Content & Composition in Visual Arts

An Introduction to the Relationship Between Composition and Content in the Visual Arts

  1. Cornering the Composition
  2. What’s the Story?
  3. A Little Off-Center

1. Cornering the Composition

Begin by taking a look at Carracci's 1590 painting:

Next, answer the following questions about the compositional shape of Carracci’s painting:

  • Is the compositional triangle centered in the canvas?
  • Are all three corners of the compositional triangle contained within the canvas?
  • What is the focal point of the painting? Is the focal point in the center of the canvas?
  • Where are the two children and the cat within the compositional triangle?

Look at the line drawing of Carraci’s painting and draw the compositional shape of the painting. Now, consider what is going on in Carracci’s painting: what is the "story?"

  • What action occurs in this painting?
  • Who or what is doing the action? Who or what is reacting?
  • How do the positions of figures within the composition convey who or what is acting or reacting, and how they are doing it?

Think about what kinds of emotions this composition evokes as you answer the following questions:

  • What actions do you think took place before the moment Carracci depicts?
  • What do you think will happen after this moment?
  • What part of the story has Carracci pictured in his image?
  • How does Carracci’s decision to depict the moment of greatest tension in the narrative affect the way the viewer responds to the children and their actions?
  • How does the appearance that the cat has no outlet of escape affect the way in the viewer feels about the children and their actions?
  • How does the title of the painting affect your opinion of the children? What impression of the children does the word "teasing" leave you with?

2. What's the Story?

View the following image:

  • Artemisia Gentileschi’s Esther before Ahasuerus
  • What is the painting’s composition? Triangular? Oval? Another shape?

You can access a diagram of the painting here. Work together with your group to create hypotheses to answer the following question:

  • Why do you think Gentileschi structured this painting’s composition in this way?

Continue to work together in the same small groups to answer the following questions:

  • What elements of the composition help to convey the narrative?
  • What compositional elements convey the emotions of the characters? This should include elements such as the position of the figures relative to each other, or the use of negative space, rather than simply noting the position of Esther.
  • Which parts of the composition help the audience to understand which moment in the narrative is being portrayed?
  • How do you think Gentileschi’s choice of subject matter—a narrative that would have been familiar already as a text and as a story—might have affected the way in which she chose to portray her characters? The story?

3. A Little Off-Center

Begin by taking a look at the following painting:

Next, answer the following questions about Kirchner’s painting:

  • Who are the "characters" in this image?
  • What "action" is going in within the frame?
  • What story or stories do you see in this painting?

You can access a line drawing of the painting here. Working in your group, answer the following questions:

  • Do you see an overall shape within the composition? Explain your answer.
  • Can you find elements of symmetry in this image? Explain your answer.
  • Is Kirchner’s painting balanced?
  • Why do you think Kirchner composed the elements in his painting in this particular way?

Now, read the information on Die Brücke movement accessible through Art Safari.

Kirchner was a founding member of the German art movement Die Brücke, meaning "The Bridge." Die Brücke artists were a parallel movement to the French Fauve movement (fauve is French for "wild animal" or "beast"). Die Brücke movement began in the first years of the twentieth century and continued until around the close of World War I. Many works by Die Brücke artists focused on the distinction between life in the city and life in the country.

  • How does Street, Dresden depict city life? Is it depicted in a positive, negative, or neutral light? Explain your answer.

One of Die Brücke’s main philosophical foundations was to implement a new social order in which art and life would be integrated. Students might think about the time period and consider how the desire to meld art and life was a possible reaction to social changes taking place as a result of the industrial revolution.

  • How might these changes have affected adherents’ (of Die Brücke) outlook on the social order?
  • How does this snap-shot of life in Dresden, in this painting of pedestrians along the Königstraße—the main shopping strip—give an impression of art and life being integrated? Take a look at a photograph of Dresden, taken during the same time period in which Kirchner painted this image, which might give you an idea of what street life in Dresden would have looked like at the time this painting was created.