The consumers of pictures have always been satisfied with how well artists managed to suggest reality. For example, art lovers during the middle ages couldn’t get enough of the tapestries and frescoes that decorated their churches and palaces. And their sense of design, unshackled by such later inventions as linear perspective and proportion, is still wonderfully charming. None among the peasants, the intelligencia, or the ruling classes saw fit to object to what our modern eyes tell us are huge distortions in drawing and color. You can’t miss what you’ve never seen or heard of. Surely these pictures were as close as one can get to absolute reality, weren’t they?
Come the thirteenth century, Giotto appeared on the scene. Very few painters can be said to have completely reinvented painting and drawing, but Giotto certainly could make that claim. To eyes never exposed to anything but Medieval painting, the effect would have been staggering. At least to me, it still is. Judas’ kiss at Gethsemane. The angels wailing over the dead Christ. With Giotto came a command over drawing that, perhaps for the first time, was able to capture the emotional wallop of these records. Painting had finally arrived. All that preceded was quaint. Here at last was Reality. There could be no more left to learn.
Or maybe there might be a weensy bit left. Even before Giotto’s death, the Florentine painter and architect Filippo Brunelleschi was beginning his experiments in the previously-unknown canons of linear perspective. If reality came with Giotto, Brunelleschi brought us super-reality. For the first time in history, space could be depicted on a flat surface with absolute consistency. Size and placement of figures was no longer a matter of whim, but of science. Converging lines met at vanishing points, derived by way of simple geometry. You can make the case that linear perspective, more than moveable type or gunpowder, brought about the Age of Enlightenment. Built into pictures was the notion that the universe is logical and consistent. Linear perspective, visually, is the antithesis of superstition. A world painted and drawn according to rules of one-, two- and three-point perspective was a world destined to spawn da Vincis, Newtons, Keplers, Spinozas, Mores, Lockes. Linear perspective was a kind of subliminal logic.
The technology of linear perspective was pretty much figured out in the course of a single generation. Another Italian, Paolo Uccello, used the new tools in elaborate compositions involving many figures. The designer was no longer free to make things of any size and placement he liked, but weirdly enough, within the new strictures the art of composition leaped forward. The effect was staggering. As good as Giotto and Duccio had appeared a few years before, here at last was reality at its absolute quintessence. Painting had achieved Nirvana. What more could there be to learn?
Well, possibly a couple of things. The first year of the fifteenth century brought us Masaccio. He didn’t live long, but like Giotto, Brunelleschi and Uccello, he reinvented painting. If Uccello brought spatial logic to the plane surface, Masaccio brought air. Air and water vapor bleached the warmth of the color of distant objects, turning them blue and indistinct. Edges were softened and hardened to bring about a sensation of reality undreamt of before. Finally, the visual arts had crossed the finish line. Any musings about advancing them further were certainly foolishness.
And yet advance further they did, in the Netherlands, at the hands of the Van Eyck brothers who may or may not have invented the practice of using linseed oil as a vehicle for pigment. Painting on small panels, the Van Eycks explored the possibilities of oil paint, with its wonderful capacity to model form. Perhaps Jan Van Eyck’s The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin sums up the two centuries of advancing technology as no other picture. You see it all: modelling, edge, magnificent drawing, linear and atmospheric perspective, and the sort of freedom in composition which, weirdly, was ushered in by the shackles of linear perspective. Add to that the craft of painting for absolute permanence. It is odd that the Van Eyck brothers could paint using transparent glazes of oil color 600 years ago, leaving us pictures that still look terrific. Maxfield Parrish tried to do the same thing in the 20th century, but his pictures are falling apart.
Others had made contributions, to be sure, but with the Van Eycks, all would agree that painting had at last arrived at its ultimate destination. Those who might attempt to further develop it were wasting their time.
Except some of ‘em weren’t. Scores of them, in fact, all over northern and southern Europe. Painting was a technology which deepened and broadened. Generation after generation brought a bewildering parade of advances. The High Renaissance. The Baroque, the Rococco, the Romantics, the Barbizons, each school nudging forward the technology of image making.
It could be fairly stated that the last great advance in image-making came at the hands of the French Impressionists, but they never could have pulled it off without the inventions of the ones who preceded them. The English landscapists invented plein air painting. The Barbizons took the procedure farther, introducing a palette of colors that would best enable capturing the reality of the open air. The brown shadows of Renaissance painting gave way to the violet shadows of the plein air palette. Lights, which in the studio were cool, were warm under the light of the sun. The reinvention of color for open air painting was one of the great intellectual feats of human history. Surely the language of paint could be pushed no closer to reality than this.
Except it was, and radically so. Monet and his colleagues took the capturing of natural effects of light far further than those who came before.
If we assert that French Impressionism was the last advance in image making, we mean the last advance in suggesting in paint what our eyes actually see. Certainly Post Impressionism and the modernist movements which came about with the 20th century represented changes in what painting could be, but the only real advancement in realistic painting, the last forward move of the technology of image-making, was the American impressionists’ adapting the techniques of the French but using their own love of drawing. At the hands of the best of the Americans — Bunker, Benson, Hassam and most of all Willard Metcalf — the new invention brought reality as far as it has ever been taken in paint. So far, nothing that’s followed has broken new ground.
At the same time, other technologies have come on the scene — particularly still and motion picture photography. With all of this, one might rightly conclude that there is simply nothing further to be discovered about how we see, and how it can be painted. Maybe we’ve finally reached the finish line.
But I wouldn’t bet money on it. If the history of Western painting teaches us anything, it’s that realist painting is the result of an evolving technology, with each advance taking us a step closer to the recording of what we see and how we see it. Giotto was closer than the Medieval artisans. Masaccio was closer still, and Van Eyck, and so on. Each invented tools enabling the painter to better describe the experience of seeing. Each came on the scene among a public entirely satisfied with the status quo. Each taught his generation to see, and paint, a little more clearly. Do you really want to buck the trend, and say that the long journey toward visual truth is over?
If you answer yes, history ain’t on your side. Consider other realms of human endeavor. There was a pervasive belief among physicists at the end of the 19th century that Newton’s laws had brought us to the Promised Land, that there was nothing left to be discovered about the nature of reality. They concluded this just in time for the onset of Bohr, of Einstein, of Heisenburg, of Dirac. The final destination of Classical Physics was left in the dust of Quantum and Relativity, and the discoveries which built upon them. It does not denigrate Newton’s achievements in the slightest to say that he only descibed a narrow portion of reality. Without Newton there could be no Einstein, no Dirac, no Hawking. But no intelligent spectator of the development of physics would argue that Einstein or Dirac or Hawking brought us absolute and final Truth.
When it comes down to it, we really only know one thing with absolute certainty:
Maybe the best of our painted or photographed images are as naive as a Medieval tapestry. Maybe a simple series of ideas — and very few ideas in human history are as simple as the canons of linear perspective — could turn everything upside down. Maybe a revolution lurks around the corner. What is the next great invention waiting in the wings? If you’re a painter, and if you mean business, maybe you’re the one who will bring it to the rest of us. If not you or me, then somebody else. I hope it happens soon. The last of the great American impressionists had introduced their inventions in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Here we are in 2018. 100 years is a long time to have awated the next quantum leap.
Maybe mankind will be better for the next discovery.
We could use it.