Living Pictures: Rereading "au vif," 1350-1550

Academic Article


  • This article offers new insight into the conceptualization of pictorial naturalism in the late Middle Ages through close analysis of how the Middle French modifiers "au vif" and "apr├Ęs le vif" are used in ekphrastic texts from 1350 to 1550. These descriptors are undoubtedly the period terms for realism. Modem ideas about what precisely they meant in the late Middle Ages, however, have largely been shaped by what they later came to mean. By about 1600, drawn "au vif" meant drawn "from life. " Scholars have rightly located, in the term 's deployment in relation to Early Modern artifacts, the rise of the modem paradigm of pictorial naturalism, a paradigm anchored in an epistemological anxiety about the causal connection between an image and its referent. It has long been assumed that modifiers containing vif denoted indexicality in the fifteenth century as well, that when late medieval authors described an image as "fait au vif '' they meant it was based on a drawing that was made in the presence of the referent, the modifier thus evincing a budding sensibility for empiricist rigor. This article decouples the late medieval naturalistic images from the rise of that modem paradigm of naturalism by showing that before 1550 modifiers containing vif did not designate the indexical process but the artists' ability to enliven the images; pictures au vif were brought not from but to life. These terms echoed, literally and metaphorically, the period fascination with a Pyg-malionian conceit, demonstrating an ontological, rather than epistemological, preoccupation behind the rising interest in naturalism in this key period of Western art history.
  • Authors

    Published In

  • Gesta  Journal
  • Digital Object Identifier (doi)

    Author List

  • Turel N
  • Start Page

  • 163
  • End Page

  • 183
  • Volume

  • 50
  • Issue

  • 2