See A. Hauser, The Social History of Art (4 vol., 1958-60); M. Podro, The Critical Historians of Art (1982); H. W. Janson, History of Art (4th rev. ed. 1991).
'Western Art' redirects here. For art of the American West, see Artists of the American West
Western art is the art of Europe, and those parts of the world that have come to follow predominantly European cultural traditions such as the Americas.
Written histories of Western art often begin with the art of the Ancient Middle East, Ancient Egypt and the Ancient Aegean civilisations, dating from the 3rd millennium BC. Parallel with these significant cultures, art of one form or another existed all over Europe, wherever there were people, leaving signs such as carvings, decorated artifacts and huge standing stones. However a consistent pattern of artistic development within Europe becomes clear only with the art of Ancient Greece, adopted and transformed by Rome and carried, with the Empire, across much of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
The influence of the art of the Classical period waxed and waned throughout the next two thousand years, seeming to slip into a distant memory in the Medieval period, to re-emerge in the Renaissance, suffer a period of what some early art historians viewed as "decay" during the Baroque period, to reappear in a refined form in Neo-Classicism and to be re-born in Post-Modernism.
The other major influence upon Western art has been Christianity, the commissions of the Church, architectural, painterly and sculptural, providing the major source of work for artists for about 1400 years, from 300 AD to about 1700 AD. The history of the Church was very much reflected in the history of art, during this period.
Secularism has influenced Western art since the Classical period, while most art of the last 200 years has been produced without reference to religion and often with no particular ideology at all. On the other hand, Western art has often been influenced by politics of one kind or another, of the state, of the patron and of the artist.
Western art is arranged into a number of stylistic periods, which, historically, overlap each other as different styles flourished in different areas. Broadly the periods are, Classical, Byzantine, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Modern. Each of these is further subdivided.
Ancient Egypt, a civilization with very strong traditions of architecture and sculpture (both originally painted in bright colours) also had many mural paintings in temples and buildings, and painted illustrations on papyrus manuscripts. Egyptian wall painting and decorative painting is often graphic, sometimes more symbolic than realistic. Artists as contemporary as Pablo Picasso have been directly inspired by Egyptian painting and sculpture. Egyptian painting depicts figures in bold outline and flat silhouette, in which symmetry is a constant characteristic. Egyptian painting has close connection with its written language - called Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Egyptians also painted on linen, remnants of which survive today. In fact painted symbols are found amongst the first forms of written language, and religion. However it is Ancient Egypt's mysterious and compelling architecture that has had the most impact on modern art historians. The Great Pyramids, the Great Sphinx of Giza, and the smaller pyramids and tombs of Ancient Egypt are among the Seven Wonders of the World.
To the north of Egypt was the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete. The wall paintings found in the palace of Knossos are similar to that of the Egyptians but much more free in style. Around 1100 B.C., tribes from the north of Greece conquered Greece and the Greek art took a new direction.
Ancient Greece had great painters, great sculptors, and great architects. The Parthenon is an example of their architecture that has lasted to modern days. Greek marble sculpture is often described as the highest form of Classical art. Painting on the pottery of Ancient Greece and ceramics gives a particularly informative glimpse into the way society in Ancient Greece functioned. Black-figure vase painting and Red-figure vase painting gives many surviving examples of what Greek painting was. Some famous Greek painters on wooden panels who are mentioned in texts are Apelles, Zeuxis and Parrhasius, however no examples of Ancient Greek panel painting survive, only written descriptions by their contemporaries or by later Romans. Zeuxis lived in 5-6 BC and was said to be the first to use sfumato. According to Pliny the Elder, the realism of his paintings was such that birds tried to eat the painted grapes. Apelles is described as the greatest painter of Antiquity for perfect technique in drawing, brilliant color and modeling.
Roman art was influenced by Greece and can in part be taken as a descendant of ancient Greek painting and sculpture. Roman sculpture, is primarily portraiture derived from the upper classes of society as well as depictions of the gods. However, Roman painting does have important unique characteristics. Among surviving Roman paintings are wall paintings, many from villas in Campania, in Southern Italy, especially at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Such painting can be grouped into 4 main "styles" or periods and may contain the first examples of trompe-l'oeil, pseudo-perspective, and pure landscape. Almost the only painted portraits surviving from the Ancient world are a large number of coffin-portraits of bust form found in the Late Antique cemetery of Al-Fayum. They give an idea of the quality that the finest ancient work must have had. A very small number of miniatures from Late Antique illustrated books also survive, and a rather larger number of copies of them from the Early Medieval period.
Most surviving art from the Medieval period was religious in focus, often funded by the Church, powerful ecclesiastical individuals such as bishops, communal groups such as abbeys, or wealthy secular patrons. Many had specific liturgical functions — processional crosses and altarpieces, for example.
One of the central questions about Medieval art concerns its lack of realism. A great deal of knowledge of perspective in art and understanding of the human figure was lost with the fall of Rome. But many also point out that realism was not the primary concern of Medieval artists. They were simply trying to send a religious message, a task which demands clear iconic images instead of precisely rendered ones.
Time Period: 6th century to 15th century
Byzantine art overlaps with or merges with what we call Early Christian art until the iconoclasm period of 730-843 when the vast majority of artwork with figures was destroyed; so little remains that today any discovery sheds new understanding. After 843 until 1453 there is a clear Byzantine art tradition. It is often the finest art of the Middle Ages in terms of quality of material and workmanship, with production centered on Constantinople. Byzantine art's crowning achievement were the monumental frescos and mosaics inside domed churches, most of which have not survived due to natural disasters and the appropriation of churches to mosques.
Migration period art is a general term for the art of the "barbarian" peoples who moved in to formerly Roman territories. Celtic art in the 7th and 8th centuries saw a fusion with Germanic traditions through contact with the Anglo-Saxons creating what is called the Hiberno-Saxon style or Insular art, which was to be highly influential on the rest of the Middle Ages. Merovingian art describes the art of the Franks before about 800, when Carolingian art combined insular influences with a self-conscious classical revival, developing into Ottonian art. Anglo-Saxon art is the art of England after the Insular period. Illuminated manuscripts contain nearly all the surviving painting of the period, but architecture, metalwork and small carved work in wood or ivory were also important media.
Romanesque art refers to the period from about 1000 to the rise of Gothic art in the 12th century. This was a period of increasing prosperity, and the first to see a coherent style used across Europe, from Scandinavia to Switzerland. Romanesque art is vigorous and direct, was originally brightly coloured, and is often very sophisticated. Stained glass and enamel on metalwork became important media, and larger sculptures in the round developed, although high relief was the principal technique. Its architecture is dominated by thick walls, and round-headed windows and arches, with much carved decoration.
Gothic art is a variable term depending on the craft, place and time. The term originated with Gothic architecture in 1140, but Gothic painting did not appear until around 1200 (this date has many qualifications), when it diverged from Romanesque style. Gothic sculpture was born in France in 1144 with the renovation of the Abbey Church of S. Denis and spread throughout Europe, by the 13th century it had become the international style, replacing Romanesque. International Gothic describes Gothic art from about 1360 to 1430, after which Gothic art merges into Renaissance art at different times in different places. During this period forms such as painting, in fresco and on panel, become newly important, and the end of the period includes new media such as prints.
During the late 13th and early 14th centuries, much of the painting in Italy was Byzantine in Character, notably that of Duccio of Siena and Cimabue of Florence, while Pietro Cavallini in Rome was more Gothic in style.
In 1290 Giotto began painting in a manner that was less traditional and more based upon observation of nature. His famous cycle at the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, is seen as the beginnings of a Renaissance style.
In the Netherlands, the technique of painting in oils rather than tempera, led itself to a form of elaboration that was not dependent upon the application of gold leaf and embossing, but upon the minute depiction of the natural world. The art of painting textures with great realism evolved at this time. Dutch painters such as Jan van Eyck and Hugo van der Goes were to have great influence on Late Gothic and Early Renaissance painting.
A remarkable number of these major artists worked on different portions of the Florence Cathedral. Brunelleschi's dome for the cathedral was one of the first truly revolutionary architectural innovations since the Gothic flying buttress. Donatello created many of its sculptures. Giotto and Lorenzo Ghiberti also contributed to the cathedral.
The 15th-century artistic developments in Italy (for example, the interest in perspectival systems, in depicting anatomy, and in classical cultures) matured during the 16th century, accounting for the designations “Early Renaissance” for the 15th century and “High Renaissance” for the 16th century. Although no singular style characterizes the High Renaissance, the art of those most closely associated with this Period—Leonardo daVinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Titian—exhibits an astounding mastery, both technical and aesthetic. High Renaissance artists created works of such authority that generations of later artists relied on these artworks for instruction. These exemplary artistic creations further elevated the prestige of artists. Artists could claim divine inspiration, thereby raising visual art to a status formerly given only to poetry. Thus, painters, sculptors, and architects came into their own, successfully claiming for their work a high position among the fine arts. In a sense, 16th- century masters created a new profession with its own rights of expression and its own venerable character. .
Hieronymus Bosch (1450?-1516), a Dutch painter, is another important figure in the Northern Renaissance. In his paintings, he used religious themes, but combined them with grotesque fantasies, colourful imagery, and peasant folk legends. His paintings often reflect the confusion and anguish associated with the end of the Middle Ages.
Northern Renaissance art was not as concerned with perspective and the figure as that of the Italian Renaissance. The cornerstone of the Northern Renaissance was the development of oil painting.
As time passed, many artists were repulsed by the ornate grandeur of these styles and sought to revert to the earlier, simpler art of the Renaissance, creating Neoclassicism. Neoclassicism was the artistic component of the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, which was similarly idealistic. Ingres, Canova, and Jacques-Louis David are among the best-known neoclassicists.
Just as Mannerism rejected Classicism, so did Romanticism reject the ideas of the Enlightenment and the aesthetic of the Neoclassicists. Romantic art focused on the use of color and motion in order to portray emotion, but like classicism used Greek and Roman mythology and tradition as an important source of symbolism. Another important aspect of Romanticism was its emphasis on nature and portraying the power and beauty of the natural world. Romanticism was also a large literary movement, especially in poetry. Among the greatest Romantic artists were Eugène Delacroix, Francisco Goya, J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, Caspar David Friedrich, Thomas Cole, and William Blake.
Most artists attempted to take a centrist approach which adopted different features of Neoclassicist and Romanticist styles, in order to synthesize them. The different attempts took place within the French Academy, and collectively are called Academic art. Adolphe William Bouguereau is considered a chief example of this stream of art.
In the early 19th century the face of Europe, however, became radically altered by industrialization. Poverty, squalor, and desperation were to be the fate of the new working class created by the "revolution." In response to these changes going on in society, the movement of Realism emerged. Realism sought to accurately portray the conditions and hardships of the poor in the hopes of changing society. In contrast with Romanticism, which was essentially optimistic about mankind, Realism offered a stark vision of poverty and despair. Similarly, while Romanticism glorified nature, Realism portrayed life in the depths of an urban wasteland. Like Romanticism, Realism was a literary as well as an artistic movement. The great Realist painters include Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin, Gustave Courbet, Jean-François Millet, Camille Corot, Honoré Daumier, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas (both considered as Impressionists), and Thomas Eakins, among others.
The response of architecture to industrialisation, in stark contrast to the other arts, was to veer towards historicism. Although the railway stations built during this period are often considered the truest reflections of its spirit – they are sometimes called "the cathedrals of the age" – the main movements in architecture during the Industrial Age were revivals of styles from the distant past, such as the Gothic Revival. Related movements were the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who attempted to return art to its state of "purity" prior to Raphael, and the Arts and Crafts Movement, which reacted against the impersonality of mass-produced goods and advocated a return to medieval craftsmanship.
Following the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists came Fauvism, often considered the first "modern" genre of art. Just as the Impressionists revolutionized light, so did the fauvists rethink color, painting their canvases in bright, wild hues. After the Fauvists, modern art began to develop in all its forms, ranging from Expressionism, concerned with evoking emotion through objective works of art, to Cubism, the art of transposing a three-dimensional reality onto a flat canvas, to Abstract art. These new art forms pushed the limits of traditional notions of "art" and corresponded to the similar rapid changes that were taking place in human society, technology, and thought.
Surrealism is often classified as a form of Modern Art. However, the Surrealists themselves have objected to the study of surrealism as an era in art history, claiming that it oversimplifies the complexity of the movement (which they say is not an artistic movement), misrepresents the relationship of surrealism to aesthetics, and falsely characterizes ongoing surrealism as a finished, historically encapsulated era.
Other forms of Modern art (some of which border on Contemporary art) include:
Time Period: First half of the 20th century
There has also been an increase in art referring to previous movements and artists, and gaining validity from that reference.
Postmodernism in art, which has grown since the 1960s, differs from Modernism in as much as Modern art movements were primarily focused on their own activities and values, while Postmodernism uses the whole range of previous movements as a reference point. This has by definition generated a relativistic outlook, accompanied by irony and a certain disbelief in values, as each can be seen to be replaced by another. Another result of this has been the growth of commercialism and celebrity.
Some surrealists in particular Joan Miró, who called for the "murder of painting" (In numerous interviews dating from the 1930s onwards, Miró expressed contempt for conventional painting methods and his desire to "kill", "murder", or "rape" them in favor of more contemporary means of expression). have denounced or attempted to "supersede" painting, and there have also been other anti-painting trends among artistic movements, such as that of Dada and conceptual art. The trend away from painting in the late 20th century has been countered by various movements, for example the continuation of Lyrical Abstraction, Pop Art, Op Art, New Realism, Neo-Geo, Neo-expressionism, and Stuckism and various other important and influential painterly directions.