Johannes VERMEER (1632-1675)
Jean-Auguste-Dominique INGRES (1780-1867)
Jan Brueghel l'Ancien, Flowers in a Wooden Vessel (détail), 1606-1607, huile sur bois, Collection : Musée de l'histoire de l'art de Vienne
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16th – 17th century
How can we not think first of the still lifes of the Flemish School of the 17th century, with their flowers and desserts rendered with finesse and precision, and their carefully rendered materials, which presuppose not only a perfect knowledge of the object, the fruit, the animal, but above all a pictorial mastery without any gaps? Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), Ambrosius Bosschaert (1573-1621), Pieter Claesz (1597-1661), Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-1684), among many others, produced skilful compositions that marvelled at the brilliance of the colours or the sparkle of the metals and glass. The obvious search for absolute veracity seems to be in line with the awareness of the finitude of the world and the vanity of all human action. We can consider this genre painting as a first step towards what would become hyperrealism.
Similarly, let us think of the genius of trompe l'oeil, that art of illusion which restores to each painted object a deceptive presence on our retinas. There is pleasure in rendering the mother-of-pearl of a shell, the down of a felt, the grain of a wood, the sumptuousness of a jewel. Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts (1630-1675) knew how to give the impression of relief even if it was only a painted surface. We can see a relationship with hyperrealism, but it is reduced to technical virtuosity, because the artist's intention with his clever staging is to ask us about the simulacrum of reality and our propensity to be fooled, and not, as the almost utopian project of hyperrealism would propose, about our ability to see real things as they are.
William Bouguereau, The Little Knitter, 1882, Huile sur toile, 60,5 x 100,5 cm
© En cours de modification
Another moment strongly tinged with a sometimes excessive realism appeared in the 19th century, particularly in France, with academic art. Here, the attraction for the great figures of history encouraged artists to construct the spectacle of past grandeur with monumental paintings. The concern for detail leads one to believe in a truth that only the painter could reveal through a gift of observation that he would have acquired after a long apprenticeship. This « pompier » art, in the cult of excellence and tradition, left works at the height of realism: William Bouguereau (1825-1925) or Fernand Cormon (1845-1924), assuming the superiority of drawing over colour, magnified the subjects treated by their technique and endeavoured to conceal as much as possible the brushstrokes and other artifices, which the hyperrealists would not fail to do in the following century.
In this vein, we can think of the painters of Alpine landscapes who do not exempt us from any cracks in the rock, any reflections of the torrent, all details visible in very large format demonstrative compositions: Laurent Guétal (1841-1892), Charles Bertier (1860-1924), Edouard Brun (1860-1935) suck us into the immensity of the glacial valleys to convince us of the equal importance of what is small and what is large.
But no doubt a crossing of the Atlantic will be necessary to apprehend what could be considered the beginnings of hyperrealism. After the period dominated by the grandiose and romantic landscapes of the Hudson River School, certain American painters, who would later be grouped together under the term « luminists » by John Baur, focused on the atmospheric effects of a landscape, establishing an intimate and meditative relationship between the precisely represented space and the viewer caught up in the luminous values. Among those artists who lightened the palette and brought sharpness to the work are John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), Albert Bierstadt (1835-1910) and Alfred Thompson Bricher (1837-1908), who created rigorous panoramas with large areas left to the sea and the sky, but who did not free themselves from an obsessive concern for detail.
Charles Scheeler, Upper deck, 1929. Fogg art museum, Cambridge, USA
Precisionism, which emerged in the early 1920s, was the first « modernist » movement in the New World to paint the city, the machine, and the urban infrastructure as formal resources worthy of an artist's interest.
The compositions borrowed from both Cubism and Futurism, but the smooth, cold touch gave them a distinctly American originality. A kind of purity emerges from these new images in the glory of industrial or agricultural production.
The large flat areas of clear and contrasting colours are an effective decorative project, but they must be acknowledged for their considerable contribution in that, by not seeking to ennoble their subject (generally banal: a factory chimney, a grain silo), they extract all the strangeness from it.
Charles Scheeler (1883-1965), but also Charles Demuth (1883-1935), Preston Dickinson (1889-1930), Niles Spencer (1893-1952), Elsie Driggs (1898-1992), Ralston Crawford (1906-1978), all used photographic documentation, when they were not photographers themselves.
Wayne Thiebaud, Pie Rows (Rangée de tartes), 1961. Huile sur toile. Collection: © Wayne Thiebaud Foundation/2022, ProLitteris, Zurich, Photo: © Matthew Kroening
Wayne Thiebaud (1920-2021), on the other hand, who painted cakes, sweets and pastries of all kinds, emphasising the primary object of the desire to consume in order to satisfy an immediate appetite, is both a precursor of pop art and of hyperrealism. His pasty technique accentuates the contours to better seduce.
His realism nevertheless remains expressive and his urban landscapes would bring him closer to Edward Hopper.
Edward Hopper (1882-1967), who became famous in the United States in the 1930s, is probably the most famous and revered ancestor of the hyperrealists.
© En cours de modification
His paintings depict street scenes, shops, theatres, petrol stations, restaurants, suburban dwellings with sometimes solitary, isolated and lonely figures, locked in a solitude that is dramatised by the acidity of the colours and the frankness of the vertical cuts or oblique shots worthy of the most accomplished cinematographic art. Psychological and visual configurations come together in each composition to speak crudely of what is at stake in existence, before our eyes: desire and rejection, pleasure and death, the sour happiness offered by the modern world.
Edward Hopper's paintings anticipate the interest that the photorealists would show in the urban environment or the accessories of modernity and the capture of precise moments that would be fixed on canvas, but they are fiercely different: the unhappy alienation denounced by one could not foresee the happy alienation celebrated by the others.
We could evoke the popular world of illustration with artists like Dean Cornwell (1892-1960), also a renowned mural painter, and especially Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), who recounted the most comical events of every American's life with a sometimes caricatural realism.
Each work tells a story with humour and tenderness: art as an enterprise of truth, both sociological in its subject matter and pictorial in its truly photorealistic technique.
Just as there was a « pictorialism » among photographers, who used the framing and conventions of traditional landscape painting in their pictures, there will be a « photographism » among painters who will appropriate the codes and particularities of an art that considerably modifies the angles of view, the perspectives, modifies our field of vision and diversifies what can take the place of a model for the artist.
The profound originality of photorealism, more than in the extreme precision of the rendering, is expressed above all in the use in painting, with all that this means in terms of difficulty, of the singular discoveries and unsuspected possibilities of the photographic shot.