How do we make sense out of works of art? Very often a work’s vital statistics (names, dates, styles) and its creator’s views (if known) are the only items of information available. Can we only comment about a work’s subject and the degree to which it is liked or disliked?
It is as if the question “what does a work of art express” can only be answered by citing its vital statistics, discovering the intentions of the artist or, even more frequently, by leaving it to personal preference; i.e., whatever one believes it expresses.
While these approaches have their merits they also have one great limitation: the expressive import of the work — its content that involves us most profoundly in its aesthetic character, the primary basis for its emotional appeal — is seldom investigated.
The most productive response to the question “what does a work of art express” is simply that it expresses itself! The feelings or thoughts evoked as a result of contemplating the work should be based primarily upon what is actually seen in the work; i.e. what belongs to the work, its actual properties. The sequence of questions should be: what do we actually see? how is what is seen organized? and what emotions and ideas are evoked as a result of what has been observed? In what follows, how these questions can be answered will be demonstrated.
The example to be used for this exercise is a reproduction of an oil painting by Edgar Degas, The Ironers, created in 1884, which is in the collection of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.
How do you identify what is in a work of art?
A common practice when looking at a work of art is to briefly study its surface and then conclude what its subject appears to be and how much the work is to be admired. However, to begin to arrive at the actual aesthetic and expressive significance of the work, its surface must first be very carefully examined. The specific character of its lines, shapes, textures, values, colors, scale, space and volume, and the images these elements are associated with need to be identified. A description of our example’s qualities that we experience through our senses, its sensory properties, will illustrate this approach.
1. Two women with vague facial features are depicted. The woman on the right irons a shirt with great concentration. The woman on the left holds a wine bottle in her right hand and appears to be rubbing her neck with her left hand while yawning. Both are wearing off-white, short sleeve blouses; the woman on the left wears a gray-blue skirt, the one on the right a dull orange skirt. They both have reddish brown hair and a pale gray-brown cast to their skin. The hands and right arm of the woman on the left and the face, forearms and right hand of the woman on the right are also tinged with a pale orange. The work table in front of the women is a pale blue-gray; there are two ironed and folded shirts in the center of this table. The wine bottle is dark green; its lower portion is a deep brown, which implies that over half of the wine has been consumed. The iron is also dark brown.
2. In the shallow space behind the figures, hanging laundry is suggested by pale blue-white panels with subtle streaks of gray and beige. These are divided by a wide brown line which blends into a floor of the same color. The source of light appears to be from the right front because of the shadows cast on the left side of the figures and the ironed shirts, and the highlight on the right side of the wine bottle. Faint dark and light brown lines are used to outline the figures and to create an illusion of folds and creases in their blouses and skirts. The rectangular shapes of the shirts and the angular shapes created by the gestures of the women’s arms contrast with the soft contours of their bodies and clothing.
3. There is very little strong value contrast; the figures do not stand out starkly from the background. The strongest dark and light differences exist between the curved back of the woman on the right and the light colored background and between the light colored blouse and sleeve contour of the woman on the left and dark earth colored floor.
4. The overall tactile texture of the painting is smooth because Degas apparently diluted his oil colors. Subtle visual textures are created through the incomplete blending of colors in all areas. The yawning woman’s arms are painted with obvious vertical strokes which convey a sense of motion.
5. In terms of scale, more than half of the picture is devoted to the blue-gray-white color of laundry. The two figures, though larger than other objects, are wedged between an assertive white-blue-gray foreground and a large background area of similar color.