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Figurative Art Through History

By Lynn Webber/Roochvarg

No form or subject has so captured the imagination of western artists throughout time as the human figure whether in repose or action, in isolation or with others, as heroic or domestic, as mythological or historical, or as an image for ceremonial or religious veneration. Cave and rock paintings and sculptured fertility figures and other ceremonial images revealed the early cultural significance of the human figure. Monumental but static Egyptian statues were eclipsed by Greek and Roman portrait sculptures, often in dynamic poses and with more fully modeled facial expressions and character. Narrative relief sculptures and wall paintings recorded mythological and historical events. For the first thousand years of the Christian era, artists decorated churches with mosaics and wall paintings of saints and religious figures with flat, stylized faces and bodies. Later, illuminated manuscripts included delicate miniature paintings of brilliant color and gold leaf in which not just religious figures but people, both rich and poor, were the primary subject, but depicted devoid of depth or individual personality.

With the coming of the Middle Ages, however, artists began to render the human figure in more fully natural form, as Giotto and others painted and sculpted a sense of volume with hints of underlying body shape and size. Renaissance sculptors, including Michelangelo, looked back to classical forms once again, giving bodies substance and movement, while Leonardo da Vinci and others enriched their work with explorations of color, light, atmosphere, and modeling, bringing a new reality to figure painting. During the 16th and 17th centuries many figurative works were energized, with sculptures depicting dramatic moments and studies in motion. Dutch artists including Frans Hals and Rembrandt created portraits with distinct personalities and character, and domestic scenes such as those by Jan Vermeer brought household members more fully to life with careful use of light and shadow. During the next century Jean August Dominique Ingres and other artists exhibited both greater physical accuracy in rendering the human figure and psychological depth in strong facial expressiveness.

The middle of the 19th century was a time of artistic exploration, and painters such as Edouard Manet and Berthe Morisot began to experiment with art created with heavier, visible brushwork to convey human form and expression in a combination and overlay of colors, but without focus on detail or modeling of figures or faces. Still others, notably Paul Gauguin and later Henri Matisse sought to return to more simplified depictions of figures in flat planes of color with heavily outlined forms. By the beginning of the 20th century new movements shocked viewers with angular, disjointed figure paintings in which Pablo Picasso and other artists seemed to rearrange body parts into semi-abstract designs. After World War I, some artists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood sought calm after chaos and focused on regional stories and figures in a more classic style, while others like Edward Hopper painted figures reflecting the isolation and dislocation felt by so many.

The post-World War II era, however exploded with entirely new approaches to figurative art with some images such as those by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein inspired by mass-market commercial art. Sculptors including Henry Moore and Constantin Brancusi created figurative sculpture simplified in form and expression. Most recently artists have broadened their experiments with the human figure using an ever more diverse variety and combination of media both traditional and new and presenting new interpretations and forms. Today’s artists are constantly exploring innovative approaches to depicting figures both as individuals and in relation with others that bring fresh insights to the human experience.