Visual illusions in paintings: Foreshortening

Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1617), Dying Adonis (1609), oil on canvas, 76.5 × 76.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

In yesterday’s article, I showed how painters were using two visual illusions in their work centuries before anyone knew what they really were. Today I turn to something which is less of an illusion and more a consequence of optical projection from 3D to the 2D painting, but has been used as a very special effect: foreshortening.

As understanding of perspective projection spread through Europe after its discovery by the Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi in the early fifteenth century, artists discovered some of its quirks. One of these is that viewing a long object from close to one end and looking along its length resulted in a 2D image which is at least novel, and in the right circumstances startling. This is most obvious with that most familiar of long and complex objects, the human body. Foreshorten it in projection and the soles of the feet become huge, and the head tiny. We’re not used to seeing the sight of foreshortened people.

Some of the earliest fine examples of foreshortening appear on ceilings which attempt trompe l’oeil effects.

Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506), Oculus (1473), fresco, diameter 270 cm, Ceiling of the Camera degli Sposi, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

One of Andrea Mantegna’s most stunning paintings is this Oculus on the ceiling of the Camera degli Sposi in Mantua’s Palazzo Ducale. Despite its domed appearance here, this is actually a flat surface, with a view quite unlike anything most of its viewers had ever experienced. It’s a brilliant example of geometrically rigorous projection which impressed the Italian nobility of the day.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), Deucalion and Pyrrha in Prayer (1541-42) (E&I 19), oil on panel, dimensions not known, Galleria Estense, Modena, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

Tintoretto used much the same technique in an early series of panels of classical myths which he painted. Although intended to be hung on walls, these were to be placed quite high so the viewer looked up at their foreshortened figures. This is Deucalion and Pyrrha in Prayer (1541-42), which refers to one of the early stories in Book 1 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, giving an account of a flood myth which sees this rather strange couple as the only survivors.

Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1617), Dying Adonis (1609), oil on canvas, 76.5 × 76.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

For me, Hendrik Goltzius’ painting of Dying Adonis from 1609 is the most impressive example of the creative use of foreshortening, although I suspect that he has deliberately enlarged its more distant parts to avoid it looking too alien. This is accentuated by turning its square canvas onto one of its corners.

Cornelis Holsteyn (1618–1658), Venus and Cupid Lamenting the Dead Adonis (1647), oil on canvas, 99 × 207 cm, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Goltzius wasn’t the only artist to employ foreshortening when telling the story of the death of Adonis. Less than forty years later, Cornelis Holsteyn reversed it in his Venus and Cupid Lamenting the Dead Adonis from 1647.

Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry (1828–1886) The Assassination of Marat, Charlotte Corday (1860), oil on canvas, 203 x 154 cm, Musée d’arts, Nantes, France. Wikimedia Commons.

With the dawn of photography in the nineteenth century, interest in optical projection effects enjoyed a resurgence. Here Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry’s painting of The Assassination of Marat, Charlotte Corday (1860) almost conceals Marat, foreshortening him into a face with a couple of arms. There is less wonderment and more skilful use of foreshortening in its storytelling.

With photography came longer ‘telephoto’ lenses, and some artists used their compressive effect, which is related to foreshortening, as compositional devices.

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Evening on Karl Johan (1892), oil on canvas, 84.5 × 121 cm, Bergen kunstmuseum, Bergen, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

Edvard Munch’s famous Evening on Karl Johan from 1892 uses it to pack the pedestrians together and instill a deep sense of anxiety. Does anyone here suffer from agoraphobia?

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), By the Deathbed (1895), oil on canvas, 90 x 120 cm, Bergen kunstmuseum, Bergen, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

Munch provides my last example too, in his By the Deathbed (1895), showing the artist’s sister Sophie resting in her deathbed in 1877, when she was 15 and the artist was not quite 14 years old.

Sophie is seen from her head, looking along her length to her feet, her figure compressed into almost nothing by extreme foreshortening. Her deathbed resembles the next step, in which her body will be laid out in a coffin prior to burial. More than half the painting is filled by the rest of the family, father with his hands clasped in intense prayer. At the right is the mother, who had died of tuberculosis herself nearly nine years earlier.

Foreshortening remains a powerful technique in visual art, however geometrically mundane it might be.