I have chosen to do an analysis of form and style based on The Bathers, 1884-87 by Pierre Auguste Renoir and The Large Bathers, 1898-1906 by Paul Cézanne. These paintings are from the impressionist and post-impressionist period. Though similar in subject matter, the way the artists demonstrate form and style is unique to each and I will compare and contrast them separately under the headings form and style with reference to the theories of art critics and historians such as David Summers, Heinrich Wölfflin and Ernst Gombrich.
To begin the analysis we must have an understanding of form. Form is described using formal elements: colour, light and dark, line, mass, shape, texture and volume. They are described in a whole composition which is the work of art. They are also arranged by the qualities of design: balance, order, pattern, proportion, rhythm and variety. We look at how each element is designed to add to the work of art. Formal analysis studies a work of art - in isolation from anything else – to understand what the work gives us.
Style refers to the peculiar features of mark-making, patterning and compositional devices associated with an individual or a collective. A collective allows for the identification of a group or society with a particular style. By analysing the style of works of art we can identify them with particular places and times and study how styles migrate and translate to different cultures. This can tell us a lot about people, trade, languages, religious doctrine and political influence outside the great events of history.
According to historian David Summers, a work of art is understood to be ‘organic’. It has an organic unity or wholeness that is given by the formal elements. It is this wholeness that expresses personal and collective ideas that can then be communicated to others. I believe that Summers’ theory is evident in The Bathers (fig. 1). In this painting, the artist shows an intricate use of line and shape which is evident in the arabesque made by the contours of the rocks and feet. This is contradicted by the simple and smooth appearance of the figures painted with flat, unshadowed lighting which would, ordinarily, subdue the shape but the delicate tints used accentuate the voluptuousness of their forms. The poses are clearly derived from classical works but with a more natural feeling, for instance the feet of the figure in the foreground are not as elegant as you would see in classical paintings; as is the posture of the figure to her right who is hunched over. They have earthy, womanly figures and do not appear as the classical goddess-like idealised version of a woman.
The painting is balanced with multiple diagonals that draw your eye around it. The figures in the foreground are positioned in a triangular arrangement with the two figures in the back keeping your gaze within the painting. They all rest against a soft, richly coloured background painted in Renoir’s traditional impressionist style. The golden orange colours that can be seen in the figure’s skin and in the cloth that the uppermost figure wraps around her are echoed throughout the painting. This colour is complimented by the blues in the water and the shadows of the leaves and trees which is a technique that Renoir used in many of his works. The background of this piece is painted with short, quick brush strokes. The water is painted in small thick strokes of mainly mid tones broken by solid strokes of deep blue and gold. The texture of the foliage is different to the water; it’s softer, more delicate with thinner brushstrokes and muted colours giving a sense of perspective and depth.
In my opinion Summers’ theory of organic unity applies to this painting as it expresses the idea that Renoir was attempting a modern version of a classical style. Though the poses and the appearance of the female figures are derived from classical...