Representational, Abstract, and Nonrepresentational Art

Key Points

Painting, sculpture, and other artforms can be divided into the categories of representational (sometimes also called figurative art although it doesn’t always contain figures), abstract and nonrepresentational art. Representational art describes artworks—particularly paintings and sculptures–that are clearly derived from real object sources, and therefore are by definition representing something with strong visual references to the real world. Most, but not all, abstract art is based on imagery from the real world. The most “extreme” form of abstract art is not connected to the visible world and is known as nonrepresentational.

  • Representational art or figurative art represents objects or events in the real world, usually looking easily recognizable. For example, a painting of a cat looks very much like a cat– it’s quite obvious what the artist is depicting.
  • Romanticism, Impressionism, and Expressionism contributed to the emergence of abstract art in the nineteenth century as artists became less interested in depicting things exactly like they really exist. Abstract art exists on a continuum, from somewhat representational work, to work that is so far removed from its actual real-world appearance that it is almost impossible to easily discern what is being represented. Abstract art is always connected to something visual from the real world.
  • Work that does not depict anything from the real world (figures, landscapes, animals, etc.) is called nonrepresentational. Nonrepresentational art may simply depict shapes, colors, lines, etc., but may also express things that are not visible– emotions or feelings for example.
Johann Anton Eismann, Meerhaven. 17th c.

Johann Anton Eismann, Meerhaven. 17th c. Work is in the public domain

This figurative or representational work from the seventeenth century depicts easily recognizable objects–ships, people, and buildings. But artistic independence was advanced during the nineteenth century, resulting in the emergence of abstract art. Three movements that contributed heavily to the development of these were Romanticism, Impressionism, and Expressionism.

Abstraction indicates a departure from reality in depiction of imagery in art. Abstraction exists along a continuum; abstract art can formally refer to compositions that are derived (or abstracted) from a figurative or other natural source. (Some people also use this term to refer to nonrepresentational (non-objective) art that has no derivation from figures or objects. However, in this class we do not the term abstract like this.) Picasso is a well-known artist who used abstraction in many of his paintings and sculptures: figures are often simplified, distorted, exaggerated, or geometric.

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Pablo Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror, 1932, MOMA
Photo by Sharon Mollerus CC BY

Even art that aims for verisimilitude (accuracy and truthfulness) of the highest degree can be said to be abstract, at least theoretically, since perfect representation is likely to be exceedingly elusive. Artwork which takes liberties, altering for instance color and form in ways that are conspicuous, can be said to be partially abstract.

Le Premier Disque

Robert Delaunay, Le Premier Disque, 1913. Work is in the public domain

Delaunay’s work is a primary example of early nonrepresentational art, bearing no trace of any reference to anything recognizable from the real world. In nonrepresentational art, for instance, one is unlikely to find references to naturalistic entities.

Figurative art and nonrepresentational art are almost mutually exclusive. But representational (or realistic) art often contains partial abstraction. As you see, these terms are bit confusing, but do your best to understand the basic definitions of representational, abstract and nonrepresentational.