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The Art of Perspective

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

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 the middle ground, and additional students in the foreground. Elderly Plato is descending the staircase, talking to one of his students. Students mill about within the middle ground, with many figures in the foreground. All of the figures are rendered in the appropriate height to show perspective. Tiles on the floor converge at a single point in the middle grounds as they recede into the distance, getting smaller to show perspective. Raphael’s use of architectural perspective makes this enormous fresco painting very realistic, as if a photograph captured a moment in time.

There is an interesting tidbit of I information that many people might not know. Raphael knew both Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo (1475-1564). He modeled both faces in this iconic fresco. Leonardo is seen as the elderly Plato, while Michelangelo is sitting in the foreground at a bench, deep in thought, as he is writing or drawing. Raphael even places himself in the far, right corner of the painting, in a dark beret, peering directly at the viewer. If you do not know the painting, I encourage you to look it up. The sweeping arches overhead, and the dozens of figures, make an amazing and lifelike painting. Raphael studied under an artist named Bramante (1444-1514), the architect of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome (begun in 1506 and completed in 1615). Fortunately for Raphael he learned this precise form of mathematical perspective from him. Not all artists can claim this luck.

Since few painters had the fortunate circumstances to study with builders of great churches and cathedrals, grand architectural indoor scenes went out of fashion. As the merchant class grew, artists were not just employed by the church for religious scenes and themes. The emerging merchant class created a demand for a new form of art beyond the religious themes of the Renaissance. Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), was one of them.

Painting portraits became a very common genre for artist’s like Rembrandt Van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) who came before Vermeer.

Going beyond portraiture, Vermeer painted active indoor scenes of people doing very normal and sometimes mundane tasks. Pouring water into a bowl, or reading a letter became known as domestic perspective. Vermeer even painted a picture of himself painting, which was not common at the time. What might not be well known is the speculation that Vermeer used a ‘camera obscura’ to create these paintings of indoor scenes. They were so precise in their rendering, as well as use of color, shadow and highlight, that is was hard to believe that he did not have some devise to aid his perfection. The theory that he used this device is still disputed, but is often alluded to in many of the books and papers written about him.

We look at issues, form attitudes and alliances through our perspectives and points of view. We live in a time period when we information comes at us in bits and bytes on the computer, edited video clips, scripted nightly newscasts, and frequently radical commentary on radio broadcasts and podcasts. Social media silos users into very precise and calculated frames of mind, so much so that even the young discovered the pitfalls of their addictions to social commentary filling their phones. Spoon fed information without alternative or differentiated viewpoint, they frequently do not seek to reflect upon or even consider an opposing theory. Such mental perspectives may lead to very cult-like behaviors.

The role perspective plays in the arts parallels the role perspective plays in our broader society. Like the museum visitors who need to step back and gain the perspective that Monet wanted them to see, each of us needs to develop perspective to see the interconnectedness of the small brush strokes that create the much larger reality we inhabit. As in painting, perspective in understanding our world allows us to see it more completely.

Blooms Taxonomy provides us a pathway to develop the critical thinking skills that provide us with perspective on our social world that completes in social terms what the great artist provided to the artistic world. In 1956 Benjamin Bloom and his associates at the University of Chicago classified six major categories of thinking: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. It's the last three that we are truly concerned with. Analysis, synthesis and evaluation require digging deeper to gather facts, compare factual data for errors and flaws, and considering alternate and most importantly opposing viewpoints to foster debate. Failure to compare and contrast data or listen to scientists, historians, as well as psychologists and sociologist, compartmentalizes information.

A common mistake made by so-called conspiracy theorists is a failure to analyze, synthesize and evaluate contrary information. Instead conspiracy theorists tend to dismiss contrary information out-of-hand as further proof of the breadth of their conspiracy. Once their theories take root, they foster misinformation and disinformation that magnify the impact of the conspiracy.

In an age of conspiracy theories and misinformation it is imperative that we broaden our perspective, just like stepping back from a very large painting: Learn as much as we can, dig deep, look closely and question. Question sourcing, question authority, and question assumptions.

We also need to reframe important questions. Like artists who develop new means of demonstrating architectural perspective to the perspectives of the Impressionists, we too can develop new perspectives by simply reframing questions. For example, there is the debate over climate change. Climate is always changing, say scientist. Are we talking about one year, five years, or thousands of years? In the 1990’s famed pollster Frank Luntz came across a very subtle but important influencer of perspective on carbon pollution and global temperature rise. In focus groups he discovered that if you called this phenomenon ‘global warming’ it scared people. But if you called it ‘climate change’ it sounded like a natural event, not anthropogenic, and thus far less threatening than 'human-induced global warming'. Since the 1990s we have all come to call it climate change, thus altering our perspective and delaying important action. Two alternative phrases for the same event created two different perspectives. The ability to redefine global temperature fluctuations as climate change altered America's perspective on environmental issues for over fifteen years, postponing and delaying urgent responses to pollution. It takes critical thought, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation to appreciate and respond to our environmental calamities and to change our perspective, not simply a slight change in vocabulary.

If we reframe the question as to how we can clean up a planet that is polluted, such plastic in the oceans and landfills or harmful chemicals in our water and soil (a subject with very data driven analysis) it becomes a more meaningful discussion. This is indeed something we can rectify. Like the artists who ask us to peer closely and observe the details, we can focus on smaller more manageable issues. We can solve them, then we can step back and tackle the larger issues, and solve those.

We cannot build a sustainable world without evidence-based data that we can all agree upon. And there is so much we can agree on! We cannot begin to solve issues without concerted planning and subsequent action by all parties. This means putting aside differences that have no relevance. I have faith in this perspective. The future of our planet depends upon it.

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