The Painter's Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art


After gazing for a long time at the Death of Sardanapalus in the Louvre and making some notes on its composition, I was rash enough to pursue this line, turning to the Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople, the Massacre of Scio, the Women of Algiers. This research and the pleasure it yields had taken hold of me. After Delacroix came Poussin and Cézanne; then David and Seurat... It was the beginning of five years spent in questioning hundreds of artists through thousands of canvases.

This book is not a treatise on painting. It is a study of the internal construction of works of art, a search for the formulae that have guided, over the centuries, the distribution of the various plastic elements. The framework of a painting or carving, like that of the human body or that of a building, is discreet; sometimes, indeed, it makes one forget its existence; but it cannot be absent, for it is what gives a work of art those 'principal lines' of which Delacroix speaks in his Journal.

Throughout the book I shall always try to look at the paintings in question in my capacity as a painter. I shall be searching for the genesis of the work rather than for the secrets of its formal beauty. I shall try always to resist the temptation to find the criterion of aesthetic value by applying some favoured formula; not being either a mathematician or a philosopher, I shall never attempt to prove that a work of art is a paragon of beauty simply because it may fit some highly exacting and scientific schema.

Nor is this book a history of composition. I shall take certain liberties with the time sequence. Due weight must be given to certain resemblances, resulting from affinities between artists of different periods: as in the case of Cézanne, Delacroix and Rubens. Conversely, in order to follow the use of geometrical figures (or of some other compositional device) through the centuries, I shall be obliged to treat certain painters in several chapters, under different headings. In spite of all this, the chronological order will often come to the fore, reflecting as it does the movement of ideas and the fact that every artist is at the start a pupil.

We shall find, as we go along, that there are many valid solutions to the problem of the distribution of forms within a work; we shall recognize, too, that artists like change, follow fashions and are subject to currents of taste.

Additional information

Publisher: Place of publication:
  • New York
Publication year:
  • 1963


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