Naturalistic Composition: Examples And Discussion

In The Sower, by Millet, we found that, though the composition was naturalistic, it was based upon the classic principle of rhythm of line. We shall not discover this principle in the present picture of a Young Woman Opening a Window. The arrangement of the figure and its surroundings is simply natural.

The picture is by Johannes Vermeer of Delft, so called because this town in Holland was his birth-place and the scene of his life’s work. Born in 1632, he is one of those famous Dutch artists of the Seventeenth Century, of whom I have already spoken. We were talking of landscape painting and mentioned that in this century the art branched out in two directions. Landscape up to that time having been used as a background for figures, became then an independent art, cultivated for its own sake; and the artists treated it in two ways. On the one hand, some applied the principles of geometric composition to an artificial building up of bits of nature into what is called the formal, or classic landscape; while other painters represented the natural landscape naturally. These latter were the Dutchmen, who treated figures also in the same realistic spirit. That is to say, whether they painted portraits or figure pictures or landscapes, their aim was to represent the actual subject as they really saw it. They did not substitute an artificial arrangement for the natural appearance of people and things; nor did they try to obtain beauty by altering and improving upon nature. Their motive or purpose was to render the beauty that is actually in nature. So, for the most part, they chose subjects of familiar every day life.

This picture, for example, represents simply a glimpse of home life, of a Dutch girl in well-to-do circumstances. Perhaps the artist intended to make a portrait of her; probably his intention was only to paint a genre picture, that is to say, an incident of every day life. Not so much, however, for the sake of representing the incident, as of making it con-tribute to a subject of abstract beauty. How he has done this I hope we shall see presently. Meanwhile, I want you to grasp the distinction between simply representing an incident, as you or I might have seen it, if we had been present, and Vermeer’s motive of using the incident as a peg on which to hang some beauty of light and color and texture. I mean, it was the beauty of light and color and texture that made him pleased to paint this picture; and probably he would have been just as pleased if some other girl had been standing there, or some other objects had been spread upon the table.

Perhaps a familiar example will illustrate this distinction. Two people start off for an afternoon’s walk. One sets out because he wishes to call upon a friend who lives on the other side of the wood. To pay this call is the object of his walk; for the friend is building a new house. As he walks along he is busy wondering how far it is advanced, whether the plasterers have finished their work; and as he returns home he is thinking about the house he has seen and how he himself, when he builds a house of his own, will plan it differently. In fact, the incident of his friend’s being engaged in building is what interests him, and has been throughout the afternoon the motive of his walk. His companion, on the other hand, agrees to go along with him, not so much because he is interested in the house, although he is to some extent, but mostly because he loves a walk. He enjoys the exhilaration of the exercise ; he is fond of the wood through which they have to pass. He will have a chance to hunt for the first signs of spring—the early skunk-cabbage, the shy peep of the violet through the dead leaves underfoot, the rose blush of the maples overhead, the piping and flicker of the first bird-arrivals and so on. The real motive of his walk is the joy of exercise and of the beauties met with on the way. Visiting the house was but an excuse.

There is the same distinction among painters. To some the representation of the incident is the main thing; to others, the rendering of the beauties which it involves. Vermeer, like the other Dutch artists, of the Seventeenth Century, belonged to the latter class. Since, however, his subject is the peg on which he hangs his arrangement of light and color, let us begin by examining it.

A young woman is standing between a table and a window. With one hand she opens the casement while the other grasps the handle of a brass pitcher that stands in an ewer of the same material. Perhaps she is going to water some flowers that are out-side on the window sill. Her costume consists of a dark blue skirt, buff-colored bodice, and a broad collar and hood-like cap of thin white linen. The table is covered with an oriental cloth, on which is a yellow jewel case, while over the blue chair lies a cloak of lighter blue. On the gray wall hangs a map. This and the table cloth may remind us, that the Dutch of that period, although they were fighting for their political liberty against Spain, found means to build ships and carry on trade across the sea with far distant countries. Possibly the girl was the daughter of some sea-captain or prosperous merchant.

Anyhow the picture, beside being a beautiful painting, is very interesting to us today as an illustration of the domestic life of a Dutch girl of some two hundred and fifty years ago. And the same interest belongs to all the old genre pictures. They make the past still alive to our eyes; just as the genre pictures painted to-day will show some future generation how we lived. But this, I repeat, was not Vermeer’s first thought. On the other hand, I do not wish you to think that he was not himself interested in the subject of his picture. He was, I am sure; but in another way. He, no doubt, arranged the figure with great care and carefully selected and grouped the surrounding objects. But, in placing the girl, he did not try to get the graceful lines that Raphael, for example, would have imagined. Vermeer’s desire was to keep the pose and gesture natural. In this he was simply following the general motive of the artists of his country and of that time. But his own particular motive in representing the girl in the act of opening the window was that the clear outside light might stream in at the back of her figure and blend with the dimmer light of the interior.

I said that we would study the kind; of beauty that this picture possesses; and it is to be found in the rendering of the light. The Italians, busy with their grand classic compositions, would not have thought of this. Their motive was the beauty of form, arrayed in beautiful draperies, and so arranged that the figures should produce beautiful patterns of line and form. To make a motive of the beauty of natural light was a discovery of the Dutch.

They were artists, you see, and therefore in love with beauty. But they confined themselves, almost entirely, to real subjects of every day life, and accordingly had to find out the beauty that may be in these familiar things. And it was not long before they learned how much the beauty of things depends upon the light in which they are seen.

Before we go any further in our study of the picture, let us see if we cannot be sure of this from our own experience. Whether you live in a city or in the country, how differently you feel when you start out in the morning, according as the day is fine or not. Under a bright sky everything takes on a cheerfulness that is communicated to our own spirit. Let the sky become downcast and the appearance of objects becomes dulled. Often too, some familiar object that we have passed time and time again without particular notice, suddenly attracts us. How beautiful ! we exclaim. If we try to discover the reason of the beauty, we shall find very likely, that it is due to some effect of light. It need not be a bright light, on the contrary, it may be a soft light, such as wraps itself around objects like a gauzy veil, when the sky is thick with vapor. Do you remember that line of Tennyson’s—” Waves of light went over the wheat ” ? He had been watching a field of wheat, spread out smoothly like a pale golden carpet in the yellow sunshine. Suddenly, a soft breeze passes over it, and as the stems bend their heavy heads of grain, and recover themselves, ripples of light travel across the field. The poet notes it in his memory, for a future poem. So, if we use our eyes, we may note countless examples of the beauty which is added to the simplest things by light. In fact, the changing effect of light will correspond to the changing expressions that pass over the human face.

The Dutch artists, as soon as they became really interested in the nature and life around them, quickly recognised this fact, and made it the chief motive of their pictures. They were no longer satisfied with mere realism; that is to say, to make the figure and the objects around it look as real in the pictures as they did in actual reality. They sought to render the expression of which these objects were capable, under the influence of light. If you do not understand this I think you will, if you place a bunch of flowers in some dark corner of the room, look at it a little while, and then move it to the window. Now, as the light falls upon the flowers and shines through the petals, the whole bunch is transfigured. It has taken on a new appearance of beauty. Like a face that has suddenly lighted up with an expression of happiness, the flowers seem alive with radiance. They too, have their expression and it will change with the changing of light. For look at them again toward evening, when the light is low, and their faces, not less beautiful, will show a quits different expression.

Now the light which streamed in at that window in Delft, when Vermeer painted this picture, was a very cool, pure light; one would say, from seeing the original picture, a morning light in Spring, it is so pure and fresh and fragrant. Yes, one can even feel the fragrance of its freshness, so exquisitely has the artist suggested to us the impression of the lighted air that steals into the room, filling it with purity. See, how it bathes the wall; even the bare gray becomes radiant; how it gleams on the girl’s shoulder, and filters through her cap, making it in parts transparent, so that one sees the background color through it. Note also, how it roams among the objects in the room, caressing the under part of the girl’s right arm, bringing out the softness and plumpness of her left wrist; splashing the ewer and touching the pitcher, the table cloth, and other details with glints of sparkle, like notes of gladness in a melody of tender freshness.

Even in the reproduction one can feel the freshness that pervades the room, and the delicate quality of the lighted atmosphere that envelopes the figures and fills every part of the scene. I mean, that not only is this effect of light visible to our eyes, but it also stirs in us a sentiment or feeling of gladness and refreshment. Still more will the original, if you have a chance of seeing it in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, where, though a very small picture, it is one of the gems of the collection. For there you will feel also the effect of the color, yellow, gray, and various hues of blue. They are all cool colors, the blues especially, and very pure in hue, which increases the sensation of freshness.

A moment ago I spoke of the picture as being like a melody. It will suggest to some imaginations the blitheness of a spring-song. The fact that a painting may sometimes seem to have the tunefulness or harmony of music I have already mentioned in a previous chapter. The reason is that painting and music, although different arts, have certain elements in common. Later on, when we shall speak of color, I shall try to suggest to you the correspondence between sound notes in music and color notes in painting. But for the present I will remind you of an element, common to both arts, of which we have already spoken—rhythm. In Raphael’s Jurisprudence, I pointed out to you the rhythm of movement in the figures. It flows through the forms of the figures in rippling, wave-like lines of direction. But nothing of that sort is apparent in Vermeer’s picture. There are repetitions and contrasts in the arrangement of the full and empty spaces; but they represent rather a pattern of spots; we are not conscious of any rhythm of line. Then, in what does the rhythm consist?

If you think of that line of Tennyson’s— “Waves of light went over the wheat,” you may perhaps discover for yourselves the kind of rhythm in this picture. To give you time to think it out, before I tell you, let me ask you, if you have noticed that in a flower-bed in the garden a number of blossoms of different colors will ” dwell together in unity,” but if you pick some of these and bring them indoors and begin to arrange them in a vase, the colors will seem to clash. That they do not appear to clash in the flower bed is because the out-of-door light envelopes everything, soothes the violence of the colors and brings them all into an appearance of harmony.

Similarly in this picture, the light streaming through the window brings all the different spots of color into a single harmony of effect. They are no longer separate and independent, but drawn together and united by the veil of lighted atmosphere. Of this again, we will speak when we reach the subject of color.

But the rhythm of this picture, in what does it consist ? Yes, in the movement, not of form, but of light. Uniting all the colors into a single harmony, it flows in and out through the lighter and darker parts of the composition; sometimes in a broad sweeping flood, as on the wall; sometimes in little pulses of movement, as it leaps from point to point; now losing itself in the hollow of a shadow, then reappearing in the gleam of a fold; all the while streaming through the picture in a continuous ebb and flow. In fact, as we study it, we gradually find that the light does for the parts of this composition what the lines of direction did in Raphael’s it unites them in a rhythmic movement.

Do not be disturbed, if at first reading these words convey little meaning to you; or if at first sight you do not feel the rhythm of the composition. It is there, however, and some day, if you are really going to be a student of pictures, you will feel it yourself.

For the present, if you will accept my word for it, I wish you to understand that this rhythmic effect of out-of-door light represented a new motive in painting. The Italians of the great period did not see it. It was the discovery of the Dutch realists, those artists of Holland in the Seventeenth Century, whose study was the real appearances of nature and life.’ Their pictures were not as grand as the Italians’; for they were small in size, and were not built up on the magnificently formal plan that gives such a dignity and distinction to the Italian pictures. Nor are their subjects so heroic and impressive. They represent only the facts of every day life. Yet they have a great beauty of their own, because they rely on the inexhaustible beauty of light.

It is on this same beauty that after two hundred years artists of our own day are relying. They have gone back to the example of Vermeer and the other Dutch artists, and are applying it to the study of similar subjects. They are painting nature as it shows itself to them in its envelope of lighted atmosphere.