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Beauty,Spring 2005
Third Web Papers
On Serendip

Happiness of Life

Kat McCormick

Reading a picture: I wonder if there is something in the terminology that I am missing, or if, as usual, I’m just being overly careful of words. I imagine print over the painting, examining it with eyes like a typewriter. I describe what I see: Upper left corner, start. Paint the puke yellow color of baby food, equally blob-like and varied. Sharp line into true orange, which continues for a quarter of the canvas. Next, a small hiccup of lime green, barely tipping the upper middle of the painting. Pinkish transition to a downward arc of teal, next a lilac hue, cracked by a bleeding streak of the same bluish gray that provides a final cornerstone to that line. Ding! I begin to understand the difference between form and content, as what I originally meant as a lame joke forces me to examine color in horizontal strips, as separate from what I find my mind always to be turning back to: what the painting is “of”. I discover that only a little more that half of the canvas even has human forms in it- which strikes me as odd, because they were all I could see before. Only a bunch of naked humans, women, having a good frolic under a canopy of trees by a shore. I giggle subversively: Interesting that so many artists of the last century; Matisse, Renoir, Cezanne, have painted on the subject of groups of women all hanging out naked together outside. Matisse calls his work "Le bonheur de vivre" (1)- the happiness (joy) of life. If this is truly the happiness of life, why don’t we do it more often? Wouldn’t it even be considered illegal today? I imagine cops swarming around the naked revelers, frantically writing citations for indecent exposure. When was the last time you had a good naked frolic with some of your friends? I suspect that I have had this pleasure both more recently and more frequently than most, as skinnydipping is one Bryn Mawr tradition that I actively practice. And even I have never gone in daylight.

Art is, as has frequently been noted, subjective- and I suppose my reading of it and preferences for it must also be. As Barnes himself states, “human beings are so constituted as to have preferences, and behind preferences, in the last analysis, we cannot go.” (2) So I wonder if my “reading” of this artwork even matters- I must confess that from the start it has been the subject of this piece that has me captivated. It seems to capture in essence my experience of what it is like to be in a community of women which, by their exclusion of men, is suddenly and deliciously free of the self-consciousness that seems to plague women in the outside world. Women today seem to have lost the concept of the body as their own- adolescents, particularly, seem to think of females bodies exclusively in the context of being viewed by men. But the women in Matisse’s work appear altogether unconscious of any world outside that portrayed, with no hint of shame in their nakedness. They are completely consumed in their own play, and are so freshly lacking that “putting yourself on display” self-consciousness that many nude paintings (and today’s nude photographs) have. My enjoyment of this painting is deeply tied to my own experiences as a student at Bryn Mawr, my enjoyment of which I have always felt was somehow symbolized and amplified by my skinny-dipping experiences. The moonlight scene of the beautiful women, unified by friendship, nakedness, and merrymaking, is so striking. I can think of nothing that so well encompasses what I love about life here. So to me, the title of Matisse’s painting on a similar subject is remarkably appropriate: The happiness of life.

While for me, content is the dominant concept in determining what I find beautiful, I again try to turn my mind from it in order to further examine the form- or as Barnes terms it, the “plastic values” of the painting: “colors, lights and shadows, contours, spatial intervals”. (2) I begin to marvel that these trees look nothing like the trees I see outside myself. Their arbors are purple, orange, yellow and red as well as the more traditional shades of green. They have no individual leaves, and seldom have branches. It occurs to me that this kind of painting might not even require any talent: Maybe I can be a painter too! And yet I have singled this painting of Matisse’s out as among the most beautiful of Barnes’ considerable collection. The abstractions of trees and colors, and even humans are comparable if not beyond the beauty that such an event would yield in the flesh.

The women in the painting have taken on echoes of the same strange hues that arc the landscape around them. A talking pair on the left side- one woman with her arm circling her companion’s neck, the other arm gesturing conversationally – are a light shade of green. The bodies are actually abstractions of bodies, lacking nipples, and in some cases, faces. A woman towards the foreground is a yellowish tint, which contrasts both with the bright red behind her and the string of deep red flowers that flow between her breasts down to her right hip. Her arms fold around her head, cradling her neck as she stretches unabashedly, eyes closed in the enjoyment of (as I imagine it) the sunlight warm upon her particular skin. A green from the crouched figure in front of her bleeds up her legs- in this way, the two forms are connected not only in sharing space, but also in the blending of color. This contrasts with the impression that each woman is completely absorbed in her own world: one woman stretching, the other digging or planting in the dirt.

Peculiarly, I suddenly notice that the grass in the right hand foreground changes from purple to green where the lovers sit on it. They themselves are a pinkish purple, one woman reclining into the kiss of her lover, her arms embracing the neck of the other figure. Theirs is a private moment, as the face of neither is visible, but the two figures are interestingly juxtaposed insofar as the body language of one is so open, and the other so contained. Their neighbor, the lute player, is a deeper shade of purple. While her face is drawn in great detail, the rest of her is rather shapeless, without even the vague outline of breasts. Her apparent attitude is one of introspection, which the other lute player in the distant background shares. While this figure seems to be playing only for herself, altogether unmindful of her preoccupied neighbors, the lovers; the other lute player seems to be playing for the benefit of a pair of grazing sheep.

Central to the painting are a lounging pair of women, one facing toward the viewers and the other away. Each are outlined on the bottom in tones of red, and on the top in deep blue-green. The woman facing us has that same shut-eyed expression of deep satisfaction that can be seen in the small yellow figure to her left. The woman facing away from the viewers seems to be watching, with removed interest expressed in her posture, the circle of dancing women on the shore. Their forms are vague, but are accentuated by the thick lines of red, purple, and blue which outline each of them and contrast with the yellow and orange grass beneath them. The movement of each is pronounced and distinct, bodies aslant, one leg straight and one bent, poised in action for the next step. These figures, although they are in the background, are what truly seems to be the focus of the painting. They are what keeps me comparing inwardly the tone of this painting to my own abstractions of memories, tying form and content together.


1) Matisse, Henri. "Le bonheur de vivre" 1905-1906. The Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA.

2) Barnes, Albert. "The Art In Painting." 1925. The Barnes Foundation Press. Merion, PA.

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