When Fernand Cormon (1845-1924) painted the family of Cain walking through the desert, he gave each of the figures a heavy plodding step. Each person has their feet in the same position.
The foot in front is flat on the ground, with the knee bent. The rear heel is lifted off the ground, with the ball of the foot squarely on the ground.
Norman Rockwell, in his great painting “The Problem We All Live With,” uses a different pose to signify walking, but again it’s the same pose for all of his characters. Rockwell has a different theory of how people walk. All four men and the girl are perfectly vertical, and they're all walking with very short steps, with their heels and toes in the air at the same time. The men’s backswinging elbow is well behind the body, and the forward arm is in a loose fist in front of the stomach.
Rockwell arrived at these poses by propping the toes and heels of his models on stacks of books. He did not take candid photos of people actually walking.
Here he uses the same theory of walking poses, with heels and toes up. The strides are even shorter. If you try actually walking so that you end up with these poses, your style of walking does not match the intended feeling of the picture. Instead, it feels like a silly robot.
N.C. Wyeth has yet another conception of how people walk. He too applies a single pose equally to his whole crowd of pirates. They all have full meter-long strides with the body leaning far forward. Try walking in a way that matches these poses. I’ll bet you’ll feel less like a pirate and more like Groucho Marx.
Are these poses “expressive?” Perhaps so, but what the poses express is an unrealistic kind of action that doesn’t match the rest of the picture. In every other respect, these paintings are fine examples of realistic storytelling. But I would submit that they would have been even more successful—both more realistic and more expressive—if they had been based on a closer observation of authentic movement, and if the individual figures had been given some variety.
Tomorrow we’ll look at some ways to achieve that.
Wikipedia on Cormon, link.
Art Renewal Center, 7 Cormon images, link.