The Punished Son, 1778 (Musee Du Louvre, Paris, France)
Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805)
Composition refers to how the artist has arranged the elements of the work of art and it is a dominant contributor to the subject matter of the piece. To achieve a successful composition, the image has to work as an integrated whole, whether the image is of people, landscape, still life or abstract. The pictorial qualities of shapes, contrasts in scale, light and shade, and the use of color play their part.
Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s, The Son Punished (1778) is an example of a successful composition. Greuze is best known for his sentimental storytelling genre pictures.
The painting is from a pair of paintings illustrating The Father’s Curse. In the tradition of the Bible parable of the prodigal son, The Father’s Curse first describes a father cursing his son who neglects the family (of which the son is the sole support) to join the army. In the subsequent scene, the disobedient son (right) seeks forgiveness, but returns home too late after his father has died.
Adopting the canons of classical history painting, Greuze employs a composition with somber, matte coloring, and eloquent gestures, avoiding an overly accurate description of details.
When a painting tells a story, the artist uses composition to give the work a natural flow that helps the viewer to follow the action. The composition can therefore help the viewer understand what is going on. In a well-made composition the viewer’s eye is led to each of the main components of the story in turn by various visual means, such as shapes, contrasts in scale, light and shade, and the use of color.
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