"The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp"  by Rembrandt van Rijn. Display a larger picture of this painting.
When you look at this painting, it is easy to recognize what you are looking at. There are eight men wearing funny-looking clothing (actually, the style of clothing worn in 17th century Holland), and on a table in front of the men lies a dead man, whose arm is being dissected. It is easy to identify all the objects in the painting, as well as the overall meaning of the painting. (You are looking at an anatomy demonstration.) Not all representational paintings are so realistic. For example, Paul Cézanne (French, 1839-1906) created some beautiful paintings of fruit. Take a look at this one, "Apples, Peaches, Pears, and Grapes", which Cézanne painted from 1879-1880
"Apples, Peaches, Pears and Grapes" [1879-1880] by Paul Cézanne. Display a larger picture of this painting.
Obviously, this painting is more abstract than the previous one. Still, what you are looking at is representational. The objects in the Cézanne painting may not be as realistic as the ones in the Rembrandt — there is no way you would mistake the Cézanne painting for a photograph — but it is easy to recognize that you are looking at various types of fruit in a bowl. When you look at a representational painting, you get an immediate feeling as to whether or not you like the painting. For example, take another look at the previous two paintings and compare what you feel when you look at the anatomy lesson with what you feel when you look at the bowl of fruit. Abstract paintings are different. They have designs, shapes or colors that do not look like specific physical objects. As such, abstract paintings are a lot harder to understand than representational paintings. Indeed, when you look at an abstract painting, you often have no idea what it is you are actually seeing. Let's see if we can make sense out of this. In general, there are two types of abstract paintings. The first type of abstract painting portrays objects that have been "abstracted" (taken) from nature. Although what you see may not look realistic, it is close enough that you can, at least, get an idea of what you are looking at. If you have ever seen any of the paintings of Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926), you will know what I mean. In 1899, Monet began to paint a series of paintings called "Water Lilies". These paintings depict the garden at his house in Giverny, Normandy (in France). Although the objects in the paintings don't really look like lilies, or water, or clouds, they are close enough that you can get a feeling for what you are seeing. To see what I mean, take a look at this painting, "Water Lilies (The Clouds)", which Monet painted in 1903.
"Water Lilies (The Clouds)"  by Claude Monet.
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A second type of abstract painting, sometimes referred to as "pure" abstract art, is even more obtuse. Such paintings do not reflect any form of conventional reality: all...