The History of Painting

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Introduction and Overview 

The history of painting is a never-ending chain that began with the very first pictures ever made. Each style grows out of the styles that came before it. Every great artist adds to the accomplishments of earlier painters and influences later painters.

We can enjoy a painting for its beauty alone. Its lines, forms, colors, and composition (arrangement of parts) may appeal to our senses and linger in our memories. But enjoyment of art increases as we learn when and why and how it was created.

A painting always describes something. It may describe the artist's impression of a scene or person. It also describes the artist's feelings about the art of painting itself. Suppose, for example, the artist paints a picture of the birth of Venus, the Roman goddess of love—a subject that has been used many times. The viewer may not learn anything new about the subject from the more recent version that could not have been learned from the older one. Why, then, do painters bother to depict the same scene again? The answer is that they want to tell us something new about the way the scene can be painted. In a way, the artist is saying, "I have painted the birth of Venus as no other artist before me has painted it." The artist not only depicts the birth of Venus but also makes a statement about the art of painting itself.

Many factors have influenced the history of painting. Geography, religion, national characteristics, historic events, the development of new materials—all help to shape the artist's vision. Throughout history, painting has mirrored the changing world and our ideas about it. In turn, artists have provided some of the best records of the development of civilization, sometimes revealing more than the written word.

Prehistoric Painting

Cave dwellers were the earliest artists. Colored drawings of animals, dating from about 30,000 to 10,000 B.C., have been found on the walls of caves in southern France and in Spain. Many of these drawings are amazingly well preserved because the caves were sealed up for many centuries. Early people drew the wild animals that they saw all around them. Very crude human figures, drawn in lifelike positions, have been found in Africa and eastern Spain.

The cave artists filled the cave walls with drawings in rich, bright colors. Some of the most beautiful paintings are in the Cave of Altamira, in Spain. One detail shows a wounded bison, no longer able to stand—probably the victim of a hunter. It is painted in reddish brown and outlined simply but skillfully in black. The pigments used by cave painters were earth ochers (iron oxides varying in color from light yellow to deep orange) and manganese (a metallic element). These were crushed into a fine powder, mixed with grease (perhaps animal fat), and put on with some sort of brush. Sometimes the pigments were used in sticks, like crayons. The grease mixed with the powdered pigments made the paint fluid and the pigment particles stick together. The cave dwellers must have made brushes out of animal hairs or plants, and sharp tools out of flint for drawing and scratching lines.

As far back as 30,000 years ago, people had invented the basic tools and materials for painting. Techniques and materials were refined and improved in the centuries following. But the discoveries of the cave dweller remain basic to painting.

Egyptian and Mesopotamian Painting (3400-332 B.C.)

One of the first civilizations was developed in Egypt. From the written records and the art left by the Egyptians, much about their way of living is known. They believed that the body must be preserved so that the soul may live on after death. The great pyramids were elaborate tombs for rich and powerful Egyptian rulers. Much Egyptian art was created for the pyramids and tombs of kings and other important people. To make absolutely sure that the soul would continue to exist, artists made images of the dead person in stone. They also recorded scenes from the person's life in wall paintings in the burial chambers.

Egyptian techniques of painting remained the same for centuries. In one method watercolor paint was put on mud-plaster or limestone walls. In another process outlines were cut into stone walls, and the designs were painted with watercolor washes. A material called gum arabic probably was used to make the paint stick to a surface. Fortunately, the dry climate of the region and the sealed tombs have prevented some of these watercolor paintings from being destroyed by dampness. A number of hunting scenes from the walls of tombs in Thebes of about 1450 B.C. are well preserved. They show hunters stalking birds or spearing fish of many varieties. These varieties can still be identified today because they were so accurately and carefully painted.

The Mesopotamian civilization, which lasted from 3200 to 332 B.C., was located in the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Near East. The Mesopotamians built mostly with clay. Because clay is softened by rain, their buildings have crumbled away to dust, destroying any wall paintings there may have been. What has been preserved are the decorated ceramics (painted and fired pottery) and colorful mosaics. Although mosaics should not be considered painting, they frequently influenced the forms of painting.

Egyptian and Mesopotamian Painting (3400-332 B.C.)

One of the first civilizations was developed in Egypt. From the written records and the art left by the Egyptians, much about their way of living is known. They believed that the body must be preserved so that the soul may live on after death. The great pyramids were elaborate tombs for rich and powerful Egyptian rulers. Much Egyptian art was created for the pyramids and tombs of kings and other important people. To make absolutely sure that the soul would continue to exist, artists made images of the dead person in stone. They also recorded scenes from the person's life in wall paintings in the burial chambers.

Egyptian techniques of painting remained the same for centuries. In one method watercolor paint was put on mud-plaster or limestone walls. In another process outlines were cut into stone walls, and the designs were painted with watercolor washes. A material called gum arabic probably was used to make the paint stick to a surface. Fortunately, the dry climate of the region and the sealed tombs have prevented some of these watercolor paintings from being destroyed by dampness. A number of hunting scenes from the walls of tombs in Thebes of about 1450 B.C. are well preserved. They show hunters stalking birds or spearing fish of many varieties. These varieties can still be identified today because they were so accurately and carefully painted.

The Mesopotamian civilization, which lasted from 3200 to 332 B.C., was located in the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Near East. The Mesopotamians built mostly with clay. Because clay is softened by rain, their buildings have crumbled away to dust, destroying any wall paintings there may have been. What has been preserved are the decorated ceramics (painted and fired pottery) and colorful mosaics. Although mosaics should not be considered painting, they frequently influenced the forms of painting.

The Aegean Civilization (3000-1100 B.C.)

The third great early culture was the Aegean civilization, on the islands off the shores of Greece and in the peninsula of Asia Minor. The Aegeans lived around the same time as the ancient Egyptians and the Mesopotamians.

In 1900 archeologists began to excavate the palace of King Minos at Knossos on the island of Crete. The excavations turned up works of art painted around 1500 B.C. in an unusually free and graceful style for that time. Evidently the Cretans were a lighthearted, nature-loving people. Among their favorite themes in art were sea life, animals, flowers, athletic games, and processionals. At Knossos and other Aegean palaces, paintings were made on wet plaster walls with paints made of mineral substances, sand, and earth ochers. The paint soaked into the wet plaster and became a permanent part of the wall. This kind of painting was later called fresco, an Italian word meaning "fresh" or "new." The Cretans liked bright yellow, red, blue, and green.

Greek and Roman Classical Painting (1100 B.C.-A.D. 400)

The ancient Greeks decorated their temples and palaces with mural (wall) paintings. We can tell from ancient literary sources and from Roman copies of Greek art that the Greeks painted small pictures and made mosaics. The names of the Greek master painters and something of their lives and works are also known, although very little Greek painting has survived the effects of time and wars. The Greeks did not paint much in tombs, so their works were not protected.

Painted vases are about all that remains of Greek painting. Pottery making was a large industry in Greece, especially in Athens. Containers were in great demand for exports, such as oil and honey, and for household purposes. The earliest style of vase painting was known as the geometric style (1100-700 B.C.). Vases were decorated with bands of geometric shapes and human figures in a brown glaze on light-colored clay. By the 6th century, vase painters were using the black-figured style, in which human figures were painted in black on the natural red clay. The details were cut into the clay with a sharp instrument. This allowed the red beneath to show through.

The red-figured style eventually replaced the black. It is just the opposite; the figures are red and the background black. The advantage of this style was that the painter could use a brush to make the outlines. A brush gives a freer line than the metal tool used in black-figured vases.

Roman mural paintings were found chiefly in the villas (country homes) of Pompeii and Herculaneum. In A.D. 79 these two cities were completely buried by an eruption of the volcano Vesuvius. Archeologists who have excavated the area have been able to learn much about ancient Roman life from these cities. Almost every house and villa in Pompeii had paintings on its walls. Roman painters carefully prepared the wall surface by applying a mixture of marble dust and plaster. They put the mixture on in layers and polished it to a marblelike finish. Many of the pictures are copies of 4th-century B.C. Greek paintings. The graceful poses of the figures painted on the walls of the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii inspired artists of the 18th century when the city was excavated.

The Greeks and Romans also painted portraits. A small number of them, mostly mummy portraits done in the Greek style by Egyptian artists, have survived around Alexandria, in northern Egypt. Founded in the 4th century B.C. by Alexander the Great of Greece, Alexandria became a leading center of Greek and Roman culture. Mummy portraits were painted in the encaustic technique on wood and were fitted into mummy cases after the death of the person portrayed. Encaustic paintings, done in paint mixed with melted beeswax, last for a very long time. Indeed, the mummy portraits still look fresh, though they were done as long ago as the 2nd century B.C.

Early Christian and Byzantine Painting (A.D. 300-1300)

The Roman Empire began to decline in the 4th century A.D. At the same time Christianity gained strength. In A.D. 313 the Roman Emperor Constantine gave the religion official recognition and became a Christian himself.

The rise of Christianity greatly affected the arts. Artists were commissioned to decorate the walls of churches with frescoes and mosaics. They made panel paintings in the church chapel and illustrated and decorated the books of the Church. Under the authority of the Church, artists had to communicate the teachings of Christianity as clearly as possible.

Early Christians and Byzantine artists continued the technique of mosaic that they had learned from the Greeks. Small, flat pieces of colored glass or stone were set into wet cement or plaster. Sometimes other hard materials, such as bits of baked clay or shells, were used. In Italian mosaics the colors are especially deep and full. The Italian artists made the background with pieces of gilded glass. They set the human figures in rich colors against the glittering gold. The general effect is flat and decorative, not realistic.

The mosaics of Byzantine artists often were less realistic and more decorative than those of the early Christians. "Byzantine" is the name given to a style of art that developed around the ancient city of Byzantium (now Istanbul, Turkey). The mosaic technique perfectly suited the Byzantine taste for splendidly decorated churches. The famous mosaics of Theodora and Justinian, made about A.D. 547, show the taste for rich display. The jewelry on the figures glitters, and the brilliantly colored court dresses are set against a shining gold background. Byzantine artists also used gold liberally in fresco and panel paintings. Gold and other precious materials were used throughout the Middle Ages to set spiritual subjects apart from the everyday world.

Medieval Painting (500-1400)

The first part of the Middle Ages, from about the 6th to the 11th centuries A.D., is commonly called the Dark Ages. In this time of unrest, art was kept alive mainly in the monasteries. In the 5th century A.D. barbarian tribes from northern and central Europe roamed over the continent. For hundreds of years they dominated Western Europe. These people produced an art that has a strong emphasis on pattern. They were especially fond of designs of intertwining dragons and birds.

The best of Celtic and Saxon art is found in manuscripts of the 7th and 8th centuries. Book illumination and miniature painting, practiced since late Roman times, increased in the Middle Ages. Illumination is decoration of the text, the capital letters, and the margins. Gold, silver, and bright colors were used. A miniature is a small picture, often a portrait. Originally the term was used to describe the decorative block around the initial letters in a manuscript.

Charlemagne, who was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in the early 9th century, tried to revive the classical art of the late Roman and early Christian periods. During his reign painters of miniatures imitated classical art, but they also conveyed personal feelings about their subjects.

Very little wall painting survives from the Middle Ages. There were several great series of frescoes painted in churches built during the Romanesque period (11th-13th centuries), but most of them have disappeared. Churches of the Gothic period (12th-16th centuries) did not have enough wall space for mural paintings. Book illustration was the main job of the Gothic painter.

Among the finest illustrated manuscripts were the books of hours--collections of calendars, devotional prayers, and psalms. A page from an Italian manuscript shows elaborately decorated initials and a finely detailed marginal scene of Saint George slaying the dragon. The colors are brilliant and jewel-like, as in stained glass, and gold shimmers over the page. Exquisitely delicate leaf and flower designs border the text. Artists probably used magnifying glasses to do such intricate work.

Italy: Cimabue and Giotto

Italian painters at the close of the 13th century were still working in the Byzantine style. Human figures were made to appear flat and decorative. Faces rarely had any expression. Bodies were weightless and seemed to float rather than stand firmly on the ground. In Florence the painter Cimabue (1240?-1302?) tried to modernize some of the old Byzantine methods. The angels in his Madonna Enthroned are more active than is usual in paintings of that time. Their gestures and faces show a little more human feeling. Cimabue added a new sense of monumentality, or largeness, to his paintings. However, he continued to follow many Byzantine traditions, such as the gold background and patternlike arrangement of objects and figures.

It was the great Florentine painter Giotto (1267?-1337) who actually broke with the Byzantine tradition. His fresco series in the Arena Chapel in Padua leaves Byzantine art far behind. In these scenes from the lives of Mary and Christ, there is genuine emotion, tension, and naturalism. All the qualities of human warmth and sympathy are present. The people do not seem at all unreal or heavenly. Giotto shaded the contours of the figures, and he put deep shadows into the folds of their clothing to give a sense of roundness and solidity.

For his smaller panels Giotto used pure egg tempera, a medium that was perfected by the 14th-century Florentines. The clearness and brightness of his colors must have greatly affected people accustomed to the darker colors of Byzantine panels. Tempera paintings give the impression that soft daylight is falling over the scene. They have an almost flat appearance in contrast to the glossiness of oil paintings. Egg tempera remained the chief painting medium until oil almost completely replaced it in the 16th century.

Late Medieval Painting North of the Alps

Early in the 15th century, painters in northern Europe were working in a style quite different from Italian painting. Northern artists achieved realism by adding countless details to their pictures. Every hair was delicately outlined, and each detail of drapery or floor pattern was faithfully set down. The invention of oil painting made it easier to paint details.

The Flemish artist Jan van Eyck (1370?-1441) contributed to the development of oil painting. When tempera is used, the colors have to be put on separately. They cannot shade into one another very well because the paint dries quickly. With oil, which dries slowly, an artist can achieve more intricate effects. The Moneylender and His Wife by Quentin Massys (1466?-1530) was done in the Flemish oil technique. All details, and even the mirror reflection, are clear and precise. The color is strong and has a hard, enamel-like surface. The wood panel on which the painting was done was prepared in much the same way that Giotto prepared his panels for tempera. Van Eyck built up the painting in layers of thin color, called glazes. Tempera was probably used in the original underpainting and for highlights.

Italian Renaissance Painting

At the same time that van Eyck was working in the North, the Italians were moving into a golden age of art and literature. This period is called the Renaissance, which means rebirth, or revival. Italian artists were inspired by the sculpture of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Italians wanted to revive the spirit of classical art, which glorifies human independence and nobility. Renaissance artists continued to paint religious subjects. But they emphasized the earthly life and accomplishments of human beings.


Giotto's accomplishments in the early 14th century laid the foundation of the Renaissance. Fifteenth-century Italian artists continued the movement. Masaccio (1401-28) was one of the leaders of the first generation of Renaissance artists. He lived in Florence, the wealthy merchant city where Renaissance art began. By the time of his death in his late twenties, he had revolutionized painting. In his famous fresco The Tribute Money he puts solid sculptural figures into a landscape that seems to go far back into the distance. Masaccio may have learned perspective from the Florentine architect and sculptor Brunelleschi (1377?-1446).

The fresco technique was very popular during the Renaissance. It was particularly suitable for large mural paintings because the colors dry perfectly flat. The picture can be viewed from any angle without glare or reflections. Frescoes are also available. Usually the artists had several assistants to help them. Work was completed by sections because it had to be finished while the plaster was still wet.

Masaccio's full three-dimensional style was typical of the new progressive trend of the 15th century. The style of Fra Angelico (1400?-1455) represents the more traditional approach used by a number of early Renaissance painters. He was less concerned with perspective and more interested in decorative pattern. His Coronation of the Virgin is an example of tempera painting at its most beautiful. The gay, intense colors are set against a gold background and accented with touches of gold. The picture looks like a greatly enlarged miniature painting. The long, narrow figures have little in common with Masaccio's. The composition is organized in sweeping lines of movement circling about the central figures of Christ and Mary.

Another Florentine who worked in the traditional style was Sandro Botticelli (1444?-1510). Flowing, rhythmic lines link the sections of Botticelli's Primavera. The figure of Spring, carried by the West Wind, sweeps in from the right. The Three Graces dance in a circle, the fluttering folds of their dresses and graceful movements of their arms expressing the rhythms of the dance.

The famous artist Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) studied painting in Florence. He is known for his scientific studies and inventions, as well as for his paintings. Very few of his pictures have survived, partly because he often experimented with different ways of making and applying paint, rather than using tried and true methods. The Last Supper (painted between 1495 and 1498) was done in oil, but unfortunately Leonardo painted it on a damp wall, which caused the paint to crack. Even in its poor condition the painting has the power to stir emotions in all who see it.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Leonardo's style was his method of painting lights and darks. The Italians called his half-dark lighting sfumato, which means smoky, or misty. The figures in the Madonna of the Rocks are veiled in a sfumato atmosphere. Their forms and features are softly shaded. Leonardo achieved these effects by using very fine gradations of light and dark tones.


The climax of Renaissance painting came in the 16th century. At the same time, the center of art and culture shifted from Florence to Rome. Under Pope Sixtus IV and his successor, Julius II, the city of Rome was gloriously decorated by Renaissance artists. Some of the most ambitious projects of the period were begun during the papacy of Julius II. Julius commissioned the great sculptor and painter Michelangelo (1475-1564) to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and to carve sculpture for the Pope's tomb. Julius also invited the painter Raphael (1483-1520) to help with the decoration of the Vatican. With assistants, Raphael frescoed four rooms of the Pope's apartments in the Vatican Palace.

Michelangelo, a Florentine by birth, developed a monumental style of painting. The figures in his painting are so solid and three-dimensional that they look like sculpture. The Sistine ceiling, which took Michelangelo 4 years to complete, is composed of hundreds of human figures from the Old Testament. To paint this tremendous fresco Michelangelo had to lie on his back on scaffolding. The brooding face of Jeremiah among the prophets that surround the ceiling is thought by some people to be his self-portrait.

Raphael came to Florence from Urbino as a very young man. In Florence he absorbed the ideas of Leonardo and Michelangelo. By the time Raphael went to Rome to work in the Vatican, his style had become one of great beauty. He is especially beloved for his beautiful paintings of the Madonna and Child. These have been reproduced by the thousands and can be seen everywhere. His Madonna del Granduca is successful because of its complete simplicity. Timeless in its peacefulness and purity, it is just as appealing to us as it was to the Italians of Raphael's time.


Venice was the chief northern Italian city of the Renaissance. It was visited by artists from Flanders and other regions who knew of Flemish experiments with oil paint. This stimulated an early use of the oil technique in the Italian city. The Venetians also painted on tightly stretched canvas, rather than on the wooden panels commonly used in Florence.

Giovanni Bellini (1430?-1516) was the greatest Venetian painter of the 15th century. He was also one of the first Italian painters to use oil on canvas. Giorgione (1478?-1511) and Titian (1488?-1576), who is the most famous of all Venetian painters, were students in Bellini's workshop.

A master of the oil technique, Titian painted huge canvases in warm, rich colors. In his mature paintings he sacrificed details to the sweeping effect of the whole painting, as in the Pesaro Madonna. He used large brushes to make broad strokes. His colors are especially rich because he patiently built up glazes of contrasting colors. Usually the glazes were put on over a brown tempera ground, which gave the painting a unified tone.

Another great 16th-century Venetian painter was Tintoretto (1518-94). Unlike Titian, he usually worked directly on the canvas without making preliminary sketches or underpaintings. He often distorted his forms (twisted them out of shape) for the sake of the composition and drama of the scene. His technique, which includes broad brushstrokes and dramatic contrasts of light and dark, seems very modern.

The painter Kyriakos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614) was known as El Greco ("the Greek"). Born on the island of Crete, which was occupied by the Venetian army, El Greco was trained by Italian artists. As a young adult he went to Venice to study. The combined influence of Byzantine art--which he saw all around him in Crete--and of Italian Renaissance art made El Greco's work outstanding.

In his paintings he distorted natural forms and used even stranger, more unearthly colors than Tintoretto, whom he admired. Later El Greco moved to Spain, where the grimness of Spanish art influenced his work. In his dramatic View of Toledo a storm rages above the deathlike stillness of the city. Cold blues, greens, and blue-whites cast a chill over the landscape.

The Renaissance in Flanders and Germany

The golden age of painting in Flanders (now part of Belgium and northern France) was the 15th century, the time of van Eyck. In the 16th century many Flemish artists had taken up the discoveries of Italian Renaissance painters. Some Flemings, however, continued the Flemish tradition of realism. They painted genre--scenes from everyday life, which were often charming and sometimes fantastic. Hieronymus Bosch (1450?-1516), who preceded the genre painters, had an unusually vivid imagination. He invented all sorts of weird, grotesque creatures for The Temptation of St. Anthony. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525?-69) also worked in the Flemish tradition but added perspective and other Renaissance characteristics to his genre scenes.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Hans Holbein the Younger (1497?-1543), and Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) were the three most important German painters of the 16th century. They did much to soften the grim realism of earlier German painting. Dürer made at least one visit to Italy, where he was impressed with the paintings of Giovanni Bellini and other northern Italians. From this experience he brought to German painting a knowledge of perspective, a feeling for color and light, and a new understanding of composition. Holbein absorbed even more of the Italian achievements. His sensitive drawing and ability to select only the most important details made him a master portrait painter.

Baroque Painting

The 17th century is generally known as the baroque period in art. In Italy the painters Caravaggio (1571-1610) and Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) represented two contrasting viewpoints. Caravaggio (whose real name was Michelangelo Merisi) always painted directly from life. One of his main concerns was to copy nature as faithfully as possible without glorifying it in any way. Carracci, on the other hand, followed the Renaissance ideal of beauty. He studied ancient sculpture and the works of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian. Caravaggio's style was admired by many painters, especially by the Spaniards Ribera and the young Velázquez. Carracci's painting inspired Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), a major French painter of the 17th century.


Diego Velázquez, (1599-1660), court painter to King Philip IV of Spain, was one of the greatest of all Spanish painters. An admirer of Titian's work, he was a master in the use of rich, harmonious color. No artist could better create the illusion of rich fabrics or human skin. The portrait of little Prince Phillip Prosper shows this skill to great advantage. His remarkable brushwork was much admired by the 19th-century French impressionists.


The paintings of the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) are representative of the full-blown baroque style. They are bursting with energy, color, and light. Rubens broke with the Flemish tradition of painting small, detailed pictures. His were huge canvases filled with human figures. He was given many more commissions for large pictures than he could possibly handle. Therefore he often painted only a small, colored sketch. Then his assistants transferred the sketch to a large canvas and completed the painting under Ruben's supervision.


The accomplishments of the Dutch painter Rembrandt (1606-69) are among the most outstanding in history. He had a remarkable gift for capturing human emotions. Like Titian, he worked long at building up a painting in many layers. Earth colors--yellow ocher, brown, and brown-red--were his favorites. His paintings are basically dark in tone and have many very dark areas. The rich values of these dark areas, created with many layers of color, make his technique unusual. Important sections of his paintings are dramatically illuminated by brilliant light.

Jan Vermeer (1632-75) was one of a group of Dutch artists who painted the humble scenes of daily life. He was a master at painting textures of every kind--satin, Persian rugs, bread crusts, metal. The overall impression of a Vermeer interior is that of a sunny, cheerful room filled with cherished household objects.

18th-Century Painting

In the 18th century, Venice produced several fine painters. The most famous was Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770). He decorated the interiors of palaces and other buildings with tremendous, colorful frescoes representing scenes of wealth and pageantry Francesco Guardi (1712-93) and Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768) painted scenic views, many of them recalling the past glories of Venice. Guardi was very skillful with a brush. With a few patches of color he could conjure up the idea of a tiny figure in a boat.

France: The Rococo Style

In France a taste for pastel colors and intricate decoration brought about the development of the rococo style in the early 18th century. Jean Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), a court painter to King Louis XV, and, later, François Boucher (1703-70) and Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), were associated with the rococo trend. Watteau painted visions of a dream life in which all is gaiety. There are picnics in the park or woodland parties where gallant gentlemen and elegant ladies amuse themselves.

Other 18th-century painters portrayed scenes of ordinary, middle-class life. Like the Dutch Vermeer, Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin (1699-1779) valued simple domestic scenes and still-life arrangements. His colors are sober and calm compared to Watteau's.


In the 18th century the English, for the first time, developed a distinct school of painting. It consisted mainly of portrait painters who were influenced by Venetian Renaissance artists. Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) are the best-known. Reynolds, who had traveled in Italy, was devoted to reviving the Renaissance ideals of painting. His portraits, although charming and touching, are not particularly interesting in color or texture. Gainsborough, on the other hand, had a talent for brilliant brushwork. The surfaces of his paintings glow with shining color.

19th-Century Painting

The 19th century is sometimes regarded as the period during which modern art began to take shape. One important reason for the so-called revolution in the arts at this time was the invention of the camera, which forced artists to re-examine the purpose of painting.

A more important development resulted partly from the widespread use of manufactured paints. Before the 19th century, most artists or their assistants made their own paints by grinding pigment. Early commercial paints were inferior to handmade paints. Artists late in the 19th century found that the dark blues and browns of earlier paintings were turning black or gray within a few years. They began to use pure colors again. These artists used pure colors in order to preserve their work and sometimes because they were trying to capture the effects of sunlight in outdoor scenes more accurately.


Although France was the great center of art in the 1800's, the English landscapists John Constable (1776-1837) and Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) made valuable contributions to 19th-century painting. Both were interested in painting light and air, two aspects of nature that 19th-century artists explored fully. Constable used a method known as divisionism, or broken color. He put contrasting colors side by side in thick, short strokes or dots over a basic background color. He often used a palette knife to apply the color thickly. The Hay Wain made him famous when it was shown in Paris in 1824. It is a simple rural scene of a hay wagon (wain) crossing a river. Clouds drift over meadows dappled with patches of sunlight. Turner's paintings are more dramatic than Constable's. He painted the majestic sights of nature--storms, seascapes, glowing sunsets, high mountains. Often a golden haze partially conceals the objects in his pictures, making them appear to float in unlimited space.

Spain: Goya

Francisco Goya (1746-1828) was the first great Spanish painter to appear since the 17th century. As the favorite painter of the Spanish court, he made many portraits of the royal family. The royal personages are outfitted in elegant clothes and fine jewels, but in some of their faces all that is reflected is vanity and greed. Besides portraits, Goya painted dramatic scenes such as The Third of May, 1808. This picture shows the execution of a group of Spanish rebels by French soldiers. Bold contrasts of light and dark, and somber colors pierced by splashes of red, bring out the grim horror of the spectacle.


The period of Napoleon's reign and the French Revolution saw the rise of two opposing tendencies in French art--classicism and romanticism. Jacques Louis David (1748-1825) and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) were inspired by ancient Greek and Roman art and the Renaissance. They emphasized drawing and used color mainly to aid in creating solid forms. As the favorite artist of the revolutionary government, David often painted historical events of the period. In his portraits, such as that of Madame Récamier, he aimed at achieving classical simplicity.

Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) and the romanticist Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) revolted against David's style. For Delacroix, color was the most important element in painting, and he had no patience for imitating classical statues. Instead, he admired Rubens and the Venetians. He chose colorful, exotic themes for his pictures, which sparkle with light and are full of movement.

The Barbizon painters were also part of the general romantic movement that lasted from about 1820 to 1850. They worked near the village of Barbizon on the edge of the Fontainebleau forest. They sketched out-of-doors and completed the paintings in their studios.

Other artists experimented with everyday, ordinary subject matter. The landscapes of Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875) reflect his love of nature, and his figure studies show a kind of balanced calm. Gustave Courbet (1819-77) called himself a realist because he painted the world as he saw it--even its harsh, unpleasant side. He limited his palette to just a few somber colors, which he sometimes put on with a palette knife. Édouard Manet (1832-83) also took his subject matter from the world around him. People were shocked by his colorful contrasts and unusual techniques. The surfaces of his pictures often have a flat, patternlike texture of brushstrokes. Manet's techniques and methods of recording the effects of light on form influenced younger painters, especially the impressionists.

Working in the 1870's and 1880's, the group of artists known as the impressionists wanted to paint nature exactly as it was. They went much further than Constable, Turner, and Manet in studying the effects of light in color. Some of them worked out scientific theories of color. Claude Monet (1840-1926) often painted the same view at different times of day to show how its appearance changed under different conditions of light. Whatever the subject matter, his scenes are made up of hundreds of tiny brushstrokes laid side by side, often in contrasting colors. From a distance the strokes blend to give the impression of solid forms. Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) used the impressionist techniques to capture the festivity of Parisian life. In his Dance at the Moulin de la Galette people in vividly colored clothes mingle and dance gaily. Renoir painted the entire picture with small, even brushstrokes. The dots and dashes of paint create a texture on the surface of the painting that lends it a special kind of unity. The crowds of people seem to dissolve in sunlight and shimmering color.

20th-Century Painting

A number of artists soon became dissatisfied with impressionism. Artists such as Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) felt that impressionism did not describe the solidity of forms in nature. Cézanne liked to paint still lifes because they allowed him to concentrate on the shapes of fruits or other objects and their arrangements. Objects in his still lifes look solid because he reduced their forms to simple geometric shapes. His technique of placing patches of paint and short brushstrokes of rich color side by side shows that he learned much from the impressionists.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) reacted against the realism of the impressionists. Unlike the impressionists, who said that they were viewing nature objectively, Van Gogh cared little for accurate drawing. He frequently distorted objects in order to express his ideas more imaginatively. He used the impressionist device of putting contrasting colors next to each other. Sometimes he squeezed paint from the tubes right onto the canvas in thick ribbons, as in Field of Yellow Corn.

Gauguin did not care for the spotty color of the impressionists. He applied color smoothly in large flat areas, which he separated from one another by lines or dark edges. The colorful civilizations of the tropics provided much of his subject matter.

Cézanne's method of building up arrangements in space with simple geometric forms was further developed by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Georges Braque (1882-1963), and others. Their style became known as cubism. The cubists painted objects as if they could be seen from several angles at once, or as if they had been taken apart and reassembled on a flat canvas. Often the objects barely resemble anything in nature. Sometimes the cubists cut out shapes from cloth, cardboard, wallpaper, or other materials and pasted them on the canvas to make a collage. Textures were also varied by adding sand or other substances to the paint. Since Manet, the trend has been to put less emphasis on subject and more emphasis on composition and technique.

Painting in the United States

American painting before the 20th century had mainly consisted of portraits and landscapes based on European styles. Many American artists, such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), lived abroad and were influenced by European art. There was, however, an important group of American genre painters, the best of whom were Winslow Homer (1836-1910) and Thomas Eakins (1844-1916).

In the 1890's a group of young painters known as The Eight, led by Robert Henri (1865-1929), tried to create an art that was distinctly American. John Sloan (1871-1951) and George W. Bellows (1882-1925) painted life in the alleys, backyards, harbors, and slums. Members of The Eight helped organize the 1913 Armory Show of New York City. This exhibition, held in an armory, brought together modern art from the United States and Europe. At this show Americans saw the daring art of the cubists and other modern Europeans for the first time.

By the beginning of World War I, United States artists were aware of everything that was going on in modern European painting. But they did not make use of the new ideas until years later. Many painters in the 1930's were regional artists like Grant Wood (1891-1942), who painted realistic scenes of life in the Middle West.

After World War II, the United States became the world center of painting. Arshile Gorky (1904-48) and Jackson Pollock (1912-56) were among the leaders who helped to create a new style called action painting or abstract expressionism. Instead of trying to represent specific objects, they were interested mainly in color, design, rhythm, and new ways of applying paint. Pollock experimented with flinging and dripping color on his canvases from sticks dipped into buckets of paint. Such a bold technique is just one example of the 20th-century artist's search for originality and freedom of expression.

Early in the 1960's a group of artists in the United States reacted against abstract expressionism. These artists went to the other extreme. In trying to produce an art that expresses the spirit of today, they began to paint realistic pictures of everyday things. Their subjects included dart boards, light bulbs, comic strips, and street signs. The innovators in this movement included Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and Jasper Johns (1930-). Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97), Claes Oldenburg (1929-), and Andy Warhol (1928-87) were some of its leaders. Sometimes called "pop" (for popular) art, it represented a phase through which art passed. To many people, however, pop art presented an invitation to take a good look at the objects all around them. The design on a soup can or a bottle of cola might never have been noticed otherwise. Abstract expressionism opened people's minds; pop art opened their eyes.

In the mid-1960's, other types of art emerged. "Op," or optical art, was one. In op art, the tricks our eyesight can play become part of the artist's style. In Vaacov Agam's Double Metamorphosis II, the specially arranged patterns of line and color seem almost to vibrate.

Some abstract artists, such as Frank Stella (1936-) and Ellsworth Kelly (1923-), sometimes shape the canvas itself into circles, triangles, and other forms. Using bright colors, they often apply paint in hard-edged geometric shapes that conform to the shape of the canvas. So, it may be difficult to distinguish between painting and sculpture today, but we appreciate purity of color and relationships of shapes.

Sarah Bradford Landau
Department of Fine Arts
New York University

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