What Is Representational Art?

'Traffic picture, Painter on the Champs Elysees, Paris, Photograph, Around 193?0'
Imagno / Contributor/ Hulton Archives/ Getty Images

The word "representational," when used to describe a work of art, means that the work depicts something easily recognized by most people.

For example, the artist Leon Dolice created an etching entitled , which depicts a street scene in New York City. You can see a street, an automobile and lots of buildings - one of which is only found in New York City. This etching is representational art.

Conversely, the Abstract Expressionist artist, Franz Kline, painted a piece entitled .

While a famous painting, it is entirely non-representational. It's not a scene of New York City. There are no identifiable objects or people within. In fact, one is left free to interpret whatever one wishes about this piece.

Origin History

Representational art got its start many millennia ago with Late Paleolithic figurines and carvings. Venus of Willendorf, while not too terribly realistic, is clearly meant to show the figure of a woman. She was created around 25,000 years ago, and is here mentioned as an excellent example of early representational art.

Throughout our history as art-creating humans, most art has been representational. Even when art was symbolic, or non-figurative, it was usually representative of something. Abstract (non-representational) art is a relatively recent invention, and didn't evolve until the early 20th-century.

Its Present Status

Representational art is thriving.

In my opinion (and it is just that: an opinion), representational art is far more "viewer-friendly" to the vast majority of people than is abstract or conceptual art. We (absolutely including myself) have a higher degree of comfort with art when something recognizable catches the eye and registers.

Perhaps this has never happened to you, but I have, personally, been made to feel stupid at an opening or exhibition, by asking "ignorant" questions or not "getting" the point in an abstract piece. (Presumably, I was the only person in the gallery who was not able to read the artist's mind.)

This is not to say that abstract art isn't a thing of beauty. Most of it stands alone, appreciable on the basis of light, color and design. The problem is that we humans are compelled to understand things and use words in an attempt to do so. Too many words - and often too big and too obscure, to boot. All of those words cloud an experience that is seen and felt on an individual basis.

The point (yes, there really was one) is, most people like art and like to have a thing or two to hang on the wall at home. Whether it's an original, a poster, a high-quality reproduction or something from one of those "Starving Artist" sales that periodically roll through town, it's going to be something the owner wants to look at on a daily basis. And that will most often be representational art.

Briefing on Exponents

A list of artists currently producing representational art would run for many, many pages. It would take far less space to publish a short list of those who make their livings from non-representational art.

Additionally, the workshop (or atelier) system continues to exist, and many of these teach figurative painting exclusively. One example is the School of Representational Art in Chicago, Illinois. There are also whole societies dedicated to representational art. Here in the United States, the Traditional Fine Arts Organization comes quickly to mind. A web search using the key words of "representational + art + (your geographical location)" should turn up venues and/or artists in your area.