From Renaissance to Modern. A Comparison

Essay, 2012
4 Pages

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Renaissance to Modern: A Comparison

Paulo Uccello composed Episodes from the Aeneid circa 1470, during the Renaissance, in Florence. The painting, intended originally to adorn a storage chest made in honor of a wedding that united two powerful Florentine families, renders scenes from Virgil's The Aeneid, which chronicles the mythical founding of Rome. Paolo Uccello presents in this painting a bloody battle in which armored soldiers defeat female warriors. The French artist Paul Gauguin composed Faiara (Landscape from Tahiti with Nine Figures) in 1898, in the modern style of Synthetism while he was in Tahiti. Gauguin fills his painting with wildly colored figures representing the native peoples of Polynesia. These two paintings, painted 400 years apart in differing cultural centers, embody the ideals of their respective artistic movements, and illustrate the evolving ideas of the nature and purpose of visual art.

The Renaissance advocated the artistic principles of realistically representing key moments in life and scenes from classical literature. Stylistically, this meant using istorie, linear perspective, realism, naturalism and humanism to compose visual works of art. Reverence for classical Roman and Greek culture and literature was a necessary component of any artist’s compositions during this time period. In addition, evolving notions of the artist genius influenced both the subject matter and the context within which works were created. Uccello’s Episodes from the Aeneid embodies the principles of the Renaissance in its style, choice of subject matter, and medium. In this oil painting, Uccello depicts a wide variety of figures with an emotional life-likeness that draws the viewer into the scene, demonstrating his skill at painting istorie. The large castle in the background of the depicted image illustrates Uccello’s skill at using linear perspective to realistically depict buildings. The subject matter, of scenes from Virgil’s, The Aeneid, pays homage to both classical literature and the foundation of the Rome. Furthermore, the subject matter also demonstrates that the artist possesses the necessary quality of an education in classical literature and history, which elevates his social status and helps to propagate the myth of the ‘artist-genius’ that was taking form during this period. The means through which this painting came into being are also typical of the Renaissance, as most artists worked on commission for wealthy patrons. This meant they would often create works commemorating important moments in their patron’s life, such as the wedding for which Uccello composed this work.

Gauguin’s Faiara, on the other hand, is an example of the artistic movement Synthetism, otherwise known as Post-Impressionism or Symbolism. The Post-Impressionists, specifically Gauguin, viewed the art of the past as purely aesthetic and disconnected from thought. They intended to take the realism of the Renaissance to the next level, by incorporating into their artwork the mental processes involved in perceiving the world. Within these conscious or subconscious mental processes, which rely heavily on making symbolic associations with objects, is where they believed lay the inner truth behind the world of appearances. They valued ideas over appearance, causing them to create psychologically charged depictions of scenes in real life. In addition to building upon Renaissance realism, the Post-Impressionists also intended to subvert the conventions of art by creating art forms, themselves stylistically challenging. These ideas are clearly depicted in Gauguin’s Faiara, where the figures blend into the surrounding land and appear as abstracted human forms. This makes it challenging, for the viewer, to distinguish between the figure on the donkey and the hills behind it, forcing us to rely on our mind and not only our eyes to decipher the content of the painting. Therefore, while Gauguin may have been building upon the Renaissance obsession with depicting the complexities of life realistically, he rejected the typical conventions of Renaissance art with his abstracted forms, lack of perspective, ‘primitive’ subject matter and symbolic color usage. The white stallion in Episodes from the Aeneid, painted so realistically that every contort in the horse’s head is plainly visible, becomes a bluish donkey-like figure in Faiara, whose body and head would be almost impossible to distinguish without the dark outline around it. The realism Post-Impressionists strive to depict is not the Renaissance realism of the detached observer, but the realism of the hidden, unfinished ‘reality’ located within the faculties of the mind. Art, for Gauguin, should be ‘true,’ and ‘absolute,’ functioning to incorporate and represent all of the complexities of life, involving both the thought processes connected to human interaction with the world and the accepted reality of appearances.

Gauguin’s Faiara (Landscape from Tahiti with Nine Figures), depicts nine figures of whom most are barely distinguishable, as they are highly abstracted forms. The setting of the painting is a rural, tree-filled landscape with hills in the background and a reddish ground. The subject matter, the native people of Tahiti, reflects Gauguin’s, and the general Post-Impressionist, belief that non-Western cultures participate in a more authentic way of being that was closer to how people were ‘supposed’ to live. The abstracted forms and symbolic use of color in this painting reflect the Symbolists focus on the importance of the artist’s subjective experience with nature and life itself in the creation of a work of art. Gauguin and his followers saw the artist as someone who was spiritually endowed with special abilities that allowed him to communicate ‘deeper’ truths and ‘pure’ forms of art (A-G, 172). The symbolic use of color is a key feature in Faiara, and is intended to make it difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is mental invention. For example, this symbolic use of color is evident in the blue representation of the donkey, the reddish dress of the figures on the edges that is the same color as the ground causing the figures to fade into the background, and the brownish blobs used to symbolize the head and face of many of the figures. This difficulty in separating reality and invention is a key contributor to the Synthetist objective of creating stylistically challenging, autonomous artwork. The hills, figures, and trees in Faiara are arranged in such a way that distorts both scale and the sense of three-dimensional recession. This arrangement highlights the Synthetist belief in creating artwork that abstracted from nature, creating images within which color and line serve to create rhythm and pattern, instead of merely providing realistic detail.

These aforementioned principles of Synthetism explicitly rejected the conventions of Impressionism. Impressionists evolved from the ideas of naturalism, and eventually progressed to take it to the extreme. Impressionists were concerned with using impressions of nature, and concentrated on the very processes of seeing. This lead to a focus on how brushstrokes physically formed on the painting, which elevated the importance of the surface of the painting to that of the very subjects depicted in the paintings. Space and perspective were also key focus points for impressionist painters. In the minds of the Synthetists, the Impressionists and their processes of taking impressions from nature were detached from thought and ‘scientific.’ They believed taking abstractions, and not thoughtless impressions of nature created ‘true’ and ‘pure’ art, connected with the deeper reality behind appearances. However, the Synthetists did continue to emphasize the technical importance of using brushstrokes to manipulate the physical surface of a painting. In addition, the manipulation of perspective and space also continued to interest Synthetist painters. Therefore, although the techniques of Impressionists and Synthetists remained similar, their subject matter, connected ideologies, and representation of figures and forms opposed one another.

The differences between the Impressionists and the Synthetists are especially evident in a comparison between Gauguin’s Faiara and Edouard Manet’s Music in the Tuileries, which was composed in 1862. Music in the Tuileries depicts a large social gathering of upper-middle class French men and women among trees in a park. The scrubby brushstrokes and the artificiality of the depicted image comment on the new norms associated with modernity, where nothing is natural. Although, technically radical in a sense, Manet’s Music in the Tuileries fails to fully involve the faculties of the mind in its represented image. The slightly abstracted view of the gathering leaves clear distinctions between most of the figures and still uses linear perspective. The use of color in Manet’s work is also relatively traditional and realistic. Gauguin’s Faiara, clearly differs in its subject matter, level of technical radically, and symbolic use of color. Where Manet has the dirt ground and the frozen expressions of men and women, Gauguin has the red ground and brown expressionless forms barely distinguishable as the heads of human figures.

In this comparison essay, we have seen how Post-Impressionism/Synthetism/Symbolism, represented by Gauguin’s Faiara (Landscape from Tahiti with Nine Figures), advanced the realist principles of the Renaissance art, as seen in Paulo Uccello’s Episodes from the Aeneid, and subverted the extreme form of naturalism that Impressionism embodied. Impressionism, made clear in Manet’s Music in the Tuileries, failed to be truly, stylistically, connected to deeper realms of human perception. Thus, the key to the stylistic progression from Renaissance realism to Synthetism is particularly marked by a greater interest in the inner workings of the mind in relation to how humans perceive and interact with the world.

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From Renaissance to Modern. A Comparison
Seattle Pacific University
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Episodes from the Aeneid, Faiara
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Zach von Naumann (Author), 2012, From Renaissance to Modern. A Comparison, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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