A Brief History of Perspective
By Leslie Lienau
The Mirriam-Webster Dictionary defines perspective as “the technique or process of representing on a plane or curved surface the spatial relation of objects as they might appear to the eye; specifically : representation in a drawing or painting of parallel lines as converging in order to give the illusion of depth and distance; or the appearance to the eye of objects in respect to their relative distance and position.
For the artist, seeing, understanding and expressing perspective is an age old problem. Very early artistic drawings and paintings did not show perspective or foreshortening (an aspect of linear perspective which occurs when the size of a form or space is distorted when viewed from a distance or at an unusual angle). Long ago, paintings and drawings made by artists showed the spiritual or thematic importance of figures by size and placement on the picture plane which made space and depth appear distorted.
The Greeks and Romans understood perspective, but over time, their knowledge was lost. Plato wrote, "Thus (through perspective) every sort of confusion is revealed within us; and this is that weakness of the human mind on which the art of conjuring and of deceiving by light and shadow and other ingenious devices imposes, having an effect upon us like magic... And the arts of measuring and numbering and weighing come to the rescue of the human understanding – there is the beauty of them – and the apparent greater or less, or more or heavier, no longer have the mastery over us, but give way before calculation and measure and weight?"
It was 15th Century Italian architect and engineer Filippo Brunelleschi who rediscovered the laws of perspective. He demonstrated a mathematical approach that proved how forms and space shrink in size according to their location and distance from the eye. In 1435 Leon Battista Alberti discovered the first theory of linear perspective and published his treatise Della Pictura (On Painting) in which he too relied on mathematics as the common ground of art and science. Alberti’s discovery had an enormous impact on European artists and is still used by artists, designers and architects today.
Artists throughout history have devised mechanisms to aid in the recording the reality of the three dimensional world. Leonardo Da Vinci, who was influenced by Alberti and who wanted his paintings to reveal the world as it actually appeared, invented a machine called a Perspectograph. The Perspectograph was comprised of a pane of glass that fit into a frame and which also held a small viewing slot. The framed glass could be placed in front of the scene to be painted. The artist could look through the viewing slot with one eye and then sketch the outline of the scene directly onto the pane of glass. The outline served as a rough sketch for the final, well defined painting.
The 1525 German artist, Albrecht Dürer published The Artist’s Manual which included illustrations of perspective machines similar to Leonardo’s Perspectograph, that were designed to enable the artist to make precise measurements of a subject or scene by tracing what was seen through a frame placed directly in front of the artists line of sight.
While studying in The Hague, Vincent Van Gogh used simple perspective frame with grid lines and adjustable legs which he used to quickly and easily translate what he saw onto his paper or canvas. In an excerpt from a letter written to his brother Theo, an excited Vincent Van Gogh states, “I think you can imagine how delightful it is to turn this spy-hole frame on the sea, on the green meadows, or on the snowy fields in winter, or on the fantastic network of thin and thick branches and trunks in autumn or on stormy day. Long and continuous practice with it enables one to draw quick as lightning - and, once the drawing is done firmly, to paint quick as lightning too.”
Translating the reality of the visual world to the flat picture plane is, indeed, a challenging task for the artist and the attempt to discover new and innovative ways to make the process easier and faster will most likely never cease. Conversely, the simple understanding of concepts and theories is an essential aspect of the practice of drawing and painting from direct observation. The use of machines to aid in the discovery of the natural world is a method of enlightening and educating oneself and seems to be a sensible endeavor.
Brittany Foley, a high school senior at Edmond Memorial High School is a CCA Youth Atelier student and will be the first student to be featured in a series of profile stories I'll be writing on the students and instructors at The Conservatory. I am very excited to begin this series and look forward to sharing with you!
Brittany has been studying with me for about 3 years. Since she began her studies at the CCA she has studied drawing, color theory, and painting with oils. Brittany has had the opportunity to study portrait painting with Scott Waddell at two of the workshops he taught at CCA and she studied with Alicia Ponzio who taught Sculpting The Portrait last summer. Brittany works hard and diligently at her craft and possesses a natural gift. Her studies are not limited to CCA classes - at Edmond Memorial High School she has been an AP Studio Art student for several years.
Below is a sampling of some of Brittany's work. Learn about the Youth Atelier Program here.
All the best,
For information on William-Adolfe Bouguereau visit this link:
Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret was a nineteenth century French painter. He was a gifted and favorite student of Jean Léon Gérôme at the École des Beaux-Art, the preeminent art academy in Paris, where those who entered were selected to have an official career as a painter. He began his studies in April of 1869. In his youth, he and his brothers lived with his grandparents in Mulen, France, after his mother's death in 1858. Only a year before her death, Louise Bouveret moved her sons, Pascal-Adolphe-Jean and Emile Gabriel to Rio de Janeiro, joining their father, Bernard Dagnan, where he owned a prosperous clothing company. After his mother died, his father sent his children (including a third son, Victor), back to France to live with his father-in-law, Gabriel Bouveret. The young artist and his brothers grew up in a comfortable middle-class environment and it was there where he began to develop his artistic sense. He took art lessons as a child in Mulen and made many drawings of his family.
It was a turbulent time in France when Dagnan-Bouveret was a student at the École. The Franco Prussian War of 1870 had taken a devastating toll on the country and because of the fighting in the Paris Commune, large areas of Paris were destroyed. As a result, the supremacy of the arts in France began to falter. But by the end of the decade France began to see a return of the artistic spirit and young artists from all around Europe and the United States came to Paris to study at the Ecole. These students believed that they could receive the best education from the traditional academies in Paris and that academic training would position them for exposure through exhibiting in the Salons.
Dagnan-Bouveret enjoyed success as a young artist in Paris, winning numerous prizes at the Salon. He began to see the need to shift to the more modern and contemporary painting styles becoming fashionable during the late nineteenth century and he was capable of transforming his classical academic training into new methods so that his work was available to the public. In fact, Dagnan-Bouveret, like many other artists began to explore the use of photography and was interested in how the new medium could aide the artist in an academic naturalistic approach. His teacher, Jean Léon Gérôme used photography as well. “His insistence on using photography under the initial stimulus of Gérôme, reveals that he was among the most forward-looking members of the academic tradition; he recognized that the “old" classical system of planning a composition had to respond to the new technologies that were already being applied and assimilated by painters of the avant-garde."(1)
The images above represent a sampling of photos and sketches Dagnan-Bouveret made in preparation for “Les Bretonnes au Pardon" (“Breton Women at a Pardon") - shown above. He began to make this painting in the summer of 1887 while in Ormoy, France. He'd taken a photograph of a church in the distance and pictured in the foreground of the photo is a male figure with a handkerchief on his head - the same location where one of the Breton women sits in the final painting. Dagnan-Bouveret worked in an outdoor tent where he compiled numerous preliminary drawings on tracing paper, pastel drawings and oil sketches. He made drawings on tracing paper in order that they might be modified and enlarged for the final composition.
The Breton people come from Brittany, one of the most staunchly Roman Catholic regions of France. The Breton's are, along with the Welch and Cornish, one of the last vestiges of the ancient British. Dagnan-Bouveret's painting was completed in late 1888 or 1889, the same year it was exhibited at the Salon. It received the Medal of Honor at the Salon and the Grand Prize at the Exposition Universalle. The public reception of the painting was overwhelming. A very influential critic at the time, Albert Wolff, hailed the Breton Women as “a work of beauty, contemplation and peacefulness. It is great, honest art."(2)
During the early twentieth century, most traditionalist painters became obscure and outdated. Although he continued to paint actively into the second and third decades of the twentieth century, Dagnan-Bouveret's traditional work was considered passé and insignificant as compared to the new artists who were painting under the auspices of surrealism, dadaism, fauvism and the School of Paris. One year after the artist's death, in 1930, a retrospective of his work was held at the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts. By then avant-garde modernism had progressed and dominated the art scene in Paris and abroad and the French academic style of painting was effectively over - mainly due to the unilateral control of the academic professors of the Ecole who were resistent to change and modern approaches to painting.
From 1930 - 1980 little attention was paid to Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret. His work, along with other French academic painters, like Jean Léon Gérôme, William Bouguereau and Jules Breton were forgotten after their deaths. Dagnan-Bouveret worked as an advocate for the preservation of tradition and while he came against the avant-garde, he understood and even embraced modernism.
(1), (2)Gabriel P.Weisberg. Against the Modern: Dagnan-Bouveret and the Transformation of the Academic Tradition. New York: Dahesh Museum of Art, 2002. ISBN 0-8135-3156-X
Ramon Casas i Carbó, "At the Moulin De La Galette or La Madeleine", Oil on Canvas, 1892
This striking painting, "At the Moulin De La Galette or La Madeleine", by Ramon Casas i Carbó, was completed in 1892. Casas was a Spanish painter, born in Barcelona in 1866. He was known for his portraits of the wealthy and elite. He painted "crowd scenes ranging from the audience at a bullfight to the assembly for an execution to rioters in the Barcelona streets" and in 1904 he won the grand prize for the painting, "The Charge or Barcelona" at the General Exposition in Madrid. Casas worked as a graphic designer and with his posters and cards helped to define the Catalan cultural art movement, modernisme, considered to be the Catalan equivalent of Art Nouveau. His "Self-Portrait as a Flamenco Dancer", completed in 1883 at age 22, won him an invitation as a member of the salon of the Societé d'artistes françaises. Casas studied for a short time with Charles Auguste Émile Durand, known as Carolus-Duran at his academy in Paris and later at the Gervex Academy under French painter, Henri Gervex. During the 1890's the artist began to paint interiors which always included a female figure. He died at his home in Barcelona in 1932 at the age of 66.
John Singer Sargent, "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose", 1885-86. Oil on Canvas, 68-1/2 x 60-1/2 inches. The Tate Gallery, London.
Poet, art critic and friend to John Singer Sargent, Edmund Gosse, wrote of Sargent's working style for this amazing painting, "...the easel, the canvas, the flowers, the demure little girls in their white dresses, before we began our daily afternoon lawn tennis, in which Sargent took his share. But at the exact moment, which of course came a minute or two earlier each evening, the game was stopped, and the painter was accompanied to the scene of this labours. Instantly, he took up his place at a distance from the canvas, and at a certain notation of the light ran forward over the lawn with the action of a wag-tail, planting at the same time, rapid dabs of paint on the picture, and then retiring again, only, with equal suddenness, to repeat the wag-tail action. All this occupied but two or three minutes, the light rapidly declining, and then, while he left the young ladies to remove his machinery, Sargent would join us again, so long as the twilight permitted, in a last turn at lawn tennis." (quoted in Evan Charteris' "John Sargent", pp.74-75).
"Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" was painted by Sargent between August 1885 and October 1886. Sargent was inspired by the Chinese lanterns and lilies hanging from trees while on a boating trip on the Thames near Pangbourne with American artist Edwin Austin Abbey in the summer of 1885. This painting was one of the few he painted of figures outside, in the Impressionist style. He began the painting, which was originally entitled, "Garden Study" during a visit to Broadway, Worchester where he stayed with American painter and friend, Francis Davis Millet and his family. It was first conceived as a picture of a young girl lighting a lantern as the light of day around her faded into evening. As his original model, Sargent painted the Millet's daughter, Katharine. Dark haired Katharine was only five years old. He felt the her hair should be light in the painting, so he found a wig for her to wear. Soon after, he found Polly and and Dorothy Barnard, daughters of Alice and Fred Barnard. They were a bit older than Katharine Millet. They were seven and eleven, and had blonde hair.
Painting "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" (a title taken after the refrain of a popular song of the day "The Wreath" by composer Joseph Mazzinghi.), was at best a difficult undertaking as the children were wriggly and the light at that moment in evening when he painted was brief. He made sure his tools were at the ready as evening came when he posed his models for brief moments of painting. As summer ended and cooler weather approached, Sargent replaced the lilies with imitations. He was said to have, on several occasions, scraped the previous evening's paint off, starting anew during the next evening's session. He made the composition smaller and squarish by cutting two feet off the left side.
The painting was purchased in 1887 for The Tate Gallery Britain, London.
References: "John Singer Sargent", by Carter Ratcliff. Cross River Press. Ltd.; The Tate Britain.
Studies for "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose".
Leslie Lienau is the founder and principal instructor at the Oklahoma Academy of Classical Art, formerly The Conservatory for Classical. Thanks for reading - hope you enjoy!
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