A Perspective on Perspective Art

The Transept of the Mariakerk in Utrecht, seen from the Northeast, Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, 1637

Spencer and Brusati both begin their discussions of perspectives in artwork by explaining how collecting and admiring art in the seventeenth century was something that only the elite, educated, and members of high class society took part in. Spencer explains the historical context of perspective chambers, and how members of the higher class (particularly members of Danish Royalty – the King) maintained rooms filled with perspective pieces/boxes meant to show off intellectually stimulating works of art. Spencer explains that throughout the seventeenth century, “perspective theory developed into a dynamic field in which artists and mathematicians alike expanded on the method’s potential for creating astonishing visual deceptions” (Spencer, 187). Spencer goes into great detail about the history of perspective boxes, which are “three-dimensional structures whose innerfacing panels are painted as church or domestic interiors”. This historical analysis of perspective pieces reveals the interrelationship between mathematicians, scientists, and artists in the seventeenth century Dutch Republic. Although Spencer touches on the techniques artists used to create optical illusions in their perspective pieces, she primarily sets out to show how these works of art belonged to and are representative of the sovereign.

In contrast, Brusati analyzes the role of perspective in art by surveying the works of various famous Dutch artists from the seventeenth century. In “Perpectives in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real Time”, Brusati takes a formal approach to analyzing the methods and techniques of the following artists: Saendredam, Samuel van Hoogenstraten, Jan van der Heyden, Johannes Vermeer, and Pieter de Hooch. She explains that these particular artists have all created pieces “admired by contemporaries for their skill in perspective. Secondly, each work incorporates features – such as dramatic foreshortening, optical ambiguity and anamorphic elements – that prompt inquisitive viewing, often from shifting vantage points, mobilizing not only the eye but also the movements of the embodied viewer. They thus offer a revealing lens through which to examine how seventeenth-century expectations of perspective may differ from our own” (Brusati, 911).

In her attempt to explain how Dutch artists used perspective as a tool for enhancing visual experiences, Bursati examines these artists’ manipulations of scale, vantage points, and use of experimental optics. She looks at particular works of art and goes into great detail explaining how the artistic techniques of perspective can produce stimulating optical illusions of sorts. For example, in her analysis of Saendredam’s church paintings, Brusati contends that, “[w]hat is striking about Saenredam’s pictures is the extent to which they utilize perspective as an optical technology to magnify, diminish, fragment and manipulate pictorial space, multiplying vistas and transforming depicted structures and objects in ways that bring their multiple aspects into view” (Brusati, 913). Brusarti then goes on to explain the methodical working procedures involved in creating these perspectives; such as Saendredam’s unusual use of vantage points, his use of graphite in constructions drawings, how he collected measurements, etc.

              Going back to the Rijks Museum website, I find myself drawn to the works of Saenredam – especially after reading about Bursati’s analysis of his techniques. I’d like to see in person how large the scale of the buildings are in comparison to the people. Additionally, I would like to better understand how he uses shading to show dimensionality. While it’s interesting to learn about artistic techniques through readings, I think (for me at least) I can appreciate the analyses more when I can physically see the works of art in front of me. Brusati explains that Saenredam used a distance point system combined with a coordinate system to create actual measurements of churches and perspectives for his drawings. Apparently Saenradam did this so that he could later “recreate the experience of looking at it as if from the artist’s own vantage point within the church, using the optical point noted in his site drawing as the basis for his construction” (Brusati, 922). While at the Rijks museum I would like to study Saenredem’s, The Transept of the Mariakerk in Utrecht, seen from the Northeast, in person so I can better understand what he saw and what he experienced when painting the church.


2 thoughts on “A Perspective on Perspective Art

  1. Hi Cheney! I think that you bring up a great point in your first paragraph here about class differences—who in the 17th-century Netherlands was actually viewing this art? Who had the means to? Spencer brought up that sort of extravagant example of the Danish king collecting perspective boxes and other illusion paintings to show off his own power and status, and I wonder how much of the art coming out of the Netherlands at the time was used for a similar purpose.

    Something you might want to explore in Essay #1 might be this sort of class divide on what kind of art was accessible to different classes!


  2. You bring up many interesting artistic elements discussed in this week’s readings. I’m not entirely sure I understand the idea of using shade to showcase dimensionality, so I’d be very interested to see you discuss this more in your paper. As I mentioned on Joseph’s post, a lot of the technical aspects discussed have gone right over my head. I also think you’re correct in saying that you can’t fully appreciate or understand a piece of art and the technique used to create it until you see it in person. As odd as this is (because we can see the picture on our computers) it is absolutely true. There is uniquely revealing about physically standing in front of a painting.


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