Comparative Essay Sample on Paintings
Inspiration is the most important ingredient in the process of creating a masterpiece. The most common sources of inspiration are usually considered beautiful. Since women are an inexhaustible source of inspiration for artists, it is always interesting to observe how females are represented in art. Art is always open to different interpretations. Though artists put their own sense into their works, ordinary viewers are welcome to judge the works themselves. Luckily, they do not only observe some images, sculptures or installations, they can compare them. This work will concentrate on the depiction of female portraiture by two different painters. These will be Portrait of Christian Bruce, Duchess of Devonshire by Van Dyck, and Melanie, The Schoolteacher by Chaim Soutine. Though these works have something in common, they represent women differently. Some scrutiny and analysis will help one to reveal the main similarities and differences between these two paintings.
Correct understanding of an image demands some knowledge of historical context that it was created in. Therefore, it is important to get to know about the background of two of these images. Anthony van Dyck was a brilliant Flemish portrait painter of 17th century. His career was very successful due to strong demand for portraits in that historical period. By lucky coincidence, van Dyck was appointed as a court painter to King Charles I of England. Finally, he lived and painted at the English court for most of his life. At the court, van Dyck has painted Christian Bruce, widow of William Cavendish, 2nd Earl of Devonshire (History of Chatsworth, 2014). Meanwhile, Chaim Soutine was a French artist of the 20th century. Soutine lived most of his life in poverty and became a legend after his death. Chaim Soutine painted many portraits, frequently of people he did not know well. Some of the people he painted are anonymous, while others are identifiable by their looks. The identity of Melanie is unknown, except that she was a schoolteacher.
There are certain similarities between the two images of these painters. Firstly, both paintings are examples of female portraiture. Secondly, both of them depict a woman in a black dress. Thirdly, the medium is the same. Both portraits constitute an oil on canvas. Finally, the painters who painted both images had their definite style in portrait art. These four features represent the similarities, but the list of differences is longer.
The first difference that strikes an eye immediately is the size of the images. The portrait of a Devonshire Duchess (83 1/4 x 51 ½) is twice as big as the Schoolteacher (32 1/8 x 18 1/8) is. The size of the image not only speaks of the artist’s choice, it also has some additional meaning. As a representative of the aristocracy, the duchess could afford to order huge images, and that is precisely the case. The size of an image symbolically represents the value of a character depicted on it. Duchess is of larger size, as she has higher social status than a schoolteacher does. Besides duchess is a full-length portrait, while a schoolteacher is not visible completely. The woman is sitting and her legs are inaccessible to viewer’s sight.
Paintings differ in the painting manner, as well. Van Dyck uses smooth and sharp contours that give the image the photographic resemblance look. Viewers can identify every fold on a dress and the curtain. Van Dyck uses the textural quality of the brush work to create a realistic oil painting. The whole painting looks three-dimensional. A distinct light and shade interplay adds volume to the image, and some lightning makes the dress of duchess gleam. The image is very detailed, the hair is divided into locks, the pearls look very realistically; the same can be said about her fan. Rich fabric of the clothes and the curtain highlights the status of the duchess. It shows that the general image of this woman is worth closer attention due to her importance. This portrait is an intentional display of status and wealth. Meanwhile, Chaim Soutine choses blurred lines for his painting. Melanie, The Schoolteacher, is an example of expressionist art with dramatic brushwork and distorted image. The painting looks two-dimensional with the critically low level of detalization. There are no visible details in the schoolteacher’s garment. One can detect only the general dress shape and fashion due to the color placement. One can also distinguish some buttons on the dress and some resemblance of a low neck on it. However, it is hard to say which type of fabric is her dress, is it warm or not, old or new. It appears that the goal of this image is not to show the details but the general idea of a schoolteacher.
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Another difference of two paintings is the color choice. The ground of the van Dyck’s image is of a brownish-cream color. The walls and the floor are brownish. Colors are rather pale and warm. According to Roy, “This constitution for a priming is fairly common in seventeenth-century canvas painting both in Italy and Spain and must be regarded as standard practice in a number of locations, particularly in the earlier part of the seventeenth century” (1999). At the same time, Soutine uses intense colors for his painting. There are bright green, red and black colors visible on the painting. It creates a different effect. The schoolteacher looks brighter and more informal than the duchess does.
Women’s pose differs on both paintings. Van Dyck brings baroque portrait art to perfection. It is precisely the type of art where the posture and jests of individual play the leading role. The duchess of Devonshire stands still in a manner full of grace. She put her left hand on a dress, as if she is ready to pull the dress any time. Of course, it reminds the viewers that the female aristocracy of 17th century wore long dresses, which they had to pull sometimes while walking.
At the same time, Soutine’s schoolteacher looks like an old and tired woman with grey hair. It is understandable that this woman is in no way connected to the aristocracy. She sits in a chair, humbly putting her hands on the dress. Her general appearance brings associations with teacher’s appearance even without awareness of the name of the painting.
Finally, two women differ in their facial expression. Christian Bruce, the Duchess of Devonshire looks directly at the viewers with a confident look. This woman seems to be full of dignity and arrogance. One glance on her face is sufficient to know that she belongs to some kind of nobility. Comparing to that, Melanie, the schoolteacher looks as an individual full of humility. She has that sweet little smile that shows her kindness.
To conclude, two paintings by van Dyck and Soutine have four similarities. Both images are examples of female portraiture, depict a woman in a black dress, constitute oil on canvas and are made by the painters who had their definite style in portrait art painted both images. At the same time, they have five differences. They differ in size, painting manner, color choice, pose and facial expressions of two women. Thus, two seemingly the same women can be depicted absolutely differently, depending on the author, style and historical context of the paintings.
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History of Chatsworth and the Devonshire Family. (2014). Retrieved from
Roy, A. (1999). Painting in Antwerp and London: Rubens and Van Dyck. National Gallery
Technical Bulletin, 20.