Word Gallery: Aerial Perspective

Throughout art history, scholars have devised a special vocabulary to talk about art. These terms are very useful, but they are not always self-explanatory. So we thought we'd explore the art historical word gallery to provide you with some definitions commonly used to describe artistic styles, techniques or movements in art.

Aerial perspective

Jan Brueghel the Elder (Brussels 1568–1625 Antwerp). Village Scene with a Canal, 1609. Oil on copper. The Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection. Image courtesy Peabody Essex Museum.

Aerial (or atmospheric) perspective is a technique used primarily in landscape painting to suggest distance or depth. The concept was first introduced by Leonardo da Vinci to describe the use of gradated color to represent the visual effects of atmosphere at different distances. In addition to mathematical perspective, artists painted distant views using a paler, more muted palette (sometimes tinged with blue). Areas and forms meant to appear the furthest away from the viewer were painted more vaguely, resulting in a slightly blurry effect. This visual phenomenon can be readily observed in nature and is caused by the quantity of particulates (be it moisture or dust) present in the air between the viewer and the distant scene.

To further emphasize this effect, objects, figures or buildings in the foreground are outlined sharply and painted in a bolder, warmer color palette that slowly becomes more muted and cooler as the scene recedes. Aerial perspective is the result of these contrasting styles and clearly conveys the impression of depth and distance.

This masterful technique can be examined in several works exhibited in Dutch and Flemish Masterworks from the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection, on view through October 2 at the Legion of Honor.