A Short Primer on Art History

It’s nearly impossible to look through a textbook without finding some sort of artistic illustration to aid the understanding.  In many books, the authors and editors draw upon art from the past to better explicate some points.  This here is a basic overview of a small number art styles (Granted, nearly all of them European) and how to recognize them:

Best known as the art of antiquity, it would adhere to standards of beauty in the form and the harmony of the art.  Michelangelo’s David, while not from the Classical era, is the ideal representation of a Classical sculpture.  Essentially, the artwork would depict the human form in the most ideal state of aesthetic beauty for the time.  The goal would be to make it so that nothing could be added or removed from the sculptures and images that would not make it worse.  Buildings would be symmetrical, using straight lines whenever possible and typically would follow the golden ratio for the Greek standard of mathematical beauty.  Artists of the 1600s and 1700s would strive to recreate the perfection of the Classical masters during the Neoclassical movement.

Medieval artwork that originated in the 1200s.  Much of it was built around Christian religious iconography, the era is most characterized by its architecture.  The Cathedrals and extensive decoration for the insides and outsides of the Cathedrals define the Gothic art style.  Stark and simplistic, Italian Renaissance writers named the Gothic style was after the barbarian Goth tribes who destroyed the Roman empire, even though the Goths had nothing to do with the art style.  Since the Roman art style was highly regarded in the Renaissance, the Gothic title served to criticize “ugliness” of the non-Classical structure of the buildings and artwork.  Typically Gothic architecture contains a high vaulted ceiling, a technical marvel of the time.  In art, Gothic forms would typically contain very little movement, limited use of perspective and served as a focal point for worship.  The image below is a good example of classic Gothic artwork:

Babies always looked a little weird in this period.  The golden ring around the people’s heads typically signify their religious significance or if they were saints.

File:Rothenburg ob der Tauber 2011 St Jakob 002.JPG
The above image is from Reimenschneider’s Altar of the Holy Blood in Rotemburg, Germany.  The entire thing is carved out of wood.  When he completed the altar, the artwork was considered to be so detailed and full of expressive movement that the townsfolk of the city commissioned a second artist to do a different altar.  The belief was that no man could be so accurate and precise when carving, so Reimenschneider must have made a deal with Satan to create the masterpiece.


The true turning point of the art world, the Renaissance meant “the rebirth”.  It was the perfect storm resulting from the Crusades, the Black Death, Genoese success in trade, and schisms in the Church.  The influx of new ideas during the Crusades served to highlight the backwardness of the European continent, bringing back astonishing inventions, unexpected ideas, and stories about the wealth and beauty of the Muslim nations.  The Black Death striking in the 1300s served to both reduce the ranks within the Church and to remove the public trust in the Church’s capacity to ensure salvation.  Recent expeditions to the Orient caused the rise of über-wealthy merchants in several regions, creating patrons who were not linked directly to the Church itself and would spend money on non-iconographic paintings and sculpture.  Lastly, the Church itself had just ended the Avignon era, where disagreements over theology led to a portion of the Papacy in the Vatican to up and leave, forming their own Papacy in Avignon, France.  Again, the public approval in the Church was at a record low, leading to a growth of scientific ideas and art, hailing back to the Pagan interests of the ancient Greeks.  In their striving to be more like Aristotle and Euclid and such, the Renaissance era became the first stepping stone towards the modern era.  Use of oil paints and perspective within art allowed images to be more realistic than ever before, and patronage from wealthy merchants and rulers allowed art to explore areligious zones it had not been allowed to venture in the centuries before.

Baroque artwork took off in the 1600s as a response to Protestantism and the Renaissance.  While the word Baroque most nearly means “imperfect pearl”, the word is now used to refer to anything overtly ornate and decorative. The Catholic Church began to patronize the art as a means of showing the splendor and grandeur of their faith, arguing that art should be a means of evoking Religious feeling and emotion.  The autocrats and merchants of the era saw the style as the perfect medium of declaring how much wealth they had.  The style, called garish and contradictory by some, attempted to put art on every surface it could be put on.  The castle in the city of Dresden and Versailles were perfect examples of the Baroque era, jamming sculptures and gilding into every surface that it could be jammed into.

Versailles’ famous Hall of Mirrors, oddly enough, starving French citizens thought this kind of extravagance was enough to warrant a revolution.

I’m making Art History a new category.  I’ll get to the other fun stuff later (Dadaism, if you have never seen it, was made famous from a French dude who put a fake name on a urinal and called it “art”.  People were either astonished by the inventiveness of his breaking of the meta or they were offended by his tacky hack-work that he claimed he could make art by declaring it as such.)






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