Representational Art
Type of Painting/Sculpture Which Depicts Recognizable Objects.

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David by Donatello (1440s),
Perhaps the greatest statue of
the Renaissance.

What is Representational Art?

In painting and sculpture, the term "representational art" usually refers to images that are clearly recognizable for what they purport to be, such as a human figure, a banana, a tree, and so on. Such images need not be true to life. So a tree does not have to be green, or even upright, but it must clearly represent or be recognizable as a tree. By contrast, non-representational or abstract art consists of images that have no clear identity, and must be interpreted by the viewer.

Even so, there is no absolute distinction between abstraction and realism. Instead, imagine a continuum between (at one extreme) pure abstraction, and (at the opposite extreme) ultra-realism. At some point along this line, abstract imagery becomes sufficiently recognizable for us to characterize it as representational, but defining such a point in advance, is impossible.

Nevertheless, one can say that representational art includes all imagery which represents an identifiable object or series of objects. Common examples of this type of art include portraits, traditional landscapes, paintings of everyday scenes, historical or mythological painting, still lifes and of course various types of figurative and equestrian statue.

The Blue Dancer (1898) by Degas,
one of the greatest exponents of
figure painting as well as various
types of figure drawing.

The figure of Adam - A detail from the
Ghent Altarpiece (c.1432).
By Jan van Eyck.

Paintings or sculptures of the human form - a sort of sub-category of representational art - are also sometimes referred to as "figurative art". Expressionist versions of human forms (such as those by the contemporary Columbian painter Fernando Botero) may be termed "neo-figurative".

Observation Versus Interpretation

Another way of appreciating the difference between representational and non-representational art is to see things from the viewpoint of the artist. Representational painters typically act as observers and try to reproduce what they see. Of course, they do 'interpret' what they see - hence no two painters will paint a scene in identical fashion - but their primary aim is to observe and reproduce the object(s) in front of them. Thus, for example, plein-air painting - an approach popularized by 19th century Impressionists - is almost always representational.

The Little Street (c.1657), one of
the greatest genre paintings by
the Dutch artist Jan Vermeer.

In contrast, non-representational painters have a different focus. Their aim is to create a more 'intellectual' image: one that is not directly associated with any recognizable object and which, as a result, must be interpreted. This non-representational approach is aptly illustrated by the 20th century abstract movement, as in the works of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Sean Scully (b.1945), whose paintings lack any objective meaning and must therefore be interpreted entirely by the spectator.


Most ancient art is representational, and was practised as far back as the Stone Age (c.2,000,000–10,000 BCE). Examples include sculptures such as the "Venus of Tan-Tan" (Morocco), and the "Venus of Berekhat Ram" (Israel), as well as cave paintings from the Lascaux (France), and Altamira (Spain).

Marzella (1909-10) by Expressionist
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner., one of
the most famous painters of the
German Expressionist School.

For a brief survey of the tradition
of drawing from the nude, see:
Female Nudes in Art History (Top 20)
Male Nudes in Art History (Top 10).


Important Painting in Figurative Art

Les Demoiselles D'Avignon (1907).
(Detail) by Picasso, illustrating his
move away from realism towards the
disjointed forms that would end in

Modern representational art derives largely from Greek and Roman art (c.650 BCE to c.350 CE), as exemplified by Greek Sculpture such as "The Marathon Youth" (3rd Century BCE) by Praxiteles; "The Dying Gaul" (c.232 BCE) by Epigonus; Laocoon and His Sons (c.40 BCE) by Hagesandrus, Polydorus and Athenodoru. One of the finest examples of representational Roman sculpture is the spiral bas-relief on Trajan's Column, from the Julio-Claudian period. These works of Classical Antiquity were the basis for the later Italian Renaissance, which itself had a huge influence on artists up until the 20th century. (Although undiscovered until modern times, the Chinese Terracotta Army, created during the era of Qin Dynasty art (221-206 BCE), is perhaps the greatest example of representational art.)

Styles of Representationalism

Italian Renaissance art promoted an 'ideal' type of representationalism, as typified by the David sculptures of Donatello and Michelangelo. The human nude was seen as the highest form of creative expression, and figures were frequently painted and sculpted in idealized ways. There were very few 'ugly' faces or bodies on display in Renaissance Florence, Rome or Venice. Techniques of linear perspective were explored and documented.

However, this situation changed during the Mannerism period (c.1530-1600) beginning with Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco "The Last Judgment". Figures became less idealized and more 'real', especially outside Italy, where non-idealistic oil painting dominated, notably in Holland where the realistic traditions of Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441) and Roger Van der Weyden (1399-1464) led to the incomparable school of Dutch Realism exemplified by the exquisite interiors of Jan Vermeer (1632-75). However, due to the power of the Church as well as the enduring influence of the Italian Renaissance - as expressed through the great European academies of art - it wasn't until the Industrial Revolution (c.1790-1850) that the Realism movement was born and painters began to represent the true reality of life instead of the idealized variety. (But see also the English School of figurative painting: 18th/19th century.) This affected painting methods as well as subject matter. For example, full expression was given to colour, as artists attempted to paint what they saw. Thus if a haystack appeared pink in the dying light, it was painted pink.

For a list of important dates in the
evolution of painting/sculpture,
including movements, schools,
and famous artists, please see:
History of Art Timeline.

For a list of the world's
top priced works of art and
record auction prices, see:
Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings
Top 20 Most Expensive Paintings

20th Century Representational Art

During the last 30 years of the 19th century, European representational painting was dominated by the free-flowing methods of Impressionism, whose members nevertheless attached the greatest importance to the traditional skills of drawing, colour and composition.

For example, the Impressionist Edgar Degas (1834-1917), who excelled at genre painting, was one of the finest draughtsmen in the history of art, while the Impressionist portrait artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was a master of the "au premier coup" technique (one exact brushstroke, no reworking) and one of the great oil painters of modern times. However, the appearance of Van Gogh (1853-90) in the late 1880s signalled an important change.

Van Gogh's dramatic impasto brushwork and highly personalized paintings heralded the beginning of an Expressionist style which was subsequently developed by the Norwegian Edvard Munch (1863-1944) and notably by German groups such as Der Blaue Reiter, Die Brucke, Die Neue Sachlichkeit and by artists like Wassily Kandinsky (1844-1944), Paul Klee (1879-1940), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Otto Dix (1891-1969), Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941), Egon Schiele (1890-1918), Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) and Max Beckmann (1884-1950). Although early Expressionism still adhered (largely) to a representational approach, it rejected academic traditions, preferring instead a more subjective approach to art. In time, this led to a weakening of traditional painterly methods, which - in conjunction with political events during the early 20th century - led to the growth of abstract art and the rise of post-Modernism. As a result, by the 1940s, the art world (by then centred in New York) was witnessing the dominance of form over substance. See also Representational Painting in Ireland.


Picasso, Cubism and The Appeal of Abstraction

In addition to the rise of German Expressionism and its underlying subjectivism, true-to-life painting was coming under pressure from other artists who were dissatisfied with its old-fashioned image and its lack of intellectual possibilities. Unfortunately, in their attempt to 'reinterpret' and 'modernize' art, these artists effectively threw out the baby with the bath-water, a phenomenon which is perhaps illustrated by the work of the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-73) who excelled in both representational and non-representational art. (Note: For an explanation of modern works by artists like Picasso, please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings: 1800-2000.)

In his early career (c.1901-7), notably his "Blue Period" and "Rose Period", Picasso concentrated on realistic painting. This gave way to his short "African period" (époque negre) during which his imagery became more distorted (eg. "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon), and afterwards his revolutionary Cubism style (c.1908-19) whose disjointed forms (eg. "Girl With Mandolin", 1910) are among the most famous examples of non-representational painting. In very simple terms, Picasso thought that naturalistic art had reached its limits under the Impressionists (1870-1900) and Fauvists (c.1905). As a result, he decided to experiment with more non-representational/abstract art-forms - an approach which he and Georges Braque considered more 'intellectual' - whereupon they duly came up with Cubism. (Picasso's journey from realism to 'abstraction' is best viewed by studying his portfolio of portraits, up to his famous "Weeping Woman", 1937.)

Nonetheless, despite the genuinely revolutionary nature of Cubism and its contribution to the history of art, and despite Picasso's huge creative output during his 92 years of life - an oeuvre which included Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism - he was never really interested in pure abstraction, and most of his masterpieces were (arguably) representationalist. Note also his use of the classicist idiom - see: Neoclassical Figure Paintings by Picasso (1906-30) - and his contribution to the Classical Revival in modern art (c.1900-30).

Why is Representational Art Important?

According to the redoubtable philosopher Karl Popper, the objective significance of a statement is dependent on whether the latter can be proved to be false. If it cannot be shown to be false, it has no great significance. For example, my statement: "I think this is art" cannot be disproved and thus has no great significance except perhaps as evidence of my personal opinion.

Standard of Artistic Merit

Representational art is important first because it provides a standard by which artistic merit can be judged. For example, a portrait can be judged according to the likeness it conveys of the sitter; a landscape can be assessed according to its similarity with a particular scene; and a street-scene can be compared with real-life; a painting of a darkened scene can be judged according to how well it depicts light and shadow, so on. But non-representational art does not purport to represent anything in real-life, and therefore cannot be judged by reference to objective criteria. As a result, the reputation of non-representational painters and sculptors may depend entirely upon whims of fashion within the art world, rather than demonstrable skill.

A Foundation for All Visual Art

Secondly, representational art is an important foundation for all visual art, because it depends upon an artist's proficiency in drawing, perspective, use of colour/tone, portrayal of light and overall composition: skills which underpin numerous forms of visual art. Furthermore, these objective skills can be taught to students for the benefit of all, not least because such education can draw on, maintain and improve artistic methods.

Makes Art Accessible to the Public

Thirdly, because representational images are easily recognizable, and thus appreciable, they help to make art accessible to the general public. In contrast, abstract or non-representational artworks may require considerable knowledge on the part of the spectator before they can be 'truly' understood. This requirement often acts as a regrettable 'barrier' between artists and the public.

None of this devalues the intrinsic merits of abstract art. Nevertheless, I hope these points demonstrate that representational painting and sculpture plays an irreplaceable role in the creation, assessment and enjoyment of fine art, and should be strongly promoted by responsible individuals and bodies alike.

• For more about Irish works, see: Representational Painting in Ireland.
• For more about representational painting and sculpture, see: Homepage.

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