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What Is Western Art History?

Western Art History refers to the art from Western Civilization. Often prone to both passion and misconception, Western art history is valuable to study. This post attempts to guide readers through various time periods & movements in Western Art History.

Time Periods & Movements Of Western Art History:

Not all periods are covered here. Yet this is a helpful guide to the crucial time periods of western art history. We start with Classical Roman Art and end with Realism.

Classical Roman Art

When & Where: Until Late Antiquity.

Examples: Iaia, Publius Aelius Fortunatus

What Defined Classical Roman Art?: The Roman Empire is difficult to sum up in aesthetic terms. This is because it lasted around 1000 years, and covered plenty of land. Because of that, it’s easy to simplify it with a few words. Rather, I encourage an individualistic look at classical Roman art. One could study Ovid, whilst another analyses Spurius Tadius. A good period worth studying is the Augustan age, where the visual arts thrived.

Classical Roman Art used sculpture alot, and was one of, if not the, most celebrated artistic medium in the Roman empire. Later in this article, you’ll read about the Renaissance, and you can draw similarities between Ancient Rome and Michelangelo’s David. As for the classical world itself, enjoy the Column of Marcus Aurelius or the Villa of Mysteries. What’s incredible about Classical Roman Art is what remains standing today. May it remind us to not underestimate the people who lived in the past.

Insular

When & Where: Late 5th to 8th Century AD of Britain and Ireland. (Between the Christianisation to the Viking Raids)

Examples: It’s tricky to give names of specific artists, but art worth studying include The Book Of Kells, The Ruthwell Cross and the Lindisfarne Gospels.

What Defined Insular Art?: Insular art refers to the illuminated manuscripts, decoration, metalwork and sculpture from Britain and Ireland. A significant portion of the manuscripts are in Celtic. Unlike classical art, which is more restrained, Insular art experimented with form and various manuscripts. The result is heavy detail and decoration. You also saw a merge in Anglo-Saxon and Celtic art, with a Christian interpretation.

Unlike Renaissance or Classical Art, not everyone in Britain and Ireland partook in Insular art. Yet those who chose to, are responsible for spellbinding manuscripts and the construction of beautiful objects.

Byzantium

When & Where: From 330 to 1453 AD in the Byzantium Empire

Examples: The Hagia Sophia, David Plates, the Quedlinburg Itala fragment

What Defined Byzantium Art?: The political and cultural evolution of the Byzantine Empire. A concern with symbolism, as opposed to art capturing reality. Starting in the Christian Greek Culture of the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium resulted in widespread iconoclasm and some of the most famous religious art today. (However, there is secular Bzyantium art). Many scholars and artists from this period also travelled, and influenced works such as the Vienna Coronation Gospels.

Spanning over 1000 years of history, there is no denying the epicness of Byzantium art. If you want to study it, I also suggest complimenting your research by analysing the various religious and cultural debates during that time.

Gothic

Chartres (Eure-et-Loir, Centre, France) – Exterior of the gothic cathedral, with three arches and portals, a staircase and a rose window. Unesco World Heritage Site.

When & Where: Mid-12th Century to the late 16th Century across Europe. However, traits of Gothic art is seen today, mainly in the fictional castles of the fantasy genre. There are also Gothic revival movements. Gothic art wasn’t really huge in Italy.

Examples: Various Notre Dame’s in France (eg Reims), York Minster, Jean Pucelle, Jan Van Eyck

What Defined Gothic Art? This is tricky, because it’s tempting to simplify the gothic to architecture. And of course, the term ‘Gothic’ has been applied to many movements. However, Gothic refers to ‘barbaric’ and was originally an insult. Of course, Gothic also refers to the Germanic tribes who sacked Rome.

Also, gothic art is determined by what medium it is. A Gothic cathedral may have stained glass windows, flying buttresses, pointed arches, ornate decorations and ribbed vaults. An illuminated manuscript may match a cathedral in detail, as gothic is not a simple art form. This is shown in stained glass, which was considered prestigious. If you can, visit the Saint-Chapelle in Paris, France: it’s beautiful, particularly when the glass is soaked by light.

Many judge gothic art, regardless of what time it is, as ‘depressing.’ Whereas neoclassicism is white and structured, Gothic is more unique and almost fairytale-like. And sure, many Gothic buildings have dark exteriors. Yet the point of that is to reveal the light that exists during the day, where the sun comes out behind Paris’ Notre-Dame to greet everyone.

Gothic art is unforgettable.

Renaissance

When & Where: 1300-1600, Italy. Historians may disagree with that, and argue that the Renaissance existed beyond Italy.

Examples: Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli. You can have a ‘Renaissance’ experience in Florence, or at the Vatican Museums (highly recommended)

What Defined The Renaissance? The Renaissance was influenced by classical philosophy, science and drama. As Europe accessed classical texts around the Renaissance, new technologies and knowledge emerged, particularly with mathematics. Also, humanist philosophy played a role, as did the generous patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici in Florence, Italy.

A significant portion of Renaissance paintings were funded by the Catholic Church. They were ambitious in scope and style, with allegories of resurrection and life. To understand the Renaissance and theology, it’s worth looking at Dante’s The Divine Comedy. This is because Renaissance painters, like Dante, had a strong grasp on technique and form (Renaissance paintings are more realistic with proportion than medieval art, although there is nuance). But they also understood beauty, faith and ambition.

Also, not all Renaissance art is religious. Consider Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ which features various Greek philosophers.

Baroque

When & Where: Western and Central Europe (although influences are found in Latin America & Russia) in 1600-1750.

Examples: Caravaggio, Andrea Pozzo, Adam Elsheimer

What Defined Baroque Art?: Rich details and colours, strong sense of movement and grandeur. What’s spellbinding about baroque art is how it steals your attention. Once you look at a baroque painting, you won’t look away for some time. That’s because baroque art prides itself on almost-luxurious details and decoration. Yes, you’ll see golden trophies and dense ornaments. View baroque art like an overcrowded Christmas tree where the leaves are buried with decorations. However, it is still beautiful and awe-inspiring. That’s baroque. Nearly all space on the canvas is used by the artist. There’s even a city of baroque: Porto, in Portugal.

For those interested in gardening and architecture, the Palace of Versailles’ garden is worth seeing, as is the Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. These gardens had extravagant flower beds, statues and water fountains.

Baroque shined in theatre, music and ballet. Composers such as Antonio Vivaldi are listened to this day, with listeners drawn to the lush soundscapes.

Baroque thrived off Catholic Church patronage, but a difference between it and Renaissance art was the motives. Baroque art rivalled the simple approach of Protestant architecture and art. In later art history, baroque was criticised for its philosophy. John Ruskin said that baroque sculpture was even ‘morally corrupt.’

Rococo

When & Where: Also known as ‘Late Baroque’, the Rococo period lasted in Europe between 1730 to 1760. (Specific year is unclear, as one must consider the influence of neoclassicism and revolutionary thinkers in France).

Examples: Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, Johann Baptist Zimmermann  

What Defined Rococo Art? Rococo has many similarities with baroque. However, there are also differences. For one, baroque uses symmetry, whereas Rococo experiments with asymmetrical shapes and curves. Also, Rococo is even more over-the-top compared to baroque. Rococo art is playful: expect cupids, Chinese dragons and other airy figures. That’s because Rococo lacks the drama and intensity of baroque. For that reason, Rococo art is seemed (by some) as shallow and lacking the depth of say, Renaissance art.

However, that is a simplification. A strength of Rococo art is its optimism of human nature. Sure, out of all the Western art movements, Rococo is naive. Yet in the 21st century, where artists opt for angst and tension for its own sake, Rococo is a blessing. This is particularly true when you visit the Wieskirche, or the Pilgrimage Church of Wies in Bavaria. Rococo isn’t for everyone: but those who love it, cherish it.

Neoclassicism

When & Where: Started in Europe With The Enlightenment, and Continued In the 19th Century. Neoclassicism is still popular today, particularly in the UK, France and North America.

Examples: Antonio Canova, Johann Zoffany, Jacques-Louis David

What Defined Neoclassical Art? Neoclassical art is easy to understand. It consists of artists drawing inspiration from the classical period (including Late Antiquity). Although Europe had transformed since that time period, there was a longing the glory that many associated with Greece and Rome. Also, we must remember the Ottoman Empire during the neoclassical period. Parts of what is now known as Turkey, was part of the Roman Empire. If anything, neoclassicism is resisting the engrossing change of its time.

What’s also strange about neoclassicism is the lack of association with literature. That’s because poetry and fiction experienced a ‘neoclassical’ moment centuries earlier. Look at Shakespeare’s epic poem Venus and Adonis, which uses imagery from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This is a wonderful case of authors catching on future artistic and intellectual trends before they are fully fleshed out.

An area where neoclassicism shines is fashion. The simplicity of the modern white bridal dress looks neoclassical. That’s one of many examples of neoclassicism’s popularity. In an age of bleak, high-rise buildings with unappealing colours, neoclassicism can remind us of what we can truly achieve.

Romanticism

When & Where: Peaked in Europe between 1800 to 1890

Examples: Caspar David Friedrich, Eugène Delacroix, J. M. W. Turner

What Defined Romanticism? An emphasis on emotion and individualism. Also, romanticism for many meant having a romantic view of the past, particularly the Middle Ages (as opposed to the classical period, as focused by Neoclassical art).

Romanticism reacted against numerous developments in Europe, such as:

  • The Industrial Revolution
  • The Enlightenment’s social and political norms
  • The Scientific rationalisation for nature. Romantics were unsatisfied with science as an explanation for everything.

In the 21st century, many believe that romanticism is naive and ignorant. This is unfortunate, and it’s important to remember that dissatisfaction with scientific reasoning does not equate to being hostile to any scientific study. The Romantics were pioneers in many ways. Not only did they influence a diverse range of political ideologies, such as radicalism, conservatism and nationalism, but they made concepts like ‘the sublime’ and the ‘beauty of nature’ well-known.

Romantic literature is also a highlight, particularly novels such as Wuthering Heights.

Pre-Raphaelite

When & Where: 1848 to the late 19th century. This movement mostly took place in England, although some Pre-Raphaelites did travel.

Examples: William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais

What Defined Pre-Raphaelite Art?: A collection of Victorian poets, painters and designers, the Pre-Raphaelites focused on introspection, youth, the medieval, female beauty and the medieval. Yet Pre-Raphaelite art was, in many ways, art for its own sake. Art without justification. Because of that, there is something liberating about Pre-Raphaelite art, even if all the paintings look somewhat similar. That’s because the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood rebelled against the art doctrine taught at London’s Royal Academy of Art. (Which was, according to them, artifical and too mannered).

I highly recommend reading into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s adventures, which span well beyond Britain. The artists themselves seemed to have one foot in the dreamlike past, whilst another was unfortunately stuck in, well, reality and all its cruelties.

A thrilling example of Pre-Raphaelite influencing literature, centuries later, is the example of New Sincerity. Although that movement never admired or longed for a medieval past, and was more focused on a ‘less ironic’ version of America.

Realism

When & Where: Late 18th Century in Europe And America to the end of World War II. (We’re combining realism with modernism, although there are important differences).

Examples: Francisco Goya, William Bliss Baker, Gustave Courbet

What Defined Realism? Realism is the faithful attempt at depicting subject matter as it appears. There is an active avoidance of speculation, exaggeration and the supernatural or, in some cases, the spiritual. Artists who work in realism were fascinated by ‘simple’ subject matter, such as family life in a rural setting, or a lady in a tavern.

For better or for worse, realism artists focused on technique and form. That’s why realism, is well… realistic. The artists went to significant lengths to depict reality as it seems.

Why Realism In Fiction Is Frustrating

Yet there’s a problem with arguing that realism is superior to other artistic philosophies because it is closer to reality. In this post, you have read about how various art movements depicted life in creative ways. Just because a painting is realistic, doesn’t make the philosophy more worthy. That’s certainly a problem in literature, where realism at all costs is preferenced over imagination and speculation.

Conclusion

You could argue that Western Art History is the competition between two ideologies: realism (Classical Roman Art, The Renaissance, Neoclassicism) and romanticism (Insular, Gothic, Byzantium, Baroque, Rococo, Pre-Raphaelite).

Which is superior? That’s a question for you to ponder. Personally, I prefer romanticism: it’s through imagination that we understand reality.

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