Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Brief History of Painting

In this post I try to decipher the seemingly inexplicable art of painting, by identifying the original ideas used by the artists. For the purposes of this discussion, by “painting” in this text I refer to western painting between 1200 and 1900 AD.

As an electrical engineer I know next to nothing about art history. I was never educated in art beyond high school classes, my own reading on the subject, and discussions with more knowledgeable friends.
For over 10 years I was visiting art museums, ever since I left Greece in 2003 for the US. In my travels I got to visit many major museums in the US and Europe. While I was admiring the aesthetics of what I was seeing, I never bothered to explain it in a scientific manner, i.e. attempting to establish rules and patterns that would explain the creative choices made by the artists. I had assumed it couldn't be done.

A couple of years ago I got to read Ernst Gombrich’s “The Story of Art”. It was a revelation for me, because suddenly all the art I had been witnessing in the past few years suddenly made sense. It turns out that aesthetics had not been the main worry of the painters at the time. Rather, they were problems solvers in a similar way that scientists today are problem solvers: They were faced with immense challenges and the artists tried for centuries to tackle them.

This post attempts to explain why painting evolved the way it did. How did we start from the religious paintings of the 12th and 13th century and how did we progress through the Renaissance and into the Impressionists?

I spent the last few months researching more books and finding the right paintings that exhibit the reasonable progression I was looking for. I did not find it. I believe this happened mostly for two reasons. First, as with any complex subject, the evolution of painting is nonlinear. Second, I have yet to come across an art history book that is written for an engineering audience (i.e. in a clear, objective manner). This is why I never found that the museum labels attempting to provide information next to paintings ever provided any useful insight to me.

Had I picked paintings from all around the world, it wouldn’t have be much help since most people (including myself) do not have access to multiple museums. However, there are a handful of museums around the world with collections so vast that they have almost every aspect of the history of painting I was looking for.

The 19 paintings I have picked to go through the story of painting can all be found in the National Gallery in London. Note that these are not necessarily the most famous works of art of the museum, just the ones that are most relevant to our story.

So, let’s begin our journey in time.

Forget every painting you’ve ever seen in your life.

Tabula rasa.

If you were an alien visiting earth around 1200 AD, this is typical of what you would see painted around Europe:

1. Virgin and Child enthroned by Margarito d’Arezzo (1262), Rm51

At the time the church was triumphant in people’s lives. They rule the social gatherings; they are one of the main activities in the everyday life. A church was usually the only stone building in the town. And renaissance hasn’t kicked in yet, so science is still in the dark ages. God is almighty and the Bible is a holy book by which everyone abides.

The paintings at the time reflect this reality. They are writing, in pictures. They are two-dimensional cartoon caricatures, transferring almost word-for-word the stories in the Bible. People are afraid to mess with God, and they try to convert to images as faithfully as possible whatever they read. Everything is carefully placed, telling the same biblical stories, and everything is 2D.

Things start changing for the first time with the appearance of Giotto:

2. Pentecost by Giotto di Bondone (1310), Rm51

Giotto was one of the first artists that attempted to infuse some realism into his work. While that painting looks mostly flat, notice the ceiling: Giotto is trying to include perspective in his work, resembling how a real ceiling would look like. Giotto tries to represent depth on a flat surface.

Artists are now striving to improve the sense of depth on paintings. While this three-dimensionality is something we are used to it today, back then it was not obvious at all how one could achieve that effect.

3. The Wilton Diptych (1395), Rm53

Around the year 1400 artists started being able to handle depth better. In order to achieve perspective, two main effects must be present: First, objects should get smaller the farther they are away from the observer. Second, for an object at a given distance, lengths along the line of sight should be shorter than the lengths perpendicular to the line of sight. This is called foreshortening, and it is displayed in the above painting beautifully in the sitting angels next to the Madonna. It provides a 3D feeling of the person, breaking away from the 2D images of the past.

This change did not happen by accident – it was led by a big technological advance of the era: optics. People started to master geometry, light rays and lenses. The first eyesight correction lenses appear in Europe around that time, and this is also evident in paintings such as the Wilton Diptych. We are getting closer to solving the problem of depth on a flat surface.

At the same time, artists realize that in order to break away from the tradition of the church, they need to find new themes. The painters, armed with the tools of perspective geometry, start to paint fragments of the real world. Painting is no longer just for bringing the Bible into life, but displaying life.

4. The Battle of San Romano by Paolo Ucello (1438), Rm54

Uccello was obsessed with perspective. In the above work (which consists of two more parts), depicting a battle between the Florentine and Sienese forces in 1432, he spent days to succeed in foreshortening the man on the ground on the bottom left. He occupies as much vertical space as horizontal, despite that he should appear twice as long from head to toes than along his arms. Also notice the dropped pieces of weapons on the ground, all pointing in the same vanishing point, as well as the smaller people and horses in the background. This one of the first paintings that depict perspective so strongly.

Now take a look at this next painting:

5. The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck (1434), Rm56

You should immediately observe a vast difference in the style, and a much more realistic depiction of people and environments compared to the previous paintings. This was caused by another technological advance: oil painting. Up until that point in time artists (mainly in the Italians) were using eggs as the main ingredient of their paint (Egg Tempera). They would mix eggs with colored pigments to create the different colors. The method, used by almost everybody up to that point, has two major drawbacks. First, Egg Tempera dries fast and there is no time to waste when painting. Second, it is thick and does not allow fine details on the canvas.

Van Eyck, coming from the Netherlands, discovered a method for using oil to paint on wood. This has dramatic effects in the types of paintings that are possible. In the Arnolfini Portrait, the slow drying oil allows Van Eyck plenty of time to meticulously paint every detail of the couple, capturing as much of reality as possible, In addition, the thin structure of oil allows him to painting minute details, particularly the hair of the dog in front of the couple. Van Eyck has also mastered the technique of perspective, creating a very realistic painting, a “hole in the wall”.  (If you zoom into the mirror in the wall behind the couple, you can even see Van Eyck’s reflection painting the couple).

By Van Eyck’s time, the mid-15th century, the problem of depth was pretty much resolved. However, the challenge of depicting realistic people on a canvas remains unsolved. Looking at the Arnolfini Portrait, the people look detailed but not realistic. They are more like wooden statues rather than breathing and living people. Furthermore, there is the problem of harmony: how do you place people and objects in a canvas so that the overall impressive is aesthetically pleasing and doesn’t look awkward?

The next painting illustrates the challenging nature of these problems.

6. Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian by Piero del Pollaiolo,(1475), Rm57

This painting handles perspective well. But, there are significant issues with the realism of the people and their placement. The people (Pollaiolo probably used the same person painted in different positions) still look like wooden statues. While their bodies are more realistic than what we’ve seen until now, they feel fake. Also, Pollaiolo, like most of his contemporaries, is struggling to place them in the frame in a harmonious manner. He is trying to form a pyramid, and in order to provide some complexity he flips the orientation of the two corner-most archers (one is facing forward, the other backward). He does the same with the two archers in the front and middle, who reload their bows. However the final result is less than satisfying. Furthermore, the background feels disconnected with the foreground action.

The problem of the realistic human body and the problem of their harmonious placement were obsessing the artists of the time. Year after year, the artists would sit down and discuss with each other in their workshops, trying different things, struggling to find solutions to these issues that prevented painting from reaching perfection. Yet these problems would remain unsolvable for another 30 years.

In their attempts to reach perfection, the Italians wanted to break away of the old traditions of the church themes. They wanted to be more like the ancient Romans and Greeks, which achieved perfection in sculpture almost 2,000 years before.  “We should be as good as the ancients”. And so the themes start shifting away from the church try to gain inspiration from the ancients.

This is the renaissance, the rediscovery of the ancient perfection. The first famous proponent of this shift is Botticelli.

7. Venus and Mars by Sandro Botticelli (1485), Rm58

Botticelli was the first to solve the harmony problem, by carefully placing the people in the canvas, His most famous work that exhibits this effect is the Birth of Venus, but it is also evident in the painting above. The position of Mars and Venus along the canvas feels natural, filling the space without awkward spots.  Their arms feel naturally placed. Botticelli has also improved the anatomy of the bodies, bringing them closer to reality.

And yet, even Botticelli cannot solve the wooden statue problem. The people still don’t look real, even though Botticelli tries to tackle the problem by the exquisite details in the drapery of Venus’ dress and the curly hair in both lovers. He sacrifices some accuracy in favor of life-likeness, but despite his attention to detail, just like Van Eyck and Pollaiolo, he doesn’t succeed.

The solution to the realism problem though was just around the corner.

The 16th century is considered by many to be the greatest period in the history of art. Driven by scientific advances (mastering geometry and the science of perspective, as well as the anatomy of the human body), for the first time humans succeeded in portraying other humans on a flat surface in a realistic manner.

The man who solved the problem was Leonardo da Vinci.

8. Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci (1508), Rm57

Leonardo barely completed 10 paintings in his lifetime. He painted the Virgin of the Rocks twice though: one painting can be found in the Louvre in Paris and the other in the National Gallery in London.

Hundreds of people attempted to solve the wooden statue problem for human figures. Van Eyck in his Arnolfini portrait spent huge amount of time attempting to replicate every little detail of the real world onto his canvas. Botticelli in his Venus and Mars work tried to make more anatomically accurate bodies, and by adding wavy hair in his subjects and draperies in their clothing. But none of these ideas worked. The more they attempted to mimic reality, the more they failed.

And here lies Leonardo’s genius: he realized that in order for a human body to appear more realistic, you must paint it less accurately. You have to leave something for the imagination. If you add too many details, it feels more fake.

The most critical elements in a human face are the eyes and the mouth. Leonardo introduced his sfumato technique, whereby he didn't draw these elements with clear lines, but with a foggy style, introducing shadows around the edges. This is very apparent in the Mona Lisa, but also in the Virgin of the Rocks:

Unlike Botticelli and van Eyck, Leonardo painted the eyes and mouth of the Madonna with foggy edges instead of clear outlines. This lets our mind add a sense of realism and motion: it is just enough detail our brains to make it real.

The Virgin of the Rocks is a prime example of solving all the major problems that plagued painters for centuries: it has a harmonic placement of bodies; it adds a natural third dimension via mastering the laws of perspective; and it includes realistic human bodies that look and feel like real people.

(It is interesting that the ancient Greeks utilized similar logic when building the Parthenon, the so-called optical refinements. They realized that for a building to appear perfect, it has to be slightly imperfect. That’s why the Parthenon has subtle curves, such as the columns being thicker in their middle and the floor being concave in the center of the building. As with Leonardo, to achieve perfection, one has to take into consideration the physiological effects of human brain perception).

Once Leonardo’s method appeared, it gained immediate acceptance and was copied successfully by numerous artists.

9. The Garvagh Madonna by Raphael (1510), Rm8

Raphael arrived in Florence when the titans Leonardo and Michelangelo reigned supreme, and yet he developed his own style and produced works on par with theirs. He perfected the placement of bodies, the harmony in a painting, and he put together the most astonishing compilations. His Madonna paintings defined her face for the ages to come (much like Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam defined the face of God as an old bearded man). He also dared to break away from the tradition of static, strict religious paintings and arranged them in playful and more complicated ways, something that was unimaginable until a few years before.

10. Ariadne and Bacchus by Titian (1520), Rm12

This is another example of the perfected painting techniques that appeared in the first half of the 16th century. It depicts the scene when Ariadne, being abandoned by Theseus on the island after helping him getting through the Minotaur’s maze (his ship is seen in the left edge sailing away), wakes up to find Bacchus (the God Dionysus) jumping off his chariot, having fallen in love with her. The painting is divided in two parts, the top left triangle with the sky and the sea, and the bottom right that shows Bacchus’ company. The painting is alive, natural, harmonious, and pleasing.

11. Adoration of the Kings by Jan Gossaert (1515), Rm14

This is again a Northern painter, as indicated by the cleaner lines compared to the Italian artists. However this painting is a true “hole in the wall”, with incredible 3D perspective and vibrant colors. Harmony is again achieved in the placement of the people, angels and animals, creating a spectacular arrangement.

By the year 1520 people thought that painting had peaked. It had solved all the major problems, mastering perspective, harmony, and realism. People thought that art was finished. How could one surpass the achievements of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and the other masters?

Now artists were faced with a new problem. Is there anything that they could differently to create the next generation of paintings?

Here are a few ideas that people attempted.

12. St. George and the Dragon by Tintoretto (1555), Rm9

Tintoretto took the much-painted story of St. George killing the dragon, and twisted it by having the dragon fight in the background and the fleeing princess dominant in the foreground, also adding a spectacular apocalyptic sky.

13. Virgin and Child with Saints by Parmigianino (1540), Rm2

Parmigianino decided to take further liberty (almost heretical) with the concept of the Madonna and Jesus. He painted a strange Madonna, with elongated neck and arms, while Christ and St. John are playing and disrespectfully ignoring her. These decisions would have been unthinkable in the pre-Leonardo era.

14. The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger (1533), Rm4

This is one of my favorite paintings. Holbein decided to create photorealistic portraits, and his original idea was to infuse them with personality, providing information to the beholder. He also chose non-religious themes and unconventional placement of his subjects. In the Ambassadors he added numerous clues, including scientific instruments, a globe of the earth and another globe of the skies, books and notes, and a cross to signify the people’s mortal nature hidden in the top left corner. Most impressive of all is the anamorphic skull in the bottom part that only looks correct when the painting is viewed from a bottom right location.

15. A Windmill by the River by Jan van Goyen (1642), Rm16

Van Goyen tried something even more radical: he completely removed human subjects from his paintings, depicting landscapes and the complex Dutch skies. This is one of the first paintings that does not include any people.

16. Self portrait at the age of 63 by Rembrant (1640), Rm23

Here we have Rembrandt, who, armed with Leonardo’s fuzziness idea, took it to the next level by sacrificing even more accuracy for life-likeness. His portraits are by no means photorealistic, and yet they are warm and natural, creating the impression that we know these people very well.

17. A Young Woman Seated by Johannes Vermeer (1670), Rm26

Vermeer chose yet another path: instead of painting religious topics or impressive scenes, he opted to paint everyday life moments. In this work it’s just a young lady playing her piano. Almost all of his paintings show the same two rooms and the same people.

18. The Experiment with the bird in the air pump (1768), Rm34

As I've mentioned before, this is my favorite painting in the museum. Notice that the year is 1768, well into an era that science and technology started entering normal people’s lives. This is the middle of the 18th century. Newton, the founder of modern science, had lived the century before. Galileo, too. This is the era that marks the beginnings of science, which will lead to the industrial revolution and then onto the modern world.

The painting depicts a scientific experiment. These air pump devices were common in the 18th century. Scientists would use them to demonstrate that a candle's fire goes off after the air is removed, or that it is impossible to hear a ringing bell in vacuum. Joseph Wright chooses here a much more powerful experiment: a bird is placed in the chamber, and as the air is removed the bird starts suffocating, flapping around. The operator is looking at us, as if he needs our opinion: "Should I go ahead and remove all the air and see the air dying, or should I put the air back?"

This is an era where the physicists are still called natural philosophers, because physics is just starting to form as a science. It is the first time that science starts affecting people's lives, pulling them out of the middle ages.

How to communicate science though? Most people are still illiterate, and they can barely read. Communication media are extremely limited. Thus, Joseph Wright chooses to prepare a painting about science.

This painting is one of the earliest depictions of modern science in art.

These last few examples demonstrate that for the next 300 years after the “peak” of the early 1500s, artists were afraid to break from the tradition of the masters. This period lasted way too long, and it posed a new problem: was there another new way to paint, or should the artists be satisfied with minor tweaks upon the perfection that was achieved earlier?

The movement that finally broke the tradition was impressionism.

19. Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh (1888), Rm45

Impressionists painted not an actual, realistic image of the real world, but rather its impression, i.e. how it feels to the beholder. The shapes depicted resemble real world objects more loosely than ever before. The artists paint the idea of an object, rather than the object itself.

Today we are used to the existence of the impressionist paintings. However back in the 19th century impressionists were considered crazy and were disrespected because they dared to break away from the traditional rules of painting set in the renaissance.  Van Gogh, famously enough, never managed to sell a single painting in his lifetime.

Today, however, impressionism is regarded as one of the finest moments in human art history, exactly because it is the culmination of multiple unconventional ideas about painting. No one before the impressionists dared to paint something that deviated from reality, as the purpose of painting was to replicate the realism of the world around us.

This, of course, begs the question: why did impressionism arise all the sudden in the 19th century? Why that particular period in time? What triggered its explosion?

The answer is, once again, a technological one:


Photography was invented and developed in the first half of the 19th century. Suddenly, painting was in a huge crisis: photographs captured the real world in perfect detail and with great ease. There seemed no reason to paint anymore. If the purpose of painting was to capture the real world, photography could do that much better.

Only after photography replaced painting as the recording medium of the visual world did the artists finally break free from the traditional rules and purposes of painting. There was no pressure anymore to try to paint a realistic vision of the world. And thus, impressionism naturally sprung as a new direction of painting, driven by the idea that an artist no longer had to be realistic.

Our journey concludes with this fine example on how technology affects art.


Painting continued well into the 20th century, entering the modern era. However I cannot make sense of modern art. It is much more random, driven by impulses rather than from reason. I have not found a coherent explanation yet.

The history of painting is a tremendously complex endeavor. All I have done in this story is to illustrate a pattern that permeates some major works of art. It is nowhere near being a complete explanation of the history of all painting around the world, something that is probably impossible. Painting (or any expression of human intellect, for that matter) is as complex as the human nature itself.

 All images retrieved from Wikipedia,