This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Beauty,Spring 2005
Third Web Papers
On Serendip

On Paintings, Human Experience, and Beauty

Elizabeth Newbury

Seascape by Van Goven

Muddy, but bright. The landscape was made of two contrasting halves. The top portion, a brilliant blue sky with soft cotton clouds, met with the bottom, a dark, brown landscape that looked like it had been scooped from the bottom of some animal stall on a rainy day. This was what pulled me in, this contrast, bright against dark. Yet the painting only caught my eye initially since it was unique in the room, being the only landscape. I have a fetish for landscapes, in the way that I always notice them when I walk into an art gallery. I did not recognize the name, Van Goven, and the title of bland title of "Seascape" added further to the anonymity of its source, and hence my intrigue. I had no preconceptions as to its greatness, and I could relish it for what it was.

The colors reminded me of a cold New England day. The sky was the shade of bright blue that you see in the winter in Vermont, the clouds rolling grandly as if to foretell of great magnitude surrounding the subject of the painting. I was a bit disappointed when my eye scanned the rest of the artwork, and found nothing particularly pivotal within the confines of the canvas. Indeed, it was a simple scene, with the solid line of horizon only interrupted by the peak of a tower. Or at least, I construed it to be a tower after a moment of pondering, having dismissed my first impression of it being a castle. No doubt the grand labor of the swirling clouds made me think that I was looking at landscape depicting a dramatic Medieval battle. But standing close to the canvas, the castle became a tower as I picked out the fisherfolk dotting the landscape. There were no knights or lords on white horses, no damsels in distress. The only remote resemblance of such a scene was the lone cannon perched on the hill with the tower. However, this cannon seemed a bit rusty.

Wary of my proximity to the canvas, I strayed closer to get a better taste of the scene. On the right hand side different shades of brown formed a countryside, as one might find near a small lake, with the steeple of a church off in the distance. To the left of the tower, muted blues, once again heavy with brown, formed the waves of the sea. In my mind, it was the kind of sea that would be a fine day for fishing, and there was nothing moving about it. On top of the sea, there were a number of small sailboats and schooners, fitting in well with the fishing village atmosphere. In the distance, a line of trees to mark the continuation of the land, while in the foreground one of the boats was just docking. Or at least, I presumed that the crew was tying their sailboat to a 'dock', but it did take me a little while to see how the sliver of brown could be a dock. At first I thought they were just tying the boat up to some more mud.

I didn't allow the overuse of brown to dissuade me, though. I relished the fact that I had to look for pizzaz in the painting. Most of the other paintings that were in the room were upfront about what made them special, particularly the Renoirs with their bright colors and fat-cheeked children. Prior to finding this painting, I was searching for something that spoke to my own personality. When my sixth sense for landscapes alerted me to the presence of the "Seascape", and I went to investigate it, I found it easy to relate to this very earthy, quiet painting. I could stand there, like a child breathing against a candy shop's display window, and bask in the tranquil moment that Van Groven captured. There was always something new for my eye to pick out. For instance, after a few minutes of absorbing the countryside, my eye began to pick out little snippets of color that Van Groven had painstakingly worked into the painting. Over there, a red flag, while just a few inches away a lady was wearing a skirt in the same hue of red. The foliage began to stand out against the brown, and I noticed how artfully the furl of the sail was made. The textures found in the folds of clothing, the shape of the boat, the fluff of a dog's fur, all of these and more brought this little fishing township to life, until I could almost taste the salt on my tongue and hear the slight lap of water off in the distance.

While I reflected on this sensory input, I mused about what really led to this experience. Was it the use of color? It was certainly realistic, drawing from the color pallette I had always associated with my father's New England heritage: natural, earthy, muddy colors that I wanted to roll around in. Or perhaps it was the detail? From the furl of the clouds to the hat on a fisherman, I could pick out all sorts of nuances that added to the nearly photographic quality of the painting. It was, in a sense, a slice of life, a quality I find to be quiet beautiful in art. Nothing is more beautiful to me than the human experience. But was this all that made this painting beautiful?

Curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to hunt out another painting to offer as a contrast.

"Interior Scene", artist unknown

The first thing I felt when I saw this painting was culture shock. In this tiny room on the first floor of the Barnes museum, where the walls were covered with crosses and Christian motifs, there was a Chinese silk painting from the Ming dynasty. Staring at the painting, I couldn't even fathom how a painting of four women, muted in both color and emotion, could possibly fit in with the other artwork in the room. Once again my actions were ruled by curiosity, and I ventured forth to give it a careful investigation.

While with the "Seascape" I simply allowed myself to experience the painting, I decided this time to use a more investigative approach. My reasoning, which proved to be true, was that I would be unable to find such an anonymous painting on the internet, and that the bookshop would have nothing that I could use as a reference. Ergo, it was imperative for me to not simply relish the painting, but also systematically describe it. I worked from left to right, cataloguing all of the items that were in the painting. The mundane details would bore you, for I literally took pages of notes on everything from the angle that a face was turned to the texture of of their clothing or the color of a teapot. I found it amazing how much information I could pull out of a painting that, to the casual observer, would seem extremely plain in comparison to the landscape that I had just come from.

The subject matter of the painting is fairly easy to explain. The canvas was brown; not the same muddy brown as Van Goven, but a sort of light, tawny brown. There were very few items on the canvas itself. A table, a bed, a shelving unit, a pair of stools and a chair comprised all of the furniture of this scene. It was only by the presence of furniture that one could deduce that this was, indeed, inside. Everything, from the furniture to the women, seemed to be suspended in the air in a room with no walls. This feature of the painting bothered me, and detracted from the beauty of the scene.

The women themselves were what made the painting beautiful, and not due to me finding them outstandingly beautiful aesthetically. Their faces were paler than snow, and they wore robes that seemed to hang heavily from their shoulders and arms. In fact, it bothered me that the most visible movement, in the classical Western sense of the word, was entirely in the clothing, for the women's bodies and all of the furniture seemed frozen. Also, they seemed to have no feet, their bodies narrowing in tiny little folds of clothing, making me flinch as I remembered that generations of women were victims of foot binding. Yes, indeed, from the Ming dynasty perspective, these women were beyond beautiful from the top of their jet black hair to their white faces, down their heavy robes to their bound feet.

Yet none of this appealed to me. For me, the beauty lay with how I could imagine the social hierarchy in the room, and the conversation that was taking place. The entire scene seemed to be happening within a shop of some variety, with the owner of the shop having tea with a patron at the table. The patron, standing in front of the seated shop owner, was not pleased. You could tell because she had raised a single finger eloquently at the patron. Looking closely at their garments, There was a difference in their clothing and hair that made these two ladies stand out from the others in the painting who. These remaining two were not dressed as richly as the patron and the owner, and had only ponytails and brown robes in contrast to the elaborate buns and colorful clothing that the wealthier women displayed. One of the brown-clad women was standing off to the side, hovering near the shop owner as if to wait for an order. The last was fanning the fire.

I empathized with this last woman. Standing apart from the others, daring to glance over her shoulder to witness the quarrel between the two older women, she seemed to be more isolated then just the physical proximity could account for. Here she was, at the bottom of the social hierarchy, in a decade when women were already inferior to men, waiting on a shopkeeper. She seemed so young, and so simple, with her ponytail and plain robes. I knew from history records that, if she did not die of exhaustion, plague, or a number of other maladies that were rampant in her lifetime, she would be forced into a marriage, and become a servant of her husband. It was a sad existence, a slice of life that both cruel and beautiful at the same instant. Beautiful, because I knew that these women were in the past, and that it was through their struggles that we the freedom we have today.

But I lost the urge to play detective.

| Course Home Page | Course Forum | Science in Culture | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:34 CDT