Friday, October 21, 2016

Dagnan-Bouveret's "An Accident"

Many of you expressed an interest in looking at compositions by doing pencil copies of them. Here is a painting that has always captivated me.

"An Accident" 1879 by Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret (French, 1852-1929)
at the Walters Art Gallery
The caption from the Museum's website says:
"After training with Alexandre Cabanel (1823-89) and Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Dagnan-Bouveret turned from Classical themes to subjects drawn from everyday life. In this scene, a country doctor bandages a boy's injured hand, while his family looks on with varying expressions of concern. The artist witnessed an incident like this while traveling with a doctor friend in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France. When this painting was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1880, it established the artist's reputation as both a perceptive reporter of rural customs and a Realist who explored the psychological states of his subjects."

Compositional study of Dagnan-Bouveret's "An Accident" by James Gurney
What struck me as I did my little pencil and gray-wash sketch was how the story is structured in terms of action and reaction. The center of the design and the area of highest contrast is the white shape of the bandage, the doctor's hands, and the boy's white shirt and face. 

Lesser lights in the design bring our attention to the faces of the people and the clock, which tells us that this event brought the work day on the farm to a halt.

Behind the white bandage is the profound black of the fireplace, and there's a remarkable use of sfumato or enveloping tone linking the surrounding dark values together. There are no edges demanding your attention unless they're important to the story.

Beyond pure design issues, I love the way the story is brought to life by character and psychology. Reaction is more powerful than action in video, and that's true here, too. Whatever injured the boy's hand — by 1872, that might have been a piece of farm machinery — we can see how bravely and stoically he is dealing with it, and we can study the variety of reactions of his parents and fellow farmhands. All the eye lines keep bringing us back to the center of interest. We can only imagine what this injury might mean to the fortunes of the farm.

This all goes back to the thoughts on the analysis of the Forsberg recently: Tonal organization isn't just a design issue, it's also a story issue.


Anonymous said...


I wish I could post an image here to describe the second set of things in the painting I see that draw your attention to the boy and his hand. I am sure you see them too.

It's not just the eye lines that all focus on the boy, it's a lot of the lines in the objects around the subject. Certainly, the strong line from the edge of the table leads the eye in, and to some extent the ceiling beams on the upper left. The two lines on the end of the bed both carefully align with the boy's head. The line from the top of the bed, which continues down on the upper left side of the triangle above the clock face, and along that wonderful bald skull draw your eye down as well.

Another set of lines work together in a different manner; the feet of the two chair legs the doctor is sitting on, and the line in the floor, both lead the eye to the bandage draped on the doctor's knee, which itself then leads you up to the hand. That's quite clever and carefully crafted as well.

Perhaps even more intriguing to me is that this is a composition which successfully places the center of attention in the center of the image. No 'rule of thirds'. In this case it is a huge advantage to have it there too.

My personal favorite example of using line to draw the viewer's attention to the where the artists wants you to look is Rockwell's painting of the young girl with the black eye sitting outside the Principal's office. The Post cover from May 23, 1953. That painting was framed in the superintendent's office here at school for years. The use of the objects around the painting, the way the corners of the items on the bulletin board align, the girl's two arms, the checks in her plaid skirt, the edges of her collar, the two braids in here hair. the filing cabinet drawer's edges in the lower right, the doorknob and edge of the principal's desk and the item that hangs down from the bulletin board, all align with the girls face and the black eye. This also has the center of attention in the center of the compositions left to right, and on the third above the center. Whenever I was in meetings in that office I'd often stare at that painting and marvel at how the whole composition was arranged to draw the view instantly to that black eye. Only the secretary's eyes are on the girl, which then contrasts wonderfully with the straight ahead dazed look on the principal's face. In this painting too there's a strong secondary set of lines with the angle of the girl's two shoes leading the eye to the two white socks, which then draw the eye up the legs and to the figure. The nicest touch for me is the white bandage on the girl's knee - that makes it apparent that the rough and tumble is in the girl's character.

Unknown said...

Great painting and composition. It's simple yet powerful. I never understood why some people said the center of attention should never be in the center of a composition. I think it's called the "center" of attention for a reason.

Matt H. said...

I'm surprised at how much the rules of perspective are broken here to get the composition the artist wanted (like Van Gogh's bedroom painting). I didn't notice it until after a few minutes!

Paddy's Block said...

Story wise, the bowl of blood with the stained towel even accentuates the tragic of this event. The boy might have even lost a finger or two. The whole family sourrounds this poor fellow, rather worried that they might have lost a valuable working force. Only his little brother seems to have heartfelt pity and big respect for how the older one handles his accident.

Kelly Toon said...

Paddy above mentions that the younger brother is the only one looking at the young man's face instead of his hand. It is so touching and sad, it nearly brings me to tears.

Patricia Wafer said...

Even the cat is watching exactly as they do from a safe place.