History of Art

You can find History of Art in this Encyclopedia section. From the earliest times, people all over the world have expressed their thoughts and feelings by making art. Over the centuries, styles in the visual arts (Sculpture, painting and drawing) have changed. These differences reflect the changing beliefs and traditions people held as their societies developed. Materials have changed as well allowing artists to try new ways of reflecting the world around them.

Classical Art:

Western European art stems directly from the traditions of the ancient Mediterranean world and especially the art of ancient Greece and Rome. In particular, sculpture from these civilizations is remarkably lifelike or naturalistic and concentrates on the human figure.

Roman Wall Painting:

Most ancient painting have not survived. This one was preserved by volcanic ash at Pompeii. It shows figures from Roman mythology and was painted on a wall to decorate the interior of a roman house.

Hermes and Dionysus:

This Greek marble statue shows the messenger god, Hermes, holding a baby Dionysus, the god of wine. The work displays a sure knowledge of human anatomy such as the Structure of bone and muscle. It also represents the human body as an ideal form at its peak of physical beauty. It is believed to be by Praxiteles the most famous ancient Greek sculptor.

Early Art:

The earliest works of art usually seem to have had a religious or magical purpose: to represent a god for example or to bring hunter luck as he stalked animals.

Sumerian Sculpture:

A rich artic tradition grew up in ancient Sumer (now southern Iraq) during the 3rd millennium BC. This statue which shows a Sumerian ruler is carved from hard stone. It represents the strength and dignity of a good leader.

Caves at Lascaux:

These extraordinary pictures of wild animals were painted in French caves more than 17,000 years ago. The outlines were painted by hand and the vivid colors were filled in by spraying pigment through tubes of bone.


After the fall of the Roman Empire, Classical Art was considered too pagan for the Christian civilization which began to develop in Europe. By the 15th century, painters, sculptors and architects began to revive a classical tradition in the arts creating highly lifelike Christian works of art. This revival is called the Renaissance from the French for rebirth. It began in Italy and spread through Europe. Influential artists included Michelangelo (1475 – 1564).


The Italian Thomaso Masaccio (1401 – 28) was the first painter to use perspective since classical times. Perspective creates the illusion that depth exists behind the flat surface of a painting.

Non – Religious Art:

During the renaissances, European painters broke with earlier tradition. Religious subject matter, such as a scene from the bible, was still important. But artists also began to record everyday events.

Early Paint Making:

The materials used to produce a painting affect the way it looks. Before oil paints arrived in the 15th century, artists worked straight onto wet plaster with tempera, a mixture of egg and paint pigment. Oil paints which were more flexible and gave a more realistic finish soon became the favorite medium.

Egg Tempera:

Egg (either the yolk or both yolk and while) provides a strong medium for colors but is sticky and quick – drying so difficult to apply.

Oil Paint:

As a medium, oil has the advantage of being slow to dry, allowing artists to make changes while they work.

Value of Color:

Certain colors, such as gold, have always been more expensive than others. Until the 17th century, dark blue was the most costly because it was made from lapis lazuli, a semi – precious stone.

Baroque Art:

The term Baroque describes a style of 17th – country European art. Rome, the centre of the Catholic Crutch, was its birthplace. During the 16th century, the Christian church split into Roman Catholic and Protestant factions. By the 17th century, Catholic Church was using art to spread its teachings. To appeal to the viewers, it promoted a style of art that was theatrical and emotional. Painters were encouraged to use light and shade for dramatic contrasts, sculptors to show figures in dynamic poses. To achieve these effects, artists had to develop great technical skills.


The Italian painter, sculptor and architect Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680) was an outstanding influence on Baroque art. He had an exceptional ability to convey great emotion and drama in stone designed to inspire those who saw his work to greater faith. This sculpture depicts the vision of St. Teresa in which an angel perked her with an arrow.

Light and Shade:

The Italian painter Michelangelo Caravaggio (1573 - 1610) shows the moment when Christ calls Matthew to become a disciple. A ray of light illuminated Matthew. But Christ is hidden by shadow,


The early 19th century in Europe is known as the Romantic Age. It was, in part a reaction to 18th – century art, which had emphasized balance and order. Romantic artists questioned the place of human beings in the universe. They stressed the importance of human emotion and the imagination and celebrated the wild power of nature in dramatic landscape paintings.

Change in the 19th century:

From the mid 19th – century, artists broke with the tradition established by earlier generation. Where they were once told what to depict by patrons, who paid them, they now produced what they wanted and then tried to steel their work.


This school of painting grew up in France in the late 19th century. Artists such as Camille Pissarro (1830 – 1903), Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) and Auguste Renoir (1841 – 1919) painted their impressions of a brief moment in time, in particular the changing effects of sunlight. They were criticized at first, for viewers expected paintings to look more detailed. But they have been very influential.

20th – Century Art:

During the 20th century, artists explored new theories about the world, religion and the mind. They asked the public to confront things that they might wish to ignore and explored many different styles. After nearly 2,500 years, the grip of classical art seemed to have been broken.


During that 1920, the fantastical art made by the surrealists explored theories about the way the brain works. New ideas had suggested that people consciously only used a tiny part of their brains and that they were unaware of subconscious activity over which they had no rational control. The bizarre, dreamlike paintings, of surrealists, such as the Spanish artist Salvador Dali (1940 – 89), were inspired by these ideas.

Modern art:

Much modern art is specially created to be seen in a museum or gallery and not for houses, palaces or churches as in the past. It often prefers to baffle, tease and provoke its audience, rather than make its meaning obvious.

Abstract Art:

Abstract artists to not represent objects from the everyday world. Colors and shape alone suggest ideas or emotions. In this way, abstract art is like music: neither describes anything that can be defined in words, but both can bone expressive and moving. The artists Jackson Pollock (1912 – 56) and Mark Rothko (1903 – 70) are two of the most famous abstract painters.

Ambroise Vollard:

The French art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1865 – 1939) made a living buying, selling and exhibiting modern art. He gave early 20th century artists unprecedented financial and creative freedom to paint as they wished. Artists such as Paul Cezanne and Henri Matisse achieved success in Vollard’s gallery in Paris in the 1900s.

Art in Africa:

African art has long tradition, although a lack of written records makes its history hard to trace. Sculpture and masks are major art forms. Most art seems to have been made for religious or ritual purposes. Wood – carving and braze casting techniques were highly developed.


The rich tradition of sculpture in West Africa begins with the pottery figures made by the Nok people from 500 BC. Around the 13th century AD the Ife of Nigeria bargain to cast outstanding bronze heads and figures in a highly realistic style .These may have influenced Sculptures made in Benin, Nigeria, from the 16th to 19th centuries.


African masks may represent a spirit or ancestors or be purely decorative. Their meaning comes from the masquerade (dance, drama and music) of which they are a part. Wood, beads, ivory and shells are important materials. This capped mask, carved in a bold and vital style is from Cameroon.


Traditionally in Asian art, the symbolic meaning behind the subject of a painting, sculpture or carving is more important than the illusion of realism. In China, for instance, landscape paintings are stylized to express the ideals of religions though natural harmony, peace and grace. In China and Japan, calligraphy was seen as a high form of art. The inscriptions are usually of short, poetic situations.


During the Mugahal Empire (16th – 17th centuries), figurative miniature painting flourished in India. These were richly colored and exceptionally delicate. This illustration comes from a contemporary chronicle of the emperor’s exploits.

Chinese landscape:

In China, the art of painting developed from calligraphy. Landscape artists painted on paper or silk using brush and ink. They did not paint from real life. The flow and vigor of the brush strokes were more important.


Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849) is perhaps the best – known Japanese printmaker. His famous wood – cuts include landscape as well as scenes of daily life (called ukiyo–e). They are dramatically colored and composed.

Native American Art:

Sophisticated Native American societies, such as the Aztec and Maya in Mexico and the Inca in Peru, created distinct artistic and architectural styles. Nearly 3,000 years ago, nomadic peoples in North and South America marked awe-inspiring sculptures on to the land or created vast earthworks whose shapes can only be seen from light in the air.

Totem Poles:

Complex in design and carved with great skill, totem poles showed the status of many native North American chiefs.

Sand Paintings:

In the Southwest, Native North Americans trickled coloured sand and ground stones on the smooth background to create temporary symbolic paintings with a ritual importance. Navajo sand painting represents figures from Navajo mythology.

Ester Island Statues:

Between AD 400 and 1680, the people of Easter Island carved huge heads, up to 12m (40ft) high, from volcanic rock. They commemorate the divine ancestors of tribal chiefs.

Pacific Art:

Contact with European Christian cultures from the 18th century onwards had a destructive effect on ancient local lifestyles in the Pacific islands. Much art has been lost, although some remarkable sculptures have survived due to their durability. Wood and stone carvings, bark cloth paintings, spirit masks and intricate body tattoos are among the important art forms of the pacific area.


30,000 BC: earliest known works of art produced.

30,000 - 10,000 BC: Cave paintings made in France.

c. 500 BC: Lifelike human figurines produced by the Nok in West Africa.

100 BC – AD 300s: Roman Empire spreads classical art around Europe.

618-907: T’ang dynasty of China: great tradition of landscape painting develops.

15th century: Beginning of the renaissance in Europe.

16th century: Mughal dynasty holds power in India.

17th century: Dutch golden age of painting.

19th century: photography inverted.

1860s – 90s: Impressionism develops in France. It is very influential.

20th century: Time of incredible diversity of styles in the visual arts including Cubism, (1907 – 1920s), Abstract Art (1910 – 50), Surrealism (1920s) and Pop Art (mid – 1950s)

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