Reconstruction For Circular Observation
( Originally Published 1903 )
Circular composition traceable in what has been first conceived as pyramidal or rectangular, circular composition as the first intention, ex-pressed either on a vertical plane or in perspective, i. e., circular or elliptical—and composition made circular not by any arrangement of parts, but by sacrifice and elimination of edges and corners are the three forms of composition which produce circular observation. The value of the circle as a unifying and therefore as a simplifying agent cannot be overestimated, especially in solving the problems which occur in composition where the circle has not been a part of the original scheme, but where, when applied, it seems to bring a relief to confusion and disorder. In many cases where all essential items are happily arranged, but, as a whole, refuse to compose, the addition of some element or the readjustment of a part which will produce circular observation, will ofttimes prove the solution of the difficulty.
Just as progression in a straight line will soon carry us out of the picture, will circular progression keep us within its bounds. If then, circular observation affords the best means of appreciation, it follows that circular composition is the most telling form of presentation. There are many subjects which naturally do not fall in these lines, but which may ofttimes be reedited into this class. This reediting means composition, and two examples from a vast number are here given to show the working out of the problem. In the " Hermit," I by Dow, the figure, book and hour glass compose in a simple left angle, but the head becomes the centre to a circular composition by the presence of the arch above and the encircling shadow behind and beneath the arm. The corners sacrifice their space to strengthen the centre and the vision is thus completely funneled upon the head. In striking contrast to this is the composition by Boucher. Here are the elements for two or three pictures thrown into one, and in some respects well governed as a single composition. Conceive, how-ever, this subject bereft of the darkened corners, and the gradations which create a focus. The figures would lie upon the canvas somewhat in the shape of a letter Z, devoid of essential coherence, with the details in the foreground hopelessly exposed as padding.
Another resort in order to secure a vortex, or a centre bounded by a circle, is to surround the head or figure with flying drapery, branch forms, a halo or any linear item which may serve both to cut out and to hem in. It accomplishes some-thing of what the hand does when held as a tunnel before the eye. Such a device offers ready aid to the decorator whose figures must often receive a close encasement, fitted as they are into limited spaces, when many an ungracious line in the subject is made to disappear through the accommodation of pliant drapery or of varied tree forms.
In this class of compositions especially must the background be made the complement of the subject. What the subject fails to contain may there be supplied, a sort of auxiliary opportunity.
The subject, or most interesting part, should lie either within the circuit or be the most important item of the circle. It should never be outside the circle. If it appears there, the eye is thrown off of the elliptical track. If the reader will compare the "Lake at Ville d'Avray " by Corot with his " Orpheus and Eurydice," the charm in the former may reveal itself more completely through the jar to which the latter subjects us. The figures of the divine lyrist and his bride escaping out of one corner of the canvas do not enter at all into the linear scheme and in their anxiety to flee Hades they are about to leave art and the spectator. The picture is a strange counterpart of the Apollo and Daphne of Giorgione at Venice, and since it is known of Corot that he cared infinitely more for nature than art, it is fair to suppose that he had never seen this picture either in the original or reproduction. Had he been governed by the feeling for unity which his works usually display this pitfall in the borders of plagiarism would not have snared him.
The " Holy Family," by Andrea del Sarto, is a composition in which the good intention of the artist to make a complete line within the sides of the canvas seems a matter of greater concern than other principles of composition, quite as important. The ellipse of the three figures is beautifully carried out, but it leaves one of them, the most important, in the least important place. The whole composition sags in this direction, the weight of Joseph, in half shadow, being insufficient to recover the balance. With these figures all well drawn and especially adapted in their contours to the organic lines of composition, several rearrangements might be made, as well as other arrangements, with any one of the four figures omitted, its place used for reserved space. No better practice in linear and mass composition could be suggested than slight modification of parts by raising or lowering or spacing or by the reconstruction of the background, of well known pictures in which the composition is con-fused.
A common mistake in the use of the circular form is that of making it too apparent. A list of pictures might be made wherein the formal lines of construction are very much in evidence. Such could be well headed by Raphael's " Death of Ananias," where the formality of the arrangement is on a par with the strain and effort expressed in every one of its figures. The curved peristyle of kneeling disciples offers a temptation to push the end man and await the result on the others, more to witness a rearrangement than create any further commotion in the infant church. The fact that this work is decorative rather than pictorial in intention cannot relieve the representation of an actual occurrence of the charge of being struck off in an oft-used and well worn mold. Compare with this Rembrandt's famous circular composition, " Christ Healing the Sick," wherein though the weight on either side of Christ is about evenly divided, the formality of placement has been most carefully avoided, and where the impression is merely that the Healer is the centre of a body of people who surround him.
With the great principle of linear composition in mind, namely, that the vision travels in the path of least resistance, no rule need be formulated and no further examples produced to prove that the various items of a composition are taken at their required value to the extent to which they adhere to and partake of the established plan of observation.