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Verticals, Horizontals and Curves

Corner of the Church of St Stae, Venice, Sargent, oil , 72 x 56cm, c. 1913, private collection

In his book Composition of Outdoor Painting, Edgar Payne mentions the effect of the direction of lines in a picture.  “The vertical line is emblematic of great height, stability and nobility. The horizontal line denotes repose and tranquility. The slanting [line] or curve indicates movement or activity and rhythm.” Here, I have chosen a few landscapes that illustrate what I believe Payne means. In Sargent‘s painting (above) the vertical lines dominate. He has chosen a portrait style canvas deliberately to add majesty and grandeur to the overall effect.

Coniferous Forest Sunny Day, Ivan Shishkin, 1895, oil on canvas, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Shishkin does the same in his forest painting above. The eye is drawn into the scene along the mossy banks in the foreground, and lingers over the sun drenched clearing in the centre, but the overall effect is one of cathedral-like stateliness.

The Mountains of Moab, John Singer Sargent, 1905, oil on canvas, 65 x 111cm, Tate, London

This painting by Sargent is dominated by horizontals: the edge of the foreground, the horizon itself and the variations in the colours in the sky. These all give a sense of calm and repose. Sargent avoids dullness by leading us into the picture with  the features on the foreground winding their way into the middle distance.

A Dull Day, Stubble, Isaac Levitan, 1895, oil on canvas

The work above is by Isaac Levitan. Here again the horizontals dominate (clouds, line of trees, line of field). Levitan leads us into the picture with the cart track and gives us sense of depth with the bundles of straw in the foreground, the unharvested fields in the middle ground and the forest in the background. The sense of calm is a little threatened by the look of ready rain in the sky.

Seascape, Edgar Payne, oil on canvas, 63 x 76cm

Finally, above is a seascape by Payne himself. It is mostly curves and diagonals denoting activity which is only to be expected given the subject matter. All the same, Payne adds some stability with the horizontals (clouds and seashore) at the top.


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