Donna Norine Schuster (1883 – 1953)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com

Paintings are such fragile things in terms of composition. Their meaning predicated on the relation of the single to the whole and vice versa. Here, in two works by the somewhat obscure American Watercolourist, Donna Norine Schuster, the everyday is  drawn elsewhere through subtle twists and shifts.

‘Girl in a Pink Dress’

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If, before you ever set eyes on the painting above you, it was described purely in terms of its visual components, nothing would seem off within an imagination of the work. ‘There’s a well dressed woman at ease looking from the canvas’, a description may begin; ‘behind her a solid wall of wildflowers provides the background along with the wide spread of a parasol that she is holding, which shields much of the right hand floral spread from view’.

On first sight of ‘Girl in a Pink Dress’ however, any semblance to reality slips as a subtle sense of unease spreads across the work. The girl, for one, has a deathly pallor in the face. A tone no doubt from the arch of the shading parasol, but an aspect nonetheless that creates a certain disquiet within the experience. Unlike the earlier explored works of Rene Magritte, there is nothing, as the earlier description idea demonstrates, fundamentally untoward about the painting. It is but then a certain slanting of perspective, a particular angle of expression, that makes the painting worthwhile and more importantly, interesting.

Interesting especially in considering the parasol less of an abstractive force and more as something that acts literally as it would in reality. The girl’s face is shaded by the cover then just as we are from portions of the floral background. Schuster plays excellently here with shade in her evocation of the subject, such as contrasting edges and tufts her hair for example, with the right a delicate bushel of darkened lines, and the left more vibrant in the sun.

This odd play with colour encourages us to look further, past the girl and into the recesses of the work. The wash of garden for example behind the sitter gathers as an interesting medley of tones, but lacks any sense of depth or truth, seemingly more in line wallpaper than the botanical. It is no surprise then that in such a slight confusing image, that the parasol handle is afforded more detail and depth than anything else in the work.

Regardless of the interesting paraphernalia surrounding, this is, after all, a portrait. One in which when scrutinised, the feminine stare appears to be in conflict. The left one of warmth, coupled to an inviting toothy smile, the right however all but dilapidated, staring out over our shoulder and elsewhere.

‘Miss Livingston at the Piano’

donnaschuster

Heavily recurrent within Schuster’s work is the figure of the woman alone, normally with some sort of instrument or activity, lost in thought. The idea is indeed nothing new or transformative, see Alex Colville’s ‘Chanteuse’ here for an interesting modern adaptation, but the connotations it brings: of privacy, introspection and personal rapture, are always worth investigating.

At the window a heavy light is kept out by thick yellowed curtains. Indeed yellow dominates the entire proceedings, from the foreign font above the ivory keys, to the plant pot and even the finish on the open piano lid. As a result of this consistency there is a meditative unity about the whole, a sense that in catching the player with her eyes closed, we too can play rapt to the image. Everything is bathed in some sort of reflection of the other, giving a near holiness to what is a fairly common stock image for painters and everyone alike.

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