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  Perspective, in painting, is the deployment of lines on a two-dimensional surface to create the illusion of three-dimensional space. Perspective, however, is not a transcription of how the human eye perceives, but a representational system with specific geographic and temporal associations. Many cultures, such as Australian Aboriginal, Ancient Egyptian, pre-Columbian or Western medieval art, have developed highly sophisticated systems of representation without recourse to a coherent use of perspective.

Linear perspective may be likened to a ‘window onto the world’. As the eye of the beholder embraces a scene through a window, so the artist creates the illusion of space by treating the surface of a canvas as a window, tracing outlines which pass ‘through’ the canvas and so into the eye. The systematic use of such devices makes parallel lines apparently converge as they recede into picture space (until they appear to meet at a given point, often called the vanishing point), and objects of similar size seem smaller the further they are from the picture plane.

In a short space of time in 15th-century Florence a group of architects and painters evolved the means to execute architectural plans and paintings in perspective. The architect Brunelleschi is often credited as the inventor of the technique in the early 1420s. His fellow architect Alberti codified many of Brunelleschi\'s theorems into a treatise on painting, De Pictura (‘On Painting’), written in Latin in 1435 and translated the following year. Alberti offered an infallible method of drawing in perspective such classics of illusion as a chequerboard floor with both orthogonals and transverse parallels correctly indicated.

Alberti\'s treatise stated as a truth, ‘No one will deny that things which are not visible do not concern the painter, for he strives to represent only the things that are seen’. Thus emphasis on appearance, not essence, became the goal of the painters who strove to apply Alberti\'s theorems. For example, in such paintings as the Battle of San Romano Uccello used a rigorous geometric construction to show fallen soldiers in extreme foreshortening. Most of all it is Piero della Francesca\'s work that personifies the sense of order with which the humanist values of reason, order and decorum endow the paintings of 15th-century Italy—and all are qualities implicit in perspective. Piero\'s art also exhibits a clear understanding of the mathematical foundations of Renaissance painting. Later in life he wrote a treatise on perspective.

Northern European artists were also developing perspective. Dürer travelled to Italy in the 1490s and met with artists familiar with the new theorems. A little earlier, van Eyck had employed complex multipoint perspective (that is, where several vanishing points are used instead of one) in paintings such as The Marriage of Arnolfini and his Wife (1434). Here perspective is used to facilitate the representation of nature, not, as in Italy, to regulate it. In the 17th century these different roles for perspective erupted into a dispute in the French Academy between the director Charles Lebrun and the Professor of Perspective, Abraham Bosse. The former argued that perspective was a useful servant of the artist, but a tyrannical master; Bosse saw it as a judge to whom no appeal may be made.

Since the early days of Romanticism, perspective has been seen as a constraint on artistic freedom. Furthermore modernism frequently plays on the difference between ‘seeing’ and ‘knowing’: how the laws of perspective alter the reality of a given object such as a plate when seen from an oblique angle. But it is the cubists who are the strongest challengers of the conventions of linear perspective. In breaking up the picture subject into a series of overlapping planes, which must be reconstructed as much in the mind as the eye of the beholder, they deny the validity of perspective as a system of representation. MG PD

Further reading E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion.



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