As proven by many recent examples, some people can develop their drawing skill to such a level as to produce drawings that are difficult to distinguish from photographs. Yet much of historical art is stylized.

How come we don't see any photorealistic drawings from the old days? They do not appear to depend on any modern technology, so it seems odd that no historical artist would try it. Was it simply because other styles were fashionable at the time, so that artists would stylize their paintings for artistic effect?

Was it because people didn't have enough free time to practice drawing, say, 1000 years ago? I find it difficult to imagine that nobody did.

Or maybe photorealistic paintings are in fact influenced by the development of photography, and the paintings we see today would simply not look particularly realistic to people before photography became mainstream?

(Another possibility is that I am simply factually wrong and photorealistic drawings from the old days exist, but are simply not famous enough for me to have seen them.)

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    @TylerDurden primitive people looking at a photo for the first time just see colors? and not an image? that doesn't seem to be quit right to me...
    – Himarm
    Mar 20 '15 at 18:08
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    @TylerDurden would it not be the same as looking at your reflection in a mirror. which, while they may not have a mirror they can see their reflection in water. jstor.org/discover/10.2307/… in the preview the first 2 examples show that they appear to be able to see the actual images.
    – Himarm
    Mar 20 '15 at 18:14
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    they dont appear to fully comprehend what the images mean, but they dont just see color they see that the pictures have a person in them, in another example in the book, they say it looks like cow, they say first they see legs ears head horns, then go oh its a cow.
    – Himarm
    Mar 20 '15 at 18:22
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    i just read the only thing i found where someone actually went and studied people and showed them pictures for the first time, and he says they dont just see colors, so unless you can point out something that contradicts this. What your describing sounds awfully like the stories you hear from blind people who are able to see for the first time later in life.
    – Himarm
    Mar 20 '15 at 18:24
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    @MarkC.Wallace: Are you thinking of Fayum mummy portraits?
    – two sheds
    Mar 20 '15 at 19:04

It's obviously not due to lack of talent. It's important to ask first whether the ancients even aspired to photorealistic paintings. Consider that the ancients were adept at a form of artistic representation that was even more "realistic" than a photorealistic painting: sculpture. Even the Egyptians, famous for their stylized two-dimensional art, where quite capable of realistic sculpture. This bust of Nefertiti is from 1345 BC:

enter image description here

There's more here. And of course, ancient Greek sculptures had even greater verisimilitude. 2D art can never be as representative of 3D space as 3D art can, so it is not surprising that 3D art has long had a more realist bias than 2D art.

In two-dimensional art, artists generally privileged thematic and spiritual considerations over realism. According to the article on perspective, they "typically sized many objects and characters hierarchically according to their spiritual or thematic importance, not their distance from the viewer

That said, perspective in 2D art is not intuitive, and the development of perspective required grounding in mathematics. While the ancient Greeks (who were quite good at math) did begin to develop some understanding of perspective, modern theories of perspective did not really start developing until the 15th century. Brunelleschi is an especially important figure here. Within two centuries of the development of perspective, we have artists like Vermeer who are noted for their "almost photorealistic" style.

Still, you are correct that not even early modern artists were as obsessed with "photorealism" as members of the modern photorealist movement. The photorealism movement, from its chosen name to its chosen style, was a reaction to the ubiquity of photography in the 20th century:

Pop Art and Photorealism were both reactionary movements stemming from the ever increasing and overwhelming abundance of photographic media, which by the mid 20th century had grown into such a massive phenomenon that it was threatening to lessen the value of imagery in art. However, whereas the Pop artists were primarily pointing out the absurdity of much of the imagery (especially in commercial usage), the Photorealists were trying to reclaim and exalt the value of an image.

The photorealists are clearly not, to a man, more talented than Vermeer and others like him. They are simply using their art to convey a message that no artist before the modern era would ever have needed or wanted to convey.

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    Good answer, thank you. Just one thing: at least some of Vermeer's paintings do not appear to require perspective nearly as much as they require correct lighting / shadows for the photorealistic effect. It looks as if until a certain time, artists did not typically try to replicate the shading that they see, perhaps not recognizing it as relevant? I wish there were some references here rather than my speculation.
    – user11752
    Mar 20 '15 at 18:41
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    WRT Greek & Roman sculpture, it should be noted that even though we see the surviving examples as stone, the originals were often painted in lifelike colors.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 20 '15 at 19:05
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    Another point (which piqued my interest enough to do a bit of searching), is that very few paintings survive from e.g. Roman times. If you search for "pompeii paintings", you can see that many of the few surviving examples are quite realistic. Many other surviving examples of images are mosaics, which are (in my experience) pretty darned hard to do at all, let alone photorealistically.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 20 '15 at 19:24
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    Excellent answer that I wish I had the scholarship to write. Covers all the right themes.
    – MCW
    Mar 20 '15 at 19:26
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    @jamesqf: Wow, I didn't realize that "pompeii paintings" would be such a NSFW search term
    – two sheds
    Mar 20 '15 at 19:28

According to many Hellenistic accounts, photo-realistic painting was well developed and popular at that time. The legend says that an artist made a picture of a boy with some fruits, and it was so realistic that the birds tried to peck the fruits. The artist however considered this a failure, because the birds who did recognize the fruits as real, were not scared by the boy whom they evidently did not recognize as real. There are many such and similar accounts in the Hellenistic authors who wrote on painting. Unfortunately almost no painting of that period survived.

Later famous artists also made photo-realistic drawings, here is an example: Young Hare,

However, most of them you encounter not in the art museums but in scientific libraries: before the invention of the photography, scientists made many drawings of animals, plants, landscapes etc. These drawings were included in the books as illustrations, but high quality book illustrations are prohibitively expensive, and the originals are difficult to see (most of them are made on paper, and libraries hide them to preserve). Here are examples:

Heart of Andes,


Returning to the artists, few artists in various epochs AIMED at photographic drawing, but some did. Examples are the Dutch 17th century nature mort. Polish painter Semiradsky (who drew mythology scenes) or the Russian Vereshchagin who painted the real scenes (a kind of journalist-painter): see Google images Vereshchagin, Example.

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