Degas, Rembrandt, and Sargent

This post continues my Story Structure series.

Self-Portrait (1850s)
by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas


A Woman Seated Beside a Vase of Flowers (Madame Paul Valpinçon?) (1865)
by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Click to enlarge.

The Millinery Shop (1884/90)
by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Click to enlarge.

At the Milliner’s (c. 1882)
by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Click to enlarge.

Woman with a Hat
by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Click to enlarge.

The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage (1874?)
by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Click to enlarge.

The Company of St George (The St Jorisdoelen) (1616)
by Frans Hals

Click to enlarge.

The company of Frans Banning Cock preparing to march out (Nightwatch) (1642)
by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

Click to enlarge.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882)
by John Singer Sargent

Click to enlarge.

In The Millinery Shop, notice how Degas places his subject in only the right half of the picture and cuts off part of the hat she looks at.

It’s an example of what a painter or a graphic artist calls an “open design.” In a “closed design” the main figures are complete within the boundaries of the picture (except perhaps at the bottom) and are bordered by portions of the background that show between them and the picture edge. But in an open design, the figures “bleed” to the boundaries of the picture and are cut off at the right and left (and sometimes the top as well).

Why would Degas have chosen this strategy for presenting his story? A number of answers suggest themselves.

Degas conveys the story in this picture so strongly that it’s tempting to look at the choices he made as ways that he chose to define that particular story in contrast to other, similar stories that he might have told.

By cutting off the hat the subject looks at, Degas places less emphasis on that particular hat and more emphasis on all the hats in the picture: on the idea of hats. There are four especially prominent hats arranged in a rounded “T” formation. The hat she looks at is the right of the “T” and is balanced by a bright one on the left. There is a blue one at the bottom, beneath a green scarf.

By placing the subject in a larger space behind her, Degas emphasizes, not the subject herself, but what she does in the space where she is.

So, Degas draws our attention to the shop’s store of hats and to the placement of the subject, with her lit-up face, alone within the gloom of the shop. The story is what these choices show: she dreams about hats.

At the Milliner’s carries these structural ideas further. The subject looks at something, presumably a mirror, that’s now completely out of our field of vision. The clerk that she interacts with is behind her, almost completely cut off by the picture frame and nearly invisibly dark.

There are three hats in this picture: the one on the subject’s head and the two that the clerk holds out to her.

The subject’s mood here in At the Milliner’s has some similarities to the mood of the subject in The Millinery Shop: they both have hats on their mind, rather than some particular hat. But there are differences between the two women: while the previous one dreams, this one is active, intent, focused on the idea of being happy and choosing a hat she’ll like.

These similarities and differences are made more real for the viewer by the structure.

We writers have much the same opportunities. We have a picture frame formed by the boundaries of our story. We can choose to close our composition by including more backstory about our characters and objects — or we can open our compositions up by leaving out more backstory and explanations.

Writers are subject to opposite criticisms in this respect and it’s one of those areas where it’s perhaps impossible to please all readers.

* Some reviewers – who like anorexia — go to one extreme and seem to regard a story as a kind of parlor game in which the writer is supposed to put everything in subtext and to leave out every singly detail that isn’t absolutely necessary for a reader to reconstruct the plot. (Of course, for these readers, characterization and theme are expendable when they require any additional words beyond those that convey the plot.)

* Other reviewers feel that it’s a given that our job is to provide perfect pictorial clarity for each character and each object at each moment, and they nag us to provide ever more backstory.

Degas’s paintings deny both of these extremes — and they certainly refute the idea that pictorial clarity is always better than lack of clarity.

Another thing some writers regard as self-evident is that focussing on the main subject and giving him or her most of the story space is stronger, better, and more interesting. In A Woman Seated Beside a Vase of Flowers, Degas shows that this isn’t necessarily so. The subject is almost pushed out of the picture by the flowers — but she’s strong to begin with and the encounter with the flowers only makes her stronger and more intriguing.

The Self-portrait is the only one of the first four paintings that doesn’t confine the subject to the right side of the picture, but its subject is only lit on the right side.

Cutting an object off at the edge of the frame can bring pictorial energy that’s unrelated to the subject matter but helps tell the story by calling attention to the object. In Woman with a Hat the top of the hat is cut off slightly at the upper right corner of the frame. For me this creates energy — a visual analogue to an alarm bell going off in my ears –that keeps me aware of the hat.

Similarly, writers can create give story energy to specific elements by judiciously leaving out backstory or intermediate steps in character, plot, or theme development.

The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage is a kind of symphony, illustrating several points made above. Notice how the largest–and the only completely front-facing–figure is cut off at the left. She dominates the exaggerated left-to-right perspective sweep that converges on the seated, stretched-out character at the far right. Thus, in different ways these two figures are singled out, and related to each other. The two dancers with their elbows pointed are very noticeable. The black-clad ballet master is conspicuous for the way his somber black clothing blends with the background and contrasts with the bright ballet costumes.

None of the figures in this picture is complete, forward-facing, and perfectly lit. None of them is singled out as the main character in this story. Yet there certainly is a story: one that’s perfectly focused and communicated.

Frans Hals, in The Company of St George, has constructed a painting in which no character is singled out — but in a way that’s opposite of The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage, a way that results in there being no story at all. Hals has done just what so many readers want us writers to do: all the characters are complete, forward-facing, and perfectly lit. I think that the result is obviously not good.

The Company of St George is a group portrait: each member has paid Hals to be included, and the painter has done what’s expected, in the most professional way. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has a few rooms full of such pictures. I personally find them unwatchable.

Rembrandt’s Night Watch is a revolution: he sacrifices the pictorial representation of the physical looks of the individual members of the group in order to tell a story, to tell what the men do together, rather than what they look like as individuals.

Finally, look at John Singer Sargent’s group portrait of Mr. Boit’s daughters. The composition — the structure — seems at first impossible. And yet, it’s perfect. The painting is justly celebrated for at once showing the girls’ individual personalities and for also showing them as a group.

The essence of it is the choices Sargent has made. He doesn’t assume there is some single, best, one-size-fits-all-best method of narrative that he’s expected to force each of the girls into.

He starts with his vision of the particular girls he wants to represent. He uses their synergy with each other and with the house they live in to make specific, differentiated choices to tell their story.

And, as Henry James asked about this painting: “When was the pinafore ever painted with that power and made so poetic?”

This post continues my Story Structure series.

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