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1.6: Degrees of Representation

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    Degrees of Representation

    We describe art in a number of ways that refer to the manner in which a subject is pictured, or its style. While the term "style" has a broader meaning, what we are considering here is art's relationship to reality. There are three main categories in which we can place any given work of art: Representational, Abstract, and Non-representational. It is best to consider these categories as not being distinctly separate but more of a spectrum with works that are representational on one end (with figures and objects as we see them in our everyday world) and non-representational on the other end (works that are so expressive that they are not recognizable as anything we see in our everyday world). The category of abstraction falls in-between these two extremes, with figures and objects bearing some resemblance to reality but yet they are somehow being more simplified, stylized, or exaggerated in some way. Artists often abstract things, in small or significant ways, to make them more visually interesting and/or expressive.

    Here are a few examples and definitions of the main ways imagery is categorized. Pay special attention to these categories so that you can recognize them when viewing works of art. As you grow in this course, you should be able to look at any work of art and describe which category it best fits in along with good reasoning for your choice.

    Representational Art

    This kind of art seeks to recreate our actual visual experience of the world. We might way it looks “real” or “realistic.” Representational is better because it includes the idea that art is art – not the actual object and is the product of the artist’s hand and eye even though we have no problem recognizing the image.

    Dog with long ears sitting

    Rosa Bonheur, Study of a Dog, c.1860s, oil on paper. Princeton University Art Museum PD-US Source

    Rosa Bonheur (1822 – 1899), a French artist, famous for her animal paintings "may have seen the long-eared terrier that is the subject of this oil study in the Fontainebleau forest, near her home in Thomery, or it may have been one of the many pets she kept throughout her life. Bonheur’s work is characterized by direct observation and careful draftsmanship. Traditional in her approach, she produced numerous preparatory sketches, like this one, before creating a painting. In 1865, Bonheur became the first woman awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, a coveted honor established by Napoleon.”

    We understand that this is a picture of a dog even though the bottom is unfinished. The dog's head could be described as representational, while the lower body of the dog slips into abstraction.


    When we describe an image as “abstract” we mean that it has its roots in the observed world but the artist has exaggerated certain visual elements. We know what it is but it doesn’t look the way we would actually expect that object to look in the real world.

    Outline of a howling dog beside a tree under a brown moon

    Paul Klee, Howling Dog, 1928, oil on canvas, Minneapolis Museum of Art PD-US

    Paul Klee (1879 – 1940) was a Swiss-German artist whose work was highly influenced by children’s drawings and other non-traditional sources. He wrote about art and taught at the Bauhaus school of art, design and architecture. Here Klee gives us a dog howling at the moon and a suggestion of the howl itself. This would be described as “abstract” because the subject is one we can recognize but painted in a way that exaggerates forms, colors, and its environment.

    One aspect of the word “abstract” that you may find confusing is its use in other contexts. The term is often used in our everyday world for describing things we don't readily understand. A common mistake is to use the term "abstract" for work that are really “non-representational.” In the world of art, as long as there is some connection to something recognizable in a work of art, it is best classified as abstract.


    Art that does not have subject matter that seems to recreate an object from the observable world is called “non-representational.”

    Canvas splashed with strings of black and white paint

    Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm #30, 1950, enamel on canvas, 105 x 207”, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo Thomas Hawk.

    While Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956) created many works in the realm of abstraction, he is most known for his works in non-representation. The only thing representational about Pollock’s work is the title, but little, if anything, in the painting itself suggests the season. It is rhythmic in the swoop and flow of brushwork, or drips, but it remains essentially a painting that is only about its formal qualities. One might argue that this artwork "represents" the artist's emotions at the time of its creation, and that may be true, causing the term "non-representation" to not make sense. However, the category of "non-representation" is about a work's connection to observable, physical reality, regardless of the emotional state of the artist. Confusingly, Pollock's artwork is categorized in the history of art as "Abstract Expressionist"—but this was just a term that caught on for artists creating work like this. It has become part of the reason people accidentally call certain works "abstract" when really they should be called "non-representational."

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    This page titled 1.6: Degrees of Representation is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Muffet Jones via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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