When the German army rumbles into town, Provost shows Séraphine scraping away at her canvas, her hymns replaced by the thunder of mortars while Uhde, the "dirty German", is forced to flee.


I would like to ask what exactly Séraphine did when she scraped away at her canvas. Given the fact that she was a painter I think that she could erase the layer of painting but not sure. I am fimiliar with the phrase scrape away but it is used mostly without the preposition "at".

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    Please provide references to the sources, if you can. It would be easier to understand the meaning with more context. – CowperKettle Dec 17 '15 at 17:41

Séraphine is either scraping off a layer of paint, or is employing the sgraffito technique, per J.R.'s helpful suggestion (also see the comments below for stangdon's suggestion). In the context, this is not that important whether she is painting or scraping: the author wants to stress that she is preoccupied with her work.

The word away is used to indicate that she is doing this in a continuous manner. In the context, this serves to underscore how she is paying little attention to what goes on around her (the German invasion).

From Macmillan's definition for away:

away (6) [USUALLY PROGRESSIVE] - used for showing that someone does something continuously or for a long time:
Molly was at her desk working away as usual.
The children were all chattering away happily.

The preposition at is used to indicate the object (task, goal) to which the person's efforts are being applied:

Lily, in the early stages of being with child, often spent her days toiling away at decorating their home in preparation for many happy years ahead, and comforting her rapidly indisposed father. (Google Books)

See, the word away is not used to indicate that she is taking a layer of paint away. If she were not scraping but applying a layer of paint, we could still use away:

When the German army rumbles into town, Provost shows Séraphine dabbing away at her canvas, her hymns replaced by the thunder of mortars while Uhde, the "dirty German", is forced to flee.

Example of usage:

Once I'm dabbing away with my brush I'm like a boy making love for the first time all over again. An intense relationship is built up between the canvas and me. (Google Books, 2015)

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    I don't think it literally means she's scraping anything off the canvas; I think the meaning is probably closer to 4: to make one's way with difficulty I think it's not a very good choice of words on the part of the author, though, because it's so ambiguous. – stangdon Dec 17 '15 at 18:46
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    @CopperKettle - I think so; it is commonly used that way. Consider "Scraping Away at Our Visual Paradigms" or "Scraping Away at the 'Black Legend' of a Spanish King" It's a little hard to say, because those uses do have the sense of "uncovering", but it is used that way. Like I said, kind of a bad choice of words by the original author. – stangdon Dec 17 '15 at 18:54
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    @stangdon - this could be an intentional wordplay then! – CowperKettle Dec 17 '15 at 18:55
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    @stangdon - I must strongly disagree with your assertion that this doesn't have anything to do with painting, and that it's a bad choice of words. If the character is a painter who is scraping at her canvas, I think it's unlikely that the author is using scraping in a strictly metaphorical sense. – J.R. Dec 18 '15 at 0:15
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    @CopperKettle – I have just watched the movie and think your complex and highly informative analysis is correct. There is one scene in the movie that fits with the reviewer's description. After the break out of the war and German army's invasion, Séraphine is shown as kneeling on her knees and with a brusher finishing her work of art. She is shown as only putting a red clolour on her painting. So this is not so as I thought that she furiously (may be in reaction) to the war destroyed her painting. – bart-leby Dec 18 '15 at 11:05

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