Concepts Of Understanding Paintings through formal elements by Heinrich Wölfflin

The work of Heinrich Wölfflin, writing in the 1920s, also approaches paintings in terms of their formal elements. He looks at formal qualities of paintings in order to identify and explain the style of paintings from different periods.

  1. Linear and Painterly — Elements in the linear canvas are primarily described by line. Figures are distinct from one another; the painting is more or less a colored drawing. The painterly painting relies on color to express form. Paint is usually loosely handled, form is not defined in discreet lines and edges of forms are not readily apparent. Dürer and Bronzino are linear painters while Rembrandt and Velázquez are more painterly.
Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man and Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja

2. Plane and Recession — Objects in a planar painting are usually laid out parallel to the picture plane, we tend to see the flat sides of things. Depth is signified by a succession of parallel planes into space. In the non-planar painting objects turn corners to the viewer. There is more a sense of motion up to and away from your eye within the painting. Palma Vecchio’s painting of Adam & Eve is planar whereas Tintoretto’s Adam & Eve is recessional.

Palma Vecchio’s Adam & Eve and Tintoretto’s Adam & Eve

3. Closed and Open— Classic paintings exhibit closed form while Baroque paintings exhibit open form. In classic paintings, the way in which horizontal and vertical directions demonstrate the construction of the work, is clear. In Baroque paintings, the work of these horizontals and verticals in constructing the image is less clear. Barend Van Orley’s portrait of Carandolet is compared to Rubens’ portrait of Dr. Thulden.

Barend Van Orley’s portrait of Carandolet and Rubens’ portrait of Dr. Thulden

4. Multiplicity and Unity — The painting that involves multiplicity feels like a collection of individual elements grouped together in the picture space. You feel like you could pluck one object right out of the painting. In the unified painting one senses the objects not as individual elements but as coherent parts of a general scene. The head of Jean de Dinteville in Holbein’s double portrait The Ambassadors, is contrasted with Velázquez’s portrait of Cardinal Borgia.

Holbein’s double portrait The Ambassadors and Velázquez’s portrait of Cardinal Borgia

5. Absolute and Relative — In the painting with absolute clarity objects tend to be placed in strong, clear light so their edges are crisp and the viewer has an immediate understanding of the form of the object. Objects are, as it were, re-created in paint. Relative clarity, on the other hand, has to do with the optical sensation of the objects. Objects are suggested in paint, not re-created. They generally tend to be darker more loosely focused. Painted objects are more visually separable from general painted field. Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper is an example of Absolute clarity whereas Tiepolo’s The Last Supper is an example of Relative clarity.

Tiepolo’s The Last Supper is an example of relative clarity whereas Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper in an example of absolute clarity.

These were the pairs of concepts of viewing formal elements to understand paintings.

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