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Beauty,Spring 2005
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Reading a Painting

Alice Stead

As I reflected on the paintings I enjoyed the most at the Barnes Foundation, I noticed that many of them gave me a sense of nostalgia. It was a strange mixture of the initial wonder at seeing the painting for the first time, and feeling like it was something I knew and already held close to my heart. The pieces that spoke to me especially were images that evoked memories of summer for me. This may have been because it was a cold winter day and all I wanted was summer, but I do not really know why I was so drawn to these types of paintings. Cezanne's work especially felt this way to me; but, there was another piece that I felt even closer to, and it is the piece about which I chose to write this paper.

The painting that I fell in love with the first time I saw it was a piece by Glackens; I knew when I saw it that it was the painting I wanted to write about. It is a painting that could easily be passed by and not noticed; it is placed high on the wall above a doorway, but something drew me to it. It is not a particularly distinguished painting, and it is certainly not very well known. I do not even know anything about the painter Glackens, but it does not seem important at the Barnes Foundation. In fact, I am not entirely sure that Glackens is the artist. But at the Barnes, these labels that seem to matter so much at other museums, do not matter here. It matters how you see the painting. It is for this reason that I did not go research the artist. The picture I chose is very peaceful; it made me want to be inside of it rather than standing in the museum. I think a piece has to be very moving for me to want to enter its world. This feeling does not happen with every painting I love, but this painting evoked that feeling for me.

At first glance, the bright colors stand out, and it has a very serene ambience. It looks like a perfect summer day; there are mothers in their cool, white linen dresses, sitting by the enticing blue water while their children swim and play. One woman sits on the grass a little bit behind in a red dress under a red umbrella and reads a book. There are some boys cooling off in the clear, crisp water; some playing, some swimming on their backs. One boy balances precariously on a row boat, minutes away from taking a plunge into the water. This painting tells us this is not a day for working. Right away, it brings you into that day as if you are no longer in the museum, but one of those boys in the water or women in the sun. Nearby is some freshly done laundry hanging on a line that blows in the soft, warm breeze. Missing from the painting are any men; there are boys, but no men. I think this gives the painting an easiness that might night otherwise be there; at this time, men are reminders of work, and this is not what the painting is about. It is about forgetting all of one's real life for one afternoon. These are my superficial reactions to the painting; I see this story come to life, but the closer I look, the more I am able to move beyond the image and see some more of the compositional elements in the painting.

The forefront of the painting is about curves; the lines are all very soft; the grey barn-like building near the water has a curved roof. The bridge over the stream is curved as well; even the woman sitting in the grass has the umbrella, which also has the same soft, curved lines. This corresponds to the expression of the women and children; the soft, easiness of the lines reflects the relaxation of the people. In the background, however, there are dark houses with sharp lines; these evoke the idea of work and chores, in which this type of easiness is not present. But, the houses are off in the distance, just as the thought of them are in the minds of these bathers.

The next thing that struck me about the painting was the use of the colors. Having taken a drawing class recently, I find that I now appreciate color in a completely different way. Even paintings that I would not have given a second thought before now have become more interesting to me, primarily because I now understand the colors. That is to say, when I look at a painting, and I see skin, for example, I no longer see a solid peach color. I see reds, oranges, and greens that all fuse together to give the skin its beautiful tonality. The same is true for everything else, including buildings, water, the sky, etc. For example, the water in this painting looks to be, at first glance, blue; however as you begin to look closer, the color that becomes most evident is the purple. There is literally more purple in the water than blue; it is a soft purple, with accents of periwinkle. There is, of course, some blue and aquamarine, but it is predominantly purple; this layering of colors gives the water texture. The soft purple also works to contrast nicely with the lime green grass. I also noticed that the womens' white dresses were in fact a light blue, which I did not notice until I got very close to it. Even the grey barn-like building has many shades of grey, and even some forest green. These colors, at least to me the first time I noticed them, are surprising. I was amazed to find so many different colors in things that I thought were just one solid color. The color is also used to juxtapose the foreground and the background; it is the bright, summery colors versus the very dark colors.

Next I noticed the placement of people and objects because of their colors. This is what makes the piece interesting. For example, the red capped swimmer in the water is a nice focal point in the painting, and our attention is drawn to it because of the bright red in contrast to the soft color of the water. The woman with the umbrella in the grass is not wearing a white dress because the contrast between the red of her dress and the green of the grass is much more interesting. These are decisions the artist makes; they are not coincidental.

Part of the reason I enjoyed this painting so much was because it was fun. I do enjoy other paintings that have a more serious tone, but on this day I loved this painting. I connected to it because it showed a story that intrigued me; it was a day that I felt I had already experienced. This is what I mean when I had a sense of nostalgia when I saw the painting. It was the first time I was seeing the painting, but the image was something that I felt like I had already experienced at some point, and Glackens had chosen to capture it.

It is when I see all of the elements I discussed come together that the composition becomes a whole. As my eye sees it from a distance, and then moves around the painting, searching for these things, I begin to understand the painting. Once I see the piece close up, my mind zooms out, and I see all of these details within the larger picture. I see the image first, then just the lines and curves, and then just splotches of colors, until I can again see the entire image. It is a fascinating process that my eye goes through every time I look at a painting. The assignment of "reading" a painting in an apt one, because that is what people do when they look at paintings. "Looking" at a painting is, in some ways, too passive a description of the process. Reading implies a little more analysis of the painting than looking does. When your eyes search the canvas for meaning and compositional elements, it is equivalent of reading a book for these same purposes.

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