Lost in Translation: 8 Art Words and Phrases We Borrow From Other Languages

The 1995 hit movie Clueless struck a chord with art novices nationwide in its description of a Monet. “From far away, it’s OK, but up close, it’s a big old mess.”

Unless you studied art history or are a well-versed art enthusiast, talking about art can be a foreign language. Literally.

Art has spanned many different cultures, places and times. Naturally, it developed its own lexicon of terms along the way. Some of the words and phrases are directly plucked, sans-translation, from their original languages. These verbal souvenirs are embedded in the vocabulary and give little glimpses into art’s long history.

Here’s a look at some of these interesting art terms and how they apply to the art for sale online at UGallery.

From Latin

Ars Gratia Artis –This phrase is commonly translated to “art for art’s sake.” It has become the catchphrase of the late 19th Century movement Aestheticism. As the phrase suggests, the movement rejects art with instructive, moralizing, or other specific function. Ars gratia artis simply exists as an aesthetic object.


Ars gratia artis in Ben and Sheena George’s Lines on Lines, 2013

Vanitas – Vanitas characterizes a genre of still life painting that is designed to remind the viewer of the transience of earthly goods. These paintings are often fraught with evocative symbols such as skulls, candles, wilting flowers and overripe fruit, which gesture to the passage of time.


Jeanette Jones’s version of a vanitas called Still Life, 2014

From Italian

Contrapposto – This word comes from the Italian verb meaning, “to counterpose.” In art, Contrapposto is the relaxed and shifted pose the standing human body takes on when its weight is supported by one leg. This shift causes asymmetrical tilting of the shoulders, hips, and knees. In ancient sculpture, the introduction of contrapposto suggests an artistic advancement towards a more realistic and natural depiction of the human body.


A figure in contrapposto from Patrick Soper’s Wrapped in Gold, 2013

Impasto - Impasto describes the technique of layering thick and heavy paint. The encrusted pigment often projects off of the canvas creating texture and dimensionality. The word shares its Italian roots with  dough, pastry cake, and paste.


Pamela Gatens uses impasto in Summer’s Last Bouquet, 2013

Sfumato – Sfumato is a technique in painting or drawing of softening and blurring the distinctions between colors to create a hazy effect. The word literally translates to “to shade,” or “to fade away.” Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo Da Vinci championed this technique; it is what gives his paintings their signature murky, shadowy quality.


John Kelly using the sfumato technique in Sunny, 2014

From French

Avant-Garde – This broad term describes artists and art that is at the cutting edge of innovation and creativity. Avant-Garde was originally a military term meaning “advance guard,” or, the line of soldiers that was physically nearest to the opposing army.  

En Plein Air – This phrase translates to “in open air” and describes the process of painting out-of-doors as opposed to in a classroom or studio. This mode of painting famously gained prominence in the mid-19th century in tandem with the rise of French impressionism. Painting en plein air broke from the norms and conventions of in-studio painting and offered artists the opportunity to create more accurate depictions of nature, giving the art world a literal and figurative breath of fresh air.  


Rodgers Naylor painted Long View, 2014 en plein air

Trompe l’oeil - Trompe l’oeil translates to “deception of the eye.” In painting, a trompe l’oeil is an optical illusion where an object is painted with such an uncanny realism that the viewer is tricked into believing that the the object is a part of the real world rather than the painting.


Harris Johnson tricks the eye with his trompe l’oeil in Backwards Canvas (Trompe L’oeil), 2013