“There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain.” - Georges Braque
From murals to oil painting, the world of art has changed a lot over time. With movements like classicism, romanticism, symbolism, Flemish painting, pop art, etc., the world of art both nationally and internationally has changed a huge about since “The Raft of the Medusa”, “Guernica”, and “The Mona Lisa”.
Art galleries are some of the UK’s most popular tourist attractions. You can now discover or rediscover British artists, Italian renaissance painters, or cubist canvases. You can visit the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Modern, etc.
In this article, we're going to look at painting throughout history: prehistoric painting in caves, painting during the Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo, Neo-classicism and Realism, and modern and contemporary art.
Painting is a lot older than you’d think. Cavemen started painting during the Magdalenian period between 17,000 and 10,000 BCE. Generally, people painted with three colours, charcoal black, red ochre, and yellow ochre. These colours came from manganese and iron.
At the time, you wouldn’t get portraits or still lifes. In fact, prehistoric man generally painted animals like horses, bison, and mammoths. In order to give their work depth, they’d use the bumps and hollows of the walls they painted on.
Whether it was ritual or artistic expression, these painters are still the object of a lot of archaeological research. Most cave paintings have been found in France and Spain with the Lascaux caves in France among the most popular for people to visit.
Understanding What Prehistoric Paintings Represent
In our world, we have entire industries built around beautifying our living spaces. Interior decorating, home improvement and remodelling; the stores that sell those goods, the factories that make them and the television shows that promote them and the DIY projects.
And then, there are those who have built their career on decorating others’ homes. Are these all symptoms of a new phase of human evolution?
No. As evidenced by the Lascaux Cave paintings, interior design has been around forever. However, it has only been in the last century or so that it developed into a complementary series of industries.
For most of humans' civilised existence, only the wealthiest and houses of worship could afford rugs, tapestries, paintings and window treatments; the windows, walls and floors of poorer living quarters were usually left unadorned.
That doesn’t mean that those not born into nobility didn’t long for decorative touches.
While many people associate art with culture – as being reflective of the culture, there is a deeper, more fundamental reason why we seek to beautify our living environment.
Humans long for beauty.
We’re not the only animals to crave appealing visual imagery; think of all the examples in nature where such is evident: the magnificence of a lion’s mane, the majesty of a peacock’s tail or the colours and patterns of butterfly wings, just to name three.
Indeed, if a peacock is not suitably impressive in his display, peahens will shun their advances. The same holds for just about every species.
Are we reducing the world’s oldest cave paintings to a series of visually appealing images, drawn when those cave dwellers had nothing better to do?
By no means. There is more to the story.
Archaeologists and sociologists have drawn parallels between the Lascaux Cave artwork and that of the Bushmen tribes of southern Africa. They conclude that the nature of this art is spiritual, possibly etched in while in a trance.
They find the animal pairings significant as well. Analysis shows the meeker animals such as horses and deer tend to be grouped while the more aggressive ones like bison and aurochs are depicted as more confrontational.
Clearly, there was some intellectual understanding of the beasts that surrounded those early artists as well as an intuitive grasp of colour, to say nothing of the skill with which they were rendered.
Regardless of whether these and other cave drawings were merely meant to depict the tribe’s history of hunting, the fever of spiritual trances or simply to beautify inhabitants’ living space, they prove without a doubt the drive for humans to express themselves by any means possible.
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Painting During the Antiquity
Painting has evolved over time but the fundamentals remain. During the antiquity, the Greeks painted the walls of their villas and other architectural works. They generally painted images of humans, animals, or religious pieces detailing rituals and sacrifices.
Greek painting is also famous for appearing on ceramics. Red and black were commonly used to paint pictures of everyday Greek life.
This style would influence Roman painting, too. In Italy, painters would decorate their villas with landscapes, creating some of the earliest optical illusions.
How Painting Evolved During Antiquity
In terms of art creation as in most everything else, the Greeks led the way.
Initially, during the Archanic period, their paintings show subjects in rather formal poses, standing straight with at least one arm hanging at their side. Statues followed the same pattern.
The Classical period followed the Archanic. Classic Greek art showed subjects more relaxed, sometimes even in active poses, holding weaponry or musical instruments. Statuary followed painted art trends; Zeus at Olympia is a perfect example of such.
The Hellenistic era saw the expansion of subject material. Before, only revered figures were rendered into art: gods and goddesses, statesmen and soldiers. The continuous conquering of territories brought artists of that age a wealth of new material to paint and sculpt; now, ‘common’ women and children were treated to the artists’ brushes, too.
Hades Abducting Persephone is a fresco painted on a royal tomb in Macedonia that illustrates not only a complete scene – a horse-drawn chariot with a determined Hades struggling to contain his panicked kidnap victim while her mother looks on in dismay and others scramble to get out of the way.
The level of detail – down to Hades’ fiery curls and the degree of execution proves how far the art of painting had evolved. It also demonstrates humans’ capacity for storytelling and our need for mythology.
The Hellenistic period also brought landscapes to the forefront.
Until then largely missing as an artistic element, friezes depicting landscapes are generally thought to mirror Hellenistic writers’ stories; they often featured in wealthier homes as an educational tool.
Mosaics and sculpture were also prominent in the Hellenistic period; Venus de Milo is probably the most famous statue of that era.
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The Middles Ages and Manuscripts
Painting in the Middle Ages was very uncommon in everyday life. Generally, it was only used to illustrate manuscripts like the Book of Hours, the devotional Christian book detailing when and how followers should pray.
Illuminated manuscripts were among the most common examples of Medieval art.
A bit later, artists started painting on wooden planks. Parchment was still used but the wooden panels would be used as a canvas. Artists were attempting to deal with perspective in their works. Giotto di Bondone and Cimabue are among the most famous Medieval painters.
Other Forms of Art in the Middle Ages
While painters bemoaned the lack of materials to paint with or on and the lack of patrons to support their art, other avenues of artistic expression flourished during this period.
The mosaic technique, first explored during the Hellenistic period, improved greatly during this era. With more colours and more diverse subject material to depict, Byzantine artists especially cultivated their talent for mosaic.
Byzantine mosaics had an overwhelmingly religious flavour but this art form was not relegated only to churches. Other buildings whose walls were unsuited for painting or other adornments easily supported a mosaic overlay.
Unfortunately, widespread disagreement over whether depictions of religious figures should exist led to the destruction of most such mosaic art from that time.
Byzantines made the most of inlaid tiles and their fresco paintings took over where friezes left off.
Medieval frescoes depict entire stories, usually religious, and were painted on virtually every surface possible, including church ceilings.
Because of their near-guarantee of permanence – frescoes are painted on still-wet lime plaster so that, as the wall dries, the paint becomes a part of the wall itself, this method of painting soon became a heavy favourite throughout Europe.
While the Byzantines and Carolingians cornered the market in paintings and mosaics, the Anglos turned to metalwork as their medium of artistic expression.
Anglo-Saxon artwork is complex, detailed, intricate and bright. Jewellery, armour and even wall adornments were skilfully crafted out of gold and silver and, to a lesser extent, bronze polished to a high shine.
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The Renaissance and the Start of Canvases
The Renaissance period was a painting revolution. Painters started to move away from a single religious image and started painting the world around them and portraits.
Leonardo da Vinci brought science into art. Da Vinci used science to help him study the human anatomy and paint people more realistically.
Canvas changed the way that painting was done. While wooden supports were still used, more and more artists were moving towards canvases. This is also the beginning of painting with an easel.
Perspective started to appear in painting. Fra Angelico, Andrea Mantegna, Le Tintoret, Sandro Botticelli, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo, the most famous artists of the time were Italian. However, the Dutch school also made a name for itself. In northern Europe, there were painters such as Lucas Cranach the Elder and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
The High Renaissance took place between 1500 and 1530 and is thought to be the pinnacle of painting. Leonardo da Vinci moved to France under the order of Francis I of France and created the sfumato that allowed him to soften the transition between colours. Artists moved towards mannerism. This marked the beginning of the Baroque period.
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Baroque and Rococo Painting
At the beginning of the 17th century, painters started moving away from renaissance painting, giving rise to Baroque painting.
Some of the biggest renaissance painters include:
- Georges de la Tour
Caravaggio’s work is very representative of Baroque painting. Unlike Renaissance pieces, Baroque painting portrays sombre and tragic scenes. The artists regularly played with light and shadow in order to evoke emotion in the piece.
Art historians note that the chiaroscuro technique gave the impression that the subjects were lit by candlelight. There’s a strong use of contrast.
Later on, the Rococo style invaded Europe. This was a lighter style that was sometimes erotic. This decorative style was used for furniture and Rococo style was regularly found in royal courts and the nobility. Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard in France were the standard-bearers for the style.
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From Neo-Classicism to Realism
The 19th century was a turbulent time for artistic movements. Styles and movements came thick and fast and this century was one of the most important in terms of art history.
Neo-Classicism and Jacques-Louis David
Towards the end of the 18th century, a lot of painters yearned for a return to simplicity. The frivolity of the Rococo style and the darkness of the Baroque period had painters wanting to return to classical painting. In the Age of Enlightenment, the Neo-classical movement appeared when the ruins of Pompeii were discovered. The ancient style acted as a model for artists wanting to return to their roots.
This movement paved the way for Romanticism.
Eugène Delacroix’s Romanticism
The Romantic movement was one of the most important artistic movements in art history. Great painters such as Eugène Delacroix, Théodore Géricault, and Francisco de Goya were part of a movement that evoked strong emotions and melancholy. The canvases often represented events of natural disasters. The movement reflected the will to show that nature is stronger than humanity. There are canvases of massacres, shipwrecks, etc.
Gustave Courbet and Realism
Acting as a stand-in for photography, the Realist movement tended to portray real events. Far from the imagination and aesthetics of the Romantic movement, Realist painters in the 19th century wanted to show humans in the centre of their works. Social change, everyday life, the arrival of machines, etc. The Realist painters showed life with the same fidelity as photography (before it was even invented).
Once photography arrived at the end of the 19th century, artists no longer needed to paint realistically. Bit by bit, painting became a tool for expression.
Modern and Contemporary Painting
In 1872, Claude Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” was shown in the Salon de Refusés. Far from the accepted academic styles of the time, it was ruthlessly mocked and ridiculed by critics. A painting that shows an everyday event rather than the profound events that were regularly shown in paintings throughout history.
The impressionist movement was born. In fact, impressionism took its name from the painting by Monet, “Impression, Sunrise”.
What followed was numerous artists painting with a different mindset. Cézanne, Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh continued to paint landscapes and still lifes of all kind. Fauvism and the Pont-Aven School reinforced the idea that modern art was here to stay.
A few years later, contemporary painting would appear along with the famous Pablo Picasso. With his painting “The Demoiselles d’Avignon”, Picasso made his mark on the art world with a deconstructed piece that lacked perspective or accurate human proportions. Thus, the artist laid the foundations for Cubism.
Along with his friend Georges Braque, he pushed art to its limits. Then came the Abstract art of Kandinsky, Dadaism with Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, and Dali and Magritte with surrealism. Movements that would forever change artistic the landscape of the 20th century and influence artists today.
Art Movements that Barely Registered and Some That Did
The late 19th Century saw an explosion of artistic expression, especially on canvas. Some of those art movements made a lasting impact on how art is perceived while others redefined the very concept of what could be called art.
Fauvism was an early 20th Century Paris art movement that lasted only about three years. The Fauves – the young, wild painters eschewed standard representation typical of the day, instead embracing improbable colours and erratic brushwork.
In spite of its short life, Fauvism is said to have influenced the direction of art.
On the heels of Fauvism came Cubism, a somewhat longer-lived and more prominent movement spearheaded by Pablo Picasso. His most renowned proto-cubist work, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon was more shocking for its subject matter than its avant-garde style.
It’s commonly thought that the cubist movement echoes the period when mosaic art was most sought after. Indeed, art critic Jean Béral commented of one cubist’s painting that his work gives the impression of mosaic.
Besides, Picasso, George Braque was an early cubist. Later, Jean Metzinger, Henri le Fauconnier and Albert Gleizes became avid creators of Cubist art.
Around 1917, as the cubists’ influence waned, Dadaism came to prominence.
No one knows exactly where the term this movement's name is based on – some suspected that it originated in French children’s description of sitting astride a toy horse.
Dadaists’ focus was pointing out the absurd. Dada artists rejected convention, logic and reasoning; their intent was to expose the irrationality of everything from capitalism to aestheticism.
This art movement extended far beyond painting; indeed, they borrowed from the Cubist movement to create collage and went on to explore the use of space through installation art and montages depicting improbable elements alongside everyday scenes.
Prominent Dada artists include Louis Aragon, Paul Dermee, Celine Arnaut and Andre Breton.
In the four years this movement thrived, from 1916 to 1920, the art created was in turns raved over and reviled. In its death throes, Dadaism paved the way for Surrealism, considered by some to be a more palatable form of art, and ultimately, post-modernism.
Last word on Dadaism: music artists like Alice Cooper and Frank Zappa were heavily influenced by the concept of this art movement.
Surrealism followed the Dada movement’s all-encompassing reach. It was not only an art movement but a cultural movement.
Salvador Dali is the best-known surrealist but others, including André Breton, intended to consolidate perceptions of conscious and subconscious realities into an absolute reality.
When thus interpreted, Dali’s melting clocks take on a more profound meaning.
Surprise, non-sequiturs and embellishing the ordinary with extraordinary elements are hallmarks of the surrealist movement. Like Dadaism, Surrealism touched on every aspect of artistic expression from music to literature; not even theatre productions were not immune to surrealist whimsy.
The surrealist movement endured for 30 years after which, improbably, more conventional ideas of art gained traction.
Today’s post-modernist movement addresses more quotidian values. It expresses irony and scepticism of grand ideas like religion and social cohesiveness, preferring instead to discourse over minimalism, symbolism and freedom of expression.
Whatever kind of artworks you want to study or create, consider getting a private tutor to help you learn more about a specific painter, prints, sculpture, acrylic, abstract painting, fine art, still life, landscape painting, how to do a self-portrait, etc. Additionally, you can also see paintings by different artists in a museum of art.
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