Although this site is mostly all Sight-Size all the time, there are important digressions. This article is one and may be of interest to all representational artists.
Titian, detail of the Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro (1520s).
Whether we’re aware of it or not, each painting tells us where we’re supposed to stand. A painting whose artist was aware of the visual impression will position the viewer at the same place on the floor where the artist stood. It’s only at that distance where the painting comes into its proper focus. That’s front to back.
Side-to-side, almost 100% of the time the center of the painting is meant to be the center of the viewer’s vantage point. But what if that middle is not the artist’s intent for the viewer’s visual center?
Do You See What I See?
Visual perception is more or less contained within a large oval. You can easily prove this to yourself by standing up and looking forward with both eyes. Hold your arms out to the side – to the point where you can just peripherally see your hands. Then, move your arms around the border of your vision. You will see that the border, if delineated, would make a giant oval. Furthermore, this border tracks with the movement of your head as well as with your eye movement. What’s more, when you close one eye the oval becomes more circular.
Leonardo da Vinci noted that the center of our line of sight is the only place where we can clearly see. Everything around that center becomes progressively less distinct. This center is actually a pit in the back of our eye called the fovea. The line of sight is an imaginary line between the fovea and whatever your eye is focused on. The image below is one of Leonardo’s drawings of the line of sight.
Most paintings are painted with the artist standing right in front of the painting, in the center. The viewer is supposed to view the painting from a similar position as well and in most cases the viewer naturally takes that viewing position.
Leonardo also noted that the farther away our peripheral vision gets from the central focus point, the more distorted the perspective appears.
A drawing by Leonardo diagramming the observed perspective of columns as seen from a single vantage point.
Let’s go to Venice and look at the Titian’s in the Basilica dei Frari. There are two, and both are masterpieces from Titian’s early years. First up, The Assumption of the Virgin, also known as the Assunta. It’s the painting we see directly in front of us at the far end of the church and it is the focal point. This painting, shown below, is a little over 22 feet tall.
Titian, The Assumption of the Virgin (1518).
Then, as we walk along the nave, something else catches our eye. That something is his other Frari painting, the Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro.
A Little To The Left
What if the artist wanted the viewer to see a painting from somewhere other than directly in front of it? Without me giving you further clues, take a good analytical view of Titian’s Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro painting below. We witness Mary and Jesus high up on the platform. On the next level down we see Peter (notice the key) on the left and Saints Francis and Anthony on our right. Jacopo Pesaro appears at the ground level on our left and family members to our right.
Titian, Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro (1520s).
But, does it look a little odd – especially the perspective of the steps?
The correct answer is yes. And the reason is that standing directly in front of the painting (as was done for the photograph above) is not the initial viewing position Titan hand in mind.
Before he began the painting he knew where it would be hung. Given its position in the church, he also knew that most viewers would first see it from a distance and to their left. That is from where he intended the viewing position to be. You can get a sense of this in the photograph below.
This photograph, by the way, was taken by Alexandra M. Korey, a Florence-based art historian turned journalist, blogger, and digital marketing specialist. She graciously gave me permission to use it. I highly recommend her blog: ArtTrav.
Below is the floor plan of the Frari, with the Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro painting marked in pink. While walking up the central nave of the church you catch your first glimpse of the painting just after the third column on your left. I have marked that path in red. The light-green box is Titian’s aforementioned tour de force, The Assumption of the Virgin and the green path marks the route normally taken to it from the front entrance.
As in the Assunta, the horizon line is low. It has to be so that the viewer can seem to be participating in the scene along with the Pesaro family. Reinforcing that effect is the young man looking straight at us from the lower-right of the painting.
The diagram below shows the perspective scheme of the altarpiece as seen from the vantage point Titian intended. It also lacks the columns in the painting and adds vaulting. Some believe that Titian, or a later artist, added the columns after the painting was completed. There is some evidence for this, but it is not conclusive.
Image credit: S. Sinding-Larsen, “Titian’s Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro and its Historical Significance,” Institutum Romanum Norvegiae, Acta ad archaeologiamet artium historiam pertinentia, I, 1962.
When viewing the painting obliquely from a distance, it appears as if the church is extended by a loggia off to the left seen through an arch. There is a little Anamorphic Perspective happening here, a subject I slightly touched on at the end of the article Is Your Head Too Big or Is It Too Small.
Hans Holbein, Titian’s contemporary, painted the Ambassadors shown in the video below. When you view the painting in the normal way, the bottom part of the image contains a distorted human skull. But, if you were to walk close to the painting and to the right, which requires looking down at an extreme angle, you would see a normal looking skull in an undistorted way.