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Philip Pearlstein Photo

Philip Pearlstein

American Painter

Born: May 24, 1924 - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Movements and Styles:
American Realism
"I had decided I didn't want my work to have any meaning, it was about the total visual experience."
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Philip Pearlstein Signature
"There will always be those who want to make paintings of the human form with all its parts all where they should be, in spite of progress."
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Philip Pearlstein Signature
"I get my highs from using my eyes."
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Philip Pearlstein Signature
"I suggest that it is the honesty of the attempt to recreate the forms and spaces visually without artistic editing that is one of the hallmarks of realist painting."
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Philip Pearlstein Signature
"The effort of painting from life has cost my models a great deal of physical discomfort and cost me a great deal of money in model fees."
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Philip Pearlstein Signature
"Why was it so difficult for someone who wanted to do realist painting to make it interesting enough to be acceptable to this sophisticated audience."
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Philip Pearlstein Signature
"Whoever stands in front of a picture gives it their own interpretation."
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Philip Pearlstein Signature
"The description of the surface of things seems unworthy."
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Philip Pearlstein Signature
"Look slowly and hard at something subtle and small."
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Philip Pearlstein Signature
"I try to find a compositional structure in the subject itself, in nature."
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Philip Pearlstein Signature
"It's assumed that the realist artist is a dumb, inarticulate person, who can't do anything else. He can't think his way to conceptual art or to abstraction."
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Philip Pearlstein Signature
"I decided that expressionism was a cheap way of getting a reaction - show anybody ripped apart, and you get sympathy. I was deliberately trying to show the human body as whole and relatively healthy."
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Philip Pearlstein Signature
"Paintings seem to imply something, whether you want them to or not."
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Philip Pearlstein Signature

Summary of Philip Pearlstein

Radically cropped composition of mannequin-like nude models posed under harsh artificial lighting juxtaposed with a Mickey Mouse figurine, duck decoy, mask, whirligig, and other objects is what greets viewers to a Philip Pearlstein painting. Pearlstein is considered one of the greatest figure artists. His realistic portrayal of the figure during the art world's embrace of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art ushered in a revival of realism painting. Pearlstein's approach created a new and dramatic shift in the perspective of the figure indicating that the body is complex and interesting enough to view without any sexual, emotional, or political commentary.


  • Pearlstein's highly realistic paintings are akin to the images of Photorealism. There is an emphasis on precision and accuracy with a faithful attention to details. His approach however stands apart from the Photorealist ethos in that he works from direct observation rather than relying on photographs.
  • Pearlstein treats his subjects as components of a still life composition directing attention toward their form, colour, and play of light on their bodies. He portrays his models as elements of design presenting us with the opportunity to know the human body as an ever-changing composite interacting with objects of similar and contrasting complexities.
  • Philip Pearlstein has an unwavering fascination with the nude body, but as one reviewer says, he is not interested in the human flesh. The flesh is not seductive; it does not invite you to touch it. He is intrigued with the body as another object treating the flesh no differently than the surface quality of the inanimate objects. This creates as much interest in the props as the figure, eliminating a hierarchy between the figure and the objects.

Biography of Philip Pearlstein

Philip Pearlstein Life and Legacy

Philip M. Pearlstein was born in Pittsburgh in May 1924 to David and Libby Kalser Pearlstein. His mother was born in Lithuania and his father was born in Pittsburgh shortly after his parents arrived from Russia. Up until the age of nine, he lived in large, racially-mixed neighbourhood, in which many of the white families were first-generation immigrants from various European countries. During the height of the Great Depression of the 1930s, after briefly living in Wheeling, West Virginia, the family relocated back to Pittsburgh. Prior to obtaining their own apartment, they shared a small house occupied by his father's seven siblings and mother. It was in this location that Pearlstein says he began to make art.

Progression of Art


Training in Florida (3 soldiers resting)

In this illustrative watercolour, Pearlstein focuses on three soldiers in different states of rest. This early work highlights Pearlstein's ability to provide a visual chronicle of a noteworthy time in his life. During his service in the army at the time of World War II, Pearlstein produced over 100 drawings and watercolours that documented his observations and experiences. Included in this body of works were numerous images of his fellow soldiers during their field exercises. Training in Florida (3 soldiers resting) is a visual recording of soldiers' different physical response to training. The figure propped against the tree with separated legs displays a more exhaustive state compared to the somewhat more relaxed position of his fellow soldier with crossed legs.

Artist and art critic Robert Ayers suggested that Pearlstein's 1943 studies of soldiers resting looked forward to the foreshortened prone figures with their splayed and overlapping limbs that characterize his best-known work. He further remarked that these early works remind us of what Pearlstein gradually stripped away from his art to arrive at the monumental figure works for which he is now celebrated.

Watercolour on paper - Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York



Pearlstein further exhibits his attention to the figure in perspective in this neutral monochromatic watercolour on paper. It features a foreshortened nude male in a sparse environment lying on his left side, leaning on his elbow with his head turned away from the viewer. Portions of the model's body melds into the environment. The work reflects Pearlstein's interest in the nude body as a series of interlocking forms.

Untitled is an indication of the change in his works in the 1960s from abstracted and expressionistic figures to creating figurative works of studio models. Pearlstein has stated that he decided to turn away from abstraction and expressionism because he wanted to paint only what he saw in front of him (usually nude models) without stylistic editorializing.

Watercolour on paper - Alpha 137 Gallery


Two female models on cast iron bed

Pearlstein's monochromatic wash on paper provides a bird's eye view of two nude female models in foreshortened, relaxed positions on a bed that has a bold curvilinear frame. This work is an example of the eventual development of his more complex, staged setups incorporating furniture and other objects into his compositions, and the extreme cropping of the image is a characteristic design element of his canvases.

The diagonal position of the figure near the foot of the bed mimics the directional flow of the bottom frame, and the crossed legs of the figure at the top of the bed is similar to the design of the top frame. This creates almost a marrying of the figures and the bed, as though Pearlstein is treating the bed and models as a combined object.

In an interview, Pearlstein shared that he sees his models as elements of design. This possibly accounts for the seemingly stark quality of the models, and their probable treatment as objects. Pearlstein's perspective suggests an intent to create art for the sole sake of visual experience without an assigned narrative. This piece signifies his contribution to nude portraiture, in widening the possibilities, approaches and aims of works in this genre.

Wash on paper - Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York


The Great Sphinx, Giza

Pearlstein's overall career is not limited to the figure. His body of work also includes depictions of architecture and landscapes. The lithograph of the Great Sphinx of Giza, realistically interpreted from a low upward viewpoint is one such example. Within the Sphinx lies significant detail of the stones, and one can clearly note Pearlstein's fascination with the light's manipulation upon the monument's surface. The variety in values - the range of lightness and darkness of the colours allows the viewer to see the illusion of the numerous cracks, bumps and edges of the surface. The use of contrast between the light and dark colours also draws one's attention towards the textures and details of the Sphinx's surface.

The emphasis upon the shapes, textures, light and shadows directs the focus towards the Sphinx's unique physical properties possibly allowing Pearlstein to deflect attention from mythical, religious or political affiliations. He is known for removing depiction from imposed notions, and this work evidences this ability to detach cultural meanings.

Lithograph - Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio


Rob Storr

Pearlstein's portrait of the curator, artist and writer Robert Storr provides a close-up view of the sitter's face and neckline achieved through extreme cropping. The portrait is an examination of how light affects surface features. The fragmentation of the skin from the stark studio lighting striking its raised surfaces, and the layering of shadows of varying saturations on the neckline, showcase his technical abilities and adherence to detail. Pearlstein's intention appears to be a straightforward accurate image of Storr without any emotional content.

The portrait is similar to Photorealism, a style in which artists focused on producing a hyper exactness of images through painstaking attention to detail. An additional emphasis of Photorealism was the interaction of light and colour. A difference, however between Pearlstein's approach to capturing details, light, and colour, and the photorealists is he worked directly from observation, whereas the photorealists relied heavily on the use of photographs.

Oil on canvas


Two Models, Polished Steel Chair and Swan Decoy

This disoriented, angled portrait evidences Pearlstein's tackling of the compositional puzzle created through intertwining human bodies with contrasting artefacts. To the left, we see a nude model, slouched on a silver steel chair with her left leg positioned through the chair's exterior gap. Beside her lies another nude model clutching a grey swan decoy. The complexity of the painting is extended through the inclusion of a vibrantly detailed rug and patterned sheets and cushions, which are faithfully and intricately recreated.

Pearlstein's faithfulness to their details allows the viewer to enjoy the rich features and colours of these objects. Linda Nochlin, the art historian proposes that the objects in these paintings offer a large amount of visual pleasure while simultaneously provoking and demanding active looking. Active looking is also encouraged in this piece by the depiction of the reflected fragmented distorted figures and objects in the glossy surface of the chair. This work portrays Pearlstein's ever-increasingly complex paintings in which multiple intriguing objects share intimate space with the models.

Oil on canvas

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Philip Pearlstein
Influenced by Artist
  • No image available
    Janet Fish
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    Charles David Viera
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    Tony Phillips
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    Stephen Lorber
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Desiree Alvarez
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Marie Brammah

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Philip Pearlstein Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Marie Brammah
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 03 Mar 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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