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Analysis of the Picture

A painting can be studied on several levels and from a variety of perspec­tives. Here are a few examples of how pictures can be described, analyzed, inter­preted and evaluated.


"Lady Elizabeth Delme and Her Children" by Reynolds is a typ­ical family group portrait in the Grand Style of English portrait painting. Lady Delme was the wife of a member of Parliament and belonged to the privileged class of the landed nobility. Here, with an air of apparently casual informality, she is shown on the terrace before her country-house, while behind stretch the broad acres of her family estate.

Reynolds has taken care that the gestures, facial expressions, and poses of his subjects are appropriate to their age, character, and social status. "The joy of a monarch," Dryden once wrote, "for the news of a victory must not be expressed like the ecstasy of a harlequin on the receipt of a letter from his mistress." So, in this portrait, Lady Delme is dignified and gracious, secure in the knowledge of her beauty and wealth. Her son John, aged five, as if sensing the responsibilities of manhood, gazes sternly toward the distant horizon. Her other son, Emelias Henry, in unmasculine skirts as befits his three years, is coy and winsome. The fourth member of the group, the unkempt Skye terrier, is the embodiment of loyal affection. Note the simplicity of the pyramidal design and the low-keyed colour scheme. These features were for Reynolds symbols of dignity and good taste.


The "Mrs. Sarah Siddons" by Gainsborough has the distinction of being not only a remarkable work of art, but a unique interpreta­tion of a unique personality. It is not only one of the artist's finest portraits, but also one of the best of the many likenesses of the great tragic actress, who sat to most of the celebrated masters of her day. It was painted in 1783—1785, when the queen of the tragic drama was in her twenty-ninth year and at the zenith of her fame.

An enthusiastic admirer who saw it in the Manchester exhibi­tion of 1857 wrote as follows: "The great tragic actress, who inter­preted the passions with such energy and such feeling, and who felt them so strongly herself, is better portrayed in this simple half-length in her day dress, than in allegorical portraits as the Tragic Muse or in character parts. This portrait is so original, so individu­al, as a poetic expression of character, as a deliberate selection of pose, as bold colour and free handling, that it is like the work of no other painter.


"Dedham Lock and Mill" (1820)

This is a brilliant example of Constable's view painting at its complete maturity. The salient features of the landscape are treat­ed in sharp relief— even those not strictly necessary— yet they merge perfectly under a serene, perfect light. This painting con­tains, in synthesis, all the elements of landscape which Constable loved best: the river, the boats, the soaked logs, the river vegeta­tion, the sun shining through the foliage of the tall trees, the scenes of rural life and, above all, Dedham Mill. The cultural origins of this work are apparent in the traditional composition, in the use of chiaroscuro, in the way the landscape fades into the distance, after the Dutch manner, and in the complex, laboured palette. The com­pact tree mass in the foreground is blocked in against a sky filled with movement, reflected in the calm and transparent waters over which plays a pallid sun, as we find in Ruisdael.


For Constable I have an affection that goes back to my earliest recollections. In the first years of my childhood, there hung in the halls of my father's house a large steel engraving of "The Corn­field". Often in the long hot summers of the Middle West, I used to lie on the floor, gazing for hours into this English landscape carried from the dry and burning world around me into a vista of blessed coolness, thick verdure, dampness and everlasting peace.

I lived in that picture. To me it was more beautiful than a dream: the boy, flat on the ground drinking from a running brook; the sheep dog waiting patiently with turned head; the ambling flock; the old silent trees; the fat clouds reeking moisture ...

Some years later, when I went to London to study pictures, I saw "The Cornfield" and many others by Constable, and my first impressions were confirmed. In his grasp of the stable, one might almost say formidable, repose that man feels in the presence of nature, and in communicating the spiritual contentment induced by companionships with nature, Constable is the master of the English school.


Constable never travelled outside England. He was slow to de­velop as an artist, and slow to become famous. In all these things he was the very opposite of Turner. If he was Wordsworthian in his at­titude to nature, Turner was Byronic. The elements which seem so domesticated in Constable's pictures are at their most extreme and battling in Turner's grandest pictures. The large "Fire at Sea" de­picts man's hopeless fight amid storm and disaster. Human beings are literal flotsam in a raging sea. Turner himself actually experi­enced the "Snowstorm: Steamboat off a Harbour Mouth" in which wind and snow and spray sport with the unfortunate steamboat un­til it is barely visible except for a straining mast. There is a tremen­dous exhilarating terror in this moment when all nature's forces are unleashed. Something of the same drama is in "Rain, Steam, and Speed", where the glowing train forces its way over the high viaduct through the driving mist and rain — and here man is win­ning through, thanks to the newly invented steam engine. But Turner's intense receptivity to nature's moods made him able to capture also moments of utter tranquility. In the "Evening Star" there is nothing but the merging of sea and sky, day and night, as evening slowly sucks the colour from things; and only the diamond point of the single star shines out, caught tremblingly on the dark water. The same poignancy hovers about "The Fighting Temeraire" in which between dusk and day an old ship is tugged to its last berth. The ghostly hulk floats over the calm glassy sea, and the sun sinks like a bonfire in the west, seeming a symbol of the life that is ended, stirring us to a quite irrational sadness for days gone by. Such is Turner's poetry.

Exercise 1

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