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A woman sewing…

By September 20, 2016 Art, Composition, Design 5 Comments

image William Merritt Chase

We haven’t visited a museum lately, so let’s take a look at a painting from the Metropolitan. This is For The Little One, an 1896 oil by William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916). Long-time readers of this blog know I love paintings of women doing some kind of hand crafts, and this is an excellent example.

A woman sits, and stitches an article of baby clothing. As in most of these women-at-work portraits, she is sitting by a window, and its daylight illuminates the scene, and shows off the artist’s ability to capture the lights and shadows.

The woman is completely absorbed in her work.

Now let’s take a quick look at the composition of Chase’s painting. Composition, if you remember, refers to how the elements of the picture are arranged within the work, creating (hopefully) balance, harmony, tension or even mood.

First, go back to the painting, and look at where the light is brightest, and where the shadows are darkest. Then take a look at the distribution of various colors. Notice where the bits of orange are, and where slight tints of orange can be seen. How about his use of blue? And where are the brightest whites?

Even if you think Chase did not rearrange anything in the interior for his composition, he still decided the exact angle of view in his portrait. If he’d positioned himself several feet to the left or right, all the lines and angles would be different.

Here is my version of marking out the strongest lines and angles in the painting:


I know this is rough, but it is my way of looking at “the bones” of a painting – trying to see more of how the horizontal lines are balanced by the verticals and diagonals. Notice how the woman, sitting, forms a rough triangle shape.

When we look more closely at any very good piece of art, we strengthen our “looking muscles”, and this will help when we are planning out our own work.

I had this post mostly written, when I discovered that there will be a major exhibit of William Merritt Chase’s work at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, from October 9, 2016 – January 16, 2017. Look on the MFA website at www.mfa.org for details. A very good reason for getting yourself down to Boston, if you can. For The Little One is in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, online at www.metmuseum.org.


  • Sylvia Doiron says:

    So helpful as I just took a drawing course at MFA. The teacher described the method of setting up the shapes before actually drawing the objects (still life). Your dissection of the Chase painting made the point very clear for me. Thank you.

    Will go back to MFA when the Chase exhibit is open.

    • mjanep says:

      Hi Sylvia! I took a drawing class at the MFA too – can’t say I learned to draw well, but learned a lot! Great experience, thank you, Santa!

  • nancy duncan says:

    Fascinating. I am a museum hound and am fortunate to live in a city that is near many fine museums. I like the way you looked at the “bones.” I also study how the surroundings play into the focal point of a piece. And then I really look at the details. What, do you suppose, is the feather-like piece on the expanse of the floor in the foreground? and why would he put it there…

    • mjanep says:

      Hi Nancy! Yes, I wondered about that, too. Still wondering. And why did he have so much bare floor showing in the foreground? The only thing I could think of about that was that maybe he just wanted to create the impression of how large a room she was in, with her tucked away working in one small corner of it?

  • So great of you to do the composition analysis! Love all these women sewing posts. Just so inspiring. Makes me want to get out some handwork and sit in a pretty window. I’d even wear the dress!

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