How To Judge A Picture – Composition

Pictorial composition may be defined as the proportionate arranging and unifying of the different features and objects of a picture. It is not the huddling together of miscellaneous studio properties—a dummy, a vase, a rug here, and a sofa, a, fire-place, a table there ; it is not the lugging in by the ears of unimportant people to fill up the background of the canvas, as in the spectacular play ; it is not taking a real group from nature and transplanting it upon canvas. There must be an exercise of judgment on the part of the artist as to fitness and position, as to harmony of relation, proportion, color, light ; and there must be a skillful uniting of all the parts into one perfect whole.

If we turn to the novel, the poem, or the drama we shall find that they are always constructed with a due regard to the importance of one person : the heroine or hero. All the other characters, the scenes, plots, and counterplots, are merely accessories leading up to and upholding the chief per-son. The people hold positions of relative importance according to their rank, and they all move like an army, the wings supporting the center. You may not have noticed this, but if you will analyze any novel or play, or watch closely a stage representation, you will find the skeletons of them as I have described. Examine Hamlet, The Lady of the Lake, or Adam Bede, and in any one of them you will readily perceive that all the minor people are merely the mouthpieces of the author whereby he brings out the thoughts or actions of the chief actor.

There is a perfect analogy between any good play, poem, or novel and a well composed picture. They all depend upon the force of some leading character; they all use subordinate characters as the supporters of the hero or heroine; they all sacrifice the less to enhance the brilliancy of the greater. The proper composition of a figure picture, then, requires the superior importance of one person, object, or feature. This feature must be strong enough and prominent enough to rule every other feature in the picture. If, for instance, an artist would paint the Last Supper, the figure of Christ must be central in position, light, and color. It is no matter what were the positions in the actual scene centuries ago. Historic truth, if it were known, must be sacrificed to art truth. The figure of Christ is all predominant, and should have first place. Next him should come John the Beloved, and thereafter the apostles ranged on either side in the order of their importance, Judas, perhaps, being at the far end in vague and shadowy drawing. Look at the engravings of Leonardo’s ” Last Supper ” and note this arrangement.

Again, if the scene of Macbeth with the witches on the heath would be artistically expressed, Macbeth must be of first importance, hold central place, and draw the eye at once. The witches, the fire, the caldron, and all that, would be of comparatively little consequence—quite as little in the picture as they hold in Shakespeare’s play. So, again, in the case of historical pictures, if Napoleon review his troops at Friedland* it will be from a central point surrounded by his officers ; and if Germanicus have a triumph f he will certainly hold a conspicuous place in the scene. Any of the pictures of the old Italian masters will illustrate centralized composition, especially those of the Venetians, Tintoret, Paul Veronese, and Tiepolo.

The same law is observed in the composition of landscapes. In the representation of a sun-set the sun or its light must attract the greatest attention, and be nearly central in position. Claude and Turner illustrate this in almost all of their paintings, though in some cases they are much given to elaborating details with unnecessary nicety. Corot does not attempt any thing so brilliant, but depends for effect upon pale light at morning or evening. This he makes all-powerful by the centering of interest upon it at the expense of other features. It is the first, last, and greatest beauty of his landscapes, and you cannot appreciate Corot (or for that matter any other artist) unless you strive to understand him in the light of his own interpretation. Rousseau and Diaz are not always so single in aim or simple in method as Corot. Their chief dependence is upon foliage, color, and masses of light and shade; yet in almost any of their works it will not be hard to see what features the painters loved the best and strove to bring out the most conspicuously.

Given the law of special prominence in compo. sition which builds a picture upon the pattern of a pyramid, though the scaffolding is never shown, there is still a further consideration which the careful artist looks to. There must be a harmony of relation between the parts and a unity of them all for one well-defined purpose. Each part is but a block of the mosaic, and should form a factor of the whole. If we examine a group of people in a photograph—say they are summer idlers on the rocks at Mt. Desert—we shall find the most of them looking straight at us out of the picture. A few of them may be looking to one side, a young man may be watching intently some girl next to him for the purpose of showing his profile, which he thinks, perhaps, is the best part of him, and a young girl may be gazing romantically out to sea ; but there is one thing we notice regardless of positions. Each one of them is self-conscious, posing, thinking only of an attitude. They have all forgotten their companions and their surroundings; the cap is off the camera ; “all quiet now for just a second ; ” their picture is being taken. The photograph shows this ; the people are huddled together within the focus of the camera; each is by himself and for himself, having nothing whatever to do with his neighbors. There is no harmony of relation, no unity for effect; in fact, there is no grouping, but rather a series of individual photographs taken upon one plate.

It is a difficulty which the young painter invariably meets with (and the young novelist stumbles over it likewise), that he cannot make his characters appear unconscious. They will persist in posing for their picture. Virginius, with dagger raised to strike his daughter, pauses, his hand in mid-air, because the cap is off the camera; Virginia has her mouth half opened, as though to shriek, but thinks possibly it might spoil the effect, so remains motionless ; Appius Claudius on his high judgment seat is trying his best to look thoughtful, like Michael Angelo’s ” Giuliano de Medici ; ” and the soldiers and Romans who form the mob in attendance care not a rap for any thing in or about the scene. There is nothing to show that the characters are absorbed, or even interested, in the trial ; nothing to show that the center of interest is in father or daughter ; nothing to show that any one knows the person next to him. In other words, they are not Romans excited at injustice and horror-stricken at its consequence—not a moving mass carried away by one theme and rendered unconscious to surroundings—but, on the contrary, studio models put in one at a time, possibly with some regard to their relative positions, but with no regard to their harmony of relation and general unity.

The ” Sabine Women ” of David in the Louvre is a most beautiful instance of the lack of unity. The stiff-legged young warrior with the raised spear in the foreground, his attitudinized antagonist and the woman interposing between them have nothing whatever in common. The combat is imaginary with the spectator; the people in the picture have no idea of fighting, shrieking, or even moving. They are studio dummies, drawn separately and placed in one canvas with an idea that they would possibly affiliate, or fight, but they do neither the one nor the other any more than the tin soldiers of our boyhood. One might think, from some of their works, that David and Ingres painted pictures much as Trollope is supposed to have written novels ; namely, by making a beginning anyhow, and trusting to luck for an appropriate ending.

I have taken extreme cases to point more forcibly what you will often see in figure compositions and not infrequently in landscapes—that is, the patching together of isolated parts with the idea of producing a whole piece. The artist not having seen his work in mass or in its general effect, not having conceived it as a whole and complete idea, seeks to blunder into unity by filling in features here and there. I must illustrate this still further by referring you once more to the Verboeckhoven sheep picture, which seems to exemplify every failing in art. The objects in it are disunited and separated. The man does not see the sheep, nor the sheep the man ; the barn is wholly superfluous ; and the trees and the sky look as though they originally be-longed to another picture which had been partially painted over for the sake of introducing the barn and its contents. There never was any attempt to conceive the scene in its entirety, or to paint it with a regard to its unity. The painter simply daubed a barn against a sky, and some sheep against a barn, and sold it the next day to some simpleton as a ” pastoral effect.”

Gerome’s tulip picture may answer as another example of poor composition—an unusual thing in his work. It bothers you to understand the meaning of that man in the middle of the tulip patch drawing his sword, and the other men running toward him. You do not see the point of it, or get the force of the story. Possibly if there were more unity between the figures you might understand it better, though it may be well to remark in parenthesis that it is not the object of painting to disclose plots or tell stories. Vibert’s picture, with its red-robed cardinals listening to the missionary’s story, is, on the contrary, quite good in composition. The positions are natural and unconscious, the people for the main are interested in the tale, and the oneness of the group is well indicated. Still better are these “Arab Horsemen” of Fromentin, dashing across a stream and down a dark ravine. They are all bent on gaining some one point, horses as well as men. The ground, the stream, the rocky ravine, the atmosphere, the light, all belong there, and correspond to one another. There is no patch-work about it, but a scene with all its accessories caught from the life. Fromentin you will almost always find good in unity. His pictures of the desert, with their hot air, rising dust, burning skies, shrouded Bedouins, and Arab horses, show this. Decamps in his groups and interiors, his stables with braying donkeys, his street scenes, is likewise excellent in this line. In fact, there are many artists who excel in it ; and among the landscapists any one of those whom I have previously mentioned—Rousseau, Corot, or Dupre —will illustrate its necessity and value.

A final word regarding composition. The light must come from one point of the compass, affecting all objects proportionately, and one atmosphere must envelop and surround the whole. Of course, you know this to be the state of affairs in nature, and so do the painters, but we do not always find it so represented in art. Even Diaz in landscapes, especially in his Fontainebleau pieces, of which we have spoken, gets sunlight badly twisted at times. To be sure, we do not often notice it, but then the error is there. Daubigny and Corot are as near perfection in light and atmosphere as imagination can fancy. This Seine picture* of the former is beautiful with its uniformly diffused gray lights. The overspreading clouds tinge the whole scene with softness, the river no less than the reeds that fringe the banks, the ground no less than the nodding trees. The air, again, is equalized throughout ; it touches the stones with moisture, it ruffles the surface of the river, it lifts up the leaves of the trees with gentle breath, it pervades the whole picture as intensely as though it were golden sunshine.

Breton in such works as the “Communicants ” and the ” Evening at Finisterre,” Marilhat in his pictures of Egyptian life, Rico in his Venetian scenes, and Fortuny in his Algerian and Spanish subjects all excel in amalgamating the different features and objects of a picture into one consistent and living whole. This amalgamation or fusion of parts is always necessary to good composition. Every object, light, color, shadow, and effect must hold each its place and make for the general unity of the whole. There may be an infinite variety of men and horses in a troop of cavalry, yet if they are properly commanded they move as a unified body; and so, in a sunset, though the deepened shadows may fill the valleys, and the mountain heights and castellated peaks be tinged with flaming purple, and along the sky float innumerable companies of clouds shotten with scarlet and gold, yet each beauty of the scene bears allegiance to a universal beauty, and each splendor is but a part of the universal splendor flung off in radiant circles from the sun itself.