European Art stretches back to the earliest paintings discovered on the walls of French caves. Dated to around 13,000-11,000 BC, these images of horses, mammoths, and bison paved the way for centuries of artistic creation.
We have been celebrating the art of painting as one of the finest examples of human intelligence and creativity ever since.
This introduction presents the significant styles of art in Europe and some of the most famous European paintings.
Scholars split art in Europe into many stylistic periods. Often, these styles of paintings overlap.
Some took place in specific countries (such as French Impressionism or Pre-Raphaelite paintings in Britain). In contrast, others (for instance, Classical and Neoclassical art) crossed national borders.
In brief, the primary forms of European art were:
● Classical Arts: art from ancient Greek and Rome. With stunning frescos, decorative vases, and sculptures, these artworks centered around notions of proportion, harmony, and elegance. Classical art deeply inspired later artistic styles, including Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical trends.
● Byzantine art: encompassing artworks from the Eastern Roman Empire. This style included Christian Orthodox countries in Eastern Europe as well as the Islamic states of the eastern Mediterranean. Shimmering gold icons and detailed mosaics were widespread.
● Medieval Gothic art: A style of Medieval art originally stemming from Northern France in the twelfth century. This sophisticated artistic style soon spread throughout Europe, including painting and church architecture, illuminated manuscripts, and sculpture.
● Renaissance art: representing the flourishing of art and culture that began in fourteenth-century Italy and dominated artistic creation until the early seventeenth century. Renaissance oil paintings by most famous artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Raphael, worked during this period.
● Mannerism: a style of painting responding to Renaissance developments. Mannerist artists moved away from strictly classical influences and focused on more expressive artworks. They championed asymmetry and figures with beautifully long (often distorted) proportions.
● Baroque: Art of the Baroque period is exuberant and colorful and was a flourishing 17th century art movement in Europe. The Catholic Church encouraged these developments to counter the simplicity of the Protestant Reformation.
● Rococo: otherwise known as the "Late Baroque", this style was incredibly ornate and theatrical. Exemplified by artists such as Jean-Honore Fragonard and Jean-Antoine Watteau, lavish outfits and scrolling curves were common.
● Neoclassical: a style harking back to Greece and Rome (particularly popular in France), championed by artists such as Jacques-Louis David, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, and William-Adolphe Bouguereau.
● Modern Art: incorporating avant-garde developments such as Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Surrealism, Fauvism, and Expressionism. An incredibly diverse category, these art movements, and artists questioned preconceived ideas of artistic beauty and creation.
● Postmodern art: includes various contemporary artistic developments that experimented with new media and art forms. This style incorporates a wide variety of creativity, for instance, installation artworks, conceptual sculptures, and performance art.
With such a wide array of artistic movements and styles, defining a single type of art in Europe is nearly impossible. Nonetheless, early European painting (such as Classical, Gothic, and Renaissance art) focused on realistic depictions of nature.
While this allowed a certain amount of stylistic freedom (for instance, long, flowing forms in Gothic art), painters carefully observed nature and depicted what they saw.
This focus continued for centuries (particularly with European landscape oil painting), producing some of the most stunning depictions of the natural world. British painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as Constable, Turner, and Gainsborough, exemplified the continuation of a realistic approach.
This overarching "realist" approach changed with Modern Art movements such as Surrealism and Expressionism. While these styles were still figurative (i.e., taking inspiration from the natural world), they focused primarily on artists' emotions and feelings.
These avant-garde movements led the way for conceptual and abstract art developments, championed by painters such as Malevich and Mondrian.
Botticelli's The Birth of Venus is one of the most celebrated artworks of the early Italian Renaissance. Depicting the moment the Goddess Venus arrives at the seashore, it borrows from earlier gothic styles and classical themes. Today, art lovers can find Botticelli's The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.
The Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the most famous European paintings. It's also one of the most enigmatic and mysterious portraits, spawning various artistic debates.
If there's one overriding mystery of the Mona Lisa, it's her enigmatic smile. Indeed, scholars even disagree whether she's smiling at all. The portrait also survived multiple attacks over the years, with red paint, rocks, and teacups all thrown at the masterpiece.
Rembrandt's The Night Watch is a true masterpiece of the Dutch Golden Age of art. The painting shows "Captain Banninck Cocq" (who commissioned the artwork in 1639) and his militia.
Overall, Rembrandt's group portrait shows thirty-four individuals. It's a bravura display of artistic skill, measuring over 3.6 by 4.3 meters.
If there's one iconic example of art in Europe, it must be Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. As well as one of the most recognizable European landscape paintings, it's a tragic yet beautiful insight into Van Gogh's troubled mental state.
Van Gogh painted the artwork during his stay at an asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence after his 1888 breakdown. Sadly, he died shortly afterward (on 29 July 1890) from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The Kiss represents the pinnacle of Gustav Klimt's "Gold Phase". It's also a defining artwork of the Austrian Symbolist movement. This artistic style sought to represent absolute truths through metaphors and symbolic images.
As a result, the painting by Klimt The Kiss is the highest expression of love between two humans. In the painting, two figures recline against a shimmering gold backdrop, locked in an eternal embrace.
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