13 Reading: Representational, Abstract, and Nonrepresentational Art

Abstract art exists on a continuum, from somewhat realistic representational work to fully nonrepresentational work.

Key Points


  • Verisimilitude: the property of seeming true, of resembling reality; has a resemblance to reality

Painting and sculpture can be divided into the categories of figurative (or representational) and abstract (which includes nonrepresentational art). Figurative art describes artworks—particularly paintings and sculptures–that are clearly derived from real object sources, and therefore are by definition representational. Since the arrival of abstract art in the early twentieth century, the term figurative has been used to refer to any form of modern art that retains strong references to the real world.

Johann Anton Eismann, Meerhaven. 17th c.
Johann Anton Eismann, Meerhaven. 17th c. Work is in the public domain

This figurative or representational work from the seventeenth century depicts easily recognizable objects–ships, people, and buildings. Artistic independence was advanced during the nineteenth century, resulting in the emergence of abstract art. Three movements that contributed heavily to the development of these were Romanticism, Impressionism, and Expressionism.

Abstraction indicates a departure from reality in depiction of imagery in art. Abstraction exists along a continuum; abstract art can formally refer to compositions that are derived (or abstracted) from a figurative or other natural source. It can also refer to nonrepresentational art and non-objective art that has no derivation from figures or objects.

Even art that aims for verisimilitude of the highest degree can be said to be abstract, at least theoretically, since perfect representation is likely to be exceedingly elusive. Artwork which takes liberties, altering for instance color and form in ways that are conspicuous, can be said to be partially abstract.

Le Premier Disque
Robert Delaunay, Le Premier Disque, 1913. Work is in the public domain

Delaunay’s work is a primary example of early abstract art. Nonrepresentational art refers to total abstraction, bearing no trace of any reference to anything recognizable. In geometric abstraction, for instance, one is unlikely to find references to naturalistic entities. Figurative art and total abstraction are almost mutually exclusive. But figurative and representational (or realistic) art often contains partial abstraction.


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