FC77: An overview of Western Art (c.1400-1950)



Doing a two page overview of Western painting may seem to be a bit of a ludicrous exercise, but it does serve a purpose: namely to show how art and other threads of historical development influence and reflect each other.

The Renaissance (c.1400-1600)

The Renaissance is a good place to start, because no historical era has been better reflected in its art.  Starting sometime around 1400, a more secular approach was capturing the age’s spirit and imagination. Renaissance paintings reflected this move toward a more secular realism in two major ways.  One was subject matter, many paintings portraying classical Greek and Roman history and legends or being portraits of individuals.  The second way painting reflected the spirit of the age was through technique. The use of such things as perspective, proportion, shading, and closer attention details helped create paintings of striking realism compared to anything since the Roman Empire.  It should be said that the single greatest patron of the arts was still the Church and religion was the most common theme, but even those paintings reflected the new techniques sweeping across Renaissance Europe.

The Baroque 

By the 1600s, the Renaissance had helped produce the Protestant Reformation, which gave rise to an age of Religious Wars (c.1560-1648).  This was a turbulent and violent age, and the art reflected it.  Even the term Baroque, meaning twisted or distorted, suggested dramatic and even chaotic motion. However, there was also more portrayal of everyday life and common people in paintings by such artists as Caravaggio in Italy and a number of Dutch painters.  The Dutch Republic became the most prolific center for art in the 1600s, since its wider distribution of wealth created a much broader market for art.  Even moderately prosperous tradesmen could afford small paintings, thus supporting some 500 Dutch artists, so many that some were able to specialize in certain genres of art previously considered unworthy of being painted: landscapes, seascapes, still lifes, and interiors of homes.

The Rococo (1700s)

The age of religious wars helped lead to two things, one cultural and the other political. Culturally, the seemingly endless fighting had discredited religion and fostered a more secular outlook. The result was the age of Enlightenment that especially stressed reason, secular philosophies, and the newly emerging modern sciences. Politically, the turmoil of the last century created a desire for more stability, giving rise to the Age of Absolutism along with the prominence of the nobles and their values.  Together, these produced a very ornamental style of art known as Rococo that typically had lighter, sensual, and more secular themes to suit the nobles’ tastes.

However, by latter half of the 1700s, many people were reacting against the cold rationality of the Enlightenment and the frivolous values of the nobles.  A new spirit crept into the art, stressing romance over base sensuality and sentimentality over cold reason.  Typical of the latter were the paintings by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, showing dreamy looking young women holding fluffy lambs or weeping over their dead pet birds.  In reaction to the corrupt values of the old regime there was also more stress given to civic virtue and patriotism, setting the stage for the French Revolution.

Romanticism, Neo-classicism, and Realism (early 1800s)

The two new ideas of the late Enlightenment, sentimentalism and emphasis on civic virtue and patriotism, were expressed in two new schools of art.  One of them, Romanticism, which was also seen in the literature and music of the time, stressed our emotional side and idealized nature and everyday themes through the use of broad brushstrokes of color. Critics called the Romantics’ work sloppy since the figures were often kind of blurry instead of precisely drawn (e.g., Turner’s “Rain, Steam, and Speed”). The Romantics’ more down to earth themes also reflected the more democratic spirit sweeping across Europe at the time.   

By contrast, the other school of art, Neo-classicism, created precisely painted images from Greek and Roman myth and history to portray the selfless sacrifices of past heroes in order to inspire present day patriots.  Jacques Louis David was especially prominent, doing paintings of such events as the Oath of the Horatii from Roman legend and Leonidas at Thermopylae Pass from Greek history.  However, as an apologist for the French Revolution and then for Napoleon, he adapted his style to contemporary events such as the Tennis Court Oath and the death of Marat during the Revolution.

As the century progressed, the two styles each contributed to a third school of art: Realism.  Painters such as Gustave Courbet combined the realistic techniques of Neo-classicism with the contemporary themes portrayed by the Romantics.  Thus Courbet did paintings of such mundane things as a peasant funeral and a dead trout, topics that critics considered beneath the dignity of portraying on canvas.  However, this helped set up the next big movement in painting.

The second great art revolution: Impressionism and Post Impressionism (c.1863-1900)

In the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution produced two new developments that dramatically changed European painting.  The first, tin tubes of pre-mixed paint, eliminated the need for artists to mix all their paints in their studios, thus freeing them to take their craft outside and paint on location. Previously, the closest artists had come to this was doing rough sketches on location and then doing paintings of those sketches in the studio.  The second innovation was the camera, which mechanically produced images with photographic accuracy. This freed artists from slavishly having to recreate a scene exactly as it looked.  Instead, they could approach their subjects in increasingly non-representational ways.  

The Impressionists, such as Monet and Renoir, tried to free themselves from intellectualizing a subject as solid objects such as trees or tables, and then paint each of those objects separately.  To  this end, they tried to rapidly capture the individual impressions of light in a scene, which together would add up to a picture of that scene, but in a different way from a photograph.  Now the emphasis was on the fleeting impressions of light and the emotional impressions they left with the viewer.  This technique was especially effective in portraying such things as smoke, rippling water, flags blowing in the breeze, and the splash of colors seen in a bouquet of flowers.  Not since the Renaissance had such a revolutionary new approach to art been taken, and the critics and public didn’t like it or accept it for some two decades.  But the Impressionists had opened the door to any number of new approaches to painting.

Thus the last decades of the nineteenth century saw a number of new schools of art, sometimes lumped together as the Post Impressionists.  On the one hand there was the scientific or geometric approach, epitomized by Paul Cezanne’s attempts to reduce a scene to a collection of basic geometric shapes.  Georges Pierre Seurat created whole paintings of tiny colored dots mixed together that would add up to a picture.  Paul Gauguin experimented with using solid fields of color rather than shading to create an effect.  Another school of art originating in the late 1800s in Germany, Expressionism, focused on portraying emotional experience instead of physical reality. Probably the best known Expressionist painting is Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1893).

The early twentieth century (c.1900-1945) 

Building upon these dramatic artistic changes, painters in the early twentieth century explored progressively more radical approaches to art.  Much of the art of this period should be seen in light of the catastrophic events of the period: World War I, the Great Depression, the rise of fascist dictatorships, and World War II ending with the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  These, along with the faster and more mechanized pace of modern life, led to a good deal of alienation and disillusionment with civilization.  The giant of the age was Pablo Picasso, who went through a bewildering number of styles that especially reflected the century’s rapid pace of change.  One such style was Cubism, taking Cezanne’s geometric approach one-step further and reducing a scene to a collage of cubes.  Another approach was that of Surrealism, where artists such as Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte, influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud, painted images of the subconscious.  Finally, the period also saw increasingly abstract and non-representational art, represented by Joan Miro and Fernand Leger.  

Post Modern art

After World War II, the art world fragmented into a dizzying array of schools and approaches that seemed increasingly out of touch with mainstream culture: Abstract Expressionism, Color field painting, Pop art, Op art, Hard-edge painting, Minimal art, Lyrical Abstraction, FLUXUS, Post-minimalism, and Photorealism. Largely replacing painting in popularity have been new media, especially film, video, and television

In recent decades a new term has come into use, postmodern, describing art considered largely contradictory to modern art in its use of such things as collages, objects of consumer or popular culture (e.g., Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup can), words as a central artistic element and various multimedia. . By the late 1970s some critics were even speaking about the “end of painting”, although some artists since the 1980s have returned to representational art, known in its modern incarnation as Figurativism.