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Silence, from "Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge," a painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Subthemes: Anger or Disappointment, Introverted, Disapproval

A downcast, slumped woman trudges down a street, wrapped in silence. She has no companion to chat with – note the couple behind her with their backs turned brusquely toward her – and she conveys reflection, fatigued blandness, or melancholy. Toulouse-Lautrec captured on canvas a meditation on silence.

“Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge”, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Avril

Anger or Disappointment: Who knows what might have happened before this painting of Jane Avril, a famous dancer at the Moulin Rouge cabaret in Paris. Perhaps Toulouse-Lautrec caught her in an unguarded, private moment, alone with her thoughts neither happy nor sad. But it appears more likely that a performance went poorly, she is hungry, her knee hurts, she is bored or she has just learned of a friend’s death. Some people shout when they feel angry or hurt, others lapse into tight-lipped silence. This woman gazing absently at her feet appears to have withdrawn into a shell of silence. Giving others the “silent treatment” warns or punishes them after a wrong has happened to the silent one. The silence of recrimination contrasts with boisterous cheers and olés of delight. Few happy people keep silent; joy equals jubilation, while disappointment smolders in the silence of sullenness. Here, Jane Avril’s prickly silence and attitude tells passersby to leave her alone.

Introverted: The painting suggests that if a pedestrian ventured a cheerful “Bonjour” to this woman, she would at best be polite but quite possibly would be curt or ignore them. She doesn’t want to be sociable, let alone convivial. Her suppression of words says volumes about her inner mood. Her seclusion isn’t that of “the strong, silent type.” She isn’t a Rocky or Rambo who didn’t waste words.

Instead Avril’s remote silence was more likely that of an introvert who often kept her thoughts to herself. Unlike extroverts, quiet types are content to walk wordlessly, in a sense to stay hidden and enjoy the present or the opportunity to reflect or simple be present. They do not blurt out whatever hits their mind. Just because somebody is not a voluble chatterbox does not mean they lack ideas or feeling. As compared to the loudmouth, domineering type, “A man of few words” can be just as capable or a better leader. From the looks of this painting, for whatever reason, Jane Avril has chosen wordless apartness to surround her, or can’t help her withdrawal caused by a provocation.

Disapproval: Silence can say more than words. To say nothing can condemn in the loudest terms protest, hatred, anger, and palpable disapproval. Likewise, the lack of applause condemns an outrageous or hateful statement with the “deafening silence“. As with non-violent protest, the muteness of a group shouts its disapproval. Perhaps the woman in the painting has been rejected by a lover, or passed over for a part, or told that the much-desired dress remains unfinished. Something has darkened her brow, slumped her shoulders, and pursed her lips. The more she mulls over the wrong or unfairness, the angrier and more walled-off she becomes: “Silence like a cancer grows”.

 

In his somber painting, Toulouse-Lautrec captures quiet. The woman chooses to say nothing, perhaps because she has had a row, or retreats into an introvert’s calm, or has chosen to button her lip against an injustice. Whatever the cause, the result emanates silence.

To consider subthemes of the concept Silence, consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview of this project, this article explains Themes from Art.

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