From Renaissance Through Contemporary | Art Styles Throughout History
The past century has seen a flowering in the variety of artistic styles. What was once a rigidly defined and formal craft bloomed into a more emotional and expressive form of creativity, giving birth to hundreds of unique genres and regional movements.
This stylistic diffusion and acceleration can be overwhelming for any artist, critic, or simple appreciator of the fine arts. Looking through some of the more popular and influential genres is a good way to get your footing and gain a greater appreciation for the social history and technical evolution behind the great works we all recognize by sight. Today, this long history is still inspiring artists and paving the way for new techniques and forms.
The foundations of fine art can be found in the Italian Renaissance, when revenue from trade and scientific and philosophical discoveries from the Middle East came together in the 15th century to produce an explosion of culture.
New art was produced which harkened back to the mythic times of the Greek and Romans. Heroes, gods, and philosophers abounded on canvas, along with oligarchs and other wealthy nobles depicted in their image. Math and science entered into this world, too, as painters worked towards more realistic and precise portrayals of perspective and depth.
Artworks of the Renaissance are often crowded with legendary figures or otherwise focused on the proud likenesses of individuals. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s The School of Athens, and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa are among the most famous and recognizable.
19th Century Art
By the 1800s, art had settled into a regular pattern, with most artists conforming to stylistic techniques sometimes several centuries old. Realism, with its stark portraits and pastoral scenes of old Europe and early America reigned supreme, and art was seen as the realm of the wealthy and elite.
Towards the latter half of the century, however, things began to change. Starting in Paris and other areas in Northern Europe, new styles began to emerge which drew from the emotional wells of earlier Romanticism and focused greatly on movement.
Impressionism rose out of Paris and aimed to revise the harsh detail of realism into something more contemplative and sensory. Light, atmosphere, and above all motion were brought to the forefront to capture more of the life and emotion of everyday scenes. Monet’s Water Lilies and J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire are fine examples of this style.
Expressionism took this emotional effluence even further, with artists beginning to focus on the more subjective and personal relations to a scene. This often entailed an even greater departure from reality, and this can be plainly seen in Munch’s The Scream, and, to a lesser extent, in El Greco’s View of Toledo.
These early experiments became the foundation for what would come to be called Modern Art. Modern Art is more of a temporal term, however, covering roughly the period 1850 to 1980 and spanning everything from the swirling landscapes of Van Gogh to the vibrant gridworks of Piet Mondrian.
The era of Modern Art was marked by the entry of the social, political, and individual into the medium on a larger scale. This was also encouraged by a wider engagement in art—people from walks of life now putting their feelings, beliefs, and ideas to canvas. Looking for the greatest works of Modern Art is difficult, as a result, but Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory, Aaron Douglas’s Into Bondage, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Cow Skull: Red, White, and Blue, and Wassily Kandinsky’s Composition 8 are all a part of this category.
Cubism introduced an even greater degree of experimentalism and imagination into the burgeoning art world of the early 20th century. The subject matter—portraiture, landscapes, cityscapes, still lives—remained largely unchanged, but now these scenes were dismantled, blunted, and rearranged in frightening and exciting new ways.
Perspectives, colors, and shapes were now all crushed together to form angular, metamorphic new compositions which made canvases more dynamic and emotive. This, along with various other movements of the interwar period like Dadaism and Surrealism was an expression of the distorted reality many found themselves in after the horrors of the Great War. First among the cubists is, of course, Picasso, with his Girl with a Mandolin, but Georges Braque and Juan Gris were deeply influential as well.
Cubism was perhaps the first and most famous branch of a wider movement known as abstract art. The nascent experimentalism born in Impressionism and Expressionism was accelerated by the political, social, and economic upheavals of the 1920s and 30s. Artists no longer clung to the old traditions of depiction or subject matter. Now, ideas, painful emotions and memories, and even dreams entered into the canvas in forms which bore little or no resemblance to the world outside.
This movement began in the smoldering ashes of Europe but continued on into the present, and artists are still finding new ways to make random forms and colors speak to the deeper emotions in all of us. We’ve already spoken of Monrian and Kandinsky already, but Mark Rothko, Paul Klee, and Robert Delauney are also worthy of mention. Jackson Pollock’s Number 1 is perhaps one of the most representative works of this new formless form.
In marked contrast to the ungoverned wildness of Cubism and abstract art, Art Deco focused on clean lines, perfect geometry, and order.
Arising in Paris, Art Deco is perhaps better known as a sculptural and architectural form than a kind of painting. Jewelry, ceramics, and the Chrysler Building were all touched by this new and more spare style which sought to distance itself from the gilded hyper-decoration of the earlier Victorian Age.
Nonetheless, Art Deco still found its way to the wall in the form of posters, pamphlets, and paintings. Tamara de Lempicka, Erté, and Cassandre were a few of the major players, and one only needs to look at Heinz Schulz-Neudamm’s poster for the 1927 film Metropolis to get a feel for this style.
After the proliferation of new art forms in the years before World War II, many artists began focusing on refining and perfecting these new styles.
Pop Art is a notable exception to this gradual coalescing and consolidation. Drawing from the imagery of emergent consumerism and in undying defiance of the perceived snobbery of classical painting, Pop Art created a bold fusion of the creative and the mundane.
This style was liberal with its media and techniques, so pinning down any defining technical characteristics is difficult. Collaging, special print techniques, and photography all made their way into these new works, and one has little trouble recognizing the “pop” of leftfield design and neon colors. Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin, Keith Haring’s Untitled (Heart), and just about anything by Andy Warhol are examples of this style.
Today, the number of people making art and the amount of art being made is greater than ever. With hundreds of unique styles at their disposal, artists are now free to move in any creative direction which speaks to them. Gone is the time when a few popular styles defined an entire decade or generation, so the best way of classifying contemporary art is, simply, art being made today. Artists around the world are now working in numerous different media and tackling subjects from social inequality to the internet.
A list of the most popular artists of today might include people like Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons, Erin Riley, and Kehinde Wiley. Koon’s Balloon Dog, while not a painting, expresses just the strange and fascinating directions in which art is now heading.
It takes nothing more to appreciate art than the gift of sight, but knowing the history behind different works and being able to piece together the tangled lines of influence and inspiration can make any artistic experience a bit more meaningful.
Aaron Reed Nature Photography
While I most certainly do not have the skills as an artist as these greats from throughout history, I believe that the artists of today each take a little bit of something from the art that they see, processing and influencing the art they create. My personal favorite art styles of the past are the amazing paintings of the renaissance and the abstract art created by the greats. I am nature photographer, just a guy with a camera who appreciates fine art of any kind and enjoys the freedom and serenity involved in creating his own little art masterpieces. Here are some examples of my work you may find inspire you the same way the artists of the past have inspired all of us.