Art History Terms: Scale
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, I have another entry in our art history dictionary! Scale is a widely used term that helps us to understand how a work of art is put together. This post will cover three of the most common uses. So, to learn more, keep on reading!
Hierarchy of Scale
One of the most common uses of scale is what art historians call “Hierarchy of Scale”. While this name sounds fancy, the concept itself is quite simple! Essentially, the bigger something is in a work of art, the more important it is! For example, let’s take a look at the Palette of Narmer. It is from Ancient Egypt and dates to around 3200–3000 BCE. Art historians believe it shows the king in his quest to unite the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. On both the front and back panels, we can easily pick Narmer out of the crowd. He is significantly larger than his troops and even larger than the captured enemy figures. This is to show the viewer that Narmer is the most powerful and most important figure in the scenes. He is the king, trying to unite two kingdoms into a mighty entity.
Another way that scale is used in art is to create visual interest for the viewer’s eyes. This could be done in two ways. The first is that all elements in the work are balanced and have the same general set of scale and proportion. This is most commonly seen in eras like the Italian Renaissance when balance was highly prized. But, in other times, such as during the Mannerist period, scale and proportion were changed to create an unbalanced, slightly strange look. For example, let’s examine the Madonna with the Long Neck by Parmigianino. The limbs of all the figures, especially those of the Christ child, are extremely elongated! The Madonna’s neck, where the painting gets its name, is also elongated, looking a bit like a swan! This was a fascinating choice by Parmigianino. By using an exaggerated scale, the artist created visual interest and a painting that helps the viewer to contemplate the nature of the divine.
The final way that scale is used is to create perspective. You may remember my post on linear perspective. (If you haven’t, click here to read it!) Scale is used in conjunction with this technique in order to create the illusion! Essentially, the closer an object or person is to the front of the painting and the viewer, the bigger it is. This is based on nature, giving works a sense of realism. Once again, scale helps to bring the composition of a work together! A great example of this concept is Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Brughel the Elder. As you can see, the hunters and their dogs closest to us appear the largest. Down the hill, we can still make out some of the hunting party, but they are painted much smaller to show their distance.
Scale is an important element of any work of art to help the viewer understand the artist’s intentions and ideas!