Although the subject matter, techniques and materials of artists have changed over the centuries, their attitudes towards life and their environment have changed little. The manner in which they expresses their ideas, their style, can in basic terms, be seen as one of the following: Classical, Romantic or Realist. When looking at a piece of work it may display the characteristics of one, elements of two, or a mixture of all three.
The categories must not be seen as inflexible for, as some would argue, they simply reflect basic human stereotypes and as such are not rigidly exclusive. Nevertheless, some artists and their work, particularly those from the 19th century, do dovetail neatly into one or other of the categories, for example:
- Classicism – Jacques Louis David – ‘The Oath of the Horatti’
- Romanticism – Eugene Delacroix – ‘The Death of Sardanopolus’
- Realism – Gustave Courbet – ‘The Burial at Ornans’
Classical paintings produced before the mid 19th century can often be recognised by the fact that the action almost invariably takes place parallel to the picture plane (the surface of the painting). The feeling is often that we are looking at a stage set on which each element has been carefully allotted a place within the design to a pre-determined set of rules.
You will notice lots of vertical and horizontal elements and virtually no dramatic angles in the design of the painting. A feeling of idealism and perfection often pervades the picture; male figures will have the musculature of a ‘Chippendale’ and the females the perfection of goddesses. The blemishes of life will not be apparent and the blood and gore of battle scenes will be seen as much as they are in early Hollywood cowboy films. In short, it is a form of art controlled by intelligence and logic and dominated by design and structure.
Unlike Classical painting whose composition is regulated by the horizontal and the vertical, Romantic paintings exploits angles and the dramatic. The horizontal and vertical elements in a painting imply stability, whereas angles imply drama, power and aggression. Our eye is often led into the painting by angles, elements of the picture (such as people, animals, trees) often cross at angles implying conflict or disorder.
Complementary colours (contrasting colours, those opposite each other on the colour wheel, red/green, blue/orange, yellow/purple) are often used to further enhance the sense of drama. When looking at a Romantic painting there is often a sense that one has walked in on a scene that is part of real life, and not merely stumbled across a static display. It is an art in which emotion, drama and passion are the dominant factors.
This is a more ambiguous form of painting being concerned with Social Realism and Naturalism. In terms of design in can use elements of both Classicism and Romanticism, but its content is very much concerned with reality, the everyday warts and all.
In the 19th century it was used by artists such as Courbet to advance the plight of peasants and push forward socialist ideals. There is no attempt to beautify people or to remove the reality from such themes as conflict or exploitation. Courbet once said, ‘Angels do not appear in my work because I have never seen one.’ It is an art with out frills, where a spade can really be said to be a spade.
It is obvious that one’s appreciation of a work of art is a very subjective experience. One often hears such comments as, ‘What is it supposed to be?’ or ‘ I could do that.’ With all due respect, this is the voice of the ignorant. Why does a painting have to be about something? Its starting point may be an emotion for which the artist has painted a visual equivalent, just as a writer might use a word to describe a sound.
If one understands the language one understands the meaning. Art must be judged in the context of the time in which it was produced. Picasso once stuck a cigarette packet on a canvas and invented collage, a child can stick paper on a picture, but that does not make him Picasso. When you look at a painting march through the technical skill (thousands of people have that), search for the uniqueness of vision, stroll around the colours, the objects, the shapes and let your mind dance to a different tune.