30 x 40
A Woman Seated Beside a Vase of Flowers
Some paintings are special. I keep coming back to them, studying brushwork, colour harmony and composition to see what it is that makes them stand above the ordinary. If I'm lucky, these paintings have been done by me at some point in the past when I was immersed it that wonderful paint zone in which nothing goes wrong and each mark is confident. Usually, however, they have been done by others. Then they become the standard for me to aim for.
My favourite Degas painting is one of these magical ones: "A Woman Seated Beside a Vase of Flowers" which is in the Metropolitan Museum in NY, makes me overwhelmingly happy whenever I see it. I love the unorthodox composition which has a woman placed at the edge of the canvas and peering out of its frame. Both of these facts are no no's according to the many books which state compositional rules - and yet it works. Degas keeps the viewer's eye from following her eyes out of the canvas through the use of the bright door frame edge above her head, and allows us to appreciate her by making her figure simple and calm next to the extravagant, highly-detailed flowers beside her. I love the way that he linked her to the bouquet by echoing the flowers' forms in her ruffled cap and blouse front. Though she is simply painted in comparison to the flowers, Degas managed to make her the the most important subject in the frame. Is this because we naturally look at people with greater interest than objects, or because of the way that he led our eye to her, framing her with the architecture around her, and even punctuating her head with the tower in the painting behind her? The more that I look at this piece, the more complex it becomes.
Because I couldn't get it out of my head, I decided to paint an homage to it. I set up a huge bouquet and roughed it in, and then hired a model, Susen, to sit for the figure. Susen was actually the reason that I plunged in and decided to paint this in the first place, because she has an inward gaze and stillness that seemed just right. She wore a wine-coloured cloche and a lightweight blouse with embroidery around the neckline and these elements led me to enhance the deep reds in the bouquet and use them as a link to her figure. I deviated from the original by adding a dark drape at the front of the table to lead the eye in and by placing a stalk of light flowers to beside her head as a visual stopper instead of a doorway.
It's not Degas - the Met wouldn't sell - but it makes me happy and carries both the original and the new within it.