Mary Cassatt, The Elements of Art. The Barnes Foundation

Mary Cassatt, Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, 1879, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Mary Cassatt’s Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge: Creative Distortion and Audio Synesthesia in a Painted Portrait

DoN Brewer

Spring 2017

The Elements of Art, The Barnes Foundation

William M. Perthes, Senior Instructor

Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge plastically synthesizes the musicality of attending a concert with repetition of picture facts in a multi-colorful artwork pulsing with liveness and exuberance. Illustrating a broad human experience, enjoying music, Mary Cassatt uses pictures facts based in repeated curvilinear lines, distorted shapes and optical illusions to portray a figure at once watching and being watched. Composed of radiating spokes of information rich components, the plastic qualities of each spoke are arranged in rhythmic shades of color with an aural quality.

Chromesthesia, sound-to-color synesthesia is a type of synesthesia in which heard sounds automatically and involuntarily evoke an experience of color. Colors can trigger ideas, memories and experiences synthetically; shared broad human qualities are coded plastically in the media. In color-graphemic synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored. Synesthetic art explores all the senses simultaneously, providing elicitation of multiple perceptual experiences to the audience.

Excitement of the narcissistic moment, when all eyes are focused on the lustrous figure, is dramatized with illustrative, compartmentalized units of information, creatively distorted, with an expressive, puzzling composition like a symphonic score, each element playing it’s own part. Decorative elements echoing throughout the design are like harmonic resonance in an acoustic space; line, color and shapes are arranged in dynamic patterns like a musical score.

Creative distortion distills the elements for the purpose of activating the picture with spatially driven composition facts: a floating perception point, scarcity of straight line, waves of repeating picture facts, and visual keys of colors. Mood is designed into the composition, the elicitation of perceptual experiences is developed plastically; some composers are associated certain keys with certain colors/moods/flavors. Color is this picture is instrumentation, a certain musical instrument tends to sound darker/richer in the low register and brighter/clearer in the high register, and Cassatt’s colors register specific information about the spatial atmosphere via creative distortion.

The figure in the painting is seated in a loge, a private box in a theater, with her shoulders, neck and back of her head reflected before a large mirror, a screen effect reveals the interior space, the high ceilings confined to the Paris Opera House, high up in a cozy, red velvet chair on a balcony, a fancy chandelier lights the picture creating a floating, fantastical view point of the pearl necklace. The nacreous colors are glossy, entwining the neck, reflecting the value, hue and tone of the decorative importance of the theme, and balance of intent. The string of pearls is the visual beat repeated like a fugue, a recognizable melody, throughout the picture.

Leaning towards the left with her upper body torqued, the figure’s right shoulder projects forward, the left arm leaning lightly, steadily, on the soft cushion of a wine red velvet chair; a pyramidal form is solidly established across the base, red velvet transitioning into a pinkish, pearlescent, shiny plane of colors that gives a sense of planted-ness across the lower third of the design. The left side of the figure is bright in reflected light, head facing to the right, gazing out into the audience illustratively reflected in the mirror behind her. The composition plays out in a symphonic, musical arrangement using color as notes, shapes as sounds and line as conductor.

The pyramidal design of the figure offers up a grand, comfortable, lush construct amplifying the picturesque arena like a spirited, uplifting, lilting compliment to the sophisticated setting. The figure’s reflection in the mirror barely reveals the lustrous pearls encircling the back of the neck, mere dabs of gray paint; instead the chandelier reflected in the upper left becomes an elaborate hat with the orbs like huge pearls and feathers, like a glowing halo above her head.

The elaborate, be-jeweled light fixture establishes the top of the main pyramidal composition, a plane extending down from top left to the right, parting her hair, to the adorned right shoulder, the arm reaching out of the picture, then back to the left through her gloved hand with the elbow resting on the red cushion prompting the viewer to look back up to the chandelier. The torso is an opposite triangle with the slope of the shoulders creating the pinnacle, the left arm leading to the lower third of the right side of the canvas, and the right waistline pointing to the illumination of the gown. The compositional construct of planes, fragments, and broken color establishes focalized areas with cascading circular units organized into interlocked dynamic balances of equivalents.

The mirror creates the illusion of deep picture space with the curving lines of the balcony sweeping across the vertical composition, wrapping around the figure like a delightful, festive, silken scarf wafting about the hall like pulsing sound waves. The color of the balcony reads from a fair distance as chartreuse, a saturated yellow/green color; on closer inspection the band of color is a color chord of yellow, blue, green and red. The smudged paint is trans-fusional with liquidy, indistinct lines, shapes and colors that create a floating atmospheric effect as if the viewer is hovering in the space before the figure. The point of view optically distorts the picture space resulting in a surprise, like a clash of a cymbal, when the viewer realizes the depth of the domed chamber is a reflection in a mirror.

The gown begins the procession of curving, sinuous shapes that lift up through the picture like a musical chord: the illuminated curve of her gown across her lap, the waist line extenuated by the shadow beneath the bust, the sweeping curve of the lace wrapping the shoulders, the strand of enviable pearls and the curve of her jaw line, the railing of the balcony swerving up to the right, curved wall and decoration above the balcony, the woodwork topping the balcony and the slinky, dangling crystals and lighted globes of the chandelier. The blobs of color representing people seated in the boxes create a melodic effect, with a staccato beat, soaring notes beginning at the left, at first softly with the multi-colorful hair reflected in the mirror, then up through the right in lifting, curving lines like an operatic aria. The woman’s face completes the strand of people/pearls with the rosy pop of a red flower in her hair; a low shadow color of the flower extenuates the size and importance of the floral toned note of the red ear canal. High notes of yellow hair, deep resonant tones of her eyes, cheeks and nose playing like a chorus, each character, facial feature and ornament representing musical and ambient sounds. An experience is lived vicariously through the sonic vibrations of the music in the hall represented in chords of color.

In opposition to the pearl necklace upward curves are curvilinear shapes and lines that drape downward like a mirror effect: the crown of her head, the bangs of her hairdo, the upper lip with light caressing her cupid’s bow, the drop of her shoulders, the dark reflection of the red chair, the bright red of the chair’s cushioned back and the brightly illuminated gloved hand holding the decorated folded fan are like the bass lines compared to the treble of the upward curves. The triangular fan acts as a repoisseur, decoratively illustrative, pointing into the picture from the right side like an orchestra conductor, leading the viewer into the symphonious, flowing musicality of the composition. The fan is decorated with creatively distorted dark colored shapes that mirror the color blobs representing the other concertgoers in the balcony boxes.

Across the top of the picture, like bars in a chorus, the repeated curving dividers between the box seats, thump as drum beats throughout the design: the curvilinear shape of the dividers are a repeated theme of her head and shoulder reflected in the mirror, the curls of her hair on the left side of the head, the highlight on the right side of the nose, the outline of her right brow and cheek and in the shape of her gloved hand resting in her lap. The recurring pattern creates unity with a variety of subtle notes in a unified plastic field of color, line and shapes playing in concert to define the composition.

Color chords play a musical role in the composition with a rise and fall of strong, vivid hues played against brilliant complimentary colors, and strident, iridescent multi-colorful notes imitating the throb of bassoon or tweet of a piccolo. The velvety reds of the chair flow from deep purplish plum to high key orange reds that match the pouty lips and flower in her hair, resonating against the low-key flesh tones composed of greens, yellows and purples, creating a lush foil against her figure with a solid base of dark color. The strawberry blond hair is golden, red and purplish, transfusing the tones into a coiffeur with the left edge, again, matching the curvature of the box dividers. The balcony units mix primary colors in muted tones that glow luminous in the chandelier light with the rectangular decorations pulsing like beats of the music.

In compartmentalized picture facts such as the upper right quadrant, the color play flows from shadow to light, sprightly colored paint blobs describe figures, flowing shades of reds, and pinks, multicolored units incorporating the palette in a luxurious fashion. Even the whitish lace of the bodice flows from pale yellows, to blues, purples and greens; against the rosy, glowing skin, the gown seems to radiate it’s own light, and brilliant red strokes shine like the luster of satin. The lower left quadrant, although cast with shadow from the torso, is colorful and high key, the elbow nestled into the velvety cushion with a solid mass of purple shadow reaching across her lap, extending the shadow line to the right reaching then incorporating into the decoration of the fan solidifies the figure.

Streaks of turquoise blue highlight the ribs of the fan, articulate the circularity of her gloved wrist and enliven the lace. The same blue, in a softer shade, runs behind the figure decorating the balcony. The upper left quadrant is the star of the show, the figure’s pose exuding glamour, excitement and enthusiasm; the reflection of her back and shoulder reveal the daring amount of exposed skin, which transfuses into the golden décor above the rounded shoulder and then into the neck and clavicle. The effect of the color ways gives the figure a sense of belonging in the scene, as if she is part of the show, the music and the architecture.

The lower left quadrant, a field of broken color composed of varied triangular, multi-colorful shapes, is a compositional design developing a superstructure for the base of the picture. The repeating patterns of brush strokes, wrapping her arms in upward strokes while the brush strokes on the arm rest point toward the elbow, projecting the shape forward, the dark reflected reddish hues wrap around her shoulders, the line of the reflected chair connects with the curved shoulder meets at the strand of pearls and then sweeps across to right and out of the picture plain. The repeated red shapes are a balance of equivalents, the triangularity of the shapes on the left and right combined with upward strokes of paint mirror the curves of the balcony, and deep saturation of the colors establishes a warm, comfortable environment, supporting the figure and picture idea.

The lower right quadrant of the picture is delineated with a zigzag of triangular shapes. The shiny, surface of the gown flowing out of the picture like a rippling stream triangulates with the point of the décolletage revealed as a triangle above the bodice the right side reaching to the right lower corner, is decorative, marks of interest scratched in with blue paint illustrate the twitch of the fan, poised to snap open. The triangles that form the stable, planted torso, patches of broken color, long strokes of descriptive lines support the long stable, line of the swishing fan, connected to the left shoulder to the point of disappearance of the lustrous pearls, the top plane passes across the red triangle delineating the curve of the torso, with the reach of the right arm extending down right, out of the frame of the picture into space outside of the picture.

The dark color field of the red chair plays an important role in the composition, defining the curvilinear sweeping line of the right arm pointing into the center of the painting. Connecting at the hub of pearls, balcony and red chair, actively, in straight lines, plastic elements spoke out from that point to the top right corner of the picture. The box seats radiate out across the top of the picture completing the zag of the zigzag, a complex arrangement of lines, colors and distorted shapes within the ambiguous space defines a picture fact about the whispering voices of the audience resonating in the atmospheric, spatial, spherical design of the theater.

Rows of red curved shapes composed of interdependent streaks of broken color form the foundation, the score, instrumental to the composition in a swirl of atmospheric luxurious, animated colorfully descriptive paint dabs, vibrating like bass notes from the orchestra. The hub and spoke composition, separated into picture facts, is actively expressive. Thrumming activity and operatic harmonic colors relies on the curvature of the three reddish shapes of the chair, their colors rolled back into space, the deep red/purple triangle of the reflection in the mirror describing the figure’s right shoulder, pointing intentionally towards the pearls, a moment of transfusional, compartmentalized, colorful, cascading, serpentine, curvilinear movements radiates outward through the picture like a visual concert of facts.

The color notes flow up and out of the picture plane in points of brightness, lilting, out of the picture into memory and imagination. The curve of the box seat divider lines with the oval clusters of figures, transfers the value of the shapes into music notes; the broken colors in similar bright tones of gray, aquamarine, purple, dabs of white, orange/brown shapes, annotates color chords with unity, and tonal syncopation. Synesthesia experiences occur, as cultural memes are released like color virus’ into the pictorial environment, leading to automatic, involuntary stimulation of cognitive pathways to memory through plastic experiments in tones as if the colors are making musical sounds.

In the painting, by musically accentuating the curvature of the figure and the atmospheric spatial relationships of the picture, illustrative coasters, units that are made decorative and expressive, position the figure in space. The right shoulder is decorated with a pinned corsage, a deep red rosette and a white flower, a construct of green paint daubs separates and defines the floral units with a ribbon of leaf shapes, balancing the red rose with a sweep of color that shares the same shape as the balcony box dividers. The deep green foliage of the corsage is repeated in softer tones of green in the crystals of the chandelier. The repeating patterns of shapes, colors and composition, functionally orchestrate the picture. The resting elbow and the point where the gloved hand interacts with the fan is a faceted diamond compositional element, creating a pivoting movement of the torso, balanced by the extended fan quills, as pearly and opalescent as the beads around her neck.

Pearlescent luster is a decorative element unifying the composition with shapes, colors and proximity to other elements in the picture design. The decorative bow on the right shoulder is luminous and reflective, the pinkness of the shiny fabric glows on the tones of the skin with multi-colorful strokes of paint. The bright light reflecting off the decorative bow on the left shoulder gleams as it connects the figure with the reflection in the mirror and with the curvilinear lacy ribbon encircling the bodice harmonically with other circular elements like the gloved hand. The glove incorporates multiple picture facts within the shape and promotes the idea of lustrous, luxurious, lively glamour. Painted with colors found throughout the picture, the curved brush stokes of the glove define the form and texture, supports the torso, and connects the repoussoir of the decorative fan with the figure and the tone of the painting.

Through the use of broken color, descriptive lines, and repeating, shifting shapes the painting illustrates broad human qualities, and describes an environment that is musical in it’s illustrative-ness. Painted with intentional decorativeness, the picture is activated with a flowing, floating, and rhythmic dynamism punctuated with staccato points of interest and intriguing depth of tone to indicate space, situation and dimension. Brushwork throughout the painting unifies the picture and directs the viewer through the design; descriptive paint stokes shape the composition through curves of color, directional lines, and mixing unusual tones, hues, and keys.

For example: the left side of the figure’s face shares the same hues as the pearls, and the purple red hues of the velvet chair develop the shadow shed by the artificial light on the cheeks and nose, the high key orange red on the cheeks and lips extenuates the warmth of skin, the creatively distorted upper balcony transfuses into the hair which is a mixture of soft low key purples and bright high key yellows, while the citron colors of the decorative lower balcony transfuse into the left side of the column of the neck with soft curving stokes of broken color. The effect of the multifaceted patches of color is illustrative in the use of directional paint strokes, descriptive lines, and information rich shapes forming a vibrant experience of opulence.

The soaring, curves of line, atmospheric light effects, multiple harmonious tones of color, sensuous warm hues, descriptive idealized design, and chords of multi-colorfulness support my thesis that Girl with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge is synesthetic. Certainly, a painting does not make music, but a musical experience is expressed with plastic qualities in a sophisticated, controlled, orchestrated, multifaceted composition that atmospherically conveys the perspicacity of attending the opera.

Picture idea: Expressive of picturesque animated figure units, brightly luminous with broad, richly colored shadows in creatively distorted moderately deep space, compartmentalized units of multi-colorful, multi-directional, contrasting color masses of paint, composing a visually rhythmic, illustratively melodic, euphonious visual experience.

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