Painting, like any art, is something created from the artist’s inspiration. But what inspires each artist is different, as is the way that inspiration comes to life on canvas. Throughout history, artistic styles have grown and evolved, just like the cultures and societies that have produced each new generation of artists.
This article explores some of the most widely known painting styles across the ages, with a focus on the style’s origins, characteristics, and famous examples. We will go in chronological order to capture the history of artistic style, beginning with the prehistoric.
Prehistoric Cave Painting
Since the beginning of humankind — and before, in the time of Neanderthals — our ancestors used ochre (clay), plants, and assorted dyes to paint on the walls of caves. These rough figures most often depicted animals and humans, typically hunting. It is possible that early humans recorded these horses, lions, buffalo, and other animals to begin preserving history or to relay messages to others. Some historians believe that the hunters painted their prey to capture their spirits for better success on the hunt.
Whether for artistic expression, ceremonial ritual, or some other purpose, these early visuals were the first, raw style of painting, and their influence can be traced to the roots of Western and Eastern artistic styles. Look no further than ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to see the blend of pictorial art as a written message.
Ancient & Medieval Art
Making a great leap from prehistoric ancestors, the Medieval period captures a broad expanse of artistic styles over more than a thousand years. Art scholars may dig deeper into specific phases of this period, such as Early Christian Art, Byzantine Art, Gothic, or even Romanesque, depending on the precise time and geography being discussed. Across them, all, however, was a proliferation of artistic styles and a shift in the subject matter.
This shift makes sense. As art evolved out of cave paintings and into more functional uses, it became an expressive way to capture feelings and beliefs while transmitting powerful messages. Cave paintings grew to stone carvings and eventually sculptures and architecture; simple jewelry grew into patterned mosaics and stained glass. As human civilizations grew, the mediums for expression grew as well.
More importantly, the subject matter and inspiration exploded. Cave paintings relied on animals, the hunt, and primal rituals for inspiration. They were the simplest art imaginable. Ancient civilizations developed complex societies, giving artists an avenue to explore social relationships, religious icons, and history to document. Beyond seasonal events like hunts, civilizations traded goods and services, fought wars, and began to tell larger stories.
Ancient Egypt best illustrates this growth in both artistic styles and mediums (top, vase), while Byzantine art (bellow) is exemplary of the blending of religious iconography with a slightly more realistic style.
Art of the Renaissance period began to emphasize the beauty of humanity and the human form. This realism — also called Naturalism — was a celebration of the natural world and marked by a reverence for beauty and wonder. Names like Leonardo DaVinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Botticelli are just a few of the artists who pioneered a ‘rebirth’ of art after 1400.
Renaissance art emphasized individuals and their unique characteristics outside of a group. DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, with her cryptic, knowing smile, is a prime example of the close emphasis on an individual. It also showcases the use of depth and texture to give perspective in ways that earlier styles did not.
Beyond individualism and depth of perspective, the art of this period can be identified by the emphasis on nature and the natural world, a celebration of anatomy and the beauty of the human form (notice much more nudity), and a resurgence of classical influences (Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, in particular). Look no further than Botticelli’s famous The Birth of Venus to see all of these characteristics come together.
Even for subjects mythological and fantastical, the Renaissance’s treatment of Naturalism as a style dominated Europe and Western art for hundreds of years, until the rise of Romanticism.
In the Renaissance, gifted virtuosos like Leonardo DaVinci were idolized and celebrated for diverse talents in nearly every form of art. With Romanticism, however, there arose an emphasis on each individual’s capacity to experience the world in an artistic way. In Literature, William Wordsworth described poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” in essence describing the role of the artist to shape the art in some way.
This departure marks a shift from the Naturalism that came before. And why shouldn’t it? Revolutions in America (1776) and France (1789) marked cultural overthrows of class systems and hierarchies, emphasizing the democratic power of the masses. It makes sense that artists of this time, though retaining the emphasis on nature and the individual, turned their focus to that individual’s power as an original creator. Everybody was, in some way, living with the capacity to be a pioneer.
In short, many themes from the Renaissance survived into the Romantic period, but the idea of artistic genius through imagination and inspiration replaced the virtuoso’s command of the natural world. For example, William Blake’s poetry — The Little Girl Found — was illustrated with natural yet somehow fantastical depictions of lions, trees, and humans (top). His work reflects the emphasis on a surge of powerful emotion followed by a period of tranquility to process those emotions and actually craft the art. In painting, the style is embodied by Caspar Friedrich in Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (bellow), again showing the individual’s quest in a fantastical landscape.
The Romantic era and its cultural revolutions were followed by rapid industrial revolution across the Western world. Even among certain artists who experienced that transition, like William Blake, you can see a shift occur in the art, a clashing between innocence and the often horrifying realities of the developing world. Remember, industrialization brought new advances in science and technology, but also pollution, crowded cities, and shocking living conditions for much of the population.
Realists of this time period (not to be confused with the Naturalists) rejected Romantic notions of the individual’s vast, emotional capacity to be God and artist alike. The emphasis shifted to the real depiction of ordinary, contemporary people — without glamorizing or shying away from the hardships. Gustave Courbet, a French painter credited with leading and popularizing the movement, painted subjects like The Stone Breakers (top). The aim of the colors, tone, and strokes of the work is to capture the reality, however gloomy or gritty it was.
Gone is the exotic “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” from Friedrich; instead replaced by works like James Abbott McNeil Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge. It is a tonally dark depiction of London. The individual is hunched and small, compared again to the Wanderer, and the painting is dominated by the structure of the world around him.
As the period goes on, there is some subjectivity as to what “Realism” truly means. This makes sense, as we’ve seen from cave paintings up to Romantic art that what is “real” for any group has changed with the social and cultural realities.
As Whistler’s painting of London above reveals, the edges of Realism began to bleed into newer styles by the end of the 19th century. On one hand, technological advances during the industrial revolution (specifically the metal paint tube) allowed artists to leave the studio behind and find more true models and settings in the real world.
Painting itself became celebrated, showing an appreciation for brushstrokes, mixing colors, and lack of intricate, rigid detail. Camille Pissarro’s iconic brushstrokes characterize this period, as do those of Henri Matisse, whose Table in a Cafe (above) only vaguely acknowledges a table at all, just a simple teacup amidst smoky brushstrokes. Painterly, then, was just as much about the celebration of painting as it was about any particular subject matter. It is a style for the sake of style, an inverse of trends like photorealism discussed later in the article.
With the celebration of Painterly, works of art also became less about depicting an explicit, objective reality, and more about the perception or feeling layered into the scene. In short, an impression.
Impressionism sacrificed accurate depiction for artistic interpretation, using light and movement to imbue the work of art with emotion, such as the feeling in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Dance at Le Moulin de la’Galette (above). In this era, new techniques began to emerge with more pronounced brushstrokes, blending of wet paints to intermingle colors, and emboldened contrasts of light backgrounds with dark shadows. In particular, the era gave rise to a technique called impasto, in which paint is applied in thick layers with visible strokes of the brush or knife, creating a textured effect coming off of the canvas.
Of course, impressionist painters were not the first to paint with texture. DaVinci’s Mona Lisa is a triumph of the Renaissance in no small part because of the texture and subtleties imbued in the oils. But when compared to the work of an Impressionist like Claude Monet, whose Tulip Fields in Holland can be seen below, the difference between a reality and an impression couldn’t be clearer.
Expressionism & Fauvism
The impressionists rebelled against the clarity of Realism, but Post-Impressionists threw all the rules out the window in the late 19th century. Artists rejected the natural colors and lights of impressionist works and embraced abstract qualities by reducing forms to their basic shapes; symbolism in their content, and saturation of colors for striking effect. One look at the self-portraits of both Vincent van Gogh (above) and Paul Gauguin (bellow) reflect the diversity and new ‘edginess’ of the post-impressionist movement.
Post-Impressionism spurred additional sub-movements in Symbolism, and Fauvism, a style characterized by vivid, expressive shapes and radically non-natural colors. Compare Andre Derain’s 1906 Charing Cross Bridge, London (bellow) to Whistler’s London. The sky is pink and highly contrasted by vague green buildings and technicolor waterways. But in the strokes and textures, the connection to post-impressionist work remains stronger.
These interrelated styles from the late 19th and early 20th centuries show the transition into Expressionism. Van Gogh’s post-impressionist Starry Night (bellow) shows the use of color and texture in two-dimensional space, along with abstract but clearly identifiable shapes.
Expressionist paintings, like Edvard Munch’s The Scream (bellow) show the intense use of dissonant colors, lacking harmony. They are darker, more anxious in work, and often probe into the human psyche (thanks largely to the advances in psychology from Sigmund Freud).
While their differences are evident, the post-impressionist period up through expressionism shows the emphasis of emotion and colorful expression, the importance of brushstrokes to create texture and rhythm within the work, and the shift in portraying reality with distorted, exaggerated (usually psychological and symbolic) shapes.
As art shifted into more emotional expression — and as standard rules were stripped away over the ages, Modern art became more formless and tended towards abstraction. More than just painting something through the lens of an impression, abstraction was truly reductionist. Even shapes became fragmented to a mere essence and cobbled together.
This type of avant-garde painting was made famous by artists like Pablo Picasso. His “Girl with a Mandolin” (above) represents a type of abstraction called cubism. A subject could be broken down into an assortment of pieces and reassembled, per se. Picasso and his contemporaries believed this allowed them to paint a single subject from infinite viewpoints, which added unending depths of meaning for a viewer.
Another way for artists to explore abstraction was through the perspective of zoom. Georgia O’Keeffe, for example, would “zoom” in on ordinary objects to reveal wondrous details or patterns. This allowed a part of the whole to be isolated — or abstracted — from the rest of the form that would give it context. O’Keeffe’s Series 1, No. 8 (bellow) focuses in on the heart of the flower in a mesmerizing way.
Abstract Art & Dada
Abstraction continued on its reductionist path throughout the 20th century. Shapes and lines set the mood, with bold use of colors and contrast to convey emotion. From the early 20th century up to the present, it has been much more difficult to classify stylistic movements. For example, the Black Square by Kazimir Malevich (top) marked a departure from representational painting into totally abstract. In his own words, Malevich said the painting is meant to evoke “the experience of pure non-objectivity in the white emptiness of a liberated nothing.”
But when compared to a work like Jackson Pollock’s Mural (bellow), the differences leap out. Pollock’s abstract expressionism was often seen as paint-slinging color contrasts, raw and sometimes unsettling. Very different than Malevich’s hypothetical, abstract representation of the ‘liberated nothing.’
Abstract art pushed even the limits of “art” itself as a concept. After World War I, a movement arose out of Switzerland called Dada, opposing cultural values and consumerism with nonsensical, sometimes whimsical pieces. According to historians, it was meant to be a short-lived, critical movement anyways — a mockery of sorts. It is even sometimes called anti-art. Imagery is fragmented; words and visuals are chaotic to the point of nihilism, and the overall effect is a disorienting cultural satire. Max Ernst’s Murdering Airplane (above) shows stark commentary on war and the entanglement of human + machine, while even the title of Jean Arp’s Rectangles Arranged According to the Laws of Chance (bottom) reveal the nihilistic mockery of the period.
By the end of the 20th century, the short-lived critique that was Dadaism gave way to other schools like Surrealism (characterized by dreamy, symbolic visuals, like Salvador Dali’s famous The Persistence of Memory with its drooping, melted clocks across a barren landscape). This type of dreamy symbolism actively rejected not only principles of realism, but of reality. Fantasy provided a way to both comment on cultural atrocities and escape them simultaneously. The use of juxtaposition by artists of this movement created irrational associations and a fleeting absurdity in the balance.
Pop Art & Photorealism
As artistic styles swing pendulum-like in response to the cultures that produce them, the fanciful, dreamy surrealist movement (and nihilistic Dadaism) from the eras of World Wars gave way to a celebration of consumerism and vibrancy in the latter 20th century. In the works of Andy Warhol, we see a celebration of consumerism in his subject matter, a bold use of colors and screen-printing techniques. This style of Pop Art made the everyday accessible, but still visually stimulating, like his famous Campbell’s Soup print (top). The movement spread, and his colorful screen-prints were replicated by many others, marking the overlap in the consumer world, art, and our daily lives.
Pop Art’s celebration of goods and people still has uses today, but it too has evolved. Where Andy Warhol would use screen-printing to bring a photo to life in exciting ways, contemporary artists have embraced a movement of Photorealism, with the goal of recreating photographs in a different medium, like paint or charcoal. Especially in an age consumed by digital media, the challenges of photorealism lie in the detail, light, colors, and shading to create the illusion that a sketch, painting, or mixed-medium work is actually a photograph. The complexity of the challenge and exquisite detail result in works like the old woman below.
Food for Further Thought
This article is a snapshot of some major movements in artistic style since humans first began to create art. It is by no means comprehensive, but meant to provide a high level overview. It should be a jumping off point for further exploration. Hopefully, it is thought-provoking and inspirational to artists and consumers alike, to bear witness to the struggles of humanity throughout time to find their place in the world, grapple with intense emotions, and find ever-evolving ways to express themselves.