views updated May 18 2018


PAINTING. Renaissance artists broke decisively from their medieval predecessors by looking to nature as their guide in the art of painting. Through observation and imitation, artists strove to construct a lucid depiction of their world. Mathematical principles were applied to establish a canon of proportions, aided immeasurably by the study of antique, classical sculpture. Painters experimented with perspectivethe technique of depicting forms and their spatial relationships on a flat surface to create the illusion that the viewer is looking through a windowand brought it to ever greater levels of perfection.

In terms of technique, these illusionistic achievements were aided by the growing use of oil over tempera. The oil medium allowed the painter to apply pigment in a nuanced and fluid manner, with the added advantage that the transparency of the oil allowed for layering of color to describe light and shadow. Painting on wood panel continued to be popular, especially in northern Europe. Canvas, however, was growing in favor as it was easier to size and prepare for painting. By the sixteenth century, some artists exploited the weave of coarse canvases to accentuate the reflection of light and the appearance of brushwork, as did painters in Venice. Copper, slate, and marble were also adopted as supports. Artists appreciated their ultrasmooth surfaces and their ability to be fashioned into circular formats. These strictly pictorial skills were complemented by the growing sophistication of artists in animating figures through the use of gesture and expression. Painters increasingly looked to the devices of poetry for inspiration in creating an expressive pictorial language.

During the first three decades of the sixteenth century in Italy, referred to historically as the High Renaissance, the practice of observing and imitating the natural world expanded to include the emulation and idealization of the artist's experience of nature. Raphael (born Raffaello Sanzio), Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo Buonarrotti are the artists associated with the apogee of these developments in central Italy and Rome, and renowned for interpreting these achievements with their own distinct vision. The pictorial conventions of this fertile period of art established a classical ideal of beauty that endured for centuries. Florentine artists in particular regarded drawing, with its emphasis on line, as fundamental to the structure of a painting. In addition, drawing, or disegno, was believed to be the direct conduit through which an artist's intellectual concept for a painting was expressed. Disegno thus assumed an intellectual as well as practical importance.

Venice too was a highly important center of painting in the sixteenth century. Venetian painters adopted a practice emphasizing the sensual qualities of color and light. Brushwork or facture was paramount to these results. Titian (born Tiziano Vecellio), along with Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto (born Jacopo Robusti), are artists associated with creating this painterly idiom where subjects are treated with a breadth and liberty of execution. This intuitive and painterly approach, in which color serves to structure the painting, was known as colore. The controversy between Venetian colore and central Italian disegno was already acknowledged by the artists and theorists of the sixteenth century. These two fundamentally distinct ways of seeing and reproducing the world in paint, one regarded as rational, the other as sensual and emotional, would compete for authority repeatedly in the theory and practice of painting.

By the end of the 1520s, a new style of painting, which has come to be known as mannerism (from the Italian maniera ), presented itself. Mannerism was characterized by an appreciation for artistic invention and novelty. Artists employed charged, expressive colors in unusual combinations, elongated and unnatural proportions for the description of human form, and favored crowded, spatially compressed compositions. There are two prevailing interpretations of this style. One views mannerism as a reaction to the political and social instability in Europe at this time, including the Sack of Rome by King Charles V in 1527 and the trauma of the Reformation. Another interpretation sees mannerist artists pursuing a continuing refinement of the ideals of the Renaissance that became increasingly stylized and removed from nature in inspiration. Mannerism can perhaps be defined as the first, highly self-conscious art movement of the modern era. Jacopo da Pontormo from Florence and Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola of Parma, called Il Parmigianino, worked in this style. In northern Europe, subjects of an esoteric, titillating, and erotic nature were especially popular with mannerist painters, notably Joachim Wtewael from Utrecht and Haarlem-born Cornelis van Haarlem.


The seventeenth century witnessed major changes in the visual arts caused by a confluence of significant social, political, cultural, and economic events, which in turn contributed to the development of new styles of painting, often categorized into national schools. However, the pictorial devices European artists employed for structuring their paintings shared many characteristics that together suggested a period style historians called the baroque. For example, artists embraced naturalism with a new vigor. Bold experiments were carried out in the depiction of space, light, and the suggestion of time, all in the service of creating a pictorial illusion. Palettes deepened, assuming the warmer, saturated colors of autumn.

Still life, landscape, and genre themes were embraced as worthy subjects independent of religious and historical painting. Scientific discoveries, trade with the East, and treasures from the New World provoked innovative ways of seeing and representing the world. States of mind, particularly transcendence, emotions such as fear, pain, and pleasure, all challenged artists' descriptive abilities. This dynamic period of pictorial innovation was driven by the desire to appeal directly to the senses, to close the gap between the illusion of the painting and the living world of the spectator.

Italy. The Catholic Church, which set out to reform itself in response to the Reformation, played an important role in the creation of this new baroque style of painting in Italy. Religious painting, as the visual manifestation of church doctrine, was also subject to reform. Two cardinals in particular, Gabriele Paleotti of Bologna and Federigo Borromeo of Milan, became actively involved in educating artists about the proper interpretation of sacred imagery. Artists took up the standard to create paintings that were clear, emotive, and illustrative of the new Christian piety. The great reformers of Italian painting at the cusp of the seventeenth century were Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, from the town of the same name in Lombardy, and Annibale Carracci of Bologna. Caravaggio's influence was immediate and profound albeit short-lived. Carracci created a new style that established the standards for baroque painting through the next century.

Caravaggio revolutionized painting by depicting powerfully naturalistic scenes, inspired by everyday reality, where neither figures nor place were idealized. Overtly dismissive of traditional pictorial conventions, he was considered by his peers to be what we would call in today's language "avant garde." Supper at Emmaus (16011602, National Gallery, London) illustrates his direct and clear narrative structure enlivened by the dramatic, almost severe contrast of light and dark. Working from posed models, Caravaggio imbues his paintings with a vitality and naturalism that give them the impression of tableaux vivants. Settings are spare and participants common in type, suggestive more of genre painting than a religious episode of miraculous revelation.

Bold perspective devices implicate the viewer in the drama. In the immediate foreground, the edge of a realistically depicted basket of fruit sits partly off the table. One apostle's sharply foreshortened hand appears to reach out of the picture plane into the spectator's space. The intimacy of presentation invites an experience of surprise akin to that of the apostles as Christ reveals himself to them. In this regard, Caravaggio was a superior painter of Counter-Reformation subjects and a key innovator of the baroque style. So great and widespread was Caravaggio's influence over the next two decades that his many followers in France, Holland, and Spain have come to be known as Caravaggisti.

Carracci is credited with initiating the reform of painting in Italy and thereby creating a new and accessible pictorial language. His approach was to study nature, antique sculpture, and the achievements of his High Renaissance forebears. To this practice he added the theory of imitation and emulation, drawing on each category's perfections. With a sense of true historic awareness, Annibale synthesized the divergent regional styles in sixteenth-century Italy, including the competing aesthetic of central Italian disegno and Venetian colore. In so doing, he reshaped, with clarity and vigor, the great tradition of Italian painting and provided his contemporaries and followers with a means to achieve their own styles by using this method.

Carracci's fresco decoration for the Farnese Gallery in Rome (15971604) exemplified the new style in which he reinvented the classicizing idiom of history painting with wit and charm. His detailed preparatory drawings were of great pedagogical importance to contemporary artists for they indicated the necessity of drawing as professional practice, particularly in the composition of ambitious history paintings. The baroque illusionism introduced by Carracci reached its full potential a generation later in the ceiling fresco of the Triumph of the Name of Jesus, painted by Giovanni Battista Gaulli in 16761679 at the Church of Il Gesù in Rome. Here the period taste for spectacle is realized through painted illusions of infinity. Celestial figures appear to descend from heaven's vault above into the spectator's space within the church, blurring the boundaries between the real and unreal.

Rome became a mecca for foreign artists who came to absorb its riches and return home to spread the new style. Secular and ecclesiastic commissions burgeoned. Sophisticated connoisseurs welcomed this new wave of artistic experiment and ferment. Two French painters, Nicolas Poussin from Les Andelys and Claude Lorrain (born Claude Gellée) from Nancy, enjoyed just such patronage. Though they spent the majority of their careers in Italy, they profoundly influenced the direction of seventeenth-century painting in their native France.

France. In France, patronage flowed from the court that cultivated a strict unity of style and content to extol the virtues of the monarchy. King Louis XIV (ruled 16431715), known as the Sun King, established in 1648 the Académie Française, which eventually institutionalized all art education and practice. A hierarchy of subjects suitable for an artist to paint was established, with history painting regarded as the highest form of intellectual expression. Genre and still life painting were relegated to the bottom of the list. Rationality, order, and harmony became hallmarks of the academic French style. Its champion was Poussin. Having experienced the heady mix of styles current in Rome, Poussin immersed himself in classical studies of art and literature. It was the consummate relationship of theory and practice in his art, based on composition and drawing, for which he was most admired. Great intellectual effort underlies the construction of Poussin's paintings, where every motif is calculated and planned and nothing is extraneous. Carefully placed vertical and horizontal accents lead the eye to the subject or serve as stately backdrops for its unfolding. Poussin's deeply reflective pictures, such as The Finding of Moses (1638, Louvre, Paris), are infused with the spirit of classicism in which the expression and mood of the subject are rendered with calm and grandeur.

Claude Lorrain, along with Poussin, created the tradition of the ideal landscape, a practice that endured until the nineteenth century. He specialized in depictions of an idyllic Roman countryside in which pastoral and biblical themes are presented in a quiet and timeless manner. Lorrain's gifts as an illuminist are evident in the range of naturalistic light effects he produced. The sun, the source of light in his compositions, is placed just beyond the horizon to suggest a particular time of day. The frequent addition of ancient ruins in his compositions contributes to the impression of time and its passing. Above all, it is the beauty of nature that seems to be his subject.

The Netherlands. Violent political and religious conflicts during the sixteenth century fractured the Low Countries into two nations, a Protestant Dutch Republic in the north and a Catholic Flanders in the south that remained under Spanish political control. Despite these harrowing events, the two countries contributed mightily and imaginatively to the history of European painting in the seventeenth century. Flemish painters combined the dynamism of baroque art with the realism and primary palette that had characterized Netherlandish painting since Jan van Eyck. Peter Paul Rubens, from Antwerp, took these strengths of his homeland and combined them with an Italian love of form and composition acquired during eight years in Italy. His exuberant personal style, based on keen observation, a sensual, robust nature, and a deeply humanistic outlook, is joyous and uplifting. Rubens's confident brushwork contributed mightily to the vitality of his figures.

A devout Catholic, Rubens articulated the philosophy of the Counter-Reformation by creating works of immediacy, power, and beauty to strengthen the worshiper's faith and encourage devout conduct. Thus, Rubens portrayed in Saint Ignatius Loyola (16211622, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena) the founder of the Society of Jesus as a Christian hero, caught up in a moment of rapture. Rubens was not limited to Catholic subjects, as he created dazzling allegories for sovereigns throughout Europe as well as portraits of great psychological depth.

Dutch painting presents a significantly different character and style from contemporary European painting. Because of its strict Protestant ethos that viewed religious imagery as idolatrous, Dutch art eschewed overtly religious themes in favor of a rich variety of subjects inspired by the immediate environment, including landscape, still life, portraiture, and genre. Effectively separate from the Italian model of patronage, where artists worked primarily through religious or noble commissions, Dutch artists participated in an open market. Holland's prosperous international trade spawned a vital middle class, which sought to appoint its homes with art that was familiar and comfortable, that inspired pride and was appreciated for its verisimilitude. Style varied from the fine, almost scientifically descriptive paintings of Gerrit Dou to the more vigorous, impastoed expression of Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn and his followers where the process of painting was evident. Recent scholarship has concerned itself with the degree to which Dutch painting was strictly mimetic or emblematic, that is, a vehicle for hidden symbolism that the consumer would have recognized.

Dutch painters tended to specialize in one genre but frequently made innovative contributions. Frans Hals of Haarlem, known for his energetic brushwork and unforgettable character portraits of smiling figures, brought a new look to the commemorative group portrait in paintings such as the Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Militia Company (16261627, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem), where the scene is animated by the participants' gestures and expressions, and the dynamic accents of colored sashes and drapery. Occupations, leisure time, and domestic episodes provided endless inspiration to the witty pictorial observations of Leiden-born artists Jan Steen and Gabriel Metsu. Their Delft contemporary, Jan Vermeer, one of the greatest artists of the seventeenth century, took an approach to genre painting that was more about the art of painting than its anecdotal descriptiveness. Vermeer's use of camera obscura may have contributed to the simplification of form, light, and color that characterizes his carefully composed interiors in which the subject performs a task with quiet concentration.

Pictorially, the United Netherlands was well served by its landscape painters who sympathetically depicted its variety of dunes, canals, seascapes, and cityscapes. Jacob van Ruisdael from Haarlem created vast panoramas with emphatic horizons. In View of Alkmaar (16701675, Museum of Fine Art, Boston), banks of hedges slicing through the landscape are backlit by the sun, creating strong contrasts of light and shade and a palpable illusion of space and depth.

Rembrandt, the greatest Dutch painter, was devoted equally to painting, printmaking, and drawing. His continuous practice of experimentation with each medium enabled him to surmount previous limitations, both practical and theoretical. From the 1630s and 1640s onward Rembrandt was the premier portraitist of Amsterdam. He captured the physical characteristics of his sitters, and his skillful manipulation of light added an expressive value and suggested mood. His keen sensitivity to human psychology manifested itself in his thematic works as well. In his mature paintings, which often depicted Old Testament stories, such as Bathsheba (1654, Louvre, Paris), he favored presentations that were highly naturalistic, unidealized, and intimate. Settings were minimal and extraneous details eliminated. He used light sparingly and dramatically to suggest the internal, mental state of the subject. More than simply presenting a pictorial narrative, Rembrandt managed to convey the complexity and pathos of the moment as it occurred to his subject. As he matured, he adopted an increasingly monochromatic palette with a thick, layered paint application that called attention to the process of painting and served to better express his individuality and creativity.

Spain. By the seventeenth century Spain wielded political power over Flanders and much of Italy. The ensuing diplomatic ties exposed Spanish artists to artistic exchange. Royal and private collections grew and provided examples of artistic developments elsewhere in Europe but above all from Italy. At the same time, Spain was a highly conservative Catholic country, and its zealous participation in the Counter-Reformation witnessed the birth of punitive tribunals such as the Inquisition. Such a social and cultural underpinning was not conducive to revolutionary picture making. Nevertheless, artists including Francisco de Zurbarán, Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velázquez, and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo created work of great feeling while drawing on the contemporary concerns associated with baroque art, especially that of involving the viewer in the subject of the painting and appealing to the emotions. Here, the Spanish predilection for intense physicalityan earthy quality with overtones of mortalityplayed an important role.

Spanish religious sentiment found significant expression in the austere religious mysticism of Zurbarán. Whether depicting saints in ecstasy or a simple still life, the resulting image was intense and realistic. He embraced the descriptive technique and pictorial devices of Caravaggio, placing his saints in dark, nondescript spaces where the strong, focused light accentuates plastic form and describes tactile values. The compelling emotional intensity of his paintings appealed to the monastic orders of Seville who provided the majority of his commissions and viewed his works as pictorial expressions of their religious vocation. Later in the century, Murillo's engaging and innovative approach to religious subject matter gave a more sensual and tender expression to Catholic art. He specialized in visionary scenes and images of the Virgin in which her beauty and compassion were stressed. He adopted a loose painting technique and lightened the dark Spanish palette. In his late work, transparent glazes were applied to enrich the effects of light.

Velázquez's early works in his native Seville, such as An Old Woman Cooking Eggs (1618, National Gallery, Edinburgh), were boldly naturalistic and palpably three-dimensional, enhanced by his use of strong contrasts of light and shadow. His career was tightly bound to the Spanish monarchy. Two voyages to Italy, in 16291631 and 16491651, made a great impression on him and had a liberating effect on his style as he adopted a freer paint application that, while it acknowledged the process of painting, did not reduce the semblance of his subjects. Indeed, he painted some of the most innovative and realistic portraits of the baroque era, including Las Meninas (The maids of honor; c. 1656, Prado, Madrid), the strikingly complex and unique family portrait of King Philip IV.


The eighteenth century witnessed profound changes in politics and culture. The philosophy of Enlightenment thinkers and the development of modern science provoked a change of taste in literature and the visual arts. Institutional and court-based systems of patronage that had prevailed during the seventeenth century declined. In their place, a growing bourgeois culture exerted its influence and effected a corresponding change in the style and subject matter of painting. Baroque art's formality, rhetorical gesture, and didacticism gave way to a taste that was tolerant, gracious, and lighthearted in conception. Dark palettes and dramatic light-dark contrasts were replaced with pastel colors and subtler approaches to illumination. Paint handling loosened in tandem with a growing appreciation for brushwork. Antiacademic theorists, including the French critic Roger de Piles, promoted the painterly colorism of Rubens over the cerebral emphasis on line represented by Poussin and all that those differences entailed. The resulting controversy between the Rubénistes and the Poussinistes, as it was called, would be reenacted in the nineteenth century by the French painters Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

The hierarchy of subjects, with history painting as the most elevated theme for an artist to paint, continued as a doctrine in the academies. However, themes of social and particularly domestic life were eagerly developed with great romantic and comic flair by painters including Antoine Watteau, Pietro Longhi, and William Hogarth. Pastoral idylls and mythological themes, especially those depicting amorous encounters, were popular. Portraiture, always in demand, assumed lyrical, even daring liberties of intimacy, as evidenced in one of François Boucher's most enchanting portrayals, Madame de Pompadour (1756, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). Rococo is the historical term for this eighteenth-century style.

Italy. Rome in particular and Italy in general continued to dominate the artistic culture of Europe. Tourists traveled to Italy to study its ancient and contemporary treasures. This popular sojourn, known as the "grand tour," encouraged the purchase of souvenirs, often in the form of paintings. Vedute or view paintings were especially popular. They combined the recognizable cityscape and its monuments with the picturesque activities of the citizenry absorbed in their daily activities. Canaletto (born Giovanni Antonio Canal) and Francesco Guardi from Venice, and Giovanni Paolo Pannini from Rome were three of its most accomplished practitioners. In View of the Molo toward the Santa Maria della Salute with the Dogana de Mare (1770s, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena), Guardi presents the glittering, ever-changing character of the Venetian lagoon with a silvery palette and lively brushwork composed of quick touches of paint on the surface. In the continuous sweep of sea and sky and the activity of the boatmen, Guardi poetically suggests the Adriatic light that made Venice so beloved a destination.

Italian painters also traveled outside of Italy to accept commissions to decorate the various palaces of Europe. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo from Venice was the popular court painter to the monarchs of Europe, especially in Germany and Spain. He brought the tradition of grand ceiling paintings to audacious heights of creativity and illusionism. In his hands, the art of fresco painting achieved a technical brilliance that was unrivaled in Europe. Tiepolo's lofty gods and goddesses, airborne in painted kingdoms composed of sunlight and clouds, played the protagonists in complex pictorial narratives that proclaimed the nobility and inspiration of his patrons, as in the frescoes at the Kaisersaal of the Residenz at Wurzburg (17501753).

France. In France, the death of King Louis XIV in 1715 and the royal court's move from Versailles to Paris heralded a new ease and willingness to pursue pleasure in both aristocratic and bourgeois society. This new spirit, which found expression in the elegant interiors of Parisian hotels and the paintings that hung there, is perfectly illustrated in the complex and charming paintings of Antoine Watteau of Valenciennes. In his celebrated "painted conversations," graceful young couples, dressed in contemporary fashion, convene in fantasy garden settings. Rarely portrayed close-up, they are observed, but remain ambiguous. The impression conveyed is one of quiet reverie. Like Rubens before him, whom he much admired, Watteau relied on the suggestive and emotive qualities of color to achieve his effects. With deft brushwork, he describes the shimmering qualities of fabric, verdant foliage, and the soft illumination of the sun. The scenes are suggestive of a theatrical or operatic performance.

The overtly joyous and pleasure-loving character of the rococo finds expression in the work of Jean-Honoré Fragonard of Grasse. In the Happy Lovers (17601765, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena), a young couple enjoys each other's company in a secluded, rustic retreat. The scene is embroidered with patterns of branches, leaves, and flowers that are as charming as the subject itself. Fragonard used a palette of pastel colors, applied thickly in full strokes to create a voluptuous surface that is complementary to the subject.

Paris-born Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin was the greatest painter of still lifes in the eighteenth century. His deceptively simple pictures composed of humble utensils and foodstuffs from the kitchen belie the carefully arranged visual relationships of the motifs. Their impression is one of casual informality. Chardin rendered objects as one might see them without attempting to make them pretty. He worked directly from the motif, varying his brushstroke to match the texture of each surface. Sharp dabs of his brush tip onto the surface of the canvas suggested the softness of rabbit fur. Indeed, the illusion of physicality in his objects stems in part from his brushwork that could be rough and scumbled in its application. His technique and choice of subject were a source of inspiration to nineteenth-century painters. Chardin also created some of the most intimate and touching views of the preoccupations of women and children. These tender and contemplative views of domestic life were unprecedented in France. Return from the Market (1739, Louvre, Paris) shows the quiet absorption of a lone maid who is completely unaware of and does not interact with the spectator.

England. England was a Protestant country ruled by a monarchy whose powers since the seventeenth century had been mediated by Parliament. The British saw themselves as pragmatic and unfettered by doctrines and superstitions that informed the conduct of other European cultures. To this end, they were sympathetic to the ideals of the Enlightenment. British paintings illustrate the belief in humankind's capacity to improve itself, and they celebrate a simple, natural way of life.

This said, a true national school of painting with recognizable characteristics was slow to emerge. Art production in England had been long dominated by foreign artists, beginning with the German Hans Holbein in the sixteenth century and later by continental artists including Anthony Van Dyck and Orazio Lomi Gentileschi from Italy, to name a few. Aristocratic and royal collectors sought the paintings of the most highly regarded artists of the Italian, French, and Flemish schools. They seldom commissioned works from their native artists. The grand tour, in which the well-to-do British extended their education by studying on the Continent, further contributed to the influx of foreign works of art in private collections.

In the eighteenth century a recognizable school of British painting finally asserted itself. Like the Dutch a century earlier, the English had no need for lofty allegory or religious subjects. Portraiture and the circumstances of daily life presented the greatest thematic interest. William Hogarth of London, for example, was mainly celebrated for his witty and satirical pictorial narratives in which the teeming life of London is the subject. This genre, which Hogarth himself identified as "modern moral subjects," had its roots in the paintings of the Dutch school and in themes treated in contemporary British literature.

A consummate storyteller, Hogarth appropriated observable character types and described their rise and fall through greed, carelessness, and disease. His pictorial narratives developed in serial form, each canvas illustrating an episode. Each series carried a name, such as Marriage à la mode (17431745, National Gallery, London). The paintings are composed as though taking place on a stage with precisely described and crisply painted settings and costumes. Hogarth's main source of income from these paintings came from the copperplate engravings he based on them, which became immensely popular throughout Europe. It should be borne in mind that reproductive prints based on similar paintings were not only an important source of income for artists, but also a method by which artists advertised their style and creativity throughout Europe during this century.

Joshua Reynolds of Plympton and Thomas Gainsborough from Sudbury were two of England's greatest painters. Reynolds created a style of portraiture that resonated with the artist's study of and appreciation for the art of Italy, especially the masters of the High Renaissance. A supporter of the theoretical underpinnings of painting, he was the first president and cofounder of the Royal Academy of Art in England. Gainsborough pursued a more intuitive approach. Although his early landscapes reveal a strong Dutch influence, his palette was lighter and made liberal use of silvery tones in the highlights, as in the portrait, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (17481749, National Gallery, London). Linear rhythms throughout provide a sense of the life of nature. The artist's phenomenal range of light blues and grays, and his technical facility with the brushlighter colors are scumbled over darker ones while maintaining their integrity on the surfaceare characteristic of the ease and suavity of rococo painting. The informal presentation of the couple, whereby they appear comfortable and confident in their role as landed gentry, is well suited to the ideals of the age of Enlightenment.

Spain. In Spain, Francisco de Goya's career extended from the rococo to the beginning of the Romantic period in the nineteenth century. Like Rembrandt before him, his technical and imaginative powers as an artist found expression in drawing, painting, and printmaking. A gifted portraitist, Goya depicted the royal family and Spanish nobility with an unpretentious honest realism. Occasionally, his lack of flattery, as in the important painting Charles IV and His Family (1800, Prado, Madrid), assumes discomforting overtones in its suggestion of ridicule. At the same time, he exploited the decorative possibilities of color and facture in describing the fabrics, medals, and jewelry with a flurry of brushwork that hints at abstraction. Goya's mature thematic repertoire, apart from portraiture, was revolutionary in its disregard for the hierarchy of subjects promoted by academies of painting. Instead, he portrayed the great passions of Spain like bullfighting, and the folly and irrational superstitions of his countrymen. He experimented with new pictorial structures. Tradition was sacrificed to achieve his personal artistic vision. In his wrenching depiction of Spanish rebels facing a firing squad of French soldiers during the Napoleonic invasion, The Second of May 1808 (1814, Prado, Madrid), Goya brings the subject of history painting to the present with a realism and passion that introduce the modern era.


The profound political and social changes wrought by the French Revolution impacted all institutions in France and sent shock waves throughout Europe. The delightful subjects and ornament of the rococo style of painting were replaced with sober themes of moral and civic purpose, and a structured style of painting that relied on the classic lines and proportions of Greek and Roman art. This style was informed by the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which promoted rationalism and secularism, and by the renewed interest in classical art and history that was stimulated by major archaeological discoveries in Italy during the eighteenth century. This new artistic expression is known historically as neoclassicism.

See also Academies of Art ; Art ; Baroque ; Britain, Art in ; Florence, Art in ; France, Art in ; Mannerism ; Naples, Art in ; Neoclassicism ; Netherlands, Art in ; Rococo ; Rome, Art in ; Spain, Art in ; Venice, Art in .


Baxandall, Michael. Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures. New Haven, 1985. Examines the question of artistic intention: how the constraints of culture, the artistic medium, and the intended use of a work of art shape the process of its creation.

Bermingham, Ann. Landscape and Ideology: The English Rustic Tradition, 17481868. Berkeley, 1986.

Brown, Jonathan. Painting in Spain: 15001700. New Haven, 1998.

Crow, Thomas. Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris. New Haven and London, 1985.

Dempsey, Charles. Annibale Carracci and the Beginnings of Baroque Style. Glückstadt, Germany. 1977.

Dunkerton, Jill, Susan Foister, and Nicholas Penney. Dürer to Veronese: Sixteenth-Century Painting in the National Gallery. New Haven and London, 1999.

Franits, Wayne. Looking at Seventeenth Century Dutch Art: Realism Reconsidered. Cambridge, U.K., 1997. Essays that survey the principal interpretive methods and debates applied to meaning in Dutch art.

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Fried, Michael. Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot. Berkeley, 1980. The author applies the writings of eighteenth-century art critics such as Diderot as a means of understanding how the spectator is positioned.

Haak, Bob. The Golden Age: Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. Translated from the Dutch by Elizabeth Willems-Treeman. New York, 1996.

Haskell, Francis. Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque. Revised and enlarged ed. New Haven, 1980.

Humfrey, Peter. Painting in Renaissance Venice. New Haven, 1995.

Larsen, Erik. Seventeenth Century Flemish Painting. Freren, Germany, 1985.

Levey, Michael. High Renaissance. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1975.

. Painting in Eighteenth-Century Venice. 3rd ed. New Haven, 1994.

. Rococo to Revolution: Major Trends in Eighteenth-Century Painting. New York, 1966.

Pevsner, Nikolaus, Sir. Academies of Art, Past and Present. New preface. New York, 1973. Reprint of original 1940 ed.

Puglisi, Catherine. Caravaggio. London, 1998.

Shearman, John. Mannerism. London and New York, 1990.

Smyth, Craig Hugh. Mannerism and Maniera. With an introduction by Elizabeth Cropper. 2nd ed. Vienna, 1992.

Sutton, Peter, with Marjorie E. Wieseman et al. The Age of Rubens. Boston, 1993.

Vaughan, William. British Painting: The Golden Age from Hogarth to Turner. London and New York, 1999.

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Gloria Williams


views updated Jun 27 2018


the age of revolution
romantic naturalism
the avant-garde

Modern art really begins with the French Revolution. Breaking the ruling elite's grip on art and democratically restructuring its institutions, the French Republic lay the foundations for increased production by artists and a wider audience for their works. Modern and often politically charged subjects challenged the old regime of classical, mythological, and religious painting, with its claims to universality. Realistically represented, such new subjects also undermined the hallowed academic principles of idealizing, classical style based on antiquity and the Renaissance. From this point on, discussion of art became divided over the legitimacy of contemporary subjects and the forms of representation they entailed. The conflicts of the first part of the century reached a crisis around 1850 with the emergence of the avant-garde, leading to a now familiar state of constant critical opposition and renewal. From this crucible came impressionism and its aftermaths, which are often grouped under the general category of modernism. Paris was already the cultural center of Europe in the eighteenth century; the closely interrelated political, economic, and artistic events from 1789 to 1914 would transform Western art into something far closer to the art we know today. Other centers—Spain, Germany, England, and Italy—wed much to French art, whether adopting its modes or in opposition to them.

The arts of the nineteenth century were dominated by three overriding, but neither equivalent nor mutually exclusive concepts: Romantic individualism, naturalism, and modernism. The first two can be used generally to describe ideas or practices of both the past and the present, but which in the nineteenth century were elevated to the status of movements. The third has its seeds in the first two but is like neither, since it describes a tradition, mainly internal to artistic thinking, though necessarily supported by the art market, of critical responses to recent art in order to maintain a state of originality and successive innovation.

Romanticism is mistakenly called a style. It is, rather, a set of attitudes that prioritize individual creativity and inner emotion over learned rules and conventional morality. It is a mode of thinking and feeling manifested through a variety of aesthetics, ranging from neoclassicism (as the official style of the Revolution) to naturalism (as in Eugène Delacroix's evocation of the suffering of Greeks under Turkish rule). Naturalism is a mode of representation based primarily on observation rather than on predetermined recipes or ideals, and may also reveal a variety of attitudes, including, for example, a Romantic love of solitude in nature (as in the Barbizon School) or opposition to authoritarian regimes, whether political, artistic, or both (as in Gustave Courbet's realism). Often, but not always, Romanticism and naturalism contain something of one another. Modernism takes off from the Romantic emphasis on the individual and drew sustenance from realism, since the latter constituted a critical challenge to earlier convention. Thus, "early modernism" can be found in many places. When modernity became a value for its own sake, with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism, innovation became the driving force through which artists staked their claim within an art world in which entrepreneurial dealers, critics, and private collectors, more than government or academies, came to determine financial success and reputation.

the age of revolution

The French revolutionaries wanted to break not only with the politics of the past but also with the art they believed served such politics. Literally, a revolution (a full rotation) is a turning that is simultaneously forward and backward. Reformers prior to the Revolution urged that progress required a return to original principles, such as the heroic and just conduct of the ancients and the classical style of art that supposedly embodied their much revered morality. In Rome, sculptors from places as far-flung as Denmark (Bertel Thorvaldsen, 1768 or 1770–1844), England (John Flaxman, 1755–1826), and Italy (Antonio Canova, 1757–1822) had been pioneering evocations of ancient beauty and sublimity through statues of sleek beauty or imposing power. In a quest to replace the tired conventions of their predecessors and the perceived trivialities of rococo art, they tapped both historical knowledge and inner emotion to produce seductive and moving alternatives. Combining their stylistic rigor with his smoldering political activism, Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) first painted potentially revolutionary themes from ancient Roman history. His Oath of the Horatii (1784) heralded patriotism as an overriding virtue. After 1789 he applied these artistic principles to representations of Revolutionary events and heroes, such as Marat Assassinated (1793). At the same time, David was elected from the radical Jacobin party to the new legislature, which abolished the French Academy and its privileges. He organized public celebrations, using motifs from antiquity to suggest that the new regime had given rebirth to its noble ideals. The neoclassicism (literally new/renewed classicism), for which David's tautly linear, stripped-down, and highly finished style became the model, used significant elements of realism to create its powerful effects. When contemporary models such as the radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat became the basis for his painting, naturalism acquired a progressive, even politically radical dimension, often called realism.

From the Revolution onward, modern subjects and the degree to which artists based their work on observed models from reality versus those from the aesthetic repertoire of antiquity and old masters became the touchstone of artistic debate. Under-lying both the neoclassicists of Rome and the politically motivated David had been the commitment to freedom from establishment constraints. Concurrent with the revolutionary rhetoric of liberty and individual rights that proved so explosive in America and France, two aesthetic theories accompanied artistic developments and set the stage for much that followed. First was the notion that artistic creativity came from within the self—from an intuitive basis called genius—which might, according to some, be enhanced through training, but which must never be subjugated by rules and formulas. Second was the ancient concept of the sublime, rearticulated in the eighteenth century by Edmund Burke (1729–1797), better-known for his political writings. The sublime offered the possibility of an aesthetic alternative to beauty, one rooted more in emotion than in reason, yet of equal value. Grand and even fearful works, whether of art or nature, might be morally uplifting as they reveal human limitations and the presence of a grander power—call it Nature or God. These ideas lay the foundation on the one hand for Romanticism, attuned to the individual and his or her feelings, and on the other for naturalism, which found value in aspects of the surrounding world.

Concurrent with the career of Jacques-Louis David, and a barometer of artistic developments from the 1780s to the 1820s, was that of Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828) in Spain. Goya evolved from being a court painter to a liberal inspired by the French Enlightenment, then to a patriot disgusted by the Napoleonic invasion of his country, and finally to a tormented exile grappling with fantasies. Spanish art always had a realist bent, linked as it was through Spain's history to the Netherlands and the Caravaggesque trends of southern Italy, absent the strong academic tradition of the French. Goya's democratic ideals were translated into his Family of Charles IV (1800). Although dressed in their uniforms and gowns, the royals are shown as everyday people, unidealized (some say caricatured, but studies for the painting show the opposite), in a space shared both by their employee, the artist, and with the ordinary viewer, thanks to the picture's construction of perspective. Having suffered an illness that left him deaf, yet at the summit of his career, by 1800 Goya enjoyed a kind of freedom that allowed him to follow his personal preoccupation with the inner nature of humankind. On the one hand, he explored themes of witchcraft and hallucination—the irrational; on the other, he recorded the many acts of violence and terror perpetrated by all sides during warfare. His political and intellectual ideals merged in a profoundly pessimistic yet humanitarian vision that is exemplified in his satirical Los caprichos series of prints in 1796 and his Executions of May 3, 1808 (1815), which showed the fate of Spanish rebels.

Another artist who explored the depths of the human spirit was the Swiss-born Johann Heinrich Füssli (or Fuseli, 1741–1825), who made London his base and joined the Royal Academy. When Füssli drew on the classical tradition, he sometimes parodied it or selected themes that contradicted its ideals of beauty and reason. Seeking shock-value and originality, he explored erotic themes (including pornographic drawings of his wife) and the world of dreams and visions. His many paintings drawn from John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) or from Germanic mythology reveal his search for alternatives to the sunny Mediterranean classics of those who hoped to rival France by imitation. His best-known painting, The Nightmare (1781), combines the erotic and the hallucinatory in a style that seems drawn more from Italian mannerism than from nature, and an expressive handling that defied his colleagues' focus on crispness and finish. His quip "Hang nature, she puts me out!" embodies one extreme of the Romantic quest for forms to embody the visions of the inner world with which he was obsessed.

romantic naturalism

While the mainstream of French painters were deeply engaged in the political aftermath of the Revolution and on the Napoleonic battlefield, both England and Germany were discovering nature as the place where they could pursue art peacefully and as a source both satisfying to their personal convictions and to the demands of an increasingly middle-class market. Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) observed his surroundings closely, but he put his studies together into landscape constructions that were intended to reveal the sublime scale of nature and the presence of God. Friedrich hated the French, whom he regarded as godless and imperialistic. His strong Protestant culture believed in searching for direct communion with the divine, in his case through the contemplation of nature, as inspired by the Natur Philosophie of August Wilhelm von Schegel (1767–1845) and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775–1854). His Monk by the Seashore (1809–1810) strips landscape to its bare essentials in order to enhance its didactic impact (ironically, much as David had done in his history paintings). The scale of man to sea, sky, and heavens is minute; that the human figure wears a monk's habit specifies the religious reverence before such grandeur. One of Friedrich's students said the monk was a self-portrait, a statement not to be taken literally—the figure is too small to be identifiable, and Friedrich belonged to no monastery—but to mean that, for Friedrich, art was a vehicle for self-expression elevated to universal experience. This was one of the guiding principles of Romanticism.

In England, the two greatest proponents of landscape during the Romantic period were Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) and John Constable (1776–1837). Turner used the tradition of the sublime to transform his often narrative human subjects into the overarching theme of man's dependency on nature. He usually chose one meteorological extreme or the other for his

setting, from lowly fishermen waiting for the wind to rise to the ancient Carthaginian invader (whose present imperialist successor was Napoleon) beset by howling gales in Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (1812). Turner's theme was always nature's dominance and the "Fallacies of Hope"—the title he gave to bombastic lines of poetry he wrote to accompany his pictures. With compositional structures that draw the viewer into a vortex to be enveloped by sweeping strokes of paint and flayed by smears and gobs violently applied with the palette knife, Turner conveyed the physical experiences of intense sunlight or the ferocity of wind and rain.

Constable, on the other hand, eschewed bravado. In the eighteenth century, landed gentry fresh from tours of the Continent commissioned garden designs for their estates and paintings for their country houses that reminded them of Italy's glorious scenery as represented in seventeenth-century art. Eventually, they began to see beauty in their native surroundings, as the Industrial Revolution transformed British cities into sprawling urban nightmares. They developed a nostalgia for the agricultural past, which led Constable to believe there was room for a "natural painter," who could appreciate the beauty with which God endowed even ordinary places. For him, Salisbury Cathedral was the ideal subject, a symbol of God yet surrounded by lush grounds and ample vegetation on which even cattle could graze, unifying the material and spiritual realm. Constable justified his work on utilitarian grounds, claiming both that "painting is a science," but also that it "is a way of feeling." His rich paint surfaces and relatively loose handling made his closely observed trees and clouds appear spontaneously observed and directly available to the senses, seductive in their calm material amplitude rather than spewing, as in Turner, with tumultuous rage. Yet both regarded nature rather than human reason as the source of power and truth, and they appealed to body and soul through symbolic structures and their psychological impact rather than through the narratives of history painting.

While Britain and Germany gave impetus to the rise of landscape painting, the figure tradition still dominated Romanticism in France, which continued struggling with its convulsive politics following the defeat of Napoleon I (r. 1804–1814/15) and a powerful, if waning, academic influence. For Théodore Géricault (1791–1824) the theme of man versus the elements was articulated through a grand figure composition, The Raft of the Medusa (1818–1819), replete with references to historical tradition as well as to contemporary politics. (The ship ran aground and was abandoned by its incompetent captain, a Royalist appointee. Sound familiar?) His younger friend, Eugène Dela-croix (1798–1863), gave new definition to Romanticism when in 1824 he exhibited Scenes from the Massacres at Chios (1822–1824, Musée du Louvre, Paris), a large and ostentatiously naturalistic painting about the cruelty of the Turkish rulers crushing the impoverished Greeks struggling for independence. Delacroix's painting appealed to its viewers' empathy for fellow Christians' suffering as well as to political ideals of freedom. It was an unmistakable challenge to the new darling of the Academy, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), the former student of David recently returned in triumph from years of residence in Rome. Despite his youthful rebelliousness, Ingres became a professed classicist, whose style was based on first-hand study of the ancients and old masters, particularly Raphael (1483–1520). His Vow of Louis XIII (1824) displayed a respect for both political and artistic authority through its display of unity between church and monarchy (restored to power following Napoleon's defeat) based on traditional compositional and stylistic features—those taught by the Academy. Ingres became associated with a smooth, polished style based on expert drawing and crisp linearity, whereas Delacroix exemplified a looser, more spontaneous-looking style, based on masses of color modeled broadly with light and shade. Romanticism came to be linked with this freedom of execution and liberal politics, hence with feelings of thwarted aspirations to transform the present and transcend tradition; classicism with obstinate academic standards, official power, and the status quo. Ingres was welcomed by the Academy, which he prevented Delacroix from joining until Delacroix ultimately outlived him.

As France, following England, joined in the Industrial Revolution, middle-class patronage encouraged a host of artists to practice portraiture and landscape. The latter in particular, inspired in part by the British, fulfilled a growing need for images that combined both the fantasy of escape and the demand for naturalism. Artists toured the countryside, bringing back to the Parisian art market scenes of rural life and contemplative solitude that satisfied the urban myth of nature as a realm of innocence and purity. The farming village of Barbizon, near the Fontainebleau Forest about a day's travel from Paris, became a settlement for artists (Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1796–1875; Théodore Rousseau, 1812–1867; Jean-François Millet, 1814–1875), who exemplified rural virtue by their humble surroundings and unpretentious lifestyle while they catered to their patrons' vicarious yearning for a simpler, quieter life. In literature and politics, as well, a reaction to modernity was forming—a double-edged reaction in which looking backward became revolutionary once again. In the

writings of George Sand (Amandine Dudevant; 1804–1876) and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865), rural ways provided the basis for utopian thinking that showed up the injustices of the oligarchs who ruled France since the 1830s. It was from this crucible that socialism and anarchism were born, flaring in 1848 into the second overthrow of the French monarchy and various uprisings across Europe. It was from the same conditions that the artistic avant-garde emerged.

the avant-garde

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) seized public attention by embodying the 1848 revolution's violent rupture with the past. He became the first leader of the avant-garde. His images of common people from his home province (Franche-Comté, near Switzerland) lacked the veneer of nostalgia. His Stonebreakers (1848) were contemporary workers whose presence revealed that actual social and economic conditions in the countryside had little to do with the mythology of his Romantic Barbizon predecessors. The Second French Republic lasted briefly, however, ending in 1851 with Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte's coup d'état, which established him as Emperor Napoleon III (r. 1852–1871) and his regime as the Second Empire. Courbet's art was seen as a democratic challenge to this politics as well as to government dominance of the arts through official patronage. His A Burial at Ornans (1849–1850) dared treat the theme of death from an everyday, down-to-earth rather than religious point of view. To its insulted Parisian audience, it appeared crudely painted in a manner appropriate to its gawky subjects and to the workman-like painter they assumed Courbet to be. His The Painter's Studio; A Real Allegory (1855) placed the artist himself at the center of a crowd representing French society, claiming leadership in a revolution

of consciousness—hence both political and artistic—for vision based on honest observation and independence from convention. He exhibited the painting at a self-funded pavilion, called Realism, set up across from the officially sponsored art shows of the Exposition Universelle. He published what is now called the Realist Manifesto, in which he stated that his aim was "to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch, according to my own estimation." The painting and its manifesto became a touchstone for the free artist of the avant-garde, establishing a tradition of questioning old shibboleths while self-consciously expressing one's own way of seeing.

At the same time, England was experiencing a minor artistic revolution. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded by some pious Catholic Oxford students in 1848 (William Holman Hunt, 1827–1910; John Everett Millais, 1829–1896; and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1828–1882), was also a protest against authority and tradition. Yet its ideals were far more conservative than Courbet's. They paralleled the critic John Ruskin's (1819–1900) call for an art that would reveal the greatness of God through meticulous observation of nature. Ruskin had been writing about Turner in the 1840s; but the Pre-Raphaelites took inspiration from the religious art of the German Nazarenes and the moralizing social art of Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893). As exemplified by Hunt's The Light of the World (1853), they fused archaic quattrocento composition and simplification with the precision and ultraoptical naturalism of scientific studies. The result was a strange and stifling realism that quite effectively conveys Victorian society's alienating combination of materialism and high moral aspirations based on oppressive sensual self-denial.

The other artist who defined the early French avant-garde was Édouard Manet (1832–1883). Of very different origins from the reputedly coarse provincial Courbet, the elegant Parisian Manet represented his Parisian peers to become what in a famous essay his friend the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) called "The Painter of Modern Life." Following Courbet's strategy of attracting public attention through controversy, Manet painted his Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1862; Picnic on the grass), which showed a naked woman staring out at the viewer while accompanied by two clothed men. Following protests when this and a number of other paintings were rejected by the Salon Jury of 1863, Emperor Napoleon III instituted a Salon des Refusés, in which Manet's painting starred. Reforms of the selection process for 1865 allowed Manet to exhibit an even more confrontational picture, his Olympia (1863). In it, a naked woman, visibly a prostitute with a servant from the colonies bringing an admirer's bouquet, is on display as if in a shop window. She is accompanied by her black cat, an animal celebrated in recent literature for its independence (as well as reputed promiscuity) and its companionship with poets and artists. Manet stripped away the seductive ideal of womanhood, which he now placed in the demimonde of Paris's thriving culture of courtesans and prostitutes. Through her gaze and Manet's palpable painting of her flesh, Manet reduced male fantasies of sexual conquest to a business transaction. At the same time, he flaunted a style of painting through broad strokes and patches of color, imposing a willful lack of finish that drew attention to a technical deliberateness that shattered the possibility of illusion. In defining this mode of painting, which gave rise to impressionism, Manet's admirer, the novelist Émile Zola (1840–1902), called art "a corner of nature seen through a temperament"—rephrasing Courbet's commitment to representing the observable world through his own way of seeing.

The impressionists were guided by this principle. But unlike Courbet and Manet, many of them concentrated on landscape, which in the early to mid 1870s they vowed to make a reflection of modern France. The best known are Claude Monet (1840–1926), Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), and Paul Cézanne (1839–1906). No longer would landscape painting offer a refuge in nature from the effects of modernity; it would celebrate the human impact on the landscape through cityscapes as well as the new economic and leisure activities in suburbs and countryside that signaled contemporary prosperity and optimism. Contemporary technology, such as train travel, made the countryside accessible and underlay expansion of the suburbs, while photography provided a new standard for naturalism and often documented modern industrial constructions such as train stations, new bridges, and the metallic framework of the architect Charles Garnier's new Opera House. The impressionists' utopia could be found, thus, in their own surroundings. One such place was La Grenouillère (1869), where Monet developed his characteristic style of broken, sketch-like brushwork, rather than in some solitary wooded glen or isolated province. That technique itself conveyed the spontaneity of direct observation associated with painting en plein-air (outdoors). It embodied both the artist's creative energies and the ever-changing world, which Baudelaire, in "The Painter of Modern Life," called the essence of modernity. At this formative time in their careers, the impressionists successfully followed up previous challenges to the art world with a series of eight independent exhibitions from 1874 to 1886. Following on the heels of the collapse the Second Empire under Prussian boots and the brief civil war of the Paris Commune (1871), these challenges linked the

impressionists to radical politics. Yet as they were discovered by Charles Durand-Ruel, a visionary art dealer willing to support them, and by notable collectors particularly from the business class, they were quickly assimilated to the mainstream, as so many avant-garde movements would be in the future.

Like Manet, the impressionists Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) and Edgar Degas (1834–1917) were more interested in figure painting than landscape, but their subjects were taken from modern urban or suburban modernity, as well. Degas's more traditional technique eschewed the affectation of spontaneity, but he highlighted his own creative processes through arresting vantage points and orchestrated compositions, to which he found parallels in other art spectacles, most famously, the ballet. To emphasize the idea that even naturalism in art is a deliberate production rather than mechanical copying, Degas's Musicians in the Orchestra (c. 1870, reworked c. 1874–1876) shows the ballerinas taking bows before very broadly brushed theater flats, after the players in the foreground have completed their accompaniment. Renoir's own gregarious personality and his affection for women is reflected in his many superb portraits as well as in scenes of social gatherings, such as his Le Moulin de la Galette (1876). The location is an indoor-outdoor café-cabaret in the working-class Montmartre neighborhood where Renoir had his studio and from which he and his friends, some of whom are shown in the painting, recruited models. Here it appears transformed into an updated and urban rococo fête-galante.


Postimpressionism is not a style but a term used to group a number of artists who responded critically to impressionism and thus constitute its aftermath. It led directly to the abstraction we associate with the founding of modern art. As impressionism's success turned it more toward bourgeois subjects, brightly decorative colors, and private dealers, the next generation looked toward a less ephemeral and what they considered a more democratic image of modernity. Georges Seurat's (1859–1891) A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1886) became the touchstone for neoimpressionism, which sought greater permanence by appearing to synthesize methodically a whole series of moments instead of catching a single moment candidly, as in the work of the previous generation. What is more, Seurat's mechanistic and impersonal pointillist recipe for style aimed at making art accessible to the widest number of practitioners whose quality of vision would not be affected by their varied skills at hand-work. Finally, Seurat and his followers attempted to use color scientifically, again favoring objective method over impressionist intuition.

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) and Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) had very different responses to impressionism, but both emphasized personal expression over the kind of naturalism they associated with the latter. Van Gogh worked from nature, but insisted on going beyond surface appearances to deeper truths. Gauguin disparaged

direct observation in favor of recollections and mental images. Both used bold colors that often departed from observed reality, but van Gogh painted with powerful workman-like brushstrokes, as if to emphasize simultaneously the personal emotional content of his work and the physical effort of productivity underlying it. Gauguin, on the other hand, developed a style based on flat areas of color through which he emphasized the artifice of his process and a creative transformation of reality he hoped would conjure up heightened states of consciousness. He called the style synthetism for its combination of reality and imagination, the material and the spiritual. He traveled widely, first to Brittany, then to the Caribbean, finally to Tahiti, in search of a cultural purity and simplicity he associated with "primitive" peoples, whose artistic monuments and aesthetic creations often inspired him.

This cycle of self-conscious critical responses to previous art, responses that focus more on matters of aesthetic process and creative method than on the implications of subject matter or contemporary history, marks the advent of modernism. Although it of course has roots in previous generations, the latter's motivations were most often social and political, as well as artistic, whereas the avant-garde now became increasingly removed from mainstream culture, focusing more on its own artistic concerns. Cézanne's withdrawal from Paris to Aix-en-Provence in 1886 is characteristic of this move. Having at first essayed crude expressionistic paintings meant to shock his contemporaries, Cézanne had spent the decade of the 1870s assimilating impressionist attitudes regarding plein-air painting. Yet with Pissarro in the late 1870s and early 1880s, he became more concerned with the structure and unity of his pictures, realizing that impressionist spontaneity and focus on the specific moment must be tempered by the prior knowledge of objects and experience of space one brings to any empirical moment. Cézanne claimed to be seeking an art more permanent than impressionism, more "like the art of the museums," while nonetheless deploying impressionism's tactic of working from direct observation. Cézanne's mature paintings sum up the efforts of impressionism as well as those of the other postimpressionists. For example, his Mont Sainte-Victoire, Seen from Bellevue (c. 1882–1885) conveys both duration in time and the specifics of a directly observed scenery through its rigorous geometry and patchwork of color dabs. A construction derived from methodical observation of reality, the painting reveals a deeply contemplative consciousness at the same time as it displays the means through which that consciousness is given a physical presence on the canvas. That presence, combining its evidence of the exercise of human intellect with its reflection of the natural world, seems to clarify that world epistemologically. In this, it has often been discussed by philosophers of phenomenology, especially in the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961).

All through the realist and impressionist revolutions, academic painting continued to flourish, with great society portraitists such as Jacques-Émile Blanche (1861–1942) and Giovanni Boldini (1845–1931) or figure painters like Adolphe-William Bougereau (1825–1905) and Pierre-Auguste Cot (1837–1883), as in the latter's The Storm (1880, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). As avant-garde artists gained publicity and a serious critical audience, however, academic art lost its historical relevance and the avant-garde became international. Postimpressionism directly inspired the two dominant trends of the pre–World War I period, expressionism and cubism. The Catalàn native Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), combined Gauguin's "primitivism" with the faceted reconstructions of form he saw as a potential in Cézanne's late paintings. His revolutionary, though experimental and somewhat awkward early masterpiece, Les demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) showed the way toward the highly fragmented and abstracted forms of cubism he and his cohort Georges Braque (1882–1963) were practicing just prior to the outbreak of World War I. Collage, with its inclusion of everyday materials such as newspaper, in cubist compositions led to synthetic cubism, in which the image was not derived from observing a motif, as in analytic cubism, but rather appeared to be assembled out of parts, painted or otherwise, producing the artwork as a completely novel object. This concept emerged as Picasso experimented with sculpture, largely moribund during the nineteenth century, and gave it a new impetus based on this process of fusing pieces together into images that suggest or even parody real objects rather than describe them.

Whereas cubism was developed within the artistic hothouse of Paris, expressionism took various guises and was more or less pan-European. Gauguin and Van Gogh's use of bright colors and bold shapes led Henri Matisse (1869–1954) and his followers to paint so broadly and in such flat and simplified forms that critics called them fauves (wild beasts). In fact, Matisse's Luxe, calme et volupté (1904) combines both the classicizing and neoimpressionist strains of utopian landscape representation, revealing its roots both in impressionism's discovery of the French Riviera and in Gauguin's synthetist style perfected in Tahiti. The Norwegian Edvard Munch (1863–1944), used the stylistic simplifications he saw in French art, focusing on the core of human emotion in scenes of death, yearning, or anxiety. Wassily Kandinsky's (1866–1944) early work seems related to fauvism, but its visionary imagery suggests memory and dreams layered over nostalgic yearnings for his native Russia. He founded a movement he called Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), referring to a figure on horseback who appeared in many of his expressionist works. A parallel movement based in Germany called Die Brücke (The Bridge) can be represented by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938), who used cubist fragmentation and angularity in The Street, Berlin (1913) as well as lurid color to suggest the inner psyche, oppressed by the urban culture of his times. Quite to the contrary, the Italian futurists, led by Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916), used cubistinspired faceting but with expressionist colors and dynamism to herald the new age of the city and the machine. Truly, the first decade of the twentieth century was filled with experimentation that would have extraordinary consequences for the future of art. Yet its challenges to tradition would be readily assimilated by a market now eager to consume work associated with new ideas and progressive thinking.

See alsoAvant-Garde; Cubism; Fauvism; Impressionism; Modernism; Realism and Naturalism; Romanticism.


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James H. Rubin


views updated May 18 2018


If it can be said that there is a national artistic tradition in American painting, it is true only insofar as it is a tradition that is contentious and conciliatory, direct and convoluted, wildly independent yet eager to demonstrate its urbane and cosmopolitan European associations. How did a relatively young country that derived from thirteen fractious colonies and was physically removed from its European antecedents come to have anything that could be considered a tradition regarding art? It did so by developing a number of artistic practices in which European references were recognizable but were rendered in uniquely American terms. From the functional expressions of sign painters of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, to the grand gestures of nineteenth-century landscapes that worship nature, Americans certainly were not immune to interpreting their world through painting.

the seventeenth century

Early depictions of the territory comprising the British North American colonies were employed widely as visual aids to stimulate interest in the colonies across the Atlantic, or to sketch for those back in England something of the thriving port towns. Such images may have detailed the workings of systems of labor, or the interactions between Europeans and the local Indians; Indians fascinated and many were eager for their images.

In a challenging seventeenth-century colonial environment rife with uncertainties, wilderness terrified rather than delighted; its reproduction for pleasurable

contemplation was unthinkable. Thus, in the North American colonies, it was portraiture that first made an appearance in American painting, not landscape. Early portraits—such as those of John Winthrop or Pocahontas—were largely utilitarian. They were records of the sitter (including the regular practice of noting the age of the sitter in Latin within the body of the portrait) executed in a stiff, frontal manner in which the subject gazed out at the viewer and the viewer returned the glance. Such portraits carried within them visual clues regarding the status and occupation (not to mention the sensibility) of the sitter. The style owed much to seventeenth-century European painting—notably Dutch and English—demonstrating that American painting did not develop in an artistic vacuum.

eighteenth-century portraiture: exploration of curve and space

Early practitioners of eighteenth-century portrait painting such as Robert Feke (c. 1705–c. 1750) and Joseph Blackburn (c. 1730–c. 1774) (and the ever-present Anonymous), ushered in a new age of portraiture, aspiring as they did to the style of the formally trained painters of the wealthier English classes. The placement of the sitter continued to be typically frontal and the gaze continued to engage the viewer. However, rather than the portrait being merely a useful record of the sitter, it became a vehicle for the display of the sitter's newly attained colonial wealth and status, in addition to showcasing the aptitude of the artist. The frontality and adherence to line (resulting in images that were inescapably two-dimensional), so characteristic of the limner tradition, gradually became an artistic exploration of curve, of space and of light in a three-dimensional world. (Untrained artists tended to rely on sharp outlines to delineate form.) By the middle of the eighteenth century, the dimensionlessness of decal-like figures who adhered to the surface of the canvas developed into fully rounded forms who inhabited space.

line, shadow, and form

It is in the work of John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) where fullness of form is rendered such that the eye sees it as occupying space and having substantive tactility. Although Copley retained the limner's love of line he infused his forms with three-dimensionality. Copley's ability to transcend the limner-folk tradition to which he was heir (though that tradition endured in its own right) guided American painting into a long-standing love of realism. He presided over a period of classical American painting in which the European courtly portrait tradition found its match on the comparatively rough-and-tumble North American shores some three thousand miles distant.

One of the most quintessential examples of Copley's ability to paint fully rounded form is his formal portrait of Mrs. Ezekiel Goldthwait (1770–1771)—a well-to-do matron whose animate hand reaches for inanimate (but nonetheless lifelike) fruit. Copley delighted in surface (the table is hard and highly polished) and shadow (the deep folds of Mrs. Goldthwait's skirts are depicted darkly), both echoes of the limner tradition. Copley's portrait of Paul Revere (late 1760s–1770) is an example of a less formal endeavor: it portrays Revere in his trade as a silversmith years before he became one of the key figures associated with Revolutionary America. (Revere was initially known as an engraver and it is his representation of the Boston Massacre in March 1770, that is familiar.) In Copley's portrait, Revere pauses to consider what he will engrave on the silver teapot resting in his left hand while his right hand, raised to his face, indents the flesh on the side of his mouth as he holds his chin thoughtfully. There is plenty of adherence to line and surface as is typical of Copley, but the portrait can be described as "realistic" or "life-like" because Copley was a master of life breathed into line. His contemporary, Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) known, in part, by his various portraits—finished and unfinished—of George Washington, employed a more painterly approach to his realism, eschewing hard linearity in favor of a lighter, comparatively impressionistic hand, though the weight of form and contour did not suffer. Stuart's The Skater from the early 1780s is a masterpiece of colonial painterliness. (It was for a time, thought to be a work by the British artist Thomas Gainsborough.) In a similar vein, Thomas Sully (1783–1872) who painted dashing figures set amid romantic landscapes owed much to the English portrait tradition. European art—long considered the chief example of artistic refinement—in short drew numerous late-eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century American painters regardless of their artistic style: from Copley and West, John Trumbull and John Vanderlyn to Washington Allston, Samuel F. B. Morse and Thomas Cole.

history painting and a burgeoning landscape

While people never tire of having their picture painted, the work of Benjamin West (1738–1820) changed the thrust of American painting in the late 1770s from the predominance of portraiture toward landscape. Initially, in an unfamiliar land, portraits were preferable; the eye did not seek out disorderly vistas, but with the imposition (at least superficially) of colonial order upon the land, vast spaces were less frightening. Portraits contain. Landscapes expand. West clothed that expansiveness in familiar garb, looking to the classical past for inspiration. His efforts

at biblical narrative and scenes from ancient Greece and Rome characterized him as a history painter—one who mined the past for lessons useful in the present. The advent of history painting signaled, in part, a new direction in painting as well as in the ways Americans interacted with their world. Gone was the preference for controlled and controllable interiors where evidence of the out-of-doors was either entirely excluded or relegated to a glimpse of a tame, vaguely Claudian (that is, romanticized landscape with poetic ethereal lighting) cluster of trees. Instead, landscape with all of its unpredictability became an important locus of activity. History paintings and the fact that they encompassed great sweeps of space as well as great ideas demonstrated a growing confidence on the part of Americans in their ability not only to survive but to thrive in a vast territory. However, the somewhat romanticized depictions of toga-clad figures as they reenacted scenes of varying solemnity had relatively little to do with American life in the 1770s.

Though West remained within the history-painting genre, he soon angled away from ancient classical subjects and toward contemporary events rendered in grand style. West's Death of General Wolfe (1770), for example, was painted after the end of the Seven Years' War (1756–1763) in which Britain vanquished the French from North America. Wolfe, relatively young and untried militarily speaking, managed to achieve victory on the Plains of Abraham—a highly defensible French field of battle made inaccessible by unscaleable cliffs. Rallying round Wolfe were contemporary figures—all of whom were recognizable types to anyone viewing the painting. Wolfe's swooning figure was both real and symbolic and his death had distinct redemptive value.

Copley, too, tried his hand at history painting as evidenced by his Watson and the Shark of 1778. It depicted a horrific event in which a young man was depicted struggling to reach the outstretched hands of his rescuers while a shark displayed ferocious rows of teeth as it bore down on the helpless, terrified form. As Americans developing an artistic idiom, it behooved artists drawn to the grand gestures of iconic, historical figures to make those figures accessible to a contemporary viewing audience.

While the grisly and frightening aspect of certain historical paintings can be said to have spun off into a direction that favored Romantic visions of the ghostly and suggestions of the supernatural—as seen especially in the paintings of Washington Allston (1779–1843) who was active in the beginning of the 1800s—the out-of-doors settings of those history paintings helped pave the way toward a visual exploration of landscape for its own sake. Too, over time, the moody, gothic depictions by a painter like Allston that capitalized on moonlight and shadow in fact showcased the land: if the land could offer such moonlit mysteries, what might it have to offer during the daylight hours?

American painters might have discarded the ghostly aspect of Allston's gothic Romanticism, but they nevertheless retained the Romantic sensibility. It was, after all, the early nineteenth century—a time in which industry-advancing inventions came to the fore. And it was those inventions, along with the advent of steam power, the development of canal systems, and the spread of railroads that contributed greatly to the rosy optimism (at least in some quarters) and the expansionist vision that was a key characteristic of the new American nation.

Although it would be some years before the Indian Removals of Jacksonian America (Jackson was elected in 1828 and Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830), and before John L. O'Sullivan wrote convincingly of America being a "great nation of futurity" (1839) or coined the phrase "Manifest Destiny" (1845), the American sensibility was nevertheless focused on the possibility of the unrestricted extension of the nation's western borders—an expansiveness that was reflected in painting.

revolutionary liberty and african american portraiture

It was during the Revolutionary period in the 1770s and 1780s that images of African Americans began to appear regularly. (However, it must be said that there were numerous images of Africans throughout western art for centuries, largely because those images pre-dated the equation of Africanness with slavery. Once the two became largely synonymous as a result of New World bound labor practices, depictions of Africans and their descendents became exceptional.) As a group of people for whom liberty was key, and as eager participants in the struggle for freedom, African Americans appeared in any number of places in the visual record. Paul Revere's engraving of the "Bloody Massacre" included the name of Crispus Attucks (c. 1723–1770) among the brief list of "unhappy sufferers," but there is no known portrait of Attucks. Nevertheless, numerous formal portraits of African Americans were painted during that time.

John Trumbull's portrait of George Washington at West Point (1780) included William Lee, one of George Washington's slaves. Lee was depicted in a turban (a popular eighteenth-century artistic conceit for French and British artists portraying Africans and those of African descent), and thus was exoticized. Nevertheless, Trumbull did not lampoon Lee. Instead, he depicted Lee as an active participant in the events of the time. Similarly, other engravings of Washington included Lee whose presence and assistance during the war campaigns Washington found indispensable. (Washington provided for Lee in his will, explicitly referring to Lee's services during the War for Independence.) Trumbull continued to acknowledge and embrace the presence of Revolutionary-period African Americans in his later work: his Battle of Bunker Hill (1786) included the well-known Peter Salem (one of several African Americans fighting), who participated in the fray.

Other artists depicted African Americans as valued soldiers during the American War for Independence. But the presence of those of African descent was not limited to involvement in war campaigns. While the War for Independence could be considered an incomplete revolution as far as the universal application of liberty and natural rights was concerned, the numbers of free African Americans were nonetheless on the rise post-war. There was a variety of African American clergy—including Absolom Jones, Richard Allen, and Peter Williams—whose portraits were made prior to 1820. (Indeed, a ceramic pitcher of English Liverpoolware with Jones's image on it was produced around 1808, to much the same purpose that Josiah Wedgwood's late-1780s medallion of a generic enslaved man "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" was devised: to further the antislavery cause.) Several members of the Philadelphia-based family of artists and natural scientists, the Peales (notably Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), the patriarch, and one of his sons, Raphaelle Peale (1774–1825) painted portraits of African Americans, prominent

and less so, in the 1810s. Raphaelle painted a portrait in 1810, of the cleric Jones, while Charles Willson Peale depicted an African who retained his Muslim faith—Yarrow Mamout—in 1819. His portrayal of Mamout, who was not famous, was a respectful rendering of an aged, free person of color.

Gradual manumission laws, effective beginning in the 1780s, contributed to the growing number of free African Americans in the early nineteenth century. However, political, social and economic changes in the late 1810s into the 1820s sanctioned the curtailment of African American liberties in all aspects of life: from voting, to housing and education, to occupations. Ironically, it is a period in American history frequently characterized as one in which a strong egalitarian impulse prevailed (in part due to the Second Great Awakening). Maryland-based painter Joshua Johnson (sometimes "Johnston"), however, is an exception. Without the benefit of formal artistic training, Johnson painted local Maryland worthies in a naïve style that was charming for its directness. Nevertheless, in this period in general, the recorded artistic endeavors of African Americans were largely in the realm of the decorative arts, especially furniture making and cabinetry. Many African Americans were skilled artisans, such as cabinetmaker Thomas Day who flourished in the period between 1820 and 1860, whose creative impulse endured in three-dimensional, everyday items.

hudson river school and the triumph of nature

It is the short-lived Thomas Cole (1801–1848) rather than his slightly older and longer-lived contemporary Asher B. Durand (1796–1886), who is considered the father of the Hudson River school—the quintessential American art movement of the first half of the nineteenth century—although Cole's early paintings were tributes to the dreamy vision of the classical ideal, to Arcadia. Cole was beguiled by artistic invocations of the beautiful and the sublime; some of his works are paintings to uplift the soul and to encourage one toward the recognition and contemplation of the awesome power of God's world. His well-known series The Course of Empire, which outlined for the viewer the cycle of human endeavor from promising beginnings, through a decadent apex, to a desolation of man-made things left standing like a warning (covered as they were in neglect), attests to that vision.

However, in other works, Cole foregoes the contrived lessons of man's dissolute ways, concentrating instead on the grandeur of nature before him. In America, all nature is new, unsullied—or so it seems when compared with ancient European locales. It is that newness, that hopefulness (recall the "city on a hill" and the beacon of light that America was to be) that finds expression in the landscapes of the Hudson River school. With the help of a higher power (for the descendants of Puritans it is God; for someone like Ralph Waldo Emerson, it is the Universal Being), America's pristine wilderness was a vehicle for a kind of salvation. It is nature that reveals God's essence. On the occasions in which the human figure is present in the landscape, it is dwarfed by the size and sublimeness of the natural world. In contrast to the classical American portrait style of Copley in the eighteenth century (or even of Thomas Sully [1783–1872] in the early nineteenth century) where the emphasis is on the ability of artist-as-draftsman, the landscapes of the Hudson River school deemphasize the hand of the artist. Erasure of the artist is the goal; the scene is meant to be unmediated (in much the same way that photography, when new, was said to capture the "truth" of what the eye saw without editorialization). The viewer is meant to stand before the canvas—rendered with authenticity by an artist who has been vouchsafed the essence of the scene—and to commune, fully, with Nature.

Thomas Cole, despite being the father of the Hudson River school, was a transitional figure, although his sensibility lived on in the work of Robert S. Duncanson (1817–1872) who was considered one of the first recognized African American professional painters; Duncanson flourished in the mid-nineteenth century and was a true practitioner of the Hudson River mood. After Cole, the canvasses of American landscape painting became immense—their sheer size encouraging the viewer to very nearly step into the scene. That monumentality was no accident; it was both a symbol of the endless renewal that a distinctly American Nature afforded its people and a reflection of the reality of the country's generous proportions and providentially endless boundaries. It echoed the confidence with which the new nation expanded and contained within it the first fears of the result of that expansion—a vanishing wilderness. And it was an assertion—at once nostalgic and expectant—that the errand into the wilderness had been in some sense completed, yet continued to draw the nation ahead into futurity.

See alsoArt and American Nationhood .


Flexner, James T. American Painting: The Light of Distant Skies, 17601835. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1954.

——. Nineteenth Century American Painting. New York: Putnam, 1970.

Huth, Hans. Nature and the American. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972.

Kaplan, Sidney. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution: 17701800. New York: New York Graphic Society, Ltd., 1973.

McShine, Kynaston. The Natural Paradise: Painting in America 18001950. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1976.

Miller, Perry. Errand into the Wilderness. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.

——. Nature's Nation. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.

Miller, Perry, ed. The Transcendentalists. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973.

Novak, Barbara. American Painting of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Praeger, 1969.

——. Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting 1825–1875. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

——. Next to Nature: Landscape Paintings from the National Academy of Design. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.

Wilmerding, John. American Views: Essays on American Art. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.

T. K. Hunter


views updated Jun 08 2018



Types and Purposes of Medieval Painting. During the period 814–1350, the styles of painting changed dramatically. Using the same terms they apply to the architecture of the period, art historians classify these styles as Romanesque, Ottonian, and Gothic. These categories are, however, modern impositions on medieval styles, and none of the few surviving medieval records describes artists as altering their techniques and topics either suddenly or even over the period of several decades. Medieval authors who discussed paintings focused on their locations, purposes, compositions, and the materials used in creating them. The cost of materials and labor made paintings expensive enough so that they were not generally part of middle- or lower-class households, nor were they usually hung in the private rooms of nobles’ homes. Artists rarely painted subjects because of inspiration; instead, a patron contracted for a painting with a specific subject and placement in mind and itemized the size, cost, materials, and composition of the work. Paintings thus commissioned could cover entire walls, be placed over altars, decorate manuscripts, or fit inside lockets. Artists painted on various surfaces other than canvas, including wood, skins, and plaster. They mixed together oils, eggs, and other natural substances to make the pigments with which they painted. In addition, painters were often commissioned to do other types of artwork, such as preparing backdrops for pageants and plays, designing court banquets, and even preparing drawings from which embroiderers or jewelers could pattern cloths

and jewelry. Expected to be versatile, yet regarded as a mere craftsman, a medieval painter seldom signed his work, and many still-admired works from the Middle Ages continue to be unattributed.

Illuminated Manuscripts. Because of the cost to produce them in a time before the advent of printing presses, books were luxury goods in the Middle Ages. Scholars have estimated that an ordinary medieval manuscript was worth one year’s wages for a craftsman, while a work with illuminations painted with precious pigments, and sometimes even crushed jewels, could represent a lifetime’s pay. People who bought these expensive works expected their money’s worth in elaborate decorations. After the text was completely copied into a manuscript, it was delivered into the hands of artists, generally monks, who specialized in small, detailed paintings in the large letters that typically begin pages and around the edges of the text. These artists were known as illuminators, and their works are some of the most beautiful examples of medieval painting. Medieval Europe drew on a long tradition of illuminating particularly precious texts, such as the Bible. Celtic and English manuscript makers in the ninth century and earlier began producing Bibles in which the art almost dominates the text. One of the most striking of these books is the Book of Kells, written at the beginning of the ninth century. In it the four Gospels inspired entire pages of intricate decoration in the Celtic style. Another important illuminated manuscript is the Book of Hours (prayer book) created for Jeanne d’Évreux, Queen of France, by the Parisian illuminator Jean Pucelle between 1324 and 1328. Measuring only 3½ by 2½ inches, it is filled with vibrant depictions of the Christmas and Easter stories and the life of St. Louis IX, Jeanne’s great-grandfather. In addition to these works, the manuscript is decorated with dozens of marginal illuminations known as drolleries (the amusing figures that frolic on the edges of many Gothic manuscripts), depicting various whimsical and supernatural creations and daily life in medieval Paris.

The Value of Marginalia. Throughout the Middle Ages illuminations covered manuscripts designed for Church use and for presentation at important courts. Theoretically, the pictures were supposed to help the reader understand the meaning of the text (hence the name illumination), but in practice the decorations and scenes in illuminated manuscripts were quite fanciful and often seem to have little to do with the text. In addition to illuminations, medieval manuscripts also included notes surrounding the primary text. These pictures and notes, called marginalia because of their placement in the margins, have often been considered relatively unimportant parts of medieval books. Recently, however, scholars have argued that marginal illuminations and comments reveal much about medieval attitudes, just as psychologists assert that a person’s doodles can reveal much about his or her personality.

Small-Scale Paintings. Although manuscript illuminations are now some of the best-known medieval paintings, medieval painters also created thousands of other small-scale works for churches, castles, and homes. Frequently the subjects of these paintings were religious—including scenes from the lives of Jesus, Mary, or one of the saints; famous episodes from scripture such as the Apocalypse, the Last Judgment, or John the Baptist preaching; or a representation of one of God’s attributes, such as Christ in Majesty or the Presentation of the Infant Jesus to the angels. In early and high medieval art, through the twelfth century, the figures were generally quite stylized and stiff, but around 1200 changes in medieval society led to alterations in painting that much later became known as Gothic style. Paintings that decorated the backs of altars, known as altarpieces, became more complex, as can be seen in the altar at Siena or in the Isenheim altarpiece by Matthew Grunewald in Colmar, France. One significant change came in the depiction of the Virgin and Child and in the figure of Christ. The stylized Virgin and Child of the earlier Middle Ages, strongly influenced by Byzantine art, was replaced by a more human and natural image of the Madonna and Child. Christ was portrayed as nursing, like a normal, human baby, and the Virgin took on more characteristics of a bemused mother rather than the Queen of Heaven.

Wall Paintings. Throughout the Middle Ages, walls were frequently painted, particularly in churches. Romanesque artists incorporated Roman motifs and remains into their works, as in the cathedral of Montreale, Sicily (circa 1172–1189). Later medieval painters and sculptors sometimes integrated strips of glass mosaic—gold, black, and white—into their works. Much medieval decorative work was done on churches, where one of the most frequently chosen subjects was the majesty of Christ, which generally appeared on the half dome of the apse. The fresco on this subject at the Catalan church of San Clemente de Tahull is one of the best preserved and conventional in its depiction of Christ sitting on a rainbow and raising his right hand in blessing. Another common theme, designed as a lesson to parishioners, was the Last Judgment, with the futures awaiting the saved and the damned painted in explicit detail. Images of screeching harpies, devils disemboweling sinners, and the skins of the damned burning off in the flames are often repeated in these works.

Techniques. Wall paintings were executed using several techniques, most commonly fresco or tempura. Fresco painting is done on fresh, wet plaster, while paintings done on a dry surface are called tempura; often a medieval painter mixed techniques depending on the effect he was trying to achieve. Painters were responsible for all stages in their work: they ground the pigments for colors, prepared the paints and surface to be painted, sketched the composition, and, of course, painted the work itself. In the process they used many tools. Brushes and jars to hold paints were standard equipment. Painters also had various bleaches for preparing surfaces, knives for smoothing them, stilettos to engrave drawings on walls or to vary the texture of the painting, and even small tweezers to inset jewels or other decorative objects. Techniques varied greatly according to the surface to be painted. At an early stage of medieval wall painting, the borders that surrounded the scenes were set in place by dipping strings in paint and then holding them against the wall or by painting or carving lines in the wall. In the fresh plastering typical of the fresco, a drawing was made on paper, transferred onto the plaster, and finally traced over with a tool with a bony or metallic head, leaving a carved outline on the wall. Artists made sure that these sheets stuck to the wall by using a mixture of oil and gum. Once the pattern was placed on the wall, the artist and his assistants began filling in the picture with paint made from a mixture of special soils, oils (including egg yolks), and natural pigments. If the artist was using fresco, he had to work quickly, because the paint had to go on the plaster while it was wet. Otherwise the pigments would soon fade, and the painting itself would crack and flake. An artist’s assistants painted routine parts of the work, such as clouds and borders, while the master painter handled facial expressions, clothing, and other areas demanding fine detail. Precious metals such as gold, silver, and lapis lazuli were mixed into pigments to achieve a glowing effect. Painters also used different brushes, varied their brush strokes, and layered paints according to the effect they were trying to achieve.

Painting in Service to the Church. A painter’s greatest patrons were generally the leading clergy of their area. The spate of cathedral construction and renovation during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries provided employment for painters as well as other sorts of artists. Painters prepared wall-sized murals, decorated columns with stripes or vegetation, and tinted the features of sculptures in the church. They also provided altarpieces of various sizes for both the side chapels and the high altar. These artworks were first of all instructive. Primarily illiterate, medieval Europeans could learn basic Christian doctrines from the paintings in churches. Second, art reinforced Christian teachings. Sinners looking at graphic depictions of heaven and hell had the benefits of good behavior and the penalties for evil reemphasized before their eyes. Third, art could raise the spirit. A beautifully decorated church illustrated God’s majesty and the difference between heaven and earth, thereby providing Christians with a pale reflection of the joys they might experience when saved. Fourth, and most esoterically, the beauty of art and human creativity also supported medieval doctrines about the marvels of God’s creation and the potential of God’s highest creation, Man.

From Symbol to Nature. Typically, modern observers look at the stiffness and disproportion of the figures in early medieval paintings and think that medieval artists could not draw. That impression is partially false. Medieval artists did not fail to develop the perspective techniques that create the illusion of space because they were ignorant; instead they had goals other than realism for their works. Through approximately the eleventh century, the primary impulse in medieval painting seems to be symbolic. For example, in the Catalan cathedral of San Clemente de Tahull, the Christ in Majesty portrays Jesus in a somewhat unnatural and stiff manner. In the subdued light of the sanctuary, however, it is precisely this totally unrealistic interpretation of the deity that best expresses his all-pervading presence. At Tahull, as in many other Romanesque pictorial works, discarding any reference to the actual appearance of things enabled the artist to achieve the maximum spiritual intensity. The Gothic style of painting that developed in the thirteenth century relied on different images and techniques to convey its messages. Gothic painting layered literal and symbolic meanings, and the figures in these works have realistic and mystical elements. As the Gothic style evolved in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it became known for its attention to natural objects and detail. This International Gothic style also adopted ideas about light, color, and vision known as perspectiva.

developed by scholars such as Roger Bacon and John Peckham in the 1260s, 1270s, and 1280s. These developments in Gothic style had a striking effect in Italy, where a series of early fourteenth-century artists pioneered a new, more naturalistic style that still included strong symbolic elements. Painters such as Arnolfo di Cambio (1265–1302), Tino da Camaino (circa 1285–1327), Andrea Pisano (1295–1348), Duccio di Buoninsegna (circa 1255–1318), Ambro-gio Lorenzetti (circa 1317–1348), and Bernardo Daddi (circa 1290–1348) were popular in their era and influenced the development of Italian Renaissance art.

Giotto. Undoubtedly the greatest of these late medieval Italian artists was Giotto di Badone (1267–1337). A master of all painting techniques, his Uffizi Madonna and the frescoes at the Bardi and Perruzzi chapels in St. Croce, Florence, were acknowledged masterpieces during his lifetime and inspired artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Probably his greatest works were the series of frescoes he painted at the Arena chapel in Padua around 1305. His subjects were quite traditional—scenes from the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and Joachim (Mary’s father). The challenges he faced in portraying these subjects were extraordinary. The chapel was small and asymmetrical, and in order to carry out his extensive iconographical scheme, he had to balance his work among windows. To frame his main panels, Giotto painted fake marble columns and cornices, a technique that was adopted by later Renaissance painters. Giotto also used illusion to extend the size of the chapel, employing perfect perspective techniques to paint rooms that looked like additions to the chapel. His figures are softer and more voluminous than those of earlier medieval artists. The most important and most dignified figures have a majestic air, an expression of conviction, and a profound, concentrated gaze; yet they are warm and reassuringly human. Some ten years after Giotto’s death, the well-known writer Giovanni Boccaccio described Giotto as “the best painter in the world,” a judgment later Renaissance artists echoed.


Jonathan J. G. Alexander, Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992).

Virginia W. Egbert, The Medieval Artist at Work (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967).

H. W. Janson, History of Art, fifth edition, revised (New York: Abrams, 1997).

Luisa Marcucci and Emma Micheletti, Medieval Painting: A History of European Painting, translated by H. E. Scott (New York: Viking, 1960).


views updated May 29 2018



Paint is a term used to describe a number of substances that consist of a pigment suspended in a liquid or paste vehicle such as oil or water. With a brush, a roller, or a spray gun, paint is applied in a thin coat to various surfaces such as wood, metal, or stone. Although its primary purpose is to protect the surface to which it is applied, paint also provides decoration.

Samples of the first known paintings, made between 20,000 and 25,000 years ago, survive in caves in France and Spain. Primitive paintings tended to depict humans and animals, and diagrams have also been found. Early artists relied on easily available natural substances to make paint, such as natural earth pigments, charcoal, berry juice, lard, blood, and milkweed sap. Later, the ancient Chinese, Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans used more sophisticated materials to produce paints for limited decoration, such as painting walls. Oils were used as varnishes, and pigments such as yellow and red ochres, chalk, arsenic sulfide yellow, and malachite green were mixed with binders such as gum arabic, lime, egg albumen, and beeswax.

Paint was first used as a protective coating by the Egyptians and Hebrews, who applied pitches and balsams to the exposed wood of their ships. During the Middle Ages, some inland wood also received protective coatings of paint, but due to the scarcity of paint, this practice was generally limited to store fronts and signs. Around the same time, artists began to boil resin with oil to obtain highly miscible (mixable) paints, and artists of the fifteenth century were the first to add drying oils to paint, thereby hastening evaporation. They also adopted a new solvent, linseed oil, which remained the most commonly used solvent until synthetics replaced it during the twentieth century.

In Boston around 1700, Thomas Child built the earliest American paint mill, a granite trough within which a 1.6 foot (.5 meter) granite ball rolled, grinding the pigment. The first paint patent was issued for a product that improved whitewash, a water-slaked lime often used during the early days of the United States. In 1865 D. P. Flinn obtained a patent for a water-based paint that also contained zinc oxide, potassium hydroxide, resin, milk, and lin-seed oil. The first commercial paint mills replaced Child's granite ball with a buhrstone wheel, but these mills continued the practice of grinding only pigment (individual customers would then blend it with a vehicle at home). It wasn't until 1867 that manufacturers began mixing the vehicle and the pigment for consumers.

The twentieth century has seen the most changes in paint composition and manufacture. Today, synthetic pigments and stabilizers are commonly used to mass produce uniform batches of paint. New synthetic vehicles developed from polymers such as polyurethane and styrene-butadene emerged during the 1940s. Alkyd resins were synthesized, and they have dominated production since. Before 1930, pigment was ground with stone mills, and these were later replaced by steel balls. Today, sand mills and high-speed dispersion mixers are used to grind easily dispersible pigments.

Perhaps the greatest paint-related advancement has been its proliferation. While some wooden houses, stores, bridges, and signs were painted as early as the eighteenth century, it wasn't until recently that mass production rendered a wide variety of paints universally indispensable. Today, paints are used for interior and exterior housepainting, boats, automobiles, planes, appliances, furniture, and many other places where protection and appeal are desired.

Raw Materials

A paint is composed of pigments, solvents, resins, and various additives. The pigments give the paint color; solvents make it easier to apply; resins help it dry; and additives serve as everything from fillers to antifungicidal agents. Hundreds of different pigments, both natural and synthetic, exist. The basic white pigment is titanium dioxide, selected for its excellent concealing properties, and black pigment is commonly made from carbon black. Other pigments used to make paint include iron oxide and cadmium sulfide for reds, metallic salts for yellows and oranges, and iron blue and chrome yellows for blues and greens.

Solvents are various low viscosity, volatile liquids. They include petroleum mineral spirits and aromatic solvents such as benzol, alcohols, esters, ketones, and acetone. The natural resins most commonly used are lin-seed, coconut, and soybean oil, while alkyds, acrylics, epoxies, and polyurethanes number among the most popular synthetic resins. Additives serve many purposes. Some, like calcium carbonate and aluminum silicate, are simply fillers that give the paint body and substance without changing its properties. Other additives produce certain desired characteristics in paint, such as the thixotropic agents that give paint its smooth texture, driers, anti-settling agents, anti-skinning agents, defoamers, and a host of others that enable paint to cover well and last long.


Paint is generally custom-made to fit the needs of industrial customers. For example, one might be especially interested in a fast-drying paint, while another might desire a paint that supplies good coverage over a long lifetime. Paint intended for the consumer can also be custom-made. Paint manufacturers provide such a wide range of colors that it is impossible to keep large quantities of each on hand. To meet a request for "aquamarine," "canary yellow," or "maroon," the manufacturer will select a base that is appropriate for the deepness of color required. (Pastel paint bases will have high amounts of titanium dioxide, the white pigment, while darker tones will have less.) Then, according to a predetermined formula, the manufacturer can introduce various pigments from calibrated cylinders to obtain the proper color.

The Manufacturing

Making the paste

  • 1 Pigment manufacturers send bags of fine grain pigments to paint plants. There, the pigment is premixed with resin (a wetting agent that assists in moistening the pigment), one or more solvents, and additives to form a paste.

Dispersing the pigment

  • 2 The paste mixture for most industrial and some consumer paints is now routed into a sand mill, a large cylinder that agitates tiny particles of sand or silica to grind the pigment particles, making them smaller and dispersing them throughout the mixture. The mixture is then filtered to remove the sand particles.
  • 3 Instead of being processed in sand mills, up to 90 percent of the water-based latex paints designed for use by individual homeowners are instead processed in a high-speed dispersion tank. There, the premixed paste is subjected to high-speed agitation by a circular, toothed blade attached to a rotating shaft. This process blends the pigment into the solvent.

Thinning the paste

  • 4 Whether created by a sand mill or a dispersion tank, the paste must now be thinned to produce the final product. Transferred to large kettles, it is agitated with the proper amount of solvent for the type of paint desired.

Canning the paint

  • 5 The finished paint product is then pumped into the canning room. For the standard 8 pint (3.78 liter) paint can available to consumers, empty cans are first rolled horizontally onto labels, then set upright so that the paint can be pumped into them. A machine places lids onto the filled cans, and a second machine presses on the lids to seal them. From wire that is fed into it from coils, a bailometer cuts and shapes the handles before hooking them into holes precut in the cans. A certain number of cans (usually four) are then boxed and stacked before being sent to the warehouse.

Quality Control

Paint manufacturers utilize an extensive array of quality control measures. The ingredients and the manufacturing process undergo stringent tests, and the finished product is checked to insure that it is of high quality. A finished paint is inspected for its density, fineness of grind, dispersion, and viscosity. Paint is then applied to a surface and studied for bleed resistance, rate of drying, and texture.

In terms of the paint's aesthetic components, color is checked by an experienced observer and by spectral analysis to see if it matches a standard desired color. Resistance of the color to fading caused by the elements is determined by exposing a portion of a painted surface to an arc light and comparing the amount of fading to a painted surface that was not so exposed. The paint's hiding power is measured by painting it over a black surface and a white surface. The ratio of coverage on the black surface to coverage on the white surface is then determined, with .98 being high-quality paint. Gloss is measured by determining the amount of reflected light given off a painted surface.

Tests to measure the paint's more functional qualities include one for mar resistance, which entails scratching or abrading a dried coat of paint. Adhesion is tested by making a crosshatch, calibrated to .07 inch (2 millimeters), on a dried paint surface. A piece of tape is applied to the crosshatch, then pulled off; good paint will remain on the surface. Scrubbability is tested by a machine that rubs a soapy brush over the paint's surface. A system also exists to rate settling. An excellent paint can sit for six months with no settling and rate a ten. Poor paint, however, will settle into an immiscible lump of pigment on the bottom of the can and rate a zero. Weathering is tested by exposing the paint to outdoor conditions. Artificial weathering exposes a painted surface to sun, water, extreme temperature, humidity, or sulfuric gases. Fire retardancy is checked by burning the paint and determining its weight loss. If the amount lost is more than 10 percent, the paint is not considered fire-resistant.


A recent regulation (California Rule 66) concerning the emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) affects the paint industry, especially manufacturers of industrial oil-based paints. It is estimated that all coatings, including stains and varnishes, are responsible for 1.8 percent of the 2.3 million metric tons of VOCs released per year. The new regulation permits each liter of paint to contain no more than 250 grams (8.75 ounces) of solvent. Paint manufacturers can replace the solvents with pigment, fillers, or other solids inherent to the basic paint formula. This method produces thicker paints that are harder to apply, and it is not yet known if such paints are long lasting. Other solutions include using paint powder coatings that use no solvents, applying paint in closed systems from which VOCs can be retrieved, using water as a solvent, or using acrylics that dry under ultraviolet light or heat. A consumer with some unused paint on hand can return it to the point of purchase for proper treatment.

A large paint manufacturer will have an in-house wastewater treatment facility that treats all liquids generated on-site, even storm water run-off. The facility is monitored 24 hours a day, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does a periodic records and systems check of all paint facilities. The liquid portion of the waste is treated on-site to the standards of the local publicly owned wastewater treatment facility; it can be used to make low-quality paint. Latex sludge can be retrieved and used as fillers in other industrial products. Waste solvents can be recovered and used as fuels for other industries. A clean paint container can be reused or sent to the local landfill.

Where To Learn More


Flick, Ernest W. Handbook of Paint Raw Materials, 2nd ed. Noyes Data Corp., 1989.

Martens, Charles R. Emulsion and Water-Soluble Paints and Coatings. Reinhold Publishing Company, 1964.

Morgans, W. M. Outlines of Paint Technology, 3rd ed. John Wiley & Sons, 1990.

The Paints and Coatings Industry. Business Trend Analysts, 1990.

Paints and Protective Coatings. Gordon Press, 1991.

Turner, G. P. A. Introduction to Paint Chemistry and Principles of Paint Technology, 3rd ed. Chapman & Hall, 1988.

Weismantel, Guy E. Paint Handbook. McGraw-Hill, 1981.


Levinson, Nancy. "Goodbye, Old Paint." Architectural Record. January, 1992, pp. 42-43.

Scott, Susan. "Painting with Pesticides: the Controversial Organoxin Paints." Sea Frontiers. November/December, 1987, pp. 415-421.

Rose Secrest


views updated May 17 2018

painting. The coming of Christianity with the building and decoration of churches marks a good point from which to look at recorded painting in Britain. Pope Gregory (late 6th cent.) agreed that paintings in church would assist the understanding of Christianity. Painting was done on manuscripts, walls, wood panels, glass, and tiles. The Anglo-Saxon artistic tradition was a mix of Roman and native British styles. One of the finest manuscripts, the Lindisfarne Gospels (c.698), illustrates this mixture. Illuminated manuscripts were painted on animal skins and richly decorated with subjects, including portraits of saints, stylized animals, and geometric designs.

Manuscript and panel painting continued throughout the Middle Ages, not always by monks, and covering subjects outside religion. Bestiaries were popular. The artists, who often travelled widely, rarely painted from life even when representing a living person. Sometimes, however, they needed a life model for a new experience, as the monk Matthew Paris did when he copied an elephant for a painting presented to Henry III (c.1255). There is small evidence in English painting of the 13th and 14th cents. of the skills shown in Italy and France at the same time, with little attempt to make the figures proportional or lifelike.

The Reformation brought a crisis to painting in Britain with protestants objecting to images of saints in church and home. Not only did religious commissions cease, except briefly under Mary I, but waves of iconoclasm during the reign of Edward VI, and intermittently until the final destructions in the Civil War, resulted in many examples of painting, sculpture, and glass being destroyed. The increased wealth of the nobility in the 16th and 17th cents. produced a vigorous demand for family portraits and most great houses contained a long gallery. But English artists did not have the prestige of foreign painters, which explains why William Hogarth is the first native artist represented in the National Gallery. The arrival in England of Hans Holbein momentarily changed the way in which portraits were painted. But although he was appointed court painter by Henry VIII, his skill as a painter was never fully exploited and his influence was minimal. After his death, his simple and direct style was replaced by more mannered paintings like the Hilliard miniature Portrait of a Young Man or the cult portraits of Elizabeth. Charles I was an important and knowledgeable collector of art and a patron of Van Dyck. The safe option of portrait painting got artists through the Civil War with the Restoration seeing the Stuart court looking abroad for portraitists. The Dutch artist Lely spanned both Commonwealth and Restoration portraiture, as did Samuel Cooper, the miniaturist.

The 18th cent. was the great age of country house building and decoration. Fashionable gentlemen linked painting with taste and bought old masters or used foreign portrait painters. Hogarth campaigned on behalf of English artists, but his greatest success was not in portraiture but in social and moral commentary, like The Rake's Progress (1735), highly successful as prints. But in the next generation, British painters came into their own with Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Ramsay offering dignified and beautiful portraits. At court, the German Zoffany painted informal family groups called conversation pieces, a genre repeated for Queen Victoria by Landseer and Winterhalter. The foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768 acknowledged the improved position of the artist in society. Growing interest in art and new markets among the middle classes, who had less need for portraits, changed the rules of taste. New subjects, for example contemporary history in West's Death of Wolfe (1771), personal experience such as Blake's visions, and the portrayal of everyday life by Wilkie, signalled a change in attitude towards painting which led in turn to a reassessment of landscape painting. Turner and Constable represented very different interpretations of this genre, the latter breaking with tradition in attempting to paint only what he saw.

Breaks with tradition echoed the speed of change in the outside world. Artists wanted to be free to experiment while customers wanted to buy what they knew. Many 19th-cent. artists were underrated in their lifetime: the Pre-Raphaelites and later Whistler disregarded the conventions of their day and faced a barrage of criticism.

The spirit of modernism informed the whole of the 20th cent., with artists experimenting with ideas and media. Some find modern art difficult to understand, or even repellent, but artists of the standing of Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland gave a deep insight into war, L. S. Lowry recorded the bleak factory spaces of an industrial society, and David Hockney introduced humour into painting. Though in many ways modern art has become over-specialized and divorced from everyday life, in another sense all are consumers of painting, which is everywhere—in advertising, in magazines, in greeting-card designs, on the street, and always variable.

June Cochrane


views updated May 17 2018


As the primary art associated with the Renaissance, painting reflects many of the most important discoveries, philosophies, and innovations of this historical period. The greatest artists of the period were painters, and their works have remained the most familiar Renaissance artifacts, especially in Italy. The most important aspect of Renaissance painting is the ideas the artworks expressed. It was seen as novel at the time for a scene on wood or canvas to carry the philosophy and personality of the artist. Artists emerged from obscurity and anonymity to become renowned individuals, and the works of the

best of them were sought after by collectors, monarchs, and nobles.

Painting in the Middle Ages was dominated by religion and familiar scenes from the Bible and Christian mythology. It was an art closely associated with architecture, as painting was a medium used most often for the decoration of church walls, ceilings, altars, doorways, and naves. In the early Renaissance, this tradition began to change, as artists began creating works intended to stand alone as works of art admired for the skill of the artist rather than for their function as an object of worship or religious instruction.

The humanism of the Renaissance left an important stamp on painting. Humanism passed over religious faith to seek out essential truths through rational investigation, deduction, and debate. Painters in the humanist tradition set pagan myths and philosophies on an equal footing with Christianity. They studied anatomy to arrive at a more accurate depiction of the human form, and developed the science of perspective to lend their painted scenes the illusion of three-dimensional reality. These new techniques were greatly helped by the invention of oil painting and the artist's easel, which enhanced the idea of the painting as a self-contained work of art. The greatest humanist monument of the Renaissance, however, was the immense frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, created by Michelangelo, which depicted biblical themes in the dramatic and monumental style of ancient classical sculpture.

Painters of the Renaissance usually trained as apprentices in the workshops of older, more experienced men. After serving their terms, many of them traveled in order to study, to discover classical architecture, or to view the works of their contemporaries. An independent career as a painter, however, was still an impossibility for most, and painters eagerly sought the patronage of wealthy noblemen, kings, or popes in order to support themselves with well-paid commissions. Private citizens ordered portraits of themselves or their families; and had painters decorate the chambers of their homes. Prosperous cities asked artists to enhance their public buildings with frescoes and create interior murals celebrating their history.

The wealth earned through trade and banking made Florence a center of art patronage that had no rival in Europe. At the same time, ideas were spreading rapidly as communications improved and long-distance travel grew easier, and as printed books became available after the 1450s.

Leading Italian painters of the Renaissance include Masaccio, Paolo Uccello, Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Andrea Mantegna, Titian, Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese, the Bellini family, and Giorgione. Major painters of the Northern Renaissance, in England, the Low Countries, and Germany, included Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, Matthias Grünewald, Pieter Brueghel, and Hans Holbein. These painters were concerned with a precise rendering of natural detail, with the astonishing technique of the Dutch painter Jan van Eyck serving as their model. Religious imagery still played a strong role in art of the north.

In the late Renaissance, several Italian painters developed a new, Mannerist style in reaction to the naturalistic detail of leading painters such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo. Mannerist paintings created crowded and elaborate scenes, exaggerated certain details of the human form, and tricked the observer's eye with techniques of perspective and optical illusions. Mannerism was meant not to convey a religious scene or classical myth, but to simply display the skill of the painter. It ended innovation in the Renaissance era and ushered in the new period of Baroque painting that would dominate European art for two centuries.

See Also: Bellini, Gentile; Bellini, Giovanni; Bellini, Jacopo; Botticelli, Sandro; Caravaggio, Michelangelo da; Fra Angelico; Giorgione; Grünewald, Matthias; Leonardo da Vinci; Masaccio; Michelangelo Buonarroti; Raphael; Titian


views updated May 29 2018

painting Art of using one or more colours, generally mixed with a medium (such as oil or water) and applied to a surface with a brush, finger or other tool to create pictures. Paintings are among the earliest of historical records. Painting in early civilizations, such as Egypt, was largely a matter of filling in with colour areas outlined by drawing. Little Greek painting survives (apart from that on pottery). The Romans were greatly influenced by Greek art, as the fine fresco paintings at Pompeii and Herculaneum demonstrate. In the early Christian and Byzantine periods, traditions in mural painting and manuscript illumination were established that were to last throughout the Middle Ages. When the humanist ideals of the Renaissance took root in s Europe, the range of subjects and techniques available to the artist widened enormously. The period also saw the first use of oil paint on canvas, the beginnings of genre painting and pure portraiture. It was also the age of perspective and of a more natural approach to form and composition. To this creative legacy, the great painters of the Baroque period added an unrivalled bravura brushwork and drama of vision. North of the Alps, the Renaissance spread more gradually than in Italy. The 17th-century Dutch painters' choice of intimate, everyday subjects was the antithesis of the grand manner characteristic of the Italian masters. By the 18th century, British painters had become established in portraiture, animal, and landscape painting, although overshadowed by the great Venetian masters. The 19th century opened with the supremacy of neo-classicism challenged by the new Romanticism. Both schools were superseded, first by impressionism and then by a succession of new movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of these movements – impressionism, post-impressionism, symbolism, fauvism, cubism, Dada, and surrealism – originated in Paris. Germany was the cradle of expressionism and Russia contributed suprematism. In the latter half of the 20th century, the USA produced many original movements, such as abstract expressionism, pop art, and op art.


views updated Jun 27 2018

paint / pānt/ • n. 1. a colored substance that is spread over a surface and dries to leave a thin decorative or protective coating: a can of paint the paint has been applied to the surface with a palette knife. ∎  an act of covering something with paint: it looked in need of a good paint. ∎ inf. cosmetic makeup: one has false curls, another too much paint. ∎  Basketball the rectangular area marked near the basket at each end of the court; the foul lane: the two players jostled in the paint. ∎  Comput. the function or capability of producing graphics, esp. those that mimic the effect of real paint: [as adj.] a paint program. 2. a piebald horse: [as adj.] a paint mare. • v. [tr.] 1. (often be painted) cover the surface of (something) with paint, as decoration or protection: the walls hadn't been painted for years | [tr.] the ceiling was painted dark gray | [as adj.] (painted) a brightly painted trailer. ∎  apply cosmetics to (the face or skin): she couldn't have been more than fourteen but her face was thickly painted. ∎  apply (a liquid) to a surface with a brush. ∎  (paint something out) efface something with paint: the markings on the plane were hurriedly painted out. ∎  Comput. create (a graphic or screen display) using a paint program. ∎  display a mark representing (an aircraft or vehicle) on a radar screen.2. depict (an object, person, or scene) with paint: I painted a woman sitting next to a table lamp. ∎  produce (a picture) in such a way: Marr is a self-taught artist who paints portraits | [intr.] she paints and she makes sculptures. ∎  give a description of (someone or something): I'm painted as some nut case living in the woods.PHRASES: like watching paint dry (of an activity or experience) extremely boring.paint oneself into a corner leave oneself no means of escape or room to maneuver.paint the town (red) inf. go out and enjoy oneself flamboyantly.DERIVATIVES: paint·a·ble adj.paint·y adj. (paint·i·er, paint·i·est) .


views updated Jun 08 2018



Late Uruk Period, circa 3300 - circa 2900 B.C.E. Because buildings in Mesopotamia were made from mud brick covered with plaster, they were regularly repaired, rebuilt, or left to decay. As a result, few examples of wall paintings have been found, but surviving evidence suggests that it was a widely used form of decoration. Wall paintings discovered in a temple of the Late Uruk period at Tell Uqair depict leopards and other animals and a procession of humans, all with their feet on the same ground line. The main altar was painted to represent a temple facade with vertical panels of imitation-cone mosaic. These paintings were done on a white background in a great variety of colors.

The Second Millennium B.C.E. The best-preserved wall paintings of the second millennium b.c.e. come from the palaces at Mari and Nuzi. At Mari on the middle Euphrates, ritual scenes show the king and goddess

Ishtar and processions of people and animals. At Nuzi in northeastern Iraq, friezes depict heads like that of the Egyptian cow-faced universal mother goddess Hathor, cattle heads, and trees—all painted in black and ochre on white or gray. Later, at Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta (circa late thirteenth century b.c.e.), typical Assyrian designs of palmettes, bird-headed genii, goats, and geometric designs were painted in black, red, and blue on a white background. From about the same period, processions of male figures were painted at doorways of the Kassite palace at Dur-Kurigalzu.

The First Millennium B.C.E. In Neo-Assyrian palaces and temples of the eighth and seventh centuries b.c.e., wall reliefs were often complemented or replaced by wall paintings. Painted bricks and wall paintings found at Nimrud were mainly in geometric patterns but also included animal and plant designs. Fine examples of Neo-Assyrian wall paintings come from the palace at the provincial center of Til Barsip in northern Syria. The subjects include protective genii, military campaigns, royal audiences, and lion hunts.


Henri Frankfort, The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient, fifth edition, with supplementary notes and bibliography by Michael Roaf and Donald Matthews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).

Eva Strommenger, 5000 Years of the Art of Mesopotamia, translated by Christina Haglund (New York: Abrams, 1964).