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Sherise Gamble

September 8, 2010
Major Artists of the Baroque
Hassold
Precis of Wölfflin: “Plane and Recession”

Within this chapter, Wölfflin compares two compositional styles: the first being the

plane schema which is popular in paintings created during the 15th and 16th centuries, and then

the Baroque schema which gained popularity by the 17th century. In the first style, the

composition is arranged in such a way that the eye follows the composition from left to right,

and all the forms are ordered in strata parallel to the picture plane. Wölfflin cites Leonardo's

Last Supper as a prime example of this “classic plane style” because every figure is contained

on the same picture plane, from left to right, and the eye grasps all integral visual information as

essential points in one arc. Also in this style, figures are positioned in an almost relief-like

style; in parallel planes not receding into the background, but rather parallel to the picture plane.

Wölfflin considers the Baroque style to be in complete contrast to the former style,
which derives from decorative feeling and cannot be understood on the basis of mere imitation.
In this style, figures begin to recede into the background, with an importance being made not on
the degree of recession, but rather the way in which the recession is made effective. In order to
achieve this recession, there are numerous methods which Wölfflin cites. In these types of
compositions, the aim is to withdraw the plane from the eye, making the inapparent, forward
and backward relations emphasized. One way of achieving this is by using diagonals to have
the figures recede into the background. Another way of doing this is by using color. By
increasing the separation of the color gradation of the “picture-zones,” eventually a recessional
perspective is achieved. Another way of doing this is by having an exaggerated foreground, and
using perspective reduction for the elements in the background. By placing figures further back
and illuminating them, and placing larger, oftentimes darker elements in the foreground, the eye
seeks out the light, which causes the illusion of recession. Overlapping and enframing are also
successful devices in order to cause the composition to recede. Although this style did not
suddenly emerge in the 17th century, earlier attempts, while oftentimes employing recessional
elements in the background, usually place the figures in the foreground and do have any sort of
interaction between the figures and their environment. When the recessional style is most
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effective, it is usually due to a sense of movement created that engages the figures with their
environment, as opposed to the figures merely lying in the same picture frame.
The painting Madonna and Child with Saint John and Three Angels by Domenico
Ghirlandaio and family workshop [1490] in the Ringling Museum of Art [Gallery 4] is an
example of the planar style of painting. All of the figures are parallel to the picture plane, the
eye being able to grasp all of the figures by going left to right. Furthermore, the figures are all
positioned in a way that they are facing forward, in a relief-like manner. The only figures which
are not directly positioned forwards are the Madonna, Christ, and Saint John, but even then
these figures are in an unnaturally frontal position than they otherwise would be if they were
naturally interacting. The figures do not recede into the background, but rather are simply
placed in front of it, one next to each other, parallel to the picture plane. Even though the angels
are behind the Madonna, Christ, and Saint John, they are still aligned parallel to the picture
plane. Though there is a receding background using atmospheric perspective, the figures to not
recede into it, and it serves more as a backdrop for the figures rather than an environment they
interact with.
In contrast to the planar style of Madonna and Child with Saint John and Three Angels

is The Gathering of the Manna [1625] by Peter Paul Rubens. The reason for choosing this

painting as opposed to a lesser known Baroque artist is the painting's employment of the

recessional style while still keeping the figures in the foreground. This allows for a more apt

comparison, as the figures in Madonna and Child with Saint John and Three Angels are also

placed in the foreground. This similarity reinforces Wölfflin's assertion that it is not the degree

of recession that marks the style, but rather the way in which the recession is made effective.

In The Gathering of the Manna, not a single figure is statically facing forward. All of the

figures are engaged in some sort of action which causes their limbs to be outstretched at

diagonal angles. Not only does this create a sense of motion, but it also creates the illusion that

the figures are not parallel to the picture plane, which causes the eye to emphasise the forward

and backwards relations of the figures. Despite all of the figures standing parallel to the picture

plane, the dynamic nature of their movements allows them to recede from that picture plane,

and interact with both each other and their environment. Many of the figures are also positioned

so that they are facing, and even walking towards, the background, which creates the sense of
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motion that they are receding into the background.

Another device used in this painting to recede the figures that Wölfflin details is Rubens

use of an exaggerated foreground and enframing the picture plane. At the very bottom of the

painting, in the foremost ground, there is a platform that receives less light than the figures. The

spiral columns, too, not only create a sense of motion due to their diagonals, but they also

receive less light than the figures. Because the eye seeks out light, this draws the eye past the

foreground, and into the space containing the figures. Furthermore, the figures which Rubens

has positioned further back have highlighting that is more intense than the figures overlapping

them, which draws the eye back into the composition. Because the background is a mere

tapestry acting as a backdrop behind the figures, it allows a comparison which is not dependent

on the recessional nature of the environment, but rather a comparison which deals with how the

figural composition allows for visual recession.


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Domenico Ghirlandaio and family workshop. Madonna and Child with Saint John and Three
Angels [1490].

Peter Paul Rubens. Madonna and Child with Saint John and Three Angels is The Gathering of
the Manna [1625].