Examples of Figurative artwork have existed in many different forms throughout human history, with the earliest discovery dating back over 35,000 years ago. However, modern Figurative art as we know it today became popularised back in the mid-twentieth century, alongside the Expressionist art movement.
Figurative art is still hugely popular within the contemporary art sphere, with many figurative exhibitions still showing around the world today. Here, we’ll be examining what defines Figurative art and some of its most influential artists.
What Is Figurative Art?
At the crux of it, Figurative art is any work that depicts real-life imagery clearly, most often recognizable depictions of the human or animal form. There are a range of subcategories which fall under the umbrella of Figurative artwork, including Renaissance, Baroque, Realism, Surrealism, and many more.
Owing to this, the variations of work within this movement differ greatly between each artist. Some take on a style which may not make the figuration immediately clear, yet still we recognize them as Figurative pieces. Others adopt a hyper realistic approach in which every microscopic detail of the subject is highlighted meticulously.
Of course, there are also many other examples which fall within various stages of this scale.
Who Are Some of the Most Influential Figurative Artists?
To best understand Figurative artwork and its best examples, we must take a look at the influential artists who have shaped it throughout history and continue to do so today, along with our own personal favourites.
The work of Pablo Picasso provides arguably some of the most influential examples of modern figurative art. Prominent in the first half of the twentieth century, Picasso contributed to many different art movements, such as cubism, surrealism, and collage, to name a few.
But among his most famous works were his Figurative pieces, most notably The Old Guitarist, The Weeping Woman, and of course his own Self Portrait pieces.
Rembrandt van Rijn
The legendary Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn was prominent throughout the mid 1600s, and has been widely regarded as one of his country’s greatest artists.
Between the years of 1631 to 1635, Rembrandt focused primarily on portraiture and figuration, successfully reshaping the Amsterdam portraiture market with his lively and dynamic pieces. He was renowned for his skillful ability to render human skin in a realistic way, and had an uncanny ability to accurately portray the likeness of his sitters, and even himself through his self portraits.
Some of his most famous pieces include Portrait of the Artist with Tocque and Gold Chain, Bathsheba at Her Bath, Danae and Head of Christ.
Mark Demsteader has been described as one of Britain’s leading figurative painters, with his ethereal and atmospheric paintings having earned him prestigious awards such as The Lyceum Prize and The Sidney Andrews Scholarship.
Inspired by the works of Rembrandt, Goya, and Vermeer, the butcher-turned-artist has been a determined Figurative painter since the 1980s, but Mark shot to fame in 2011 when Harry Potter star Emma Watson commissioned him for a series of portraits. Since then his reputation has flourished, with his work appearing in galleries around the world.
Aside from the work he did with Emma Watson, Mark’s most unique and significant works include Ophelia, Red Earth, Crossing the Divide, and Study in Blue.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an American-born, British-based artist active throughout the late 1800s who paved the way for modern art and pioneered the Post-Impressionist movement.
Arguably, one of his most famous works is Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, based upon a sitting with his own mother. This piece became the first piece of American art bought by the French government, and went on to become a revered, and sometimes ridiculed portrait of motherhood that still remains relevant today.
Other famous works of Whistler’s include Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl, Count Burckhardt, A Paris Model: An unfinished portrait, and The Princess from the Land of Porcelain.
Inspired by the works of Whistler, Rembrandt, and Degas, Denver based Ron Hicks found solace in his Figurative paintings and drawings from a very young age. His work has shifted across different art styles, taking on Representational, Impressionist, and Romantic characteristics as he experimented with his style.
His current art style is unique, balancing representational figurative drawing with a moody and muted colour palette, creating a powerful yet poignant aesthetic within every piece. His work is exhibited in galleries around the world, and his work can also be found among the private collections of prominent figures, including Grammy Award winning musician John Legend.
Some of his most outstanding works include The Stoic One, Centre of Attention, Reckoning, and Realization.
Figurative art is a highly varied and diverse genre of artwork, with pieces ranging from the most abstract and surreal, to meticulously detailed hyper realism - and everything in between. Artists and enthusiasts alike gravitate towards Figurative styles for many reasons: documentation, representation, reflection - this style allows the artist to present their subject and cultural values within the time was created.