Abstraction in Representational Art

Abstraction is one of the most important tools in an artist’s arsenal–it groups together masses of visual information into a cohesive whole, enabling the viewer to “see the forest through the trees.”


Rembrandt, The Little Children Being Brought to Jesus (“The 100 Guilder Print”), 1647-49, etching and drypoint

Abstraction is a guide that allows viewers to take in small details while simultaneously keeping their attention on the larger panoramic picture.

Abstraction, in representational art, is a grouping of visual units into a bigger visual shape.

Not surprisingly, Rembrandt uses light and shadow to mass people and settings into large abstract shapes. What might be more subtle is that he also organized those shapes into forms that rotate in space.

For example, in the shape I outlined in green, Rembrandt has grouped several people into this swirl of light. This large shape pulls the viewer into the work and sweeps them around behind Christ.

By bathing this abstract shape in such strong light, Rembrandt also added the metaphor that this group is enlightened or receiving his light.


As a counter balance to the large areas of light, he has grouped most of the background into a large cast shadow. Very few people, perhaps skeptics, are in the shadows. This dark area is not a cardboard cut of flat black. Rather, it opens up the cavernous depth of the setting, creating a sense of emptiness–a poignant contrast to the people-filled areas in light.


Abstract artists, such as Kline, distilled abstraction until there was little left other than abstraction itself. These bold expressions drove home the formal compositional elements, dividing the painted surface into simple positive and negative areas.

When studying an artist as complex as Rembrandt it is easy to get lost in all the things that he is a powerful master of: the human condition, the gestures, the light, the movement, etc. In contrast, studying Kline makes it easy to remember the importance of organizing the composition into big areas.


Kline, 1957

Monet does a beautiful job of abstracting the pink sunset and turquoise shadows and their reflections in the water.

Arm of the Seine near Giverny Claude Monet001

Monet, Arm of the Seine near Giverny
While researching images for this tutorial, I came across this fun image of Monet’s Poplars. The “S” curve of the poplars creates a gestural abstract shape.


Monet, Poplars

It’s easy to see the similarity of Monet’s “S” curve with the staircase of this Rembrandt. I cannot help but think that Rembrandt accented this staircase, not only as a major abstract shape but as a metaphor for learning in stages or steps.

Philosopher in Meditation (Rembrandt)001

Rembrandt, Philosopher in Meditation, 1632

I hope you enjoyed seeing abstraction in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
New York, January 14th, 2007

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