Pierre-August Renoir painted “The Lesson” in 1906. By the 20th century if not sooner, painting had advanced to such high skill levels in the rendering of space and perspective that talented painters could compress and expand spatial relationships, anticipating the way we now manipulate perspective by varying the focal lengths of our lenses. To my eye, this painting was structured as though it was seen through a 100 millimeter lens, and this was 33 years before the invention of photography.
Notice the point of view of the “camera”, which is lower than someone standing near the table looking down, but slightly higher than the woman and the girls – that of a tallish person (maybe Renoir) sitting in a chair close to the table, but not at the table: close to the scene but not part of it. The compressed “telephoto” perspective brings the lesson closer to the viewer giving it more intimacy and detail, while it flattens out the form and presents it with more graphic strength.
What is so striking here to the eye of a photographer is the fullness and generosity of form, the way it fills up and occupies the frame with a shimmering light, which is modulated across the surface of the image. At left, the image is very dark, then it brightens along the front of the woman and across her cheek as well. Her wrist and hand are illuminated, as is the face of the youngest girl, and her collar. The bow in the older girl’s hair is very bright, as is the scarf around her neck. Almost all of the rest of the painting falls into the mid-tones except where much darker colors anchor the painting at left, in the background and around the edges of the entire picture.
Anyone with some experience lighting for photography will know immediately that this is not quite how light works in the real, ambient world. The light appears to be coming from behind the painter – straight into the subject. But if that were the case the image would lack all the contrast and modeling we see here, and the light at right and extreme left would be brighter. Tones overall, would be more homogenous. The bow in the girl’s hair would not have that intense sheen to it, even if it were a bright white silk.
With just the right diffusion and directional intensity, natural light could be something close to this in contrast at least, if the table were near a large window, but most of the nuances in the highlights of the image were enhanced, not according to some rule Renoir had in his head, but because this is the way it felt to be in the room. This is the way the scene felt to him.
What is remarkable, is that we have come full circle where photography now has all the plastic flexibility that painting did. And now, just as painting anticipated photography in the years leading up to the invention of photography in 1839, photography can learn from painting and use similar methods.