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

Renoir's "The Spring" and "Caryatides"

Krystal Madkins

On my first trip to the Barnes Foundation I was immediately struck by a set of paintings in the first room. These paintings were all by Renoir and seemed to focus on the human form. The moment I laid my eyes on it I had a "Wow!' moment. I was totally taken back by the paintings and even though I saw many other excellent paintings I feel like none compared to the Renoir pieces. Going into the second trip to the Barnes Foundation in order to further study a specific piece of art that was 'beautiful' the three paintings immediately came to mind. Upon first entering the museum I gave the Renoir paintings a glance before walking around the museum to look at other paintings. I was sure that I was exaggerating, in my mind, the beauty of the pieces and that there were far lovelier paintings to behold. Less than twenty minutes later I was chiding myself for not going with my first instinct and I was back where I belonged; in front of Renoir's "The Spring" surrounded by the "Caryatides".

Although it is questionable whether or not the three pieces were to meant to be seen as a set (I have avoided looking at 'authentic' explanations of the paintings) I never saw them any other way. At the Barnes Foundation the paintings, as previously mentioned, are in the first room that visitors typically enter. The center piece, "The Spring," which is rectangular in shape, shows a nude (female of course!) reclining in greenery, in a forest type setting. This piece, which I see as the main panel, is surrounded by two other pieces together labeled as "Caryatides". Each of the pieces, or secondary panels, shows two nudes standing very close together and holding up greenery. The secondary panels are the same except the positions of the nudes are reversed. In the right panel, the auburn haired girl is holding up the overheard greenery with two hands while the brunette uses one hand for the overhead greenery and the other to hold another piece of foliage. The two figures are the main subjects of "Caryatides". They look like they are standing in a marble type recess.

One reason that I think contributes to the beauty of the 'set' of paintings is the symmetry and order (two qualities that I value) that are present. The side panels are of equal size and are the same distance from the main panel. The main panel sits pleasingly between the two panels, placed at the midway point of the length wise edges of the two side panels. The very images are also symmetrical and ordered. In all three pieces the figures are centered. The side panels with the two girls especially show symmetry and balance. The women are of similar heights, weights, and complexions. The side panels, as mentioned before, are almost perfect opposites in terms of the girls' positions. This symmetry breeds order.

The way in which Renoir painted "The Spring" and "Caryatides" also creates order; the strokes are not chaotic but controlled. The strokes also work to create a certain atmosphere in the paintings. The strokes appear to be soft and gentle. The outlines of the figures in the paintings look blurred. These characteristics cause the paintings to have a dreamlike, ethereal tone. This escape into another world, one that is dreamy, one where everything is not so exact or harsh, appeals to the romantic in me. The part that likes to daydream and believe that there is something fantastical about life...that everything is not so ordinary.

The way that the pieces contrast against one another yet produces unity so seamlessly is something that also makes the 'set' more than ordinary. The two side panels contrast against the main panel. The two women in the side panel paintings appear more statue-like and less informal than the woman reclining in the main painting. This could be due in part to the presence of what looks like marble in the side panel paintings. The reclining nude, conversely, is surrounded by a forest. The forest surrounding, in contrast to that of the marble surrounding, is less structured and rigid. The women in the side paintings also seem more structured and rigid than the woman in the center paining. The women in "Caryatides" are working to hold up the greenery. Their hair is also pinned up which is usually taken as a sign of seriousness and 'getting down to business'. The woman in the main painting, however, is resting and in leisure. She has also 'let her hair down', a symbol of her being relaxed. The facial expressions of the three women are also different. The pair of women working to uphold greenery appears content but distracted (by work?). They seem to be focusing on this world; on reality. The reclining nude appears differently. With closed eyes and lips curved into a smile, the nude in the forest looks content and unbothered. She looks like she is not as taken with the world around her as much as she is with another place and the visions that are possibly playing behind her lids. The surroundings that this woman is possibly trying to escape by daydreaming are markedly different from those of the women in the side panels. As it has been mentioned before, these women are surrounded by marble, while the woman in the main panel is surrounded by a forest type setting. The pair of women seems to be more restricted than the woman in the forest. The women who are surrounded by marble also appear as if they are working to insert warmth and a natural type of beauty to their cold surroundings. They are the decorative pieces. The reclining nude blends in with her surroundings. She is a part of the beauty of the setting. Her naked form is not necessary to lend the piece 'natural' beauty nor does she have to hold up greenery.

The individual paintings also have their own unique contrasting qualities. For example, in "Caryatides" the warm color of the women's skin and the roundness of their body are in contrast to the cool, rigid nature of the marble recess in which they stand. In "The Spring" the warm colors, pinks and reds for instance, of the nude's body contrasts to the cooler colors, blues and greens, of her surroundings. There is also a white cloth on which the nude reclines which contrasts with the colors of the forest surrounding. The contrasts in all three pieces, in my opinion, are not too great to cause chaos in the pictures. The contrasts instead work to bring attention to the human forms in the paintings.

While I have mentioned other factors that I think help create the beauty in these three Renoir pieces, I think the way that the human body is depicted is the most beautiful thing about these paintings. Tying in with the earlier mentioned importance of symmetry, the bodies of the nudes are symmetrical and proportional. The bodies are beautiful in all their roundness, curves, and healthy 'peaches and cream' complexion. The mixture of various colors used for the bodies of the nudes gives the bodies a life-like quality or 'glow,' one which may not have come through so successfully if only one color or two colors were used for to paint the bodies. The figures also seem to have a certain grace and fluidity in their movements. This is probably due to all the curved lines and brush strokes. As I sat in front of and studied the three pieces I thought it funny the way that beauty of the human figure is viewed today. Although many people have told me that I have an enviable figure (I'm tall and very slender) I thought the voluptuous curves of the painted nudes much more beautiful and enviable. I tried to imagine the painting with women who have a body type closer to mine and grimaced at how different and less attractive the paintings would be.

The voluptuous shape of the nudes in "The Spring" and "Caryatides" may not be as applauded today as when Renoir painted them, but their bodies are as idealized as the figures that are sought today. The nudes in the paintings are youthful and have lively, healthy complexions. Their bodies are curvy (appealing because indicates the bodies' preparedness to birth children?) and in proportion. Their bodies are also hairless, something which today continues to be viewed as feminine and genteel, and their breasts are perky, another possible indicator of their youth. Their idealized bodies may make it easier to find the paintings beautiful. In regards to other paintings, such as Van Gogh's "Nude Woman, Reclining," the less than romanticized body is not mentioned so much for its beauty as much as its shocking nature or down right ugliness. The woman in Van Gogh's painting does not look youthful like the women in Renoir's set. Her body is missing the rosy complexion seen in "The Spring" and "Caryatides" and her face is less likely to be regarded as pretty. The reclining nude in this piece also looks to be less proportionate than the figures in the Renoir pieces. Added on to these 'faults' are the presence of hair, sagging breasts, and a reclining pose that somehow appears vulgar. Leaving the Barnes foundation I heard more than one person mention the unsightly Van Gogh 'prostitute' painting. It is fortunate that the nudes in the Renoir piece have idealized bodies that are generally still viewed as appropriate lest they be viewed as unsightly prostitutes too.

Renoir's "The Spring" and "Caryatides" struck me the first time I saw them and continue to leave me in awe. Whether looking at the paintings on a completely superficial level or studying them to try to understand what makes the paintings so beautiful, their appeal does not diminish. The dreaminess and romantic nature of the paintings had a rather positive impact on me. I find it interesting how the things that are appreciated in a painting can reveal so much about the viewer.

| 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