The Vertical Line In Angular Composition
( Originally Published 1903 )
WHEN Giotto was asked for his conception of a perfect building, he produced a circle. When Michael Angelo was appealed to, he designated the cross. On both bases may good architecture and good pictures be founded. If the extremities of the Greek cross be connected by arcs, a circle will result, and if the Latin cross be so bounded we will have a kite-shape, or ellipse. The two designs are, therefore, not as dissimilar as may at first be supposed. In both, from the pictorial standpoint, they are the framework by means of which the same given space may be filled.
The simple vertical line is monotonous. Its bisection produces balance ; a cross is the result. Again, two crosses placed together, the arms touching, and three crosses in like position, will represent the picture plan of the grouping so frequently used by Raphael—a central figure balanced by one on either side, the horizon joining them, and behind this the balance repeated in trees and other figures.
Pictorially, the vertical line is much more important than any other. It is the direction of gravity ; it represents man upright, in distinction from the brutes ; it also can stand alone, all other lines demanding supports. Of two equally forcible lines, this would first be seen. In composition, therefore, it has the right of way.
Let us start with a subject represented by a vertical line—a tree or figure. The directness, rigidity, isolation and unqualified force of such a line demands balance; otherwise, extension is the sole idea. With the thought of a frame or sides of the picture comes the necessary horizontal line, bisecting the vertical. Length and breadth have then been represented, something in two dimensions started, and the four sides of a frame necessitated.
In sculpture this consideration weighs nothing. A statue is framed by all outdoors. The vertical of a single figure pierces the unlimited sky, and the only consideration to the artist is that the mass looks well from any point of view. The group by Carpeaux is a sample of plastic art unusually picturesque, and would easily fit a frame, because in it the vertical figure is supported by horizontals, both of lines and in the idea of lateral movement. It is, therefore, solid and complete and sets forth in its structure the thought of Alexander the Great when he had his artists represent, in a design painted upon his equipments, lasting power as a sword within a circuit.
This piece of sculpture is a cross within a cylinder, but on a flat plane the principle is just as forcible, as will further be shown in the picture by Israels.
" The Crucifixion," by Morot, is more statuesque than picturesque, and would gain in effect if seen unembarrassed by the limitations of a frame. Its strength in one situation is its weakness in another. The presence of the frame creates three spaces, one above the horizontal and one on either side of the vertical, and these are empty. Therefore, although the single thought of the dying Saviour is sufficiently great to bear—nay, even, perhaps, demand—isolation, it unites itself with nothing else within our compass of vision, and, therefore, cannot be said to compose with its frame. The reader is now in a position to appreciate the simple mechanics which underlie the composition by Israels. In "Alone" the artist starts with the figure of the man—a vertical. The next thought closely allied is the woman. The two complete a cross. From either end two more verticals are erected. On the left another horizontal joins the vertical in the top of the table and unites it with another vertical, the shutter, and so on to the edge of the picture. On the other side the basket top leads off from the vertical and thence down the side to the floor and to the edge of the picture by the lines of fagots. The circuit, which helps to keep the vision in the picture and serves to render more compact the subject proper, is developed by the shelf, weights of the clock, basket, cap, items upon table, shutterr and bedpost. For proof that the horizontal lines in this composition were all placed there for the relief of the verticals, with the first of which the picture starts, let us remove the table, basket and bench and see how the arrangement becomes one of quadrangles, paralleling instead of uniting with the sides. In every case, in the accompanying illustrations, there has been an effort to reach out toward the sides and take hold there. Those that have established these points of contact most fully are the most stable and the most satisfying.
In the composition of the "Beautiful Gate,'" by Raphael, the two pillars, in that they span the whole distance from bottom to top, destroy all chance for unity. Three pictures result instead of one—a triptych elaborately framed. Even with these verticals cutting the picture into sections, had horizontals been introduced between them and in front,. or even behind, some of the necessary unity of pictorial structure could have been secured. What connection exists between these several parts is all subjective, but not structural, the impulse to exhibit the wonderful columns in their remarkable perfection of detail being a temptation to which the picture was sacrificed.
Such an exhibition of the uncontrolled vertical produces an effect on a par with a football carried straight across the field and placed on the goal line without opposition. All the strategy of the game is left out, and although the play produces the required effect in the score, a few repetitions of the procedure would soon clear the benches. The interest to the spectators and players alike enters in when the touch-down is accomplished after a series of zigzags toward the outer line, where force meeting force in a counter direction results in a tangent, when the goal is reached by the subtlety of a diagonal. A cushion carom is an artistic thing ; a set-up shot is the beginner's delight. In the " Allegory of Spring," i by Botticelli, we have a sample of structure lacking both circular cohesion and the stability of the cross adhesion. Like separate figures and groups of a photographic collection, it might be extended indefinitely on either side or cut into four separate panels. The accessories of the figures offer no help of union. Besides the lack of structural unity, no effort toward it appears in the conception of the subject. Each figure or group is sufficient unto itself, and the whole represents a group of separate ideas. This is not composition, but addition.
But what of the single figure in standing portraiture, when only the person is presented, and no thought desired but that of personality, when the outline stands relieved by spaces of nothingness ? Though less apparent, the principle of union with the sides still abides. What is known as the lost and found outline is a recognition of this, an effort of the background to become homogeneous with the vertical mass, the line giving way that the surrounding tone may be let in. Such is the feeling with which many of the most subtle of Whistler's full-lengths have been produced. The portraits of Carriere are still more striking examples of absolute dismissal of outline.
In the well-known portrait of " Alice," by Mr. Chase, where the crisp edges of a white dress are relieved against a dark ground, such treatment is impossible. Here, however, the device of flying ribbons is a most clever one, which, besides giving the effect of motion, causes an interruption in these clean-cut outlines, as also in the formal spaces on either side. The horizontal accent of dark through the centre of the canvas, suggesting a grand piano in the dim recesses be-hind, fulfills a like obligation from the linear as well as tonal standpoint.