Eastman Johnson courtesy of the athenaeum.com
Eastman Johnson from Maine, lived from 1824 to 1906 and painted mostly New England subjects but also used his art to benefit the antislavery cause. He studied in Dusseldorf with Emanuel Leutze, painter of Washington crossing the Delaware and later in Paris with Coture. He painted society portraits including one of Lincoln and was called the American Rembrandt in his day. He was also a co founder of the Metropolitan Museum.
I have been talking about design. I think tonight I will dissect the painting above, a little, as an illustration of some of the principles I have been discussing. I will foreshadow the more mathematical design methods towards which I am slouching.
The obvious thing here is, of course, the juxtaposition of the guy with the basket against the dark barn interior behind him. That is in keeping with much of what I have written so far. However the real design games in this piece are geometric. There is a concealed geometric structure behind this painting. In fact the visible world here is hung on a less visible scaffold of the artists design. Here are some observations on that.
This picture has a is based on triangles or pyramids. Not because of any hocus-pocus beliefs about their ability to sharpen razor blades but because the pyramid is a strong and exquisitely stable shape. It has a power and solidity beyond other shapes See the big pyramid above? It is superimposed on its dark opposite below.
There are also three other pyramid shapes concealed in the figures, here they are.
These pyramids work together to give the painting a mysterious dignity, a feeling of eternal calm and importance. The idea of the harvest and its importance was close and personal when most Americans still lived on farms. Today's agribusiness and international trade in staples has distanced us from the cycle of planting and reaping of which a hundred generations before us were acutely aware. This was an allusion of Biblical importance to them. So the enormous solemnity and dignity of a design based on the pyramids agreed with the way they perceived the annual harvest and turn of the seasons.
But here is the interesting piece of geometry that foreshadows the increasingly mathematical concepts which I intend to next explain. This is a square cut from the proportions of a larger rectangle. All of the action takes place within it, even thought the canvas is rectangular.This shows the most simple of mathematical constructions within a rectangle. It is an old device that pleases the eye, and like the pyramids I illustrated before, gives a feeling of strength and logic. It seems so right because of the obvious mathematical relationships it forms.
Most people will look at it and know it "feels" good but not stop to analyze why. Most viewers don't really see design except on a subconscious level. That doesn't mean it doesn't work, it just means it happens behind the curtain of artifice.The unnoticed geometry gives a painting a rightness that the random construction of the merely observed can never have. We like to believe in the look of nature, but our reasoning selves are pleased at seeing the rationality of geometric logic subtly imposed on it.