Thursday, March 20, 2014

More Fun With Triangles

As often is the case when I go off on a "hunt", sometimes I get diverted along the way and other times the exploration expands of its own free will. Such was the case yesterday after my initial posting on triangular composition. In the course of looking for a nice image of the painting by Mary Cassatt that I used as an example yesterday, I got side tracked for a bit when the Rembrandt work (upper left here) showed up in my search listing. The intensity of its triangular compositional format immediately jumped off my computer screen and, of course, that lead to further digging . . . which lead to my finding the beautiful painting to the right by 19th Century Impressionist, Alfred Sisley (whose landscapes have always appealed to me but I had never run across this wonderful still life by him before). Ain't exploration fun?
Off and running then, my curiosity got the better of me and I began to plug in names of artists whose work I have always admired and respected and came across this wonderful, moody interior (on the left below) by Andrew Wyeth. I was instantly struck with his ingenious use of light and shadow to form his triangular composition in an almost abstract field of sharp contrasting tonal values. That shaft of light hitting the wall on the central vertical of the canvas brought my eye into the work and naturally, led it down and across the horizontal surface of the cot with the dog and brightly lit pillow forming the bottom margin of the triangle. Simplicity of design yet sparked by the high contrast and well placed details of the room, which give just enough interest without detracting from the importance of the subjects falling within his triangle, the work is a truly stunning example of balance and strong forethought. 

Early 20th Century American, George Bellows, in one of his iconic boxing works not only portrays extreme movement that entices the viewer, but does it all within the confines of a very apparent triangle. Again, there is just enough "background noise" in the form of the spectators to add a bit of detail to the overall work, but as in Wyeth's painting, that "noise" certainly does not detract from nor overpower the importance of the triangle and its dominant subjects.

In the four works shown above, those artists place their respective subjects well within the confines of triangular compositional fields but have added much more accompanying detail than Wyeth or Bellows, yet their details act to enhance the strength of the triangular shape that their major subjects fall within. In the work to the upper left by Thomas Eakins, one of his iconic figurative scenes, his swimmers form a perfect triangle, their movements and body positions, seemingly "natural" at first glance, have been well thought out as to melding all into that nicely formed triangle yet with enough perceived spontaneity that the viewer feels they have just stumbled upon the scene.

To the upper right, in Eugene Delacroix's The Barque of Dante, not unlike another of his most notable works, Liberty Leading the People, all the characters of his composition take shape within his triangular compositional idea with supporting characters surrounding the two main figures and adding closure and weight to the triangle.

James Whistler, in his work to the lower left, sets his triangle slightly off center to the left, but still quite evident in the position of his figure, allowing the intense contrast of her costume to overpower the "clutter" of the rest of the space, details of which all combine to act as a soft background to the importance of the triangular shape of the seated major subject. With an opposite offset triangle (shifted to the right) forming the major point of focus in the work to the lower right by American Willard Metcalf, his The Ten Cent Breakfast also places the dominant subjects within a well defined triangle formed by the hanging light fixture flowing down to the spread of the bright table cloth. Again, you think you've stumbled upon a rather ordinary domestic scene but digging deeper, you can marvel at the well thought out placement of all the elements of this painting to form a very pleasing image.

With the human form acting as a perfect foil for a triangular compositional format in a work of art, simple portraits will naturally give off the feel of a pyramidal shape, but in the hands of a master, what otherwise might be bypassed as a more common view, can take on deeper appeal. In the first set of three works shown below, John Singer Sargent on the left, Vittorio Matteo Corcos in the center, and Edward Hopper to the right, all have shown strong triangular compositions in a more formal portrait type of work. Each master though, has infused his work with an individuality and a unique flavor that adds so much more appeal and level of interest, they become far more than simple portraits. Sargent has placed his three sitters in a way that emphasizes the triangular form yet the pose each subject has taken comes across as having naturally been achieved when we know for certain that well thought out preliminary sketching and repositioning must have occurred. Coincidentally, and using almost the same tonal values as Sargent, Hopper paints his sitter from behind, adding just that much more interest and evocative impact, and her movement and body position strikes the perfect triangular focus at the center of the canvas. Italian Matteo Corcos, in his monochromatic work, sets his subjects well within a nicely formed triangle and the movement and striking pose of the right hand figure draws the viewer into the work and directly to the top of the triangle with the bright spot of white in the child's bonnet helping to give weight and important balance to the lower margin of the triangle.

Pierre Auguste Renoir, most notable for his wonderful portraits and figurative works, in the three paintings just above, shows how his well thought out placement of arms and hands and body positions in each has resulted in pleasing, inviting and interesting works all based upon a triangular compositional idea.
In three more figurative studies below, Claude Monet (in one of his most recognized works to the left), British born, American painter, John George Brown (center) and French Impressionist, Camille Pissaro have all used a triangular motif to encase their subjects, giving each a unique viewpoint and focus, eschewing a more common approach to a portrait and thus making each work hold more appeal.

In the three more formal portrait type works just above, William Merritt Chase (on the left), Sargent again in the center and Mary Cassatt to the right, have given us more traditionally brushed portraits, though Cassatt has added a bit of whimsy to her painting. What helps to make for the triangular compositional thrust in each is the angle and placement of the arms of each sitter; in Chase's and Sargent's also aided by the natural triangle of the emphasized shoulder positions of their subjects and their unique way of posing their figures in profile with the spread of their clothing adding more of the triangular movement. 
In the final grouping of three paintings, Chase's American student, Martha Walter (in the work at the top) uses the parasol to top off her triangle letting the seated figures on the beach form the remainder of the geometric form toward the bottom of her canvas. Berthe Morisot in the lower two works, forms interesting pyramidal shapes in one, by positioning her two subjects around the tree and in the seated and spread out position of her sitter in the other, with that bit of blanket peeking out on the lower left to balance the spread of her dress and thus, forming the lower horizontal of that triangle.

After spending time delving into the compositional idea of making use of a triangular format, I think I might make an effort in the near future to work up some ideas within that structure and see if I can challenge myself to look to the pyramid as some of these masters have most successfully done.

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