Human Isolation in Urban Setting

image from here

The oil painting depicts a man sitting on the edge of a sidewalk, stretching his tired left leg while flexing his left foot outward into the street. Resting his right foot in the gutter, the man hunches over. While the disconsolate man rests near a fire hydrant, rows and rows of concatenated legs walk down the sidewalk, since the pedestrians are shown from the knee down. One could almost see the ephemeral shadows flutter by as the rows of people walk past the man – unnoticed and alone – on the city sidewalk. By focusing on the structure of one man, a brief formal analysis of Maynard Dixon’s Forgotten Man (c. 1934) reveals the isolation of humanity juxtaposed against the crowded city through the use of golden ratio, color, shadows, size, and lines.

The man is the central focus of the painting because of the artist’s organic use of the golden ratio and lines. Through the use of golden ratio, the man is not in the center of the painting, thus drawing the viewer’s eye to concentrate on the man. The man’s shape is an elongated circle or oval. Although the left leg is almost a straight line, the curved shoulders and softly bent right leg rounds out the figure; the lines are flowing and rhythmic, thus making the man’s structure organic. The fluid motion of the contrasting tilt of the head downward and the opposite tilt upwards of the foot contributes to framing the man’s body. In addition to the golden ratio, the edge of the sidewalk is parallel to the mass of people behind the man. However, one row of legs matches diagonally with the man’s back, creating an elongated cross. X marks the spot, or in this instance, the main importance of the painting. Therefore, the combined use of the golden ratio and lines emphasizes the central figure: the isolated man.

Dixon uses colorful accents to juxtapose the muted colors of the whole of the painting. First, the man’s hair is flame-like with colors of gold and burnt-orange. The flame hair, which is formed by coming to a point, creates two diagonal lines or a triangle shape for the top of the head. The man’s hair is unnatural but accentuates the man’s hunched structure. Second, more than one-fourth of the painting reveals the beige sidewalk on the bottom right corner of the painting. Even the gutter in this corner has warm, autumnal colors, such as mauve, maroon, and teal. The gutter’s color is also unnatural, since gutters are usually full of repulsive trash and black slush. Dixon transforms a usually dirty city sidewalk into something beautiful and welcoming, yet no one sits beside the man. Therefore, the use of color and the empty space highlights the man’s isolation.

Through juxtaposing the man versus a simple fire hydrant, the size and color highlight the man’s isolation as well as his motionless state. This man is, of course, hunched, but even if he sat up straight, he would probably still be shorter than the hydrant beside him. This comparison of size leads one’s attention to other parallels between the man and the hydrant. For example, the hydrant’s teal color matches the same teal of the man’s jacket. Both the hydrant and jacket are offset by flecks of tan and brown, suggesting rust. While the portrayal of rust on the hydrant is naturalistic, it would be impossible for a man to have literal rust on his jacket. However, rust occurs through corrosion, which destructs of metals; usually, the rusty object is stationary, unused, or exposed for long amounts of time. Similarly, the man with rust on his shoulders suggests that he is stationary, just like the hydrant. Thus, the man’s static state juxtaposes with the suggestion of fluid, constant movement of feet behind him.

Through the use of shadows, the emphasis of the man’s shoes and face contrasts with the pedestrians’ shoes and lack of faces portrayed. The bottom of the man’s shoes appears worn-out. The top of the man’s right shoe, which is in the shadow, appears to look like everyone else’s shoes behind him. But the viewer can see the bottom of the man’s left shoe, which has tarnished lines and a worn, dark C-shaped mark. Some parts of the sole appear to be eroded off, since the colors contrast with light and dark coloring of the shadows. Likewise, the man’s pusillanimous face is the only one portrayed, since no other faces are shown from the people walking. There is no sense of camaraderie between the pedestrians, who only seem united in a robotic, continual march. In contrast, the man’s face is shown, although it is partially hidden in a shadow. His slanted, closed eyes are sunken, his eyebrows are furrowed deeply, and his thin lips are pursed shut. Yet, in the Gallery, the viewer is about eye-level with the man’s face. If this were to happen in reality, the viewer would be in the middle of the street, which is unrealistic due to the threat of oncoming traffic. But here, the viewer is provided with a different perspective; as a result, the viewer becomes connected with the man.

In conclusion, the juxtaposition of the man against his surroundings reveals that the man becomes the central figure. The title of the painting, Forgotten Man, could suggest a forlorn mood. The man’s warm, autumnal colors of his flame-like hair and teal, rusty jacket set against the empty space besides him emphasizes the paradox of man’s isolation and stationary status within a crowded, bustling city. Although the mood may be dejected, hope is also present. The formal elements of the painting connect the viewer to the man, suggesting the potential of a person to stop and notice those who go by unnoticed and alone in life.


2 thoughts on “Human Isolation in Urban Setting

  1. Lovely analysis — especially since I might not have noticed the “rust” on the man’s jacket if you hadn’t linked it to the top of the hydrant. The painting’s date — 1934 — suggests to me that the title is a reference to the depression-era phrase “forgotten man” which was widely known thanks to the song “Remember My Forgotten Man,” sung by wonderful Joan Blondell in the movie Gold Diggers of 1933. It’s a powerful movie sequence. You can see it and hear the song here: It was a pre-code movie; Joan’s compassionate character is a hooker. It’s also notable for showing that one of the suffering women is African-American. Quite a musical! (And yes, it is cynical and funny, which makes this final number quite a surprise. Another hit song from it was “We’re in the Money.”)

    On 5/28/15, the bippity boppity beautiful blog

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