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.
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.
"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
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.
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
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.