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Art and Technology

From Renaissance to Industrial Revolution

Image from Apple’s WWDC 2018 Designing Fluid Interfaces presentation

The perception of technology in contemporary societies carries connotations of computer and Internet-related interactions that connect people around the world, especially in expanding social spheres to share economy and information. The definition of technology, however, is rather simple and not limited to computer science; it refers to scientific knowledge used in practical ways to develop techniques, skills, or methods. The application of technology is not a new phenomenon. The history of technology has existed since the invention of stone tools over two million years ago. So, when we talk about technology, it includes a wider range of engineering than modern-day developments.

In the first edition of the Art and Technology curation series, we will see how technologies have geared towards shaping the world and its relationship with art: whether artworks reflect the process of development of new technologies or if artistic practices were directly influenced by the technologies. At a first glance, technology feels highly complex and seems farthest away from visual art such as painting and sculpture, but looking at the etymology of the two, it becomes clear that art and technology are not as far away from each other as we think. The word art originates from the Latin word ars; further down, Ars is derived from the ancient Greek term technē, which is the root of the terms technology and technic.

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1. Investigation of anatomy and linear perspective in Renaissance art

2. Scientific Revolution and printmaking

3. Expansion in vision and romantic impression of Paris

Investigation of anatomy
and linear perspective in Renaissance art

Petrus Christus
A Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449
In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In ancient Greece, technē was referred to as a range of human activities, such as art and craft. Fast forward to the Renaissance period, people started to use the Latin word ars with a similar meaning with technē, to describe skilled works that demand a high level of technical ability, including tapestry weaving, goldsmith’s work, or embroidery. It is evident that early Renaissance artists trained as apprentices dedicated to the craft.

Sandro Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli
Spring, c. 1480
In Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Renaissance is the period that marks the transition from the God-centered era to humanism - like spring when new lives are blown into nature to blossom. As a cultural movement, it influenced art, architecture, philosophy, science, politics, religion, and other aspects of intellectual inquiry. In attempts to make sense of the surrounding environments, artists often took positions as investigators and inventors that involved application of mathematics, such as studying the human body or utilizing the perspective of distance on the canvas.

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci
Vitruvian Man, c. 1490
In Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy

Since the technique of human dissection was first publicly documented in 1315 at the University of Bologna, Italy, the study of anatomy continued to develop, along with applying human forms in artworks. One of the most famous artists who conducted their anatomical studies as a source of their artistic practice is Leonardo da Vinci, making discoveries and expanding the field of art. Since da Vinci examined the best proportion for representing the human body, known as the Golden Ratio in his work Vitruvian Man (c. 1490), it has influenced artists in his contemporaries and thereafter.

Brunelleschi

Brunelleschi's Santo Spirito in Florence, Italy, was designed in 1428 with his early application of linear perspective.
Photo by Randy Connolly

As artists became more aware of the use of ratio in their paintings, perception associated with optics and the study of vision also began to receive much attention. Perspective in art usually refers to relocating a representation of three-dimensional objects or spaces to two-dimensional planes. It is generally accepted that Filippo Brunelleschi, who was an architect, examined a series of experiments between 1415 and 1420, including drawings of various buildings in Florence in correct perspectives as the standard.

Donatello

Donatello
The Feast of Herod, c. 1427
Siena Cathedral, Siena, Italy

Soon after Brunelleschi's demonstrations, nearly every artist in Florence and other parts of Italy developed geometrical perspectives in their paintings and sculpture, notably Donatello, Masaccio, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Masolino da Panicale, Paolo Uccello, and Filippo Lippi, to mention a few. When these artists applied the method of perspective in their practice, people were initially confused and doubted that canvas was flat, instead, they thought that the artists made holes in the back of the painting to create a realistic depth.

Masaccio

Masaccio
Holy Trinity, c. 1426-1428.
Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy

Masaccio’s first painting that incorporated linear perspective is Holy Trinity (c. 1426-1428); the six figures are painted on a flat wall, however, they are deceived to be positioned at different heights. The effect of using the technique of linear perspective gives the illusion of realistic space that moves backward in true depth. Not only was perspective a way of showing depth, but it was also a new method of creating compositions. Since the introduction of linear perspective, visual art in the 15th and 16th century rarely moved away from depicting a single, unified scene.

Scientific Revolution and printmaking
Joseph Wright

Joseph Wright ‘of Derby’
A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun, c. 1766
Derby Museum, Derby, UK

As scholars and artists contributed towards the growth of humanist logic in the Renaissance, their momentum carried forward into the development of experimental and scientific discoveries. With new technologies to explore beyond our immediate surroundings, the era of Scientific Revolution expanded our understanding of ourselves in relation to the universe. Logic and science-based beliefs developed and began to displace religious authorities by the 18th century. The century saw significant advancements in the practice of mathematics, physics, and chemistry; science came to a leading role during this era of enlightenment.

Robert Hannah

Robert Hannah
Master Isaac Newton in His Garden at Woolsthorpe, in the Autumn of 1665, before 1856
The Royal Institution, London

With Isaac Newton's discovery of the laws of gravity and motion, our rational worldview was cemented further, encouraging to apply technology to various tools to reach a significant breakthrough in astronomy; moving away from the Aristotelian theory that objects fall simply because they have tendencies to move back towards their natural place - earth. The difference between the two theories is that gravity was explained with science and the Aristotelian theory was an interpretation of how elements behaved. More theories began to have experimental-based scientific backups, instead of religious or symbolic applications.

Edwaert Collier

Edwaert Collier
Vanitas Still Life, 1662
In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The anxiety of reversing prior understanding of the natural world through the discovery of the Heliocentric theory was often depicted in the paintings of the 17th century. Vanitas - a form of art that shows a display of symbolic objects - became a common genre around the 17th century. This particular style of still life started to introduce human engagement with new scientific inventions and conveyed a radical action of learning about astronomy with the reference with objects such as a globe.

Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer
The Astronomer, 1668
In the collection of Rmn-Grand Palais, Louvre Museum, Paris

During the Dutch Golden Age, roughly from 1588 to 1672, the country was the most acclaimed in Europe for its trade and military. It was also a period when Netherlands’ art and technology flourished. Dutch artists were enthusiastic about scientific progress and Johannes Vermeer especially was swift on noticing new technologies and instruments and introduced them in his paintings. In The Astronomer (1668), Vermeer highlights the old and new ideas through juxtaposing the globe (new and scientifically proven knowledge) and the painting on the wall of Moses Sea (old belief, which may have been simple low water in the sea).

Benjamin West

Benjamin West
Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky, c. 1816
In Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

Much of the 18th century saw an accelerating development of technologies in machines and such as steam engine, thermometer, lightning conductor, and electric battery. These innovations made everyday lives more convenient and practical, starting to give people more spare time and ultimately increasing quality of life.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Allegories of the Classical elements by Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Clockwise: Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. All produced in 1566, Air and Earth in private collection, and Fire and Water in Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Benefiting from the discoveries during the Scientific Revolution, chemistry was able to be studied in more detail with higher accuracy with new instruments. This is also when Greek philosophy was again displaced; that the universe is composed of only four elements: air, earth, fire, and water. Through scientific experiments, the atomic theory was discovered, proving that each matter (anything that occupies space) is composed of atoms - for example, water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen.

Victor Adam

Victor Adam
Interior of Lemercier’s Lithographic Printing House, c. 1846
In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Development of chemistry also had an effect on the advancement of printing technology when lithography was invented in 1796 in Germany, using the chemical characteristics of the immiscibility of oil and water. This allowed images to be printed directly onto the choice of surface, unlike previous printmaking techniques, such as engraving, that required advanced craft skills. Lithography now facilitated greater accuracy and textural variety with efficient turnaround time; it changed both commercial book printing and fine art production, influencing people’s interest in politics, literature, and science during the Age of Enlightenment.

Eugène Delacroix

Eugène Delacroix
Liberty Leading the People, 1830
In the Louvre, Paris

End of the 18th century is also significant in that it witnessed the French Revolution. As more wealthy “commoners” such as merchants and manufacturers were able to improve their standard of living and reduce the mortality rate, they began to realize that political power should be equally distributed. Various technological advancements geared toward the enlightenment of people through education and their desire to demand social benefits and rights.

Expansion in vision
and romantic impression of Paris
Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh
Factories at Clichy, 1887
Courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri, USA

Centuries of technological developments and inventions enabled people to work in more efficient ways. Industries such as agriculture and manufacturing were especially advancing by the 19th century - hand-based tasks now operated by machines. As fewer workers were needed in the fields due to inventions such as steam tractors, and factories expanded, the population began to shift to cities. As people gathered in bigger towns and cities, technologies developed in line with rapid urbanization, to accommodate the rise in sudden density.

One of the most significant technologies that led to industrial modernization was the invention of the steam engine, in which machine power replaced human or animal power, and the energy didn’t directly have to come from nature such as water and wind. Steam engines played a major role in the evolution of transportation, especially railroads, which were critical in the height of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century - the delivery time for goods at large qualities to and from factories was quicker than ever.

Two passenger

Two passenger trains used on the Liverpool to Manchester railway in 1831.

The world’s first inter-city railway for passengers opened in the UK between Liverpool and Manchester. Now the steam powered trains didn’t only transport raw materials between the two major cities but carried people who were now able to travel more comfortably in a shorter time. Railway lines began to influence the perception of time both personally and in the economy as a whole; people could physically feel the speed looking out the window of trains and the economy was accelerating.

J.M.W. Turner

J.M.W. Turner
Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway, 1844
In the National Gallery, London

English painter, J.M.W. Turner is an important figure when talking about the Industrial Revolution as his body of work is the visual narration of the period in England. Painted towards the end of Industrial Revolution, Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway (1844) animates an impression of great speed of the train on the canvas, combining the power of both nature and technology to create emotional tension. The painting has a rather dreamy atmosphere with the background on either side of the railway bridge blurred out as if the train is speeding away from crowded London that was enduring rapid urbanization.

Charles Marville

Place Saint-André-des-Arts (pre-Haussmann)
Photo by Charles Marville

Cross the Channel, Paris was expanding fast too. During the reign of Emperor Napoleon III, the French capital was the largest city in continental Europe and a leader in economy, as well as art and culture. The population of Paris was growing dramatically and the gap between rich and poor widened, all the while public health was a rising issue. To improve the living conditions and release the city of the pressure, Napoleon III commissioned Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to undertake a grand reconstruction of Paris.

Camille Pissarro

Camille Pissarro
Avenue de l'Opéra: Morning Sunshine, 1898
In Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

Perfected by Filippo Brunelleschi in the early 15th century, the technique of linear perspective was utilized by Haussmann in redesigning Paris in the 19th century. Now well matured architectural technique, linear perspective constructed infrastructure for straight broad boulevards and avenues, and helped form the entire network of city streets after the destruction of cramped looping streets and medieval buildings. The 20-year project also applied other cutting-edge technologies in water distribution and sewer systems, which vastly improved public health.

Camille Pissarro

Camille Pissarro
The Boulevard Montmartre at Night, 1897
In the National Gallery, London

New boulevards were a large portion of the development project, giving the city better access, more light, and air. The streets were now wider and easier to navigate, but still dark at night. Developed in England in the late 18th century, gaslight technology spread quickly, and with Thomas Edison’s lamp invention in 1879, gas lamps were well-established equipment by the time Haussmann was redesigning Paris, and they were installed along the new boulevards. The cobbled streets were now much safer to walk at nighttime, especially for those who had to work.

Jean-François Raffaelli

Jean-François Raffaelli
Bohèmes au café, 1886
In Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, Bordeaux, France

Bars and cafés began to open on the new boulevards and they became the place for artists to gather and exchange ideas. One of the cafés that were famous for artists to meet was Café Guerbois, where Édouard Manet led meetings with pioneers of Impressionism including Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The café provided them a place for discussion about the need for art to be free from the academy and find alternatives to the standard canon. The much-needed debates later became monumental as the first movement in modern art and development of art in the 20th century.

The development of technology throughout history has influenced art in one way or another; whether the technology itself was directly used as a source or art depicting the changes in society due to technological advances. The relationship between art and technology is still evident today, especially after the 20th century when an overwhelming amount of new technologies were developed, including television, photography, and the Internet.

In the next curation of the Art and Technology series, we will look at how the two connects from the early 20th century to the contemporary.