Nicolas Poussin was a great artist, but he suffered from lazy edges.
‘Lazy edges’ is a compositional fault where all the elements in a composition stop short of the edge of the picture. Everything fits into a neat little box in the middle of the design.
Nothing crosses into the outer margins of the picture. The action seems to take place on a theatrical stage or in a shop window. It’s fine if you want a painting to look artificial, but a problem if you want it to look natural.
Artists since the invention of photography have tended to load the edges. Take any photo of real life, follow along its edges, and there’s plenty happening. The photograph above is by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
A good composition should have some important elements near the margin. One of the masterpieces of loaded edges is Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s A Reading from Homer.
1. The reader’s left hand is at the extreme edge. Above the hand is a crucial inscription.
2. The prone figure lies along the bottom edge.
3. The standing figure is tucked into the upper left corner. Part of his face is cropped.
4. You can’t see it in this reproduction, but the very top edge of the painting shows the horizon only about an inch below the edge of the frame in the original painting. Unfortunately all the online versions of this image are compromised by slight cropping.
In a good composition, the slightest cropping destroys the meaning of the picture.
Other artists who use loaded edges effectively: Rembrandt, Edgar Degas, Carl Larsson, Norman Rockwell (1940s and 50s), Edwin Austin Abbey, Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, and Howard Pyle.