Arts·Art 101

Why paintings used to look so weird, and how linear perspective changed everything

Linear perspective organizes the frame, making it seem like it’s happening in a real space and directing your eye to the most important part of the scene.

Linear perspective organizes the frame, making it seem like it’s happening in a real space

Why paintings used to look so weird, and how linear perspective changed everything

2 years ago
Duration 4:55
Linear perspective organizes the frame, making it seem like it’s happening in a real space and directing your eye to the most important part of the scene.

Hey guys! Welcome back. I'm Professor Lise (not really a professor) and this is Art 101 (not really a class) where we go on a deep dive of an idea, an artwork or a story from the art world that may be controversial, inexplicable or just plain weird

Today we're talking about linear perspective. What is it, how did it get here, and why should we care even if we don't think we do? And we'll see how linear perspective changed art — and also became a trap.

What is linear perspective? Basically, it's a set of lines that trick your eye into thinking that something that's 2-dimensional is actually 3-dimensional, like a painting of a road extending endlessly into the distance. That distance isn't real, kid! It's pretty fake. It's still on a flat piece of canvas.

A demonstration of linear perspective. (CBC Arts)

It's actually not even a road, though that's a larger story. But linear perspective allows you to stare deep into the distance of that painting that isn't really a distance at all.

How'd it happen?

Before the invention of linear perspective, paintings looked a bit strange. If you wanted somebody to look like they were behind someone else, you sort of painted them on top of somebody else.

"The Madonna and Child in Majesty Surrounded by Angels" (circa 1280) by Cimabue. (Christophel Fine Art/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

We had a sense that things that were further away looked smaller and things closer to you looked bigger but with no real sense of how to go about doing that in an organized way. But we tried. We really, really tried.

Then, in the 15th century, an artist and architect named Filippo Brunelleschi came up with a viable system for rendering a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional surface. The story is that from about 1415-1420, he started experimenting with a system of orthogonal lines converging on a vanishing point that allowed him to draw a building that looked exactly as it did in real life.

Architect Filippo Brunelleschi (left) and the Duomo he designed in Florence drawn by the artist Cigoli. (Getty Images/Wikimedia Commons)

And linear perspective was born!

A ton of artists began to use it, sometimes to a startling degree of precision.

It's what makes Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" work so well. In this one, the vanishing point is just above Christ's head. Linear perspective organizes the painting, makes it seem like it's happening in a real space and also directs your eye to the most important part of the scene.

Linear perspective in Leonardo da Vinci’s "The Last Supper". (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

"The Holy Trinity" by Masaccio employs linear perspective so exactly that you could use the painting to plot out a chapel in real space, with all of the characters in the right spots. 

And Perugino's "Delivery of the Keys to Saint Peter" makes you feel like you're looking into a very deep piazza in the middle of an Italian town, with buildings in the background you could walk to or build.

"Delivery of the Keys to Saint Peter" (1481) by Perugino (Heritage Images/Getty Images)

A lot of people got in on this linear perspective game. It became part of the language of painting. Artists were able to make their works look like things from real life set in real spaces. 

I should point out that linear perspective was a tool of the West — and not the only way that artists made sense of space. Painters in Northern Europe used things like atmospheric perspective or multiple vanishing points.

The Merode Altarpiece (1425-1428) by Robert Campin demonstrates multiple different vanishing points in each frame. (VCG Wilson/Corbis/Getty Images)

Chinese painters used flat perspective. Europe isn't the centre of the world — it's just one example of how artists dealt with real life.

Detail of Xu Yang's "Prosperous Suzhou" (1759). (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

Ok, so artists had a perspectival system now and that seems like it should be the end of the story. We made it! But that isn't quite how it worked out. What if there was a machine that could make every image have perfect perspective? Enter the camera. After about the 1820s, this mechanism could do the job of capturing real life in 2D. In its own weird way, the camera became the competition that artists just couldn't beat. Painters like Picasso, Matisse and Mondrain began challenging Brunelleschi's system and making paintings that were defiantly unphotographic and didn't try to fool your eye into thinking a painting was a window you could see the world through.

But perspective lived on, even after artists dismantled it. Why should you care about it now, over 500 years after it began? It has authority. It speaks of painting's formal history. And you'll still see it used in paintings of prime ministers and presidents, in altarpieces at churches and murals at city hall. Perspective is a tool of tradition.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and artist Kehinde Wiley unveil his portrait during a ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, on February 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In contemporary art, artists make choices — sometimes they use it, and often they don't.

See you next time on Art 101!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lise Hosein is a producer at CBC Arts. Before that, she was an arts reporter at JazzFM 91, an interview producer at George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. When she's not at her CBC Arts desk she's sometimes an art history instructor and is always quite terrified of bees.

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