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Beauty,Spring 2005
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Once upon a time...

Meera Jain

Once upon a time...

The cobblestone streets are busy as drivers make their way through, carrying goods from the local stores; three luxurious dresses made of taffeta silk in sherbet colors, fresh cheese imported from France, an ice-cream churner with butter, milk and vanilla extract, all being taken to 2455 Sherwood Place.

Mary, Alice and Jane are three sisters living in Tuxedo Park, New York in 1904. It is summer and the days are filled with early swims in the backyard pool, afternoon croquet matches against the neighborhood children and evening strolls after a meal of finely cut meat and imported French cheese. The Whitaker sisters are home for the summer after spending their academic year at a private all-women's institution in Pennsylvania. Last year they studied proper dressing techniques, tableside manners, and history of art during the renaissance period combined with French literature.

It was July 3, 1904 and the family was in preparation for their annual July 4th soiree. Prestigious neighboring families and businessmen were coming to celebrate Independence Day with the Whitaker family and to possibly set up their eligible sons with the two single sisters, Mary and Alice.

The oldest of three, Mary age 22, has always been a more of a rebel in the family. She began her schooling one year later than normal after eloping with the milkman's son and had to be enticed to returning home. Although a very caring person, she desires attention and is usually the focus of any conversation. The middle sister, Alice age 20, is very shy and introverted. Her father has never been very attentive to her; she has been in the shadow of her other sisters. Jane is the youngest of three, age 18 who upon first glance is extremely beautiful and friendly. Jane is considered the prize of the family; she has excelled at horseback riding, English and poetry and has a steady boyfriend who attends a famous Ivy League university.

What surprises most about these three young girls is that six years ago they lost their mother and youngest sibling to childbirth complications. The family has had a difficult time coping with the empty feeling and the father never recovered and devotes his time to his law practice, alienating the three daughters. The young daughters have become distant since the incident; all three are dreading the social event that will take place this afternoon. The three are sitting in their room, reminiscing about happier times and outside their large ceiling to floor window, a party is taking place. In the garden, women are laughing, children are running and men are enjoying a cigar. Luckily, the guests cannot see inside because the sisters are sitting undressed and dejected in their dressing room.

No words are exchanged between the three, as there is a heavy feeling in the air as Beethoven is heard from the record player. Clothes are strewn all over the floor, expensive parasols from France lie haphazardly against a cushion. Mary is standing in the center upset and disgusted by her father's idea of throwing a party when her mother is still being mourned while Alice wants to return to her bedroom to finish "The Fountainhead" and Jane wishes to return to her intellectually stimulating environment with her boyfriend.

The sisters have emerged from their baths given by the maidservant Luisa and are taking their time getting dressed in their expensive dresses, their porcelain faces are powdered and rouged, and their curly orange hair is pinned up high on their head. Alice and Jane are seated and hunched over, obviously distressed at this afternoon's party and Mary appears disconcerted and confused. Their room is of an ornate nature; sponge painted lilac walls, rich Persian carpet beneath their feet and Monet prints framed on the wall. The large window has a beautiful view overlooking the garden and fountains, and many afternoons have been spent outside in the garden.

Mary, Alice and Jane are going to face the music and enter the party with smiling faces and ladylike attitudes, how can they not please their father who has been their steady rock since the tragic event? What happened in the past must be forgotten and they have to act as if they are ready to move on and look for love in new places.

While trying to "read the picture" I embarked on an imaginative route and decided that Models by George Seurat can be read like a storybook. The painting has a story-telling nature to it, even though it is just one image. Staring at the painting, and trying to decipher what Seurat wanted the reader to understand, I thought of my own meaning. The three women in the painting are sisters and visibly upset that their father is throwing Independence Day party, when they are still in mourning. Reading this painting is a daunting task, because there are no words, subliminal messages or literary references and I have to create the setting, characters, climax and outcome. However, it is inspiring to create a story that entwines all elements of the painting and can give a detailed description of what is seen.

Whenever I see a painting for a long period of time, my mind starts to wander and question what the artist wanted to describe and I start to fabricate a story about it. I thoroughly believe that "reading" Models can be interpreted in different ways based on each person's experiences and how it relates their life. My story came right to me when I glanced at the painting and I embellished it more as I could see realness. I became more intrigued and imagined the figures becoming alive with motion, like sisters discussing the outfits they would be wearing or actually hearing Beethoven come from the painting. It is a more rich sensual experience that gives the "reader" a hunger to return to the painting.

George Seurat has a pointillism technique because he disliked broad brushstrokes and by painting little "points" of one on the canvas he made the viewer mix the colors visually. In Models, he includes a portion of another one of his famous paintings, A Sunday afternoon on La Grande Jatte, and I "read" that La Jatte was actually a view of the guest in the garden party. What makes this experience so beautiful is that Seurat leaves me to interpret his paintings into words and give another perspective through storytelling. The reason I chose to "read" his painting as a story was because after discussing our beautiful texts and the lengthy discussions that followed I feel pictorial beauty comes alive with the transformation of a visual picture into words.

I feel a closer connection to the artist and his masterpiece because I apply my interests and personality to his characters and help them come out of the one scene mold. It is this way that paintings appeal to my taste, otherwise they are just pieces of paper on a wall and physically appeasing to see but now there is drama, love triangles, twists and happiness which interest my enthusiasm for storytelling. I chose such a detailed scene and gave the sisters descriptive personalities because of their positions in the painting. For example, Mary was deemed conceited and attention seeking because she stands in the center of the painting, where as Alice is cowering in the left-hand corner and is therefore shy. While "reading" such a beautiful painting, I felt the need to intertwine human emotions of love; lust, death, and sacrifice give another "reader" such a powerful experience.

"Reading" his work I was drawn instinctively to the women and could put myself right there and believed my analysis to be the best way to "read" his painting. It seemed such a perfect "reading" of it, each idea ebbed into another and soon I was creating a story. The characters stance and appearance grabbed my attention and resonated a specific emotion, but I also interpreted many things in the room and added them to my "reading" of the painting, the richly colored fabrics mean they are wealthy, and the parasols imported from Europe all tie into a beautiful storybook tale.

I think "reading" a painting occurs after in depth analysis and concentration, although each person might "read" the painting differently, it is the variations that make the painting an even more beautiful experience. However, when I glance at this painting again, the story will come to my head and force me to pause and examine Seurat's work closer and maybe interpret a new meaning, which is the positive result of previously "reading" a painting. It is a more effective way to experience "beauty", because the experience is each person's own and no one has to know how you "read" the painting. Therefore, the beauty of his painting can come to one based on each persons individuality and is left to be interpreted. This is what a beautiful painting should be regarded as, a subjective "reading".

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