The history of art focuses on objects made by humans in visual form for aesthetic purposes. Visual art can be classified in diverse ways, such as separating fine arts from applied arts; inclusively focusing on human creativity; or focusing on different media such as architecture, sculpture, painting, film, photography, and graphic arts. In recent years, technological advances have led to video art, computer art, Performance art, animation, television, and videogames.
The history of art is often told as a chronology of masterpieces created during each civilization. It can thus be framed as a story of high culture, epitomized by the Wonders of the World. On the other hand, vernacular art expressions can also be integrated into art historical narratives, referred to as folk arts or craft. The more closely that an art historian engages with these latter forms of low culture, the more likely it is that they will identify their work as examining visual culture or material culture, or as contributing to fields related to art history, such as anthropology or archeology. In the latter cases art objects may be referred to as archeological artifacts.
The oldest human art that has been found dates to the Stone Age, when the first creative works were made from shell, stone, and paint. During the Paleolithic (25,000–8,000 BCE), humans practiced hunting and gathering and lived in caves, where cave painting was developed. During the Neolithic period (6000–3000 BCE), the production of handicrafts commenced.
The Paleolithic had its first artistic manifestation in 25,000 BCE, reaching its peak in the Magdalenian period (±15,000–8,000 BCE). Surviving art from this period includes small carvings in stone or bone and cave painting. The first traces of human-made objects appeared in southern Africa, the Western Mediterranean, Central and Eastern Europe (Adriatic Sea), Siberia (Baikal Lake), India and Australia. These first traces are generally worked stone (flint, obsidian), wood or bone tools. To paint in red, iron oxide was used. Cave paintings have been found in the Franco-Cantabrian region. There are pictures that are abstract as well as pictures that are naturalistic. Animals were painted in the caves of Altamira, Trois Frères, Chauvet and Lascaux. Sculpture is represented by the so-called Venus figurines, feminine figures which may have been used in fertility cults, such as the Venus of Willendorf. There is a theory that these figures may have been made by women as expressions of their own body. Other representative works of this period are the Man from Brno and the Venus of Brassempouy.
The Neolithic period began in about 8,000 BCE. The rock art of the Iberian Mediterranean Basin—dated between the Mesolithic and Neolithic eras—contained small, schematic paintings of human figures, with notable examples in El Cogul, Valltorta, Alpera and Minateda.
Neolithic painting is similar to paintings found in northern Africa (Atlas, Sahara) and in the area of modern Zimbabwe. Neolithic painting is often schematic, made with basic strokes (men in the form of a cross and women in a triangular shape). There are also cave paintings in Pinturas River in Argentina, especially the Cueva de las Manos. In portable art, a style called Cardium Pottery was produced, decorated with imprints of seashells. New materials were used in art, such as amber, crystal, and jasper. In this period, the first traces of urban planning appeared, such as the remains in Tell as-Sultan (Jericho), Jarmo (Iraq) and Çatalhöyük (Anatolia).
The last prehistoric phase is the Metal Age, during which the use of copper, bronze and iron transformed ancient societies. When humans could smelt metal and forge metal implements could make new tools, weapons, and art.
In the Chalcolithic (Copper Age) Megaliths emerged, and massive monuments of stone were built. Examples include the dolmen and menhir and the English cromlech, as can be seen in the complexes at Newgrange and Stonehenge. In Spain the Los Millares culture was formed, characterized by the Beaker culture, characterized by human figures with big eyes. In Malta, the temple complexes of Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, Tarxien and Ġgantija were built. In the Balearic Islands notable megalithic cultures developed, with different types of monuments: the naveta, a tomb shaped like a truncated pyramid, with an elongated burial chamber; the taula, two large stones, one put vertically and the other horizontally above each other; and the talaiot, a tower with a covered chamber and a false dome.
In the Iron Age the cultures of Hallstatt (Austria) and La Tene (Switzerland) emerged in Europe. The first was developed between the 7th and 5th century BCE by the necropoleis with tumular tombs and a wooden burial chamber in the form of a house, often accompanied by a four-wheeled cart. The pottery was polychromic, with geometric decorations and applications of metallic ornaments. La Tene was developed between the 5th and 4th century BCE, and is more popularly known as early Celtic art. It produced many iron objects such as swords and spears, which have not survived well to the 2000s due to rust.
The Bronze Age refers to the period when bronze was the best material available. Bronze was used for highly decorated shields, fibulas, and other objects, with different stages of evolution of the style. Decoration was influenced by Greek, Etruscan and Scythian art.
Solar cart of Trundholm (Denmark)
In the first period of recorded history, art coincided with writing. The great civilizations of the Near East: Egypt and Mesopotamia arose. Globally, during this period the first great cities appeared near major rivers: the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, Indus and Yellow Rivers.
One of the great advances of this period was writing, which was deloped from the tradition of communication using pictures. The first true writing was cuneiform script, which emerged in Mesopotamia c. 3500 BCE, written on clay tablets. It was based on pictographic and ideographic elements, while later Sumerians developed syllables for writing, reflecting the phonology and syntax of the Sumerian language. In Egypt hieroglyphic writing was developed using pictures as well, appearing on art such as the Narmer Palette (3,100 BCE).
Mesopotamian art was developed in the area between Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in modern day Syria and Iraq, where since the 4th millennium BCE many different cultures existed such as Sumer, Akkad, Amorite and Chaldea. Mesopotamian architecture was characterized by the use of bricks, lintels, and cone mosaic. Notable are the ziggurats, large temples in the form of step pyramids. The tomb was a chamber covered with a false dome, as in some examples found at Ur. There were also palaces walled with a terrace in the form of a ziggurat, where gardens were an important feature. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Relief sculpture was developed in wood and stone. Sculpture depicted religious, military, and hunting scenes, including both human and animal figures. In the Sumerian period, small statues of people were produced. These statues had an angular form and were produced from colored stone. The figures typically had bald head with hands folded on the chest. In the Akkadian period, statues depicted figures with long hair and beards, such as the stele of Naram-Sin. In the Amorite period (or Neosumerian), statues represented kings from Gudea of Lagash, with their mantle and a turban on their heads and their hands on their chests. During Babylonian rule, the stele of Hammurabi was important, as it depicted the great king Hammurabi above a written copy of the laws that he introduced. Assyrian sculpture is notable for its anthropomorphism of cattle and the winged genie, which is depicted flying in many reliefs depicting war and hunting scenes, such as in the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III.
In Egypt, one of the first great civilizations arose, which had elaborate and complex works of art which were produced by professional artists and craftspeople, who developed specialized skills. Egypt's art was religious and symbolic. Given that the culture had a highly centralized power structure and hierarchy, a great deal of art was created to honour the pharaoh, including great monuments. Egyptian culture emphasized the religious concept of immortality. Later Egptian art includes Coptic and Byzantine art.
The architecture is characterized by monumental structures, built with large stone blocks, lintels, and solid columns. Funerary monuments included mastaba, tombs of rectangular form; pyramids, which included step pyramids (Saqqarah) or smooth-sided pyramids (Giza); and the hypogeum, underground tombs (Valley of the Kings). Other great buildings were the temple, which tended to be monumental complexes preceded by an avenue of sphinxes and obelisks. Temples used pylons and trapezoid walls with hypaethros and hypostyle halls and shrines. The temples of Karnak, Luxor, Philae and Edfu are good examples. Another type of temple is the rock temple, which was in the form of a hypogeum, which can be found in Abu Simbel and Deir el-Bahari.
Painting of the Egyptian era used a juxtaposition of overlapping planes. The images were represented hierarchically, i.e., the Pharaoh is larger than the common subjects or enemies depicted at his side. Egyptians painted the outline of the head and limbs in profile, while the torso, hands, and eyes were painted from the front. Applied arts were developed in Egypt, in particular woodwork and metalwork. There are superb examples such as cedar furniture inlaid with ebony and ivory which can be seen in the tombs at the Egyptian Museum. Other examples include the pieces found in Tutankhamun's tomb, which are of great artistic quality.
Greek and Etruscan
Greek and Etruscan artists built on the artistic foundations of Egypt, further developing the arts of sculpture, painting, architecture, and ceramics. The body became represented in a more representational manner, and patronage of art thrived. Greek art started as smaller and simpler than Egyptian art, and the influence of Egyptian art on the Greeks started in the Cycladic islands between 3300-3200 B.C.E. Cycladic statues were simple, lacking facial features except for the nose.
Greek art eventually included life-sized statues, such as Kouros figures. The standing Kouros of Attica is typical of early Greek sculpture and dates from 600 B.C.E. From this early stage, the art of Greece moved into the Archaic Period. Sculpture from this time period includes the characteristic Archaic smile. This distinctive smile may have conveyed that the subject of the sculpture had been alive or that the subject had been blessed by the gods and was well.
Roman art is sometimes viewed as derived from Greek precedents, but also has its own distinguishing features. Roman sculpture is often less idealized than the Greek precedents. Roman architecture often used concrete, and features such as the round arch and dome were invented.
Roman artwork was influenced by the nation-state's interaction with other people's, such as ancient Judea. A major monument is the Arch of Titus, which was erected by the Emperor Titus. Scenes of Romans looting the Jewish temple in Jerusalem are depicted in low-relief sculptures around the arch's perimeter.
With the decline of the Roman Empire, the Medieval era began, lasting for a millennium. Early Christian art begins the period, followed by Byzantine art, Anglo-Saxon art, Viking art, Ottonian art, Romanesque art and Gothic art, with Islamic art dominating the eastern Mediterranean.
In Byzantine and Gothic art of the Middle Ages, the dominance of the church resulted in a large amount of religious art. There was extensive use of gold in paintings, which presented figures in simplified forms.
Renaissance and Baroque
The Renaissance is the return to a 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 landscapes. Art historians often periodize Renaissance art by century, especially with Italian art.Italian Renaissance and Baroque art is traditionally referred to by centuries: trecento for the fourteenth century, quattrocento for the fifteenth, cinquecento for the sixteenth, and seicento for the seventeenth.
Neoclassicalism to Realism
Some branches of Islam forbid depictions of people and other sentient beings, as they may be misused as idols. Religious ideas are thus often represented through geometric designs and calligraphy. However, there are many Islamic paintings which display religious themes and scenes of stories common among the three Abrahamic monotheistic faiths of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
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.
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 of the Classic period in Central Mexico, the city of Teotihuacan was thriving, as were Xochicalco and El Tajin. These sites boasted 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, 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. Many sites ”collapsed” around 1000 AD.
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 mosaics. Perhaps the most well-known work of Aztec art is the calendar stone, which became 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 Westerm 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 is characterized by a mixture of indigenous and foreign traditions, including those of European, African, and Asian settlers. 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 to 1979.
Eastern civilization broadly includes Asia, and it also includes a complex tradition of art making. One approach to Eastern art history divides the field by nation, with foci on India, China, and Japan. Due to the size of the continent, the distinction between Eastern Asia and Southern Asia in the context of arts can be clearly seen.
With Eastern Asia painting was derived from the practice of calligraphy, and portraits and landscapes were painted on silk cloth.
The long story of African Art includes both sculpture, typified by the brass castings of the Benin people, as well as folk art. In the ancient world, Egypt is often thought of as the greatest artistic culture of Africa, but it is also rivaled by Nubia, which was located in present-day Sudan. Concurrent with the European Middle Ages, in the eleventh century CE a nation that made grand architecture, gold sculpture, and intricate jewelry was founded in Great Zimbabwe. Impressive sculpture was concurrently being cast from brass by the Yoruba people of what is now Nigeria. Such a culture grew and was ultimately transformed to become the Benin Kingdom, where elegant altar tusks, brass heads, plaques of brass, and palatial architecture was created. The Benin Kingdom was ended by the British in 1897, and little of the culture's art now remains in Nigeria. Today, the most significant arts venue in Africa is the Johannesburg Biennale.
The Art of Oceania includes the geographic areas of Micronesia, Polynesia, Australia, New Zealand, and Melanesia. One approach treats the area thematically, with foci on ancestry, warfare, the body, gender, trade, religion, and tourism. Unfortunately, little ancient art survives from Oceania. Scholars believe that this is likely because artists used perishable materials, such as wood and feathers, which did not survive in the tropical climate, and there are no historical records to refer to most of this material. The understanding of Oceania's artistic cultures thus begins with the documentation of it by Westerners, such as Captain James Cook in the eighteenth century. At the turn of the twentieth century the French artist Paul Gauguin spent significant amounts of time in Tahiti, living with local people and making modern art—a fact that has become intertwined with Tahitian visual culture to the present day. The indigenous art of Australia often looks like abstract modern art, but it has deep roots in local culture.
Modern and Contemporary
Art historians disagree when Modern art began, some tracing it as far back as Francisco Goya in the Napoleonic period, the mid-19th century with the industrial revolution or the late 19th century with the advent of Impressionism.
During the 19th century the Hudson River School and the Ashcan School and many other movements came into existence. 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.
Early 20th Century
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. The art movements of Impressionism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism led to many explorations of new creative styles and manners of expression. 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 cognoscenti 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. Later, in the 20th century, Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism came to prominence.
Late 20th and Early 21st Centuries
Rapid advances in science and technology led to the late Modern and Postmodern period. In these periods, the art and cultures of the world went through many changes, and there was a great deal of intermixture between cultures, as new communications technologies facilitated the national and even global dissemination of music, art and style. The separation of regional cultures that had marked the 19th century was replaced by a global culture. Postmodernism describes a broad movement that developed in the mid- to late-20th century across philosophy, the arts, architecture, and criticism which marked a departure from modernism.
The experience of art history, as conveyed by art museums, tends to be organized by the strengths of each museum's collections and the institutions themselves. Rather than a full march through time, museums employ curators who assemble objects into exhibitions, often with unique commentary that is later reinterpreted by docents. Because they have the responsibility to store objects, museums develop taxonomies for their collections, using conventions of classification authority for the sake of consistency. This may be undertaken with the museum’s archivist. The result is to occasionally find a strong emphasis on the history of media in conjunction with the history of culture.
Such an emphasis on media is a natural outgrowth of the internal classification systems used in art museums, which often include departments of painting, sculpture, decorative arts, and works on paper. Painting itself includes several media, such as oil painting, Tempera painting, watercolor. Sculpture can be divided into carving and casting. The decorative arts are perhaps the most diverse, as they include: textiles and needlework, which includes weaving, lace, shibori, and other work with fabric; Murals, of which frescoes are one form; and objects of adornment such as silver, ceramics, lacquerware, stained glass, and furniture. Museums generally cannot collect full buildings, but they may acquire pieces of architectural ornamentation, which also fall under the decorative arts department. Works on paper includes printmaking, photography, and the book arts such as illuminated manuscripts. Museums may also include a department of applied arts, which includes objects of good design along with the graphic art, illustration, and other forms of commercial art.
- Art movement
- Ancient art
- Art of Ancient Egypt
- Art and architecture of Assyria
- Byzantine Art
- Eastern art history
- History of animation
- History of Asian art
- History of film
- History of literature
- History of music
- History of painting
- History of photography
- History of theatre
- Islamic art
- List of art movements
- List of French artistic movements
- List of music styles
- Persian art
- Scythian art
- Timeline for invention in the arts
- Timeline of art
- Western art history
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- "Art: The history of ideas in literature and the arts in aesthetic theory and literary criticism" – The Dictionary of the History of Ideas
- Art History resources
- Ars Summum Project