“The Convalescent” by Willard Leroy Metcalf belongs to the representational style. The title of the work suggests expounding on the story of the depicted person. Presumably, she had been ill but started recovering. The title helps to find the emotional key to reading the canvas. It helps the viewer to understand the theme of the work and make associations with the word. Some people will associate convalescence with rest and soundness while others will pay attention to continuity and incompleteness of the denoted characteristic. In such a way, associations with the effects of illness may appear. In my interpretation, the title emphasizes a positive change in someone’s health, and more globally, the triumph of life.
- What kinds of lines do you see? Outlines, contour lines, implied lines? Expressive or analytical? Describe them.
- How is line employed in the work? Does it show movement or action? Does it seem to regulate or order the composition? Does it seem to fragment the work?
It may help to draw a sketch of the implied lines of the work.
The painting comprises a variety of lines. Some of them indicate the girl’s figure and the general contours of the pillow, the book, and the bed frame. They are soft, a little blurred, especially the right edge of the pillow. Admittedly, the painter also used implied lines in depicting the folds of the blanket. Those darker lines put radiantly around the girl’s head stress the sunlight direction on the white bedclothes. Thus, they create a triangle around the face making a sense of the sunlight direction and attracting attention to the face. In addition, these lines produce the three-dimensional effect.
Lines may possess certain intellectual, emotional, and expressive qualities (Sayre, 2012). In Metcalfe’s work, they also reveal the mood of “The Convalescent”. They do not explicitly express any emotion, but the curve lines that depict folds on the bed sheet and the girl’s curls transmit a kind of pleasantly chaotic atmosphere of rest. The orientation of lines on the right sight is vividly diagonal, which enhances the effect of emotional victory against rationality. The different types of lines amplify the whole painting perception and play various compositional and emotional roles.
Light and Color-
- How do light and dark function within the work?
- Is there a great deal of tonal contrast, or is it held to a minimum? What is the overall value of the work?
- Does the artist use chiaroscuro, hatching, or tenebrism?
- Describe the colors carefully.
- What is the predominant color scheme of the work? Is a particular color scheme used or does the artist use a certain kind of color (local, perceptual, optical, arbitrary)?
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Several main colors and their shades form the basis of the painting. Although the color is an essential part in defining the contour of a figure, its shape and mass (Sayre, 2012), the prominent role of creating shades and spatial relationships belongs to light. The effect of lightening is provided by using tints of basic colors. The highlighted areas of the pillows, the blanket, the girl’s hand and clothes help to define their volume. In addition, those areas enable the viewer to imagine the spatial placement of the composition towards the source of light. The direction of shades falling on the bedclothes allows making an assumption that the girl’s bed is situated near the window or under the sconce. Therefore, by using both the colors and shapes the artist transmitted the spatial relationships between objects on the canvas and emphasized their volume.
To describe the colors thoroughly, it should be noted that the painting comprises both cold and warm palettes. The painter applied a complementary color scheme represented in hints from gray, light gray, blue, light blue, white to the oppositional beige color of the girl’s skin, orange and deep orange details of her clothes, and the dark hair. The warm colors are noticeably saturated. On the contrary, the cold palette is more dimmed and less densified. The canvas contains some intermediate colors. For instance, a yellow-red hue on the wall on the right can be noticed. This color is used to paint a wall above the girl’s head and the frame of her bed. Along with that, a combination of green and gray has been used on the lower corner part of the wall. It stresses the dimness of that farther part of the room. The two elements on the canvas fall into a minimal contrast: the dark brown hair with a golden hue is opposed to the dominant white color. However, this contrast does not seem to have any symbolic meaning. Most of the colors are local and perceptual (in those highlighted elements of the composition).
The dominant colors are white and its grayish shades. People traditionally associate the white color with positive emotions and processes. It seems that the artist transmitted his own vision of the represented composition and represented it through the changing variety of values of the same color, especially white. It varies in a broad range from light tints to bluish and grayish hues. Therefore, the palette gives a reason to interpret the whole picture’s mood as waiting for some positive changes, with the remaining feeling of some “grayish” existential tones.
Shape and Space-
- What kind of shapes, real or implied, do you see in the work? Can you talk about positive and negative space?
- Does the work create the illusion of 3-dimensional space? How?
- Or, does the artist choose to not create that illusion? How?
“The Convalescent” depicts the real shape that is represented in space not limited by width and length. There is no negative space to outline the volume of a figure. Noticeably, the illusion of three-dimensional space is present, which allows concentrating on the depth of the canvas. The illusion is reached by using elements of a two-point linear perspective because some objects are visually placed closer to the vantage point than the others. To be precise, the pillow bending on the upper part of the picture is created by the two lines crossing. Therefore, the vanishing points may be the upper parts of the pillows. They are the tops of the visual triangle defining outer farther space behind the visible edges of the pillows.
Using some elements of the linear perspective is not the only way the artist creates a three-dimensional effect. The artist applied foreshortening to make the picture look more realistic so that the book, legs and the part of the body covered with a blanket are depicted on the front side of the painting. On the contrary, the girl’s head is portrayed visually farther. In this way, the “closer extremities are adjusted in order to make up for distortion created by point of view” (Sayre, 2012). Thus, the head, hands, the book and the blanket are placed in a way that enables the viewer to perceive the whole placement of the body in space with minimal optical distortion. To sum up, the elements of linear perspective and foreshortening have been used in “The Convalescent” to present the three-dimensional space.
- Actual or visual? What sort of surface texture or illusion of texture does the artist create? How?
The precise defining is possible by standing in front of the real canvas and examining it. Anyhow, it is possible to discuss the visual impression of the texture that the artist created. The painting seems to have a visual texture of folds prominence. According to the picture photos, the actual texture is smooth. The visual illusion of volume has been created by the light and shade effects, as well as the direction of lines. For instance, the lines defining the borders of the girl’s hand. In addition, the contours of figures and objects visually seem to be a little humid. Certainly, the real painting feels dry. Although the painter’s brush trace does not look big or coarse, some objects in the painting seem to have rough and ragged contours, such as the edge of the pillow on the right side of the canvas. It appears to have a few white threads sticking around. Taking into account the three-dimensional spatial effect, this element emphasizes the illusion although the texture is two-dimensional and smooth.
- Is pattern used anywhere in the work? How does the artist use it?
There is an only pattern element in the painting. It is represented in an ornament of the girl’s shirt sleeve. It is depicted as an ensemble of orange and green elements on the white and grayish cloth of the sleeve. This pattern does not seem to be an emphasized object. The beholder’s attention is attracted more by the folds on the surface than the ornament; thus, the ornament is almost lost in folds. The artist does not emphasize it, but the detail may tell something about the person who is wearing the patterned shirt. For example, it may help to understand what social status of the girl belonged to, or facilitate getting some other minor details.
Time and Motion-
- Does the artist create a sense of time or movement in the piece? How?
- Is there a narrative that seems to unfold in the course of the work?
Technically, the painting shows a static composition because the depicted situation is not dynamic. The girl is reading, so the motions the picture fixes can be interpreted through reading the canvas. The motions that can be imagined are turning pages and pupil movement while browsing pages. The canvas creates a sense of harmony in a calm and relaxed atmosphere. Time has not stopped, but it has got a dimension of ideally moderate temp. Time and space simulation transmits an idea of a peaceful place where time does not matter. It may last in a tranquility of a relaxed atmosphere.
Only the girl’s look tells about the anxiety that probably has taken its place before. The girl must have been ill, but the process of recovery began. It is unknown when she started to convalesce and how long she has been lying in the bed. The artist fixed in time the moment of reading, and the light was playing on bedclothes’ folders and the girl’s hair, hands, and face. The moment helps the beholders to recreate the scene of life and imagine its narrative with various details.
- What principles of design are used to organize the composition?
- Is the composition balanced? Symmetrically? Asymmetrically?
- What is the focal point? Are there several? What draws your eye to these areas?
- How does the size affect you? Do the work’s various elements seem proportional, and how does the question of scale affect your perception?
- Is there significant use of visual rhythm and repetition of elements?
- Does the composition seem unified or not?
As a whole, the painting is asymmetrically balanced. It can be highlighted that the focal point is the girl’s face as the viewer concentrates on her look. Another object that attracts attention is her book, but it is certainly less meaningful than the first look. Therefore, the focal point is not in the very center of the composition. The asymmetrical balance is reached by the correlation of dark and light areas. Admittedly, the artist made the left side of the composition more highlighted. He used light effects on the left, above and beneath the girl’s head. Those areas dominate on the left and are available on the central diagonal line. The illusion of visual balance is created by applying a complementary color scheme on the right side and in the middle of the painting. In such a way, the work of art looks harmonic due to the placement of objects on the canvas.
It is difficult to speak about the scale of a picture while analyzing its reproduction. Its size does not tell enough about the real size of the depicted objects. However, in regard to a canvas of representational style, it is easier to draw a correlation between those objects in the picture and the real ones. Thus, the scale of the pillow or a book is traditionally judged by a sense of the average book.
The relation between an object and its surroundings in the picture is connected with the sense of proportion. The painting in question looks proportional. The artist used the visual effects that relieve a viewers’ perception letting them understand the spatial relations of the objects. For instance, the size of the book is bigger than the size of the girl’s head as the book is placed closer to a beholder. This manipulation provides the viewer both with a sense of the size of the objects and their proportions. The correlation between the parts of the body and the other objects from the vantage point optically seems to be realistic and not distorted.
Many objects are painted representatively with applying some other ways of design, for instance, repetition. The artist used repetitions of folds. However, this monotonous effect that creates volume illusion is well diluted by the dynamic warm colors, which helps the composition to remain balanced. The repetition makes all the similar elements work as an ensemble. In such a way, all the design elements used in “The Convalescent” make the picture a unified entity.
- What might you research or look up in order to investigate the context for this work of art?
Be specific in naming events or ideas that may add to your understanding of the work.
To understand the plot of the painting, it is interesting to investigate both the history of its creation and the historical background of the beginning of the 20th century in the country where it had been presented. The context of the painting may include the history of the creating process, the personalities that the artist depicted and the motives of painting (whether he painted the picture for a customer’s request, or to satisfy his own will). The life story of people related to the painting and the history of the process of drawing can be a source for a deeper analysis of the work of art.
In the historical perspective, it would be interesting to find out whether the girl`’ illness had an individual character or had been caused by an epidemic. At the beginning of the 20th century, a number of epidemics took place including plague and cholera. At that time, it was difficult to provide medical treatment such as antibiotics, so even the bad cold or flu could be dangerous to life in case of any complications. The painting’s title accents the recovering of the girl, which means that it was a big luck and happiness. In any circumstance, it is possible to appreciate the work of art apart from the context, but the perception will be on another level than it would have been in case of being aware of all the aspects of the context.
The context may also refer to the tendencies in the art of that period and the most common stylistic dominants. Being aware of it may help to explain why the artist painted in this manner, who were his artistic mentors and whether he followed them. It is well known that at the end of the 19th century, the impressionist art movement has appeared and influenced artists around the world during the next few decades. Its stylistic characteristics include depicting ordinary scenes through the author’s personal vision, with accents on light and colors. Hence, it is possible to assume that Metcalf’s painting has some impressionist tendencies in a stylistic manner.
- How do the formal elements, content and possible context come together to create meaning within the work? How do you, the viewer, “read” it?
- What is the artist trying to convey and how does s/he achieve this?
- What is your personal interpretation of the work?
- How does your experience of the work of art differ from someone who may have seen it in its original context?
The formal elements of the painting harmonically interact with its content although the context cannot explore more aspects of the meaning until it is unknown. The artist is trying to convey the atmosphere of calm rest and coziness. The formal elements, especially lightning, make an effect of the morning or the daytime. It is associated with the beginning of something new. Taking into account the title and the content of the picture, it tells about a girl who is getting better after a disease. The viewers do not know whether it was a physical or mental illness. Presumably, “the convalescent” was used metaphorically and was related to the spiritual health of the depicted person. In addition, the girl’s recovering could symbolize the convalescence of her relatives inspired by this change to better. The context of the painting can reveal the original meaning of the canvas.
My personal interpretation is deeply influenced by the interaction of formal elements. It creates an impression of the relaxed atmosphere and anticipation of something good. The girl looks healthy and is concentrated on reading her book, but there is a certain sad shade in her look. It can be just a serious expression. Anyhow, it is possible to suggest that the artist tried to convey mixed feelings and applied various formal elements to achieve it. He experimented with light and its effects, and made the picture more emotional by using blurred lines. At the same time, it seems that the artist tried to draw viewers’ attention to the girl’s face and completed this attempt with a complementary color scheme, as well as light and shade contrasts. Most of those elements create a unified picture with a dominant positive impression. Although the general perception is complicated, it has an obvious dominance of a positive mood.
In addition, I interpret the painting within the title and the artist’s personal contribution to depicting the artistic reality. It gives a hint to the viewer regarding the way of reading and understanding the canvas. Within the lack of contextual knowledge, the title is an important tool to derive meaning in Metcalf’s work. It helps to imagine the narrative of the moment in reality that was fixed on the canvas as the viewer gets a point to move forward in his versions. The viewer sees the girl that is reading a book. Perhaps, she is a little tired and has a serious facial expression because of the recent illness. The way the room and other objects are depicted causes a feeling of something good. The light and the colors impress with life-affirming harmony. Hence, the general life-affirming impression fulfills the canvas. Metaphorically, the title can be interpreted as a victory of life, and the formal representation of the picture deepens this understanding to me.
Naturally, awareness of the context may help to make the perception and understanding of the painting complete and distinct. Probably, someone who had seen the painting in its original context could find all the answers that may appear while watching it. In addition, it could explain the narrative of the canvas and reveal its history.