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What Is Representational Art?

By Debra Barnhart
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term representational art indicates that the artwork depicts something most viewers can recognize from the real world. For the most part, realistic art has dominated the history of visual arts from prehistoric to modern times. The opposite of representational art is non-representational art, which has no realistic, recognizable subject.

Examples of representational art are the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci and the sculpture David by Michelangelo. These works are fairly true-to-life, and the artists were attentive to capturing the specific details of the human face and figure. Although highly abstract, most of Pablo Picasso’s work was representational as well. Eyes and noses may appear on the wrong part of the face in many of Picasso’s paintings, but the human figure is still recognizable.

Art with recognizable subject matter has always been the favored form, beginning with cave paintings and small figurines created by prehistoric humans. Representational art was produced in Egypt,and it hit a peak in ancient Greece,when sculptures of the human figure were prized for their great realism. The Romans continued the Greek tradition of realistic art.

During the Middle Ages, art was still representational, but more abstract. Afterward, with the Renaissance period, realism came to the forefront again. Painting began to mature as an art form during the Renaissance, and one of the biggest achievements during this time was the theory of linear perspective — a system of rendering objects in space that is based on the way that the human eye sees. In linear perspective objects in the distance are smaller than objects in the forefront, and straight lines converge in the distance. Perspective enabled Renaissance artists to render buildings with relative accuracy.

There is a notable exception to the historical domination of art with recognized subject matter. Some Islamic calligraphy, or decorative writing, produced in the 15th century looks very much like modern non-representational art. A comparison of these calligraphic works to the paintings of the 20th century artist Piet Mondrian would yield some remarkable similarities.

Modernism made non-representational art popular in the 20th century, and non-representational art hit a peak with the Abstract Expressionist movement in the US during the late 1940s. The Abstract Expressionists focused entirely on line, shape, and color, and were not interested in depicting anything from the real world. Perhaps the best example of this type of art was the work created by Jackson Pollock. He would spread his canvases on the floor of his studio and drip layer after layer of paint onto them. Not only was there no recognizable subject matter in Pollock’s paintings, but there was no focal point either.

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Discussion Comments

By lluviaporos — On Feb 04, 2014

@pleonasm - I guess that's why I don't like modern art. It's all very well to want to be completely original and unlike anything else, but there is already so much variety in the world and the human mind is really quite limited. I just don't think we ever say anything interesting, when we're not re-mixing what has already been said by the universe.

I'd rather see an artist's opinion on the world, rather than their attempt to create something that never existed before.

By pleonasm — On Feb 04, 2014

@croydon - I've heard that music is the only form of art or language that we can perceive that is not (necessarily) representing something else. The vibrations that we interpret as music are the actual sounds and those sounds exist as themselves, rather than as a way of describing something else.

Even words are all there to describe concepts rather than as their own entities. And most art is definitely supposed to represent something else.

I mean, I think that's why Jackson Pollock tended to just call his paintings by a number, rather than giving them some kind of descriptive title. Because almost any title would lend it a kind of representation and that would make it less.

By croydon — On Feb 03, 2014

I guess most art is representational art, but it makes me think of something I read a while ago about how almost everything we perceive is a representation. We aren't taking in the actual painting with our eyes, we're taking in light that has reflected off the painting. Even the painting itself is only representing something else. So, in a way, a non-representational painting is actually a more pure form of representation, because it only exists as itself, rather than as a homage to something else.

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