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April 22, 2009

What's on the floor, and why is it there?

In my last post, titled Chardin's Cluttered Floor, I wrote about the cluttered floors in Chardin's genre paintings. Here is an example that was shown in that post (click on it to see in larger size):

Return from the Market - 1739
Source: Wikipedia

I think we can assume that an artist like Chardin would not have put objects on the floor in his paintings for no good reason, even if some of those objects look to us (or to me, at least) incongruous and distracting. There are objects that do seem as though they belong just where they are on the floor, as they are being used by people who are in the rooms, such as sewing baskets or toys. But some seem as though they could only have been placed in their locations by Chardin for the purpose of balancing the composition (without regard to their purpose in real life or whether they might be seen as obstacles to walking, in danger of being stepped on and ruined, or just plain odd . . . distracting our attention as they alarm or confuse us). Yet I know I must be wrong about this. In fact, in that post I referred in to (the late) perceptual psychologist and art theorist Rudolf Arnheim and his opinion that every single thing in Chardin's paintings is there for a good reason, that reason being to help the painting make its point.

I would not try to argue with Arnheim, of course, as I'm sure he is right, but I was trying to understand why these seemingly inappropriate things on the floor helped each of these various paintings make its point.

In this post, I wanted to take a look at the floors in paintings by some other indoor genre artists, to see how they compare with Chardin's, hoping to see how what they put on their floors might have contributed to the point of their paintings. Here is one by Nicolas Maes (sometimes spelled Maas).

Woman Plucking a Duck - 1656
Nicolas Maes
Dutch baroque genre and portrait painter - 1634 - 1693
Source: Wikipedia

Nicolas Maes was one of Rembrandt's students, by the way, thus the dramatic lighting.

The objects on the floor here are very necessary, and not just to balance the picture. In fact, it seems to me that this painting of a woman plucking a duck is not really about the woman, though she is a necessary player in it.

Although of course you see the woman first when you look at the painting, as she is at the left (where we usually look first), and she is the largest object in the scene (plus she is the "woman" in the title of the picture), the objects on the floor that are lit by the same source, including the cat, are also players in this drama, as is the duck on the woman's lap.

In spite of the fact that the composition of what amounts to a large still-life on the floor looks like it was carefully planned as a picture within a picture, meant mostly to display the artist's skill at arrangement of typical still-life objects, it is very important to the entire scene. In fact, look how the woman herself is gazing toward the floor "where the action is" (and the naked duck, though he can no longer see, is also headed in that direction).

The cat, of course, is the chief player in this little story, obviously having knocked everything over topsy-turvy as it was trying to get at the unplucked duck on the floor. The duck on the floor is relevant as it is a still-feathered version of the poor duck on the woman's lap, making us aware of how that plucked duck so recently had the same beautiful feathers, and that they have been pulled out one by one.

The pot is necessary as she'll need to put the ducks in there as soon as she's done with them. The spoon and the plate perhaps are there to make us think about how the ducks are destined to be eaten.  I'm not sure about how the basket of what look like apples fits in  (unless the apples are to be added to the pot with the ducks); but none of the objects strewn on the floor really look out of place to me, and they all contribute to the idea . . . Well, I'm still not sure about the apples.

As for the point that the artist is trying to get across in the painting, it looks to me as if it's about some of the horrors of nature (fear of predators, sudden death, defeathering, consuming the dead) going on inside a calm, well-ordered household -- These atrocities not only commited by the indoor cat (who has not actually done the deed in this case, but would if he could), who I would suppose represents our "tame" domesticated animals (and, actually, all animals), but also by the "civilized" humans who live there.

At the Linen Closet - 1663
Pieter de Hooch
Dutch genre painter - 1629 - 1684
Source: Wikipedia

Pieter de Hooch was another Dutch artist, of the same era as Nicolas Maes. In fact, he is believed to have studied with Nicolas Maes in Delft, though his style was influenced more by that of Vermeer.

The floor in the painting "At the Linen Closet" doesn't look cluttered. There is the little girl who looks like she's playing golf on the floor with a club and a little ball, but she's not in the way of the adults who are working (if she were golfing on one of Chardin's floors, things would be knocked over and broken right and left), and there is quite an expanse of floor that has nothing on it. I wonder if it's because of the eye-catching pattern on the floor that miscellaneous objects aren't required to balance the composition or to give depth to the picture.

But what about "helping the painting make its point?" Does a checkered floor help a painting make its point? I'm trying to think of how it might. Perhaps the tiles, which show so well their right-angularity when they are of contrasting colors, are meant to not only balance the composition which is full of right-angles (window, cupboards, doors and door openings, picture frame) in the rest of the composition, but also to -- along with these other, just mentioned, right-angled elements -- contrast with the "rounded" people and active positions of their bodies. So what could the point be? Humans acting like humans in spite of being in an "artificial" environment in which they don't really feel at home?

Ironing Women - 1891
Ivana Kobilca
Slovene realist painter - 1861-1926
Source: Wikipedia

Ivana Kobilca shows three women very busily working in the foreground room, while the apparent "ladies of the house" are in the next room chatting about what's in the newspaper, or that's what it looks like they're doing to me. Not in either room is there anything noticeable on the floor that doesn't seem to belong there. The basket of laundry (or is that a baby in the basket) that is being tended to by one of the working women obviously needs to be there -- whether it has clothing or a baby in it. It seems to me that having anything else on the floor would distract from the relationship between the women in the one room and those in the other (finally I do feel that I very clearly see the point to one of these pictures: It takes three women busily working to keep up with two idle women - and there is probably another servant in the kitchen).

The Poor Poet - 1839
Carl Spitzweg
German romanticist painter - 1808 - 1885
Source: Wikipedia

Carl Spitzweg was trained as a pharmacist and self-taught as an artist.

I love this picture of the poor poet in his makeshift bed (after all, there don't appear to be any chairs), with his pen between his teeth and writing paper against his raised knees. The floor at first looks cluttered, but then it's a very small space and it's probably pretty much his entire "apartment." If that's so, then the floor is amazingly neat looking. After all, there are no shelves or cupboards at all in which to put things. What is on the floor are the simple, basic necessities for this man -- his books, a box, a boot (and that looks like a boot remover), the newspapers he's using for fuel, his walking stick, and that's all other than the "bed" (the stove is built-in).  There is nothing here that I see on the floor (or anywhere) that does not tell us about the subject.

And, finally, below is a picture of an artist in his workshop. What a mess! And yet, where else can he put all the things he needs to have handy (other than on the seat next to the window)? Perhaps the floor is all tidied up at the end of each workday by a maid, or his wife, or himself, or his assistant in the other room. I can empathize with this man, as I have even more "stuff" than it shows in this picture, and it is much less accessible to me because it is not on the floor (but if it were on the floor, I couldn't walk anywhere).

Self-portrait in workshop - 1633
Dutch genre painter - 1610 - 1685
Source: Wikipedia

So there does seem to be reason for what's on this floor, even though I can't figure out what some of the objects are.  If the point of the picture is that this artist is concentrating too hard and too much in need of producing some artwork to notice or care about what the place looks like or how walkable it is, then I understand. And it's very satisfying to realize that I do understand; however, I still can't figure out how what look to me like incongruous and distracting-looking objects on the floor in Chardin's genre paintings help to make the point that each picture is trying to illustrate. Your ideas are welcome as this is something I would like to know. There is a place to make comments at the end of each post here, though you might not see it at first. Click on whatever you see that says "comments" on it below a post, and it should open up a comments form for you.

Although the pictures I've added to my posts aren't huge, they are bigger than what you see. Click on a picture to see it in a larger size and get a better idea of what's on the floor.

Hoping for your ideas.

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April 8, 2009

Chardin's Cluttered Floor

Return from the Market - 1739
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin
French painter - 1699-1779
Source: Wikipedia

Rudolf Arnheim (German-born author, art and film theorist, perceptual psychologist and teacher - 1904-2007), discusses the composition of the above painting ("Return from the Market") in his book The Power of the Center. Among other things he points out the bowl on the floor, implying that it, as well as everything else in the painting, is right where it is for a good reason. Everything in the painting, through its "location, weight, and mutual relation" helps the painting make its point. I myself have not quite figured out what that point is, though I'm trying, and while trying to understand it occurred to me that the bowl on the floor (not to mention the nearby tall dark bottles, one of which is already tipped over), no matter how important it may be to the composition, looks like it's liable to be walked on or accidentally kicked and broken. In fact, what is a bowl doing on the floor? Is it for the cat to drink out of? In any case, it's awfully close to the maid's foot and to me the relationship that stands out most clearly in this picture is that between her shoe and the bowl on the floor.

I looked at some of Chardin's other interior scenes with people to see what else might be on the floor and, if so, whether it seemed like it "should" be there.

I found that, in all the paintings I looked at of his indoor genre scenes, there were objects on the floor. In some cases they looked like they belonged there (though it does make one wonder if they really needed all of those things under their feet), for example in this picture:

The Kitchen Maid - 1738
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin
Source: Wikipedia

Also in this one I can see some reason for what's on the floor:
The Governess - 1739
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin
Source: The Humanities Web

In "The Governess" (above) it seems somewhat reasonable that those particular objects might be on the floor. There is a child in the picture whom we naturally associate with the playthings, but then again why did he leave them on the floor when he's fastidiously dressed and with a book under his arm as if he's about to leave for school? It doesn't seem odd that the governess has a basket of sewing things on the floor, as there is a piece of cloth on her lap that she might be working on. But...Those playthings seem out of place, at least if we're thinking about what they are.

But in the picture below, I can't see any reason at all for the presence of that object on the floor; it looks like it has nothing to do with the subject.

Die Morgentoilette - c. 1740
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin
Source: Wikipedia

Why is there what looks like a metal teapot on the floor, other than for the sake of the composition without regard to what the object is? I'm sure that the placement of that particular object didn't seem unnatural to Chardin, but it does to me. It looks like it has just waddled out there from beyond the canvas at the right and is contemplating what to do, having realized that this is not where it should be.

In the next picture, I saw the beginning of an answer to my "wonderings" about all the objects on the floor in Chardin's pictures. This picture, to me, looks almost exactly like a Chardin still life - none in particular, but it could just as easily be a still life as a scene with a figure - If the figure was replaced by an object of equal lightness and of a similar shape.

The Scullery Maid - 1748
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin
Source: The Humanities Web

The maid in the above picture could be a duck, or a rabbit, or a tall, slender and shapely white pot.

Still Life with Pestle, Bowl, Copper Cauldron, Onions, and a Knife - 1735
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin
Source: The Humanities Web

Compare the picture of the "Still Life with Pestle, Bowl....etc." with the "Scullery Maid" picture above it. Isn't that the same copper pot in both of them? And the mortar and pestle in the lower picture are shaped a lot like the tall slender object on the left in the picture above it. The black handle of the knife in the lower picture occupies virtually the same space and is approximately the same shape as the black-topped casserole pot (which looks like it might be stepped on as soon as that maid moves) in the other picture; obviously they are playing the same role in their respective compositions.

In the still life below, there is that copper pot again, and the mortar and pestle. In this picture there is also a slender pale blue (almost white) pot that merges with the eggs because of their similar light color and swelling curves, making, when combined, a bent and shapely light object not so different than the shape of the maid bending over the barrel.

Copper pan, pestle and mortar
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin
Source: The Humanities Web

What this means to me is that Chardin looked at his subjects in almost exactly the same way when it came to painting them, whether he was painting a mother and her children or some pots and a dead rabbit. Although he was obviously sympathetic with, and gently portrayed, the humanness of the people he painted, he also saw them as objects in a still life...a quiet life where everything has its place and is comfortable in it, you might say. And so Chardin's addition to a figure painting of a pot or bowl that he used in still lifes, to balance or otherwise enhance the composition (and help "make the point"), must have come naturally and seemed not at all inappropriate to him as apparently he considered that the point of the picture was best conveyed by the underlying structure and composition, which you grasp immediately and unconsciously, whereas superficial incongruities, which may be the source of "second thoughts" about what you're looking at, are not as important (though not entirely unimportant, either - He did not include objects that weren't associated with the human subjects, it's just that they are on the floor where it seems they shouldn't be).

And so I rest my case. What do you think?

Update: I have written a new post, exploring this subject furthr: What's on the floor and why is it there?.

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