Renaissance Painting


Table Summary

Summary of Renaissance Painting
Early Renaissance
ca. 1400-1500
High Renaissance
ca. 1500-25
Late Renaissance
ca. 1525-1600
Italy Masaccio, Botticelli Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo Titian
Low Countries van Eyck Bruegel
Germany: Dürer Spain: El Greco (mannerism)

General Features

During the Renaissance, painters embraced classicism (simplicity, balance, clarity; see Western Aesthetics) and physical realism. The Early Renaissance (led by Florence) was the formative period of this approach; in other words, it was Early Renaissance artists who initially developed and refined techniques of classicism and physical realism. Once this foundation had been established, the pinnacle of classicism was achieved in the High Renaissance (led by Rome). During the Late Renaissance (which had no particular leader, though both Florence and Rome remained primary forces), the severe balance and simplicity of the High Renaissance was relaxed, presaging the Baroque era.

A major strain of Late Renaissance art was mannerism: the deliberate pursuit of novelty and complexity. In painting, mannerism entailed distortion of physical forms (e.g. elongated human anatomy), unnatural colouring and lighting, the arrangement of figures in complex poses, and somewhat imbalanced, restless composition (as opposed to the balanced, stable composition of pure classicism).23 Mannerism, which was led jointly by Florence and Rome, was therefore quite contrived and artificial (i.e. "mannered"), hence its name. Though only a portion of Late Renaissance artists belonged to this movement, the features of mannerism (and its sheer willingness to "break the rules") were widely influential.

Mannerist Painting
Mannerist Painting
Mannerist Painting

Main Article

The Low Countries

While Italy was the heart of the Renaissance, it was not alone in the pursuit of physically realistic painting. This pursuit was also undertaken in the Low Countries (a region that corresponds roughly to modern Belgium and the Netherlands), but for very different reasons. Italian artists pursued physical realism because it was a component of classicism (i.e. it was used in the art of classical antiquity); above all, they wished to revive the art of classical Europe and apply it to Christian works. Low Countries painters, on the other hand, were simply passionate about accurately capturing the physical world around them.

Classicism, after all, only calls for a limited degree of physical realism. In a classical painting, details are simplified (e.g. plain-coloured robes, sparse settings) so as not to distract from the overall sense of balance, harmony, and simplicity. A classical work is primarily concerned with composition as a whole, not fine detail. This may be observed in classical faces (which have idealized, generic features) and landscapes (which are portrayed in a simplified, idealized manner).

Low Countries artists, unrestrained by classicism, were eager to paint the world around them in exacting detail. Consequently, it was in the Renaissance Low Countries that both genre painting (paintings of everyday life) and landscape painting emerged. (In the subsequent Baroque age, genre painting and landscapes would finally become mainstream forms of Western art.) Renaissance Italy, on the other hand, was chiefly preoccupied with lofty subjects (chiefly biblical, but also classical and historical) in which human figures were the primary focus.F207

Landscape Painting from the Renaissance-era Low Countries
Landscape Painting from the Renaissance-era Low Countries
Landscape Painting from the Renaissance-era Low Countries
Genre Painting from the Renaissance-era Low Countries
Genre Painting from the Renaissance-era Low Countries
Genre Painting from the Renaissance-era Low Countries

Thus did the Renaissance feature two leading regions of innovation in Western painting: Italy and the Low Countries. (In the fields of architecture and sculpture, Italy knew no rival.) As the Renaissance drew on, the influence of both regions radiated across the continent (see Diffusion of the Renaissance).


In keeping with the "Renaissance man" reputation for versatility, the two leading architects of the Early Renaissance made a vital contribution to the world of visual art: Brunelleschi worked out the mathematical laws of linear perspective, and Alberti developed a practical system to apply them to painting. This system, which was refined throughout the Renaissance, finally allowed the creation of precise three-dimensional illusions on flat surfaces. Like the Renaissance movement generally, linear perspective gradually diffused from Italy across Western Europe.4,49

Truly realistic perspective cannot be achieved, however, without augmenting linear perspective with atmospheric perspective (aka aerial perspective). This type of perspective dictates that as objects become more distant, they become less sharply detailed, and their colours become cooler and less saturated. (The term "atmospheric" recognizes that these effects are caused partly by moisture and dust in the Earth's atmosphere.) The use of atmospheric perspective in art dates to antiquity.50

Early Renaissance

ca. 1400-1500

The founder of Renaissance painting was Masaccio, Giotto's greatest successor in the quest for realistic perspective (the three-dimensional articulation of space), modelling (the three-dimensional articulation of surfaces, via lighting/shading), and emotion.2,8 His masterpiece is Tribute Money, part of a mural series at Brancacci Chapel, Florence. This work demonstrates how the halo, a remnant of medieval art, is adapted to a three-dimensional environment as though it were a solid disk; the halo would eventually disappear completely during the Renaissance, though some artists modified it into realistic light shining from a figure's head.43

Tribute Money, Masaccio
Tribute Money (detail)
Tribute Money (detail), Masaccio
Baptism of the Neophytes, Masaccio
Crucifixion (Pisa Altarpiece), Masaccio

The other leading painter of the Early Renaissance was Sandro Botticelli. His two foremost works, Primavera and Birth of Venus, may be the most famous of all Early Renaissance paintings.E33,F199

Birth of Venus, Botticelli
Primavera, Botticelli
Virgin and Child, Botticelli

Throughout the fifteenth century, Renaissance painting diffused across Italy, with Venice emerging as the leading Renaissance centre of northern Italy. Painters who worked in this city (during the Renaissance and beyond) are referred to collectively as the Venetian school. Venetian school painting tends to feature warm, vibrant colours and strong lighting.29

Linear vs. Painterly Painting

Mainstream Renaissance painting in Italy, which was led by Florence and Rome, is typically executed in a linear style. An artist creates a linear style painting by drawing up a precise sketch of the scene, then painting in the colours. Since the colours are neatly contained within the lines of the drawing (hence the term "linear"), the objects in a linear style painting have sharply defined forms.

Venetian painting, on the other hand, typically features more of a painterly style.F429 In a painterly style painting, the artist is less concerned about containing colour within lines; the freedom of the paint takes precedence over sharply defined forms. Moreover, the colouring of Venetian painting is typically vibrant, whereas that of mainstream Renaissance painting is more restrained.

The choice of style (linear or painterly) affects the overall impact of a work. In mainstream Italian painting, the eye tends to be drawn primarily by forms (i.e. the lines and shapes that define objects); in Venetian painting, by areas of colour. Thus, in terms of achieving balanced classical composition, the mainstream Italian painter focused on arranging forms, while the Venetian painter focused on arranging areas of colour.F248-50

Early Low Countries Painting

ca. 1400-1500

Fifteenth-century painting of the Low Countries region is referred to as Early Low Countries (or "Early Flemish" or "Early Netherlandish") painting. Early Low Countries artists developed modern oil painting. Compared to water-based paint (the hitherto standard type), oil-based paint is easier to work and slower to dry, giving the artist a much finer degree of control (which was crucial for capturing fine details).10

Moreover, while water-based paint is opaque, oil paint is translucent. Oil paint can therefore be built up in layers to produce glossy, glowing colours (since light passes through the layers). This enabled colours of unprecedented brightness and saturation (see Colour Theory), key elements of highly realistic painting.D219,G288

Jan van Eyck, foremost of the Early Low Countries painters, perfected the techniques of preparing and layering oil paint (for which he has been dubbed the "father of oil painting"). Following this triumph, oil gradually became the standard painting medium across Europe. The Ghent Altarpiece (on which Jan collaborated with his brother) is considered van Eyck's greatest work. (An altarpiece is a set of panel paintings that are placed behind an altar.)F179,G291,11,15

The Arnolfini Marriage is van Eyck's most famous portrait. The couple's clothing, the dog's coat, and the patterned carpet all tantalize the eye with their finely rendered textures. Many of the objects included in the painting were deliberately planted to convey symbolic meanings (see interpretations), a common practice in Low Countries art.45

Ghent Altarpiece
Ghent Altarpiece (detail)
Ghent Altarpiece (detail)
Ghent Altarpiece (detail)
Ghent Altarpiece (detail)
Arnolfini Marriage
Saint Jerome

High Renaissance

ca. 1500-1525

High Renaissance painting was led by three artists: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael.17 While the careers of Leonardo and Raphael peaked and concluded with the High Renaissance, Michelangelo's career soared during the High Renaissance and continued into the Late Renaissance. The influence of mannerism can be seen in Michelangelo's later works.

Leonardo da Vinci, whose surviving works are few, established pyramidal composition as the standard structure of High Renaissance paintings (see Visual Composition). Da Vinci pioneered this type of composition in Virgin of the Rocks, his foremost early work. The famous Last Supper is a low-lying pyramidal work; this painting also achieves classical balance emotionally, by contrasting the agitation of the disciples with the composure of Christ.25

From the Renaissance onward, portraiture was a major genre of Western painting. The foremost Renaissance example is Leonardo's Mona Lisa, the most famous painting of all time.

Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo
Last Supper, Leonardo
Mona Lisa, Leonardo

Raphael is often considered the greatest of all Renaissance painters. His foremost early work is Madonna of the Goldfinch, while his masterpieces are the murals decorating four rooms (known as the Stanze di Raffaello, or "Raphael rooms") in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the pope.26 Primary among these murals is School of Athens.

Madonna of the Goldfinch, Raphael
School of Athens, Raphael
School of Athens (detail)
Room with Murals by Raphael (including School of Athens)
Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, Raphael
The Engagement of Virgin Mary, Raphael

Michelangelo was a reluctant painter, as he always considered sculpture his true vocation. The Doni Tondo is Michelangelo's only known panel painting, while his foremost works are the wall and ceiling paintings of the Sistine Chapel, another component of the Apostolic Palace. Primary among these are nine creation scenes on the ceiling, including Creation of Adam, as well as the Last Judgement mural on the altar wall.26,27

Doni Tondo, Michelangelo
Last Judgement, Michelangelo
Creation of Adam, Michelangelo
Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Michelangelo


The leading regions of Western painting during the Renaissance were Italy and the Low Countries; the second tier consisted of Germany and France. The outstanding Renaissance figure of this "second tier" is German artist Albrecht Dürer, whose career lay mainly in the High Renaissance period. Dürer is often considered the greatest German painter, the greatest Renaissance artist of northern Europe, and the greatest printmaker of all time.

Last Supper (woodcut), Dürer
Knight, Death, and the Devil (engraving), Dürer
St Jerome in his Study (engraving), Dürer
Self-portrait (1500), Dürer
Heller Altarpiece, Dürer
Young Hare, Dürer
Large Piece of Turf, Dürer

Dürer worked in two kinds of printmaking: woodcut and engraving.

In the medium of woodcut, an image is carved upon the face of wooden block; to be precise, the image is effectively raised in relief by carving away material around the image. The carved face is then coated with ink and pressed against a sheet of paper, thus creating a print. The invention of woodcut in Europe (achieved in Renaissance-era Germany) greatly accelerated the diffusion of Western art movements, as it finally allowed illustrations to be distributed rapidly across the continent.E43,F214

In the art of engraving (invented soon after woodcut), an image is scraped into a metal plate (preferably copper). Engraving thus takes the opposite approach to woodcut: the image itself is carved into the surface, allowing for a much finer degree of control. The carved lines are then filled with ink (by rubbing ink over the plate, then wiping it clean), and paper is pressed tightly against the plate surface.E43,F214,51

Printmaking can be defined as "the production of an image by first rendering it in some material, then transferring the image onto a surface". Subsequent to woodcut and engraving, a wide variety of printmaking techniques developed, including etching (in which the image is corroded into a metal plate with acid), lithography (in which the image is drawn in a greasy substance on a flat plate; when the plate is coated and wiped, ink remains on the grease), and stencilling (in which the print is created by rubbing ink over a stencil; a popular version is serigraphy, aka silkscreen printing, in which ink is rubbed over a paper stencil affixed to a silk screen).51

Late Renaissance

ca. 1525-1600

Though mannerism flourished primarily in Florence and Rome, the most renowned of all mannerist painters is El Greco, the greatest Spanish painter of the Renaissance.35 His foremost work, The Burial of Count Orgaz, features elongated figures and swirling distortions of space that achieve a fantastic, dreamlike effect.

Burial of Count Orgaz, El Greco
Saint Jerome as Scholar, El Greco
Temple Incident, El Greco
View of Toledo, El Greco

Mannerism had only limited influence on Titian, greatest of all Venetian painters. Assumption of the Virgin is often considered his masterpiece. Titian's paintings showcase the vibrant colouring and strong lighting of the Venetian school.18

Assumption of the Virgin, Titian
Bacchus and Ariadne, Titian
Rape of Europa, Titian

In the sixteenth century, Renaissance painting radiated from Italy across Europe. Many artists of northern Europe responded by merging Italian classical composition with the finely-detailed realism of Low Countries painting; this was achieved most successfully by Dürer.

Yet the greatest Low Countries painter of the sixteenth century, Pieter Bruegel (the Elder), chose not to embrace Italian art. Instead of classically-structured biblical scenes, Bruegel preferred to chronicle the everyday lives of peasants against realistic interiors and landscapes.H804,15,38 Peasant Wedding may be his most famous work.

Peasant Wedding, Bruegel
Return of the Herd, Bruegel
Corn Harvest, Bruegel
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