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I say "really old" because at least in the 17th century, they are all photo-realistic. (I still don't understand how anyone can paint that beautifully and realistically.)

However, let's say the 15h century or earlier, all the paintings seem to use a completely warped perspective. Nothing seems to "make sense" proportionally; people and objects seem to be able to have any size and proportions that the artist feels like using at the moment, or found convenient, or whatever the reason may be. A large ship can be represented by a contraption that barely fits a couple of people side by side, with humans of the same size next to it. It looks very strange to me, every time.

It's almost as if the entire concept of "perspective" was invented just a few hundred years ago, but that sounds bizarre. Us humans have had eyes for an extremely long time, and our brains surely haven't fundamentally changed in that short period of time, so we clearly knew that a large ship is... larger than people. It seems to make no sense to paint in such a manner. It couldn't be that they didn't "understand" this, or that their skilled fingers somehow couldn't paint it onto a canvas.

They must have had some reason. I once heard or read somewhere something about them considering the size of an object or person to equal their or its importance. While strange, it could somewhat explain this for me, but I still think it sounds very odd that they would not simply make the king or queen "glow" and have a central position in the painting, perhaps standing close to the "camera". The wildly varying proportions of everything makes it seem very abstract and surreal rather than "real".

Those beautiful, realistic paintings just a couple of hundred years later seem basically like (very well shot and lit) photographs, and I can stare at them forever in awe. The ones with "random proportions" make me angry and confused more than amazed most of the time... although the fact that they really did this is in itself fascinating to me. Which is why I ask.

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    Some specific examples would be a big help. – Brian Z Jul 1 at 12:43
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    The concept of perspective as a science was largely (re)invented in the Renaissance. Lots of treatises were written on the topic at the time because there was not an existing treatment to learn from. – C Monsour Jul 1 at 13:48
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    you may be interested in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hockney%E2%80%93Falco_thesis – AllInOne Jul 1 at 13:54
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    For what it's worth, Brunelleschi conducted a number of experiments in optics between 1415 and 1420 which led to him formalising specific techniques for drawing linear perspective with a vanishing point. His were not the first works to use perspective, but he was the first person (we know of) with a precise system. Because Brunelleschi could clearly state the technique, by 1425 someone else could use the exact same system to do this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Masaccio_trinity.jpg Further techniques followed. – Steve Jessop Jul 1 at 22:48
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    And among Brunelleschi's goals was that, as an architect, he really wanted to draw pictures of buildings which accurately represented the building. That is, accurately from the POV of it not falling down, as opposed to accurately from the POV of focussing on that which is narratively or devotionally important! Pre-Renaissance builders managed to put up plenty of cathedrals, some of which fell down although many did not. But they couldn't put a dome on Florence cathedral, and Brunelleschi eventually did, so he kind of won that round. – Steve Jessop Jul 1 at 22:58
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It sounds like you are talking about the transition from Romanesque/Gothic painting styles to Renaissance styles. This is a big topic in Art History (or at least was when I took it back in the '80's).

A lot of this may just come back to issues of style, which of course exist because they exist. However, there were some practical differences between the two.

Almost all Romanesque and Gothic art was done on commission from some branch of the Catholic Church. This meant they were generally intending to depict ideas, beliefs, and actions. Any human figures in the scene would have just been symbolic tools toward that end.

Also oil paints and the techniques to work with them had not been developed yet. Those older paintings were mostly done with quick-drying egg tempera paint. This meant artists had a much more limited palette to work with and couldn't do details very well, so a modern "realistic" depiction of things was far more difficult. In an environment where realism is not an option, it only makes sense to lean a bit into the representational nature of the resulting art.

In fact the concept of "realism" itself was only invented the 19th Century. The word itself is first attested in 1826, and first used as we are using it in 1856. Before that, the more "realistic" Renaissance painting style was referred to as "naturalism". Both however refer to specific styles. It looks like the representational philosophy itself, divorced from style or era, is properly referred to as Illusionism or "realistic illusionism".

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    +1 The human figures were not the only symbolic representations in the image. Halos, angels etc. were there to demonstrate religious power. The purpose of this image en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%86thelstan#/media/File:Athelstan.jpg is to show the piety and generosity of the king, the abbey in the background is a symbolic representation (that all the viewers would understand) to add emphasis. When you look at a painting you need to understand its history and its purpose – Dave Gremlin Jul 1 at 22:58
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    I don't see how egg tempera would be an issue. Certainly the majority of pigments available today were not invented until the 19th century, but e.g. a great many of Andrew Wyeth's work is egg tempera. – Yorik Jul 3 at 15:46
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    @Yorik - If you'd like a lot more detail on that point, feel free to ask a proper question about it. (eg: "Why did oil paint largely supplant egg tempera in Renaissance art?"). Or, of course, look into yourself. – T.E.D. Jul 3 at 17:28
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    I am in the field & I know already. Your claim is that egg tempera precluded more realistic or naturalistic depictions. This is wrong. see e.g. Botticelli – Yorik Jul 3 at 17:45
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    The superiority of oils for detailed work is discussed here, and in a bit more detail here. There's also a bit here about how oil is better for color saturation. If you feel I've misinterpreted all this,speak up. If you disagree with what's said there, I'm sorry. If you instead don't want to read it because you feel you have personal knowledge that transcends mere reading, I'm afraid I have no way to help you – T.E.D. Jul 4 at 5:40
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Anything other than photo-realism makes you 'angry and confused'? That's sad. You're missing out on enjoying a whole lot of good stuff!

Early pictorial art was often allegorical rather than strictly representational. Items were sized and placed to show their relationships and relative importance. Or just placed. Want a boat? Want an elephant? OK, here's one of each! As you say, Noah's Ark might be depicted as barely large enough for a handful of passengers. Here's a modern example of this style. (Note, two male lions!)

enter image description here

In the early 15th century, linear perspective was invented (or re-invented). Painters had great fun with their new toy! Leonardo's 'Last Supper' demonstrates impeccable perspective, but invents rather unlikely architecture in order to do it!

enter image description here

Later, 'two-point perspective' allowed a sort of 'heightened reality', 'perspective in stereo' if you like!

enter image description here

'Three-point perspective' can add a further illusion of solidity.

enter image description here

Or maybe you prefer photorealism. Unexaggerated natural perspective, as would be seen by a camera lens.

enter image description here

Not to be confused with Hyper-realism, where a painting or drawing attempts to fool the viewer it IS a photograph!

enter image description here

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    Totally unrelated to the question, I know: snopes.com/fact-check/lionesses-grow-manes – Diego Sánchez Jul 2 at 7:36
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    The Last Supper is also clearly about portraying a concept rather than a literal interpretation of what it might've looked like. In reality, it would be quite unusual for everyone to all be sitting on one side of the table, but he painted them that way so that you can see and identify everyone. Not that different conceptually from the Noah's Ark picture above it (though obviously far more skillfully rendered.) – Darrel Hoffman Jul 2 at 15:15
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    I'm going to add a comment here for others and say that I don't interpret the male lion thing as anything political, either in the picture or the remark. It's something that has to be understood within the greater context of the answer itself. – Panzercrisis Jul 2 at 19:08
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    How does this answer the question? It just seems like a list of examples. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Jul 2 at 21:36
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    @BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft I answered the question in the opening paragraphs. Unusually for a 'Why?' question on an artistic topic there WAS a simple answer! – Laurence Payne Jul 3 at 14:44
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There's been some perspective around for a long time.

Look at this ceiling, from "The Vergilius Vaticanus" dated around 400 C.E.

Perspective ceiling

And here's a Chinese painting from around 1000 CE showing a pretty good oblique projection:

Oblique projection

And this detail from the gigantic "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" 1085 C.E.

Partial perspective

And in "Presentation at the Temple" - 1342 C.E. - there is clearly perspective on the floor tiles - but much less so in the rest of the image:

Perspective on floor tiles but less elsewhere

This circa-1400s print from "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" has some items in projection - and others not. Compare that table to the things on it:

some isometric projection

So clearly, artists noticed perspective pretty early on when they were representing things like tiled floors. It just seems to have taken a long time to understand what was going on there well enough to apply the same effect to things like wheels, bunches of grapes, and human beings.

I grabbed most of these examples from the 'History' section of Wikipedia's page on graphical perspective which you might enjoy reading.

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    Yes! This is something I didn't touch on in my answer for reasons of space: Prior to Romanesque, the ancients were also into Illusionism. It was just in late antiquity and the Medieval period where Illusionism was repudiated. Of course they weren't nearly as good at it as the Renaissance painters. – T.E.D. Jul 2 at 13:56
  • The Chinese examples here all seem to be more of an orthogonal/isometric projection rather than true perspective. There may be a little bit of perspective in the bridge example (people seem to be smaller further away), but mostly it's parallel lines in each direction rather than receding to a vanishing point. – Darrel Hoffman Jul 2 at 16:21
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    @DarrelHoffman Sure, but isometric projection isn't a "bizarre, unnatural" perspective to the extent that, say, the Bayeux Tapestry is. Which is my interpretation of what this question is about. – mjt Jul 2 at 21:06
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    "The Presentation at the Temple" serves as an example of the lack of desire for realism, as most of the principle figures are portrayed with golden halos. – jamesqf Jul 3 at 4:51
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Not all "really old" art has no perspective. True, it's not usually seen, but good examples of it show up wherever there's a culture that was rich enough to have full-time, professional artists, and that valued realism in art.

Most answer ups to now with examples of correct(ish) use of perspective in art are max from about 1000 CE, and the Roman example from 400 CE is sort of amateurish.

Here is an interesting analysis of a great example of a much older, well-executed perspective in Roman art from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, buried during the eruption of Vesuvius on 79 CE.

As a counter-example, there's Egyptian art, which overwhelmingly used hieratic scale: the more important people and topics are physically larger, but they were perfectly capable of realism, as evidenced in their more classically-proportioned sculptures.

I remember other older examples of perspective in Roman and other cultures, but don't have the time right now to find examples. A quick search finds this interesting article with descriptions of perspective in older (~500 BCE) Greek theatrical background art.

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