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July 21, 2009

Impressionist Rule-Breakers

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

There's the saying "Rules are made to be broken." It neglects to mention that it might be helpful to keep consequences in mind when considering breaking a rule.

In painting, consequences can be hard to pin down. Breaking a painting rule might mean -- depending upon which rule it is -- (1) the result will be ugly or odd and the work won't sell, (2) the painting's surface might crack or flake as it ages, or (3) it will be hailed as a courageous, innovative masterpiece.

In most cases, painting rules are bent, not broken, and the result isn't especially noticeable. These tend to be cases where the artist isn't paying total attention to what he's doing. But there are times when they are consciously broken if the artist seeks an effect he especially desires.

Below are featured two well-known Impressionist paintings containing a violation or two of composition rules. My guess is that the artists weren't paying as much attention to composition as they might have. But it doesn't seem to matter because both paintings are very popular despite technical quibbles.

"Girls With a Watering Can" - Auguste Renoir, 1876

Information about this painting can be found here.

What's wrong with it? First, the girl is facing to our right and is also centered to the right; compare the distance from a point midway between her eyes to the right and left edges. According to a composition rule, she ought to have been placed left of center so that she would be facing a wider area of canvas. It's a question of visual balance. Given that imbalance, Renoir might have helped matters by placing a tall, narrow object of some sort at the right edge so as to block the passage of a viewer's eyes as they follow the gaze of the subject off-canvas. That would be the schoolbook solution anyway, though there really isn't much room for such a visual barrier. But Renoir helped retrieve things by placing a patch of flowering plants below and to our left of the girl. This creates an upper-right to lower-left diagonal from her head to the flowers, thus restraining eye movement to the right. Axes of the lawn edges to the right of her enhance this diagonal force.

"Poppies Near Argenteuil" - Claude Monet, 1873

The Musée d'Orsay web page on this painting is here; it contains only data of various kinds. I might mention that there seems to be no settled English version of the title.

One potential problem is that Monet divided the scene into two nearly equal areas, the sky and the ground. (Even splits are not recommended, though Caillebotte once famously got away with it.) The ground area is slightly dominant and the dark trees along the hilltop reduce the sky area some and help the balance. And then there's that odd, oddly-placed tree with the round ball of leaves jutting above the rest and into the sky. Did Monet add it because he realized at the end of the painting session that he nearly had a 50-50 area split and wanted to break up the sky area as a means of distraction from his error? Another painter might have nudged the hill a wee bit higher, just to be safe -- and eliminated that strange tree.

Like Renoir, Monet created a facing-off-the-canvas problem for himself. Unlike Renoir, he didn't build in enough corrective measures. Note that the mother and child in the foreground are facing off-canvas to the viewer's right, and there is no visual barrier or turning point. Worse, they're actually about to walk off the right edge. The upper-left to lower-right cleavage between two parts of the hill adds to this downwards, outwards momentum. All that holds the viewer's gaze within the painting's bounds is the area covered by the red-orange poppies -- the main subject of the painting. As it happens, those poppies are probably just enough to save the painting from seriously obvious compositional problems.

I wonder if Monet planned all this or if he simply lucked out. I'm not so sure about planning because outdoor painting needs to be done quickly before lighting conditions change: compositional decisions have to be made quickly. A few missteps at the start of a project might be difficult to correct later. Studio painters have the advantage of more time to think through what they are about to do.



posted by Donald at July 21, 2009


Would someone list some good references for "painting rules" used in representational art.

Posted by: Fred on July 21, 2009 1:29 PM

Hmmm. It's my understanding that many of the Impressionists were often trying to mimic the composition of casual snapshots, so a lot of this may have been intentional. In fact, if memory serves, confronting the traditional confines of the canvas was something many of them deliberately challenged, so to have figures appearing to be on the verge of walking off the edge would not be an accident. Thinking back to my 'fundamentals' class, however, there are a number of things one uses to manipulate a composition, in addition to the general placement of elements as discussed. What is depicted in greater versus lesser detail, where are the warmer versus cooler colors, the higher versus lower values, and the areas of higher versus lower chroma. To me, it's not so much that there are 'rules' as there is an array of devices one either emphasizes or de-emphasizes in order to create flow and balance.

Posted by: KR on July 21, 2009 2:13 PM

I've just been watching a TV show which included a discussion of a Monet painting of a cliff on the Normandy coast. We were shown a small photo of the painting. It looked to me to be a rip-off of Turner.

Posted by: dearieme on July 21, 2009 5:25 PM

Would someone list some good references for "painting rules" used in representational art.

I know of one for photography, which can also apply to painting: never have a background object like a tree or a flag pole "grow" from a person's head.

Posted by: PA on July 21, 2009 10:00 PM

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