Naturalistic Composition – Representing Nature Naturally

In the preceding chapters we have been studying formal, or conventional, composition. We have seen how the artists arrange their groups of figures and the position and gestures of each figure according to a rule or formula or convention, the basis of which is a geometric plan, on which they build up a balance of repetitions and contrasts. And we have noted that these formal compositions are artificial arrangements : that the figures are not grouped as you might expect them to be in real life, nor in positions that men and women usually assume. And these formal compositions we have seen were also called, classic; the last example being the classic landscape in which nature has been made to look more grand by the addition of features of classic architecture.

We reach now another principle of composition. It is the arrangement adopted by the artist, whose motive is to make his picture represent nature naturally; so I call it naturalistic composition. But, as we have noted before, the artist is not satisfied merely to represent nature; he wishes in the first place to make his picture a thing of beauty. Nature is not always beautiful; so he selects from nature and arranges his subject in such a way, that we shall not only recognise how true the picture is to nature, but feel also how beautiful it is as a work of art. Its beauty, you see, is founded, not upon a formal plan, but on its truth to nature.

Here for example, is The Sower by the French artist, Jean Francois Millet. If we have ever seen a man scattering grain, we recognise at once the picture’s truth to life. But Millet’s intention was not only to make us know what the man is doing, but to create an impression on our minds that shall make us feel a sense of beauty, through the way in which the picture represents the incident. As a young man, Millet had studied the examples of Greek and Roman sculpture in the Museum of the Louvre in Paris, and learnt through them the classic principles of composition—the balance obtained by rhythmical repetition and contrast. And these principles, as we shall see presently, are applied to this figure of The Sower. I hope to show you that this is the secret of the picture’s beauty. Although the action of the figure inside the shabby clothes is quite natural, the movement is rhythmica. In fact it represents a mixture of the classical and the naturalistic motive.

Firstly, the naturalistic. We know at a glance what the man is doing. The forms in the picture, the colors, the light and shade, make an impression on the eye which is immediately telegraphed to one of the centers of the brain. The result is that we know the picture represents a man in a field sowing grain, while from the color and light in the sky, and the shadows creeping over the field, we know that it is twilight.

This direct thought stirs us to further thinking; ‘ for we recall that laborers start for their work in early morning, so this one has probably been toiling all through the day. But we notice that his actions are still vigorous, he should be tired, yet he is working as sturdily as at any time during the day; perhaps with even more energy, in order that he may finish sowing the field before the darkness comes. In fact, the arrangement of forms, colors, and light and shade has made a strong impression on the thinking part of the brain, stirring us not only to observe, but to draw conclusions. And this, of course, is what Millet meant that it should do.

But this was not all that he intended. Most people of his day must have thought it was; for nearly all the critics, or persons who are supposed to be able to judge of the value of a picture, and nearly all the connoisseurs, who are supposed to be able to appreciate its beauty, turned up their noses and shrugged their shoulders. “This is horrible ! ” they exclaimed. ” A common laborer in his dirty clothes, doing his miserable work. Ugh ! how vulgar ! This is not art; for art should be concerned with beauty. Why does not the fellow paint some beautiful girl in beautiful draperies ? Phew ! Take the picture away, it smells of the farm.”

You see they confined their criticisms and appreciation to what the picture was about its subject; and because they did not like the subject, they condemned the picture. They got no further than knowing and thinking, they did not permit them-selves to feel. But it was on their feelings also that Millet wished to make an impression. Through the arrangement of line, form, color, and light and shade he sought to stir that other part of the brain to which messages are telegraphed by the senses, with a result that we are made to feel. Let us analyse the composition; and see how it illustrates the principle that we have been discussing of balance, and rhythmic repetition, and contrast.

We will begin with the latter. Note, then, how the sloping line of the field cuts across the picture. This diagonal line is contrasted with the perpendicular sides of the picture, and with the upright direction of the figure of the man. It forms, however, another contrast; it divides the light from the dark. The sun has gone down behind the slope; so that, while the sky is still luminous with a lovely glow, the ground is in shadow, dreary and heavy looking. So, too, the figure of the man. The light is at his back, so that what we see of him is shrouded in gloom. Against the gloom of the ground his figure shows comparatively indistinctly, but the upper part stands very sharp against the light. There is a strong contrast between its heaviness and gloom and the lovely radiance of the waning light; while down below the figure looms out of the gloom and heaviness, as if it were a part of them that had gathered into definite shape. Yes, though his head may stand against the sky, the man is part of the earth.

Right away, is there nothing in this to make us feel? Millet, at any rate, had often felt the poignancy of contrast, in his own life and in the lives of others. He had known what it was to see his wife and children short of food, to have his own stomach empty, while his mind was full of beautiful ideas, and his cottage full of pictures, that some day men would buy, but not yet. He had seen little bright faced children standing at the open grave of the father or the mother; the happy young bride at the altar, and among the congregation the young widow; and evening after evening, as the- darkness fell, the lonely figures in the field, toiling out their short lives, whilst behind them spread the everlasting beauty of the sunset, and a few miles off in Paris, where he came from, the lights were gleaming and people were making ready for pleasure, though there too, as he knew from his own experience, people starved. Yes, it is through experience that we learn to feel deeply, and it is to experience that the contrast of this picture appeals.

When we recognise that by this contrast of light and darkness, Millet sought to express the dreary routine, day in day out, early and late, of the peasant’s lot in a world where nature is so beautiful, and there can be so much beauty in life, we may imagine to ourselves what would be the effect of raising or lowering the diagonal line. To have given more lighted space, would have made the figure stand out too prominently so that it would have dominated the scene, and the scene itself would have seemed too spacious. Velasquez, in his equestrian portraits, kept the horizon line low, so that Philip IV, for ex ample, or his minister, Olivarez, is made to appear a very important person in a very large world. But Millet wished us to feel the lowliness of the peasant, bound close to the earth in very narrow surround ings. Again, to have raised the horizon line, would have destroyed the balance between light and darkness, which now is absolutely true. This balance suggests a feeling of repose ; shall I say of acquiescence in the necessity of the contrast ? For Millet did not consider himself a reformer whose work is to set things right and to do away with contrasts ; but an artist, whose aim was to harmonise the contrasts and to find some balance between the lights and darks of life; just as Stevenson out of his weakness and strength made his life a beautiful one.

And now let us study the lines of the figure. In the first place you will agree that they enclose a form which is unmistakably that of a man sowing grain. It was necessary for Millet to arrange the lines, in. some way that should convey this impression. But there are many other ways in which they might have been arranged, so as to obtain this result. For in the act of sowing a man takes many positions and any one of these would have done, if all the artist had desired was to make us know that the man was sowing. But Millet wished to do more.

As a boy he toiled in his father’s fields, so he had a fellow-feeling for the peasants ; and, as he watched them, day after day laboring so faithfully, he found a big idea in their work. It was something like this—work is necessary, and to do our own share of it as well as we can is the big thing for each of us. And the oldest work of all and the most necessary is the growing of the wheat. To-day the seed is laid in rows by machine-drills ; but in Millet’s time it was scattered by hand, just as it had been since man began to sow. This sower, then, that he watched was a descendant of a long line of sowers, stretching back to the beginning of civilisation; and still in the fields of Barbizon he was doing his humble share of the world’s necessary work. Millet felt the bigness of this idea; and in his imagination the man was no longer Jacques or Jean—a sower; he became ” The Sower,” a type—a big heroic type. Then, as Millet felt him to be, so he set to work to paint him, choosing such lines as would convey this big feeling to us. Observe, first, the balance of the figure : how the weight of the body is planted almost equally on both feet. If you try to put yourself in the position, you will find that you can raise neither foot with-out moving the body. If you wish to raise the back foot, you must move the body forward till the weight is on the right foot; or, if you would raise this latter, you must move the body back till the weight is over the left foot. The center of gravity or of mass runs down through the body and between the legs. Now sway your body backward and forward a few times, and then bring forward the left leg in front of the right, so that the position of the feet is reversed. Now sway again forward and backward. I ask you to do this that you may feel how freely the body moves in this position. And I ask you to stride, that you may feel that the position in the picture is only a momentary one, leading on to a natural advance. For this perfect poise of the body on the feet is not a stationary one, that in time will seem stiff, but part of a moving one, that has the freedom and the naturalness of life. And the movement is a swift one. We can feel it is so from the length of the stride; for it is only when you are moving quickly, that you can take long strides, and still pre-serve the balanced, rhythmic swing of the body.

We have spoken of the poise of the body on the legs; now let us note the action of the right arm. The action, I need hardly say, begins with taking a handful of grain from the bag; then the arm is swung back to the right to its full extent, and then again brought back to the bag. Between these two points—that of the bag and that of the full extent—the arm is poised in motion, just as the action of the body was poised between the backward and forward motion of the legs. We can feel that the arm is moving, and, at this instant it is moving backward, for our own experience when we walk and swing our arms naturally is that each arm goes back as the leg on that side goes forward. The man’s arm will reach its furthest point backward when he brings his full weight on the right foot. In a word, the poise of the arm and the poise of the leg correspond.

They present an example of repetition of balance. It is enforced, you will observe, in the composition by the arm being made parallel to the direction of the backward leg. This is another instance of repetition; and there are still others : the repetitions of the waist line, the shoulders, and the hat brim; of the bandage on the left leg, the line from the shoulder through the thigh, the apron, hanging over the arm, and of the echo, as it were, of these, in the tail of the distant ox and the arm of the driver. These repetitions, and others that you may discover for yourself, help to bind the composition together and also to make it rhythmic.

And now for contrast, we have noted the big one made by the diagonal line, dividing the composition into light and dark. Let us note those appearing in the figure. First there is the big contrast of the figure’s own diagonal line from the shoulders down through the right leg. It is contrasted most forcibly with the sides of the picture, the horizon line, and the direction of the right arm and the left leg. The latter are practically at right angles to the figure—strongest of all contrasts of line. It is to all these vigorous contrasts that the energy and assertion of the figure are mainly due. But there are other contrasts in the figure. Do you notice that the swing of the arm brings the trunk of the body, or the torso, as it is called, along with it 1 Swing your own arm and you will find your torso following its direction. If the man’s arm were to reach its full extension, his left shoulder would appear and his torso would front us nearly full. If his hand should reach the bag, the right shoulder would come forward until the torso would be seen almost in profile. However, neither of these extremes is presented. The swing of the torso is poised between the two. But do you observe that the swing of the torso and arms is across the path of direction of the swing of the legs? While they swing forward and backward, the arms and torso swing alternately from right to left and left to right.

Imitate this action with your own body, step for-ward briskly with a swinging stride and at the same time swing your arms and torso. If you feel the exhilaration of the action as I think you will, you will realise that it is the wonderful way in which Millet has suggested this contrast of the swing, that makes the action of the figure so stirring. By the contrast of its lines, it expresses energy; by the contrast of swing, so free, so rhythmic, so vigorous, it lifts us to enthusiasm.

But finally observe the position of the head and the direction of its gaze. While below it the torso and arms swing from side to side, the head is fixed, leaning a little forward in the direction of the onward movement, its eyes firmly set on what is ahead. Within the head is the brain which directs all the action of the figure. But the face is shadowed over, and through the shadow the features appear coarse and heavy. We feel that the brain, though prompting the man to do his work to the utmost, is after all a dull brain, in pitiful contrast to the vigor of the body. Heroic though the figure is in the grandeur of its free, swift movement, as grand, if you will take my word for it, as a Greek statue, yet it is but that of a humble peasant, unconscious that he is doing aught but that which he has to do.

There you have the idea as it presented itself to the imagination of Millet !

” The Sower ” is a striking illustration of the point with which I started this book; that the beauty of a picture does not depend upon the subject, but upon the way it is represented.