Foreshortening explained

Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:02] Artists of the Renaissance are interested in presenting the world that we see, presenting it naturalistically. By natural world, we don’t mean nature. We don’t just mean trees and grass. We mean everything in the world that we observe.

[0:17] One of the tools that they use to do that is something called foreshortening, which is one of the ways that we see the world.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:23] Foreshortening refers to seeing a long object head-on, so that it looks compressed.

Dr. Harris: [0:29] Another way to think about it is that when you’re looking at a painting, it looks as though something in the painting is going back into that illusionistic space or coming out toward you.

Dr. Zucker: [0:39] We’re looking at it more or less head-on so that we don’t see the full length of that form. Let’s take a look at Raphael’s “School of Athens,” because there are some great examples of foreshortening here. Probably the most obvious is in the hand of the figure of Aristotle in the very center of the painting.

Dr. Harris: [0:55] Because his forearm looks as though it’s coming toward us, we immediately have a sense of an illusion of space, because if his hand moves out toward us, there must be space, or an illusion of space, for it to move back into. We know that this illusion of space was critical for artists of the Renaissance.

Dr. Zucker: [1:12] Raphael’s painted such a convincing illusion that we can imagine that we can walk into this space. If we did and we walked to the right or the left of these figures, we would see the full extension of that arm. Instead, we have that arm collapsed. It’s a successful illusion, but if we focus on it, it does look a little funny.

Dr. Harris: [1:28] Our mind interprets what we see. We know that we’re not just looking at a man who has no forearm with his hand stuck on his elbow, but our mind interprets this as an arm that exists in space.

Dr. Zucker: [1:40] How does the artist actually pull off this successful illusion?

[1:43] If you look very closely, you can see that Aristotle’s fingertips are bright. There’s light on them, but the underside of the fingers are in shadow. There’s a little bit of light that touches the pads of his thumb and of his palm, but then there’s shadow again under his forearm.

[1:59] Two other obvious examples of foreshortening in this painting are Diogenes, who seems to lounge on the stairs. If you look at his thigh, it is not a full extension. Again, it’s foreshortened. Or the representation of Heraclitus, who writes seated in the foreground. If you look at his thigh, you can see that it is also foreshortened.

Dr. Harris: [2:16] As is the piece of stone that he’s leaning on. Foreshortening is a tool that Renaissance artists really relied on to create a convincing illusion of naturalism, of the natural world.

Dr. Zucker: [2:28] There you have it, foreshortening.

[2:29] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Foreshortening explained," in Smarthistory, December 2, 2016, accessed July 18, 2024,