The Aerial Perspective: Leonardo, Botticelli and Vincent van Gogh

Anybody today can take a photo with a cell phone and immediately look at the resulting image. One can edit and transform the image using a variety of fixes and, if one’s luck is in, the end-product may be a ‘true-to-life’ resemblance of one’s original perception of the scene. Marvellous!

Quite often, however, the image we see on the little screen is disappointing. For some reason it seems ‘flat’, lacks ‘depth’ or ‘solidity’. It doesn’t quite capture the scene ‘true to life’.

Before mobile phones existed, one could only know how things looked by actually looking with one’s eyes. Not such a bad idea, perhaps! Otherwise one could imagine it with one’s brain, go to the movies, or look at pictorial art in books, newspapers or books.

In the latter cases, we quite automatically tend to accept the artist’s perspective as authentic. Actually we are being fooled. The artist needs to fool the viewer to convince them that what they are representing is ‘true to life’, i.e. a veridical representation of the world.

Let’s take a look at a few famous paintings. Do they appear true-to-life or in the terminology of perception scholars, ‘veridical’? If so, how was this effect achieved?

Let’s begin by taking a quick peek at Leonardo’s ‘The Last Supper’.

Am I right in thinking that the table top seems to be leaning ever so slightly towards the viewer to provide sight of the items in this famous meal? I see bread, fish, salami, water and wine. If the table top would be tilted any more, objects on its surface would be pulled by gravity and fall onto the imaginary floor.
The Last Supper

No such trickery in Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. We are shown the scene from a full frontal perspective (so to speak).

The Birth of Venus

But wait a minute? The flying figures on the left are seemingly floating at a higher elevation. Even the figure on the right – below the central figure of Venus – has an illusory appearance of floating in space. The artist has ‘magically’ created the illusion of people on ground level and angels above the earth all within a single image. Geometry has been twisted to show geometrically level objects as flying or grounded at one and the same moment. Marvellous!

Vincent Van Gogh’s Aerial Perspectivism

Vincent van Gogh (1857 -1890) is known as a post-impressionist. Vincent’s paintings are striking for their colour, feeling and immediacy – drawing the viewer into the picture. Vincent achieves this impact by a subtle use of perspective that makes the whole of the scene come alive. Without an aerial perspective, the image would be less immediate and impactful. Consider his painting of the Yellow House.

Vincent painted this scene from ground level. Yet the scene is represented as it would be viewed from an elevated position, not as the artist’s eyes could actually see it. By projecting the viewpoint upwards towards a bird’s eye view, the artist allows the viewer to be shown much more of the scene than would be possible from a ground-level position.

The Yellow House

The same bird’s eye perspective is available in Vincent’s painting of ‘The Night Café’, where the viewer is looking down at the entire room. It is as if one is looking from a position close to the ceiling.

The Night Café

Again, ‘The Café on the Terrace’ presents a slightly elevated viewpoint.

The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum

When one looks at a painting with an aerial perspective, we do not even consciously notice. By picturing the scene from a higher angle, a sense of three-dimensional space is offered. The artist is providing a clever illusory version of the scene using an imaginary aerial perspective.


Published by dfmarks


One thought on “The Aerial Perspective: Leonardo, Botticelli and Vincent van Gogh

%d bloggers like this: