Sauk Valley Community College

Humanities 210

Lecture Note Two   
The Wolfflin Method

( Note --All of these paintings are taken from the Webmuseum .
You will need to click on the smaller paintings to see the full size images.)

Now that we have discussed some of the ways of looking at pictures in general, let's look more closely at the content of paintings. This includes not just the subject matter of the painting, but also the techniques, media, color choices, and so on. In order to do this we will adopt a method for comparing the paintings of different eras that was developed by Heinrich Wolfflin. 

After much research, Wolfflin developed four pairs of stylistic differences which apply to much of the painting from the Renaissance through the late Romantic period and can be used to identify examples from different eras. In fact, his categories can be applied to all paintings, but as we get into the twentieth century, we will find all four pairs being represented by paintings seemingly randomly (which, we will discover, is part of the "style" of the twentieth century; that is, that it uses all styles.) 

The easiest way to get started is to look at a pair of pictures that represents each of the pairs of stylistic elements. 

Linearly vs. painterly

  • The objects and images in a linear painting tend to have well-defined outlines. The figures seem to stand out slightly from the background. A painting that is painterly has more blurry edges to the figures and the background will often fade out around the edges or at the top of the horizon. This draws our attention slightly to the "painted" aspect of the work.

Flagellation of ChristThis is Pietr Breugel's The Fall of Icarus. Notice the clarity when you look at the larger version. The edges of the figures are well defined and the slight blurring of the horizon is clearly trying to capture the way we actually see something far away rather than trying to be "painterly."



GoyaThe Village Fete by Peter Paul Rubens, on the other hand, seems to be a mass of colors. When you look at the larger version, you will see that it relies on our sense of what people look like and what space they take up in order to distinguish the various figures. And the blurring of the horizon is definitely less "real" than Breughel's. Yet the sense of movement this style creates is just right for what the painting is trying to capture.


Planar vs. Recessional

  • If we think of the canvas as making a plane, then the figures of a painting can either be parallel with the plane the canvas creates or they can be diagonal to the plane. And just as a painterly painting will have more movement, so, too, will the recessional painting.


Flight of IcarusPresentation in the Temple by Fra Angelico aligns the figures with the plane of the canvas. The arch runs parallel and the figures, while not all on the same plane, also run parallel with the surface of the painting. Finally, the planar aspect of the painting which helps us to see that the figures are parallel is the stone step the three upper figures are standing on. If we were to look down on this scene from above as it would be in 3D, we would see something like the figure below--

Liberty Leading the People







The NightwatchThis painting by Fransisco de Goya, May 3rd, 1808, s hows much more movement and dynamics by placing the figures on a diagonal to the plane of the canvas. Although the two rows of figures, the town's people and the soldiers, are parallel to each other, the two groups both sweep from a dominant frontal figure back off into the distance. Again, if we saw this painting and its contents in 3D from above we would get something like this--










Closed vs. open form

  • When the shapes in a painting are mostly vertical and/or horizontal and mimic the frame of the painting, we have closed form. But when the shapes tend to run diagonally and therefore seem to extend beyond the frame, we have open form. 

Closed form

PresentationFra Angelico's painting can also serve as an example of closed form. The columns and the figures create vertical movement while the step and the general trend of the arch create horizontal lines. These horizontal and vertical lines follow the frame and create their own sense of limits.



Open Form

PresentationLiberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix. The diagonals created by the flow of the figures helps to break the painting out of its frame. It is easy to imagine the rest of the scene continuing on outside our view. By contrasting with the frame, the diagonals also create a heightened sense of movement.



Multiplicity vs. Unity

  • Lighting helps to define a painting as either one of multiplicity or of unity. When the light source is undirected, from no one place, the figures of a painting are distinct and separate and the colors are more defined. This is called multiplicity. But when the light is from one definite source the figures are fused into a whole. Colors blend and mingle depending on how the light hits them. 


RecessionalPiero della Francesco's The Flagellation is a good example of multiplicity. The light seems to be streaming in from everywhere and each figure is distinct from each other and the background. The colors are bright and vivid. ( Click here for unique 3D view. )






Village FeteRembrandt's The Night Watch , on the other hand, has unity because of the one light source which creates shadows and shadings. Figures blend into each other as do the colors. The main difference in colors are in terms of shadings rather than hues. Although the focal point of the painting is the figure with the red sash in the foreground, everything sweeps back from this central figure, becoming less and less distinct as the light fades.







Wolfflin's most extensive work was done by contrasting the paintings of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. This is why the paintings I have chosen to illustrate the four pairs of design elements can often be substituted for each other as examples. Most Renaissance paintings tended to be linear, planar, closed form, and multiplicitous. The Baroque, on the other hand, tended to be painterly, recessional, open, and unified. Clearly, these design elements, combined in this way, made the Baroque paintings much more dynamic, with more of a feel of movement. Just which of the four elements contributes the most to this feeling of movement is an interesting question to think about. 

However, it is important to remember that all paintings of all eras can be discussed using these pairs, which is why I put in the Delacroix (from neo-classical period) as an example. Works of other eras may combine the pairs differently, but the design elements will still be there and will provide you with a way of talking about the painting. 

Now let's look at de La Tour's The Education of the Virgin in terms of these pairs. 

Education of the VirginOne would have to say that the outlines of the figures are clean and distinct, as in the linear style. Yet the single source of light suggests the element of unity as the figures blend into the background at the point where the light is blocked. The colors are both distinct and shaded, again, depending upon whether the color is in the direct pool of light or not. As for planar/recessional, a first look would suggest that it is indeed planar, with the two figures being parallel with the canvas. But the candle, book, and shadow of the basket (go to the larger version for a better look at the shadow) create diagonals with the book being the center of a V . We are drawn to see the figures in the room in relation to the book, which creates several diagonals. 

As to open and closed form, it is obviously mostly closed. The fading into blackness keeps us from imagining anything other than the scene we are seeing. 

Of course, nothing is ever as cut and dried as Wolfflin's four pairs would make analyzing paintings seem to be. Where de La Tour lived (the north of France, near the Netherlands) had a strong influence on his work as the style of the North countries had more impact on him than the style being practiced in France and Italy. Still, these four design element pairs make an excellent analysis tool and help us to continue our conversation about Art.



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