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Beauty,Spring 2005
Third Web Papers
On Serendip

Reading "The Woman at Work"

Kara Rosania

I have always been a fan of Claude Monet. When I walked into the Barnes Foundation, however, I vowed to be unimpressed by any of his work. Of course, I broke my vow immediately upon seeing a Monet painting rendering a woman sitting in front of a large window working at something on a table in front of her.

The first thought I had while looking at the painting was that the woman seems very content to be doing whatever it was she was doing. With her head down and her hand poised, she is completely focused on her task. She seems very comfortably settled in her high-backed, cushioned chair, with her full dress flowing around her in large, rich folds of fabric.

She sits in a recessed room framed by two long curtains, the nearer of the two in the foreground of the painting. The curtains are open, but still seem to suggest that she is in a private place, her own little world. She is also surrounded by large, leafy plants, which also seem to shelter her from the rest of the world. One might get the feeling that she was imprisoned if it were not for the large, unscreened window that spans the back wall of the room. The window is also the source of light for the scene, which illuminates everything but the foreground. After considering the actual subject matter of the painting, I began to think more about form and technique. I noticed the majority of the painting consisted mostly of greens and blues, with some accents of red and orange. I know from my elementary school art classes that red and green/ blue and orange are complimentary colors, and as such are most eye-catching. I realized that these color combinations, which occur throughout the painting in almost every object, are what initially attracted my attention to it.

The other thing that was so eye-catching about the piece was the style in which it was painted. Monet is an impressionist, so he tends to use simple colors and small strokes to create the overall appearance of what he is painting. The juxtaposition of colors to create one shade of blue in the woman's dress, for example, adds depth and interest to it. The tiny brush strokes used in the leaves of the large plants in the foreground, as well as the apron the woman in wearing, provides a sense of texture that otherwise would not be felt. There is even intricate detail in the colors and patterns of the walls and floor. All of this detail creates a painting which holds the viewer's attention, simply because there is so much to look at.

Another quality that was aesthetically pleasing to me was how symmetrical the painting was. The woman is perfectly framed in the center of the painting as the subject. The curtains on both sides, and the trees above her head, frame her.

The viewer of the painting can make several inferences about the woman just from the details of the painting. For example, the abundant use of green in this painting may be representative of life and vitality, suggesting that this woman possesses these qualities. The way that the room is decorated, as well as the style of the woman's dress, indicates that this is a woman of reasonably high economic status. The vases that the plants are kept in are large and intricately decorated. The mere fact of having plants kept indoors demonstrates the level of luxury that this woman lives in. The fact that she leads such a comfortable life leads one to believe that whatever work she is doing so intently must be voluntary.

The viewer of the painting also feels as though she is intruding; observing a very personal moment that most do not. The woman seems lost in her embroidery, perhaps embracing this craft as an escape from more distressing tasks and thoughts.

The scene is a peaceful one, mostly due to the quiet light in the room. It is not bright enough to be intrusive, but a soft yellow that adds warmth to the scene. One can imagine by looking at the painting how comfortable it must be to sit in its glow. The light comes from the window in the back of the painting, drawing attention to it. Perhaps the viewer is encouraged to think about what the window represents. The window might also be symbolic of the woman's freedom. She is free to do as she pleases. She does this work because she enjoys it, not because she has to.

As I looked at the woman in this beautiful scene, I began to envy her. She leads such a comfortable, privileged life where she does housework simply for her own enjoyment. The title of the painting tells us that she is embroidering, which isn't even a necessary household chore. It is a frivolous way to spend her time, which will result only in making her life a little bit prettier. Not many have the luxury of time to spend making their lives more aesthetically pleasing. Most people work in order to survive, but this woman does not have to worry about such practical things.

As I thought about my jealousy of this woman, I began to realize that my fascination with the painting had a great deal to do with a personal connection I felt with the woman. At the time that I saw this painting, I was feeling completely overwhelmed by everything that was going on in my life. It was my birthday, and I had to somehow manage to get all my homework done that weekend while still having time to celebrate with friends. It was a pleasant problem, but I couldn't help feeling like life was becoming complicated. It was a comfort to me to see this woman, seemingly without a care in the world, completely absorbed in a task that had no real meaning. If she made a mistake on a stitch, she wouldn't be chastised. If it took her a year to complete, no one would complain. The embroidery was for her, and her alone.

I find, as I get older, there are less and less opportunities to do things purely for your own enjoyment. And yet, here is a full-grown woman who seems to have no responsibilities or hardships. She makes me want a small, well-lit room of my own where I can shut out the rest of the world and do what makes me happiest. I know I would most likely be bored or frustrated by such a life, but it's nice to consider every once in a while.

I felt that it was very important to be able to look at this piece with complete objectivity. I can certainly understand why Barnes preferred to show pieces without the titles next to them. As soon as I learned the title of the painting, my entire perspective changed.

The painting I observed was called The Woman at Work (Camille Monet Embroidering. There were two things about this title that surprised me. First of all, I had no idea that the woman in the painting was Monet's wife. The fact that she was painted by her husband, and thus with a great deal of affection, added a whole new dimension to the scene. There is an emotional connection between the subject and the artist that leaves no room for misrepresentation. I no longer saw this woman as mysterious and elusive, but as an open book. She is not hiding from the world in this little room. In fact, she seems to welcome being painted, and is so little disturbed that she doesn't even bother to look up from her stitching.

The second thing about the title that struck me was that the woman was "at work."
To me, she hardly seemed as though she were doing work. She seemed to be enjoying the project in front of her. I wondered if perhaps Monet, from the perspective of a man, simply assumed the task of embroidery would be arduous, and even burdensome. It might not have occurred to him that his wife could be happily occupied with what she was doing. However, if he was right and this really was work to his wife, then I was looking at the woman completely wrong. I may have mistaken her pursed lips for devoted concentration when in fact they were due to frustration. Her slanted posture may have had more to do with the strain in her eyes than an eagerness to make a precise stitch.

Understanding more about some of the factual underpinnings of the painting simply by learning the title, did not ruin the experience for me, nor did it lessen my fondness for the piece. A painting is an inanimate object that comes alive through the viewer's imagination as well as through the artist's projections. I enjoyed the freedom to speculate about the work and to make my own assumptions about the subject matter and significance of the painting, regardless of my new awareness of the fact that the woman was the artist's wife. I was able to appreciate this painting through the lens of my own unique experience and reflections. I saw a reflection of myself in the woman, and thus had a more personal connection with the painting, which was essential for my experience of beauty.

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