Pictorial Composition and the Critical Judgment of Pictures
by Henry Rankin Poore
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When the opportunity of line is wanting an arrangement of receding spots, or accents is an equivalent.

The same applies, though in less apparent force, to the portrait or foreground figure subject.

Where the subject lies directly in the foreground, the eye will find it at once, but the care of the artist should even then be exercised to avoid lines which, though they could not block, might at least irritate one's direct vision of the subject.

Conceive if you can, for one could rarely find such an example in pictorial art, of the forespace corrugated with lines paralleling the bottom line of a frame. It would be as difficult for a bicyclist to propel his machine across a plowed field as for one to drive his eye over a foreground thus filled with distracting lines when the goal lay far beyond.

Mr. Schilling, in his well-known "Spring Ploughing," has treated this problem with great discernment. Instead of a multiplicity of lines crossing the foreplane, the barest suggestion suffices to designate plowed ground, the absence of detail allowing greater force to the distant groups.

In the Marine subject, especially with the sea running toward us, long lines are created across the foreground, but with respect to these, as may be noted in nature, there is a breaking and interlacing of lines in the wave form so that the succession of such accents may lead tangentially from the direction of the wave. A succession of horizontal lines is however the character of the marine subject. When the eye is stopped by these it has found the subject. Only through the sky or by confronting these forms at an angle can the force of the horizontals be broken. Successful marines with the camera's lens pointed squarely at the sea have been produced, but the best of them make use of the modifying lines of the surf, or oppositional lines or gradations in the sky.

In a large canvas by Alexander Harrison, its subject a group of bathers on the shore, one single line, the farthest reach of the sea, proves an artist's estimate of the leading line. On it the complete union of figures and ocean depended. Its presence there was simple nature, its strong enforcement the touch of art.

The eye's willingness to follow long lines may however become dangerous in leading away from the subject and out of the picture. What student cannot show studies (done in his earliest period) of an interesting fence or stone wall, blocking up his foreground and leading the eye out of the picture? It is possible to so cleverly treat a stone wall that it would serve us as an elevation from which to get a good jump into the picture. Here careful painting with the intent of putting the foreground out of focus, could perhaps land the eye well over the obstruction, and if so, our consideration of the picture begins beyond this point. If the observer could take such a barrier as easily as a cross country steeple-chaser his fences and stone walls, there would be no objection, but when the artist forces his guest to climb!—he is unreasonable. For two years a prominent American landscape painter had constantly on his easel a very powerful composition. The foreplane of trees, with branches which interlaced at the top, made, with the addition of a stone wall below, an encasement for the picture proper, which lay beyond. The lower line, i.e., the stone wall, was in constant process of change, obliterated by shadow or despoiled by natural dilapidation, sometimes vine-grown. In its several stages it showed always the most critical weighing of the part, and a consummate dodging of the difficulties.

When finally exhibited, however, the wall had given way to a simple shadow and a pool of water. The attempt to carry the eye over a cross-line in the foreground had been a long and conclusive one, and its final abandonment an admonition on this point. A barrier across the middle distance is almost as objectionable. In the subject of a river embankment the eye comes abruptly against its upper line, which is an accented one, and from this dives off into the fathomless space of the sky, no intermediate object giving a hint of anything existing between that and the horizon.

In order to use such a subject it would be necessary to oppose the horizontal of the bank by an item that would overlap and extend above it, as a hay wagon with a figure on top of it or the sail of a boat, and if possible to continue this transitional feeling in the sky by such cloud forms as would carry the eye up. Attraction in the sky would create a depth for penetration which the embankment blocked.

[The Path of the Surf—Photo (Triangles Occuring in the leading line); The Shepherdess—Millet (Composition Exhibiting a Double Exit)]

The "Path of the Surf" is a splendid leading line ending most beautifully in a curve.

Many readers will recall the notable picture by Mr. Picknell, now deceased, of a white road in Picardie. Here all the lines converged at the horizon. The perspective was so true as to become fascinating, a problem of very ordinary deception. More subtle is Turner's "Approach to Venice," see Fundamental Forms, in which the lines are substituted by spots—the gondolas—which, in like manner, bear us to the subject. The graceful arch of the sky also presses us toward the subject.

One may readily use the placement of the spots and substitute cattle instead of gondolas and woods for the spired city; or groups of figures, sheep, rocks, etc. The composition is fundamental, and will accommodate many subjects.


This is important because necessary. It is much better to pass out than to back out. Pictures show many awkward methods of exit. In some there are too many chances to leave; in others there are none. Pictures in which there is no opportunity for visual peripatetics require no such provision. In the portrait we confront a personality, and some painters plainly tell us by the blank space of the background that there shall be but one idea to the observer's mind. In this event he has but to bow and withdraw. But suppose the curtain of the background be drawn and a glimpse is disclosed of a landscape beyond. This bit of attraction leads us toward it. Instead therefore of breaking off from the subject we are led away from it. The associations with the subject are ofttimes interesting and appropriate and the great majority of portraits include them. As soon therefore as we begin on any detail in the background we connect the portrait with the pictorial and the sitter becomes one of a number of elements in the scheme, the fulcrum on which they balance. A patch of sky, besides creating an expansion in the diameter of the picture introduces color, often valuable, as noted later.

But more than this, these sky spots in a dark background are air holes. They enable us to breathe in the picture, giving a decided sense of atmosphere. When well subordinated they offer no distraction to the subject, but give to the picture a depth. When no other object is introduced, a gradation is serviceable. Much may be thus suggested and besides the depth and air properties thus introduced, such variety of surface excites visual motion. The eye always follows the course of light from the shadow. The artist may make use of this fact in balancing the picture and of leading the eye out where he will. As the elaborate subject is often approached through a curve or zigzag, in like manner it should be left, though the natural finish of such a series should connect easily with its start.

The eye should never be permitted to leave the principal figure or object and go straight back and out through the centre. If this is allowed the width of the picture is slighted. Therefore if the attraction of the natural exit is greater than other objects they exist in vain.

The exit should be so guarded that after the visitor has moved about and seen everything, he comes upon it naturally. For example conceive a subject—figures or cattle—with the principal object in the foreground. From this the other objects, all placed on the left side, move in a half circle back and into the picture, this circuit naturally leading to an opening in the trees or to a point of attraction in the sky or to a glimpse of distance. If this be not of less interest than any object of the progression, the unity of the picture disappears, for from the principal object in the foreground the vision goes direct to the distance.

Providing two or more exits is a common error of bad composition. This is the main objection to the form of balance on the centre, which produces two spaces of equal importance on either side.

In the drawing of the "Shepherdess" by Millet the attraction of two alleys which the eye might take is largely regulated by the subordination of one of them by proportional size and a lowering of the tone of the sky. At best, however, it is a case of divided interest, though the deepest dark against the highest light helps to control the situation. If for the balance of the pines in the snow scene a small tree on the right were added, the objection would then be that from the central point of attraction, the pines, the vision would go in two directions, toward the houses and the tree. The visual lines connecting these two points would cross the first or principal object instead of leading from this to one and thence to the other as would not be the case if the added tree appeared in the extreme distance on the right. Under this arrangement there would be progression into the picture. A still better arrangement would have been direct movement from the mass of trees to the houses placed on the right, with the space now occupied by them left vacant.


The entrance into a picture and obstacles thereto, as applied to landscape, has already been considered, from which it is evident that wisdom renders this as easy as possible for the vision, not only negatively, but through positive means as well. An obstruction through which penetration must be forced, diverting the attention, is like the person who claims us when we are trying to listen to someone else.

When in nature we observe a scene that naturally fits a frame and we find ourselves gazing first at one object and then at another and returning again to the first, we may be sure it will make a picture.

But when we are tempted to turn, in the inspection of the whole horizon (though this be circular observation), it proves we have not found a picture. Our picture, on canvas, must fit an arc of sixty degrees. The other thing is a panorama. The principle is contained in the illustration of the athletes. This picture has the fascination of a continuous performance and so in degree should every picture have.

In the foreground, or figure subject the same principles apply. The main point is to capture the observer's interest with the theme, which to his mental processes shall unfold according to the artist's plan. With twenty objects to present, which one on the chessboard of your picture shall take precedence and which shall stand next in importance, and which shall have a limited influence, and which, like the pawns, shall serve as little more than the added thoughts in the game?

[Circular Observation—The Principle; The Slaying of the Unpropitious Messengers (Triangular Composition—Circular Observation)]

In "The Slaying of the Unpropitious Messengers," a picture of great power and truly sublime in the simplicity of its dramatic expression, the vision falls without hesitation on the figure of Pharaoh, easily passing over the three prostrate forms in the immediate foreground. These might have diverted the attention and weakened the subject had not they been skillfully played for second place. Their backs have been turned, their faces covered, and, though three to one, the single figure reigns supreme. Note how they are made to guide the eye toward him and into the picture and discover in the other lines of the picture an intention toward the same end, the staircase, the river, the mountain, the angular contour of the portico behind tying with the nearer roof projection and making a broken stairway from the left-hand upper corner. See, again, the lines of the canopy composing a special frame for the master figure.

Suppose a reconstruction of this composition. Behold the slain messengers shaken into less recumbent and more tragic attitudes, arranged along the foreplane of the picture; let all the leading lines be reversed; make them antagonistic to the principles upon which the picture was constructed. The subject indeed will have been preserved and the story illustrated, but the following points will be lost and nothing gained: A central dominating point of interest; the disparity between monarch and slave; the sentiment of repose and quietude suggested by a starlit night and the coordination of recumbent lines; the pathos of the lonely vigil, with the gaze of the single figure strained and fixed upon, the distant horizon whence he may expect the remnants of his shattered army.

The artist's first conception of this subject was doubtless that of a pyramid; the head of Pharaoh is the apex and the slaves the base and side lines. The other lines were arranged in part to draw away from this apparent and very common form of composition. One has but to look through a list of notable pictures to find evidence of the very frequent use of these concentric lines drawing the vision from the lower corners of the picture to an apex of the pyramid.

Now, herein lies the analogy between the simplest form of landscape construction and the foreground or figure subject. The framework of both is the pyramid, or what is termed the structure of physical stability. In the landscape the pyramid lies on its side, the apex receding. It is the custom of some figure painters to construct entirely in pyramids, the smaller items of the picture resolving themselves into minor pyramids. In the single figure picture—the portrait, standing or sitting—the pyramidal form annihilates the spaces on either side of the figure, which, paralleling both the sides and the frame, would leave long quadrilaterals in place of diminishing segments.

Whether the pyramid is in perspective or one described on the foreplane of a picture, the principle is, leading lines should carry the eye into the picture or toward the subject, a point touched upon in the preceding chapter.

When reverie begins in a picture, one's vision involuntarily makes a circuit of the items presented, starting at the most interesting and widening in its review toward the circumference, as ring follows ring when a stone is thrown into water. The items of a picture may arrange themselves in elliptical form, and the circuit may bend back into the picture; or the form may be described on a vertical plane, but the circuit should be there, and if two circuits may be formed the reverie will continue that much longer. The outer circuit finished, the vision may return to the centre again. If in a landscape, for instance, the interest of the sky dominates that of the land, the vision will centre there and come out through the foreground, and it is important that the eye have such a course marked out for it, lest, left to itself, it slip away through the sides, and the continuous chain of reverie be broken.

It is interesting to note in what cycles this great wheel of circular observation revolves, directing the slow revolution of our gaze.

In one picture it takes us from the corner of the canvas to the extreme distance and thence in a circuit back; in another it moves on a flat plane like an ellipse in perspective. Again, first catching the eye in the centre, it unfolds like a spiral.

Much of a painter's attention is given to keeping his edges so well guarded that the vision in its circuit may be kept within the canvas. A large proportion of the changes which all pictures pass through in process of construction is stimulated by this consideration—how to stop a wayward eye from getting too near the edge and escaping from the picture. When every practical device has been tried, as a last resource the centre may be strengthened.

In order to settle this point to the student's satisfaction no better proof could be suggested than that he paint in black and white a simple landscape motif, with no attempt to create a focus, with no suppression of the corners and no circuit of objects—a landscape in which ground and sky shall equally divide the interest. He may produce a counterfeit of nature, but the result will rise no higher in the scale of art than a raw print from the unqualified negative in photography. The art begins at that point, and consists in the production of unity, in the establishment of a focus, in the subordination of parts by the establishment of a scale of relative values, and in a continuity of progression from one part to another. The procedure will be somewhat as follows: Decision as to whether the sky or ground shall have right of way; the production of a centre and a suppression of contiguous parts; the feeling after lines which shall convey the eye away from the focal centre and lead it through the picture, a groping for an item, an accent, or something that shall attract the eye away from the corner or side of the picture, where, in following the leading lines, it may have been brought, and back toward the focus again. Here then, will have been described the circuit of which we speak. In the suppression of the corners the same instinct for the elliptical line has been followed, for the composition, by avoiding them, describes itself within the inner space.

[Huntsman and Hounds (Triangle with Circular Attraction); Portrait of Van der Geest—Van Dyck (A sphere within a Circle)]

A composition in an oval or circle is much more easily realized than one occupying a rectangular space, as the vexing item of the corners has been disposed of, and the reason why these shapes are not popularly used is that hanging committees cannot dispose of them with other pictures. The attempt in the majority of compositions, however, is to fit the picture proper to the fluent lines of the circle or oval. In "Huntsman and Hounds," a picture which is introduced because the writer is able to speak of points in its construction which these principles necessitated, the pyramidal form of composition is apparent, and around this a circuit is described by the hand, arm, crop, spot on dog's side, elbow of dog's foreleg, line of light on the other dog's breast, the light on table and chair in background—all being points which catch the eye and keep it moving in a circuit. In the first arrangement of this composition a buffet occupied the space given to the indication of chair and table. This did not assist sufficiently in diverting the awkward line from the left shoulder, down the arm, into the dog's head and out of the picture. Judgment here lay between filling the space with the dog's head, which would have separated it too far from the man, or striving to divert it as noted. The space between this line and the side of the canvas was the difficult space of the picture. There is always a rebellious member in every picture, which continues unruly throughout its whole construction, and this one did not settle itself until several arrangements of the part were tried. In order to divert the precipitate line a persistence of horizontals was necessary—the table, the chair and the shadow on the floor. The shadows and the picture on the wall block the top and sides, and the shadow from the fender indicated along the lower edge complete the circuit and weaken the succession of verticals in the legs of dog and man.


Circular observation in pictures whose structure was apparently not circular leads to the consideration of circular composition, or that class of pictures where the evident intention is to compose under the influence of circular observation—where the circle expresses the first thought in the composition.

This introduces us to the widest reaches of pictorial art, for in this category lie the greatest of the world's pictures. Slight analysis is necessary to discover this arrangement in the majority of the strongest compositions which we encounter. In the Metropolitan and Lenox Galleries of New York, the following pictures may be looked at for this form of structure, showing the circle either in the vertical plane or in perspective. Auguste Bonheur's large cattle-piece, Inness' "Autumn Oaks," Corot's "Ville d'Avray," Knaus' "Madonna," Cabanel's kneeling female figure, Koybet's "Card Players," "Jean d'Arc," by Bastian Lepage; "The Baloon," by Julian Dupre; Wylie's "Death of the Vendean Chief," Leutze's "Crossing of the Delaware," Meissonier's "1807," the three pictures of Turner, "Milton Dictating to His Daughters," by Munkacsy, and Knaus' "Bow at a Peasants' Ball." This list contains the most important works of these collections, and others might easily be added.

The head by Van Dyck carries with it the repose which belongs to the completeness of the circle.

Like Saturn and his ring, this sphere within the circle is typical of harmony in unity, and for this reason, though detached as we know it to be, it has a greater completeness than though joined to a body. It is on this general principle that all circular compositions are based—absorption of the attention within the circuit.

[Marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne—Tintoretto (Circle and Radius); Endymion—Watts (The Circle—Vertical Plane)]

In Tintoretto's "Marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne," the floating figure offers us a shock not quite relieved when we recall the epoch of its production or concede the customary license to mythology. At a period in art when angels were employed through a composition as a stage manager would scatter supernumeraries—to fill gaps or create masses—in any posture which the conditions of the picture demanded, it is not strange that the artist conceived this figure suspended from above in an arc of a circle, if in these lines it served his purpose. In this shape it completes a circuit in the figures, fills the space which would otherwise open a wide escape for the vision, and, by the union of the three heads, joins the figures in the centre of the canvas, completing, with the legs of Ariadne, five radial lines from this focus.

To the mind of a sixteenth century artist, these reasons were more convincing than the objection to painting a hundred and forty pounds of recumbent flesh and blood, with the support unseen. To the modern artist such a conception would be well-nigh impossible, though Mr. Watts gives us much the same action. Here, however, the movement of the draperies supplies motion to the figure of Selene, and as a momentary action we know it to be possible. Were the interpretation of motion by hair and drapery impossible, and the impression, as in the Tintoretto, that of the suspended nude model, it would be safe to say that no modern painter would have employed such a figure. This touch of realism, even among the transcendental painters, denotes the clean-cut separations between the modern and mediaeval art sense.

While these two examples show the "vortex" arrangement with fluent outlines, the portrait(10) by Mr. Whistler expresses the same principles in an outline almost rectangular, but is to be placed in the same category as the other two. The chair-back, the curtain, the framed etching, are all formally placed with respect to the edges of the canvas, and as we observe them in their order, we return in a circuit to the head.

The circle in composition is discoverable in many pictures where there is no direct evidence that the intention was to compose thus, but wherein analysis on these lines proves that, led by unity, balance and repose (cardinal beacon-lights to the mind artistic), the painter naturally did it.

It is of interest to review this picture through its simple evolution. The head conceived in its pose, the next line of interest is one from neck to feet. This, besides being the edge of the black mass of the body, is the more apparent against the light gray wall and as a line is attractive in forming Hogarth's "Line of Beauty." But beautiful as it may be, it commits an unlovely act in cutting a picture diagonally, almost from corner to corner. Interruption of this is effected by the hands and increased by the handkerchief. Shortly below the knee this is diverted by the base-board and at the bottom squarely stopped by the solid rectangle of the stool.

Suppose that the picture on the wall were missing; not only would the long parallelogram of the curtain be unrelieved, but the return of the line to the subject in the ensemble of the picture would be broken. This, therefore, becomes the keystone of the composition. Other considerations besides its diversion from the curtain are, its curtailing of wall space, and, by its close placement to the curtain, its union therewith as a balance for head and body—in bulk of light and dark almost identical with them, though less forcible in tonal value.

In Wiertz's group about the body of Patroclus, though its contour is more decidedly circular (and in the use of this term is always meant a line returning on itself), it fails to prompt circular observation to the same extent as the foregoing. The eye seesaws back and forth along the lines of the hammock arrangement of light, and we are conscious of the extreme balance and the careful parcelling out of the units of force.

With all its evident abandon the method is painfully present, as though the artist, given so much Greek, was careful to add the same amount of Trojan. The level and plummet setting of the group exactly within the sides of the frame, with no suggestion of anything else existing in the world, puts it into the class of formal decoration, with which old masterdom abounds, and whence Wiertz received the inspiration for most of his great compositions.

[The Fight Over the Body of Patroclus—Weirls; 1807—Meissonier; Ville d'Avray—Corot; The Circle in Perspective]

More studiable is the vortex arrangement of the "1807," with its magnificent sweep of cavalry, where the tumultuous energy of one part is augmented by fine antithesis of repose in another. Meissonier's composition was expanded after the first conception was nearly completed. The visitor at the Metropolitan Museum may discover a horizontal line in the sky and a vertical one through the right end. This slight ridge in the canvas shows the dimensions of the original thought. The added space gave larger opportunity for the maneuvres of the cuirassiers, and set Napoleon to the left of the exact centre, where, by the importance of his figure, he more justly serves as a balance for the heavier side of the picture.

As in the Whistler portrait, the keystone was the picture on the wall, in this composition the group of mounted guardsmen on the left gives a circle's unity to it, helps to join the middle distance with the foreground, becomes the third point in the triangle, which gives pyramidal solidity to the composition and is altogether quite as important to the picture as the right wing to an army.

Corot was wont to rely on Nature's gift as she bestowed it, merely allowing his sensitive picture-sense to lead him where pictures were, rather than upon any artful reconstruction of the facts of nature. His "Little Music," as he called it, came for the most part ready-made for him, and he simply caught it and wrote the score. His art is less impressive for composite quality, than, for example, that of Mauve, who, in the same simple range of subject, sought to produce a perfect composition every time. In the "Lake at Ville d'Avray," we have one of Corot's happiest subjects, though not especially characteristic. A considerable part of its charm lies in our opportunity to girdle it with our eye, and in imagination from any point along its rim to view its circumference as a page from Nature, complete.


Circular composition traceable in what has been first conceived as pyramidal or rectangular, circular composition as the first intention, expressed either on a vertical plane or in perspective, i.e., circular or elliptical—and composition made circular not by any arrangement of parts, but by sacrifice and elimination of edges and corners are the three forms of composition which produce circular observation. The value of the circle as a unifying and therefore as a simplifying agent cannot be overestimated, especially in solving the problems which occur in composition where the circle has not been a part of the original scheme, but where, when applied, it seems to bring a relief to confusion and disorder. In many cases where all essential items are happily arranged, but, as a whole, refuse to compose, the addition of some element or the readjustment of a part which will produce circular observation, will ofttimes prove the solution of the difficulty.

[The Hermit—Gerard Dow (Rectangle in Circle); The Forge of Vulcan—Boucher (Circular Observation by Suppression of Sides and Corners)]

Just as progression in a straight line will soon carry us out of the picture, will circular progression keep us within its bounds. If then, circular observation affords the best means of appreciation, it follows that circular composition is the most telling form of presentation. There are many subjects which naturally do not fall in these lines, but which may ofttimes be reedited into this class. This reediting means composition, and two examples from a vast number are here given to show the working out of the problem. In the "Hermit," by Dow, the figure, book and hour glass compose in a simple left angle, but the head becomes the centre to a circular composition by the presence of the arch above and the encircling shadow behind and beneath the arm. The corners sacrifice their space to strengthen the centre and the vision is thus completely funneled upon the head. In striking contrast to this is the composition by Boucher. Here are the elements for two or three pictures thrown into one, and in some respects well governed as a single composition. Conceive, however, this subject bereft of the darkened corners, and the gradations which create a focus. The figures would lie upon the canvas somewhat in the shape of a letter Z, devoid of essential coherence, with the details in the foreground hopelessly exposed as padding.

Another resort in order to secure a vortex, or a centre bounded by a circle, is to surround the head or figure with flying drapery, branch forms, a halo or any linear item which may serve both to cut out and to hem in. It accomplishes something of what the hand does when held as a tunnel before the eye. Such a device offers ready aid to the decorator whose figures must often receive a close encasement, fitted as they are into limited spaces, when many an ungracious line in the subject is made to disappear through the accommodation of pliant drapery or of varied tree forms.

In this class of compositions especially must the background be made the complement of the subject. What the subject fails to contain may there be supplied, a sort of auxiliary opportunity.

The subject, or most interesting part, should lie either within the circuit or be the most important item of the circle. It should never be outside the circle. If it appears there, the eye is thrown off of the elliptical track. If the reader will compare the "Lake at Ville d'Avray" by Corot with his "Orpheus and Eurydice," the charm in the former may reveal itself more completely through the jar to which the latter subjects us. The figures of the divine lyrist and his bride escaping out of one corner of the canvas do not enter at all into the linear scheme and in their anxiety to flee Hades they are about to leave art and the spectator. The picture is a strange counterpart of the Apollo and Daphne of Giorgione at Venice, and since it is known of Corot that he cared infinitely more for nature than art, it is fair to suppose that he had never seen this picture either in the original or reproduction. Had he been governed by the feeling for unity which his works usually display this pitfall in the borders of plagiarism would not have snared him.

[Orpheus and Eurydice—Corot (Figures outside the natural line of the picture's composition); The Holy Family—Andrea del Sarto (The circle overbalanced)]

The "Holy Family," by Andrea del Sarto, is a composition in which the good intention of the artist to make a complete line within the sides of the canvas seems a matter of greater concern than other principles of composition, quite as important. The ellipse of the three figures is beautifully carried out, but it leaves one of them, the most important, in the least important place. The whole composition sags in this direction, the weight of Joseph, in half shadow, being insufficient to recover the balance. With these figures all well drawn and especially adapted in their contours to the organic lines of composition, several rearrangements might be made, as well as other arrangements, with any one of the four figures omitted, its place used for reserved space. No better practice in linear and mass composition could be suggested than slight modification of parts by raising or lowering or spacing or by the reconstruction of the background, of well known pictures in which the composition is confused.

A common mistake in the use of the circular form is that of making it too apparent. A list of pictures might be made wherein the formal lines of construction are very much in evidence. Such could be well headed by Raphael's "Death of Ananias," where the formality of the arrangement is on a par with the strain and effort expressed in every one of its figures. The curved peristyle of kneeling disciples offers a temptation to push the end man and await the result on the others, more to witness a rearrangement than create any further commotion in the infant church. The fact that this work is decorative rather than pictorial in intention cannot relieve the representation of an actual occurrence of the charge of being struck off in an oft-used and well worn mold. Compare with this Rembrandt's famous circular composition, "Christ Healing the Sick," wherein though the weight on either side of Christ is about evenly divided, the formality of placement has been most carefully avoided, and where the impression is merely that the Healer is the centre of a body of people who surround him.

With the great principle of linear composition in mind, namely, that the vision travels in the path of least resistance, no rule need be formulated and no further examples produced to prove that the various items of a composition are taken at their required value to the extent to which they adhere to and partake of the established plan of observation.


The Triangle.

In angular composition the return of the eye over its course, as in circular observation, is practically eliminated. While the circle and ellipse offer a succession of items and events, one the sequence of the other, so that the vision concludes like a boomerang, angular composition sends a shaft direct, with no return.

Here the pleasure of reverie through an endless chain must be exchanged for the stimulation of a shock, for force by concentration, for ruggedness at the expense of elegance.

Pure triangular composition is a form rarely seen, as, in most cases where the lines of the triangle are detected as the first conception, other lines or points have been added to destroy or modify them.

Jacque has been successful in the management of what is considered a difficult form. In the herder with cattle although we feel in the next moment the subject will have passed, while it lasts the artist has kept the eye upon it by the use of dark figures at either end and a concentration of light in the centre; also by the presence of the tree in the distance which turns the eye into the picture as it leaves the cow on the right.

[The Herder—Jaque]

Another example more complete as a composition is his famous "Shepherd and Sheep,"(11) in which the angle is formed by the dark dog at the extreme right, the lines expanding through the figure of the shepherd and thence above into a group of trees and below along the edge of the flock. In this example the base line runs into the picture by perspective and thence back into the picture to the trees.

The "Departure for the Chase," by Cuyp, shows an unsuccessful use of this shape.

In "The Path of the Surf," the main form—the surf—is a triangle and the two supporting spaces triangles. Such a construction is particularly stable, as these focalize on the line of interest. Some artists construct most of their pictures in a series of related triangles. The writer calling upon Henry Bacon found him painting a group of transatlantic travellers on a steamer's deck. He pointed out a scheme of triangles which together formed one great triangle, but said he was looking for the last point for the base of this. A monthly magazine was suggested, which, laid open on its face, proved le dernier clou.


When Giotto was asked for his conception of a perfect building, he produced a circle. When Michael Angelo was appealed to, he designated the cross. On both bases may good architecture and good pictures be founded. If the extremities of the Greek cross be connected by arcs, a circle will result, and if the Latin cross be so bounded we will have a kite-shape, or ellipse. The two designs are, therefore, not as dissimilar as may at first be supposed. In both, from the pictorial standpoint, they are the framework by means of which the same given space may be filled.

The simple vertical line is monotonous. Its bisection produces balance; a cross is the result. Again, two crosses placed together, the arms touching, and three crosses in like position, will represent the picture plan of the grouping so frequently used by Raphael—a central figure balanced by one on either side, the horizon joining them, and behind this the balance repeated in trees and other figures.

Pictorially, the vertical line is much more important than any other. It is the direction of gravity; it represents man upright, in distinction from the brutes; it also can stand alone, all other lines demanding supports. Of two equally forcible lines, this would first be seen. In composition, therefore, it has the right of way.

Let us start with a subject represented by a vertical line—a tree or figure. The directness, rigidity, isolation and unqualified force of such a line demands balance; otherwise, extension is the sole idea. With the thought of a frame or sides of the picture comes the necessary horizontal line, bisecting the vertical. Length and breadth have then been represented, something in two dimensions started, and the four sides of a frame necessitated.

In sculpture this consideration weighs nothing. A statue is framed by all outdoors. The vertical of a single figure pierces the unlimited sky, and the only consideration to the artist is that the mass looks well from any point of view. The group by Carpeaux is a sample of plastic art unusually picturesque, and would easily fit a frame, because in it the vertical figure is supported by horizontals, both of lines and in the idea of lateral movement. It is, therefore, solid and complete and sets forth in its structure the thought of Alexander the Great when he had his artists represent, in a design painted upon his equipments, lasting power as a sword within a circuit.

This piece of sculpture is a cross within a cylinder, but on a flat plane the principle is just as forcible, as will further be shown in the picture by Israels.

[Alone—Jacques Israels (Constructive Synthesis upon the Vertical); The Dance—Carpeaux (The Cross Within the Circle)]

"The Crucifixion," by Morot, is more statuesque than picturesque, and would gain in effect if seen unembarrassed by the limitations of a frame. Its strength in one situation is its weakness in another. The presence of the frame creates three spaces, one above the horizontal and one on either side of the vertical, and these are empty. Therefore, although the single thought of the dying Saviour is sufficiently great to bear—nay, even, perhaps, demand—isolation, it unites itself with nothing else within our compass of vision, and, therefore, cannot be said to compose with its frame. The reader is now in a position to appreciate the simple mechanics which underlie the composition by Israels. In "Alone" the artist starts with the figure of the man—a vertical. The next thought closely allied is the woman. The two complete a cross. From either end two more verticals are erected. On the left another horizontal joins the vertical in the top of the table and unites it with another vertical, the shutter, and so on to the edge of the picture. On the other side the basket top leads off from the vertical and thence down the side to the floor and to the edge of the picture by the lines of fagots. The circuit, which helps to keep the vision in the picture and serves to render more compact the subject proper, is developed by the shelf, weights of the clock, basket, cap, items upon table, shutter and bedpost. For proof that the horizontal lines in this composition were all placed there for the relief of the verticals, with the first of which the picture starts, let us remove the table, basket and bench and see how the arrangement becomes one of quadrangles, paralleling instead of uniting with the sides. In every case, in the accompanying illustrations, there has been an effort to reach out toward the sides and take hold there. Those that have established these points of contact most fully are the most stable and the most satisfying.

In the composition of the "Beautiful Gate," by Raphael, the two pillars, in that they span the whole distance from bottom to top, destroy all chance for unity. Three pictures result instead of one—a triptych elaborately framed. Even with these verticals cutting the picture into sections, had horizontals been introduced between them and in front, or even behind, some of the necessary unity of pictorial structure could have been secured. What connection exists between these several parts is all subjective, but not structural, the impulse to exhibit the wonderful columns in their remarkable perfection of detail being a temptation to which the picture was sacrificed.

Such an exhibition of the uncontrolled vertical produces an effect on a par with a football carried straight across the field and placed on the goal line without opposition. All the strategy of the game is left out, and although the play produces the required effect in the score, a few repetitions of the procedure would soon clear the benches. The interest to the spectators and players alike enters in when the touch-down is accomplished after a series of zigzags toward the outer line, where force meeting force in a counter direction results in a tangent, when the goal is reached by the subtlety of a diagonal. A cushion carom is an artistic thing; a set-up shot is the beginner's delight. In the "Allegory of Spring," by Botticelli, we have a sample of structure lacking both circular cohesion and the stability of the cross adhesion. Like separate figures and groups of a photographic collection, it might be extended indefinitely on either side or cut into four separate panels. The accessories of the figures offer no help of union. Besides the lack of structural unity, no effort toward it appears in the conception of the subject. Each figure or group is sufficient unto itself, and the whole represents a group of separate ideas. This is not composition, but addition.

But what of the single figure in standing portraiture, when only the person is presented, and no thought desired but that of personality, when the outline stands relieved by spaces of nothingness? Though less apparent, the principle of union with the sides still abides. What is known as the lost and found outline is a recognition of this, an effort of the background to become homogeneous with the vertical mass, the line giving way that the surrounding tone may be let in. Such is the feeling with which many of the most subtle of Whistler's full-lengths have been produced. The portraits of Carriere are still more striking examples of absolute dismissal of outline.

In the well-known portrait of "Alice," by Mr. Chase, where the crisp edges of a white dress are relieved against a dark ground, such treatment is impossible. Here, however, the device of flying ribbons is a most clever one, which, besides giving the effect of motion, causes an interruption in these clean-cut outlines, as also in the formal spaces on either side. The horizontal accent of dark through the centre of the canvas, suggesting a grand piano in the dim recesses behind, fulfills a like obligation from the linear as well as tonal standpoint.


As the vertical may be termed the figure painters' line so the horizontal becomes the line of the landscape painter. Given these as the necessary first things, the picture is made by building upon and around them. The devices which aid the figure painter in disposing of one or many verticals have been briefly viewed. A consideration of the horizontal will necessarily take us out of doors to earth and sky, where nature constructs on surfaces which follow the horizon.

The problem in composition which each of these lines presents is the same and the principle governing the solution of each identical; balance by equalization of forces. Given a line which coincides with but one side of the picture it becomes necessary for the poise of the quadrilateral to cross it with an opposing line. The rectangular cross, though more positive and effective, is no more potential in securing this unity than the crossing of lines at a long angle. A series of right angles will in time arrive at the same point as the tangent, but less quickly. Each angle in such an ascent produces the parity of both horizontal and vertical. The tangent expresses their synthesis. In Fortuny's "Connoisseurs," the right angle formed by the line of the mantel and the statue takes the eye to the same point as the tangent of the shadow. Again, the principle allows the modification of any arm of the cross, maintaining only the fact of the cross itself. When a line passes through the first or necessary line of construction it has, so to speak, incorporated itself as a part of the picture, and what it becomes thereafter is of no great importance. If the reader will make simple line diagrams of but a few pictures, this point will be made clear, and it will be found that such diagrams which represent either the actual lines of direction or lines of suggestion from point to point or mass to mass will comfortably fill the quadrilateral of the frame as a linear design.

In all analyses of pictures the student should select the first or most commanding and necessary line of the conception. Having found this thread the whole composition will unravel and disclose a reason for each stitch.

Let a horizontal base line be assumed and verticals erected therefrom, without crossing it. The reason why no picture results is because there is no cross. Such a design would suggest many of Fra Angelico's decorations of saints and angels; or the plan of the better known decoration of "The Prophets" at the Boston Library by Sargent. These groups, it must be remembered, are not pictorial and are not compositions from the picture point of view. Their homogeneity depends not on interchange of line or upon other mechanics of composition, but only upon the unity of associated ideas. In instances, however, where some of the figures of these groups are joined by horizontal lines or masses which bisect these verticals the pictorial intention begins to be felt.

[Sketches from Landscapes by Henry Ranger; Parity of Horizonatals and Verticals; Crossings of Horizontals by Spot Diversion]

Of the accompanying illustrations that of the view on the shore with overhanging clouds shows a most persistent lot of horizontals with nothing but the lighthouse and the masts of the vessels to serve for reactive lines. At their great distance they would accomplish little to relieve this disparity of line were it not for the aid of the vertical pillar of cloud and the pull downward which the eye received in the pool below the shore. The most troublesome line in this picture is the shore line, but an effort is made here to break its monotony by two accents of bushes on either side. What, therefore, would seem to be a composition "going all one way," displays, after all, a strong attempt toward the recognition of the principle of crossed lines.

The sketch shows the constructive lines of a picture by Henry Hanger, and lacks the force of color by which these points are emphasized.

[Sketch from the Book of Truth—Claude Lorrain (Rectangle Unbalanced); The Beautiful Gate—Raphael (Verticals Destroying Pictorial Unity)]

In the wood interior the stone wall is the damaging line. Not only does it parallel the bottom line, always unfortunate, but it cuts the picture in two from side to side. Above this the bottom line of the distant woods gives another paralleling line, running the full length of the picture. Given the verticals together with these, however, their force becomes weakened until there ensues an almost perfect balance, the crossing lines weighing out even. The sketch from Claude Lorraine, out of the "Book of Truth," shows a great left angle composition of line not very satisfactory, owing to its lack of weight for the long arm of the steelyard. The principle, however, which this sketch exhibits is correct, and its balance of composition would be easily effected by the addition of some small item of interest to the extreme left. It is not, however, a commendable type of composition, owing to the difficulty of obtaining a rational balance, but when this is to be had in just its right force the plan of lines is excellent. In the matter of measures, were the whole composition pushed to the left we would at once feel a relief in the spaces. But the impressionist queries why not take it as it stands! So it might be taken, and a most balanced picture painted from it; but these considerations apply to the black and white, without the alteration which color might effect.

[Mother and Child—Orchardson (Horizontals opposed or Covered); Stream in Winter—W. E. Schofield (Verticals and Horizontals vs. Diagonal)]

No less aggravated a case of horizontals is the charming picture of mother and child by Mr. Orchardson. The long cane sofa and the recumbent baby are the two unaccommodating lines for which the mother's figure was especially posed. Howsoever unconscious may appear the renderings of this figure, plus the fan, the underlying structure of it conforms absolutely to the requirements of the unthinking half of the subject. It is an instance of an unpromising start resulting with especial success through skillful playing to its awkward leads.

The principle of the diagonal being equivalent as a space filler to the crossed horizontal and vertical is shown by comparison of the wood interior with the winter landscape, in which the foreground has been thus disposed of. The force of a horizontal is more cleverly weakened by such a line because besides adding variety it accomplishes its intention with less effort. As a warning of what may happen when these principles are neglected or overdone one glance at the equestrian picture by Cuyp is sufficient. His subject, a man on horseback, is an excellent cross of a horizontal and vertical in itself and simply required to be let alone and led away from. The background destroys this and, instead of being an aid to circular observation, persists in adding a line to one in the subject which should have been parried, and thus cuts the picture in two.

Cuyp in this as in another similar picture had in mind light and shade rather than linear composition, but even so, the composition shows little intelligence. No amount of after manipulation could condone so vicious a slaughter of space and line opportunities which the background, with its reduplicating edge, accomplishes.

Study in that vast and changeful realm the sky offers a greater opportunity for selection than any other part of nature.

The sky is but one of two elements in every landscape and in the majority of cases it is the secondary element. If the sky is to agree with an interesting landscape it must retire behind it. If it causes divided interest, its interest must be sacrificed. Drawings, photographs and color studies of skies with the intention of combining them with landscape should be made in the range of secondary interest and with the calculation of their fitting to the linear scheme of landscape. Skies which move away from the horizon diagonally, suggesting the oppositional feeling, are more useful in an artist's portfolio than a series of clouds, the bottoms of which parallel the horizon, especially when these float isolated in the sky. When the formal terrace of clouds entirely fills the sky space, its massive structure is felt rather than the horizontal lines, just as a series of closely paralleled lines becomes a flat tint.


The most elastic and variable of the fundamental forms of composition is the line of beauty, the letter S, or, conceived more angularly, the letter Z. This is one particularly adapted to upright arrangements and one largely used by the old masters. We are able to trace this curvilinear feeling through at least one-third of the great figure compositions of the Renaissance. Note the page of sketches in the chapter on Light and Shade. Though selected for this quality they show a strong feeling for the sweeping line of the letter S. "The Descent from the Cross," a most marked example, can well be considered one of the world's greatest compositions. Over and over again Rubens has repeated this general form and always with great effect. Whether the line is traceable upon the vertical plane or carries the eye into the picture and forms itself into the graceful union of one object with another, its great pictorial power is revealed to any who will look for it.

[Hogarth's Line of Beauty]

In Hogarth's essay on "The Line of Beauty," he sets forth a series of seven curves selecting No. 4 as the most perfect. This is duplicated in nature by the line of a woman's back. If two be joined side by side they produce the beautiful curve of a mouth and the cupid's bow. Horizontally, the line becomes a very serviceable one in landscape. As a vertical it recalls the upward sweep of a flame which, ever moving, is symbolic of activity and life. To express this line both in the composition of the single figure and of many figures was the constant effort of Michael Angelo and, through Marcus de Sciena, his pupil, it has been passed down to us. By the master it was considered most important advice. "The greatest grace," he asserts, "that a picture can have is that it express life and motion, as that of a flame of fire." Yet in the face of such a statement from the painter of the "Last Judgment" it is difficult to reconcile the lack of it in this great picture.

The compound curve which this line contains is one of perfect balance, traceable in the standing figure. As an element of grace, alone, it affords the same delight as the interweaving curves of a dance or the fascination of coiling and waving smoke. Classic landscape, in which many elements are introduced, or any subject where scattered elements are to be swept together and controlled is dependent upon this principle. An absolute line is not of course necessary, but points of attraction, which the eye easily follows, is an equivalent. Many simple subjects owe their force and distinction entirely to a good introduction through a bold sweeping curved line. Thanks to the wagon track of the seashore, which may be given any required curve, the formality and frequent emptiness of this subject is made to yield itself into good composition. When the subject rejects grace and demands a rugged form, the sinuous flow of line may be exchanged for an abrupt and forcible zigzag. In such an arrangement the eye is pulled sharply across spaces from one object to another, the space itself containing little of interest. In the short chapter on Getting out of the Picture, the use of this zigzag line was emphasized.

The opportunity offered in the film-like cirrus clouds, which so frequently lie as the background to the more positive forms of the cumulous, for securing the oppositional feeling, is one frequently adopted by sky painters. Besides strengthening the structure pictorially such arrangement frequently imparts great swing and movement in the lines of a sky, carrying the eye away from the horizon. When positive cloud motion is desired these oppositional masses may become very suggestive of wind, different strata showing a contrasted action of air currents.

As an adjunct to any other form of composition this line may be profitably employed. It plays second with graceful effect in the "Path of the Surf," "The Lovers," "The Stream in Winter," "The Chant," "1807," and is traceable in many of the best compositions.


The last of the great forms of composition is the rectangle, but this always in connection with oppositional balance. Such a form attaches itself to two sides of the picture and the importance of a reacting measure is obvious. In this lies the warrant for its use, for without it unity is impossible. Of the six fundamental forms of composition this is the only one which is dependent, all the others containing within themselves the element of balance.

The rectangle plus the isolated measure approaches the completeness of the cross and in the degree it lacks this completeness it develops opportunities for originality.

In the landscape by Corot the letter L is plainly shown. In the diagram of Fundamental Forms also, the tree-mass, cow and river bank in shadow serve as a sombre foil for the clump of trees upon the opposite shore which are bathed in the soft luminous haze of early morning. This is the real attraction which, grafted upon the heavy structure of the foreground affects us the more through the contrast. In Mr. Pettie's picture of "James II and the Duke of Monmouth," we have the opposition of the two lines, the attraction in the open space being the line of seats along the wall. These, in the dimly lighted interior, are scarcely assertive enough to effect the diversion which the open structure demands.

In perspective this arrangement merges into the triangle which has already been discussed. The "Sheep and Shepherd," by Jacque is constructed upon the L reversed and is an unusually strong example of a rare arrangement.


Structural line, or that which stands for the initial form of the picture and conjunctive line, or that which joins itself naturally to such form are the two phases of line which engage the scientific study of the artist. Line for line's sake is an opportunity offered him quite apart from structural considerations. Line has a distinct aesthetic value no less than one contributive to picture mechanics. Thus pictures conceived in vertical lines bespeak dignity, solemnity, quietude; pillars, trees of straight shaft, ascending smoke and other vertical forms all voice these and allied emotions. With slightly less force does a series of horizontals affect us and with a kindred emotion. But when the line slants and ceases to support itself, or becomes curved, movement is suggested and another set of emotions is evoked. The diagonal typifies the quick darting lightning. The vertical curved line is emblematic of the tongue of flame; the horizontal curve, of a gliding serpent. In the circle and ellipse we feel the whirl and fascination of continuity. The linear impulse in composition therefore plays a part in emotional art independent of the subject itself.

[Aesthetics of Line; The Altar; Roman Invasion—F. Lamayer (Vertical line in action; dignified, measured, ponderous); The Flock—P. Moran (The horizontal, typifying quietude, repose, calm, solemnity); The curved line: variety, movement; Man with Stone—V. Spitzer (Transitional Line, Cohesion); The Dance—Rubens (The ellipse: line of continuity and unity); Swallows—From the Strand (The diagonal: line of action; speed)] [Aesthetics of Line, Continued, Where Line is the motive and Decoration is the Impulse; Winter Landscape—After Photograph (Line of grace, variety, facile sequence); Line Versus Space (The same impulse with angular energy, The line more attractive than the plane); Reconciliation—Glackens (Composition governed by the decorative exterior line); December—After Photograph (Radial lines with strong focalization)]

Pictorial art owes a large and increasing debt to decorative art and no small part of this is its simple beauty of line. It is rare however to find the painter governed in his first conception by any positive linear form. The outlines of great compositions only hint of decorative structure and give no evidence that they were planned as linear designs. The requirement of linear design that she beautifully fill a space is met by pictorial composition through the many correlative opportunities which in her broader range are open to her, by which she adds to the fundamental forms of construction (which often prove bad space fillers) such items as connect their outlines with the encasement or frame. With some ingenuity advocates of pure design as the basis of pictorial structure, point out the similarity of certain compositions to formal, ornamental design or type forms of plants, flowers, etc., yet omit to state how many of the best compositions they reject in their search for the happy hit or to allow for the fact that in those which they cite, cruel disturbance of the beautiful scheme could easily be wrought by slight reconstruction, leaving the work quite as good. The author's contention is directly opposed to the notion that pictorial art is dependent on the flat plan of the design, which is only contributory, but that its essence is known by an apprehension of balance through the depth of the picture. Pictorial art is not an art of two dimensions but of three.


Starting with a single idea represented by a single unit the coexistent thought must be the frame or canvas circumference. Supplying this we may then think of the unit as a matter of proportion. When the amount of space allowed the unit has been decided, the space between its circumference and the dimensions of the canvas, or what may be called the surplus or contributing area is the only thing that remains to engage us. Let the unit be a standing figure, or a portrait, head and shoulders.

The unification of a unit, enclosed in four sides, with those sides can only be accomplished by either having the mass of the figure touch the sides of the canvas, or stretch toward them with that intent. According to the strength or number of such points of attachment will the unit be found to maintain a stable existence amid its surroundings. In the case of the single figure standing within the frame where no chance of contact occurs, the background should show an oppositional mass or line attaching at some point the vertical sides of the figure to the sides of the canvas. An equivalent of such a line is a gradation, often the shadow from the figure serving to effect this union. If the shadow unites the outline with the background in such a tone as to subdue or destroy this outline, the attachment becomes stronger and at the same time the positiveness of outline on the light side finds its contrast and balance in this area of mystery and envelopment.

A development by chiaroscuro is a necessity to the pictorial unity of the single figure.

In the portrait of Olga Nethersole (see "The Pose in Portraiture"), the photographer presents the section of a figure; not a picture. The spaces in the background form no scheme with the figure and have not been used to relieve the lines of the skirt. The sacrifice in half-tone of the lower part would have given prominence to the upper and more important part. Owing to the interest and attraction of the triplicated folds of the dress the vision is carried all the way to the lower edge, where it is irritated by the sudden disappearance. The picture has no conclusion. It is simply cut off, and so ended.

It is the opinion of some artists that the portrait having for its purpose the presentation of a personality should contain nothing else. With the feeling that the background is something that should not be seen, more art is often expended in painting a space with nothing in it than in putting something there that may not be seen. In doing nothing with a background a space may be created that says a great deal that it should not.

There is nothing more difficult than the composition of two units especially when both are of equal prominence. The principle of Principality sets its face sternly against the attempt.

One must dominate, either in size, or attraction, either by sentiment or action.

Art can show distinguished examples of two figures of equal importance placed on the same canvas, but pictorially they lack the essential of complete art,—unity. The critical study of this problem by modern painters has secured in portraiture and genre much better solutions than can be found in the field of good painting up to the present. We may look almost in vain through old masterdom and through the examples of the golden age of portraiture in England, discovering but few successes of such combination in the works of Gainsborough, Reynolds and others.

The foreplacement of one figure over another does not always mean prominence for it. Light, as an element, is stronger than place. On this basis where honors are easy with the two subjects one may have precedence of place and one of lighting.

The difficulty in the arrangement of two is in their union. If, for instance, they are opposed in sentiment as markedly as two fencers there yet must be a union secured in the background. If placed in perspective, perspective settles most of the difficulty.

[Unity and its Lack; The Lovers—Gussow; The Poulterers—Wallander ]

The accompanying pictures are examples at both ends of the scale. "The Lovers," in construction, shows what all pictures demand, the centripetal tendency. All the elements consist. As a picture it is complete; another figure would spoil it for us and them. Not so the "Poulterers"; persons could come and go in this picture without effecting it. It is but a section at best. One can imagine a long row of pickers, or we could cut it through the centre and have two good studies. There is no union. The other contains principality, transition of line, balance of light and shade, circular observation, opposition of color values and the principle of sacrifice.

In Mr. Orchardson's "Mother and Child" the first place is given to the child in white; the background carries the middle tint and the mother has been reserved in black. Greater sacrifice of one figure to another, the mother to the child, is seen in Miss Kasebier's picture of a nude infant held between the knees of the mother whose face is so abased as to be unseen; or in John Sargent's portrait of a boy seated and gazing toward us into space while his mother in the half-shadow of the background reads aloud. The greatest contributing force to contrast is sacrifice. The subject is known to be important by what is conceded to it.

The portrait of two gentlemen by Eastman Johnson is one of the most successful attempts at bringing two figures of equal importance on to one canvas. They are in conversation, the one talking and active, the other listening and passive, and the necessary contrast is thus created.

In the combination of three units the objection of formal balance disappears. If one be opposed by two, the force gained by the one through isolation commensurates the two. In such arrangement the two may be united by overlapping so that though the sense and idea of two be present it is shown in one mass as a pictorial unit. This general disposition, experience shows to be the best. Two other good forms are two separated units joined by other items and opposed to one, or the three joined either directly or by suggestion, the units balanced like a triangle by opposition. The Madonna and St. John with the Infant Christ is a sample of the first. In the "Connoisseurs" by Fortuny we have the second form, and in the "Huntsman and Hounds" the third. A most original and commendable arrangement of three figures by W. L. Hollinger appears in "The Pose in Portraiture," the members of a trio, violin, cello and piano. The pianist is designated by the suggestion of her action which is completed out of the picture. In her position however she accomplishes the balancing of two figures against one.


A writer on the use of the figure in out-of-door photography after leading the reader through many pages concludes by saying: after all you had better leave them out.

In two works on photography from an English and American press the writer has seen this article quoted in full and therefore infers that the author has been taken seriously.

The relation of Man to Nature, and the sentiment, interchangeable, proceeding from one to the other, is a link binding the one to the dust from which he sprang and the other to the moods of man to which she makes so great an appeal. It is a union of a tender nature to the real lover of the voiceless influences which surround him:

"Tears, idle tears," "I know not what they mean," "Rise in the heart and gather to the eyes" "In looking on the happy Autumn fields."

Can a sentiment so strong in fact, be divorced in art? It is the fulcrum on which the art of Mauve and Millet and Walker lifts and turns us. It is not necessary to mention other painters; but to the case in point observe that at Barbizon a photographer of artistic perceptions has for years followed in the footprints of Millet. If nature moves us directly she will move us through our own kind. We feel the vastness of a scene by the presence of a lone figure. The panoramic grandeur of the sky attracts us the more if it has also appealed to a figure in the picture. But beyond this affinity in the subject there are sufficient reasons why the figure should be included. The figure can be moved about as a knight in the game, hither and yon as the fixed conditions of topography demand. Many a landscape which would be entirely useless without such an element is not only redeemed, but is found to be particularly prepared and waiting for this keystone. Take for example a picture in which lines are paralleling one another in their recession from the foreground or where there is a monotony in any horizontal sequence. The vertical of the figure means the balance of these. The principle is one already noted, action balancing action in contrary direction.

What of the nymphs of Corot, or the laveuses bending at the margin of the lake, the plowman homeward plodding o'er the lea, the shepherd on the distant moor, the woodsman in the forest, the farmer among his fields. We associate our vision of the scene with theirs. When as mere dots they are discerned, the vastness of their surroundings is realized at their expense and the exclamation of the psalmist is ours: "What is man that thou art mindful of him."

The danger in the use of the figure is that it is so frequently lugged in. The friends that happen to be along are often made to do. There is no case where the fitness of things is more compulsory than in the association of figures with landscape. The haymaker creates a sensation on Broadway but no more so than Dundreary crossing a plowed field in Oxford ties. As the poetry of a Corot landscape invites the nymphs to come and the ruggedness of the Barbizon plain befits the toiling peasants of Millet, so should our landscape determine the chord in humanity to be harmoniously played with it.

A fault in construction is frequently seen in the lack of simplicity of foreplane and background. It must first be determined whether it is to be a landscape with figures or figures in landscape. The half one and half another picture is a sure failure.

The most serviceable material one may collect in sketching are such positions which play second or third parts in composition; cattle or other animals in back or three-quarter view which readily unite with and lead to their principals.

In the selection of the subject the main object has most of one's thought. This however usually "goes" without thought, asserting itself by its own interest. Figures which are less interesting than this and still less, such as will combine with the subject proper, are what the painter and illustrator long for. As with the background, those things which are not of sufficient interest to be worth while in themselves are, owing to their lesser significance, of the utmost importance to the composer. Note in the usual Van Marke cattle picture of five cows, the diminishing interest in the other four, or the degree of restraint expressed in most of the figures successfully introduced into landscape.


In the statuesque group the outline is important because this is seen against the background of wall, or sky, and frequently in silhouette. Any fault in its contour as a mass is therefore emphasized. This consideration applies pictorially to groups which are complete in themselves and have no incorporation with backgrounds, such for instance as the photographic group of a number of people. Here personality is the first requirement, but harmony of arrangement and picturesqueness may be united thereto. The two best shapes are the oval and the pyramid. In either of these outlines there is opportunity for a focal centre, always important. In forming such an arrangement the focus should be the first consideration, item by item being added. As the group approaches the outline it must be governed according to the form desired. A more artistic combination of figures will be found to be a separation into a large and a small group, the principal figure placed in either. If in the former, the figures of the smaller group must be sacrificed to this figure, either in pose or lighting. If the principal figure is in the smaller group or entirely separate, this isolation will prove sufficient for the distinction.

Where greater liberties may be taken and the intention is for a purely artistic composition, the curvilinear S shape will be found a good line to build upon. When this is too apparent a single oppositional figure will destroy its formality.

The possibilities of the single figure as a reserve, kept to be placed at the last moment where something is necessary, are worth noting. If the group be too formal in outline, lateral arrangement, or expression, the reserve may be played as a foil to create a diversion.

In all successful groups the principle of sacrifice must play havoc. Here the artist should expect to pay for his art scruples. Rembrandt was the first painter sacrificed to these instincts. When the order to paint the "Municipal Guard" came to him he saw in it an opportunity toward the pictorial. Knowing what this entailed he persevered, despite the mutterings of his sitters, the majority of whom were ill pleased with their respective positions. When finally the canvas was finished, full of mystery and suggestiveness and those subtle qualities, such as before had never been seen in Dutch art, those for whom it had been executed expressed their opinion by giving an order for the same to a rival. His picture is a collection of separate individuals, each having an equal importance. Here was the sudden ending of Rembrandt's career as a painter of portraits, only one canvas of an important group being painted thereafter—the "Syndics." A certain reason in this popular criticism cannot be denied. The composition is unnecessarily scattered and the placements arbitrary, though through the radial lines of pikes and flag pole the scattered parts are drawn together. The composition partakes of the confusion of the scene depicted, yet in its measure of parts one can doubt not that the comparative values of his sitters have been considered.

The democracy of man in his freedom and equality is the despair of the artist who knows that the harmony of the universe is conditional on kingship and principalities and powers, and the scale of things from the lowest to the highest.

Says Mr. Ruskin: "The great object of composition being always to secure unity—that is, to make many things one whole—the first mode in which this can be effected is by determining that one feature shall be more important than all the rest and that others shall group with it in subordinate position."

Principality may be secured either by attraction of light as in a white dress or by placing the figure as the focus of leading lines as are supplied by the architecture of a building, or such lines as are happily created by surrounding figures which proceed toward the principal one, or by including such a figure in the most important line. Again the figure for such a position may be the only one in a group which exhibits unconcern or absolute repose, the others by expression or action acknowledging such sovereignty.

The summer time out-of-door group which is so frequently interesting only to "friends," in many cases affords opportunities for pictures attractive to all. The average photographer is concerned only with his people; the background is brought to mind when he sees the print. Although little or no interest may be found in the background it should be appropriate, and should play a reserve part, serving the chiaroscuro and therefore the illumination of the subject and creating an opportunity for the exit which always gives depth and an extended interest. A mass of foliage with little penetration by the sky except in one or two places and at the side, not the centre, may always be found safe. If the attraction is too great the group suffers. Appreciating the importance of his setting for groups the photographer must select these with three points in view; simplicity, uninterest and exit in background; simplicity, uninterest and leading line or balancing mass or spot (if required) in foreground. When looking for backgrounds he may feel quite sure he has one if it is the sort of thing he would never dream of photographing on its own account. Besides being too interesting, most backgrounds are inappropriate and distracting. The frequent commendations and prizes accorded to good subjects having these faults and therefore devoid of unity tell how little even photographic judges and editors think on the appropriate and essential ensemble in composition.

With the background in unobjectionable evidence the photographer should rapidly address his posers a little lecture on compositional requirements and at the end ask for volunteers for the sacrificial parts, at the same time reminding them that the back or side view is not only characteristic of the person but often very interesting. He should maintain that a unity be evident in the group; of intent, of line, and of gradation. The first is subjective and must be felt by the posers. The other two qualifications are for the artist's consideration. At such a time his acquaintance with examples of pictorial art will come to his aid. He must be quick to recognize the possibilities of his material which may be hurriedly swept into one of the forms which have justified confidence.

When a continuity of movement has been secured, a revisionary glance must be given to determine if the whole is balanced; background, foreground and focus, one playing into the other as the lines of a dance, leading, merging, dissolving, recurring.

Mindful of the distractions of such occasions, the wise man has done his thinking beforehand, has counted his figures, has noted the tones of clothing and has resolved on his focal light. With this much he has a start and can begin to build at once. His problem is that of the maker of a bouquet adding flower to flower around the centre.

To make a rough sketch from the models themselves posed and thought over, with the opportunity for erasures of revisions before leading them out of doors, often proves economy of time.

It is a custom of continental painters to compose extensive groups and photograph them for study in arrangement. The author has seen numerous compositions in photography in which artists have posed as characters of well-known paintings.

Much can be learned of good grouping from the stage, especially the French stage. The best managers start with the picturesque in mind and are on the alert to produce well arranged pictures. The plays of Victorien Sardou and the classic dramas of the state theatre are studies in the art of group arrangements.

It will be noticed in most groups that there is an active and a passive element, that many figures in their reserve are required to play second to a few. The active principle is represented by these to whom a single idea is delivered for expression.

[Return of Royal Hunting Party—Isabey; The Night Watch—Rembrandt]

In "The Return of the Hunting Party" the group of hounds, huntsman and deer is such an element of reserve, contrasting its repose with the bustle and activity of the visitors. It is a diversion also for the long line stretching across the picture. This is the more evident through the repetition of it in the line of the second-story and roof and below in the line of game which unnecessarily extends the group of hounds. A relief for the insistent line of the figures could have been supplied by lighter drapery back of the table. This then would have created a cross tone connecting the hounds in a curve with the upper centre panel. It is a picture in five horizontal strips, and is introduced for the warning it contains in its treatment of a group which is in itself a line. The well-known "Spanish Marriage" by Fortuny also shows the reserve group, but the contrast is more positive both in repose and color. The main and more distant group is well centralized and there is a clever diminuendo expressed in its characters.

[Departure for the Chase—Cuyp (Background Compromising Original Structure); Repose of the Reapers—L. L'hermite (The Curvilinear Line)]

In "The Reapers" this idea has apt illustration. The figure in the foreground is in contrast with the remaining three, both as an oppositional line and in his action, the three being in repose. The single figure, though active, does not attract as much as the child who receives importance from the attention of the two figures. Her position, opposed to the two, turns the interest back into the group. In all the compositions by this master one is impressed by the grace and force of the arrangement. A small portfolio of his charcoal reproductions or a few photographs of his pictures should be a part of the print collection of every artist. No better designer of small groups ever lived.

With the amount of good art now coming from the camera it is strange that no groups of note have been produced.(12) In the field of pure portraiture the attempt may as well be abandoned. The photographer can at best but mitigate conditions. The picture group can only apply when sacrifice and subordination are possible.

A study of famous groups will settle this and other points mentioned, beyond question. In the religious group, where the idea of adoration was paramount, the principal figure was usually, though not always, given place in the upper part of the picture toward which by gestures, leading lines or directed vision our attention is drawn at once. Note the figures which sacrifice to this effect in the "Transfiguration," "The Immaculate Conception," "The Sistine Madonna," "The Virgin Enthroned," "The Adoration of the Magi," and in fact all of the world famous compositions of the old religious art.

[The Decorative and Pictorial Group; Allegory of Spring—Botticelli (Separated concepts expressing separate ideas); Dutch Fisher Folk—F. V. S. (Separated concepts of one idea); The Cossack's Reply—Repin (Unity through a cumulative idea)]

In one of the most famous of modern groups "The Cossacks Reply to the Sultan of Turkey," by the greatest of Russian painters Elias Repine, the force given to the hilarious frenzy of the group by the occasional figure in repose is easily apparent.

The answer to a summons for surrender is being penned upon a rude table around which press close the barbaric leaders of the forces gathered in the distance. Some are lolling on wine casks, others indifferently gaze at the fingers of the clerk as he carefully pens the document, others smoke silently, one is looking out of the picture as though unconcerned. Yet life and movement are instinct in every part, for though the action is consigned to but a few,—these form a series of small climaxes through the entire circumference of the group and we feel in another moment that the passive expressions will in their turn be exchanged for the mad ribaldry of laughter which has seized their brethren. The group is a triumph for several aesthetic realities produced and heightened by contrast and subordination.

The principality of repose is well illustrated in the group of "The Chant" where the inaction of the woman dominates through its contrast with the effort expressed by the other members of the group.

There are three types of group composition; first, where the subject's interest is centred upon an object or idea within the picture as in "The Cabaret" or Rembrandt's "Doctors" surrounding a dissecting table; second, where the attraction lies outside the picture as in the "Syndics" or the "Night Watch," and third, where absolute repose is expressed and the sentiment of reverie has dominated the group, as in "The Madonna of the Chair," and the ordinary family photograph.

The spiritual or sentimental quality of the theme should have first consideration and dictate the form of arrangement. A unity between the idea and its form of expression constitutes the desideratum of refinement in composition.


In this familiar term in art the importance of the two elements is suggested in their order.

The effort of the painter is ever in the direction of light. This is his thought. Shade is a necessity to the expression of it.

Chiaroscuro,—from the Italian, light obscure, in its derivation, gives a hint of the manufacture of a work of light and shade.

Light is gained by sacrifice. This is one of the first things a student grasps in the antique class. Given an empty outline he produces an effect of light by adding darks. So do we get light in the composition of simple elements, by sacrifice of some one or more, or a mass of them, to the demands of the lighter parts. "Learn to think in shadows," says Ruskin. Rembrandt's art entire, is the best case in point. A low toned and much colored white may be made brilliant by dark opposition. The gain to the color scheme lies in its power to exhibit great light and at the same time suggest fullness of color.

As we have discussed line and mass composition as balanced over the central vertical line, so is the question of light and shade best comprehended, as forces balancing, over a broad middle tint. The medium tint is the most important, both for tone and color. This commands the distribution of measures in both directions; toward light and toward dark. Drawings in outline upon tinted paper take on a surprising finish with a few darks added for shadow and the high lights touched in with chalk or Chinese white. The method in opaque water color, employed by F. Hopkinson Smith and others, of working over a tinted paper such as the general tone of the subject suggests, has its warrant in the early art of the Venetian painters. If a blue day, a blue gray paper is used; if a mellow day, a yellow paper.

In pictorial art the science of light and dark is not reducible to working formulae as in decoration, where the measures of Notan are governed on the principle of interchange. Through decoration we may touch more closely the hidden principles of light and shade in pictures than without the aid of this science, and the artist of decorative knowledge will always prove able in "effect" in his pictorial work.

With that clear conception of the power of the light and the dark measure which is acquired in the practice of "spotting" and filling of spaces, especially upon a middle tint, the problem of bringing into prominence any item of the picture is simplified upon the decorative basis.

Pictorially the light measure is more attractive than the dark, but the dark in isolation is nearly as powerful.

With this simple notion in mind the artist proceeds upon his checker-board opposing force to force.

With him the work can never be as absorbing as to the decorator whose items are all of about the same value and of recurring kinds. The subject dictates to the painter who must play more adroitly to secure an effect of light and shade by the use of devices such as nature offers.

As a matter of brilliancy of light, with which painting is concerned, the effect is greater when a small measure of light is opposed to a large measure of dark than when much light is opposed to little dark. Comparison between Whistler's "Woman in White," a white gown relieved against a white ground, the black of the picture being the woman's hair, and any one of the manger scenes of the fifteenth century painters with their concentration of light will prove how much greater the sense of light is in the latter.

When much light and little dark produces great brilliancy it is usually by reason of a gradation in the light, giving it a cumulative power, as is seen in the sky or upon receding objects on a foggy day. A small dark added, intensifies the light, not only by contrast of measure, but in showing the high key of the light measures.

Accents of dark produce such snappiness as is commended by the publisher who esteems the brilliancy which a rapid interchange of lights and darks always yields, a sparkle, running through the whole and easily printed. The works of Mr. Wenzell as a single example of this quality, or of Mr. Henry Hutt, in lighter key, will be found to gain much of their force from a very few accents of dark. On the other hand when the work deals with a medium tone and darks, with few high lights, these gain such importance as to control the important items.

The value of the middle tint, when not used as the under tone of a picture is apparent as balancing and distributing the light and dark measures of objects. When, for instance, these three degrees of tone are used, if the black and white are brought together and the middle tone opposed a sense of harmony results. The black and white if mixed would become a middle tone. We feel the balance of measures without synthesis or inquiry. Many of the compositions of Tolmouche of two and three female figures are thus disposed, one figure having a gray dress and one a black dress and white waist, or a black figure and white are placed together and opposed to a figure in gray. In Munkacsy's "Milton Dictating to His Daughters," the broad white collar of the poet contrasted with his black velvet suit, is well balanced and distributed by the medium tones of the three dresses.

[Fundamental Forms of Chiaroscuro; Whistler's Portrait of his Mother; Moorland—E. Yon; Charcoal Study—Millet; The Arbor—Ferrier] [Fundamental Forms of Chiaroscuro, Continued; Landscape—Geo. Inness; The Kitchen—Whistler; St. Angela—Robt. Reid; An Annam Tiger—Surrand; The Shrine—Orchardson; Monastic Life—F. V. DuMond]

An accent is forcible in proportion as its own unit of intensity is distributed over the space on which it is placed. Take for instance a picture in India ink of a misty morning wherein the whole landscape may be produced with a small drop of ink spread in light gradations upon ten by fourteen inches square. An object in the foreground one by two inches in which the same measure of black is used will of course possess powerful attraction. If, however, this measure be expanded the gain in bulk will be balanced by the loss in intensity. Less attraction for the object is given either by increasing the intensity of the surrounding tint or decreasing its extent. In the two pictures by Gerome of lions, the one in the midst of the vast space of desert obtains its force from its dark isolated in a large area. In the other picture the emerald green eyes of the lion are the attraction of the picture, as points of light relieved by the great measures of dark of the lion, together with the gloom of the cave.

The message of impressionism is light, as the effort of the early painters was to secure light, the quest of all the philosophies. The impressionist calls upon every part of his work to speak of light, the middle tint, the high lights and the shadow all vibrating with it. From the decorative point of view alone, the picture, as a surface containing the greatest amount of beauty of which the subject is capable is more beautiful when varied by many tones, or by few, in strong contrast, than when this variety or contrast is wanting. Those decorative designs have the strongest appeal in which the balancing measures are all well defined. There are schemes of much dark and little light, or the reverse, or an even division, and in each case the balance of light and dark is sustained; for when there is little dark its accenting power is enhanced and when little light is allowed, it, in the same manner, gains in attraction. But light and dark every work of art must have; for to think of light without dark is impossible. When, therefore, the artist begins a picture his first thought is what is to be the scheme of light and shade? The direction or source of the light helps a decision. The illumination of the subject is a study most easily proceeded with by induction, from particular cases to general conclusions.

[A Reversible Effect of Light and Shade (The Same Subject Vertically and Horizontally Presented)]

The effectiveness of the first of the two reversible photographs is as great as the last and the subject as picturesque though it be discovered that the first is the second placed on end. It is able to satisfy us not only because of the happy coincidence that the leaves upon the bridge represent bark texture and the subdued light upon its near end creates the rotundity of the trunk or that a distant tree serves as the horizontal margin of a pool, but because its light and shade is conceived upon the terms of balance expressing in either position one of the fundamental forms of light and shade and lineal construction, that of the rectangle in either light or dark together with an oppositional measure—the light through the distant trees.

With the history of art and the world's gallery of painting spread out before us, we may take a continuous view of the whole field. Leaving out the painters of the experimental era let us begin with the great masters of effect.

Sir Joshua Reynolds tells us it was his habit in looking for the secrets of the masters of painting to make rough pencil notes of those pictures that attracted him by their power of effect as he passed from one gallery to another. He found almost all of them revealed a broad middle tone which was divided again into half dark and half light tones, and these, added to the accents of light and dark made five distinct tones. The Venetian painters attracted him most and, he says, speaking of Titian, Paul Veronese and Tintoret, "they appeared to be the first painters who reduced to a system what was before practised without any fixed principle." From these painters he declares Rubens extracted his scheme of composition which was soon understood and adopted by his countrymen, even to the minor painters of low life in the Dutch school.

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