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Perspective in art. From the old masters to modern day. Raphael Sanzio’s School of Athens 1509. Linear perspective is a mathematical system for projecting the three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface such as paper or canvas.

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perspective in art

Perspective in art

From the old masters to modern day

Raphael Sanzio’sSchool of Athens 1509


Linear perspective is a mathematical system for projecting the three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface such as paper or canvas.

You begin with a horizon line which defines the farthest distance of the background and establish vanishing points that all the receding lines move toward.

  • One point perspective
  • Two point perspective
  • Three point perspective

One point perspective = the frontal plane of a volume is closest to the viewer, and all other planes appear to recede to a single vanishing point.


Two point perspective= a single line of a volume (vertical front corner) is closest to the viewer, and all planes appear to recede to one of two vanishing points.


Atmospheric perspective= creates the illusion of distance by reducing color saturation, value contrast, and detail in order to imply the hazy effect of atmosphere.

Georges Seurat Bathers 1883-84

da Vinci Mona Lisa 1503-19


It was not until the Renaissance (means rebirth) that artists began to refine the science of perspective in their art. This tool allowed artists to capture the world around them in a more realistic and illusionistic manner.

It was during this same time that cartographers were mapping the surface of the earth using a similar system of mathematical projection.


Some historians consider Masaccio’s (1401-1428) Trinity (1427-28) to be the first painting incorporating accurate perspective (one point). In Western art this painting helped introduce the relationship between linear perspective and subject matter.

The Renaissance was a “rebirth” of classical traditions combined with an absorption of new scientific knowledge in Italy (14-15th centuries). The Renaissance marks the transition of Europe from the medieval period to the Early Modern age.


Pietro (1446-1523) Perugino’s Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter (1482) is another strong example of one point perspective. Perugino is best known for being the teacher of RaphealSanzio…one of the great Renaissance painters along with da Vinci and Michelangelo. Here he employs not only a single vanishing point but also has atmospheric perspective with figures in the background being smaller, less color saturated and less detailed.


Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) Last Supper (1498) is one of the most famous and recognizable examples of the Renaissance use of perspective. The horizon line runs near the heads of the figures with the vanishing point leading all the receding lines (and hence the viewer’s eyes) to the figure of Christ.


Raphael’s (1483-1520) School of Athens (1509) is a strong example of both one point and two point perspective. The yellow line implies the horizon line and the red lines represent extensions showing the recession to the vanishing point.


Raphael’s School of Athens (1509) this view the yellow line illustrates the use of two point perspective. (Michelangelo is the foreground figure sitting against the block. Raphael painted da Vinci as the center figure on the left and included himself to the right behind the arch, as an ancient scholar)


Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) was a Dutch genre (scenes for everyday life) painter. This piece is entitled Officer and a Laughing Girl (1655-60). The wall and window behind the officer illustrates perspective.


William Hogarth (1697-1764) was an English artist, pictorial satirist and editorial cartoonist. His engraving entitled Satire on False Perspective (1754) was created for a friend’s pamphlet on perspective. He created multiple areas of incorrect perspective in this image…can you spot any of them?


Asher Brown Durand (1796-1886) was an American painter of the Hudson River School (American landscape paintings in Romantic style). This is one of his most popular images entitled Kindred Spirits (1849) and depicts the Catskill mountains. It illustrates atmospheric perspective with its hazy appearance in the background, reduction of color saturation and value contrast and lack of detail.


GustaveCaillebotte (1848-1894) was a French Impressionist painter. This painting is entitled Rainy Day (1877) and depicts people walking along a Parisian boulevard. The building center left illustrates two point perspective.


Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was a Post-Impressionist painter. His works CaféTerrace at Night (1888) and Night Café (1888) illustrate his understanding of perspective. Can you spot his use of perspective…see the receding lines?


Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was a Norwegian Symbolist painter…a forerunner of Expressionism. This is his painting entitled The Scream (1893). The bridge is a diagonal that cuts across the picture plane leading to a vanishing point. His colors are subjective and meant to create a strong emotional response along with the intense brush strokes and expression on the foreground figure’s face.


Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) was an Italian Surrealist painter. His painting entitled The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914) illustrates a strong sense of perspective in his placement of the buildings. The dark foreground evokes a sense of mystery, dread or even claustrophobia for some. The girl in the foreground seems oblivous and innocent…and who/what is in silhouette?


M.C. Escher (1898-1972) was a Dutch graphic artist. His engravings demonstrate a mastery of perspective…and total manipulation of perspective based on his mathematical calculations. Below we see Ascending and Descending (1960) and Relativity (1953).


Salvador Dali (1904-1989) was a Spanish Surrealist artist…known by many for his “melting clock” paintings. In his works Sacrament of the Last Supper (1955) and Crucifixion (1954) he illustrates his understanding and mastery of perspective. Dali was fascinated with DNA and the hypercube (a 4 dimensional cube).


Now its your turn…

  • You’ll create a drawing illustrating 12 Stacked Cubes on the 12x18 white paper:
  • Practice drawing 7 cubes in your sketchbook…they should interact with each other
  • Draw a horizon line across your paper with vanishing points on very edges of paper
  • Start drawing your 12 cubes…draw LIGHTLY as you’ll erase a lot
  • Some cubes should touch but some may be off by themselves
  • Some cubes may go through others and some may be opened
  • Create outline…then we’ll practice shading and then add values for 3-D effect