Our visual powers

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party. 1881. Oil on canvas, 51 × 68 inches. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Renoir, one of the greatest of the Impressionists, portrays ordinary Parisians in Luncheon of the Boating Party. Earlier painters would have seen this as unfit for exhibition because its subject is not heroic or mythic. The Impressionists celebrated the ordinary.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s joyful painting (Figure 4-15) also represents an ordinary scene of people dining on a warm afternoon, all blissfully unaware of the painter. The scene, like many impressionist scenes, could have been captured by a camera. The perspective is what we would expect in a photograph, while the cut-off elements of people and things are familiar from our experience with snapshots. The use of light tones and reds balances the darker greens and grays in the background. Again, color dominates in this painting.

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Childe Hassam, Summer Evening. 1886. Oil on Canvas, 12⅛ × 20⅜ inches. Florence Griswold Museum.

The softness of both color and line imply a muted moment. Childe Hassam studied and painted in France and New York, but this scene commemorates a visit to New Hampshire. It has some of the influence of photography—an off-the-cuff pose, the figure and window both cut off—a characteristic of much impressionist painting. Hassam was considered an American Impressionist and famously connected with the Old Lyme, Connecticut, painters from the 1880s to the 1920s.

Childe Hassam was well known for his cityscapes, particularly for his colorful views of New York and Paris. But he also spent summers in the New England countryside, capturing moments such as Summer Evening (Figure 4-16) recollecting an ordinary evening in New Hampshire. The sharp diagonal figure of a woman is presented in contrast to the strong horizontal lines of the window. Hassam creates a relaxed moment, a sense of the ordinary in life, by avoiding any studied traditional composition. He seems to depend upon a photographer’s “trick” called the “rule of thirds,” by placing the figure in the right third of the composition and placing the lower horizontal of the window one-third of the way up from the bottom of the canvas. By avoiding traditional centrality of organization, Hassam produces a painting that echoes a photograph, as if doing little more than recording a simple moment.

Mary Cassatt’s sister Lydia is also posed in a sharp diagonal in Autumn (Figure 4-17). Cassatt’s intense autumn colors create a brilliance almost unexpected. For most people autumn suggests a duller pallette and a more somber mood. Lydia is dressed very warmly in a bulky, but cheerful coat, with a warm hat and gloves, and while her expression is calm and perhaps enigmatic, she is restful in the midst of an explosion of colors. In this painting line may be less significant in terms of composition than the vitality of the brushstrokes that seem to attack the canvas. The deep, resonant colors suggest the ripening of autumn vegetables and fruits characteristic of harvest time.

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