Chopin, The Awakening and Impressionist Perception (Group 1)

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Edward Henry Potthast, On the Beach, c. 1890

Some of the slides for today talk about idealized depictions of motherhood and family in the visual arts during the mid-1800s. By the late 1800s, the time of Chopin’s novel, Impressionists painted domestic life in daubed patches of light and color, eroding sharp defined contours and avoiding static poses in favor of fleeting moments. Edna often sees the world as a series short-lived impressions–glistening water, distant umbrellas, hazy memories, colored clumps of flowers and grasses. Objects and even memories are fluid and soft more than permanent and sharp, caught at a particular moment:

The water of the Gulf stretched out before her, gleaming with the million lights of the sun. The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude. All along the white beach, up and down, there was no living thing in sight. A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.  (Chopin, Chapter XXXIX)

What does Edna’s impressionist sensibility tell us about her state of mind? How would Edna view Potthas’s On the Beach? What would jump off the canvas for her? How would it make her feel? Would she see it as beautiful? Terrifying? Something more complicated? Would her view suggest depression? Happiness? Do you see the image in the same way that you think Edna would? You don’t have to answer all of these questions, but write a paragraph of two thinking about this image and Edna’s way of seeing the world.

Henry Pothast, On the Beach, c. 1890

5 thoughts on “Chopin, The Awakening and Impressionist Perception (Group 1)

  1. Thomas Dillon

    I cannot imagine that Edna would enjoy the depiction of this photo, for a variey of reasons. The painting seems to represent and depict everything that is antithetical to Edna’s worldview and overall philosophies, with particular regards to gender roles, life fullfillment, and parenting responsibilities. I tend to agree with Karianne that being a mother is not a sufficient role, label, or responsibility for Edna. I do not believe that there is any overall signs of absolute resentment directed towards her children, but it becomes very clear that Edna longs for meaning beyond that of a mother during this stereotypical time period. Pothat’s painting resembles a mother practically walking towards her fate; with a child on one hand, the deep abyss of the water standing in front, almost taunting Edna in a variety of ways because this child and this body of water is indicative of the freedom that she so longly hopes for, but fails to find. Terrifying might be a bit extreme for a certain word to properly describe her reaction, but it certainly would not sit with her. The painting places emphasis and focus on her physical mass, yet it seems as if she’s evidently lacking autonomy, as every other figure within or surrounding the backrground of the painting has autonomy and generally seems to enjoy the water’s action and company.

  2. Paolo Gonnelli

    Looking at the painting from Edna’s perspective I don’t think she would despise it, but nor would she love it. If anything, I think she would very much identify herself with the child in the foreground, rather than the adult figures. The sea calls to Edna from very early in the book, As soon as she learns how to swim she “seemed to be reaching out for for the unlimited in which to lose herself.” (p. 24) It is also significant that she ends up back in the sea, letting herself go quite literally. In the painting, the sea and the sky almost merge together, they’re barely distinguishable and they very much represent visually that feeling of “unlimited” Edna feels and desires. As it was pointed out in the slides, Edna is sort of longing for her childhood, she would rather be a child than an adult, thus she would see herself in the child. Moreover, his mother is grabbing onto him as if holding him back. He is trying to get to the sea, to get in the water, but the mother is constraining him in a way. Similarly, Edna feels constrained by her marriage, her children, her status as a wife-mother. Ironically, the roles are inverted in the painting, and if I were Edna I would not be able to not notice the connection and the irony of it all. She is, very much like the child in the painting, trying to escape.

  3. Timothy DeLorenzo

    Edna would feel some sort of connection with the people who are on the beach on the left part of the composition. I imagine she would see it with a sort of familiarity being from the era, but I do not think that she would like to picture herself being bound to the gender roles described in this painting. She would find it interesting to look at the wispy sand beneath the figures feet. I wonder if she would see sand or mud. Little ripples in the sand wrap around the figures’ feet like ropes, and underneath the flowingly-dressed figures, there is a hardly defined shadow, a darkness. She would think about the type of life that these figures live, and the emotional shadows that it casts. She would think about how she would never be able to swim if she was always using one arm to hold a child and the other arm to hold a parasol. Then, she would notice the division between the sand and the water. She would think about how light is free to reflect off of the water how it pleases, creating spiritual visual illusions. She would notice the freedom of form that water has; it’s not bound to similar rules of form that we think of in solids. Being a painter, she would admire the looseness of the brushstroke. Thinking again of the shadow beneath the figures, she would notice how fractured the shadow is on the water. With that sensation, she would think of a certain lightness that she can experience in the water when swimming. It’s a freedom that calls to her and welcomes her to dissolve, and she accepts that freedom.

  4. Madison Brito

    I agree with Karianne that this likely wouldn’t be the lovely image Edna conjures up when she thinks of a “seductive” sea that is “inviting the soul,” but I do think she would identify with this image in many ways. Perhaps rather than looking at the women and seeing everything she cannot be, she would be drawn to look at the child closer to the shore, clad in darker colors. As noted in the slides, Edna herself expresses a desire to revert to a childlike state. I find it’s almost as if she misses the selfishness being a child allows for – you don’t have to care for anyone or really think about anything but yourself, you can act on impulses without punishment, and you would be very unlikely to experience the kind of ‘existential discomfort’ Edna does as an adult. The impressionist style painting embodies the dreamy, blurred state Edna seems to live in and just like in real life, this young girl in the dark finds herself surrounded by bright figures, fulfilling their roles with apparent ease and happiness, while she stands apart from there, staring out at an ocean and unable to look back.
    The girl appears as if she is striding towards the water, while the little boy is held back from going any further and the adults stand still. But she looks like she is holding a bucket, giving off the appearance that she is only going to play; while Edna went out to the sea at the end of the novel, ultimately killing herself, something about her final walk into the ocean did not feel like she was going out to her death, but to a natural and “soft, close embrace.” “The waves invited her” and as she goes deeper into the water, she thinks of playing in the grass as a child. She speaks of how she would see “no beginning and no end” in that grass as a child, almost as if now, she doesn’t really know what she is doing, she just knows that it feels good. The women looking out at the child don’t appear as if they’re going to stop her from going towards it, or as if they’re really reacting much at all despite looking in her direction, seeming to amplify the sentiments Edna might feel looking at this painting, the feeling she had before she went down to the ocean, of loneliness, the feeling that no one would ever understand her.

  5. Karianne Laird

    I think Edna would not find this image appealing – it represents the motherly figure she cannot seem to embody. Potthast’s painting “On the Beach”, can be interpreted as a glamorized version of her own life. It depicts upperclass women, like her, on the beach with their children during the summer. However, these women look at ease – and they look enthralled by watching their children play. The light and painterly strokes mixed with the bright colors and the sunlit atmosphere gives it a happy ambiance – something that contrasts to Edna’s feelings in the very same situation. I believe, Edna would see this painting as a rose-tinted snapshot of her reality of motherhood, a reality that does not satisfy her.

    Although she seems to love her children, being a mother is not sufficient for her. This is epitomized in the scene where Edna states, “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children, but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.” Adèle does not understand the difference – but to Edna the difference is significant. This demonstrates her discovery of herself and independence and distinguishes her from other women and the women in the painting who seem content with giving up all of themselves to motherhood (or who maybe don’t even see it as a sacrifice). Once Edna begins to seek independence and self-fulfillment, she finds herself in conflict with the expectations and conventions of society. Thus, this picture of beautiful women and children, who conform perfectly to society’s expectation, might make Edna feel envious of the painted women who so gracefully and effortlessly fulfill their role in society or maybe she would pity them for not wanting more from their lives.

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