Art One Point Linear Perspective in the Renaissance Research Paper

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Art One-Point Linear Perspective in the Renaissance

One-Point Linear Perspective in the Renaissance

In the context of art, perspective is generally defined as "… the technique an artist uses to create the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface" (Essak). Perspective is in essence an illusion of depth and realism in the work of art. It is also an intrinsic part of human evolutionary makeup. As Edgerton ( 2006) states, "

Every human being who has ever lived from Pleistocene times to the present, has experienced in vision the apparent convergence of parallel edges of objects as they extend away from our eyes and seem to come together in a single "vanishing point" on the distant horizon… (Edgerton, 2006)

However, from an art historical perspective it is also true that linear or single-point perspective has not always been an accepted part of painting and artistic creation. It is in fact only fairly recently in history that perspective has been seen to be an important part of the picture space of the artwork. Furthermore, it is also mainly a Western artistic convention and formal conventions of perspective are not found in many artistic traditions, such as in Eastern art. Perspective then can be seen as a culturally specific and learned artistic method. It has also been deeply questioned by artists in the 19th and 20th centuries and its dominance in terms of composition of pictorial space in painting has been denied by many modern and postmodern artists.

The following discussion will look at the history of perspective from the Early Renaissance and also discuss both its acceptance and rejection as an as important component of the picture space by modern artists. .

Historical Background and Overview

Perspective has been challenged by other views and representations of reality in the history of art. As one study notes, "In very early times, most art was depicted with a flat picture plane. While this art was meaningful and symbolic, it was not very visually accurate (Reverspective).

Edgerton ( 2006) points out the before the Renaissance, linear perspective was not the norm. This view is also supported by many other studies on the subject.

The system of perspective we take for granted today is a relatively recent discovery in artistic history. Before the 14th Century little to no attempts were made to realistically depict the three dimensional world in art in the way in which we are now accustomed to seeing it.

(Op Art History Part I: A History of Perspective).

This can be seen in the art of the Medieval and Gothic period were there was little if any attempt to create an illusion of depth and space. To a certain extent painters such as Giotto and Duccio introduced a basic form of symbolized perspective in their work, but it was not until the Renaissance and the work of Masaccio and Brunelleschi, and others, that linear perspective was accepted as a norm in art and as a true reflection of reality (Op Art History Part I: A History of Perspective).

The first formal linear paintings during this period were by Masaccio. Paintings, such as Trinity (1427) were considered to be"… the first accurately perspective painting in the Western tradition" which "…:introduced the relationship between linear perspective and subject matter in art" (What Is Perspective?).

Figure 1: Trinity by Masaccio


Figure 2: Perspective in Trinity


The above image clearly shows the single point perspective that was used as a basis for the artistic space in this composition. Masaccio (1401 -- 1428) is often considered as the first important artist of this period to show a clear artistic understanding of the science of perspective -- which was a new development in Renaissance thinking. In many of his paintings such as Tribute of Money, we encounter volume and buildings receding into the distance.

Figure 3. Masaccio: The Tribute of Money

( Source:

The receding depth of the buildings, as well as the figures and the sense of volume and realism are clearly evident in the above image.

The emergence of perspective and its central role in art can also be seen in the work of the architect and engineer Brunelleschi. His work is linked to the rise of scientific measurement and the need to view the world more realistically. He "…developed a mathematical theory of perspective through a series of optical experiments. By analyzing and experimenting with visual lines and points of perception, Brunelleschi was able to understand the science behind perspective" ( Reverspective). It is mainly due to this theory that artists were able to alter flat or two dimensional surfaces into three dimensional representations of reality.

Another important figure in the history of perspective is Leon Battista Alberti (1402- 1472). He was an architect and mathematician and his work on painting and mathematical perspective is important as the term 'vanishing point' was used to discuss rational artistic perspective (Littler, 2004).

The trend towards realistic single-point perspective as a central factor in the creation of the picture space was to continue into the 15th century, allowing many artists to create detailed and representatioanally accurate works of art. One could mention many famous painters in this regards; such as Michelangerlo, Bottocelli and Titian.

"For the next five centuries, Brunelleschi's system of perspective was used to create the illusion of depth on the picture plane and was used as the basis of the great art of Western culture" (Op Art History Part I: A History of Perspective).

The reasons for the increased acceptance of perspective in the Renaissance are varied and complex and are strictly outside the scope of this paper. However, what should be noted is that the emergence of perspective was to become a dominating view of art as a detailed copy of reality. This re-presentational view of art was questioned and deconstructed in the modern era.

Reactions Against Perspective

Among the first modern artists to react against the single- point perspective of the Renaissance were the Post Impressionists (Op Art History Part I: A History of Perspective in Art). In the works of Cezanne we find a strong and influential reaction to formal linear perspective. "… Cezanne had begun to ignore the laws of classical perspective, allowing each object to be independent within the space of a picture while letting the relationship of one object to another to take precedence over traditional single-point perspective" (Op Art History Part I: A History of Perspective). Many consider this as the beginning of the end of "… academic composition following the long established rules of perspective" (Paul Cezanne - A Different Perspective). Cezanne was to have a profound influence on many of the leading artists of the 20th Century, as well as on their attitude towards perspective.

. A prime example of the modernist questioning and deconstruction of the centrality of perspective in art can be seen in the famous work by Pablo Picasso entitled Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

This work depicts faces and figures from multiple perspectives. It therefore contradicted many of the prevailing artistic norms and standards, including that of single-point perspective. It was also a precursor of cubism. Cubism deconstructs normal perspectives and views reality from many different perspectives and abstract points-of-view. Furthermore, Cubism developed a form of art and sculpture with undefined and mutilated planes. This type of art was in many ways opposite to art that had previously been created by artists and accepted as the norm.

Figure 4. Les Demoiselles D'Avignon


It should also be remembered that many artists in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century were of the opinion that the ideas and values of modern society were false. This led to a radical interrogation of norms and values; for example the view that reality was fixed and static was put into doubt by modern physics and science. This questioning of accepted reality was reflected in the works of artists like Picasso and others. They suggested a more relativistic and dynamic view of reality, which is reflected in the interweaving and overlapping layers and perspectives of the figures in Les Demoiselles D'Avignon

One could continue with the modern and postmodern questioning of single-point perspective. One could, for example, refer to the beginning of abstract art and the works of Kandinsky. However, art history is complex and we in fact find a continuation of the use of formal perspective on modern art at the same time that many artists and artistic movements denied this convention. A good example of this can be seen in the works of Surrealists and artists like Salvador Dali. However, Dali often uses perspective to interrogate and place into doubt normal reality. For example in many of his works he uses perspective in an ambiguous way.

Figure 5. Dali: Saint John of the Cross

( Source:

This painting is surreal because Dali has mixed two perspective angles. The seascape is on one level while the cross is viewed from above. Artists like Giorgio de Chirico also used conventional single-point…

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