de Hooch and Matisse

This post continues my Story Structure series.

Three interrelated paintings (the comparison between the first two is suggested in Modern Art by Sam Hunter and John M. Jacobus).

A Dutch Courtyard (1658-1660) by Pieter de Hooch


The Piano Lesson (1916) by Henri Matisse


The Music Lesson (1917) by Henri Matisse



Despite their dissimilarities, A Dutch Courtyard and The Piano Lesson have similar compositions.

Don’t look at what the elements in the painting mean or represent: only look at the way they look — on the surface of the painting.

The little girl in Courtyard has close to the same size, shape, and position as the metronome in Piano. In the lower left, the jacket draped over the fence in Courtyard corresponds to the statue in Piano and the two men seated at the table correspond to the two left circles in the wrought iron fence on the balcony. There is a diagonal line along the back of the standing woman in Courtyard that continues up to a prominent cloud — this line corresponds to the hypotenuse of the large green triangle in Piano. The tall vertical wall above the little girl recalls the strong verticals above the boy playing the piano. And so on.

In contrast, The Piano Lesson and The Music Lesson are related by the story that the paintings depict, rather than on the painting surface. As far as plot is concerned, the only real difference is that in one painting the boy is alone, and in the other he is surrounded by people (his family?). It’s the same boy, with the same picture above his head, playing the same piano (with the manufacturer’s name, “Pleyel,” on the music stand), in the same room — with the same window with the same wrought-iron fence. There is a general similarity in the composition of Matisse’s two paintings: we look from almost, but not really, the same angle at the same things.

It’s in the style — and in the feeling they generate — in their meaning — that Matisse’s two paintings are so different, even though they tell approximately the same story.

If you’re keeping up with the analogies I’m trying to draw between painting and writing — A Dutch Courtyard is related to The Piano Lesson in its structure; their stories are completely different. Whereas The Piano Lesson is related to The Music Lesson in its plot; their presentations are completely different.

Perhaps I’m being a bit too facile in my eagerness to stress my point neatly: Is “structure” really only the same as what I’ve been calling “composition” (just the arrangement of the objects on the canvas?) — or does it also include some of the features I’ve been calling “style.”

The main idea is to illustrate the difference between “structure” and “content.”

In particular, structure is content-free. It’s story-free.

Three-act structure, or any kind of structure, is something that’s independent of story: all you need are two “turning points” at the appropriate places in your screenplay — and these two points divide the story into three “acts” — or so they say.

That’s why, to me, it’s silly to start out by assuming your structure and then afterwards deciding on your story. You’d decide on the story first.

I’m not saying that structure is wrong, or optional, or unnecessary: on the contrary, it’s crucial. Structure is how you arrange your story so it has impact for the viewer. Structuring your story is what makes it work.

What I’m saying is that this entails that the structure you create and the models you follow depend on your story — not the other way around.

For further posts in this series, see my Story Structure page.

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