Picture Composition – Circular Composition

Circular observation in pictures whose structure was apparently not circular leads to the consideration of circular composition, or that class of pictures where the evident intention is to compose under the influence of circular observation—where the circle expresses the first thought in the composition.

This introduces us to the widest reaches of pictorial art, for in this category lie the greatest of the world’s pictures. Slight analysis is necessary to discover this arrangement in the majority of the strongest compositions which we encounter. In the Metropolitan and Lenox Galleries of New York, the following pictures may be looked at for this form of structure, showing the circle either in the vertical plane or in perspective. Auguste Bonheur’s large cattle-piece, Inness’ ” Autumn Oaks,” Corot’s “Ville d’Avray,” Knaus’ ” Madonna,” Cabanel’s kneeling female figure, Roybet’s ” Card Players,” ” Jean d’Arc,” by Bastian Lepage ; ” The Baloon,” by Julian Dupré; Wylie’s “Death of the Vendean Chief,” Leutze’s “Crossing of the Delaware,” Meissonier’s “1807,” the three pictures of Turner, “Mil ton Dictating to His Daughters,” by Munkacsy, and Knaus’ “Row at a Peasants’ Ball.” This list contains the most important works of these collections, and others might easily be added.

The head by Van Dyck carries with it the repose which belongs to the completeness of the circle.

Like Saturn and his ring, this sphere within the circle is typical of harmony in unity, and for this reason, though detached as we know it to be, it has a greater completeness than though joined to a body. It is on this general principle that all circular compositions are based—absorption of the attention within the circuit.

In Tintoretto’s “Marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne,” the floating figure offers us a shock not quite relieved when we recall the epoch of its production or concede the customary license to mythology. At a period in art when angels were employed through a composition as a stage manager would scatter supernumeraries—to fill gaps or create masses—in any posture which the conditions of the picture demanded, it is not strange that the artist conceived this figure suspended from above in an arc of a circle, if in these lines it served his purpose. In this shape it completes a circuit in the figures, fills the space which would otherwise open a wide escape for the vision, and, by the union of the three heads, joins the figures in the centre of the canvas, completing, with the legs of Ariadne, five radial lines from this focus.

To the mind of a sixteenth century artist, these reasons were more convincing than the objection to painting a hundred and forty pounds of recumbent flesh and blood, with the support unseen. To the modern artist such a conception would be well-nigh impossible, though Mr. Watts gives us much the same action. Here, however, the movement of the draperies supplies motion to the figure of Selene, and as a momentary action we know it to be possible. Were the interpretation of motion by hair and drapery impossible, and the impression, as in the Tintoretto, that of the suspended nude model, it would be safe to say that no modern painter would have employed such a figure. This touch of realism, even among the transcendental painters, denotes the clean-cut separations between the modern and mediæval art sense.

While these two examples show the “vortex” arrangement with fluent outlines, the portrait’ by Mr. Whistler expresses the same principles in an outline almost rectangular, but is to be placed in the same category as the other two. The chair-back, the curtain, the framed etching, are all formally placed with respect to the edges of the canvas, and as we observe them in their order, we return in a circuit to the head.

The circle in composition is discoverable in many pictures where there is no direct evidence that the intention was to compose thus, but wherein analysis on these lines proves that, led by unity, balance and repose (cardinal beacon-lights to the mind artistic), the painter naturally did it.

It is of interest to review this picture through its simple evolution. The head conceived in its pose, the next line of interest is one from neck to feet. This, besides being the edge of the black mass of the body, is the more apparent against the light gray wall and as a line is attractive in forming Hogarth’s “Line of Beauty.” But beautiful as it may be, it commits an unlovely act in cutting a picture diagonally, almost from corner to corner. Interruption of this is effected by the hands and increased by the handkerchief. Shortly below the knee this is diverted by the base-board and at the bottom squarely stopped by the solid rectangle of the stool.

Suppose that the picture on the wall were missing; not only would the long parallelogram of the curtain be unrelieved, but the return of the line to the subject in the ensemble of the picture would be broken. This, therefore, becomes the keystone of the composition. Other considerations besides its diversion from the curtain are, its curtailing of wall space, and, by its close placement to the curtain, its union there-with as a balance for head and body—in bulk of light and dark almost identical with them, though less forcible in tonal value.

In Wiertz’s group about the body of Patroclus, though its contour is more decidedly circular (and in the use of this term is always meant a line. returning on itself), it fails to prompt circular observation to the same extent as the foregoing. The eye seesaws back and forth along the lines of the hammock arrangement of light, and we are conscious of the extreme balance and the careful parcelling out of the units of force.

With all its evident abandon the method is painfully present, as though the artist, given so much Greek, was careful to add the same amount of Trojan. The level and plummet setting of the group exactly within the sides of the frame, with no suggestion of anything else existing in the world, puts it into the class of formal decoration, with which old masterdom abounds, and whence Wiertz received the inspiration for most of his great compositions.

More studiable is the vortex arrangement of the “1807,” with its magnificent sweep of cavalry, where the tumultuous energy of one part is augmented by fine antithesis of repose in another. Meissonier’s composition was expanded after the first conception was nearly completed. The visitor at the Metropolitan Museum may discover a horizontal line in the sky and a vertical one through the right end. This slight ridge in the canvas shows the dimensions of the original thought. The added space gave larger opportunity for the maneuvres of the cuirassiers, and set Napoleon to the left of the exact centre, where, by the importance of his figure, he more justly serves as a balance for the heavier side of the picture.

As in the Whistler portrait, the keystone was the picture on the wall, in this composition the group of mounted guardsmen on the left gives a circle’s unity to it, helps to join the middle dis-tance with the foreground, becomes the third point in the triangle, which gives pyramidal solidity to the composition and is altogether quite as important to the picture as the right wing to an army.

Corot was wont to rely on Nature’s gift as she bestowed it, merely allowing his sensitive picture-sense to lead him where pictures were, rather than upon any artful reconstruction of the facts of nature. His ” Little Music,” as he called it, came for the most part ready-made for him, and he simply caught it and wrote the score. His art is less impressive for composite quality, than, for example, that of Mauve, who, in the same simple range of subject, sought to produce a perfect composition every time. In the ” Lake at Ville d’Avray,” we have one of Corot’s happiest subjects, though not especially characteristic. A considerable part of its charm lies in our opportunity to girdle it with our eye, and in imagination from any point along its rim to view its circumference as a page from Nature, complete.