These two lovely paintings by Balthus executed ten years apart remind me of how many notable artists struggled with the competing considerations between composition and information in figurative painting. Which is to be the primary intent, the level of accuracy or the arrangement and altering of the subject matter to lyrically convey feeling. The choice is with the artist.
In the earlier painting Balthus leaned towards information, focusing on the the figure and her surroundings to ensure our recognition of the when and the where. We see it in the furnishings, the decor in the room and the style of her clothing. We are more involved with the information rather than the compositional relationships.
The composition is beautifully considered but is subordinate to the figurative considerations. This was his intent.
The second painting has a very different “feel” because we respond to relationships and harmony (either consciously or subconsciously) and these compositional considerations were foremost in his mind when working on the painting.
The rhythms and integrations are magnificent.
Let me begin with his sensitive reduction of the room to three horizontal divisions which provides the sense of place. The tops of the table and stool add to the horizontal rhythmic structure. I love the elegant vertical arrangement of the legs of the table and stool, with the candle stick and her upper arms. Can you feel how the horizontal and vertical structure support and integrate with the figure?
Two magnificent integrations (or site paths) are apparent when we notice how the right leg of the table connects with the opening below her torso and right arm and how her left arm integrates with the cat’s tail. Please note how the shape of the cat echoes the wonderful opening and is also in harmony with the curve of the top of her hair.
The dark patches on the cat also commands our eye to move across the bottom of the painting ensuring a beautiful rhythm supporting her shoe. Imagine how awkward it would be to return from her black shoe without them.
The shadow from her shoe, the stool and table legs relate to her shadow on the table top. You are meant to feel the relationship rather than see it.
I must mention the subtle rhythmic support for her left wrist. We sense connection to the shadow on the table which loops, embracing her focus. The shape of her hair, the curve of the bottom of her sweater and the curve of the stripe on her skirt return us to her contemplation masterfully. When we engage on this level we actually connect to the artist’s considerations when developing the composition.
We become engaged with the primary reason for the painting because there is less competitive representational detail.
Let us return to the other painting for comparison. Take in the fingers on her left hand and the creases on her skirt. They are very well painted of course but do they lead you away from her focus. Maybe this is why they were changed in the later painting. There are many other adjustments for you to engage with.
We should be thankful to Balthus for presenting these two wonderful paintings for they do teach us how to appreciate art.