Yesterday, I had an interesting conversation about the general merits of photo-realist work. My friend and I were in agreement that while one’s ability to master the creation of something that can pass for photo-real is admirable — it is not what makes the artist. There are countless artists who’ve mastered the technique of “copying from reality” throughout time, but those are not the ones remembered. It is the ones who have mastered composition as well — and sometimes in spite (or negligence) of acquiring this skill. In other words, there are impressionist and modernist artists who are reknowned for their unique compositions whereas there are photo-realist artists whom are entirely forgettable.
It would seem that while technical mastery is important in the success of an artist, it doesn’t seem to have the final word. In terms of factors judging in favor of success (for visual arts), technical mastery would probably be accompanied by geometric composition (that which is pleasing to the eye), as well as emotional composition (that which is pleasing to the mind). This method of “grading” is entirely my own and not for the purpose of grading, but “assisting” the viewer or artist in defining what it is they like or dislike about something.
With that in mind, we take a look at James Tissot’s “The Letter.” It is inarguable that James is anything but a photo-realist master, and safe to assume that he would’ve been privy (if not versed) in the general compositional techniques of Old Masters as well as theories of geometry and color promulgated by the leading minds of his day.
Assuming that Tissot’s “The Letter” fulfills technical mastery as well as a mastery of layout we address the subject. A woman with a letter partially torn in her hands and fluttering behind her along with a servant shooting her a wayward glance.
It will be hard to analyze the scene without talking about the surrounding scenery but that is sort of what we want to do. We want to isolate what this scene is on an emotional level since that’s where it draws its power. Had this painting existed without these seemingly “tortured” characters — the painting would be glance worthy as piece demonstrating technical mastery but not worthy of contemplation.
So that we might get a sense of what this scene is — let us imagine it purely in our minds as per more literary convention:
A society woman of the 19th century receives humiliating news in the form of a letter while in the presence of her servant. She abandons tea on the garden’s dining/entertaining platform and escapes for cover from the servant’s watchful eye under the cover of trees. While at a safe distance, she shreds the letter and scatters it to the wind where it joins autumn leaves marking the end of a season — an end to a “season” of the woman’s life.
While my description may be lacking, it’s not a stretch to treat its essence as a probable motivation for what we see. Note how the surrounding landscape/scenery evokes thoughts of escape, isolation, mystery. Had this been painted at a beach, it’s emotional palette would be entirely different.
As a concluding thought… consider what would make this image lose its power, what would make it gain still more, and if it’s fine as is (as I think it) WHAT is it that makes it successful. To get a better sense of emotional composition, take a look at additional works by James Tissot.