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Composition is the plan, placement or arrangement of the visual elements, to make a complete work of art.


The way in which the artwork is composed will define the hierarchy within the work, telling the viewer the relative importance of the images and elements included. 


Introduction to Modern European Art Gauguin

Paul Gauguin, Breton Girls Dancing, Pont Aven, 1888.


Paul Gauguin wrote to art dealer Theo van Gogh (brother of Vincent), "I am doing a gavotte bretonne: three little girls dancing in a hayfield. . . . The painting seems original to me, and I am quite pleased with the composition."


Gauguin's picture is composed of three girls dancing in the foreground, a small dog to the right of the girls, a darker building behind them in the centre and right of the picture, and lighter coloured buildings receding in on the left hand side.


The girls are dancing on a hayfield on sloping ground with small mounds of hay to their right, and there are several trees in the picture. You can also see hills in the background. The composition is completed with a cloudy sky. 


The placement of the girls suggest they they are the most important element of this work.


This effect is enhanced by strong contrasts of colour: the dark dresses and white collars, the brilliant poppies attached to their smocks, and the green of new hay.


The town of Pont-Aven and its church spire can be recognised in the background of this scene.

Introduction to Modern European Art Courbet


Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1849 - 1850. (Also called A Painting of Human Figures, the History of a Burial at Ornans)


This painting by Courbet, which is much more complex, has an interesting composition - where the viewer is asked to look carefully to see how the various figures interact, and what their placement means.


The open grave at the centre front of the painting is surrounded by a great S-curve of pallbearers, priest and altar boys, gravedigger, family and friends in mourning.


The grouping of mourners and attendants follows the horizon or distant cliffs - no one's head extends into the sky. Only the crucifix, held by a religious attendant, is outlined by the muted tones of the sky. The earthbound nature of life is thus emphasized, as the figures are framed by dirt and rock.


Courbet instills the human touch into his painting. An altar boy gazes with a look of innocence up at a pall bearer. A young girl peers around the skirts of her elders. Several grief-stricken women clutch handkerchiefs to their faces.


Courbet's approach was radically innovative at the time: he used a canvas of dimensions usually reserved for history painting, a "noble" genre, to present an ordinary subject with no trace of idealisation. 


At the Paris Salon in 1850-1851, many people decried "the ugliness" of the people, and the ordinariness of the whole scene. Among the few admirers of the painting, one critic prophesied that it would remain "the Herculean pillars of Realism in modern history".

For more about this painting, you may wish to view a youtube video by smarthistory

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