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Beauty,Spring 2005 Third Web Papers On Serendip

Reading a Painting: Femme se promenant dans une foret exotique

Rebecca Donatelli

I walked into the center of the room and turned around to see the paintings on the wall behind me. I instantly knew the painting in front of me would be the subject of my paper. This particular painting caught my eye because unlike the numerous Renoir and Manet paintings I had seen that day the colors were bold and the lines were concrete. It looked like it might have come from a child's picture book rather then someone's life experience. It was a picture of a woman in a white dress and hat standing in the middle of a rainforest but what was interesting is that she was not the focal point of the painting. She was tiny and placed near the bottom of the painting surrounded by luscious tropical vegetation. The trees were at least five times bigger than she was and she was partially hidden behind the leaves of plants whose bright blue flowers rose far above her head.

Looking closer at the trees there was a type of orange exotic fruit hanging from the branches. "Do oranges grow in the rainforest?" I questioned and "Are those blue flowers Gerber daisies?" My entire perspective of the picture changed. This woman was not in the rain forest but in an extremely tall grove of orange trees. The painting was like a fantasy in which a woman goes on safari and finds herself in a grove of magical orange trees that perhaps had never been discovered by man. This interpretation went well with the storybook like painting technique the artist had utilized. The objects in the painting appeared flat and their shapes were distinct unlike the objects in the Monet paintings which had softer, blended lines. The colors the artist used were simple. The leaves of the trees and the grasses were only made up of two or three shades of green unlike the greenery in the other paintings that was painted with dozens of colors all blended together.

I sat in front of the painting for a while longer but something about my previous interpretation of the painting was not quite right. The painting did not seem to belong in a storybook after all. It was not that the painting was sad but that it was not cheerful. Then it hit me. The trees were the right size. The woman was tiny. She was maybe six inches tall standing in a garden. She was so small and insignificant in that garden that it made the whole world around her seem enormous. This realization gave me butterflies in my stomach and my heart raced. The artist painted this to illustrate how small he felt.

The connection I felt with this painting was very strong because there are many times I feel like the little woman, so insignificant just peeking out at the world. Almost unnoticeable and glanced over if people aren't looking hard enough. It is almost as though she is hiding behind the leaves of the plant afraid to step out into the foreground of the picture because she is so overwhelmed by her surroundings. As a sophomore in college, it is tempting to run and hide because when looking at the opportunities and possibilities just ahead, the world seems enormous.

This painting is beautiful on many different levels. It is visually beautiful because of its form and color. As previously discussed in class and in the forum it is beautiful things are often because of a mental connection between the object and the viewer. I have connected with this painting because I can relate to this feeling of insignificance. However, the most beautiful part of this painting it the various interpretations it can have even by just one observer. In a matter of a few minutes I experienced this painting three ways until I arrived at the interpretation that I most deeply connected with. Having knowledge of a painting before it is viewed taints the viewer's experience of the painting and can prevent the viewer from connecting with the painting on a personal level. Knowing this I made a point to experience the painting before I researched it. I didn't even look at the name of the painting or the artist until just before I left the Barnes. This painting was done by a nineteenth century French painter named Henri Rousseau. Since he came from a moderate background he never took art classes. Rather he was a working class man who taught himself how to paint on his only day off, Sunday and he did not begin to seriously paint until he retired at the age of forty.

The name of the painting in discussion Femme se promenant dans une foret exotique translated into English as Woman Walking in an Exotic Forest. As it turns out my first interpretation of the painting was closest to Rousseau's intentions. One of Rousseau's favorite places to explore was the Jardin de Plantes. Here he would study the plants that inspired his paintings. He enlarged them and altered them in his paintings to form his idea of what tropical vegetation looked like. This explains why the plants in the painting look like large orange trees and blue daisies and are not plants indigenous to the rainforest (The Imagination...).

In the same room at the Barnes school is another one of his paintings entitled Eclaireur Attaqué par un Tigre or Scout Attacked by a Tiger. This is a similar painting also depicting Rousseau's vision of the rainforest. However, the tone of this painting is dark and ominous and one has to look much closer to see what I is being depicted. In the center of the painting there is a tiger attacking a native man. As in the other painting the scene is small and in the center and surrounded by luscious greenery. What caught my eye in this painting was there is an unrecognizable animal that appears to be what the scout was traveling. It has a saddle and reigns but the body of the animal is very strange. It has a hump as if it were a camel but a head like a bird. Before I researched the painting I thought that is was some sort of mythological creature. Perhaps an animal that the artist had seen in mythology books like a griffin. However, after researching Rousseau's technique I found that his inspiration came from his study of caged animals at the zoo and his daughter's picture books. Like the vegetation, the animals in his paintings were his ideas of what tropical animals looked like (The Imagination...).

Barnes had a very unique idea of how people should experience his art. It was because of his essays that I made sure my experience with the paintings in his gallery was untainted. He wanted people to make their judgment of art based on its form rather than what other people or even society told them. Barnes was very particular about the way in which he displayed his paintings. This was one of his techniques to spurring people to study the form of art. He would place different types of paintings by different artists along side each other.

In the room with the two Rousseau paintings were works by Monet and Renoir. They served as an interesting comparison to Rousseau's works because the forms of the paintings are so different. Monet and Renoir worked to make their paintings as realistic as possible while Rousseau's paintings were storybook like. His works appear somewhat flat. Some objects in his paintings overlap others which is the only indication that some things are closer than others. Monet and Renoir show depth in their paintings by utilizing a large palette of blended colors and working with light and shadows. Rousseau's paintings have fewer, bolder colors and the lines are much sharper. Rousseau's technique for painting was quite interesting. He used wide flat brush strokes and used one color at a time. For example first he would paint the blues and then he would paint the greens and then so on (Biography...). The positioning of the paintings enabled me to see the beauty of both forms by further distinguishing them from one another.

Works Cited

The Imaginary World of Henri Rousseau. 03/24/2005

The Dream of Henri Rousseau. 03/24/04

Biography of Henri Rousseau 03/24/05

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