History of art  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The history of art usually refers to the history of the visual arts, such as painting, sculpture and architecture. The term also encompasses theory of the visual arts. It is not usually taken or intended to refer to the performing arts or literary arts. The history of art attempts an objective survey of art throughout human history, classifying cultures and periods and noting their distinguishing features and influences.

The field of "art history" was developed in the West, and originally dealt exclusively with Western painting, and Western art history, with the High Renaissance (and its Greek precedent) as the defining standard. Gradually, with the onset of Modernism, a wider vision of history has developed, seeking to place other societies in a global overview by analyzing their artifacts in terms of their own cultural values. Thus, the subject is now seen to encompass all visual art, from the megaliths of Western Europe to the paintings of the Tang Dynasty in China.


Textbook art history

A useful way to examine how art history is organized is through the major survey textbooks. The most often used textbooks published in English are Ernst Gombrich’s Story of Art, Marilyn Stokstad’s Art History, Anthony Janson’s History of Art, David Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, and Katheryn M. Linduff’s Art Past, Art Present, Helen Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Hugh Honour and John Flemming’s A World History of Art, and Laurie Schneider Adams’s Art Across Time.

Western Europe

Although some of the books listed above attempt a global approach, they are universally strong in western art history. The books use representative examples from each era in order to create a story that blends changing styles with social history. The Western narrative begins with prehistoric art such as Stonehenge, before discussing the ancient world. The latter begins with Mesopotamia, then progresses to the art of Ancient Egypt, which then transitions to Classical antiquity. Classical art includes both Greek and Roman work. With the decline of the Roman Empire, the narrative shifts to Medieval art, which lasted for a millennium. The high intellectual culture of the Medieval period was Islamic, but the era also included Early Christian art, Byzantine art, Gothic art, Anglo-Saxon art, and Viking art. The Medieval era ended with the Renaissance, followed by the Baroque and Rococo. Sometimes another period, Mannerism, is inserted between Renaissance and Baroque, which is a visual hybrid. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries included Neoclassicism, Romantic art, Academic art, and Realism in art. Art historians disagree when Modern art began, but it was either in the mid-eighteenth century with the artist Francisco Goya, the mid-nineteenth century with the industrial revolution or the late nineteenth century with the advent of Impressionism. The art movements of the late nineteenth through the early twenty first centuries are too numerous to detail here, but can be broadly divided into two categories: Modernism and Contemporary art. The latter is sometimes referred to with another term, which has a subtly different connotation, Postmodern art.

Although textbooks periodize Western art by movements, as described above, they also do so by century. Many art historians give a nod to the historical importance of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art by referring to centuries in which it was prominent with foreign terms. These include trecento for the fourteenth, quattrocento for the fifteenth, cinquecento for the sixteenth, seicento for the seventeenth, and settecento for the eighteenth.

The Americas

The history of art in the Americas begins in pre-Columbian times with Indigenous cultures. Art historians have focused particularly closely on Mesoamerica during this early era, because a series of stratified cultures arose there that erected grand architecture and produced objects of fine workmanship that are comparable to the arts of western Europe. Perhaps the most-read textbook is Mary Ellen Miller’s The Art of Mesoamerica.

The art-making tradition of Mesoamerican people begins with the Olmec around 1400 BCE, during the Preclassic era. These people are best-known for making colossal heads but also carved jade, erected monumental architecture, made small-scale sculpture, and designed mosaic floors. Two of the most well-studied sites artistically are San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán and La Venta. After the Olmec culture declined, the Maya civilization became prominent in the region. Sometimes a transitional Epi-Olmec period is described, which is a hybrid of Olmec and Maya. A particularly well-studied Epi-Olmec site is La Mojarra, which includes hieroglyphic carvings that have been partially deciphered.

By the Late pre-Classic era, beginning around 400 BCE, the Olmec culture had declined but both Central Mexican and Maya peoples were thriving. Throughout much if the Classic period in Central Mexico the city of Teotihuacan was thriving, as were Xochicalco and El Tajin. These sites boasted both grand sculpture and architecture. Other Central Mexican peoples included the Mixtecs, the Zapotecs, and people in the Valley of Oaxaca. Maya art was at its height during the “Classic” period—a name that mirrors that of Classical European antiquity—and which began around 200 CE. Major Maya sites from this era include Copan where numerous stelae were carved in the round, and Quirigua where the largest stelae of Mesoamerica are located along with zoomorphic altars. A complex writing system was developed, and Maya illuminated manuscripts were produced in large numbers on paper made from tree bark. Although Maya cities have existed to the present day, several sites ”collapsed” around 1000 CE.

At the time of the Spanish conquest of Yucatán during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Maya were still powerful, but many communities were paying tribute to Aztec society. The latter culture was thriving, and it included arts such as sculpture, painting, and feather mosaic. Perhaps the most well-known work of Aztec art is the calendar stone, which has become a national symbol of the state of Mexico. During the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire many of these artistic objects were sent to Europe, where they were placed in cabinets of curiosities, and later redistributed to art museums. The Aztec empire was based in the city of Tenochtitlan which was largely destroyed during the colonial era. What remains of it was buried beneath Mexico City. A few buildings, such as the foundation of the Templo Mayor have since been unearthed by archaeologists, but they are in poor condition.

Art in the Americas since the conquest has been a mixture of indigenous and foreign traditions, including European, African, and Asian settlers. Thus, books about the visual arts of the United States, such as Francis Pohl’s Framing America, start with the conquest and reconstruct manifold traditions. Numerous indigenous traditions thrived after the conquest. For example, the Plains Indians created quillwork, beadwork, winter counts, ledger art, and tipis in the pre-reservation era, and afterwards became assimilated into the world of Modern and Contemporary art through institutions such as the Santa Fe Indian School which encouraged students to develop a unique Native American style. Many paintings from that school, now called the Studio Style, were exhibited at the Philbrook Museum of Art during its Indian annual held from 1946-1979.

Intertwined with this story of indigenous art, are movements of painting, sculpture, and architecture such as the Hudson River School and the Ashcan School of the 19th century, and Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism of the 20th. Some of the most celebrated images were produced by artists of the American West, featuring “Cowboys and Indians,” and some of the most visually complex objects were created by African Americans.


The long story of African Art includes both high sculpture, perhaps typified by the brass castings of the Benin people, as well as folk art.


The Art of Oceania includes the geographic areas of Micronesia, Polynesia, Australia, New Zealand, and Melanesia. Nicholas Thomas’s textbook Oceanic Art treats the area thematically, with essays on ancestry, warfare, the body, gender, trade, religion, and tourism.

Central and East Asian

Eastern civilization broadly includes Asia, and it also includes a complex tradition of art making. One Eastern art history art history survey textbook is John Laplante’s Asian Art. It divides the field by nation, with units on India, Chinese art, and Japan.

Key objects and concepts

Medieval Western art

In Byzantine and Gothic art of the Middle Ages, the dominance of the church insisted on the expression of biblical truths. There was no need to depict the reality of the material world, in which man was born in a "state of sin", especially through the extensive use of gold in paintings, which also presented figures in idealised, patterned (i.e."flat") forms.

Renaissance Western art

The Renaissance is the return yet again to valuation of the material world, and this paradigm shift is reflected in art forms, which show the corporeality of the human body, and the three dimensional reality of landscape.

Eastern art

Eastern art has generally worked in a style akin to Western medieval art, namely a concentration on surface patterning and local colour (meaning the plain colour of an object, such as basic red for a red robe, rather than the modulations of that colour brought about by light, shade and reflection). A characteristic of this style is that the local colour is often defined by an outline (a contemporary equivalent is the cartoon). This is evident in, for example, the art of India, Tibet and Japan.

Religious Islamic art forbids iconography, and expresses religious ideas through geometric designs instead. However, there are many Islamic paintings which display religious themes and scenes of stories common among the three main monotheistic faiths of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

Modern and contemporary art

The physical and rational certainties of the clockwork universe depicted by the 18th-century Enlightenment were shattered not only by new discoveries of relativity by Einstein and of unseen psychology by Sigmund Freud, but also by unprecedented technological development accelerated by the implosion of civilization in two world wars. The history of 20th century art is a narrative of endless possibilities and the search for new standards, each being torn down in succession by the next. Thus the parameters of Impressionism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and other art movements cannot be maintained as significant and culturally germane very much beyond the time of their invention. Increasing global interaction during this time saw an equivalent influence of other cultures into Western art, such as Pablo Picasso being influenced by Iberian sculpture, African sculpture and Primitivism. Japonism, and Japanese woodcuts (which had themselves been influenced by Western Renaissance draftsmanship) had an immense influence on Impressionism and subsequent artistic developments. The influential example set by Paul Gauguin's interest in Oceanic art and the sudden popularity among the cognescenti in early 20th century Paris of newly discovered African fetish sculptures and other works from non-European cultures were taken up by Picasso, Henri Matisse, and by many of their colleagues.

Modernism, the idealistic search for truth, and progress, gave way in the latter decades of the 20th century to a realization of its unattainability. Relativity was accepted as an unavoidable truth, which led to the Postmodern period, where cultures of the world and of history are seen as changing forms, which can be appreciated and drawn from only with irony. Furthermore the separation of cultures is increasingly blurred and it is now more appropriate to think in terms of a global culture, rather than regional cultures.

See also

Western art history , history of painting, list of years in art
20th century art, 21st century art

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