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Philip Pearlstein

American Painter

Born: May 24, 1924 - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Philip Pearlstein Timeline
I had decided I didn't want my work to have any meaning, it was about the total visual experience.
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.

Important Art by Philip Pearlstein

Training in Florida (3 soldiers resting) (1943)

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.

Untitled (1964)

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.

Two female models on cast iron bed (1975)

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.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Philip Pearlstein
Influenced by Artist
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    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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