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Reading the picture

Published as » Joe's Art Journal No. 3, Aug 06, 1998  previous  next

But there is more to be seen: She holds a piece of paper in her right hand, a letter obviously, so there is a story told, too.

If you read the painting, you see rich garment draped in the background. Her hair, ears, arm and neck are adorned with jewelry. She had obviously undressed here, probably bathed, as the maid dries her foot.

The maid is old but preciously dressed, too, so it is pretty clear that this is not an ordinary woman, this is an educated woman of wealth and style and leisure.

In this situation, being undressed and bathed, it is not to be expected that a letter arrives. She probably received that letter shortly before, read it a moment ago and just let sink her arm to her knee, looking into the void in front of her.

The letter leads the eye to her legs, and it appears that they are draped quite unusually. Once aware, you realize that other details, too, don't look realistically, so it becomes apparent, that this is far from a photorealistic image.

You can observe this phenomenon more vividly in many of Rubens' paintings: bodies are often anatomically blatantly incorrect, legs don't fit to bellies, arms not to chests, but the general impression is that of great, abundant life. In the case of Helène Fourment, the belly arouses some very peculiar feelings, as does the shoulder of the left grace.

To take nother example: The back of Ingres' Grand Odalisque is extremely funny, too long by at least three vertebrae, and the left leg is mounted somewhere near the navel, just to name two peculiarities.

What does that mean? Were these artists just not accurate enough?

Probably not. Distortion can express feelings and other things not easily expressed visually. People have known this for a long time.

You can see it at work as early as stone age paintings, where some are realistic as taken from life, others exaggerate certain portions at will. Costumes of all ages are good examples, too. Any old hat gives your head a strong distortion and a strange expression to your whole person.

Picasso is famous for letting distortion work for him at will to produce feelings not to be expressed otherwise. In his case, these were mostly negative feelings, as in Guerníca, but there are positive, such as love and tenderness, too, seen very often in his portaits of Marie-Therèse.

Of course, Rembrandt knew this, too. What does he communicate us through the body of that woman Bathsheba, aside from beauty?

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