Impact of the Advent of Photography on Artists of the Nineteenth Century

Photography became widespread in 1839. Artists had painted portraits, landscapes, and important historical events for centuries since it was the only way to save them in time. However, photography appeared and took one of the main tasks of painting, and artists realized that they did not have to strive for greater image accuracy because the camera coped with this task easier and in a more accurate way. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the emergence of small format monochrome photos influenced the evolution of painting to a very great extent and in different ways.

A reference point for the interaction of painting and photography can be considered the period from the middle of nineteenth century. The art situation of the period was extraordinarily complicated because at that time many great masters of different schools and directions coexisted. These directions were opposite and sometimes even mutually hostile, including academicism, realism, naturalism, impressionism, post-impressionism, and symbolism. At this time, Monet and Cezanne, Gauguin and Jerome, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Puvis de Chavannes worked and created their masterpieces. A variety of stylistic trends, ideas, theories and directions of this time has often provoked researchers to search for the “true source” of the phenomenon, which would be called modernism in the twentieth century. The photo was a “litmus test” in the history of art. 

Type of assignment
Writer level
Number of pages
Total price:


The invention of photography strongly contributed to the abandonment of established traditions, and, ultimately, figurative art. The birth of modern art owes much to the invention of photography as well. In the nineteenth century, photography changed the vision of the world dramatically, and impressionists noted these changes first. A fundamentally new aspect for impressionism was its aspiration to reproduce an “impression” and recreate what the eye of the artist meets. Under the influence of photography, artists developed a different attitude to composition and the accuracy of the image of the world. The camera seemed a means of objective reproducing of reality and transfer of it with accuracy, which had been previously unattainable.

The only thing that was not available for photography at that time was color. Impressionists also drew attention to contemporary scientific theories on the nature of color and the mechanism of its perception by the human eye, in which the whole range of colors was ascended to several pure colors perceived by the retina of the eye. Impressionists painted with small dabs of pure colors, creating the correct hue solely by looking at the whole canvas from a certain distance. They intentionally violated the canons of academic painting, using rich colors often in unexpected combinations. The paint was applied in such a way that painting, in general, made an impression of motley shapeless spots that sometimes shocked an unprepared audience. For the most accurate color reproduction, they tended to work in the air.

The color and the large size of paintings were considered their competitive advantage, thus, in general, the task of painting and photography coincided. The effect of photos on painting consisted largely in the fact that the camera became a kind of “new eyes”. Artists  noticed many things that had not seen before. As a result, many of them did not disdain to use a photo as a preparatory material.

The advent of photography depreciated drafting skills. However, academicism is a drawing in the first place, and only then color. As a result, since the mid-nineteenth century, coloristic objectives have received increasing attention. Impressionists studied methods for transmitting lighting effects and atmosphere. Special features of photographs of that time, such as black and white contrasts, blurred outlines, and sections of objects when trimming, had a strong effect on them.

In addition, the appearance of photos influenced the development of painting very strongly, first, to the emergence of new directions of art. It can be said that the birth of modern art owes much to the invention of photography. Wide usage of photographs contributed to the emergence of impressionism as well. Painting began to convey not a picture, but sensations that occurred when watching. Then, artists began to depict dreams and visions, and as a result, surrealism appeared. Thus, painting tried to depict things that a photo could not show. After a wide circulation of photographs, more attention to the personal history of an artist began to be paid, and more puzzling theories to explain the painting appeared. In addition, without photography, academicism and romantic rebellion against it only in a realistic manner would have existed for a long time.

The degree of the influence of photography on painting pictures was actively discussed in art criticism. One of the first issues of the journal The Studio  published a special paper dedicated to this theme titled “Is Camera Friend or Foe for Art?”. Authoritative opinions of artists were written there. Many of them stated that photo had more harmful effects on the majority of contemporary artists and of course had corrupted the taste of the public, which then required perfect resemblance and small details. The universal use of the camera prompted the audience to assess the similarity of the image with the original picture critically, and it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the artists of that time “rarely painted from life”. Most believed that photography could provide a service to the artist and, if he or she applied it “guided by reason and sound judgment,” it might benefit the painter. Some of the respondents deplore the fact that, wanting to take the easy route, artists were too dependent on the camera at that time. They simply transfer photos onto canvas and paint over the existing image.

Famous for his landscape photography, French artist Henri Riviere used photos in his works. Many of his famous graphic sheets were made precisely on the basis of photographs. Now his pictures can be found in the catalog of the collection of the Museum of Orsay, and they struck the viewer by daring angles and trims portions, which have overcome modernist photography for several decades.

Out of all impressionists, Degas was influenced by photography to the greatest extent. He was impressed by focus shifts in the image, sense of the transience of a scene, cutting of shapes and space, and framing a picture typical of photos. Since the late 1880s, he had been working with pastels and painted female figures in natural, intimate poses, as if they were watched through the keyhole. There was no precedent for it in the world of art. He rejected traditional “posed” models trying to create an image full of life, with its simple gestures, yawning and stretching. The effect of photos on painting can be seen in his work “The Rehearsal”. This early masterpiece shows the artist’s attraction to the image obtained with the help of photographs. As usual, the composition of Degas’s painting is verified to the last detail. The central part of the picture space remains empty since the figures are collected at the top left. In the right corner in the foreground, there are two young dancers waiting for their turn and their mother accompanying them. The figure of one of the dancers in the foreground is unexpectedly clipped by the edge of the picture. The following aspects clearly establish the impact of photography on this work: 

  1. A spiral staircase forms a spectacular entrance into the left corner of the picture, creating a sense of movement in the three-dimensional space.
  2. Cutting off a figure by the handrail. Sometimes Degas cut the figure off not only by the edge of the picture, but also with the help of other elements of the composition. On this painting, uprightly and bias, crossbeams of the handrail cut the figure of the ballerina located behind the stairs.
  3. Arabesque. The bent arm of the ballerina is clearly silhouetted against the window. It is a turning point for a zigzag, which describes the movement of the viewer’s eye. The ballerina is performing an arabesque; despite the immobility of the pose, her figure conveys a sense of movement and does not look congealed. It reflects a fleeting moment.
  4. The green and red. Portions of green and additional red underline muted pale yellow tones of the wooden floor in the dance class. An especially exciting color portion arises where the contrast is created between the green shawl of the sitting ballerina and the red plaid cloak of her mother, which in turn echoes the scarlet shirt of the teacher.

Thus, photography played a decisive role in art since its advent. From that time, each new artistic phenomenon has been exposed to its influence directly or indirectly. Photography changed the artists’ vision and affected the evolution of art. The invention of photography greatly contributed to the rejection of traditions and the classical view of arts. It facilitated the fact that artists replied to the question “What is art?” Therefore, many scientists believe this new way of taking an image was the main catalyst of the processes, which led to the birth of modern art.


Aug 27, 2019 in Informative
The Radical and the Republican
Concept Analysis of Freedom

Related essays