orange sweater


1955 | oil on canvas | Elmer Bischoff 1916 – 1991 | Photograph from: SFMOMA, San Francisco, CA May, 2010


Elmer Bischoff depicts two figures in what appears to be a public setting, perhaps a library; both facing the viewer. Figure one, more at the foreground (with the orange sweater) is sitting at a table, with arms folded and head lowered and appears to be focused on reading. Figure two, more in the background to the viewer’s right, (and figure one’s left) is unclear whether the figure is sitting, or standing at a counter.


The two figure’s distance apart from one and the other, is where Bischoff shows the viewer proper perspective using relative size as figure one appears larger, more vivid and painted in more detail than figure two. A partition to the viewer’s right, using parallel lines that appear to travel back to figure two, is one way Bischoff creates linear perspective and gives depth to the composition.


At the viewer’s left, a window is present with the appearances of greenery outside of the composition. The window’s panes add to the interposition illusion of a distinct inside and outside and the greenery being farther away. Also, one use of light and shadow that Bischoff uses is (again) showing figure one (more in the foreground) painted brighter more vividly with more contrast and color, and thus the illusion is created that figure one is receiving more light than figure two.


Outside of the obvious monocular cues, Bischoff uses classically trained techniques to create more depth and illusion. In what appears to be the backs of two chairs, facing away from the viewer at the lower left foreground corner; Bischoff paints only the top half. This serves two purposes, one is to create the illusion that the chairs come off the canvas and into the viewer’s prescience and invites the viewer to come in and look into the composition. The other purpose is to form a boundary that seems to say; “stay where you are,” and to also say, “do not disturb.”


Bischoff’s use of cool greens surrounding the composition, and the almost warm yellow hues that are muted and filtered from drawn shades in the window, at the background the create an all around placid, harmonious and still environment. The chairs are painted in a brown with darker green highlight, reflecting the greenery outside the window at the left background; this would suggest a warm earthy boundary between the viewer and the composition.


Bischoff paints the central figure in orange, complementary to the surroundings and being the first object the viewer will greet, but the central figure is not at the center of the composition, and not looking directly to the viewer. The viewer’s direct line of sight travels to the shaded window in the background, thus going over the head of the central figure and adding to the spaciousness of the room. Figure two in the background is facing the viewer also seems to offer an invitation to come closer and have a look.


Elmer Bischoff, an American Abstract Expressionist, later in his career turned again to the objective world and began painting figures into his compositions using expressionistic brush strokes and creating beautiful every day American scenes of the 1950’s through the 1960’s. I am a big fan of Elmer Bischoff and always feel at home studying his paintings, although always knowing my proper place and to view with care.