How to Understand a Painting Done by the Master Artist

Dance in the City 
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Art enters into us through our senses. Then we start looking at, our rating about the use of colours, the overall composition, and the painting technique the artist has used while painting the art piece. 

This happens when a man or a woman with some artistic knowledge looks at an art piece. Ordinary viewers would not go into such deep detail. He or she would see, would smile, and then clap, and finally would move to a cafeteria situated in a corner of the art gallery.

Understanding an art piece is a technical issue. In a painting, the colours co-exist, mostly in a chiaroscuro. The frame of a painting pronounces many possible meanings. When we look at a painting, our first reaction would be to the colours and the figures painted. Then we turn to its technical side: how beauty is re-created by creative skill. We can please ourselves more if we closely look at how the hues are deployed and the shades of every colour are applied in the painting. Space created between the objects and the background would add rhythm to the painting. The feel of volume, created by using different tones of the colours would make the painting lively.

Once our eyes are satisfied with the physical aspects of an art piece, our minds turn to think about the other features for which the art is known for. A painting is more than the colours spread on canvas. Look at the painting Dance in the City. It is a masterpiece by Renoir. It tells a story, provided we know about the life of Renoir, the master artist of the impressionism style of painting. 

The lady painted is Suzanne Valadon. She was an artist herself. She had modelled for Renoir, for many of his paintings. If we look at the women painted by Renoir, we would see how lovely and delicately he had painted them. All the women seem to rejoice in their state of feeling themselves so pretty, and Renoir had painted a sense of freedom on their faces. But in this painting, the story is somewhat different.

Evaluating The Painting:   If we see the colours and the getups of the lady, in The Dance in City, we recognise the melodies of colours. The woman looks pleasingly balanced and stylish in her appearance. She depicts good mannerism. But when we turn our eyes on the face, we can read another story. Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841 – 1919) was a master of impressionism, during his career of forty years. He would not miss celebrating beauty. 

But in this painting, the tight-lipped face of the lady is painted unusually featureless. Expressionless. She seems devoid of the usual friendly expression of a woman so dancing. The model is Suzanne who often modelled for Renoir. It is believed that Renoir had some reservations about her, as she was an intellectual woman. He preferred the women who can be docile and submissive, it is believed. Suzanne was an artist herself, she earned much by posing as a model for other artists, too. Above all, she would dance with many men and enjoy her life. Here Renoir, for an unknown reason, seems to paint her dancing act as if he wanted to punish her!

Dance in Bougival
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Oil on canvas Museum 
of Fine Arts, Boston
Evaluating The Dance in Bougival.: Renoir had repeated a similar theme in his painted titled Dance in Bougival. Here the getups of the woman are similar. The man is wearing a simple looking dress. The model is again Suzanne, and the desire from Renoir’s side was again to depict her in a serious posture. Look at the tight-lipped face and having no sign of pleasure that a lady would be getting while dancing with a gentleman. Had she been enjoying the dance, her face would have uplifted instead of the best one. The man looks trying to engage her in the dance with full desire, by making her feeling comfortable with his hands, but the lady seems inattentive to him. This is how Renoir depicted Suzanne.

Before becoming a regular model for the renowned artists of Paris, Suzanne was a dressmaker. Naturally, she would have designed the dress she put on. There can be another reason for her displeasure. She was believed to be of such a wild nature that she might have disliked her being postured in an intimate act like dancing. This is all an artist like Renoir would depict while painting such a scene; this is the reason why masterpieces represent the social culture. The master artists portray the mood of the models, too.

Dance in The country
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Evaluating Dance in The Country: In his masterpiece Dance in The country, things are quite different. The theme is the same: a dancing couple. The man is the same: Renoir himself. But here the dancing woman is not Suzanne Valadon. The model is Aline Chariot, who would be Renoir’s wife. Before she started modelling and became Renoir’s wife, she led the life of a common woman: sewing clothes and earning her living. Renoir himself praised Aline's dancing. He had once told her son that his mother, Aline, is a good dancer. Thus he believed and thus he painted.

Aline was believed to be docile and submissive. Compared to Suzanne, she was almost a woman whom Renoir would like. It is beyond doubt that Renoir felt more comfortable with her, and he painted her as a happy woman. If we read the painting with a penetrating eye, we can see that element in any painting under our observation. However, it is the greatness of an artist that makes a painting so speaking of the emotions, making the eyes of the viewers' so contented.  We all go for seeing art and feeling grace, beauty and the passion the artist has posted on a canvas. That is how human eyes, see; that is what their eyes, minds and senses seek while visiting a gallery of any art.

If we are to evaluate the above painting further and if we are to say something more about the art we see, this painting Dance in The country depicted the whole-hearted fun enjoyed by the dancing couple. The dancing woman's wholehearted pleasure is visible through her widened lips and the shining teeth. Here her face is drawn enjoying the surrounding and the dance. If we look at the pencil sketch of the painting, we may think that her face is also tight-lipped. But in the final painting, Aline looks gorgeous and playful.

All the three dancing couples shown here represent the lifestyle of contemporary Paris, the capital of France, the capital of art. Look at the dresses of the women: shining with the light and soft creases tell the wealth they would have possessed. The men have also the gentlemen’s attire. Their style of dancing and the escorting behaviour with the ladies brand them as members of the upper class of contemporary society. It is rightly said that the work of an artist represents society more accurately than the writing of a historian. Renoir was a visual historian.

Deeper Evaluation: I have discussed this subject with one of my artist friends. She had described the above story in her own words: I get the 'feeling' that Renoir is somehow trying to possess Suzanne. Hee seems to be overly attentive and almost domineering with the lady, and she seems to be pulling back - she is dancing with him in a polite and proper fashion and 'pulling back', but she is hoping the music will be over soon. The dance with his wife tells a different story - he holds her like an attentive husband should and maybe this was expected in that society, but there is a distance between the embrace - the wife seems to be moving forward into him and he is keeping his distance. 

I think he desired Suzanne and he certainly is 'the hunter' - but alas his advances were met with a stiff coldness and this must've been like a slap in the face??? The reason for the dislike, you know the whole issue of woman been looked down upon and expected to be submissive (in those days) - she must have been a fairly modern, independent, an educated one and was not prepared to subject herself to any kind of bullying!!! [All the paintings are in Public Domain, taken from Wikimedia Commons.] 

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