Absolute Clarity vs. Relative Clarity

The issue here is focus. Is it in sharp focus (absolutely clear) or in semi-focus, partially blurred (relatively clear). Again, Wolfflin’s analysis was made possible through the innovation of photographic technologies. Akin to photographs, some are in focus and some are out of focus, either due to the motion of the photographer or figure or lenses used.

Botticelli’s Birth of Venus or Bellini’s St. Francis, Renaissance, were painted in total or absolute clarity. Not only objects in the foreground, but also those in the background are painted with sharp edges and without loss of detail considering their distance from the baseline. In these paintings, nothing is blurred or hazy due to atmospheric conditions. Every detail is in sharp focus.

Watteau’s Pilgrimage of Cythera, late Baroque, and the works by Rembrandt and Velazquez, are relative in their clarity. An atmospheric haze settles over these paintings creating a blurred look. People and other details are fuzzy in the background not only suggesting space but also creating more contrast between principal and secondary objects. More specifically in the case of Watteau, the relative clarity lends the painting a more romantic or dream-like tone as is appropriate to the narrative.