Different countries have dominated art at different times and labels
have been invented to describe the different movements and styles
that have developed. Variations in style, medium and subject matter
have emerged from the life and attitudes of each period and, as
the purpose of art has changed, so new techniques have evolved.
During the Middle Ages, religion was the most important influence
on the lives of people in Europe and the principal patrons of the
arts were the Church and the nobility. They did not want any originality
in the work they commissioned, expecting artists to follow the formula
set by their predecessors and to exalt God in the way they knew
The artists themselves were regarded as tradesmen and were relatively
unimportant. In fact, much of our knowledge about the lives of these
early painters has come from the records of the Painters' Guilds
formed in Mediaeval times.
Paintings were considered to be a most useful way of teaching the
Bible, particularly to people who could neither read nor write and
this was to have a profound influence on the development of Western
In the fourteenth century, a realistic and lifelike style of painting
developed. This began in Italy, with artists such as Duccio and
Giotto, and then spread to the rest of Europe.
Artists painted either in tempera on wood panels or straight on
to a wall, in a technique known as fresco painting; this involved
applying the pigment to wet plaster so that when the plaster dried
out, the colour was an integral part of the wall.
In the fifteenth century, new discoveries of the thought and art
of classical Greece and Rome led to a more humanistic and intellectual
approach to life. The focus of attention shifted from the Church
to man and the world around him and art reflected this. Architects
and sculptors studied the ruins of ancient buildings and sculpted
figures. Painters tried to make their work as realistic as possible
and one of the most important discoveries to make such paintings
possible was linear perspective. This revival of classical art came
to be known as the Renaissance (or re-birth). It was a time of discovery
and invention, which reached its height in the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.
The Church was still a dominant force, and the greatest artists
of the day worked for the Popes of Rome and the leading families
of the Italian city-states, but now they also produced portraits
and mythological scenes, with landscapes in the background (although
artists could not yet choose a landscape as a subject in its own
right). The classical revival had renewed an interest in the myths
of ancient Greece. They became popular subjects for paintings and
their themes were accorded the same status as religious ones. They
also provided artists with an excuse for painting the naked human
figure. Furthermore, the status of the artist was raised from tradesman
to gentleman, the Guilds began to die out and they were replaced
by Academies, which took over the role of teaching. Artists now
had increasing opportunities to express their own ideas and imagination.
Meanwhile, in northern Europe, cultural centres had begun to develop
as a result of trade and the new merchant class began to buy paintings
to show off their new prosperity. Magnificent portraits and biblical
scenes were painted in response to this demand.
In the sixteenth century, oils became the most widely used medium
and canvas started to replace the wooden panel. Such were the achievements
of Renaissance artists that their successors looked for new challenges
and Mannerism emerged, a contrived style of painting in which elegant
and often elongated figures were set in exaggerated poses to convey
ideas or emotions.
In the seventeenth century, Baroque saw a new energy and emotion
in painting, sculpture, music and architecture. Movement, light
and colour were used to achieve highly dramatic effects and artists
faced the challenges of perspective and space. The style was reflected
in the sculptures of Bernini and encapsulated by artists such as
At this time, artists still relied upon the Church and the aristocracy
for patronage. In Holland, however, two changes had occurred: the
adoption of the Protestant faith and the new power acquired by the
merchant class. Calvin, the leader of the Reformation, said that,
"Man should not paint or carve anything except what he can
see around him, so that God's majesty may not be corrupted by fantasies."
So, as the Reformation spread, artists could no longer rely upon
the Church for patronage. Moreover, the merchants did not have the
tradition of wide artistic patronage. Dutch painters, therefore,
had to find other ways to support themselves financially. They turned
to their immediate surroundings and landscapes, seascapes, portraits,
interiors and still life became popular. Also, instead of searching
for a patron, Dutch artists painted their pictures first and then
went out to find a buyer, often specialising in certain types of
paintings so that their work was easily recognised and their names
became well known.
The greatest masters of the age of Baroque in the North are usually
considered to be Rubens and Rembrandt who produced powerful and
highly individual work. Indeed, this period came to be known as
the Golden Age of Dutch painting.
Following the Baroque, the first half of the eighteenth century
saw a light-hearted approach, both to subject matter and presentation,
in the Rococo style. This style was characterised by the work of
artists such as Watteau and Fragonard. In total contrast, the latter
half of the eighteenth century saw the advent of Neoclassicism and
a new revival of classical art.
In the nineteenth century, artists had a wider range of colours
and paint available for them to use than their predecessors. Emerald
green was discovered and artificial ultramarine, cobalt blue and
violet became available. At the beginning of the century, pigments
were available in powder form, in jars or mixed with oil in pig's
bladders. Then, in the 1840's, the paint tube was invented and this
gave artists the freedom to paint almost anywhere they chose.
There were a number of distinct artistic movements during the nineteenth
century. The Romantic Movement was a reaction to Neoclassicism.
Artists such as Turner, Friedrich and Delacroix painted highly emotional
and dramatic pictures.
In Britain, in the 1850's, a group of artists and writers formed
the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They said that they wanted to return
to the sincerity of art before Raphael.
However, the most revolutionary of all the movements in the nineteenth
century was that of the Impressionists. They worked in the open
air, studying the effects of light and shade and painting immediately
what they saw. Although too revolutionary to be accepted easily
when they were painted, today, Impressionist paintings are bought
and sold for many millions of pounds.
It was in the twentieth century that we saw the greatest revolution
in the history of Western art. Artists moved away from traditional
painting and set themselves new aims. The role of art changed. Technical
skill and realism, important since the Renaissance, became less
relevant. As photos, films, T.V. and video can record visual appearance,
many artists felt that they should be concerned with something else,
such as portraying the subconscious, the metaphysical, feelings
and emotions. Much of this work was experimental and many new movements
were formed: Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, Dadaism, Rayonism,
Neo-Plasticism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Abstract Art, Abstract
Expressionism, Op Art, Pop Art, Conceptual Art, Minimal Art, Figurative
Art, Video Art
In the late Mediaeval period, its audience easily understood art
because it conformed to a set pattern, and expressed a shared outlook
on life. As we enter the twenty-first century, the creators of art,
be they painters, sculptors, conceptual artists, continue to produce
work that is challenging but also rich and exciting.
There is never just one interpretation of a work of art. Everyone's
response is valid and the more we find out about the artist and
the context in which the work was produced the more we will be able
to appreciate and understand it.