The history of art centers around objects made by human in visual structure for aesthetics reasons. Visual art can be arranged in diverse ways, for example, separating fine arts from applied arts; comprehensively concentrating on human creativity; or concentrating on various media, for example, architecture, sculpture, painting, film, photography, and graphics arts.

The history of art of is regularly told as an order of masterpieces made during every civilization. It would thus be able to be surrounded as a story of high culture, embodied by the Wonders of the World. Then again, vernacular art expression can likewise be coordinated into art historical stories, referred to as folk arts or craft. The more closely than art historian engages with these last forms of low culture, the more likely it is that they will recognize their work as looking at visual culture or material culture, or as adding to fields related to art history, for example, anthropology or archaeology. In the last cases art items might be referred to as archeological artifacts.

Prehistoric art

Prehistoric art comes from three epochs of prehistory: Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic. The earliest recorded art is the Bhimbetka petroglyphs (a set of 10 cupules and an engraving or groove) found in a quartzite rock shelter known as Auditorium cave at Bhimbetka in central India, dating from at least 290,000 BCE. However, it may turn out to be much older (c.700,000 BCE). This primitive rock art was followed, no later than 250,000 BCE, by simple figurines (eg. Venus of Berekhat Ram [Golan Heights] and Venus of Tan-Tan [Morocco]), and from 80,000 BCE by the Blombos cave stone engravings, and the cupules at the Dordogne rock shelter at La Ferrassie. Prehistoric culture and creativity is closely associated with brain-size and efficiency which impacts directly on “higher” functions such as language, creative expression and ultimately aesthetics. Thus with the advent of “modern” homo sapiens painters and sculptors (50,000 BCE onwards) such as Cro-Magnon Man and Grimaldi Man, we see a huge outburst of magnificent late Paleolthic sculpture and painting in France and the Iberian peninsular. This comprises a range of miniature obese venus figurines (eg. the Venuses of Willendorf, Kostenky, Monpazier, Dolni Vestonice, Moravany, Brassempouy, Gagarino, to name but a few), as well as mammoth ivory carvings found in the caves of Vogelherd and Hohle Fels in the Swabian Jura. However, the greatest art of prehistory is the cave painting at Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira.

These murals were painted in caves reserved as a sort of prehistoric art gallery, where artists began to paint animals and hunting scenes, as well as a variety of abstract or symbolic drawings. In France, they include the monochrome Chauvet Cave pictures of animals and abstract drawings, the hand stencil art at Cosquer Cave, and the polychrome charcoal and ochre images at Pech-Merle, and Lascaux. In Spain, they include polychrome images of bison and deer at Altamira Cave in Spain. Outside Europe, major examples of rock art include: Ubirr Aboriginal artworks (from 30,000 BCE), the animal figure paintings in charcoal and ochre at the Apollo 11 Cave (from 25,500 BCE) in Namibia, the Bradshaw paintings (from 17,000 BCE) in Western Australia, and the hand stencil images at the Cuevas de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) (from 9500 BCE) in Argentina, among many others.

Mesolithic Art (c.10,000-4,000 BCE)

In Old World archaeology, Mesolithic is the period between the Upper Paleolithic and the Neolithic. The term Epipaleolithic is often used synonymously, especially for outside northern Europe, and for the corresponding period in the Levant and Caucasus. The Mesolithic has different time spans in different parts of Eurasia. It refers to the final period of hunter-gatherer cultures in Europe and West Asia, between the end of the Last Glacial Maximum and the Neolithic Revolution. In Europe it spans roughly 15,000 to 5,000 BP, in Southwest Asia (the Epipalaeolithic Near East) roughly 20,000 to 8,000 BP. The term is less used of areas further east, and not at all beyond Eurasia and North Africa.

Neolithic Art

The more “settled” and populous Neolithic era saw a growth in crafts like pottery and weaving. This originated in Mesolithic times from about 9,000 BCE in the villages of southern Asia, after which it flourished along the Yellow and Yangtze river valleys in China (c.7,500 BCE) – see Neolithic Art in China – then in the fertile crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys in the Middle East (c.7,000) – the ‘cradle of civilization’ – before spreading to India (c.5,000), Europe (c.4,000), China (3,500) and the Americas (c.2,500). Although most art remained functional in nature, there was a greater focus on ornamentation and decoration. For example, calligraphy – one of the great examples of Chinese art – first appears during this period. See: Chinese Art Timeline for details. Neolithic art also features free standing sculpture, bronze statuettes (notably by the Indus Valley Civilization), primitive jewellery and decorative designs on a variety of artifacts. The most spectacular form of late Neolithic art was architecture: featuring large-stone structures known as megaliths, ranging from the Egyptian pyramids, to the passage tombs of Northern Europe – such as Newgrange and Knowth in Ireland – and the assemblages of large upright stones (menhirs) such as those at the Stonehenge Stone Circle and Avebury Circle in England. (For more, please see: megalithic art.) However, the major medium of Neolithic art was ceramic pottery, the finest examples of which were produced around the region of Mesopotamia (see Mesopotamian art) and the eastern Mediterranean. For more chronology, see: Pottery Timeline. Towards the close of this era, hieroglyphic writing systems appear in Sumer, heralding the end of prehistory.

History of Bronze Age Art (In Europe: 3000-1200 BCE)

The most famous examples of Bronze Age art appeared in the ‘cradle of civilization’ around the Mediterranean in the Near East, during the rise of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), Greece, Crete (Minoan civilization) and Egypt. The emergence of cities, the use of written languages and the development of more sophisticated tools led the creation of a far wider range of monumental and portable artworks.

Egyptian Art (from 3100 BCE)

Egypt, arguably the greatest civilization in the history of ancient art, was the first culture to adopt a recognizable style of art. Egyptian painters depicted the head, legs and feet of their human subjects in profile, while portraying the eye, shoulders, arms and torso from the front. Other artistic conventions laid down how Gods, Pharaohs and ordinary people should be depicted, regulating such elements as size, colour and figurative position. Click to see the full history of egyptian art

Ancient Greek Art

Ancient Greek art is customarily split into the following period: (1) the Dark Ages (c.1100-900 BCE). (2) The Geometric Period (c.900-700 BCE). (3) The Oriental-Style Period (c.700-625 BCE). (4) The Archaic Period (c.625-500 BCE). (5) The Classical Period (c.500-323 BCE). (6) The Hellenistic Period (c.323-100 BCE). unfortunately, about all Greek work of art and a huge proportion of Greek sculpture has been lost, leaving us with a collection of ruins or Roman duplicates. Greek architecture, as well, is to a great extent known to us through its remains. In spite of this tiny inheritance, Greek artist remain profoundly loved, which shows how genuinely advance they were. click to read more on Ancient Greek Art

Roman Art (c.200 BCE-400 CE)


Unlike their intellectual Greek neighbours, the Romans were primarily practical people with a natural affinity for engineering, military matters, and Empire building. Roman architecture was designed to awe, entertain and cater for a growing population both in Italy and throughout their Empire. Thus Roman architectural achievements are exemplified by new drainage systems, aqueducts, bridges, public baths, sports facilities and amphitheatres (eg. the Colosseum 72-80 CE), characterized by major advances in materials (eg. the invention of concrete) and in the construction of arches and roof domes. The latter not only allowed the roofing of larger buildings, but also gave the exterior far greater grandeur and majesty. All this revolutionized the Greek-dominated field of architecture, at least in form and size, if not in creativity, and provided endless opportunity for embellishment in the way of scultural reliefs, statues, fresco murals, and mosaics. The most famous examples of Roman architecture include: the massive Colosseum, the Arch of Titus, and Trajan’s Column.

Painting, Sculpture

If Roman architecture was uniquely grandiose, its paintings and sculptures continued to imitate the Greek style, except that its main purpose was the glorification of Rome’s power and majesty. Early Roman art (c.200-27 BCE) was detailed, unidealized and realistic, while later Imperial styles (c.27 BCE – 200 CE) were more heroic. Mediocre painting flourished in the form of interior-design standard fresco murals, while higher quality panel painting was executed in tempera or in encaustic pigments. Roman sculpture too, varied in quality: as well as tens of thousands of average quality portrait busts of Emperors and other dignitaries, Roman sculptors also produced some marvellous historical relief sculptures, such as the spiral bas relief sculpture on Trajan’s Column, celebrating the Emperor’s victory in the Dacian war.

History of Medieval Art

Constantinople, Christianity and Byzantine Art

With the death in 395 CE, of the Emperor Theodosius, the Roman empire was divided into two halves: a Western half based initially in Rome, until it was sacked in the 5th century CE, then Ravenna; and an eastern half located in the more secure city of Constantinople. At the same time, Christianity was made the exclusive official religion of the empire. These two political developments had a huge impact on the history of Western art. First, relocation to Constantinople helped to prolong Greco-Roman civilization and culture; second, the growth of Christianity led to an entirely new category of Christian art which provided architects, painters, sculptors and other craftsmen with what became the dominant theme in the visual arts for the next 1,200 years. As well as prototype forms of early Christian art, much of which came from the catacombs, it also led directly to the emergence of Byzantine art. See also: Christian Art, Byzantine Period.

Art of Byzantium (Constantinople) (330-1450 CE)

Byzantine art was almost entirely religious art, and centred around its Christian architecture. Masterpieces include the awesome Hagia Sophia (532-37) in Istanbul; the Church of St Sophia in Sofia, Bulgaria (527-65); and the Church of Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki. Byzantine art also influenced the Ravenna mosaics in the Basilicas of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, San Vitale, and Sant’ Apollinare in Classe. Secular examples include: the Great Palace of Constantinople, and Basilica Cistern. As well as new architectural techniques such as the use of pendentives to spread the weight of the ceiling dome, thus permitting larger interiors, new decorative methods were introduced like mosaics made from glass, rather than stone. But the Eastern Orthodox brand of Christianity (unlike its counterpart in Rome), did not allow 3-D artworks like statues or high reliefs, believing they glorified the human aspect of the flesh rather than the divine nature of the spirit. Thus Byzantine art (eg. painting, mosaic works) developed a particular style of meaningful imagery (iconography) designed to present complex theology in a very simple way. For example, colours were used to express different ideas: gold represented Heaven; blue, the colour of human life, and so on.

After 600 CE, Byzantine architecture progressed through several periods – such as, the Middle Period (c.600-1100) and the Comnenian and Paleologan periods (c.1100-1450) – gradually becoming more and more influenced by eastern traditions of construction and decoration. In Western Europe, Byzantine architecture was superceded by Romanesque and Gothic styles, while in the Near East it continued to have a significant influence on early Islamic architecture, as illustrated by the Umayyad Great Mosque of Damascus and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Byzantine Painting

In the absence of sculpture, Byzantine artists specialized in 2-D painting, becoming masters of panel-painting, including miniatures – notably icons – and manuscript illumination. Their works had a huge influence on artists throughout western and central Europe, as well as the Islamic countries of the Middle East.

Romanesque Art (Carolingian, Ottonian) (c.775-1050)

On the continent, the revival of medieval Christian art began with Charlemagne I, King of the Franks, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, by Pope Leo III in 800. Charlemagne’s court scriptoriums at Aachen produced a number of magnificent illuminated Christian texts, such as: the Godscalc Evangelistary, the Lorsch Gospels and the Gospels of St Medard of Soissons. Ironically, his major architectural work – the Palatine Chapel in Aachen (c.800) – was influenced not by St Peter’s or other churches in Rome, but by the Byzantine-style Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. The Carolingian empire rapidly dissolved but Carolingian Art marked an important first step in the spread of Medieval art and the revitalization of Continental culture. Furthermore, many of the Romanesque and Gothic churches were built on the foundations of Carolingian architecture. Charlemagne’s early Romanesque architectural achievements were continued by the Holy Roman Emperors Otto I-III, in a style known as Ottonian Art, which morphed into the fully fledged “Romanesque.” (In England and Ireland, the Romanesque style is usually called Norman architecture.)

The Church Invests in Art to Convey Its Message

The spread of Romanesque art in the 11th century coincided with the reassertiveness of Roman Christianity, and the latter’s influence on secular authorities led to the Christian re-conquest of Spain (c.1031) as well as the Crusade to free the Holy Land from the grip of Islam. The success of the Crusaders and their acquisition of Holy Relics triggered a wave of new cathedrals across Europe. In addition to its influence over international politics, Rome exercised growing power via its network of Bishops and its links with Monastic orders such as the Benedictines, the Cistercians, Carthusians and Augustinian Canons. From these monasteries, its officials exercised growing administrative power over the local population, notably the power to collect tax revenues which it devoted to religious works, particularly the building of cathedrals (encompassing sculpture and metalwork, as well as architecture), illuminated gospel manuscripts, and cultural scholarship – a process exemplified by the powerful Benedictine monastery at Cluny in Burgundy.

Romanesque Architecture (c.1000-1200)

Although based on Greek and Roman Antiquity, Romanesque architecture displayed neither the creativity of the Greeks, nor the engineering skill of the Romans. They employed thick walls, round arches, piers, columns, groin vaults, narrow slit-windows, large towers and decorative arcading. The basic load of the building was carried not its arches or columns but by its massive walls. And its roofs, vaults and buttresses were relatively primitive in comparison with later styles. Above all, interiors were dim and comparatively hemmed in with heavy stone walls. Even so, Romanesque architecture did reintroduce two important forms of fine art: sculpture (which had been in abeyance since the fall of Rome), and stained glass, albeit on a minor scale.

Gothic Art (c.1150-1400)

Largely financed by monastic orders and local bishops, Gothic architecture exploited a number of technical advances in pointed arches and other design factors, in order to awe, inspire and educate the masses. Thus, out went the massively thick walls, small windows and dim interiors, in came soaring ceilings (“reaching to heaven”), thin walls and stained glass windows. This transformed the interior of many cathedrals into inspirational sanctuaries, where illiterate congregations could see the story of the bible illustrated in the beautiful stained glass art of its huge windows. Indeed, the Gothic cathedral was seen by architects as representing the universe in miniature. Almost every feature was designed to convey a theological message: namely, the awesome glory of God, and the ordered nature of his universe. Religious Gothic art – that is, architecture, relief sculpture and statuary – is best exemplified by the cathedrals of Northern France, notably Notre Dame de Paris; Reims and Chartres, as well as Cologne Cathedral, St Stephen’s Cathedral Vienna and, in England, Westminster Abbey and York Minster.

History of Renaissance Art (c.1300-1620)

Strongly influenced by International Gothic, the European revival of fine art between roughly 1300 and 1600, popularly known as “the Renaissance”, was a unique and (in many respects) inexplicable phenomenon, not least because of (1) the Black Death plague (1346), which wiped out one third of the European population; (2) the 100 Years War between England and France (1339-1439) and (3) the Reformation (c.1520) – none of which was conducive to the development of the visual arts. Fortunately, certain factors in the Renaissance heartland of Florence and Rome – notably the energy and huge wealth of the Florentine Medici family, and the Papal ambitions of Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84), Pope Julius II (1503-13), Pope Leo X (1513-21) and Pope Paul III (1534-45) – succeeded in overcoming all natural obstacles, even if the Church was almost bankrupted in the process.

Renaissance art was founded on classicism – an appreciation of the arts of Classical Antiquity, a belief in the nobility of Man, as well as artistic advances in both linear perspective and realism. It evolved in three main Italian cities: first Florence, then Rome, and lastly Venice. Renaissance chronology is usually listed as follows:

• Proto-Renaissance (c.1300-1400)

This introductory period was largely instigated by the revolutionary painting style of Giotto (1270-1337), whose fresco cycle in the Capella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel) in Padua introduced a new realism into painting which challenged many of the iconographic conventions then in use.

• Early Renaissance (c.1400-1490)

Triggered in part by the unearthing of a copy of De Architectura (“Ten Books Conerning Architecture”) by the 1st century Roman architect Vitruvius (c.78-10 BCE), and Filippo Brunelleschi’s magnificent 1418 design for the dome of Florence’s Gothic cathedral (1420-36), this period of activity was centred on Florence. Major early Renaissance artists included the architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), the sculptor Donatello (1386-1466), and the painter Tommaso Masaccio (c.1401-28). Later important contributors included Piero della Francesca (1420-92), Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1432-98) and Botticelli (1445-1510), plus the Northerner Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506).

• High Renaissance (c.1490-1530)

Regarded as the apogee of the Italian Renaissance and its aesthetic ideals of beauty and harmony, the High Renaissance was centred on Rome and dominated by the painting of Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) (eg. “The Last Supper”, “The Mona Lisa”) and Raphael (1483-1520) (eg. “The School of Athens”), and the immortal works of Michelangelo (1475-1564) (including masterpieces of Italian Renaissance sculpture such as “Pieta” and “David”, and the “Genesis” Sistine Chapel fresco). Other leading high Renaissance artists included members of the school of Venetian painting school, such as Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto.

Renaissance architecture employed precepts derived from ancient Greece and Rome, but kept many modern features of Byzantine and Gothic invention, such as domes and towers. Important architects included: Donato Bramante (1444-1514) the greatest exponent of High Renaisance architecture; Baldassare Peruzzi (1481-1536), an important architect and interior designer; Michele Sanmicheli (1484-1559), the leading pupil of Bramante; Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570), the most celebrated Venetian architect; Giulio Romano (1499-1546), the chief practitioner of Italian Late Renaissance-style building design; Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), an influential theorist; and of course Michelangelo himself, who helped to design the dome for St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

• Northern Renaissance (c.1400-1530)

In Northern Europe (Flanders, Holland, England and Germany), the Renaissance developed in a different manner. A damper climate unsuited to fresco painting encouraged the early use of oils, while differing skills and temperament led to the early espousal of printmaking, and the the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1450s. In most countries of Northern Europe the Reformation caused a serious loss of patronage, and a consequent decline in large-scale religious works. In its place there emerged new traditions of portraiture, and other easel-works, which led ultimately to the wonderful still lifes and genre painting of the Dutch Realism school in the 17th century. The greatest artists of the Northern Renaissance were: the Dutchman Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441), noted for his luminous colours and detailed realism; the versatile German Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), noted for his drawing, self-portraiture, oils, watercolours, woodcuts and engravings; Robert Campin (1375-1444) the Master of Flemalle, an elusive but outstanding artist who taught Van der Weyden and was a key founder of the Dutch School; the Belgian Roger van der Weyden (1400-1464), noted for his powerful religious paintings; the Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), noted for his moralizing fantasy works illustrating the sins of Man; the austere religious fanatic Mathias Grunewald (1470-1528), whose dramatic style of art influenced later schools of Expressionism; and the portraitists Lucas Cranach (1472-1553) and Hans Holbein (1497-1543).

Among the greatest sculptors of the Northern Renaissance were: the German limewood sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531), noted for his reliefs and freestanding wood sculpture; and the wood-carver Veit Stoss (1450-1533) noted for his delicate altarpieces.

History of Post-Renaissance Art

Baroque Art (c.1600-1700)

It was during this period that the Catholic Counter-Reformation got going in an attempt to attract the masses away from Protestantism. Renewed patronage of the visual arts and architecture was a key feature of this propaganda campaign, and led to a grander, more theatrical style in both areas. This new style, known as Baroque art was effectively the highpoint of dramatic Mannerism.

Baroque architecture took full advantage of the theatrical potential of the urban landscape, exemplified by Saint Peter’s Square (1656-67) in Rome, in front of the domed St Peter’s Basilica. Its architect, Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) employed a widening series of colonnades in the approach to the cathedral, conveying the impression to visitors that they are being embraced by the arms of the Catholic Church. The entire approach is constructed on a gigantic scale, to induce feelings of awe.

In painting, the greatest exponent of Catholic Counter-Reformation art was Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) – “the Prince of painters and the painter of Princes”. Other leading Catholic artists included Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), Francisco Zurbaran (1598-1664) and Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665).

In Protestant Northern Europe, the Baroque era was marked by the flowering of Dutch Realist genre painting, a style uniquely suited to the new bourgeois patrons of small-scale interiors, genre-paintings, portraits, landscapes and still lifes. Several schools of 17th century Dutch painting sprang up including those of Haarlem, Delft, Utrecht, and Leiden. Leading members included the two immortals Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Jan Vermeer (1632-1675), as well as Frans Snyders (1579-1657), Frans Hals (1581-1666), Adriaen Brouwer (1605-38), Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-84), Adriaen van Ostade (1610-85), David Teniers the Younger (1610-90), Gerard Terborch (1617-81), Jan Steen (1626-79), Pieter de Hooch (1629-83), and the landscape painters Aelbert Cuyp (1620-91), Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-82) and Meyndert Hobbema (1638-1709), among others.

Rococo Art (c.1700-1789)

This new style of decorative art, known as Rococo, impacted most on interior-design, although architecture, painting and sculpture were also affected. Essentially a reaction against the seriousness of the Baroque, Rococo was a light-hearted, almost whimsical style which grew up in the French court at the Palace of Versailles before spreading across Europe. Rococo designers employed the full gamut of plasterwork, murals, tapestries, furniture, mirrors, porcelain, silks and other embellishments to give the householder a complete aesthetic experience. In painting, the Rococo style was championed by the French artists Watteau (1684-1721), Fragonard (1732-1806), and Boucher (1703-70). But the greatest works were produced by the Venetian Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) whose fantastic wall and ceiling fresco paintings took Rococo to new heights. See in particular the renaissance of French Decorative Art (1640-1792), created by French Designers especially in the form of French Furniture, at Versailles and other Royal Chateaux, in the style of Louis Quatorze (XIV), Louis Quinze (XV) and Louis Seize (XVI). As it was, Rococo symbolized the decadent indolence and degeneracy of the French aristocracy. Because of this, it was swept away by the French Revolution which ushered in the new sterner Neoclassicism, more in keeping with the Age of Enlightenment and Reason.

Neoclassical Art (Flourished c.1790-1830)

In architecture, Neoclassicism derived from the more restrained “classical” forms of Baroque practised in England by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), who designed St Paul’s Cathedral. Yet another return to the Classical Orders of Greco-Roman Antiquity, the style was characterized by monumental structures, supported by columns of pillars, and topped with classical Renaissance domes. Employing innovations like layered cupolas, it lent added grandeur to palaces, churches, and other public structures. Famous Neoclassical buildings include: the Pantheon (Paris) designed by Jacques Germain Soufflot (1756-97), the Arc de Triomphe (Paris) designed by Jean Chalgrin, the Brandenburg Gate (Berlin) designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans (1732-1808), and the United States Capitol Building, designed by English-born Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820), and later by Stephen Hallet and Charles Bulfinch. See also the era of American Colonial Art (c.1670-1800).

Neoclassicist painters also looked to Classical Antiquity for inspiration, and emphasized the virtues of heroicism, duty and gravitas. Leading exponents included the French political artist Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), the German portrait and history painter Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-79), and the French master of the Academic art style, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). Neoclassical sculptors included: Antonio Canova (1757-1822),
Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844), and Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828).

Romanticism Movement (Flourished c.1790-1830)

In contrast to the universal values espoused by Neo-Classicism, Romantic artists expressed a more personal response to life, relying more on their senses and emotions rather than reason and intellect. This idealism, like Neoclassism, was encouraged by the French Revolution, thus some artists were affected by both styles. Nature was an important subject for Romantics, and the style is exemplified, by the English School of Landscape Painting, the plein air painting of John Constable (1776-1837), Corot (1796-1875) along with members of the French Barbizon School and the American Hudson River School of landscape painting, as well as the more expressionistic JMW Turner (1775-1851). Arguably, however, the greatest Romantic landscape painter is arguably Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). Narrative or history painting was another important genre in Romanticism: leading exponents include: Francisco Goya (1746-1828) Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), James Barry (1741-1806), Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) and Eugene Delacroix (1798-63), as well as later exponents of Orientalist painting, and moody Pre-Raphaelites and Symbolists.


As the 19th century progessed, growing awareness of the rights of man plus the social impact of the Industrial Revolution caused some artists to move away from idealistic or romantic subjects in favour of more mundane subjects, depicted in a more true-life, style of naturalism. This new focus (to some extent anticipated by William Hogarth in the 18th century, see English Figurative Painting) was exemplified by the Realism style which emerged in France during the 1840s, before spreading across Europe. This new style attracted painters from all the genres – notably Gustave Courbet (1819-77) (genre-painting), Jean Francois Millet (1814-75) (landscape, rural life), Honore Daumier (1808-79) (urban life) and Ilya Repin (1844-1930) (landscape and portraits).

History of Modern Art

Impressionism (c.1870-80)

French Impressionism, championed above all by Claude Monet (1840-1926), was a spontaneous colour-sensitive style of pleinairism whose origins derived from Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and the techniques of the Barbizon school – whose quest was to depict the momentary effects of natural light. It encompassed rural landscapes [Alfred Sisley (1839-1899)], cityscapes [Camille Pissarro (1830-1903)], genre scenes [Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), and Berthe Morisot (1841-95)] and both figurative paintings and portraits [Edouard Manet (1832-83), John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)]. Other artists associated with Impressionism include, James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903) and Walter Sickert (1860-1942).

Impressionists sought to faithfully reproduce fleeting moments outdoors. Thus if an object appeared dark purple – due perhaps to failing or reflected light – then the artist painted it purple. Naturalist “Academic-Style” colour schemes, being devised in theory or at least in the studio, did not allow for this. As a result Impressionism offered a whole new pictorial language – one that paved the way for more revolutionary art movements like Cubism – and is often regarded by historians and critics as the first modern school of painting.

In any event, the style had a massive impact on Parisian and world art, and was the gateway to a series of colour-related movements, including Post-Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Pointillism, Divisionism, Fauvism, Intimism, the American Luminism or Tonalism, as well as American Impressionism, the Newlyn School and Camden Town Group, the French Les Nabis and the general Expressionist movement.

Post Impressionism (c.1885 onwards)

Essentially an umbrella term encompassing a number of developments and reactions to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism involved artists who employed Impressionist-type colour schemes, but were dissatisfied with the limitations imposed by merely reproducing nature. Neo-Impressionism with its technique of Pointillism was pioneered by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac (1863-1935), while major Post-Impressionists include Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne. Inspired by Gauguin’s synthetism and Bernard’s cloisonnism, the Post-Impressionist group Les Nabis promoted a wider form of decorative art; another style, known as Intimisme, concerned itself with genre scenes of domestic, intimate interiors. Exemplified by the work of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940), it parallels other tranquil interiors such as those by James McNeil Whistler, and the Dutch Realist-influenced Peter Vilhelm Ilsted (1861-1933). Another very important movement – anti-impressionist rather than post-impressionist – was Symbolism (flourished 1885-1900), which went on to influence Fauvism, Expressionism and Surrealism. Note also that many post-Impressionist artists adopted the forms and aesthetics of classicism, as a response to the passive naturalism of Impressionist art. This led to a widespread Classical Revival in modern art, known as the ‘return to order’, between 1900 and 1930.

Colourism: Fauvism (1900 onwards)

The term “Fauves” (wild beasts) was first used by the art critic Louis Vauxcelles at the 1905 Salon d’Automne exhibition in Paris when describing the vividly coloured paintings of Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Andre Derain (1880-1954), and Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958). Other Fauvists included the later Cubist Georges Braque (1882-1963), Raoul Dufy (1877-1953), Albert Marquet (1875-1947) and Georges Rouault (1871-1958). Most followers of Fauvism moved on to Expressionism or other movements associated with the Ecole de Paris.

19th Century/Early 20th Century Sculpture

Sculptural traditions, although never independent from those of painting, are concerned primarily with space and volume, while issues of scale and function also act as distinguishing factors. Thus on the whole, sculpture was slower to reflect the new trends of modern art during the 19th century, leaving sculptors like Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) free to pursue a monumentalism derived essentially from Neoclassicism if not Renaissance ideology. The public dimension of sculpture also lent itself to the celebration of Victorian values and historical figures, which were likewise executed in the grand manner of earlier times. Thus it wasn’t until the emergence of artists like Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) and Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) that sculpture really began to change, at the turn of the century.

Expressionist Art (c.1900 onwards)

Expressionism is a general style of painting that aims to express a personal interpretation of a scene or object, rather than depict its true-life features, it is often characterized by energetic brushwork, impastoed paint, intense colours and bold lines. Early Expressionists included, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90), Edvard Munch (1863-1944) and Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). A number of German Expressionist schools sprang up during the first three decades of the 20th century. These included: Die Brucke (1905-11), a group based in Dresden in 1905, which mixed elements of traditional German art with Post-Impressionist and Fauvist styles, exemplified in works by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Erik Heckel, and Emil Nolde; Der Blaue Reiter (1911-14), a loose association of artists based in Munich, including Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, August Macke, and Paul Klee; Die Neue Sachlichkeit (1920s) a post-war satirical-realist group whose members included Otto Dix, George Grosz, Christian Schad and to a lesser extent Max Beckmann. Expressionism duly spread worldwide, spawning numerous derivations in both figurative painting (eg. Francis Bacon) and abstract art (eg. Mark Rothko). See also: History of Expressionist Painting (c.1880-1930).

Decorative Arts: Art Nouveau (1890-1910) and Art Deco (1920s-30s)

Art Nouveau (Late 19th Century – Early 20th Century)

Art Nouveau (promoted as Jugendstil by the Munich Secession (1892) and Berlin Secession (1898), as Sezessionstil in the Vienna Secession (1897), and as Stile Liberty in Italy, and Modernista in Spain) derived from William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain, and was also influenced by both the Celtic Revival arts movement and Japanonisme. It’s popularity stemmed from the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, from where it spread across Europe and the United States. It was noted for its intricate flowing patterns of sinuous asymetrical lines, based on plant-forms (dating back to the Celtic Hallstatt and La Tene cultures), as well as female silhouettes and forms. Art Nouveau had a major influence on poster art, design and illustration, interior design, metalwork, glassware, jewellery, as well as painting and sculpture. Leading exponents included: Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98), Eugene Grasset (1845-1917) and Albert Guillaume (1873-1942). See also: History of Poster Art.

Jewellery Art (c.1880-1917)

For unbelievable examples of authentic artistic jewellery, created by Russia’s greatest goldsmiths, see: Fabergé Easter Eggs.

The Bauhaus School (Germany, 1919-1933)

Derived from the two German words “bau” for building and “haus” for house, the Bauhaus school of art and design was founded in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius. Enormously influential in both architecture and design – and their teaching methods – its instructors included such artists as Josef Albers, Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Schlemmer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Anni Albers and Johannes Itten. Its mission was to bring art into contact with everyday life, thus the design of everyday objects was given the same importance as fine art. Important Bauhaus precepts included the virtue of simple, clean design, massproduction and the practical advantages of a well-designed home and workplace. The Bauhaus was eventually closed by the Nazis in 1933, whereupon several of its teachers emigrated to America: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy settled in Chicago where he founded the New Bauhaus in 1937, while Albers went to Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

Art Deco (1920s, 1930s)

The design style known as Art Deco was showcased in 1925 at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris and became a highly popular style of decorative art, design and architecture during the inter-war years (much employed by cinema and hotel architects). Its influence was also seen in the design of furniture, textile fabrics, pottery, jewellery, and glass. A reaction against Art Nouveau, the new idiom of Art Deco eliminated the latter’s flowing curvilinear forms and replaced them with Cubist and Precisionist-inspired geometric shapes. Famous examples of Art Deco architecture include the Empire State Building and the New York Chrysler Building. Art Deco was also influenced by the simple architectural designs of The Bauhaus.

Cubism (c.1908-12)

Invented by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) and considered to be “the” revolutionary movement of modern art, Cubism was a more intellectual style of painting that explored the full potential of the two-dimensional picture plane by offering different views of the same object, typically arranged in a series of overlapping fragments: rather like a photographer might take several photos of an object from different angles, before cutting them up with scissors and rearranging them in haphazard fashion on a flat surface. This “analytical Cubism” (which originated with Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”) quickly gave way to “synthetic Cubism”, when artists began to include “found objects” in their canvases, such as collages made from newspaper cuttings. Cubist painters included: Juan Gris (1887-1927), Fernand Leger (1881-1955), Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), Albert Gleizes (1881-1953), Roger de La Fresnaye (1885-1925), Jean Metzinger (1883-1956), and Francis Picabia (1879-1953), the avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), and the sculptors Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973), and Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964). (See also Russian art.) Short-lived but highly influential, Cubism instigated a whole new style of abstract art and had a significant impact the development of later styles such as: Orphism (1910-13), Collage (1912 onwards), Purism (1920s), Precisionism (1920s, 1930s), Futurism (1909-1914), Rayonism (c.1912-14), Suprematism (1913-1918), Constructivism (c.1919-32), Vorticism (c.1914-15) the De Stijl (1917-31) design movement and the austere geometrical style of concrete art known as Neo-Plasticism.

Surrealism (1924 onwards)

Largely rooted in the anti-art traditions of the Dada movement (1916-24), as well as the psychoanalytical ideas of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Surrealism was the most influential art style of the inter-war years. According to its chief theorist, Andre Breton, it sought to combine the unconscious with the conscious, in order to create a new “super-reality” – a “surrealisme”. The movement spanned a huge range of styles, from abstraction to true-life realism, typically punctuated with “unreal” imagery. Important Surrealists included Salvador Dali (1904-89), Max Ernst (1891-1976), Rene Magritte (1898-1967), Andre Masson (1896-1987), Yves Tanguy (1900-55), Joan Miro (1893-1983), Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), Jean Arp (1886-1966), and Man Ray (1890-1976). The movement had a major impact across Europe during the 1930s, was the major precursor to Conceptualism, and continues to find adherents in fine art, literature and cinematography.

Early 20th Century American Art (c.1900-45)

American painting during the period 1900-45 was realist in style and became increasingly focused on strictly American imagery. This was the result of the reaction against the Armory Show (1913) and European hypermodernism, as well as a response to changing social conditions across the country. Later it became a patriotic response to the Great Depression of the 1930s. See also the huge advances in Skyscraper architecture of the early 20th century. For more, see: American architecture (1600-present). Specific painting movements included the Ashcan School (c.1900-1915); Precisionism (1920s) which celebrated the new American industrial landscape; the more socially aware urban style of Social Realism (1930s); American Scene Painting (c.1925-45) which embraced the work of Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield, as well as midwestern Regionalism (1930s) championed by Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry.

Note: Echoes of American Regionalism can be seen in the government approved style of Socialist Realism (c.1920-80), which flourished in Russia, China and other totalitarian states during the early (and later) 20th century.

Abstract Expressionism (1945-60)

The first international modern art movement to come out of America (it is sometimes referred to as The New York School – see also American art), it was a predominantly abstract style of painting which followed an expressionist colour-driven direction, rather than a Cubist idiom, although it also includes a number of other styles, making it more of a general movement. Four variants stand out in Abstract Expressionism: first, the “automatic” style of “action painting” invented by Jackson Pollock (1912-56) and his wife Lee Krasner (1908–1984). Second, the monumental planes of colour created by Mark Rothko (1903-70), Barnett Newman (1905-70) and Clyfford Still (1904-80) – a style known as Colour Field Painting. Third, the gestural figurative works by Willem De Kooning (1904–1997). Four, the geometric “Homage to the Square” geometric abstracts of Josef Albers (1888-1976).

Highly influential, Abstract Expressionist painting continued to influence later artists for over two decades. It was introduced to Paris during the 1950s by Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002), assisted by Michel Tapie’s book, Un Art Autre (1952). At the same time, a number of new sub-movements emerged in America, such as Hard-edge painting, exemplified by Frank Stella. In the late 1950s/early 1960s, a purely abstract form of Colour Field painting appeared in works by Helen Frankenthaler and others, while in 1964, the famous art critic Clement Greenberg helped to introduce a further stylistic development known as “Post-Painterly Abstraction”. Abstract Expressionism went on to influence a variety of different schools, including Op Art, Fluxus, Pop Art, Minimalism, Neo-Expressionism, and others.

Pop Art (Late 1950s-60s)

The bridge between modern art and postmodernism, Pop art employed popular imagery and modern forms of graphic art, to create a lively, high-impact idiom, which could be understood and appreciated by Joe Public. It appeared simultaneously in America and Britain, during the late 1950s, while a European form (Nouveau Realisme) emerged in 1960. Pioneered in America by Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and Jasper Johns (b.1930), Pop had close links with early 20th century movements like Surrealism. It was a clear reaction against the closed intellectualism of Abstract Expressionism, from which Pop artists sought to distance themselves by adopting simple, easily recognized imagery (from TV, cartoons, comic strips and the like), as well as modern technology like screen printing. Famous US Pop artists include: Jim Dine (b.1935), Robert Indiana (b.1928), Alex Katz (b.1927), Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97), Claes Oldenburg (b.1929), and Andy Warhol (1928-87). Important Pop artists in Britain were: Peter Blake (b.1932), Patrick Caulfield (1936-2006), Richard Hamilton (b.1922), David Hockney (b.1937), Allen Jones (b.1937), RB Kitaj (b.1932), and Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005).

Mid-20th Century Sculpture

From the early works of Brancusi, 20th century sculpture broadened immeasurably to encompass new forms, styles and materials. Major innovations included the “sculptured walls” of Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), the existential forms of Giacometti (1901-66), the biomorphic abstraction of both Barbara Hepworth (1903-75) and Henry Moore (1898-1986), and the spiders of Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010). Other creative angles were pursued by Salvador Dali (1904-89) in his surrealist “Mae West Lips Sofa” and “Lobster Telephone” – by Meret Oppenheim (1913-85) in her “Furry Breakfast”, by FE McWilliam (1909-1992) in his “Eyes, Nose and Cheek”, by Sol LeWitt (b.1928) in his skeletal box-like constructions, and by Pop-artists like Claes Oldenburg (b.1929) and Jasper Johns (b.1930), as well as by the Italians Jonathan De Pas (1932-91), Donato D’Urbino (b.1935) and Paolo Lomazzi (b.1936) in their unique “Joe Sofa”.

History of Contemporary Art

The word “Postmodernist” is often used to describe contemporary art since about 1970. In simple terms, postmodernist art emphasizes style over substance (eg. not ‘what’ but ‘how’; not ‘art for art’s sake’, but ‘style for stye’s sake’), and stresses the importance of how the artist comunicates with his/her audience. This is exemplified by movements such as Conceptual art, where the idea being communicated is seen as more important than the artwork itself, which merely acts as the vehicle for the message. In addition, in order to increase the “impact” of visual art on spectators, postmodernists have turned to new art forms such as Assemblage, Installation, Video, Performance, Happenings and Graffiti – all of which are associated in some way or other with Conceptualism- and this idea of impact continues to inspire.


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