top of page

The Art of Perspective

By: Jane Breckwoldt

Perspective, simply defined means how we see. But “how we see” carries different meanings whether the perspective is applied to art, science, psychology or politics. This will be an exploration of not only the concept of perspective, but how challenging it can be to alter a mindset when it has been formed, and what we might do to change it.

Visiting the Art Institute of Chicago years ago I had the good fortune to see a major exhibition of Claude Monet’s work including his famous ‘Water Lilies’ series (housed permanently in the Musee de l’Oangerie in Paris). Many paintings of his with this motif, which he began in 1890, culminated in a series of enormous panels completed around 1917. Monet displayed the huge paintings (6.5 ft. x 19.5 ft. each) in a large oval room. They were the last of his series of the lily pond near his home.

As our line rounded the corner of one exhibition room into the next, we stood very close to one of large paintings. Being an artist, I had my nose as close as I could get without setting off the alarms. A man in his late 30’s or so, with an older little grandmotherly type lady, were next to me. He had on jeans and an old t-shirt and sneakers.

I could hear him say “I don’t have a clue what this is! It just looks like gobs of paint on the wall! What is this?”

I can’t help playing the docent, so I apologized for interrupting, and said to them, “Come with me."

I took the two of them out of our line and we stood at least 20 feet back, in the center of the room.

"Now what do you see?" I inquired.

He almost picked me up and hugged me. He said he felt like he was standing on the shore of the pond and could see the water lilies floating on the surface. He twirled around and saw the other magnificent painting engulfing the other half of the room. Instead of seeing just huge brushstrokes of lilac and blue hues, splashed across a canvas, he saw the grand scheme. His whole perspective had suddenly changed.

But this isn't necessarily what we mean when we talk about perspective in the art world. When we first think about the topic, my mind goes to one- and two-point perspective that we teach art students. One cannot paint a landscape without using a modicum of perspective to show distance. We paint larger objects are up close, and smaller ones further away.

I used to encourage my students to close one eye and put the house across the street from my classroom between their thumb and first finger to bring home the point of relative perspective. When drawing or painting we use size variations from foreground to background, as well as atmospheric considerations to show depth. Lines converging at a single point in the center of a picture create one-point perspective. It is fun and easy to teach, no matter the subject matter, especially a city or landscape. When rendering buildings, indoors or out, we call this architectural perspective.

Architectural perspective has been used for centuries. The ancient Greeks used it in their dramas as early as the fifth century B.C. They used movable scenery in their outdoor amphitheaters to show perspective. Unsurprisingly, it was the Renaissance (begun in the 1300's in Italy), which focused the art world’s attention on architectural perspective. It makes a painting look realistic, as if we were looking at a photograph from today.

Egyptian and Oriental art used a variation of vertical perspective which means that the images or scenes could be read from top to bottom, or the figures themselves would be larger or smaller depending upon their importance, but they were not realistic by any means.

Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520) from Urbino, Italy, the famous young painter of the Italian Renaissance features true architectural perspective in his iconic fresco (ground pigment painted directly into the wet plaster on a wall) entitled ‘The School of Athens’ (Apostolic Palace, Vatican City 1509-1511). I've always been awed by the strict two-point perspective. This painting composes a scene inside a large building with high arches overhead, figures in th