assignment pictorial space traditional to modern 1

Oil painting of a womanPortrait painting of Madame Matisse by artist Henri Matisse. Dated 1905.The painting stands as a symbol of the early modern art movement with its loose paint handling and arbitrary colors. A green line extends from the forehead of the sitter down to their neck.

Left: Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of a Woman, 1632. Oil on canvas. Right: Henry Matisse, The Green Line, 1905, oil on canvas.

Problem: Respond to a critical essay on pictorial space and its role in the development of modern art.

Context: You have been exploring the duality of form and content since the first week of this course. With the development of modern art around the turn of the 20th century, the way an artwork looks and the meaning it delivers can be difficult to balance. You have to gather enough information about a particular work of art – both visual and textual, in order to really understand what it means.

This can be more difficult when looking at modern art. The text explores how the modern art movement was, to a large extent, the result of changes in how artists use pictorial space. Instead of the traditional emphasis of the format as a window to realistic subject matter, modernism emphasizes the flatness of the format’s surface. These changes run through all traditional mediums like painting, drawing and sculpture and extend to new artistic forms like installation and digital works.

Naturalistic painting of a sumptuous still life including meats, fruit, shellfish and goblets.

Jan Davidsz de Heem, Still Life with Ham, Lobster and Fruit, c. 1653.

Painting of a still life with fruit, bread and a wine bottle

Paul Cezanne, Basket of Apples, 1894

Painting of a still life with dishes, a coffee pot and glass bottle

Andre Derain, Still Life, c. 1906

This change created new avenues of expression for artists, new ways of seeing the world and responding to experiences both within and outside of themselves.

The context Shapiro uses to support his essay is the Armory Show (Links to an external site.), an exhibition of modern paintings and sculptures, mostly by European artists, at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City in 1913.

Metal sculpture titled "Woman in a Garden" by Pablo Picasso. Dated 1928. The sculpture is quite linear in form and abstract in style.

Pablo Picasso, Woman in a Garden, 1928 – 30, metal.

Museum of Modern Art, New York

This worksheet asks you to read the critical essay by Meyer Shapiro, a distinguished American art historian who’s writing offers explanations and insights into the form and content within this new world of modern art.

Goal: To think critically and communicate your responses to issues of pictorial space and modern artistic form.


  1. Read The Element of Space section in the text for module
  2. Read Meyer Shapiro’s modern art essay. You’ll find it under the “Read About It/ View It” tab in module 3 of the Canvas course site.
  3. Respond to the essay using the prompts below as a guide.
  4. Be specific in your answers. It’s not enough to give a short sentence – explain yourself! You can cite the text to support your answers, but the emphasis is on an explanation in your own words.
  • How did modern ideas of painting in the 19th century conflict with traditional ones?
  • What kind of innovations did modern art provide in changing traditional form? Use an example to support your explanation.
  • Why is modern interpretation of form different than mere decoration or ornament?
  • How does Shapiro show commonality between Impressionism and modern art? Give an example to support your answer.
  • On page 148 Shapiro gives us a passage concerning the modern aesthetic and other new discoveries and realities of the early 20th century. List some new materials modern artists use in paintings and sculptures.
  • Use the external links to select an artwork that uses modern pictorial space. Describe the space in your selection. Be specific!
  • Include an image and cite the source of your selection.

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