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Are You Just Daydreaming - Or Is It Boredom?

Here’s six images to help you separate daydreaming from boredom.

PleasPaul-César Helleu, (1859-1927) Daydream (1901) \ here.
Source: Wikipedia

Alice Guérin is the name of this woman and she’d married her painter, Paul-César Helleu, by this time. Paul-César has represented Alice here as if she were daydreaming. If we were to use Helleu’s cheesy picture as a base, then there are a few guidelines that we could make up about the situation of daydreaming that work - at least for pictures like this one. I know you won’t like the guidelines, but I’m not the painter, I’m just the reporter. We'll test these alarming rules against five other representations that I’ll show from different time periods. Let's see what comes of things. Here are the Helleu Rules on daydreaming.

  • You should be a woman, and probably a young one and attractive (blame the painter for that, not me)
  • You should be reasonably well off (ditto)
  • You should be resting on a chair or at least resting against something
  • You should normally prop your chin on the palm of your hand
  • You should gaze off into the near distance – that’s very important
  • You should not offend. Never offend (ditto)

Alice Guérin, you might think, is just bored. Daydreaming and boredom are easy to confuse. That we need to admit. But looking like Alice Guérin is not quite the way that you look when you’re bored in pictures. Bored people usually stare out of the picture and often at their tormentor – I mean they look at whatever it is that’s boring them. And boredom in art and in photography doesn’t respect gender and class and age and attractiveness and not being offensive. This is probably because boredom, as an emotion, is closely related to disgust. Daydreaming is not usually related to disgust.

This is our second daydreamer. The artist was a famous Parisian, Berthe Morisot (1841-1895). The subject of her painting shows most of the characteristics that Alice Guérin displayed in Helleu’s painting. You can see the Helleu Rules again.

Berthe Morisot, Julie Daydreaming, 1894.
Source: Wikiart

Julie Manet, Berthe Morisot’s daughter, is a woman, yes, and she is a young (sixteen when this picture was done; her mother died the same year of pneumonia) and an attractive one, and she wasn’t poor. Morisot and her family were quite wealthy. Julie is resting on a chair and props her chin on the palm of her hand. She stares tiredly into the near distance – and I guess she doesn’t offend. So the Helleu Rules work again. This is a painting, however, where the cliché-ometer goes right off the register.

You can play with the Helleu Rules, once you get the hang of them. This just what Norman Rockwell does in the popular picture to follow. Rockwell avoids some of the lazy gender bias, but he is a dab hand at clichés too.

Norman Rockwell, Daydreaming Bookkeeper (Adventure), 1924.
Source: Wikiart

This is thirty years after Berthe Morisot. Norman Rockwell presents us with a man daydreaming instead of a woman. He’s not too young as the grey hair shows. He’s got a very friendly face – attractive would be the wrong word. He’s probably not too wealthy at all, if he has to earn his living as a bookkeeper. He's resting on a chair and you could easily imagine that left arm coming up at any moment to prop up his dreaming head. The bookkeeper really is staring into the near distance – and he definitely wouldn’t say boo to a goose. So the Helleu Rules are all right here, but Norman Rockwell has flipped some of them, quite deliberately you’d say. We have a male, not so young, and one who’s not wealthy. Is the bookkeeper bored? He could be, but the painting doesn’t tell us anything about boredom. It shows, in the sphere behind him, that he’s daydreaming of an adventurous life as a sailor in a square-rigger on the Spanish Main. But Norman Rockwell at least shows that you don’t have to be a young woman to daydream.

Let’s jump from 1924 to the present. The next of my daydreamers comes from real life. The Afghan child was photographed daydreaming in class in Kabul in 2013. It’s a great photo.

ResoluteSupportMedia, @MTIClarke, Creative Commons (Flickr)
An Afghan child daydreaming at school.
Source: ResoluteSupportMedia, @MTIClarke, Creative Commons (Flickr)

The photo shows that the clichés of art can sometimes be present in real life. The child is a girl and she’s young and very heart warming. You couldn’t know whether she’s rich or poor. But she’s at school in Kabul. She’s resting on a table and leans her face on the back of her hand. She stares off into the near distance – and it really is true that she doesn’t offend. So Helleu’s Rules work again, but this time in real life. We mightn’t like those rules (Norman Rockwell can’t have), but, as far as pictures go, some of their elements more or less work. But boys must also look like this.

The next one is by Henri Matisse (1868-1954). Matisse probably had met Berthe Morisot, but you wouldn’t know it from his oil painting. The situation and the clichés are very similar, but there’s one strong change. This adds the flavour of boredom to the painting.

Henri Matisse, Reading Woman,Daydreaming, 1921.
Source: Wikiart

The daydreamer is a woman, is young and attractive, she doesn’t look poor, and she’s resting on a chair. Her chin isn't propped on her hand, but it appears as if it might have been a moment ago. Then, having had enough of the book, she turns from it and stares away. But the eyes come out of the picture towards us or towards the painter. Bored people, as I said earlier, usually look out of the picture and often at their tormentor – they stare at whatever it is that’s boring them. Boredom tends to confront, while daydreaming looks away. Matisse thought the woman was daydreaming, but he got it wrong. The traditional images of daydreaming and of boredom, as you can see, are very close.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) died the same year as Henri Matisse. Here she is aged 31 and photographed by the great Mexican artist, Manuel Alvarez Bravo (1902-2002) who lived in Mexico City till he was 100. This picture was made 17 years after Matisse’s Reading Woman, Daydreaming. Frida Kahlo is bored.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo (1902-2002), Frida with Globe, Coyoacan, Mexico, 1938.
Source: Wikiart

How do I know? It’s the eyes. But what of the other features? Frida Kahlo is female, is young (thirty one), is strikingly beautiful, and she doesn’t look terribly poor. Frida Kahlo is resting on a chair and leans her head against her left hand. (It’s close enough to the chin on the palm of her hand.) But she doesn’t stare into the near distance. She stares straight out of the photograph and confronts us – or Manuel Alvarez Bravo. I don’t think that she cares one bit whether she offends or not. So the Helleu Rules don’t work very well at all. That’s because she’s bored. But some of the Helleu elements are here. And that’s because the traditional images of daydreaming and of boredom are very close.

You may think that all of this is either frivolous or academic. I don’t think it’s either. These are important emotional states we’re dealing with here. And just like all emotional states, there exist for them phenotypes, or a visual language that seems to characterize them. The rules, to judge by what we’ve seen, are subject to the usual gender bias – daydreamers tend to be women in pictures, but for sure not in real life where we’re all daydreaming for 46% of our time on earth. There are, however, humdrum reasons why recognizing the rules, or the bits of them that count, can help. You’ll need naturally to avoid the pitfalls of gender and just aim for the gestures. If you earn your living from speaking (as a teacher or a public presenter, say), or if you have to speak a lot as part of you job (that’s just about everyone these days), then it can be handy to know whether you’ve driven your listeners to daydreaming or to boredom. There are rules that you can apply to distinguish the image of daydreaming from those of boredom in your audience. Think of Helleu, but avoid his gender clichés. The flippant rules really can help if you talk for a living. Why? If your audience is daydreaming you can bring them back with a joke (or any small prompt), but if they are bored, well, you’re done for.

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