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Beauty,Spring 2005 Third Web Papers On Serendip

On "Girl with a Basket of Oranges"

Brittany Pladek


Brittany Pladek

CSEM Essay #3

On "Girl With a Basket of Oranges," Auguste Renoir, 1880


Years later, a critic looking at her portrait would explain: "She glows because all of his paintings glow." Not true. All of his paintings glow: true. She glows: also true. Only the causation is faulty. Renoir was a painter---he captured light, not bequeathed it. She glowed, and the world refracted into rainbows around her.

Pretend it is 1880. The artist strolls along the blue-flanked beaches of southern France. He is 39. With the coming of middle age, the Impressionist fire has begun to die out. The world is slowly bleaching: after 1880, he will constrict his palette to only five colors. But not quite yet. Today he has come to the shore seeking inspiration. As we know from a later Irish writer, the muse of Beauty has a weakness for beach-walks. In 1900 she perused the cold white sands near Dublin, her thighs tattooed provocatively with sea-weed. Today her mood is milder. Clad patriotically in a tricolor skirt, she ambles serenely across the dunes, her lambent, languid eyes held skyward, swinging a basket of oranges. She glows.

Prism, n: "A transparent body of this form, often of glass and usually with triangular ends, used for separating white light passed through it into a spectrum or for reflecting beams of light." Any good scientist will tell you that color doesn't really exist. It's a heist on our aesthetic sense carried out by our eyes and the sun. Light touches an object, and its molecules either suck it up or hurl it out. The flung photons enter our eyes, hitting one of three receptors---red, blue, or green---and lighting it up like a bulb on a pinball machine. Prisms are particularly devious players of this game. They capture white light, and, after dicing it neatly into a palette, broadcast it to our hungry eyes. The result is the visible spectrum, a sight so beautiful that even midlife-crisis Renoir, with his five colors and distrust of chrome yellow, could not deny it.

This girl is a prism. The artist catches sight of her just as he's cresting a sand dune. He has to blink at first---she's too bright. Her oranges glow like small suns with molten cores. They confuse the lighting: her shadow, blue and insignificant despite the sun, flits uncertainly behind her, and the folds in her skirt do not fall as they should. They are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. The skirt is white. Simultaneously. In the artist's eyes, his receptors are revolting, trying to organize the colors into a palette he understands. They fail: her skirt remains stubbornly iridescent.

She glows.

Like the eye of a wild hurricane of photons, she whips the seascape around her (as the critic pointed out) into "an ethereal fuzz." The area immediately around her hazes, as nowadays rainbow clouds encircle fluorescent lamps. She carries her world with her, eternally imprisoned within a metre-wide bubble of her own self-produced light. (One artist would later define this space as "some new world, fantastic, dim, uncertain as under sea, traversed by cloudy shapes and beings." Another would simply blur the edges of her portrait). No part of her remains a single color. Each step reveals a different facet, a different fracturing of light. Her cheeks are warm and red, but green too. Her oranges are blue in places. The sand beneath her purples; the sky behind her browns.

This artist's receptors finally just give up. She walks away in beauty, splintering light as she goes. A living, breathing example of the unreality of reality, the impossibility of color. A completely subjective being, a prism, a prison for light which divides as it slides through the bars. Trapped within herself, she can only be defined by those outside, watching her kaleidoscope roll slowly across the beach.

(A digression for the subject's sake: capturing beauty is rewarding work. Being beauty is much harder. Artists don't often realize this. We must give the writer credit for his frankness: "her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance... long, long she suffered his gaze.")

As for Renoir, he simply flies home to paint.

Impressionism, n: "A theory or style of painting originating and developed in France during the 1870s, characterized by concentration on the immediate visual impression produced by a scene and by the use of unmixed primary colors and small strokes to simulate actual reflected light." As he scrambles for his brushes, the colors ricochet through his mind. The immediate visual impression is no longer immediate: Beauty has carried her oranges over the hill, and her light sets redly behind the dunes. His fickle photo-receptors have released the colors like bright birds into the caves of his memory, and they fly there, shining---for a while. The moment is gone. The key word is simulate. He fences against the canvas, against time.

But at last he sets down the brushes and there she is: a portrait that, as the critic notes, glows. "Renoir was a genius with pigment," she says, with a fond familiarity that can only come 125 years later. "The rosy hue of his girls' cheeks has never been recreated."

She smiles up at the painting, basking in the light of those cheeks. Though the critic's eyes are in the right place, her causation is still wrong. The prism doesn't come from the pigment. Mixing light (as do prisms) and mixing paint (as do artists) are two vastly different endeavors. Squeeze together two tubes of blue and orange in the hopes of creating luminescent fruit, and all you'll achieve is a rotten banana---at best. The Impressionists understood this. They refused to mix their primaries because nature refuses to mix hers. Light, color, are a thousand tiny photons against the eye, a thousand splintering brush-strokes on a canvas. Every hue is unique, solitary, fractal (n: "A geometric pattern that is repeated at ever smaller scales to produce irregular shapes and surfaces that cannot be represented by classical geometry. Fractals are used especially in computer modeling of irregular patterns and structures in nature).

Renoir understood prisms. To paint them, you must recreate them. The painting, like the girl, must be a spectral hurricane: a hundred different colors at once, flakes bound so tightly that they give the illusion of unity. Load the eyes with photons until the receptors surrender. Load the canvas with color until itself is a prism, reflecting every possible hue, until itself seems to radiate light. Daub the cheeks with green until roseate. Line the oranges with blue until radiant.

Color the world until it glows.



Sources utilized:

"Prism," "Impressionism," "fractal." The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth
Edition. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: The Viking Press, 1972.

Sharon's presentation on color:

The comments of a nearby tour guide at the Barnes :)

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