Ugly painting through the ages. Why? Bad artists?

When younger and eager to learn a little about everything that I could, I looked at books and films and actual portraits of people, painted from the time when artists moved from using rocks as canvass to modern times.

Were artists of the middle ages and such times bad artists when it came to painting people or did people actually look that bad? I mean, paintings done within the 18th to 19th century show real looking folks that one can identify with, but those earlier are scary.

I know about the size difference: perspective was dumped for importance. In group paintings, the more important the person, the bigger he or she was made, while those of least rank tended to become dwarfs scuttling about the canvas in reduced size.

They got the image of trees, bushes, flowers, buildings and stuff right, along with rocks, rivers and clothing, but the folks look ‘strange.’

White people were pasty white, the eyes often looking puffy, lids half closed, and their faces did not look real. Forget about the occasional black person to appear, because he was usually painted a curious ‘black’ and either deliberately made to look horrific or held the same, odd ‘dead’ facial image as the whites.

Religious paintings got me. I mean, I’ve looked at some where the Madonna and Child must have been painted by someone who hated them. While clothing, background and all would be good, the faces would be horrible, ugly, pasty, unpleasant to look at and, in some cases, either distorted or on about the level of a kids attempt.

I spotted a change around the late 15th century, or so, when famous or rich men started having portraits made of themselves and they started looking more realistic. The faces took on life like characteristics, the eyes became normal and not diseased looking or puffy, and, of course, perspective went into everything. These people were usually dressed like ‘fops’ in the blousey, dark clothing, the ruffled neck thing, stiff looking material and knee high boots of leather.

To me, all of the paintings looked dark and gloomy, but much later I read where age had darkened the protective varnishes put over the paints or they had not been cleaned in a couple of hundred years.

Modern – middle 1900s – painters could do work so great that one had problems determining if the work was a photograph or a painting.

I looked at Rubin’s works. He liked chunky people. Pale, sick looking, chunky women again with curiously bland faces. Again the backgrounds were ‘normal’ but the people looked strange.

Now, did people look that bad in the early centuries or were artists just crappy when it came to real life? Was it a ‘style’ to paint people looking over tranquilized, puffy, far too pallid, with too smooth faces, bland expressions and doughy in appearance?

Then the religious paintings. Why were so many painted with the Christ Child looking actually demonic, or ugly? Even Mary has been portrayed in a similar light, like a 6th grader did the faces.

I’ve seen people with no training sketch better images on notebook paper in high school. Now days, even if the artist is not that good – like those charcoal portraits gotten for $5 at fairs and such – you can clearly see the resemblance to modern people.

They had to have had great artists in the early centuries who could sketch a real looking person.

Art museums of ancient art are packed with portraits of such sick, demented looking folks living in castles, dressed in fine clothing and all. I’d figure that they’d get irritated at being painted so poorly, unless they actually looked that way.

So, what gives?

I think you may have answered your own question there…

In the middle ages, they did not fully understand perspective and such. There is now a theory by a physicist that Dutch painters later on used lenses to project the image of what they were painting onto a canvas. They then just had to sketch it. I have no cite for it, as it was in the paper.

Hope this helps!

I could easily write several pages, so let me try to condense this to the main points:

It’s not that they didn’t understand perspective. The Romans understood spatial relations, but it wasn’t specifically “point-line-perspective”, which was developed fully during the Renaissance period.

To understand the shift in painting and sculpture styles after the decline of the western half of the Roman empire, you need to understand a teeny bit of philospohy. The Greeks and Romans lived in a very Humanistic society, which means that humans were very important in the world. Human bodies and minds were things to be enjoyed and revered. That’s why they went to such lengths to carve incredibly realistic statues, statues that look ready to move on their own. Their art was filled with movement, people in action.

With the advent of Christian domination around the Mediterranean, peoples’ fundamental world views changed. Most importantly, the life on earth was no longer the most important part. Coporeal life was something to be endured to reach heaven after death. Also, sculture and wall painting began to focus on what the piece represented, what tenet was being displayed, and not about the actual people. The focus of art became the Metaphysical side of life: Religion. Life on earth was not to be glorified because it wasn’t important. Being good and decent and being saved after death was important.

Paintings of the Modonna and Child were not about the beauty and wonder of motherhood, but about the divine nature of the even of Jesus’ birth, about the relationship between God and people.

I’d like to see some pictures illustrating what you are talking about, because you have a lot of value judgements in your OP.

Some thoughts:

“Pasty” We tend to value more what differentiates between wealthy and not wealthy. Now, wealthy people are more likely to have free time for vacation, playing sports, etc, so are more likely to be tanned, and poor people work inside so don’t necessarily get the tan. Prior to the industrial revolution, most poor people worked outside and got very brown, while the rich could afford to spend their time inside and remain pale.

“Puffy” Again, up until the industrial revolution, most poor people never got enough to eat, so being overweight was a sign of wealth.

“Bland expressions” In many aristocratic classes, strong emotions were considered vulgar. Probably a by-product of being surrounded by servants constantly.

To add just a few more things into the mix …

The Early Christians made a deliberate attempt to use an artistic style that was different from the realistic style popular with the Romans at the time. The figures often look “cartoony” to us now, at the time, since somehow they managed to raise children without the benefit of Animaniacs, these figures looked interesting, different, and otherworldly to them.

Religious symbolism was important, so many pictures of religious figures in the Middle Ages had huge eyes, as this indicated that they were seeing heavenly things. Also, keep in mind that many of the sculptures from the Middle Ages that we see in museums today were meant to be placed in churches, often at a great distance from the viewer. Distortions of the figure actually helped viewers see it better from afar. Then, an artist making a picture for a prayer book might copy one of these famous statues, and so even though the intended viewer was now seeing the image up close and personal, the distortions remained.

Some of my favorites are the Madonna and Child pieces where the Child looks like Mini-Me. The popular religious view at the time mandated that even the Infant Christ was infinitely wise, powerful, etc etc. and it was thus inappropriate to show him as a child who might have a messy diaper.

Perhaps the hardest to document, but IMHO one of the most interesting, is that our eyes, or more specifically, the parts of the brain that processes vision, are trained to see in a certain way. Having grown up with photography, we have very high standards for realism. A person who was used to Early American portrait art, for example, which to us looks very unrealistic and doll-like, might be confused by a black and white photograph. A color painting might look more realistic to them, because their eyes were trained to see the delicate coloring as the element most associated with the realistic qualities of the portrait.

There is also the matter of ideals for beauty changing over time. In Rubens’ day, those fleshy women were considered delightfully attractive.

This is a pretty good example of the puffy-eyed, pale faces, where the people just do not look real.

This is a better example, notice how plump the people look, something unusual for those living a hard and active life, and then the generic faces, it’s as if they’re all related. The central figure is very pale, but during the time the painting was made, people used natural light and were outside a lot during the day. They would tend to be darker in hue.

Madonna and Child here. Look at the bland expression on Mary and how homely the Christ Child is painted.

Again here. The faces are very bland, virtually lifeless, the one on the right (John the Baptist) is curiously out of alignment. Everyone looks to be too well fed. John the Baptist is the only one sporting something close to a natural tan. The Christ Child seems far too pale. Look at the great detail given to the robes, but poor detail given to John’s right foot. It appears deformed.

Try this one, it works, then click on the picture. Sorry.