Art & Artists
Art & ArtistsfPeople have always produced works of art. Cave people from around 32,000 years ago sculpted small figures from ivory, horn, bone and stone, and painted scenes of humans and animals on their walls. Writing developed from painting, drawing and carving and the first alphabets were made of pictures. These were the cuneiform of Ancient Sumer and the hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt.
As different civilizations developed around the world, so did the art forms they used. Historians can tell a lot about a past culture by looking at its works of art—not just the decoration on buildings such as palaces and tombs, but also everyday items such as pottery and jewellery.
THE ARTS OF DIFFERENT CULTURES
Tribal cultures used art as a social and religious tool. Australian Aborigines drew pictures to teach young people their customs; they also believed that drawings of their animal ancestors had special powers in sacred rituals. From around 1000 to 1600, Polynesians on Easter Island carved giant stone statues of their ancestors or gods, which they believed had mysterious powers. And over hundreds of years, African peoples became experts in wooden sculpture, carving and polishing figurines and masks for use in tribal ceremonies.
Many other cultures developed forms of art because they enjoyed beauty, and wanted to show off their wealth and importance. From around 3000 to 1000 bc, the Ancient Egyptians decorated the walls of their pharaohs’ tombs, painted on statues sculpted from limestone, and created fine gold jewellery set with precious stones. And from around 2000 to 1100 bc, the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, Greece, painted colourful pictures on the walls of their huge palaces and decorated their pottery.
From the 7th century, Islamic beliefs spread through Arab countries and India. These taught that it was sinful to create pictures of people and animals. So art in Middle Eastern regions developed in the form of intricate patterns based on Arabic lettering, mathematical shapes and plant forms. These were painted, carved, made in mosaic or woven into beautifully coloured carpets.
From the 4th to the 10th century in the Americas, the Maya carved scenes from ancient stories on their mighty stone temples. The Inca and Aztec Indians who followed (from the 12th to the 16th century) also wove brightly coloured cloth in elaborate patterns. They became excellent goldsmiths who made beautiful jewellery and ceremonial masks inset with precious gems, shells and feathers.
In the Far Eastern countries of China and Japan, artists created beautiful pictures of nature with just a few, simple brushstrokes of ink on silk or paper. They also became accomplished at printing from carved blocks of wood.
EARLY ART IN THE WEST
In Europe, art forms grew from the painting and sculpture of Ancient Greek and Roman craftsmen. From around 500 to 323 bc, Greek sculptors studied the human body closely to create lifelike statues in marble and bronze. The Romans became skilled at carving realistic figures on panels of stone. These raised pictures, called reliefs, told the stories of gods, heroes and war triumphs on stone columns and arches from around 100 bc to ad 400. These Classical painters did not use paper or canvas but created huge scenes on walls, called frescoes. Wealthy Greeks and Romans paid artists to create decorative mosaic floors for their homes and public buildings.
In ad 330, the Roman Emperor Constantine chose the ancient Greek town of Byzantium (modern-day İstanbul) to be his new capital city. He also declared that Christianity was the new official religion of the Roman Empire. This led to the start of a new style of art. Byzantine artists began creating scenes from Christian stories for churches. They turned away from making physically perfect statues and tried to make pictures that showed the spiritual nature of holy people. It became fashionable to paint stylized pictures on wooden panels showing saints with halos shining round their heads. These flat images became known as icons. Byzantine artists created many icons in mosaic form for church walls.
WESTERN ART IN MEDIEVAL TIMES
In the early Middle Ages, carving was an important form of art across northern Europe. The Viking peoples of Scandinavia carved terrifying animals into the wooden prows of their ships, and also used the theme in the metalwork of their helmets and armour, goblets, plates, brooches, necklaces and bangles. They used complicated interlocking patterns for decoration, which became important in the art of the Celts too.
From the 7th to the 9th centuries, monks used Celtic style to decorate Christian writings with intricate designs in coloured inks. These became known as illuminated manuscripts, and include the Lindisfarme Gospels (created around 698-721), which you can see in the British Museum. Noblewomen became skilled at needlework, creating colourful, detailed embroideries, such as the large-scale Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of the 11th-century conquest of England by the Normans of northern France.
During the 10th and 11th centuries, European stonemasons revived the Roman art of sculpting reliefs on the outside of church doorways. From around 1100 to 1500, this Romanesque style gave way to a new style called Gothic. This developed when medieval people discovered new construction methods and built taller churches with bigger windows. Craftsmen created fine sculptures for tombs and developed the art of making beautiful scenes in stained glass. Artists began to create non-religious works too.
Craftspeople set up workshops in major European cities such as Paris and Siena, where wealthy nobles paid them to produce frescoes and portraits. Medieval painters paid great attention to everyday detail, recording the lifestyle of peasants as well as nobles. They created large pictures crammed with people, animals, plants, buildings and other objects. The images were painted large or small, depending on how important the artist thought they were. One of the last artists to paint in this style was a Dutch artist called Hieronymus Bosch. His greatest work was a religious oil painting on three wooden panels called The Garden of Earthly Delights, created around 1500.
People in early medieval paintings looked flat, stiff and expressionless. A brilliant Italian artist called Giotto, who lived from 1267 to 1337, changed all that. Like the artists of Ancient Greece and Rome, Giotto tried to make people look solid and realistic. He painted humans, animals, trees, buildings and objects in the right proportions to each other, and made backgrounds look three-dimensional. He painted amazing large wood-panel altarpieces for churches and frescoed the Arena Chapel in Padua in his new style.
Everyone thought Giotto’s work was revolutionary, and artists all over Italy began to revive the realistic art styles of Ancient Greece and Rome. The fashion spread through Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries and is today known as the Renaissance. From around 1420 to 1436, the architect Filippo Brunelleschi developed perspective, which enabled painters to show depth on a flat surface. A painter called Piero della Francesca used mathematical systems to create beautifully composed pictures of lifelike proportions. Brilliant sculptors such as Donatello and Michelangelo created enormous, perfect figures in dramatic poses, their faces filled with emotion. Artists including Leonardo da Vinci experimented with new paints and techniques, such as oils on canvas. Raphael and Titian became famous for the glowing colours of their oil paintings.
Painters still focused on religious subjects, as Michelangelo did in his decoration on the ceiling and behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel. Some also painted scenes from the Classical stories of Ancient Greece and Rome, such as Botticelli’s huge painting on canvas called The Birth of Venus. It became fashionable for wealthy people to ask artists to paint their portrait in the realistic style. Some of the most famous include Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding, and Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors.
MANNERISMdd, BAROQUE AND ROCOCO
From around 1520 in Italy, some artists began to react against realistic Renaissance style. They exaggerated people’s emotions in their paintings, showing them in twisted, artificial poses. The style, later called Mannerism, was especially popular with a master painter in Spain called El Greco and the leading 16th-century sculptor in Florence, Giambologna.
A more widespread European style began with the work of a painter from Milan called Caravaggio, who lived from 1573 to 1610. Inspired by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio created paintings full of energy and movement, with dramatic contrasts of light and shadow. Other artists continued the intense style throughout the 17th century, and it became known as Baroque. Many Baroque painters chose dramatic Bible stories as their subjects. Two famous works are Samson and Delilah by the Belgian artist Peter Paul Rubens, and Belshazzar’s Feast by the Dutch master Rembrandt. They used rich colours and thickly layered paint, and included objects in their paintings that were full of hidden meanings.
Dutch artists such as Harmen Steenwyck began to concentrate on groups of these symbolic objects on their own, leaving people out of the painting altogether. This began a type of art called still life. Other Dutch artists, such as Jan Vermeer, started to paint what seemed to be everyday scenes of people in their homes, but which actually spelled out messages about politics, or religion or art itself. Pictures like this became known as genre paintings. The Spanish artist Diego Velázquez painted striking genre masterpieces for King Philip IV of Spain. Two artists from France, Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, concentrated on Classical figures and beautiful landscapes, all painted in the Baroque style. The leading Baroque sculptor was Gianlorenzo Bernini. He created many enormous, theatrical statues for the largest cathedral in the world, St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Painters in France and Germany continued the Baroque style into the 18th century, but became more playful with this type of art. Instead of choosing serious Bible scenes as their subjects, they painted nobles and wealthy landowners in landscapes or having parties. Baroque style used in this way became called Rococo art. Famous Rococo artists in England were William Hogarth, Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds.
THE ROMANTICS AND THE IMPRESSIONISTS
In the middle of the 18th century, archaeologists began to carry out many digs in Greece and Italy. For a few years, artists became interested in Classical art styles again. These included the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen and the French painter Jacques-Louis David. Their style became known as Neo-Classicist, which simply means “new Classical”.
Around the same time, ordinary people in Europe began to feel angry about being ruled by wealthy noble families, and settlers in America grew resentful about being ruled by the European countries they had left behind. New ideas about freedom began huge transformations in society, such as a revolution in France in 1789 in which the people got rid of the French royal family and established their own government. Writers, painters and sculptors expressed these new feelings into the first half of the 19th century, in a style that was later called Romantic.
Some Romantic artists were inspired by people struggling against suffering and oppression. For instance, the French painter Eugène Delacroix created a masterpiece called Liberty Leading the People. The French sculptor François Rude created a monument called La Marseillaise, showing liberty as a huge winged woman urging people on to battle. Other Romantic artists were inspired by the heroes and heroines of history. The English artist Joseph Mallord William Turner painted a work called Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps. Some Romantic artists, such as Jean-François Millet and John Constable, concentrated on paintings that made the life of ordinary people in the countryside look peaceful and beautiful.
Romantic painters often flooded their work with colour and light, such as the German artist Caspar David Friedrich, who liked to paint landscapes at dawn and sunset. In the late 19th century, this developed into a style that was called Impressionism. A French painter called Édouard Manet was among the first to shock people with this new style in the 1860s. He painted everyday life, such as scenes in restaurants and parks, with flat figures and blurred backgrounds created out of thick brushwork. Edgar Degas explored techniques for painting moving subjects, particularly ballet dancers, as though he had caught them in a photograph. The artists Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Auguste Renoir became best known for Impressionist style. They often worked outdoors, side-by-side, painting scenes of gardens and rivers that dissolved shapes and details into blends of shades and textures best viewed from a distance. Renoir also became famous for painting brilliant portraits in a more Classical style. He lived from 1841 to 1919, and kept painting well into his old age.
Although Romanticism and later Impressionism were the leading fashions for art during the 19th century in Europe, many brilliant artists at this time developed their own styles. Francisco Goya was a Spanish painter who lived from 1746 to 1828 and used free paintbrush strokes to create images that were bold and startling.
A Frenchman called Gustave Courbet, who lived from 1819 to 1877, developed his own style called Realism. He thought that art should show everyday events involving ordinary people, even if these were sometimes sad, ugly scenes of illness and death among poor peasants and beggars.
The French artist Georges Seurat was in the middle of developing a new painting technique called Pointillism when he died of meningitis in 1891, at the age of just 31. Instead of mixing colours on a palette, he applied them as tiny dots of pure pigment directly on to the canvas. When you stood back and looked at his painting from the right distance, the dots mixed together into different shades.
Vincent van Gogh was a Dutchman who studied and worked in France. He became famous for applying colour in thick, flickering strokes that created paintings full of emotion. Van Gogh suffered from mental illness and committed suicide in 1890 when he was 37 years old, but his work influenced a later style that became known as Expressionism. One of van Gogh’s friends was the artist Paul Gauguin, who painted in quite a different way. Gauguin used areas of flat, bold colours with heavy outlines around them, in a style that came to be known as Synthetism or Symbolism. He also became interested in “primitive” artistic styles, such as the art of South Sea Islanders. Gauguin created decorative patterns of colour that influenced a group of painters who came to be called the Fauves.
The French artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec became famous for drawings, paintings and prints of performers in music halls in the 1890s. As well as recording scenes of life backstage, he also created colourful posters for cabaret venues such as the Moulin Rouge.
In the late 19th century in America, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins and Albert Pinkham Ryder were inspired to create imaginative paintings of boats, rivers and the sea.
The outstanding sculptor of the 19th century was a Frenchman called Auguste Rodin. He was brilliant at suggesting thoughts and feelings through the poses of his figures. Two of his most famous works are The Thinker, created in 1880, and The Kiss, created in 1886.
WESTERN ART SINCE THE 20TH CENTURY
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) was an artist who lived in France. His paintings were not popular during his lifetime, but after his death his work had such a great influence on other artists that he has been called the father of modern art. Cézanne’s subjects were traditional, such as landscapes, portraits and still life. But his techniques were revolutionary. He trained himself to paint objects exactly as he saw them, adding changes he observed at different times of day and from different points of view. This painstaking method took a very long time and, in fact, Cézanne rarely considered one of his paintings finished. It also meant that his paintings had a distorted appearance that was truly original.
Cézanne’s painting changed people’s opinions about what made a work of art good or not. Artists realized that they did not have to use established techniques for painting; they could create their own. Because of this, art through the 20th century exploded into many wide-ranging movements and styles.
Inspired by Cézanne, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque developed a style called Cubism, in Paris between 1907 and 1914. It emphasized the flatness of paintings by exaggerating objects and spaces into mathematical shapes. Picasso was also inspired by the shapes of African tribal sculpture to make his own sculptures in a Cubist style. From around 1910 to 1950, Cubism developed into Abstract Art, a style in which paintings and sculptures did not look like people or objects at all.
During World War I, a group of artists protested against the war by rejecting traditional forms of art and inventing a new style called Dada, a nonsense word. A French painter called Marcel Duchamp created a version of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait Mona Lisa to which he added a moustache and a beard. He took mass-produced objects and called them sculpture, for example a work called Trap, which was a coat rack laid in the middle of an art gallery floor, ready to trip people up as they walked in.
From the 1920s, painters such as Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst began to create strange pictures that represented their dreams and their subconscious minds. Sculptors, including the Swiss Alberto Giacometti and American-born Man Ray, also created fantastical works, in a style that came to be known as Surrealism.
Through the 1940s, a painting style called Abstract Expressionism became fashionable. Artists such as Jackson Pollock experimented with different ways of splashing or dripping paint across huge canvases laid out across his studio floor, to create random, energetic pictures. Pop Art developed in the mid 1950s, with artists including Andy Warhol using images from films, comic strips and advertising billboards in their work.
Today, painters experiment with all sorts of materials on any surface, from brushing blocks of solid, bright colour on to sheets of plastic, to painting elaborate murals over brick walls, to tattooing body art on skin. Sculptors are also free to create models in any style and from any materials they wish. Many sculptors through the 20th century, such as Henri Matisse, Sir Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore, have continued to create expressive human figures. Other sculptors have created all sorts of abstract models—from moving mobiles to displays made from junk.