Photo paintings

Gerhard Richter

Oil paintings, various dimensions

Germany 1960s–ongoing


Image above: Gerhard Richter, (79a) Motor Boat, 1965, oil on canvas, 170 x 170 cm © Gerhard Richter 2018 (25062018)


Gerhard Richter has consistently juggled painterly idioms with work spanning “abstract,” “gestural” and “hyperrealist,” “photographic” modes. Even while he rejects principles of aesthetic beauty, his works remain demonstrations of virtuosity. His “photo paintings” challenge the dispositives of both painting and photography. Firstly, they are openly derived from photographs, but often unreliably so. This direct signposting of photography stands in contrast to the efforts of a long list of painters who have downplayed their use of photography as a foundation for their compositions. In Richter’s work we can also glimpse the trace of the idea of painting-as-photography which exceeds the traditionally-defined historical bounds of the medium by pointing to the longer heritage of camera (obscura) painting. Take, for example, the Goncourt Brothers’ 1861 claim that Johannes Vermeer (1632­–1675) painted “living Daguerreotypes.” (Steadman 2001: 27) Richter also latches onto the mundanity, even redundancy, of photography, by often choosing far from spectacular examples. That said, discernable – or discoverable – appeal generally underpins these works. Richter may be seen, above all, to be responding to the pervasive and over-determined flattening and re-coloring of modern life – both private and public ­– by lens-reliant media.

Using his “Atlas”– a collection of “photographic” reference images – as a base, Richter picks up and inverts Aby Warburg’s “iconological” project of tracing “Pathosformeln” (empathy formulas) through visual culture from the classical period onwards, as embodied in his Mnemosyne Atlas (1924–1929). Without refuting Warburg, Richter emphasizes repetitions of failed or generic poses that are suggestive of alienation, rather than empathy – and yet they still speak assertively about the human condition. Richter’s response to Warburg is reflected, at one end, by the Annunciation After Titian series (1973). These are paintings derived from photographs of paintings and their idiom shifts from soft-focus “copy” to abstract color strokes. Here, the image of Renaissance painting is seen to retain a power that is both unquestioned and ineffectual. At the other end, in paintings such as Motor Boat (1965) and Two Couples (1966), he reminds us of the conventions through which we memorialize the contingencies of modern life. (Barnaby Dicker)


Gerhard Richter, born 1932 in Dresden, Germany, lives and works in Cologne, Germany.

1. Gerhard Richter, (128) Two Couples, 1966, oil on canvas, 115 x 160 cm © Gerhard Richter 2018 (25062018)

2. Gerhard Richter, (343-1) Annunciation after Titian, 1973, oil on canvas, 125 x 200 cm © Gerhard Richter 2018 (25062018)

3. Gerhard Richter, (498-2) Two Candles, 1982, oil on canvas, 124 x 99 cm © Gerhard Richter 2018 (25062018)


Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Gerhard Richter’s ‘Atlas’: The Anomic Archive,” October, no. 88 (Spring 1999), pp. 117–145.

Rosemary Hawker, “Idiom Post-medium: Richter Painting Photography,” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 32, no. 2 (2009), pp. 263–280.

Gerhard Richter and Benjami H. D. Buchloh, Atlas: the Reader (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2012).

Philip Steadman, Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Go back