Chopin, The Awakening and Impressionist Perception (Group 4)

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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.

Edward Henry Potthast, On the Beach, c. 1890

5 thoughts on “Chopin, The Awakening and Impressionist Perception (Group 4)

  1. Rachel Horowitz-Benoit

    There is something about the way that Edna sees the world, in large, impressionist strokes, that makes her attraction to the sea logical. In this painting, the style is more naturalistic when it represents amorphous substances like the water, but very pronounced in the faces and clothes of the people. For someone who sees the world as the former, it makes sense that Edna would not see her children fitting into her life. She is entertained by others but ends her life in absolute solitude; her suicide is a complete absorption, like she is moving from the starkly defined world of social expectations and parental responsibilities into that of her own interiority. For this reason I think that the painting would evoke conflicting emotions in her, as she sees the relatable sea, the voice of which “speaks to the soul,” and yet she is distanced from it are the figures of other women and children. The painting seems like an apt metaphor for what holds her back from her own loosely defined desires.

    There would certainly be stress in her reaction, which was what it elicited in me as well, although I think for different reasons. Initially, the scene looks pleasant, but it’s the vague details of it that make it unpleasant for me. One child has his mouth open, as if wailing (the fact that the crying mouth is the only feature is telling), another child seems to pulling away from the mother toward the water, and the woman in green is holding hat and umbrella at an angle that looks like she’s trying to stop them from being blown away by the wind. For me, these small details taint the scene as unpleasant, whereas I think Edna would not need these details to come to the same conclusion.

  2. Alexander Merrill

    Before reading the prompt, I looked at the painting thinking it was beautiful. My eyes were brought to the detail and shading of the woman’s yellow skirt as well as the waves in the ocean. After reading the prompt, my eyes were immediately drawn to the the mothers and children in the painting. I was no longer looking at any of the detail or colors of the painting, but the content instead. My experience seems to parallel what others haves said so far as well.

    I can’t imagine that Edna would see anything else in this painting but the women and children, at least at first. I imagine that she would feel dread or angst followed by some sense of guilt or remorse, however I also think these feelings would likely differ depending on at what point she sees the painting in the timeline of the novel. Toward the end of the novel I think the guilt or remorse would be stronger, however near the height of her independence I think the dread or angst would be stronger.

    I do also think that Edna’s artistic sensibilities would be able to recognize the beauty and mastery in the painting even through the potential conflicted emotions brought on by the subject matter.

    Interestingly, while I did not originally feel dread or angst seeing the mothers with their children, that might be contributed to the fact that having children is not something that I think about happening in the next 10+ years, and thus it is not on my mind even remotely. On the other hand, when I attempted to look at the painting through the eyes of Edna, I could feel some sort of existential dread at the prospect of having children. That would be an insane responsibility and commitment to me at this point in my life, so I imagine if I was pressured into a situation like Edna at a young age I would likely be in the same shoes as her.

  3. Jacob Morton

    I agree with Henry and Gordon. My initial reaction to the painting and accompanying text above was to point out the irony of such a nonconformist art style being used to depict a scene bearing resemblances to the throttling responsibilities Edna tries to escape. It begs the question of what strikes us more (or at least first) about the painting–its style or content? I would wager, given both my response and my peers’, that it’s the content–as I agree that the painting would frustrate Edna; she would see it for the portrayed action itself–not the radically impressionistic way it was rendered.

    The connection that jumps out to me most when comparing the book to impressionist artwork is texture. Impressionism has an almost tactile feel to it; the brushstrokes are so dashed and even splotchy that I can sort of envision what it would feel to run my fingertips across the canvas just from looking at it. It’s a far cry from the photorealist paintings that you feel like you can just step into. Now, apart from the obvious links that texture has to sex–throughout the novel, Edna observes the world from a perspective that often emphasizes touch. “She turned her face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude, which the vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky, conveyed to her excited fancy. As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.” (p. 24) The figurative way in which Chopin describes the horizon–with the water’s surface “meeting and melting” with the sky–is quite palpable. The verbs “meet” and “melt” imply a tangible interchange between the water and the sky–as if the two elements are physically touching each other. Similarly, the description that “she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited” is another instance of Chopin figuratively imbuing a sense of touchability into her chronicling of Edna’s psyche. Edna, of course, cannot actually reach out and touch the infinite horizon–nor is she really trying to. Chopin creates a beautiful analogy which uses tactility to physicalize her inner wants–something which impressionism does using its visual texture.

  4. Henry Mooers

    In many aspects, the impressionist work likely would present an interesting conflict for Edna. On the one hand, the style with which it was painted, as noted in the prompt, has similarities to the fashion in which Edna views her world. In this aspect, Edna may be receptive to it. However, the subject matter of the painting is in direct contrast to the interests, or lack thereof, we as the reader know Edna to possess. Her blatant disinterest for parenting and motherhood leads me to believe that she would have a negative reaction to the painting, because it would serve as a reminder for something she is not.

    One quote in the reading that I found to demonstrate this potential division in Edna’s hypothetical reaction to the painting is in relation to Edna’s husband. “He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.”

    I think that the self that society would prefer Edna to conform to, that of a respectable and loving mother, is captured is represented by Edna’s ‘impressionist sensibility’. However, the quote also captures that she is moving away from this mindset, and that her true self lies somewhere else. I think that ultimately, speculating on Edna’s reaction to this painting represents an interesting microcosm for her character development in the story. She is supposed to think and feel a certain way as a mother, and is conditioned to ‘like’ paintings related to such matters. However, she is slowly moving away from what she is supposed to like, with ideas like children, motherhood, and marriage seeming distasteful to her at the current moment. I think this is aptly captured in the subject matter of the painting.

    1. Gordon Lewis

      I agree with your thoughts here, Henry. When I tried to look at this painting through the eyes of Edna, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of animosity towards this woman, and especially the children pictured all around her. I was reminded of a line in the book where Edna describes her feelings about her children, saying something along the lines of: “they were antagonists that had overcome her”. Deep down, Edna must care for and love her children, but I think a part of that subconscious love is also resentment. We can see this easily when she describes how she was sad at first to leave the children after visiting her mother-in-law’s estate, but then quickly forgot about them.

      Maybe it’s not quite animosity or resentment, but similar to what you said, a sort of indifference or rejection of the kind of devotion required to be the ideal mother. After all, Edna does say that she is willing to give up everything non-essential for her children, save for her own self.

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