Sunday, May 9, 2010

Pyramids at harvest time

Eastman Johnson courtesy of the

Eastman Johnson from Maine, lived from 1824 to 1906 and painted mostly New England subjects but also used his art to benefit the antislavery cause. He studied in Dusseldorf with Emanuel Leutze, painter of Washington crossing the Delaware and later in Paris with Coture. He painted society portraits including one of Lincoln and was called the American Rembrandt in his day. He was also a co founder of the Metropolitan Museum.

I have been talking about design. I think tonight I will dissect the painting above, a little, as an illustration of some of the principles I have been discussing. I will foreshadow the more mathematical design methods towards which I am slouching.

The obvious thing here is, of course, the juxtaposition of the guy with the basket against the dark barn interior behind him. That is in keeping with much of what I have written so far. However the real design games in this piece are geometric. There is a concealed geometric structure behind this painting. In fact the visible world here is hung on a less visible scaffold of the artists design. Here are some observations on that.

This picture has a is based on triangles or pyramids. Not because of any hocus-pocus beliefs about their ability to sharpen razor blades but because the pyramid is a strong and exquisitely stable shape. It has a power and solidity beyond other shapes See the big pyramid above? It is superimposed on its dark opposite below.

There are also three other pyramid shapes concealed in the figures, here they are.

These pyramids work together to give the painting a mysterious dignity, a feeling of eternal calm and importance. The idea of the harvest and its importance was close and personal when most Americans still lived on farms. Today's agribusiness and international trade in staples has distanced us from the cycle of planting and reaping of which a hundred generations before us were acutely aware. This was an allusion of Biblical importance to them. So the enormous solemnity and dignity of a design based on the pyramids agreed with the way they perceived the annual harvest and turn of the seasons.

But here is the interesting piece of geometry that foreshadows the increasingly mathematical concepts which I intend to next explain. This is a square cut from the proportions of a larger rectangle. All of the action takes place within it, even thought the canvas is rectangular.This shows the most simple of mathematical constructions within a rectangle. It is an old device that pleases the eye, and like the pyramids I illustrated before, gives a feeling of strength and logic. It seems so right because of the obvious mathematical relationships it forms.

Most people will look at it and know it "feels" good but not stop to analyze why. Most viewers don't really see design except on a subconscious level. That doesn't mean it doesn't work, it just means it happens behind the curtain of artifice.The unnoticed geometry gives a painting a rightness that the random construction of the merely observed can never have. We like to believe in the look of nature, but our reasoning selves are pleased at seeing the rationality of geometric logic subtly imposed on it.


billspaintingmn said...

Today is Mothers Day, so I want to say Happy Mothers Day!
Pertaining to yesterdays post, I'm
sure your wife has been a wonderful mother to your children.
My wife has also been a wonderful mother to my children, something very important to me...
anyway, the picture of your daughter Emily, seems to have a heart shape inside a heart shape. To me it is like a pyramid of sorts but yet different.
Is this just me, or can you see it
Her arms come together to make the tip of the heart, and the branch is the border, or outline of the top of the heart.
The heart inside is her coller as the tip, and eyebrows as the top of the of the heart.
And then there is Emily herself, the true heart of the picture.
I guess that makes three hearts!
Now there is the flip side, the viewer looking in.
Lots of hearts going on with this.
(...just an observation.)

Philip Koch said...

As one looks at the Eastman Johnson painting for a while you begin to see all sorts of pathways the artist created for his viewers' eyes. Stape hits some of the key ones, and I'd add a couple more I've discovered. (Not being as clever as Stape, I haven't figured out how to draw those funky little arrows).

It is time well spent to pick apart the work of other artists. The better the piece in question, the more you can learn. It's also fun.

A hallmark of good painting is you can look a long, long time and keep finding new things in it. A good Vermeer for example can keep you going for months. Many of the moves and devices we see in the work of great artists were completely intentional. But also there are still others that were painted in unconsciously by the artist I believe.

Even with my own work I find when I look at a painting that's been particularly successful I find all sorts of compositional tricks working in it that I had no idea I was painting. My wife and I used to joke the cat put them in late at night. Perhaps that's why he was so tired during the daytime.

Todd Bonita said...

Interesting to read your post, squares and square format canvases have been on my mind lately, no kidding...I think squares are very pleasing as a compositional tool but I wasn't sure why they were. You've helped clarify some of the mystery for me, thank you. I recently completed a painting on a square canvas (first time for me using this format) and I swear the canvas format increases the appeal of the result for me. I should point out that the painting was not a landscape. I think I understand why a square format canvas may not be the first choice in a landscape painting...I'm assuming it's because it lacks the desirable format of a rectangular canvas that better affords the artist the ability to compose panorama-like compositions. I know there are exceptions and even verticals but I see very few square canvas landscapes. I'm loving your post on geometry and it's application in picture making, thanks so much Stape.