What's the most realistic painting made before the invention of photography?
By - putwat
This doesn’t change the gist of your question, but it may help you find what your looking for:
“Photorealism” doesn’t quite mean “most real looking” but art the deliberately mimics the appearance of photography.
Cameras do not reproduce images the way the human eye (or, rather, a pair of human eyes) see. Photorealism attempts to create images similar to what a camera would produce, including the flattening, distortion, focus/blurring, and other alterations in visual perception inherent to photography.
The term is [*Trompe-l'œil*](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trompe-l%27%C5%93il), meaning "to deceive the eye". It's a painting discipline that has a very long history in Western art. As far as "most realistic" is concerned, honestly, that depends upon context and criteria.
I know you exclude portraiture in your question, but a lot of early work was made because someone was prepared to pay for it and keep it. Leisure painting wasn’t a thing, so I’d say Holbein portraits spring to mind, and the Arnolfini marriage by Van Eyck could arguably be the first photorealistic painting, although that terminology is incorrect as photo realism is the painting style in response to, or copied from, a photograph, which of course didn’t exist in that form. The use of camera obscura by artists such as Vermeer lent itself to a realistic style of painting, capturing light, perspective and texture. You might want to look at Northern Renaissance art, which relies on capturing those things, and has numerous examples of realistic representation. Zeuxis in 5 BCE famously painted some grapes so realistically that they were pecked by a bird, so perhaps the ancient Greeks could lay claim to the first photorealism?!
Realism and questions around it fascinate me. Some modern painters you might like are Clive Head, Sarah Graham, Tjalf Spaarnay, Richard Estes, and Kate Brinkworth, and a couple of books, Mysteries of the Rectangle by Siri Hustvedt, and What Painting Is by James Elkins talk in general terms about the meaning of painting, and representation.
....Yes! what? Dutch Still life that's literally just off the top of my head. I think painting style became more naturalistic particularly around 1600-1800's.
But are they realistic? I love (and collect) Dutch painting, but they are contrived. The still lives are inventively arranged and, the flower paintings (for example) would be impossible to paint irl (ie realistically) because the variety of them don’t all bloom at the same time of year.
I’d say the most realistic paintings are from the movement called French Realism, the peasantry captured by Millet. While they were certainly not photorealistic they did capture the reality of daily hardships never captured before.
In the genre of portraiture, there are some Raphael and early Rembrandt paintings that are very realistic, but again, probably idealized — warts removed and riches enhanced — even if they have the appearance of being photorealistic.
The mid 19th century British Pre-Raphaelites painted hyper-sharp images, ie every blade of grass, but that’s not how we visually perceive the world around us either.
We're talking about photorealism not contextual realism of a subject. There's a difference. Not to mention before the accessibility of camera phones in our pockets most photos were staged or choreographed to some degree. Dutch still life was considered one of the first points in mimicry. I can't recall the story for certain but during on of my art history classes I believe it was discussed how people were baffled at the realism of a painting of a glass of water.
Then I’d site the first fully *naturalistic* painting would be Raphael’s “[Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione](https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portrait_of_Baldassare_Castiglione)”. His other portraits, including himself, are excellent but not photographic.
17th century Dutch artists Rembrandt’s early portraits are like that. Maybe even Jan Lieven’s old-man tronies. Since you mentioned still lifes, the most excellent Dutch Still life painters for OP to look up are: Pieter Claesz., William Claesz.Heda, Jan Davidz. de Heem, Balthasar van der Ast, and Rachael Ruysch. The latter two were flower painters but included porcelain like shells and bugs that look more natural than other artists.
Dürer, at about the same time as Raphael (~1510), painted some animals and insects that look like they are crawling on the page. Speaking of bugs, 17th century Dutch artist Jan(?) van Kessel followed Direr’s example. OP should Google all these names I mention.
I mean it could be argued all day. One could suggest Jan van Eyck's self portrait or any number of landscapes for that matter. But definitely before the early 1820's (first camera.)
I did think of Van Eyck and Memling. They did incredible portraits (like Man in Turban, I think in NGA). The level of detail (wrinkles, 5 o’clock shadow) is very convincing but *i think* short of photographic.
But that level of naturalism required the development of oil painting which began in Netherlands some 70 years before it started catching on in Italy. Oil painting allowed for multiple translucent glazes to build up shadow effects that couldn’t be achieved with fast drying and opaque tempera paints. Which is why Raphael was the earliest to achieve OP’s criteria imo. Da Vinci obviously became a master in oils a generation before Raphael, but no one today would confuse his “Mona Lisa” — as beautiful as it is — with a photograph.
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Hans Holbein portraits (sorry), Ingres portraits (sorry). Google Holbein and look at the clothing and backgrounds in his works. Furs and velvets and brocades are all rendered as clear as if photographed. Google Ingres’ portrait of the Princesse de Broglie and look at the sky blue silk of her gown. It is incredible.
The Pre-Raphaelite painters created extremely realistic figures, backgrounds, and details set in stylized narrative scenes. So look at the individual details for the extreme care taken with realism at that level.
Flemish Old Masters still life paintings often have a clear photograph-like realism about them.
One that immediately comes to mind for me is van Eyck’s Virgin and Child with the Canon van der Paele. The faces of the figures still have a bit of a lifeless, waxy quality to them, but if you look at the textures of surfaces and the way they interact with the light, it’s honestly mind blowing.
His Arnolfini Double Portrait is similarly impressive, and does some fascinating things with light and reflection. If I’m remembering correctly (I haven’t studied him since my survey course in 2017) there’s widespread acceptance of the theory that he used a camera obscura.
>One that immediately comes to mind for me is van Eyck’s Virgin and Child with the Canon van der Paele. The faces of the figures still have a bit of a lifeless, waxy quality to them, but if you look at the textures of surfaces and the way they interact with the light, it’s honestly mind blowing.
It’s interesting that you think the faces look waxy, because one of the reasons I love Early Netherlandish art so much is because the people in it seem so much more alive to me than in any non-Netherlandish painting I know of from before the Baroque. Not that they’re particularly realistically proportioned, but they strike me as very expressive and individualized. Hans Memling’s various scenes of tortured sinners in hell are positively hard to look at IMO.
If anything I find that the people in High Renaissance paintings often look waxy. I’m not saying you’re objectively wrong; it’s just interesting how l differing overall tastes affect perceived naturalism.
I’m absolutely willing to admit that could be subconscious bias on my part. I’m far more steeped in Italian Renaissance art than I am Netherlandish art, so it could be that I’ve just trained myself to think of Raphael as what looks “right”. Still, I stand by my statement with regards to the Arnolfini portrait, though I think the Virgin and Child w/ van der Paele and most close-up Dutch portraiture capture human expression quite fairly well.
I mean, realism wasn't always the goal of artists, but you can find examples of it all over art history itself, just look at ancient Greece sculptures.
Remember, materials for paintings varied from periods and places, so what was realistic for a culture may not be realistic for another one. Just as how a photo from a 2010's cellphone may not look as "high fidelity" as one from a 2020's phone today.
I wouldn't call sculptures from the Greeks realistic at all. None of them resembled real people, the concept of mimicking reality and real people came up around the 4th century (not 14th as I wrote at first), which sounds wild!
Editing to add that I am talking about faces and resemblance to real people, not bodies as a whole.
It sounds wild because it isn't really true. It's not that no one had ever thought of trying to make a statue of a person as realistic as possible, it's that the effort needed to create a statue warranted more of a reason than just a display of talent. Herodotus and Pliny are full of anecdotes about the realism of various sculpture that astounded people at the time. Myron's heifer and Praxiteles' Aphrodite of Knidos come to mind, as well as Lysippos' portraits of Alexander. You might not call Greek sculpture realistic, but they did.
Thank you, I stand corrected, 4th century, not 14th. Before Praxiteles a portrait of a general was "little more than a picture of a good-looking soldier with a helmet and a staff", as Gombrich says in his The story of art.
Roman busts and statues of emperors are realistic af.
That's not true. Senator portraits and Emperor portraits famously made their faces older and more stern looking to convey gravitas and lived experience. Major exception being Augustus, who made a shocking change by having his images always portray him as a youthful god in order to constrast himself with the Senate.
Don't trust images.
But is it realism if it's not based on reality?
By the way, I'm only talking about faces, bodies were incredibly detailed and realistic, lifelike!
Not everything based on reality can be considered realism. Impressionist artists made their works based on their impressions of the real world.
I get your original question, but we have to understand that our perception of art, specially visual art, has changed as much if not more than art itself
I just saw a series of still-lifes by Christian Berentz that looked realer than real.
Caravaggio paintings display a pretty awe inspiring naturalism.
Albrecht Durer’s nature images were extremely notable at the time (& now) for their naturalism, and as others have commented I would certainly note the mimetic achievements of Dutch genre painters like Clara Peeters and Abraham van Beijeren, who took care to depict even the reflections of the ‘viewer’/their space in the glassware. Things like picture curtains on Dutch and Italian paintings were also painted to look ‘real’.
There were a lot of discussions in the early modern period about naturalism and what could be achieved with paint, eg the Paragone debate, the emergence of linear perspective, and the popular story of the contest of Zeuxis and Parrhasius where one paints a curtain so real it fools the viewers.
That said, I wouldn’t necessarily use the term ‘realism’ or ‘photorealism’ to describe many ‘real’ looking early modern paintings. I think naturalism is a better term for what was going on — because photography didn’t exist until the 19th century, painters who tried to capture the world around them were keen observers of details (such as the way many Dutch artists paid attention to light and shadow, or Italian artists painted real plants in their religious scenes). However, the scenes they depicted don’t necessarily appear as they would in a photo. It’s a big question that is hard to answer but thank you for asking because it’s really interesting to think about it this way!
Vermeer definitely Vermeer. His landscape ‘view of delft’ is perfect
See/read “Secret Knowledge” by David Hockney.
I think you mean "prior to optics". Post Renaissance painting shifted to using optics and tracing. See this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKbFZIpNK10&list=PLV0eeGJWzbSyT2k9LX\_l72zwLs81Ljzxm
Use of the camera obscura goes back quite a ways
yes, look up camera obscuras,
and then look into ancient Greek, and roman art. Realism and then eventual abstraction and then back to realism is a part of nearly every cultures art.
The academic traditions of French, Italian, German, English, Dutch schools
Many people think of Vermeer When they think of realism in early paintings.
If you're talking about hyper realism, then you might want to look into Dutch still lifes [https://www.nga.gov/features/slideshows/dutch-still-lifes-and-landscapes-of-the-1600s.html#slide\_3](https://www.nga.gov/features/slideshows/dutch-still-lifes-and-landscapes-of-the-1600s.html#slide_3)
Genres other than still lifes are basically impossible to capture without HD photography, because a painting could take weeks or years, and even a model can't achieve staying in the exact same position for that long.
I think a better term to use, in the context of art history, is Naturalism. The term “photorealism” has a more specific meaning in art history than is usually colloquially given.
To answer your question, I would argue that the 19th century Realist movement has spawned to some of the most naturalistic depictions in art history; there is very little in the way of exaggeration or idealization, and often exhibits what we would now call a “snapshot” style. Look into Millet’s artwork and notice its unposed, toned-down qualities, and notice the interest more in the physics qualities of things: the exhaustion of laborers, the weight of objects — than surface effects.