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5 Most important eras in art history

BY READERS DIGEST

10th Nov 2023 Art & Theatre

3 min read

5 Most important eras in art history
We take a look back at some of the most important eras of art history, from the frescoes of the ancient world to the avant-gardes of more recent centuries
As long as humans have been around, we’ve been making art. In fact, the earliest known representational artwork dates back to 45,500 years ago: a painting of three pigs in a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. 
"As long as humans have been around, we’ve been making art"
With such a long and rich history, it can be a little overwhelming to try and get to grips with the world of art. If you’re looking for the basics, you’re in the right place. Here are five of the most important eras in art history

Ancient art (c. 30,000 BCE–400 CE)

Ancient art is pretty broad, as it refers to art produced by many ancient cultures including China, Persia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. The most well-known forms of ancient artwork are ceramics and wall-painting: think Greek pottery and Roman frescoes.
Ancient Roman fresco in Pompeii. Image: Commonists, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
A lot of early art was functional, with the function often being religious. Art in ancient Egypt came in a fairly standardised style, lacking individual artistic expression, as its purpose was to maintain a perceived natural, divinely instated order. 
In ancient China, painting and calligraphy were among the most esteemed art forms. Chinese painting was done on various surfaces, including ceramics and terracotta, and paintings were typically used as status symbols. Calligraphy was thought to be the highest and purest form of painting. 
Artists to know:
  • Pheidias
  • Gu Kaizhi

The Renaissance (14th–17th century)

The Renaissance marks a period after the Middle Ages which saw a revival of interest in classic art, architecture, literature and learning. It began in Florence, Italy, in the 14th century and spread across Europe. 
"Art in the Renaissance era was often inextricably linked with science and philosophy"
Art in the Renaissance era was often inextricably linked with science and philosophy. Just look at Leonardo da Vinci, who was a painter, engineer, scientist, architect and more besides—the ultimate Renaissance man. I dread to think how many pages his CV covered! Meanwhile Filippo Brunelleschi, known as the first modern engineer, pioneered the technique of linear perspective in art, allowing for a more accurate rendering of three-dimensional space. 
The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Renaissance drew inspiration from the art and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome, admiring their ideals of beauty, proportion and symmetry. Many Renaissance artworks depict scenes from Greek and Roman mythology, such as Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.
Artists to know:
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Filippo Brunelleschi
  • Sandro Botticelli
  • Michelangelo

The Baroque era (17th – 18th century)

Baroque art is bold and dramatic; it aims to impress. It is often marked by intense light and dark shadows and rich colours meant to evoke passionate emotion. A sense of opulence is common in Baroque artworks, with ornate and intricate details featuring both in paintings and sculptures of the era.
Las Meninas, Diego Velázquez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Religious themes crop up a lot in Baroque art, as it was used by the Catholic church to counter the Protestant Reformation. The Baroque style flourished in Rome, particularly in the Vatican. Baroque religious artworks were often commissioned to make Catholic churches more dazzling and to stimulate the public’s faith in the church. Nonetheless, Baroque artwork also explored secular subjects including mythology and history. 
Artists to know:
  • Caravaggio
  • Diego Velázquez
  • Peter Paul Rubens

Impressionism (late-19th century)

Impressionism was developed in France in the mid-to-late 19th century. Impressionist paintings are characterised by loose visible brushstroke, with artists seeking to capture immediate visual impressions, emphasising direct observation, light and colour. This was a departure from the academic art of the time, which aimed to create highly polished, dramatic works.
1024px-Claude_Monet,_Impression,_soleil_levant,_1872
Rather than depicting historical or mythological subjects, Impressionists chose to focus on scenes from everyday life, such as landscapes or portraits of family and friends. The movement was not initially well-received: the term “Impressionism” originates from a derogatory review of Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise. However, ultimately the movement gained the respect of the art world and it had a significant impact on the development of modern art.
Artists to know:
  • Claude Monet
  • Pierre-Auguste Renoir
  • Édouard Manet

Modern art (late-19th–mid-20th century)

Modern art refers to work produced between the 1860s and the 1970s, covering a whole range of art movements typically marked by a spirit of experimentation. It follows on closely from Impressionism, with Post-Impressionist artists like Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne reacting against the Impressionist favour for a naturalistic depiction of light and colour by veering towards more abstract qualities.
Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Other key movements in the modern art era include Fauvism, which emphasised bold colours and simple forms, Cubism, which features objects and figures broken down into geometric shapes, and Surrealism, which often depicted dreamlike imagery. 
Artists to know:
  • Henri Matisse
  • Pablo Picasso
  • Salvador Dalí
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