It was instructive to see the preparatory drawings and paintings in comparison to the larger, final compositions. This happened by looking in different galleries, sometimes in different museums, but the intensity with which we approached museums in these last two weeks kept the images fresh enough that I could recognize and compare some of the major changes.
Gericault’s Raft of Medusa is one excellent example. The final, extremely dramatic composition, with its diagonal thrusts, was not how he started. In fact, the true power of the composition did not emerge until the final painting, when he turned the angle of the raft and put it on diagonals. In his pre-painting, he had the raft from the side. When he changed the angle, it changed the arrangement of the people, making it far more effective. The diagonals of the raft were opposite the diagonals in the sail; the swell of the wave behind the sail was an echo of the curve of the sail. The gestures of the figures, the directions of the diagonals, the curves of the fabric: all led the eye around and around in the painting. There were several entry points (the fifth dimension). It is a masterful composition. He died so young at 33! I wonder how he would have influenced art if he had lived to be an older man.
If you walk along a gallery and take everything in, then pick a painting that attracts your attention because it stands out – without knowing who painted it or without analyzing why you have selected that painting – nine times out of ten when you get to the painting it is a name you know! So then, what is it these artists have that makes them stand out, again and again and again? Many of the other paintings in the gallery are excellent, but what makes these compelling? My answer today is several things, related. I don’t know if this will be my answer next year, but today I believe the elements that separate genius from technician are as follows:
- strength of composition
- use of positive and negative space
- handling of lights and darks, whether high or low contrast.
We spent 6.5 hours in The Louvre and we only saw a little of what it has to offer. It is not The Louvre of yesteryear, where artists can go and copy the paintings – too crowded for that. Too bad. But I am glad we went. We are so thoroughly exhausted – William’s back! my feet!