I have highlighted important segments in red so I can refer back to them and make the relevant changes.
Thank you for your final assignment and well done for completing the course!
This submission demonstrates a broad understanding of the subject content, knowledge of the applicable cultural evidence and research skills. You have also developed your ability to engage constructively with theoretical arguments/debates, showing increased confidence when integrating objective analyses and intuitive personal responses. You have displayed good working habits (such as the keeping of a learning blog).
Check through your work (especially your essay) to ensure that you have formatted everything correctly in line with the Harvard Reference system.
Citing sources within the text of an essay: When making reference to an author’s work in your text, their name is followed by the year of publication of their work. Where you are mentioning a particular part of the work, and making direct reference to this, a page reference should be included. E.g. Callen (1995) argues that… OR for quotations: “Quotation” (Callen, 1995, p.33). You must also indicate a source even when paraphrasing. If you want to include text from a published work in your essay then the sentence(s) must be included within quotation marks. The quotation should also be emphasised (especially if it runs to 50 words or more) by indenting it.
Citing illustrations: Each image you use should be captioned using this layout (or a version similar to it): Figure number, Artist, Title (in Italics), Date, Materials, size, Collection or location
Including a bibliography and a reference list: It is not always necessary to use both, but for your essay your reference list should record the resources you have made direct reference to in your review. Your bibliography should list all the sources you have consulted but which you have not specifically referred to in your work (i.e. your background reading).
Feedback on assignment
Assignment 5 – Women in Degas’ art & the role of the spectator
*Make sure that you include an essay title! (This comes before your introduction and should be underlined and centred.)
This was a solid essay with clear communication of ideas and organisation of information. You produced a logical and coherent narrative – you clarified your main points to provide an engaging ‘map’ for the reader to follow. (Before submitting your work for assessment, try to rework your introduction. It is important not to rush it as it sends a very clear message to the reader about your discussion. It should provide a formal summary of your topic, including the problems and issues you will address.) Although you adopted an ‘overview’ format in places, there was evidence of consistent reflection when addressing the research topic, and you showed familiarity with visual arts terminology.
As I mentioned in my comments on Assignment 3, writing an art history essay involves creating an argument about what you see (e.g. using the terms ‘how’ or ‘why’ in the essay title). Check through your work to ensure you have developed an interpretive thesis based on close visual analysis of a select number of artworks (provide additional reasons for your choice of images). Your text could also benefit from reference to more of a range of secondary sources.
Investigation, knowledge and understanding of the topic studied: You placed Degas’ paintings into a dialogue with the social and economic realities of C19th France (ref. capitalism, bourgeois comfort/fixation on material goods, technological change), focusing on conventional C19th notions about femininity and sexuality in relation to Degas’ dancers, laundresses and bathers. (I.e. you acknowledged that the artist’s perceptions and those of his contemporaries were, of necessity, circumscribed within a certain sexual economy.)
Your examination of Degas’ ambivalent artistic approach toward women (sometimes reinforcing accepted values, sometimes questioning them) was sensitive, and it was good to see you consider the ways in which Degas’ portrayals of dancers, for example, with their emphasis on work (capturing the complex mid-movement [pirouette en dedans], the basic steps and the dancer in ‘reposte’ – languidly lounging to the side of a stage), contrast with the customary renderings of the Parisian ballet dancer as flirtatious and sexually available. (Ref. the idea of dancers as criminally Other, born into the sinister underclass that Paris’s elite males entered for sex.)
You briefly alluded to revisionist social art historical and feminist readings of the artist’s treatment of his subject matter, and you outlined how recent scholarship places Degas in one of two camps: first, the notion that Degas is inherently misogynistic; second, that Degas did, in fact, privilege his women with more agency than they would have otherwise been afforded. In terms of the former, it would be worthwhile recording that the notion of Degas’ misogyny was established and given its classic literary formulation in the late C19th by writers like Huysmans and Paul Valery, and few scholars since have expressed discomfort with this label, or evaluated its sources or questioned directly its validity. Given the primary theme of your essay, I would recommend examining and commenting on the following three key articles: Broude’s ‘Degas’ “Misogyny”’, and Lipton’s ‘The Laundress in Late-Nineteenth-Century French Culture: Imagery, Ideology and Edgar Degas’ and ‘Degas’ Bathers: The Case for Realism’.
You included the artist’s remarks about women, recording his disparaging comments on Berthe Morisot’s work, and his description of female models as “animals” and “tools”. You did mention Degas’ observation that he intended to show a bather as “a human creature preoccupied with herself – a cat who licks herself”, but could you say a bit more about this? Read the rest of the quote, which continues: “hitherto the nude has always been represented in poses which presuppose an audience, but these women of mine are honest and simple folk, unconcerned by any other interests than those involved in their physical condition… It is as if you looked through a keyhole.” Reflect on the two main points we can take from this:
1. the contradiction between Degas’ stated desire to represent the nude in a way which denies its traditional voyeurism and yet which reinstates voyeuristic looking in an even more intense way as if ‘through a keyhole’ (i.e. the body on display is to be replaced by peeping into the intimate and hidden world of women)
2. the artist’s precise reproduction of the ideology of women as nature (fertile, unthreateningly and ‘naturally’ erotic), absorbed in their physical beings – like cats they perform purely instinctual and reflexive rites of cleanliness
Your section on Degas’ depiction of a female subject in the act of seeing, Woman with Field Glasses, and how the work draws the viewer’s focus to the importance and the subjective nature of looking, added a new and interesting dimension to your study of the voyeurism theme. (Degas claimed “one sees as one wishes to see. It’s false; and it is this falsity that constitutes art”.) Spend a bit more time analysing this picture – there is something scrutinizing, inquisitive, and perhaps even threatening about the way the woman looks out at and confronts the viewer. It is worth mentioning that this act is bold and purposeful, even more so for a woman in the late C19th, when the ideal, ‘proper’ woman, was expected to be docile, and did not leave the house unless she was escorted by a chaperone. You could argue that a woman behaving as brashly as the one in this picture is breaking free from confining passivity to establish an unprecedented new standard.
One area to work on is making more explicit the significance of the works you are using by closely relating the way that the images are made to what they represent. You covered, but could extend your material on, the key features of Degas’ compositions, including the unusual viewpoints (note that Degas often seems to indicate the inferiority of his bathers by placing himself, and the viewer, above them, thus reinforcing longstanding societal norms regarding class interactions), cropped figures, angularity, asymmetry, and compressed spaces. (I.e. we cannot find a ballet painting whose focus is not
dispersed, whose viewpoint is not dizzying, whose figures do not slide uncontrollably about.)
Try to expand on Degas’ use of specific materials and media. For example, a few extra comments on the remarkable number of ways in which he worked in pastel would have been good. (Ref. the artist’s early, smooth and highly finished pastels in comparison to those of the 1880s, which are rougher in texture and more vigorously executed.) You could refer to Degas’ layering of loose pastel strokes, smudges, hatching and finger marks (applied in close striation so as to give a sense of intensity, movement/rhythm and to embellish the silhouette/add patterned detail). In relation to his bathers, note how these layers of mediation lead the viewer onto the figure’s body, to feel the textures and volumes they create (ref. tactile looking activity). (Even in oil painting, Degas experimented with a number of unusual procedures and effects – a brief comment on one or two of them would have been useful.)
Overall, you did a good job of chronicling the artist’s ‘uncompromisingly contemporary’ images of women and how he stripped away idealised conventions to challenge societal myths, but I would like to have seen you expand and substantiate your own views more.
Project 1 – Visit to a public interior: Glasgow City Chambers
This was a very good piece of work supported by images, sketches and further research. You talked about the historical context of the building and its role both in expressing the wealth and industrial export-led economic prosperity of Glasgow, and in acting as an emphatic statement of Civic pride (projecting the city’s identity).
Focusing on the imposing Banqueting Hall, you observed the eclectic style employed (with Italianate references) and richly elaborate features such as: the ornate barrel vaulted ceiling, the use of gold leaf and wood paneling, the stained glass (including the use of leaded Venetian glass), the chandeliers, and how the carpet design reflects the roof pattern.
Your study of the large murals by artists from the “Glasgow School” (Walton, Lavery, Henry and Roche) depicting the history of Glasgow, was detailed. (Lavery’s mural, Shipbuilding on the Clyde, is an uncharacteristically industrial work by the artist, showing in detail the construction of a warship for the Imperial Japanese Navy.) You scrutinised the mural representing the granting of the city’s charter, and the images depicting the four principal rivers of Scotland. (See also the small panels of various Virtues.)
You referred to the way in which the art does not sit passively, but has an active relationship with the space that it inhabits. You also thought about how the effects of the interior decoration provide the atmosphere in the room/create a sense of energy that befits its function (e.g. entertaining dignitaries).
Points to consider: the integration of functional and aesthetic values; how both art and architecture manipulate the visitor; how public interiors can change the
nature of our encounter with art and graft new meanings and interpretations of history onto images (ideology and value systems).
De Hooch – Woman with a Child in a Pantry: Making good use of the journal articles you had sourced, your annotation surveyed the figures, the rich colour scheme, the interplay of light and shade (creating depth [giving shape to the space], casting shadows, and making the tiled floor shine), and the economical use of perspective.
As you stated, de Hooch’s speciality was the ‘see-through door motif’, revealing secondary and tertiary views into other rooms/the street beyond to create a more complicated architectural space. (Think about how this relates to Alpers’ observations on pictorial codes in C17th Dutch genre painting. She argues that a C17th painting is not so much a window on the world as a system of lines determining where objects and figures are to be placed on the flat plane.)
You also alluded to the disciplined organisation of the home. For more on this see Schama, who refers to the way in which the Dutch made a fetish of domesticity (he cites moralists of the time who called the home the “tabernacle of virtues”, a morally purified and vigilantly patrolled terrain).
I particularly liked your comment on the single detail in the painting which alludes to the presence of the father: the portrait of a man over the chair in the front room. It is worth noting that placed in a room that opens to the outdoors, this picture links the man with the world of (masculine) activity beyond the house. The portrait, which implies that the man is responsible for the household even when he is absent, also links the feminine interior to the city outside. It implies a larger familial and socioeconomic context for the intimate image of the woman and child.
Your additional material on the influence of Fabritius and the similarities between de Hooch’s work and the paintings of Vermeer (e.g. the compositional dynamics [the calculated interrelationships that combine to form a balanced geometrical organization], the modelling, and the emphasis on spatial recession) was thorough.
Vuillard – Madame André Wormser and her Children: Drawing parallels between Vuillard’s and de Hooch’s renderings of intimate domestic scenes, you described the elegant details of the drawing room, including: the chairs covered in green brocade, the patterned carpet, and the dark green walls hung with various pictures in the family collection, each faithfully noted by the artist, including works by Monet, Degas, Renoir, Roussel, and Manet. (Reflect on the influence of Renoir’s celebrated Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children.)
You referred to the grouping of the children in the brightly lit area on the right and the slightly removed figure of the mother. (One critic describes the mother’s pose as complacent and the overall arrangement of the relationships in the work as stiff – do you agree?)
In addition to recording the complexity of the artist’s palette (ref. colour harmonies) and the intricacy of the brushstrokes (Vuillard experimented with their aspect in order to convey variations of texture), think a bit more about the realistic style of the picture, or how this work forms part of a series of group portraits with children by the artist (see Madame Weil and her Children and Madame Jean Trarieux and Her Daughters).
Your appraisal of the pose of the child with the musical score in her hands in relation to Vuillard’s Interior: Mother and Sister of the Artist, in which the figure of the mother sits in a confident, masculine pose, legs apart, hands on knees, menacingly commanding the claustrophobic space, was perceptive.
Reflections and comments on the course
As your remarks revealed, you have experienced the study of art as an enjoyable and rewarding activity, and have found the course useful. You have increased your appreciation for the process of making and displaying art and shown adaptability in response to feedback.
In terms of showing how you have become more of an active and aware learner, you might like to reflect further on some of the following questions: Which aspects of your work on this course did you think were most successful? How have you used and evolved your critical thinking skills? Do you think you are more confident in discussing aesthetics/using visual language? How would you judge your fluency in new ways of thinking, working, reasoning, and investigating? How difficult was it to use different techniques/approaches in your studies?
Learning Logs or Blogs
You have gradually created and incorporated a range of learning materials into your blog to expand your understanding of the subject. You have developed a more reflective stance, and shown an ability to ‘un-pack’ images and write-up your findings intelligently.
In recording your progress against the assessment criteria, it was good to see you comment on what you have learned about the importance of context, how you have deepened your research (via reading and viewing), and your appreciation of the need to critically engage with and apply different art historical theories.
Your section on Claude (Landscape with David at the Cave of Adullam and Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca) offered a comprehensive overview of the artist’s skillful devices and techniques for composition (e.g. stage-like wings, overlapping planes [refined transitions], bits of human/architectural incident, elegant positive and negative relationships). You also mentioned how the eye travels through his images, and the effects of colour (ref. harmonious, modulated greens, browns and blues) and light (diffused through the atmosphere, softening the solid forms). You also noted the importance of the perspective as an allegorical signifier, and thought about general questions such as the creation of mood. (See T.J. Clark’s observations on the use of tiny figures in Claude’s art: “What are these miniature figures about? Why do they come and go in perceptions? Why, once seen, do they matter so much? …I think they are best understood as different proposals about recognition and interpretation, about ‘picking out’ what is human in a human and non-human world, about the way humans belong to their surroundings…”)
Your section on Whistler’s Nocturne: Grey and Gold Westminster Bridge covered the artist’s palette (its limited number of pigments, all mixed together in varying proportions, enabled the artist to restrict the range of his colours and tones), the simple modelling, the use of shadow, and how the painting is not bound to topographical realities or mimetic accuracy. (Ref. Whistler’s highly subjective responses to his surroundings/his concern with the landscape as a site of emotional transference.) You registered the musical allusions (i.e. nocturnes resurfacing in later music history as calm, often expressive and sometimes rather gloomy, as in the works of Chopin).
Your piece on a country house refurbishment incorporated an extensive selection of artworks, and in terms of your research on trompe l’oeil, your use of local examples was good. Your landscape visit material (Loch Lomond and the Trossachs) and the resultant artwork was impressive. Your experiments (including with watercolour) really showed how you were thinking about colour, the impressions of natural forms, and how to develop strong structural rhythms. Your tree drawing demonstrated a confident and expressive use of line, resulting in a striking image.
Brook, T. (2009) Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World. London: Profile Books
Cogeval, G. (2002) Vuillard: Master of the Intimate Interior. London: Thames & Hudson
Langdon, H. (1989) Claude Lorrain. London: Phaidon Press
Pointers for the next assignment
I hope that everything goes smoothly in the preparation and submission of your work for formal assessment. (Carefully read through the guidelines.) I wish you luck in your future studies and do hope you continue to enjoy Art History.