In this exercise we are asked to analyse a painting that has a window as a significant feature, and to consider some specific questions.
I have chosen From a distant land (1889) by David Davies. This narrative painting held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) tells a classic Australian story. A settler, doing it tough, has received a letter from “home” and is lost in thoughts of another land, far from the hot, harsh bush seen through the door. My choice is based on availability of the work to view in person and my preference to give an Australian twist to this course.
From a distant land
1889 oil on canvas
The picture presents the scene at a slight angle. There are repeated verticals across the frame, indicated in the diagram in red, but nothing quite horizontal – the green lines showing the floorboards slope down to the right. The view seems to be from a corner, allowing us to see the dark, worn interior and also directly out the doorway to the brightly lit land. Combined with elements of linear perspective used in the fireplace, it may seem that the picture is slightly tipping out of its frame.
This potential movement is countered by a series of opposing diagonals in the composition. Lines in the figure’s body, the tilt of the bird-cage, the axe that can barely be discerned in the corner, even the movement of the departing horse and rider, work together to bring visual balance.
The diagram above shows in light blue an extension of the lines of the fireplace. I don’t see this as a true vanishing point – the visual clues are both insufficient and inconsistent to provide this. However the lines do draw attention to an area of the wall that contains significant narrative information. The newspaper and photograph support the sense of a third location, the unseen distant land that is the title of the painting as well as presumably the source of the letter and the subject of the man’s reverie.
The interior includes a lovely still-life on the table, laying bare the raw simplicity of this bush life. The figure’s boots are worn, the rough wooden floor uncovered. There are few comforts in this existence.
The interior is generally in dull colours, tones of browns and greens with some touches of red and orange in the glow of the fire and skin tones. It has been described as “pure Gallery Tonalism” (Splatt and Burton, 1973, p.56). None of the lighting appears directly from the bright exterior. Instead the internal scene is lit from the high left front, augmented by some reflected firelight. The corner near the door is in very deep shadow, providing maximum contrast to the external view.
This is not the only contrast. The colours of the exterior are higher in value and also in saturation. There are clear, bright yellows, pinks and blues. There is a sense of space, but trees and possibly a hill hide the distance. There is no use made of aerial perspective. Brushstrokes are more fluid and pronounced. It is “purely of the Heidleberg School” according to Splatt and Burton (1973, p. 56). There is a general feel of freedom and openness, for example the birds wheeling amongst the trees in contrast to the caged bird in the interior – the man’s only living companion in his lonely days of toil.
Astbury (1985, p. 40) wrote of this painting: “The painting creates a mood of pervasive melancholy and quiet introspection … frugality and hardship of his existence. The continued influence of Folingsby and Longstaff’s winning picture is felt in the firmly drawn figure, the sombre interior and the melancholy sentiment.” This painting is a student work by Davies. From 1882 George Folingsby was art master at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School, and under his tutelage a repeated compositional device was “a darkened room a door opens out to the glaring sun of the Australian bush, allowing the interior narrative element to expand into the outside world” (Art Gallery of New South Wales, [n.d.]). Examples by other students include Home Again (1884) by Frederick McCubbin now in the National Gallery of Victoria (http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/col/work/5970), John Longstaff’s Breaking the news (1887) in the Art Gallery of Western Australia (http://www.artgallery.wa.gov.au/exhibitions/everwondered_angus_bicycles.asp) and Flood sufferings (1890) by Aby Altson in the National Gallery of Victoria (http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/col/work/6050).
Judging from photographs of the other works, Davies’ focus painting shows more of the external world. This is of particular interest because it has allowed the artist to combine an academic style of painting in the interior with the artist-led “Heidleberg School” techniques. This movement is associated with “Australian Impressionism” and its use by Davies heightens the contrast – the conflict – of interior and exterior, and the sense that the seated figure is out of his element, in a land that is very foreign to him. He is yearning not for the world outside his door, but for the world he remembers thousands of miles away.
Art Gallery of New South Wales ([n.d.]) Collection: David Davies [online] Available from http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/OA15.1968/
Astbury, L. (1985) City bushmen: the Heidleberg School and the rural mythology Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Splatt, W and Burton, B. (1973) 100 masterpieces of Australian painting Adelaide: Rigby
UA1-WA:P5-p1-Exercise – Room with a view
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 5: Inside, outside
Project one: The interior
Exercise – Room with a view