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On Beauty and Reading Pictures

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Beauty,Spring 2005
Third Web Papers
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On Beauty and Reading Pictures

Alanna Albano

There are three particular paintings featured at The Barnes Foundation, in Merion, PA, that I chose to help me in my experience of "reading" pictures, and "reading" for beauty in those pictures. Pierre-Auguste Renoir's After the Concert, Pablo Picasso's Composition, and Paul Cézanne's Card Players and Girl were the paintings that my eyes could not resist. A "special, irresistible something" in these paintings made it extremely difficult for me to stop gazing at them. I could have easily sat down and studied those paintings for hours, because they intrigued me with such great intensity. A combination of factors sparked my intrigue – the colors of the painting, its title, the featured characters, the background, and my opportunity to create some type of "story" to explain what might be happening in the painting. On a deeper level, I connected some sort of personal memory or familiarity to each of the paintings. This is in direct contrast to Alfred C. Barnes' perspective on art, which was that sentimentality should not contribute to "reading" the aesthetics in a work of art. Whereas I "read" art much differently than the way in which Barnes did, one truth is clear: everyone has her/his own way of "reading" beauty.

Dark tones of brown, black and gray dominated Renoir's After the Concert. The only bright colors that peeked out from the painting were the light flesh colored tones of people's skin, and the rosy red cheeks and lips of the portrayed women. The painting's title described exactly the scene pictured, in which a group of finely dressed people stand outside to chat after a performance. One of the women carried a rolled up program in her hand as further evidence. The gentle, light brush strokes of the painting created an almost dreamy-like atmosphere that still appeared life-size and realistic. These kinds of surface layer qualities captured my eye when I first spotted the painting.

When my eyes were unable to turn away, I started to "read" more of the painting. My eyes, as well as my thoughts, wanted to slide right underneath the layers of dark paint in an attempt to create a story for the scene that hung before me. I saw two young women standing closely to each other, arm linked in arm. Their facial expressions beamed with the excitement that came from seeing a grand performance. Curiosity and interest also spanned their faces, as they politely conversed with a tall young gentleman. One of the women had a dazed, happy look in her eyes as she looked at the man in front of her. Was she in love, or confused about seeing him? There was no way to know for certain, but it was obvious that she was fond of him. They might have grown up together, or she only just met him at the concert. His expression in response to hers appeared alert and interested, looking directly at her. He did not exhibit the same dreamy look in his eyes, but I assumed that as a "proper" gentleman of the era he was strictly taught never to publicly reveal his emotions towards a woman. The other woman looked on at her friend, with an expression that showed both curiosity and happiness. She was curious about this young man and his relationship to her friend, but at the same time she was happy and excited at the prospect that her friend may possibly become a bride-to-be in the near future. Did she also notice the man hidden behind the first young man? His face was hidden, but he may have been a friend of the young man's. It was likely that he showed a romantic interest in the woman, who was too busy glancing at her friend to notice the attraction.

Upon reading Renoir's painting, I was unable to find much beauty in his color choices. However, the talented way in which he painted life-like expressions on the people's faces brought great beauty to my eyes. Even the people's body language seemed so distinct and realistic that I almost felt as if I could walk right into the painting and participate in the ongoing conversation. I "read" beauty in art that appears "real" because the life-like quality breaks down the barrier between the artwork and me. I am no longer made to feel as if the art is a foreign object that is beyond my understanding, something that has no connection to my life. The realism permits me to interact with the art so that I feel a greater closeness to it. When this connection is made, the painting holds great meaning for me; therefore, I find or "read" beauty in the picture.

Reading Picasso's Composition evoked a somewhat different sense of beauty for me than that of Renoir. Although the painting's title made no sense to me in relation to the picture, I found Picasso's colors to be much more aesthetically pleasing to my eyes than Renoir's color choices. Rich, deep earth tones consisting of browns, reds, orange, and gold spanned the painting. A man and a woman appeared to walk alongside two un-harnessed oxen. The man, who was much bigger than the woman, wore brown cutoffs and a loose white shirt. No shoes adorned his feet, and short dark hair covered his head. His muscular arms and torso carefully balanced a huge basket of flowers and greenery on his back. As he looked off into the distance, his mouth was open. Interestingly enough, the ox positioned closest to him exhibited the same expression on its face, tilting its head in the same direction as that of the man's. The woman, who was much smaller, thinner, and shorter, wore a loose white dress and no shoes. She looked towards me as her head tilted to the side. She gently tugged at her long black curly hair with one hand, and carried a bouquet of red, pink, and orange flowers in the other. Her eyes portrayed prettiness and thoughtfulness. The ox positioned closer to her displayed a facial expression and tilt of the head similar to that of the woman's; for example, its head was tilted down, and its eye gazed towards me. Its mouth was also closed, just like the woman's. While the couple's feet and the oxen's hooves trod in brownish, reddish, and orange earth, the field behind them shone like gold. The sky above them revealed gentle brushstrokes of blue, green, violet, and gray.

Despite "reading" much more beauty in Composition's surface qualities, I surprisingly found myself unable to read much of a story in the picture. The couple (or they could very well be brother and sister) were taking their oxen and flowers to the town market to sell. Or, they were returning from the market, as the darker colors in the sky do suggest dusk. Their facial expressions and body language suggested their strength and able-bodiedness. They seemed eager about their journey, but at the same time hesitant, because they did not know what lay ahead of them on the distant road.

When I read Picasso's painting, I read beauty immediately because of the vibrant colors he used and the smooth, defined lines and contours he applied to its characters. I did not read beauty in the painting's title, probably because I did not understand its meaning in relation to the picture. Upon realizing that the couple and oxen shared similar facial expressions and body language, I found yet another moment of beauty in reading the painting. That part of the picture conveyed to me the intricate relationship between humans, between animals, between humans and animals, and their relationship with the earth. Relationships are a very beautiful part of life, and the portrayal of them in Picasso's work heightened its beauty for me. Additionally, I "read" excitement and adventure in the picture. The couple and the oxen were approaching "the unknown" in their journey, judging by the distant and preoccupied looks in their eyes. Their facial expressions implied their excitement and readiness for their new life adventure, but they also felt hesitant. These feelings of excitement and nervousness reflected my own feelings for what lies ahead in my own life, especially after graduation from Bryn Mawr College. The painting's realistic portrayal of the relationships and feelings we commonly encounter during life inspired me to read more beauty in the picture. The loose white attire the couple wore and the flowers that they carried evoked another personal memory of mine, since these objects were highly reminiscent of Bryn Mawr's traditional May Day celebration.

Cézanne's Card Players and Girl carefully balanced between the dark and bright hues of the color spectrum with its shades of blue, gray, brown, green, and red. Three men sat at a table playing cards, their eyes intently focused downward on the game. One man stood in the background, looking onward with his arms folded and a pipe protruding from his lips. Only three of the four men wore hats and had mustaches. The man in the center of the picture appeared much younger than the others because he wore no hat or mustache. They played cards in someone's living room or side room. As they played, a little girl stood next to the young man, eagerly watching the game. Was she one of the men's daughters, or the young man's sister? Her dark, tightly pulled back hair and thin, pale complexion make her look like a boy rather than a girl. Perhaps her dad or brother was trying to win some money for their struggling family, or attempting to win back a treasured family possession that he lost in a previous card game. They may also just be a group of friends playing their usual Friday night card games.

Just like Picasso's painting, I read beauty immediately upon viewing Card Players and Girl. The colors Cézanne used and the overall ambiance of the picture created a very realistic and distinctive portrait; in addition, it was highly unique since card players are not typically portrayed in works of art. As I sat and continued to study the picture, I sensed tension and anxiety among the card players while each sincerely hoped to win the game. Each man also possessed a sense of hope - hope that winning the game would somehow brighten the outlook of his downtrodden life. I thought it beautiful that the relationship aspect presented itself; for example, the part of the picture where the little girl looked over her dad or brother's shoulder to watch his progress. Her interest might have provided some silent encouragement for her loved one. The portrayal of the men and the girl brought back fun memories of my dad, brothers, and myself sitting around a table at night and playing poker games during the holiday season. The game was never my favorite, but it was wonderful to be able to sit down together and share a few laughs (as well as some sighs) over several rounds of card games.

Unlike me, Barnes was by no means a sentimentalist when he studied his paintings. He firmly believed that the aesthetic appreciation of art must be learned by objective methods (which he designed and taught, I might add). He organized his art collection by recognizing similar shapes, colors, themes, and line contours in a particular group of paintings, and then arranging them together on a wall. It did not matter that the paintings were from different time periods or created by different artists; what mattered to him was the similarities and connections among the pictures themselves. When I read a short excerpt from Barnes' book, The Art In Painting, his descriptions of certain artists and their work never contained any references to his personal preferences for a particular painting. The writing was extremely technical and factual – so much, in fact, that it made my own "readings" of the beauty I saw in some of his paintings seem inferior and amateurish. I do appreciate Barnes' serious insistence that we must look at art from a purely impersonal perspective in order to truly perceive the painting; however, if I were to adopt his philosophy, I fear I would lose all of my interest in the fine arts realm, and avoid any interaction with it altogether.

Renoir, Picasso, and Cézanne each painted works of art that my eyes found irresistible to look at. Not only did they appear unique compared with the rest of the paintings in the room, but they also possessed a sense of familiarity about them that I immediately connected with upon viewing the three paintings. The combination of the painting's surface beauty with the beauty that I read deep below its surface highly appealed to my aesthetic perspective. In contrast, Barnes' stance on aesthetic appreciation was much more technical and wholly unsentimental, focused on the painting's surface quality. His method of reading beauty certainly does not suit my own; however, our differences fully demonstrate that no two people perceive beauty in exactly the same way.



Continuing conversation
(to contribute your own observations/thoughts, post a comment below)

05/19/2005, from a Reader on the Web

Alanna Albana wrote a paper that I happened on. I am looking for pictures of women who are reading for my library. This search led me to Ms. Albanna'so thoughtful and insightful writings. I congratulate her on the excellent word pictures. Even though I have not (to my knowledge) seen these paintings, I would recognize them immediately. I have never, before reading this, looked at paintings in this way. My humble congratulations and thank you to Ms. Albanna. I will never be able to look at a painting in the same way, I will read it. Reading is my life's blood, so I will now doubly enjoy these arts.


Additional comments made prior to 2007
The journey of the viewer should keep on going with the eye movement, through out his stay in front of the painting and i guess he should forget the picture as soon as he moves forward. Like not carrying any burden, just moving away with the smile. that reads to me as a beautiful painting ... Sahaj Patel, 21 March 2007