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Linear Perspective in Renaissance Art: Definition & Example Works

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  • 0:00 Linear Perspective
  • 0:31 How Linear Perspective Works
  • 1:50 Development Of Linear…
  • 2:40 Perfection Of Linear…
  • 3:31 Examples Of Linear Perspective
  • 4:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

Renaissance artists were concerned with making their art look realistic, and one of the ways they achieved this realism was through the use of linear perspective. This lesson discusses the rediscovery of linear perspective during the Renaissance.

Linear Perspective

During the Renaissance, from roughly the 14th to 16th century, there were many advances in science, math, philosophy, and art. One of the most monumental advances in art was the development of linear perspective. Linear perspective uses principles of math to realistically portray space and depth in art. Renaissance artists were largely concerned with painting realistic scenes, and linear perspective gave them a reliable method to accomplish this realism, which helped make their paintings all the more captivating!

How Linear Perspective Works

Painting is necessarily a two-dimensional activity because a canvas has only height and width. Yet the world around us is three-dimensional because real objects have not only height and width but also depth. So, how do we portray three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional plane? This is a complicated task, but Renaissance artists used and perfected linear perspective as a means of depicting three-dimensional depth in art. To achieve this perspective, artists would pick a vanishing point on the horizon line.

Then, artists would create a receding checkerboard of intersecting lines that would converge and disappear at the vanishing point. When executed properly, linear perspective makes far objects appear small and near objects appear big, just as they do in real life.

Perhaps the best way to conceive this is to picture railroad tracks. Imagine that you are standing on railroad tracks, staring at them as they stretch out ahead of you. The two railroad tracks are parallel in real life, but they appear to merge together and disappear at the vanishing point on the horizon. If the train were at the horizon line, it would appear really tiny. If the train were two feet in front of you, the train would appear huge. So, the size of the train differs depending on how far away it is. This sense of dimension is the same thing Renaissance artists tried to achieve in their paintings.

Development of Linear Perspective

The development of perspective in art likely started with the ancient Greeks, but by the Middle Ages many artists stopped using perspective in art. Artists during the Middle Ages painted mostly religious scenes. Because they were less concerned with realism, they had little need for linear perspective.

But in the Renaissance, artists had a renewed interest in painting people, landscapes, and even religious scenes in a realistic way. Giotto, an artist of the late Middle Ages/Early Renaissance, was one of the first to experiment with linear perspective in his paintings. He didn't use it perfectly because he didn't have a systematic method for achieving it. However, when we look at some of his paintings, like St. Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, circa 1300, we can see an attempt to add depth to the scene. For example, the mountain in the background is smaller because it's farther away than the figure in the front of the painting.

Perfection of Linear Perspective

Later in the Renaissance, Filippo Brunelleschi, a famed Italian architect and engineer who lived from 1377 to 1446, rediscovered a specific methodology for achieving accurate perspective in art. Around 1420, Brunelleschi used a vanishing point and lines that connected to that vanishing point in order to sketch an incredibly realistic-looking picture of a baptistery in Florence. So, Brunelleschi was the first to accurately achieve perspective in art.

A few years later, Leon Battista Alberti, an Italian writer, architect, and art theorist who lived from 1404-1472, explained what Brunelleschi had already been practicing. In his landmark book from 1435, On Painting, Alberti laid out a mathematical approach to achieving accurate linear perspective in painting. He was the first to describe this in writing.

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