tondo shape rather than creating an idea for a picture of this scene that would be perfect for the round shape.

Greek kylix - Youth pouring wine with an oinochoe in Dionysos' kantharos
Triptolème painter

A very awkward composition for a round picture, above. Everything "fits" into the round shape, but only because it was all "squeezed" into place.

Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow
Sosias - c. 500bc

I think that the scene just above is a much more successful composition in the round shape than the one of the "Youth pouring wine." The artist was much more sensitive to the circular edge. The subjects are bending over naturally, rather than tilting as if they're falling over, and there are some very interesting negative shapes around the edge (as well as within the composition). The center of the circle -- the area of most intense focus in a circular composition -- is well-used, too, as there you see exactly what is going on (the tending of the wound) without having to look any further. All the action is centered around this spot.

There is also reference to the Cartesian grid in the above picture, especially in the horizontal "floor" beneath the two men, and in Achilles' close-to-vertical lower back and "skirt." These provide the vertical and horizontal references that make the actions clear, and they also provide stability to the composition. The many diagonals in the picture make the composition appear lively, busy, and tense -- all the more so because they are compared with the "stable" Cartesian references of the floor and of Achilles' back.


Madonna della Seggiola (also known as Madonna della Sedia)
Rafael - 1513-1514

"In the Madonna della Sedia direct references to the angular framework are so thoroughly avoided that the one reminder of verticality, the upright post of the chair, looks almost like a safety device, needed to keep the picture from rolling out of control." (Rudolf Arnheim, in POC)

And note how the vertical post is topped by a ball shape, and also has curves below in different forms. Also note how the chubby baby's round toes relate to the rounded forms on the chair post, which relates to the faces and the baby's elbow, etc. You go from one to the other and go all around the picture, the round shape of the tondo encouraging this. As Arnheim pointed out, the post is the only thing that keeps it all from spinning.

There are so many things that can be written about round compositions that although I have have already written two posts on the subject, including this one, I have barely touched the subject (I may write more). Yet I hope that what I've written, and the illustrations accompanying it, will at least get across the idea that a round composition must be approached very differently than a rectangular one, and that some subjects are better than others in such a format. I also hope that people will be encouraged to try their own round compositions. I'm working on one myself that I started a couple of years ago and put aside. Now that I've learned a lot about composing for this shape, I'm starting over and hope to do it in a more intelligent way.

This animated snowglobe was created by Patti Wavinak of Moon's Designs, who has given permission to use this picture here.

Finally, here is an animated snowglobe. I looked through many, many snowglobe pictures before selecting this one. Most of the pictures didn't show the globes as I remembered them from long ago. The ones I remember had scenes such as this one, and here you don't have to imagine how it looks when you see the "snow falling."

To me this snowglobe picture illustrates something important about round (or spherical) compositions -- They are perfect at depicting another world, a self-contained world that is not where we live -- it is "out there" and not something we can join in (neither can anything in that world join us).

What is more "perfect" and "complete" than a world made up in the imagination -- a world that we sometimes wish we could enter and be part of, but know we can't? It's a world by itself. Something that we can only contemplate.

In order to join that world, we would need to be transformed into something that belongs within it and even then we may not gain entrance...it's hard to imagine entering (or leaving) a spherical "self-contained" object without destroying it in the process. We cannot usually make the leap, except maybe in our dreams.

I will write more about centers in another post. This post focuses mainly on the outer shape of the round artwork, or tondo.

My thanks to Rudolf Arnheim's fascinating books, eleven of which I now have in my own collection. It is because of his books that I have any kind of an understanding of this subject. His book The Power of the Center has been particularly valuable and is the one all quotes in this post are taken from.

Note: Where I have used the initials POC, above, I am referring to Arnheim's book The Power of the Center.

NOTE ADDED OCT. 4TH, 2009: I've written an "introduction" to this post that might be helpful in trying to understand the subject. If you're interested, you can read the introduction in the October monthly newsletter in the Thinking About Art Monthly Newsletter Archives. When you get there, click on the newsletter with the title Thinking About Art Monthly Newsletter - October 1, 2009.

August 17, 2009

The Tondo

A tondo (plural: tondi or tondos) is a round painting or sculpture or other circular work of art. The word comes from the Italian "rotondo" (round, or rotund).

John the Evangelist - 1525
Jacopo Pontormo

Round paintings were made in ancient Greece on the inside of vases and inside large shallow wine cups called kylikes or kylixes or kylices (singular form: kylix). Subjects included scenes from mythology and from everyday life.

Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow
c. 500 B.C.

Zeus courting Ganymede - 450 B.C.
The Penthesileia painter

During the Renaissance round pictures again became popular, especially in Italy, where the name "tondi" came from. They were made on large dishes and trays and also on plaques, medallions, etc. According to this (short) Encyclopedia Britannica article, the tondo of the Renaissance "was derived from round reliefs of subjects...that had been used in wall tombs."

Rudolf Arnheim says in his book, The Power of the Center that deschi da parto became circular during the Renaissance. There is an article on the Metropolitan Museum of Art site that tells about deschi da parto. (The singular form of deschi da parto is desco da parto.) These were wooden "birth" trays which were used "as...service tray[s] for the mother during confinement and later displayed on the wall as a memento of the special occasion." These round trays were painted with religious images.

A Desco da Parto
Masaccio (1401 – 1428)

It was in the fifteenth century that paintings were first made to be portable (i.e., not fixed into place in churches, etc.) allowing people to hang a picture wherever they wanted. These were often religious images, and religious images happen to be especially appropriate subjects for round paintings.

One of the earliest artists to create round paintings in the Renaissance was Jean Malouel, who created this tondo:

Jean Malouel (French - active 1396-1419)

Andrea della Robbia made glazed terracotta reliefs, often round ones. Here is an example.

Madonna with St. John the Baptist adoring the sleeping Child
Andrea della Robbia (Italian - 1435–1525)

Other artists who produced tondi during the Renaissance include Boticelli and Michelangelo.

Virgin and Child with the Infant St. John the Baptist
Sandro Botticelli

Holy Family
Michelangelo (1475-1564)

The tondo has often been used in architecture, but "portable" circular artworks have not been as popular since as they were during the Renaissance.

Rose window
Basilica of St. Remi in Reims

When composing a picture, the round shape of a tondo presents design challenges, Even the ancient Greek artists, when they made their vases and wine cups sometimes produced awkward compositions, for example:

Greek kylix - Youth pouring wine with an oinochoe in Dionysos' kantharos
Triptolème painter

Some are more, and some are less, clumsily composed than this one, of course. Awkward looking pictures in a round format often look as though they were initially composed to fit into a rectangular frame, then the artist placed a circular template over the rectangular composition and cut around the edge to make a tondo. Others look as though the contents of the picture were squeezed into the round format with the same ghastly results that Cinderella's stepsister experienced when she squeezed her large foot into Cinderella's dainty glass slipper. There are also other ways of making the round picture less successful than it could be. Furthermore, there are some subjects that in any case aren't seen at their best in the shape of a tondo (while there are some that seem perfect for the shape).

The circular shape is especially appropriate for religious and mythological subjects. I will write about why the round format is good for "otherworldly" fantasies and religious scenes in a future post...and will attempt to explain what must be kept in mind when pictures made for tondi are composed and what some of the design challenges are.

July 21, 2009

Suzanne Valadon's Blue Room - Part 2

Girl Braiding her hair, 1885
(model: Suzanne Valadon - 1865-1938)
Artist: Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
Source: Wikipedia

Suzanne Valadon lived near and worked as a model for several of the most famous artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the Montmartre section of Paris. She learned from Degas and others she modeled for to draw and paint and make etchings. She became a well-known artist, partly due to her talent and style, but partly, I would say, due to being a very attractive, colorful, and ambitious person in the right place at the right time. Because of her good looks that made her a popular model, she was acquainted with many talented artists (including Degas, Renoir, Derain, Puvis de Chavannes, Toulouse-Lautrec, Steinlen, Modigliani, and Picasso), many of whom who were charmed by her (and thought her talented and encouraged her).

She was also a friend of Erik Satie, the composer.

Valadon was brought up by a single mother, and she herself was a single mother (her son was artist Maurice Utrillo). She supported herself from the age of eleven at a variety of jobs (including as a trapeze artist in Montmartre until she fell -- It was after that fall that she became a model).

To be honest, I don't much care for most of Valadon's paintings and drawings that I've seen (many are, in fact, very awkward-looking), but I was struck by The Blue Room. (This is not to say that I think this is a great picture, but just that it made a strong impression on me.)

(Above) The Blue Room - 1923
Artist: Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938)
Source: Wikipedia

Last month I wrote a post comparing this picture with paintings done by men over the centuries of a woman in a very similar pose. In this post I want to write more just about Valadon's The Blue Room.

As I said, the picture made a strong impression on me (in ways it was very appealing and in ways it was confusing to me and in other ways didn't seem quite right and was even irritating, e.g., the pointy part of that pillow!). I wanted to try to figure out why I had these reactions, or in other words I wanted to dissect the picture to find out what it was about it that I liked and what it was about it that made it seem to me annoying and distasteful - and why.

I began by asking two people who are not artists, but who are "aesthetically sensitive" for their ideas about the picture. They did not know who the artist was, not even that it was a woman. I did not tell them any of my own thoughts about the picture, either. I thought that if I told them nothing about it they might intuitively, without any preconceived ideas, see things in the picture that I wasn't consciously aware of (as well as things that I was aware of). Their responses are at the end of this post.

(Click on pictures to see in larger size.)


I myself, still, have not read anyone else's thoughts on this picture, besides the two people I asked, mentioned just above (though I have read some - not many - people's opinions of Valadon as an artist - none said she was a bad artist, and one or two even said she was among the "great" female artists), so I don't know if my ideas are similar to others' or if they're not. I've had a lot of thoughts about this picture (and wrote them down) after looking at it many times, and have also considered what the "non-artists" had to say about it ... and I'm still thinking about the picture and referring to it as I type this.

First Impressions

The first thing that hit me when I first saw this picture was the apparent just-let-me-do-my-thing-and-the-heck-with-what-anybody-thinks attitude of the woman, and, secondarily, the strong (and, I thought, very pretty) blues in the foreground, accented by the orangey "blob" (I haven't figured out what that is) in the background as well as by the yellow-orangey shape that is made up of the woman's torso, arms, and face.

The Woman

I thought the woman looked interesting when I first saw her - a unique character rather than just a female body of the "sexy" type that I would expect to see in such a setting.

She looks solid and compact, snugly packed together as if to fit inside a can like a cooked chicken (her right leg is lying on her left leg, her right arm is lying on her right hip and thigh, the left arm is also close to her body -- only the left hand is free but it is close to the body and is relaxed, not reaching out). Her compactness and solidity (possibly the black outlines contribute to the "solid" look) helps make her seem firmly planted on that saggy bed.

Contrasting with the solid, entrenched look that the body transmits is the "swirling" effect all around the woman (folds, bulges, textures, colors, etc.) -- It almost looks as if she's on a small anchored boat in a sea of flotsam. The contrast makes her look all the more stable and "in charge."

She seems to have as much energy within her as the swirling objects all around her, but her energy seems to come from within her, governed by her thoughts (I see her energy "coming out of her eyes," in her steady, inquisitive gaze), while her surroundings look as though they're being churned up in a stormy sea.

The lower half of the woman's body is horizontal but the top part is close to vertical, and she seems very alert. Her strong gaze toward the other side of the room reinforces the idea of alertness. Because of her posture, she appears to be "rising" actively rather than "sinking" lazily into the bed. She looks like someone who's thinking about something and impatiently waiting for something to happen, possibly for a friend to arrive so they can get to work on something or go somewhere (to buy something she needs right now). In other words, she's ready to pop right up and out of there.

She's on a bed, but she's not there to sleep. Not only does she look like she's not tired, but the bed, while very soft-looking, does not look like a restful place, with all the excitement of the colors, textures, etc. Even the woman's striped pajama bottoms, curving with the curves of her body, contribute to the "lively" look. Also it's quite a claustrophobic-looking place she's in. It looks comfortable there, but not restful.

She looks as though she might be on that bed just to get her feet up while she's taking a cigarette break (maybe there's something running around on the floor that she doesn't want to step on with bare feet).

The Books

The books caught my interest because of their colors (red and yellow) contrasting with the mass of blue, and their rectangular shapes -- very little in that picture is not rounded so they are quickly seen -- and they're also noticeable because of the odd idea of having books in such an "unbookish" scene. But they are kept in the background by their colors and values, the top, yellow one, blending in with the yellow-orangey background, and the bottom dark red one blending in with the dark, closely-related-blue "spread" that it's set against; and both of the colors (the red and the yellow) are the same as colors in the background and seem almost a part of that area. Also, the fact that they're small objects among the large complex of textures and lights and darks in the picture keeps them from calling too much attention to themselves. Indeed, because of all of the "camouflaging" done on behalf of the books, they appear discarded and irrelevant (and therefore, except for their obvious purpose of balancing the weight of the woman, "wrong" for the picture). Here I've identified one of the things that irritated me about the picture...the books...it would be better to have an open candy box or even a cat there . . . those books just don't belong. They are an unnecessary, and unsuccessful, attempt at making the woman seem like she has a mind of her own ... but instead they look irrelevant.)

Without the books, though, (or something else in their stead) the picture would be too heavily weighted on the right side. They help balance the picture. Valadon was apparently very aware of the need to balance things.

The Feet

The feet, also, are "camouflaged," by their darkness (compare with her skin on other parts of her body) -- if they weren't darkened, especially her right foot which is right near the edge of the painting, they would attract too much attention to the edge of the picture, and to themselves.

The Pillow

The pillow is quite jarring to me. It presents a very odd, eye-catching shape that makes it far more important than it should be, in my opinion. I can see how it helps give weight to the woman's body (being so close to her body and repeating the shape of her back, shoulder, and arm, and being similar in value to her body tones, it seems almost to be part of her) so that the body seems more balanced (the pillow, when seen as an extension of her body, helps hold her down so that she doesn't seem about to float up and away). But although the tones painted on the pillow give the surface a look of softness, it is shaped like an arrowhead...an arrowhead that points to nothing important and that seems glaringly "wrong."

There is a light shape in the orangey background that is very similar to the shape of the pillow, but reversed and upside-down. That shape helps balance the awkward-looking pillow, though in a way it also emphasizes it. I personally just do not like the way that pillow points down at the right side of the picture. It does a good job of balancing but it draws too much attention to itself. I would be tempted to try a pattern on it, or do something else to de-emphasize its shape and lessen its contrast with the dark blue background.

The pillow not only combines with the shape of the woman, but these two shapes, together, combine with the lighter area of the background just mentioned that has the upside-down pillow shape. To me this agglomeration of shapes, when seen all together, looks like a bird facing toward the right, the pointy part of the pillow being the "beak." I don't see any reason for this shape being so noticeable.

The Background

The basic subject is a woman, and everything else is background -- but what's in the background is very important as it all plays a role in the picture; without the background (and foreground ... all that is not the woman, that is), not nearly as much would be said about her.

Although at first I wondered if it was too colorful and busy (I look at the picture as if I'm the painter, thinking things like -- "Do I need to make this a little darker?" or "Do I need to change this shape?" or "Do I need to remove this thing entirely?"), a little at a time I came to realize that although perhaps not the perfect background it did an adequate job.

The woman, although basically in a reclining position on a cozy surface that conforms to her shape and seems to sink with her weight, looks robust, energetic, alert, and ready to spring up at any moment, so the background (and foreground) needs to be strong, too...which it is. All the movement provided by the swirling, churning mass of blue and orange material flecked with white (the white flecks seem like swirling leaves) not only are a good balance for the very strong subject, but they also give the impression that she lives a "whirlwind" kind of life, in the midst of which she is strong, stable, alert, and in control.

The "orangey colored" area in the background was one of the first things that I decided I didn't like at all (I still don't even know what it's supposed to be), but I came to the conclusion eventually that it served different useful purposes, including that of offsetting all of the vivid blue (the paler orange tones on the subject -- the woman -- don't seem to me to be enough to do the job), and to give at least some depth to the scene, which is so shallow that it seems rather like a bas relief. (It seemed at first amazing that the "warm" colors of the background don't come forward too much, but then I realized that those "warm" colors really aren't that warm, and at the same time the mass of blue these colors are contrasting with is a rather "hot" blue...and so what is supposedly a "warm" color is cooler in fact than the supposedly "cool" color.)

The orangey area in the background also seems almost necessary because if everything was blue and white, like the bedspread and the drapes, it would look like the woman was floating in a sea of blue; she already, for reasons mentioned in this post, seems to be rising up. I say "almost" necessary because the artist has also employed other devices to keep the woman stabilized.

The amount of texture in the background was also troubling to me -- the background should stay in the background, I thought; but there is so much texture in the rest of the painting that in comparison it is not overdone -- The background is staying in the background, no matter that it's very eye-catching; the painting is "lively all over," so the background, in spite of the colors and textures and variations in shading, is actually not too strong. It may be a little sloppy, but it doesn't take over the picture since so much is going on in the foreground, and of course the subject - the woman - definitely dominates the whole picture.

The contrasting background is one of the devices used to make sure the woman does not look as if she's floating, as it helps hold her in place; it's like a weight upon her.

What makes her dominate in spite of all the color, contrast, movement, etc. that is going on all around her, I wondered? First of all it's because she is a human being, and so naturally is of far greater interest to us (at least at first glance) than the materials surrounding her. Also, because of her pose, so reminiscent of the pose of women painted by men (see my last post on this)...we see it as the same yet quite different and this is intriguing. And also by the contrast between her solid, centered self and the chaos around her.

Chaos and Stability

There is a lot of movement going on in this picture, and I think that's one reason it attracts me.

Although all seems in chaos except for the strong figure of the woman, there are horizontal lines to keep the composition from self-destructing. There is a horizontal line behind the woman (the edge of the bed between her right hand and the books), which we assume continues behind her where we can't see it, and there is another horizontal line that is defined by the bottom of her right leg and foot. These lines are a little wavy, but they're still horizontal lines. Also, there's the horizontally-balanced cigarette in her mouth, and last but not least, her horizontal gaze -- The gaze is not physically there, but we follow it anyway, from right to left, clear across the picture and out of it. All of these horizontal lines help keep the picture from "spinning." The diagonals of the drapes behind her, which give the orangey part of the background a solid pyramidal shape, also lend stability to the picture. There is, besides the unseen (but we know it's there) diagonal that goes from the bottom left corner of the picture to the upper right corner, on which lies the woman -- You can think of a rod going from the one corner to the other; she would be held in place by that rod. Of course, there's also the fact that the picture is in a (horizontal) rectangular shape, which lends both verticals and horizontals (as well as the unseen diagonals) to the picture.

The Basic Composition

As I mentioned in the other post on this painting, the composition puts a certain part of this woman virtually in the center of the painting, thus making it very important. Everything relates to that area (even though the main focus appears to be the upper part of her body, beginning with her head; and of course everything also relates to that important area). Although that critical point is not in the exact center of the picture, it is very close, and there are "arrows" pointing toward it, if you will notice them, in the creases of the pants.

I'll add the little slide show from that other post below, so that you can compare typical paintings of a woman lying on a sofa or bed made by male artists in and before the 19th century and this one made in 1923 by a female artist (Valadon). This post continues below the slide show.

The very noticeable orangey area in the background is framed by blue curtains that together make that orangey shape in between them taper at the top -- That tapered-at-the-top shape (like a rocket launching - or a pyramid) counterbalances the sinking heaviness of the lower part of the picture by "lifting" it up (paradoxically it holds the woman down at the same time). It also emphasizes the verticality of the woman's upper body.

My Conclusions

I now have a good idea of why this picture both attracts me and repels me. I'm pulled into it by the subject (a strong woman, not dominated by men), by the color, and by the liveliness and strength of the composition, which befits the subject. I am repelled by the awkwardness in places, particularly the shape of the pillow and its cry for undeserved attention, and also the books which are just wrong for the picture in my opinion; other parts of the picture bother me, too, but not nearly as much as the pillow and the books. Overall, though, after having spent so much time looking at it and thinking about it, I like it better than I did originally, and also I give the artist more credit than I initially did, for putting her picture together in such a way that it very unambiguously gets her point across.

I also learned some things from the two (one male, one female) "non-artists" who commented on the picture. I think now, in fact, that it's a very good idea to consult aesthetically-sensitive but untrained-in-art people about what they think about whatever artwork I'm trying to learn from, since they are "seeing" without preconceived ideas. (When it comes to this particular painting, I was lucky to have a male and a female respondent, as the subject has to do with males and females. I noticed that they responded quite differently to the picture.)


In my opinion, the meaning of The Blue Room has to do with fighting back against the image of a woman docile, subservient, pliable ... an object. This painting is about a strong woman who is not dominated by men. The comparison of this picture with pictures made by male artists of women in the same setting over the centuries reinforces the message and makes it more poignant, but Valadon composed and painted her picture in such a way that her point comes across quite clearly, even if a viewer has never seen the pictures painted by male artists.


Some Photos of Suzanne Valadon


Here is the response of the first respondent (a male):

(This respondent made a statement, or two statements actually - with the other there was an - unplanned - "interview")

"Well, I can’t miss the woman, can I? However, the first thing that strikes me about this painting is the proportion of depth in the elements, that the plushness of the bed and bedding are equal to the plushness of the woman...[T]he woman is warmer and more dimensional than the elements of her setting, and the much cooler tones of the bedding and drapes in the background could threaten the woman, but they don’t because she is so balanced inside those elements. I pause on the cigarette, but I decide its inclusion is neither good nor bad. The painting has a nice roundness to it, a richness that is not overstated, but perhaps lightly underscored with fecundity."

After I told him about the artist, and he had read my last post, which compares Valadon's The Blue Room with paintings of a similar subject by male artists through the centuries, he added:

"What does strike me, though, is that women tend to like this cushy kind of arrangement on beds made of soft stuff with lots of backing. It’s a simple comfort thing and it seems natural to pose a woman in a way that makes her look like she would be if she had the choice.

"In the case of the Valadon painting, I wonder if there is a connection between the haircut, the cigarette and the not-so-come-hither look… I wonder if there is a different statement about comfort, that comfort comes in many forms. Perhaps Valadon’s statement is about a woman who could be strong and self-willed and yet want the same comforts many women liked and wanted, a woman who was more a product of the (somewhat) advancing position of women at the time."

The other respondent (a female) and I went back and forth, and in fact it turned out to be more like an interview:

(Note: At the beginning, she realized she had seen this pose before and we thought of several artists who may have painted a woman in this pose and looked them up and that's how I was inspired to write that first post on this painting -- I left that part out.)

KEY: J (that's me), and R (the respondent) -- We are both looking at the picture.

J: "Do you have any thoughts? What did you notice first in the painting, for instance? The books? The pillow? Her hands? The colorful area behind her bed?"

R: "First the similarity to another painting [mentioned above in the "Note"]. Then the colors."

J: "Which colors strike you?"

R: "The purple on the bedspread first."

J: "I think of it as blue."

R: "It jumps out at you and somehow the mishmash of colors on the wall seems even more muted to offset it so you aren't struck so much by it, maybe."

J: "What do you think her thoughts are...her attitude is?"

R: "She is probably wondering who left those books on her bed."

J: "Does she seem to be looking toward the books to you?"

R: "Somehow they don't go...She seems to be looking off, maybe out the window...she actually looks like she's posing and they added the cigarette later. The artist, that is. It's too posed ... a common pose, apparently."

J: "What do you think of her attitude about life in general, from looking at her here?"

R: "She doesn't look like an intellectual to me, which is why her books look out of place. She looks more like someone who is disenchanted with life and does what needs to be done and is somewhat hardened, although oddly softened by the colors of her pajamas...or whatever they are."

J: "Does she look shy? Or mean? Or....?"

R: "She looks hardened and most hardened people aren't shy. If I were to hazard a guess just based on the painting she looks like she would be easy to get to know in the sense that I would expect her not to hold back -- direct."

R: "She doesn't look introverted, but she also doesn't look extroverted."

R: "She is approachable if you're near her, perhaps. But she wouldn't go out to find you."

J: "What do you think it is about the painting that makes you think of her as hardened, and not intellectual, etc.?"

R: "Well, I think it's mostly in her face and the cigarette doesn't help...Then you have the weight which supports the hardened theory, because most people with that much weight aren't shy -- they have to deal with what life has dealt them a little faster, maybe."

J: "Do you think of her as sexy? Or just relaxed?"

R: "She looks somewhat relaxed, but posed. Definitely not sexy. That differs from the painting I remember." [Here the respondent is remembering the painting she had seen before by a male artist of a woman in virtually the same pose]. "She [the woman in other pictures] was soft and gentle and voluptuous and approachable and looked relaxed ...Though heavy."

R: "She [the woman in the Valadon painting] doesn't look as if she is resting well against the pillow ... it looks like most of her weight is on the elbow. So when you think about it the placement of her other arm seems off. Or more extended than it should be somehow .... It's as if there is this mysterious space between the back of the pillow and her back."

J: "What do you think that orangey [area] is, behind the bed or sofa?"

R: "Well, I would think it was some abstract painting if it weren't for the fact that the curtains surround it and it has no edges, so it looks like a painted wall ... I'd almost guess trees or ... something abstract. Looks like little leaf prints and I'm not sure what happened in the middle."

J: "To me, after looking at it a while, it looks like maybe it's a window with a slightly see-through curtain in front, plus those side drapes."

R: "Hmm ... Well, then she did a terrible job of the outdoors." [Notice that somewhere along the line I inadvertently gave away the sex of the artist.]

R: "To me it looks like she is on her bed and the bed has curtains around it ... and maybe she is looking off toward a window thinking ... 'this is so uncomfortable.'"

J: "What point do you think she was trying to make about this subject?"

R: "Well, she didn't have to include the cigarette, so simply by doing that she made her hard. She kept her hair up, which is also hard (by comparison to a flowing look). She let her meatiness show, didn't seem to pare that down, but she did make her look proportionally together. Perhaps she wanted to paint a friend how she sees her."

J: "What if someone showed you this picture, and said: "This is going to be your roommate for the next six months." What would your reaction be (to yourself)?"

R: "No."

J: "No, what?"

R: "I mean ... my reaction would be no -- she is not living with me. I like gentler people. You can be smart, but not hard."

.....End of this "interview."

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June 26, 2009

Suzanne Valadon's Blue Room - Part 1

Suzanne Valadon's Blue Room and some Predecessors - a Comparison

For more on Suzanne Valadon (French Post-Impressionist of the late 19th - early 20th centuries) herself, as well as more on her painting The Blue Room, please see The Blue Room - Part 2.

For Part 2, which is the only one that I'd originally planned on (there was only going to be the one post), I interviewed by email a couple of people who are not artists but who are appreciative of art and aesthetically sensitive. I asked them to tell me what they thought of "The Blue Room" (without their knowing who painted it). One of them (after first looking carefully at the painting) did not answer any questions at first because she thought immediately of this one thing that she couldn't get out of her head until she had verified it: "This painting looks like another I've seen."

"I am trying to think of the period," she said, "where one particular artist had nudes, somewhat voluptuous, in just that pose."

I thought of "Olympia," by Manet. She looked at that picture and said, "Actually, that is similar but not the one in my brain."

Then she thought of Rembrandt. It must be by Rembrandt, and that sounded right to me, too, and quickly we found that the painting she had been thinking of was "Danaë," by Rembrandt. After our conversation, I thought of another painting of a woman lying in approximately that same position: "The Naked Maja" (and "The Clothed Maja") by Goya. And one thing led to another and I ended up with one by Courbet and another by Titian, and one by an artist I'd never heard of: Hendrick Goltzius.

So here they all are -- You'll notice how similar they are, though they are also different. How do you think Suzanne Valadon's "The Blue Room" compares with its predecessors? And, do you think that this pose was thought of independently by these artists, or do you think any used one or more of the previous artists' paintings as a model for their own?


(Above) The Blue Room - 1923
Artist: Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938)
Source: Wikipedia

(Above) Olympia - 1863 (see reversed below)
Artist: Édouard Manet (1832-1883)
Source: Wikipedia

(Above) Olympia - 1863 (Reversed)

(Above) Reclining nude - 1862
Artist: Gustave Courbet (1819 - 1877)
Source: Wikimedia

(Above) The Naked Maja - c. 1800
Artist: Francisco Goya (1746-1828)
Source: Wikipedia

(Above) Danaë - 1636-1647
Artist: Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 -1669)
Source: Wikimedia

(Above) Danaë - 1613
Artist: Hendrick Goltzius (1558 - 1617)
Source: Wikimedia

(Above) Danaë - 1554 (see reversed below)
Artist: Titian (Tiziano Vecelli ) - c. 1488-90 - 1576 ( - )
Source: Wikimedia

(Above) Danaë - 1554 (Reversed)
Artist: Titian
Source: Wikimedia

Here is another that I found after I'd just finished writing this post: Odalisque with Female Slave (Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres - 1842).

I was astounded to find so many in such a short time, and there are probably many more. To see them all next to each other makes one wonder about a lot of things. One thing I wonder about is whether most of the later paintings shown here were modeled on earlier ones, or if this is just a very natural way that a man poses a woman when he can get away with it (especially when he can get her to pose without clothing). I also wonder if there were yet earlier such paintings that had the woman in basically the same pose with similar surroundings.

It seems it was very handy to have mythology to use as an excuse for painting nude women in the old days, but starting in the 1800s, if not before, at least some painters no longer bothered with that excuse. They were honest: They just wanted to paint nude women. And this is how they liked to see a woman - in an inviting pose, just waiting for a man to arrive. I would guess that Suzanne Valadon, being a woman herself, decided to paint a woman (not nude, but not really hiding anything, either) in this same pose that men had painted them in for centuries, but from a modern woman's point of view. Without judging the "art" in her painting, I would say she did a good job.

When I started comparing all the paintings, I asked myself: What's the same and what's different in these?

What's the same and what's different

For one thing, all the women are lying back on some kind of very soft and cozy looking bedding (note that Rembrandt's and Goya's bedding looks extremely similar), with the upper part of their bodies slanted at just about the same angle. They all have large white pillows behind their backs.

In all except Manet's and Titian's paintings, the head is at the right side of the picture. I'll write more about this (as well as about many other things) in the next post.

In all of the paintings the upper legs meet the torso somewhere very close to the center of the picture -- with the exception being in Titian's painting, but when you realize that the "cloud" hovering over Danaë in this picture represents the god Zeus (see below in paragraph beginning, "The direction of the head and of the gaze"), you will understand that an invisible spot exactly between Zeus (that glowing cloud) and where Zeus is headed (see same paragraph mentioned just above) would be very close to the center of the picture.

In all of the paintings except Valadon's the background is (at least comparatively) dark.

Only Manet's woman has her hand covering herself in a critical area and her ankles are crossed as if she thought that she might be being a little immodest with that pose and certainly wasn't expecting anyone. Maybe it's because she looks straight out at a viewer and she's suddenly embarrassed because she realizes that she is not alone (apparently the servant doesn't count). Goya's woman (the Maja) is also looking straight out at a viewer, but she doesn't seem to mind at all and in fact puts her arms up behind her head as if to show off even more.

In a Wikipedia article on Francisco Goya, it says: "Without a pretense to allegorical or mythological meaning, the painting was 'the first totally profane life-size female nude in Western art'."

The direction of the head and of the gaze is the same in Valadon's and Rembrandt's paintings; they look off to somewhere beyond the left side of the picture. Goya's Maja and Manet's Olympia are looking straight out of the painting toward the viewer. Courbet's woman is looking away as if to say "I really don't like to be in this pose, but this is my job." Goltzius' woman looks like she has fainted or is asleep and dreaming. I think all of these attitudes tell something about the men who painted the pictures and what is most desirable to them, even though three of the paintings depict Danaë in the same scene from Greek mythology. In the book The World of Rembrandt, by Robert Wallace (a Time-Life book, copyright 1968), it says that "an oracle warned the Greek king Akrisios that his daughter, Danaë, would bear a son who would kill him. He therefore kept her in enforced chastity .... However, the god Zeus, taking the form of a golden shower, evaded her guardian maid servant and entered Danaë's bedchamber .... Here [as shown in Rembrandt's picture] Danaë raises her hand, both to shield her eyes and to welcome her arriving lover, whose presence Rembrandt represents in the magnificent, unearthly yellow light pouring voluptuously over her face and body."

Let's leave aside the fact that Valadon's woman is the only one wearing clothes (Goya painted an identical "Maja" except that she was clothed), since the clothes on the woman in "The Blue Room" look like they were painted on her, they are so form-fitting, so nothing is really covered up.

One thing (among several) that makes Valadon's version of this view of a woman different is that it was the only one painted by a woman -- an independent "modern" woman...an equal to men, not an object.

Valadon's woman is gazing toward a place outside of the picture as if waiting for someone, but it seems more likely it's probably a friend or an employee, not a lover. She's dressed without false modesty, but not to entice anyone; she's probably dressed this way because it's comfortable. Her crossed legs and indeed the fact that she is wearing clothes show that she's not available. Her hairdo is not feminine; it's practical. The cigarette between her lips is suggestive, but it's also not "feminine" and may simply indicate that she doesn't care what anyone thinks if she wants to smoke. She looks relaxed, and comfortable with herself.

I don't love her picture (except for that luscious blue thing on the bed), but as far as getting her point across, and getting back at all the male artists who had painted a woman in this same pose, I think she did a great job.

Bravo, Suzanne.


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June 13, 2009

It's not cheating to use a grid

Does it horrify you to think of using a grid, or a similar device, in drawing or painting? Do you think it's cheating?
Well, I don't think it's cheating, unless you're taking some kind of a test that requires you to work without any help other than your eyes and hands.
1) Introduction
2) My ideas about this subject
3) Some examples from the past of artists who have used grids
4) A free grid program for your computer
5) Links (where to buy a grid device; where to buy canvas already printed with grid lines; how to use a grid; how to make a very simple perspective device.)

An artist knows how to make a picture utilizing what they observe, whether they're using some kind of grid to help them lay out the picture or not -- The non-artist attempts only to copy what's in front of him; he (or she) doesn't know how to make it into "art" (it may be a very good likeness, but that in itself doesn't make it art; they might as well use a camera). So using such a device does has nothing to do with whether you are or are not a good artist.
It's not that there's anything wrong with creating an artwork without any such help (and in fact it's great if you can do that, and it should probably be a goal), but it seems to me that just because you need that help at times doesn't mean that you're a lousy artist. It means that you know what you need in order to help you get the picture you want. These things are tools, not tricks.
You have probably heard that Leonardo da Vinci used grids as an aid (be sure to click on the picture to see it in a larger size).
Albrecht Durer made pictures demonstrating the use of a grid for drawing.

Man Drawing a Lute, 1525
Artist: Albrecht Durer
Source: Wikimedia
There is a better (and different) picture by Durer of such a device being used, from a book published in 1675, here, at the National Portrait Gallery (U.K.) site, showing a man painting (or drawing) a portrait, with the use of a "drawing machine" (grid), and there is also an illustration showing how it is made. These things are explained in the text.
Here, at the Rare Book Room site there are some very clear, excellent photographs of pages of the book with the Durer woodcut prints in it. On this page is the picture of an artist looking through a grid at the subject (a nude woman) as he draws her on a grid he has lying flat on the table in front of him. You can click on the picture to see it closer. You can also move to the left and right.
Vincent van Gogh used a perspective frame. (Click on link to see a picture he drew of it and read what he wrote about it to his brother.)

The Harvest, 1888
Artist: Vincent van Gogh
Source: The Athenaeum
Nobody says that Da Vinci, Durer, and Van Gogh were lesser artists because they made use of these "tricks."

Leonardo da Vinci, self-portrait, 1512-15
Source: Wikimedia

Albrecht Durer, self-portrait, c. 1500
Source: Wikimedia

Vincent van Gogh, self-portrait, September 1889
Source: Source: The Athenaeum

Here's something I came across the other day, and in fact it's what inspired this post. I have very seldom used a grid to help me draw (I once bought a program for $10 on the web, but it didn't allow me to make the grid the size I needed and so it was never really used at all), but I plan to try this one. I've already downloaded it and tried it out (though I haven't actually made a drawing from it yet). This is for use on your computer. It puts a grid right over whatever picture you want to use, and then you can save your picture with the grid on it, and open it up when you want to draw from it. I've known there were photo editing programs that had this feature, but this is the first I've come across that is free (not just for a trial period, but for as long as you have it).
How to use this program to make a grid: [NOTE: Before you try this, BE SURE TO MAKE AN EXTRA COPY OF THE PICTURE you're going to use, because once you've saved the picture with grid lines on it, you can't get them back off.]

Here's what my picture look like after I imported it from my computer into the PhotoFiltre program. To open a picture from your computer: Click on File, then Open to get to your picture. After you've imported the picture, click on Filter, and then Other, and then Grid Generator.

This is the Grid Generator. Try different settings, then click on Preview, and it will show you what your picture looks like with the grid you've chosen. If you don't like it, click on Edit, then Undo Grid Generator, and you can try another size of squares and different thicknesses of the lines. If you do like it, then save it ("save as") with the grid on it. The picture will be saved with that grid on it (be sure you have the picture saved without the grid, too).
Here's a grid I chose for this picture:

Here's the same picture with smaller squares:
You can make them larger, or any size you want, and you can also change the thickness of the lines.
Download the free PhotoFiltre program from here.
The Durer Grid - Blick Art Materials
Here you can buy a present-day equivalent of the Durer Grid. (If you're handy, you could make one yourself.)
Artist Grid Canvas. Blick Art Materials also sells canvas that is printed with blue grid lines.
The Grid Method, at paintbygrids.com, shows you just how you would draw from a picture with a grid on it.
How to make a very simple perspective device. This is a frame you make out of cardboard, which you look through when drawing or painting, along with an even simpler cardboard strip that provides your picture with the angles you need to get down right.
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