In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Historiography of Linear Perspective from the Renaissance to Post-Modernism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Conference Publications
  • Bibliographies
  • Ancient and Medieval Theories of Vision: Optica and Perspectiva naturalis
  • Art in Europe Before Perspectiva Artificialis
  • When Perspectiva Naturalis Begat Perspectiva Artificialis
  • Why Perspective Happened
  • Renaissance Fascination with Perspectiva in General
  • Shades and Shadows: Chiaroscuro and Skiagraphia
  • Perspective of Space and Spaces
  • Perspective of Color and Light
  • Northern European Art
  • Perspective Drawing and Renaissance Architecture
  • Theatrical Stage Setting: Skenographia
  • Quadratura (Ceiling) Painting
  • Panorama Painting
  • Intarsia
  • Mechanical Image Projection and the Camera Obscura
  • Deliberate Deception: Trompe l’oeil and Anamorphoses
  • Super-Hero Comic Books
  • Digital Art and Computer Graphics
  • Perspective: Visual Reality or Western Cultural Convention
  • Learning to Draw a Picture in Perspective

Art History Historiography of Linear Perspective from the Renaissance to Post-Modernism
Samuel Y. Edgerton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0015


Many of the issues discussed in this article were raised nearly ninety years ago by Erwin Panofsky in his seminal essay, Die Perspektive als symbolische Form, published originally in 1927 (see Panofsky 2002 for a translation, cited under General Overviews). The phrase “symbolic form” in Panofsky’s title derives from his association with Ernst Cassirer who coined it to identify the structures by which human beings express sensate experience of the phenomenal world, such as poetry, pictures, myths, and even mathematics. Panofsky applied Cassirer’s theory to his own notions of how and why linear perspective played such a formative role in Renaissance art. His application, however, begged a question that still persists: Does perspective in art reproduce the same “reality” as ocular vision, or is it only a cultural convention? Panofsky argued the latter, claiming that mathematics, but not Euclidian optics, played the major role in its conception. Physiologists and psychologists objected and strongly opposed his denial of perspective’s optical truth. Nonetheless, Panofsky crafted a brilliant case that perspective was still a teleological advancement in the history of art because its “realism” had to do with the increasing awareness of tactile space rather than visual illusion. What was then evolving in Western civilization was the very notion that space was no longer to be understood as finite and “aggregate” according to Aristotelian theory, but as infinite and isotropic as Renaissance philosophers such as Biagio Pelacani were gradually realizing. Perspective thus evolved in mathematical tandem. For Renaissance artists, it seemed the ideal way to image nature in a painting. Indeed, the picture could now be understood as if it were a window at eye level through which one looks. This view should open onto a geometrically framed virtual space that extends fictively but uniformly toward an infinite horizon. All objects depicted within that space must be proportionally scaled according to size and distance apart and relative distance from that infinite horizon. Panofsky further pointed out that artists in northern Europe, although likewise comprehending the idea of uniform space, did not arrive at this concept mathematically, but rather more empirically by replicating near and distant light and color effects in phenomenal nature. Finally, Panofsky pondered the dilemma of perspective “reception.” Not only can perspective be employed both objectively and subjectively, but it is also a “two-edged sword,” as he called it, affecting not only what is depicted in the picture as through a window but also what happens behind the eyes of the viewer whose “gaze” is both at it and in it.

General Overviews

Ten Doesschate 1964 is useful as an adjunct to Panofsky’s 1927 essay (translated in Panofsky 2002). The encyclopedia entries Gioseffi 1967 and de’ Maffei 1967 are equally comprehensive (of the two major encyclopedias of world art in English, their coverage of perspective remains by far the more comprehensive, including extensive bibliographies); the entry Bell 2002 is less so.

  • Bell, Janis C. “Perspective.” In The Grove Dictionary of Art. Vol. 24. Edited by Jane Turner, 485–495. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    This entry is much shorter and therefore does not cover the full subject as extensively as the McGraw-Hill encyclopedia, but it does add a few interesting paragraphs on nonlinear and color perspective, especially in Europe during the 17th century.

  • de’ Maffei, Fernanda. “Perspectivists.” In Encyclopedia of World Art. Vol. 11. Edited by Bernard S. Myers, 221–243. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.

    The author adds another wide-ranging article on the subject, covering the theory and practice of perspective in each of the various regions of Renaissance Italy and also in contemporaneous Germany.

  • Gioseffi, Decio. “Perspective.” In Encyclopedia of World Art. Vol. 11. Edited by Bernard S. Myers, 183–221. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.

    The author is one of the very distinguished scholars of the subject in Italy. His own well-regarded book in Italian on perspective (Gioseffi 1957) is cited under Brunelleschi’s Mirror and The First Perspective Construction Drawing.

  • Panofsky, Erwin. Perspective as Symbolic Form. Translated by Christopher E. Wood. New York: Zone, 2002.

    English translation of Panofsky’s Die Perspektive als symbolische Form, originally published in German in 1927.

  • ten Doesschate, G. Perspective: Fundamentals, Controversials, History. Nieuwkoop, The Netherlands: De Graaf, 1964.

    Perhaps a little outdated, but this short book by a medical doctor still provides a good summary of all the perceptual issues raised by Erwin Panofsky and favored by E. H. Gombrich.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.