by Spencer Koonin

Before intellectuals had mastered the technology necessary to capture a picture, mankind had always turned towards skilled artists and painters for their advanced abilities that enabled them to represent the world around them on canvas. After photography had entered the world of art, dramatic shifts towards painterly styles became apparent as accomplished artists were replaced by cameras, forcing the painters to create more abstract works that could not be created with technology, and only with humanity, and emotion. Departing from academic and historical styles, new photographic waves swept through the international artistic community and pushed painters to try new things, and even replaced their positions in fields such as portraiture or landscape paintings, which was both easier and more affordable through the use of a camera. After Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre introduced and popularized the Daguerreotype photo process in 1839, it was no longer necessary to spend years in art school drawing from sculptures and from life, mastering laws of things like chiaroscuro or linear perspective (1). Daguerre even commented in 1838 that “with this technique [daguerreotype photography], without any knowledge of chemistry or physics, one will be able to make in a few minutes the most detailed views.” Feeling displaced and unneeded, many trained artists began to paint without the use of the “rules” of painting the physical world, instead using the raw intangible philosophies, emotions, and memories inside of them as a lens to restructure the world on canvas. This leads up today, where artists have continued many modernist movements, and created new ones as well. Although many factors have contributed to the shift into painterly styles throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, such as tense global relations and wartime sentiments, another major factor was apparent that can often be overlooked: photography. This scientific art form had been gradually developing into what it became in the mid-1800’s, but when photography finally climaxed in popularity, it pushed the course of art history into including a style of abstraction.

"The Death of Socrates" by Benjamin West
"The Death of Socrates" by Benjamin West

Before the Wave of Photography: An Institutional Time
The categorization of “academic art” usually applies to the works that have been sanctioned by universities or institutions of art that not only provide instruction to students, but also showcase it in highly competitive annual exhibitions. In Britain those exhibitions were sponsored by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (founded in 1768), and in France they were called “Salons” and were run by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture (founded in 1648). These institutions, with government backing, practically controlled the entire art community of that region. If an artist’s work was never able to procure a spot in one of these sponsored conventions, could they even be that good? Back then, many would have answered “no” (2). One prime example of the many academic artists is an American born man named Benjamin West, who later moved to Great Britain to become the influential person many English artists study and idolize.

Benjamin West, before emigrating to Europe, was a portrait painter from a family of ten children who had little training; in fact, he had learned to make his paints from local native Americans with clay and bear grease. Using his natural talent, West created The Death of Socrates, which is what many have called "the most ambitious and interesting painting produced in colonial America" (4). As one can see, there are many inconsistencies in perspective and realism, but an overall potential to
"The Death of General Wolfe" by Benjamin West
"The Death of General Wolfe" by Benjamin West

be great with training. This is what attracted the attention of a wealthy patron who introduced West to famous painters in which he could study from. Eventually heading to Europe, West toured many major art historical sites that exposed him to classical ideas and techniques, as well as a deeper interest in painting. This lead him to co-found the Royal Academy in London in 1768, which would teach aspiring students to be able to recreate the world around them on canvas (4).

West’s most famous work of art is the allegorical, classically composed The Death of General Wolfe. Elements of contrapposto, powerful emotion, and sculptural qualities in 2D dominate the positive space that depicts the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years’ War) in the United States. The touch of exoticness from the states of North America was complemented with common historical British figures, depicted in modern clothing. The public used to look at pictures the way we view movies today, which explains how quickly the news of West's painting spread. The Death of General Wolfe was historically controversial to the king at first, due to the anachronistic clothing, but this did not stop this work of West’s to become one of the most reproduced images of his time. Many other artists were inspired by his work to paint in this academic style, following the teachings of people like West in institutes. This painting is an absolutely perfect example of the appeal that academic art had on the populations of the Western world. In comparison to his earlier work, this painting exemplified the impact that an academy could have on an artist; successes like West kept the reputations of institutions up, which also helped maintain the exclusivity of admission (3).

Photography as an Old Science and a New Art Form
The idea to capture images from the world around us through the use of scientific means had been existing throughout history since more than 2,000 years ago by the Greeks and Chinese. Back then, what was known as a “camera obscura”, was able to project large images into a dark room with only the use of a small hole in the wall, and science. Since then, countless scientists have experimented with and developed the idea of a photograph, peaking with Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre’s invention of the daguerreotype process, which required a very short exposure time compared to previous prototype cameras that required almost 8 hours of pure stillness. Once the daguerreotype was introduced to the contemporary communities of the West in 1839, a famous quote by Paul Delaroche explains the sentiments of a large community of artists: “From this moment, painting is dead!” After its introduction, this new technology spread like wildfire throughout the world, to the point where people could buy pictures of famous monuments of Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Spain, while on the other side of the world. Waves that swept through the nation lead to the establishment of photographic portraiture and art, competing with the painting communities, and therefore leading to dislocations in the academic art world (1). Photography was “considered by the Academy as a legitimate form but a minor one because it was thought to involve the technical skills of a copyist more than the imaginative ones of a history painter (6).”
"The Two Paths of Life" by Oscar Rejlander
"The Two Paths of Life" by Oscar Rejlander

As the daguerreotype nudged its way into the world, some sought to reconcile the relationship
between photography and pre-existing artistic conventions that rejected photos as fine art. In other words, some artists believed that taking a photograph
should be able to harness an equal degree of respect as a painting gets. A prime example of an artist who attempted to created a photographic equivalent of paintings’ symbolic moral messages is a man named Oscar Rejlander. From Sweden, he traveled to Rome and academically studied art until he went to England to study photography instead. His work The Two Paths of Life recalls his past classical studies in an institution while simultaneously bringing to the table many modern photographic elements. Based on Raphael’s School of Athens, this work shows the way of the blessed (led through good works) and the way of the damned (through vice) (1). On the right is the blessed, represented symbolically through religion, charity, industry, and more, while on the left is the damned, showing personal enticements of life such as gambling, wine, suicide, insanity, death, and licentiousness (or socially unacceptable sensuality). This allegorical photographic compilation of multiple negatives was initially received by many who said that "mechanical contrivances could not produce works of fine art. (6)” However, despite the undesired response, this photograph and its creator allow one to further understand the gap between academic painters and photographers. In addition to the many portraiture and landscape jobs that had been taken over by daguerreotypists, tense, dislocated feelings were building in the artistic communities.

Reacting to Displacement with Inspiration
By the end of the 1800s, many artists felt like they had to create a new art form which would encompass the countless changes taking place in technology and science (majorly photography). Abstract artists began with the assumption that expressive shapes and colors formed the essential characteristics of art- not the rules for the depiction of the natural world (as the academic artists followed). Throughout the history of European/Western art, perspective and an attempt to recreate reality have controlled the decisions of artists, until the emergence of these rebellious artists. Academically-taught painters began experimenting with photos and questioning their own teachings, which eventually lead to their
"Lake George Reflection" by Georgia O'Keeffe
"Lake George Reflection" by Georgia O'Keeffe

challenging of the standards of the art world. These ideas spread and lead to the growth of never-before-seen movements such as Impressionism, Symbolism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, and more. An important occurrence to note is the fact that at this time, concurrently, Industrialization, Communist roots, and global tensions were under development, and this all in addition to photography’s displacement added to the desire of artists to do something new. The use of photography had rendered much of the representational function of visual art obsolete, which strongly affected the aspects of Modernism that encompass abstraction and intangible subject matter.

An example of an artist who embodies the major ideas of rebellious Modernism is a woman named Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986), who later became more well-known through her marriage to the famous Alfred Stieglitz. Trained academically in multiple institutions, she began as an art teacher, but later became a modern artist in the big city of New York (8). As one of the first Americans to practice true abstraction, she painted geometrically-inspired representations of flowers, bones, and personal memories. She had grown up during the shift of the art community towards painterly styles, after photography had been popularly introduced, where leaders of artistic innovation were painting, emoting, and rebelling simultaneously. O’Keeffe shows this in her female-oriented depictions of flowers and landscapes. Despite her denial of any sexual references, many have interpreted her paintings as feminist and representing a feminine presence in the world of art that had been dominated by men for centuries. O’Keefe’s paintings are modern, slightly rebellious, and simplified works that evoke thought and emotion unlike how a photograph would (9).

Academic Art, photography, and modern art all interconnect and overlap in many ways. There were no clear breaks between each movement; rather, there were gradual transitions in popularity and majority. In fact, all three can be still seen today in the world, even if it is to a lesser extent than the more contemporary styles of the late-20th and 21st centuries.
georgia o'keeffe.jpeg
"Red Canna" by Georgia O'Keeffe

Back when academic artists such as Benjamin West, along with many institutions, controlled the artistic world, little innovation was allowed. With that being said, many astounding works emerged from this period, but the academies were still restricting the amounts of
creativity and diversity allowed in artwork. When photography came along, and the daguerreotype process was introduced in 1839, other possibilities began to emerge in the world. Artists began to develop abstracted styles either in protest of photography’s “robbery” of their place in society, or because they were inspired by this new art form. Neither photographers nor modernists were initially accepted by the art community, but they still established themselves with perseverance.From an academic time period, changing times and new technology, like photography, inspired and forced diversity in art, leading to modern abstraction of feelings and emotions, and of what no photograph could ever capture.

Works Cited
(1) “About Georgia O'Keeffe.” Georgia O'Keeffe Museum,
(2) Author: Lisa. “Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986).” The Met, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
(3) “Benjamin West.” Wikipedia,
(4) Davies, Penelope J. E., et al. Janson's History of Art: The Western Tradition. 7th ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ, Pearson, 2007.
(5) Gernsheim, Helmut Erich Robert, et al. “History of Photography.” Encyclopedia Brittanica,
(6) Mamiya, Christin J., and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner's Art Through the Ages. 12th ed., Belmont, CA, Thomson Wadsworth, 2006.
(7) “Modernism.” Wikipedia,
(8) Staley, Allen. Benjamin West, American Painter at the English Court: June 4-August 20, 1989. Baltimore, Baltimore Museum of Art, 1989.
(9) Stokstad, Marilyn, et al. Art History. New York, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.