Figurative Art

Encompassing any form of art that is derived from real world objects


It’s easy to assume that Figurative Art may just refer to art that references human figures. However, Figurative Art is now understood as encompassing any form of art (although most often painting, drawing and sculpture) that is derived from real world objects and is therefore representative of the world around us. This may includes objects and spaces, but does most commonly takes humans and animals as the main subject matter. Figurative art is extremely diverse, and can be done in any style (e.g. expressionist/surrealist) - artists may play with line, shape, colour, lightness and darkness, texture, and perspective in their own ways to interpret real world objects to create forms, spaces and narratives.


Whilst Figurative Art has been around since the dawn of mankind, it became marginalised in the 20th century with the rise of importance of Abstract and Minimalist art in the Modern period. Since then, the term has often been used to classify works which are simply the opposite of Abstract Art. This, however, is quite limiting in its definition. First of all, art that predates the Modern period can still be considered Figurative Art. Artists, and humans more generally, have been depicting human and animal forms dating back to the times of cavemen, through Antiquity and the Renaissance periods. Secondly, Figurative Art can in fact be created in a way that is abstracted. For example, Francis Bacon’s figurative paintings represent the human body, yet employ an abstract / expressionist method in that he changes the colours and scale from that of reality, and the background is completely non-representational.

Famous Examples:

The most famous figurative painter from the Modern period was French artist Pablo Picasso. Whilst Picasso is well known for his diversity, dabbling in various styles over his lengthy and profuse career, he began painting figurative works in the 1920s. He uses whimsical lines and expressive colour choices to create paintings of his figures with intense emotion.

When it comes to figurative sculpture, the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti was a key figure in the Modern period. Like Picasso, he was originally influenced by philosophical and existential questions about the human condition, seeking to express ideas that it is the individual, not society or religion that is solely responsible for giving meaning and authenticity’ to life. This led Giacometti to explore and analyse the human figure through the means of sculpture, and he developed a unique style of rendering tall and slim figures with rough, eroded and heavily worked surfaces. His body of work largely revolved around a few common subjects - the man walking; the standing, nude woman; and the bust.

Contemporary Context:

Despite being overshadowed in the 20th Century, Figurative Art has had a resurgence in the last century. Since Picasso and Giacometti, many artists have explored the human form and contributed to the great canon of Figurative Art with their own artistic styles. Some contemporary favourites include artists such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Maria Lassnig, Marlene Dumas, Dana Schutz, Kehinde Wiley, Anselm Kiefer, Kerry James Marshall, Lynn Chadwick and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)  Femme en pleurs (Weeping Woman)

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) - Femme en pleurs (Weeping Woman), 1937
Oil paint on canvas - 60.8 x 50.0 cm
Collection of Tate, London/UK

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)  Homme qui pointe (Pointing Man)

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) - Homme qui pointe (Pointing Man), 1947
Bronze - 178.0 x 95.0 x 52.0 cm
Collection of Tate, London/UK - Purchased 1949

Maria Lassnig (1919-2014)  Du oder Ich (You or Me)

Maria Lassnig (1919-2014) - Du oder Ich (You or Me), 2005
Oil on canvas - 203 x 155 cm / 79 7/8 61 in
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Zürich London

Lucian Freud (1922-2011)  Girl with a White Dog

Lucian Freud (1922-2011) - Girl with a White Dog - 1950-51
Oil paint on canvas - 76.2 x 101.6 cm
Collection of Tate, London/UK - Purchased 1952

Anselm Kiefer - Interior (Innenraum)’, 1981

Anselm Kiefer - Interior (Innenraum)’, 1981
Oil, acrylic, and paper on canvas - 287.5 x 311 cm 
Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam Photo Collection Stedelijk Museum / copyright Anselm Kiefer

Francis Bacon (1902-1992) - Triptych August 1972

Francis Bacon (1902-1992) - Triptych August 1972, 1972
Oil paint and sand on 3 canvases - 198.1 x 147.3 cm
Collection of Tate, London/UK - Purchased 1980

Marlene Dumas (b. 1953)  Magdalena 4

Marlene Dumas (b. 1953) - Magdalena 4, 1996
Ink on paper - 125.0 x 70.0 cm
Collection of Tate, London/UK - Purchased 1996

Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955)  Portrait of Curator (In Memory of Beryl Wright)

Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955) - Portrait of Curator (In Memory of Beryl Wright), 2009
Acrylic on pvc - 30 7/8 x 24 7/8 x 1 7/8 in.
Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY.


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