Studies of the properties of color come in all shapes, but square forms stand out in western art as one of the preferred choices to explore the vibrations and the advancing or receding spaces generated by color contrasts.
A nation’s character is both shaped and revealed by its relation to nature. Nowhere is this clearer than in the contrasting perceptions and representations of nature in British and American landscape painting. Take a look at these works by one of Britain’s most famous and popular landscape painters, John Constable:
Fauvism and then the rise of abstract art in the early 20th century had one particularly significant consequence. They freed color itself.
Of course color had already been used to spectacular effect before the 1900s, but never by itself, and never for its own sake.
Abstraction freed color from being used only to represent objects. It allowed color to be itself completely, and this greatly increased the visual power of western art.
Surrealist artists of the 1920s-1950s period mainly focused on the relationship between the unconscious and reality, in order to go deeper into the mysteries of the mind. Their work might seem quite serious and a little disturbing, and surrealist paintings can be just that, but it was not devoid of humor. The ironic kind, of course, especially in Magritte’s case.
Here is a portrait in neoclassical style by Jacques-Louis David, a figure of great authority in late-18th-early-19th-century French painting:
Part moral lesson, part dramatic scene, the painting of cheaters became one of the favorite themes of European genre painting in the 16th-17th-century period, causing a fascination with tricksters that still drives plots in movies and TV series today.
Genre painting focuses on scenes from everyday life, with people from different classes at work or at play, and when the scenes are about playing, they often involve shady characters cheating others out of their riches. Among them, cardsharps and fortune tellers are perhaps the most often represented, starting with Caravaggio’s work:
An icon is a religious image painted for the Christian Churches of eastern Europe, which became the Orthodox Churches in the 11th century.
A major characteristic of Orthodox religious art is that even today all representations of religious figures have to be done in egg tempera, which is a method of painting that uses egg yolk to mix and bind color pigments. Tempera has been used since ancient Egypt, but in the East Christian tradition it has been embellished with gold leaf for over a thousand years, which produces a unique style of religious imagery:
Even though it had long been suggested that ancient architecture and sculpture featured colors, it is only in the past twenty years or so that the true extent of their use was thoroughly researched and revealed. Our view of ancient buildings and statues, however, remains strikingly colorless.
A key researcher is German archeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann, who has spent over twenty years scientifically analyzing color traces on ancient Greek marble and has since 2003 been revealing the result of his work in a traveling exhibit called “Gods in Color”:
The art of trompe-l’oeil, which literally means “tricks the eye,” is almost as old as western visual arts themselves. It is concerned with achieving a high degree of realism in order to trick the eye into seeing what is not quite there and the mind into thinking it’s real.
The tricks can be for decorative purposes and for effect, as in architectural trompe-l’oeil, which is about suggesting space and depth where there is none. The dome in this church, for instance, is an illusion painted on a curved ceiling:
If you cut through all the lists and definitions, through the individual stories of the Impressionist painters, you will find that they revolutionized European painting by actually focusing on one thing: transience.
What only lasts an instant and then is gone. The moment. That’s the focus of the Impressionists.
Great art gives new perspectives, both literally and figuratively.
Jasper Johns’s maps are typical examples of works that take a familiar form and give it an unusual treatment, in order to make us look more closely at what we hardly pay attention to anymore because we have seen it so many times:
Representing the world in a realistic way has been a human obsession since cavemen put hand to rock and produced the first pieces of cave art over 30,000 years ago. As we move into the age of ultra-high-definition television screens and the potential for life-like 3D without glasses, let’s take a look at one of the major steps forward taken by artists on the road to a perfect imitation of the world.
In the early 15th century, Renaissance art revolutionized our representation of the world by embracing three key innovations.
The first is a way of giving the illusion of three-dimensional space with realistic depth. The technique, now known as linear perspective, may have been familiar to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, but there is no evidence of its use in their art. Before the 1300s, space in western art is essentially flat, or unrealistic:
Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927) refers to over one hundred artists by name, including some of the most important painters from the early Renaissance to the early 20th century.
Among all of their works, Proust had a clear favorite. Here is what he wrote a year and a half before his death, in a letter from the beginning of May, 1921:
“Ever since I saw the View of Delft in the museum in The Hague, I have known that I had seen the most beautiful painting in the world” (source: Proust in Context (2013), edited by Adam Watt, p.84). Here is the painting:
Pixels and the dots used in color printing may sound like a recent development, but they are the direct applications of optical theories first applied by visual artists in the 1880s.
Chief among them is Georges Seurat, the French painter who first used tiny individual dots of pure color side by side, which combine to create a complete image when seen from a distance. He called his technique Chromoluminarism, but critics created the term Pointillism to refer to his style, from “point,” the French word for “dot,” and the term stuck.
In the West, yellow is not quite as positive as in Asia, where it is a color for emperors and kings. However, it still is most often associated with the sun and has been used to great effect throughout the history of western art.
One of my favorite uses of yellow in European painting is by Fragonard, the 18th-century French artist, who seemed to have a particular affinity for a warm, sunny yellow tone when painting clothes.
The most famous of Fragonard’s paintings featuring the striking yellow is Young Girl Reading (c.1776), which can be seen in the National Gallery of Arts in Washington, D.C. :
Even though Cézanne’s painting project was very different from Picasso’s, Cubist painters including Braque, Metzinger and Picasso himself all said that Cézanne’s work profoundly influenced them.
The oldest known reference to the Christmas Festival is in the Calendar of the Year 354, in which the celebration date of Christ’s birth is December 25 for the first time, which is also the time when Christ’s birth became an important subject in Western art.
For thousands of years, painting mainly represented what could be seen in the world or imagined from it, while music was about melody and tone. Painting and music broke away from those traditions around the same time and it was music that showed the way, which resulted in one of the most significant innovations in art history, the birth of abstract art.
Picasso’s less familiar works include the sets and costumes he designed for modern ballets, which gave him the opportunity to create his largest painting, as well as mobile works of modern art.
Although photography quickly became popular after its invention, it was mainly considered to be a craft and not an art form at all. For nearly one hundred years it had no place in art shows or art galleries, and photographers were only seen as technicians, not artists. This changed, however, with the work of innovators such as Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams, who transformed the perception of photography and elevated it into fine art.
Nike is now mostly known as a famous sports brand, but in ancient times the Goddess Nike was the “goddess of victory,” both in war and sports. The Greeks called her Nike, and the Romans called her Victoria.
The Louvre in Paris has her most famous representation, which returned to public view this summer after almost one year of cleaning:
The human hand has been at the center of visual art history not just as the main tool of creation, but also as an important focus of representation, revealing the development of artistic skills and cultural trends in key periods.
Actually, painted hands may be the oldest form of art in human history.
The most fascinating cave art in this regard is found in Argentina, in the Cueva de las Manos, which literally means “Cave of Hands.” According to the UNESCO World Heritage Center, the earliest wall paintings in those caves were created about 13,000 years ago and the last ones about 9,500 years ago.
Before 1911, the Mona Lisa was already considered a Renaissance masterpiece, but it did not have the cult status it has today. It was the not even the most famous painting in the Louvre.
One of the greatest contributions of Romantic painting was to bring emotion to landscapes, and Caspar David Friedrich did that better than any other German painter of the 19th century.
When Portuguese sailors first set foot in the land we now call Brazil, they found something they had seen before on another continent. Something precious and useful for European art and fashion. Only this time, there was a lot more than they had ever seen, and the quality was much higher.
With the paint tube revolution came new bright colors and the freedom to paint anywhere. This allowed 19th-century artists to paint a kind of light that had never been captured in all its glory before: the bold sunlight of the Mediterranean coast in France and Italy.
How important was the invention of the paint tube? Perhaps Pierre-Auguste Renoir said it best when he told his son that “without colors in tubes, there would have been no Cézanne, no Monet, no Sisley or Pissarro, nothing of what the journalists were to call Impressionism” (quoted in Jean Renoir, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, My Father, 1962).
The man who invented the paint tube is the American artist John Goffe Rand, who patented it in 1841.
When you put together American landscapes, Romanticism and a spiritual view of nature, you get a uniquely American kind of sublime in 19th-century painting. Not the thrilling sublime of storms and volcanoes, but a serene, contemplative sublime that connects nature with the divine.
The basics of light reflection and light-sensitive chemicals were already known in Antiquity, but it was only in the early 1800s that they were successfully combined to invent photography.
The key processes were developed in France and Britain in the 1820s and 30s, with Nicéphore Niécpe producing the first permanent photograph in 1827, a view of roofs and walls:
Every country with a port has at least one master of sea painting, but Russia can claim perhaps the very best.
Edward Hopper captured a wider variety of American lights than any other painter of his generation, from the morning sun on Cape Cod houses to the neons of New York diners at night.
When painters traveled to the Mediterranean coast in the late 19th and early 20th century, they all encountered the magic light of southern Europe, as well as one of the most important trees of the region, the olive tree. They all painted their version of that tree, each revealing a unique style.
Music has the power to create moods like no other art form, and painting has been influenced by that power throughout its history. The 19th century produced one of the best-known examples of this influence in Whistler’s series of “nocturne” paintings.
Not all ancient gods and goddesses disappeared with the spread of Christianity in the West. In fact, there is one that continued to be represented throughout the Middle Ages and beyond the Renaissance, one we still refer to today. That goddess is Fortune.
Her Ancient Greek name was Tyche, and her Roman name Fortuna, which is the source of the word “fortune” in many European languages, including English. She was also known as Lady Fortune and is still referred to as Lady Luck, especially by gamblers.
Not all paintings are rectangular or square. The circle has since Antiquity been a symbol of perfection, and its association with divinity made it a popular shape for paintings in the Renaissance, with round masterpieces produced throughout the period.
You would probably not expect to find art at the bottom of wine cups, but that’s where you can see some of the earliest round paintings in the West, which were a major type of painted decorations in Ancient Greece around the 6th and 5th centuries BC.
Lasers are always awesome, but when they explore major developments in Western art history, they can be truly spectacular. A case in point is the work of Matthew Schreiber, whose creations engage with light, geometry, technology and their place in the arts.
The 1920s were the age of slim and sporty chic, of little dresses and cloche hats, the age when automobiles started to take over cities and ocean liners reached new heights of glory. It was an age of modern glamour that is perfectly captured in the works of the two best-known Art Deco visual artists of the interwar period — Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka and French poster artist A.M. Cassandre.
Why is one of the best-known artistic districts in Paris history named after a mountain in Greece? The Montparnasse area is indeed famous for being a major center of cultural life in the late 19th and early 20th century period, but its relation with Mount Parnassus in Greece is actually much older.
Groups of three female figures are quite common in Western art, but they can represent very different ideas. In fact, the two most common groups, which are the Fates and the Three Graces, are both associated with life, but the Fates represent destiny and death, while the Graces represent life at its fullest.
As a visit to any art or souvenir shop in Paris proves, late 19th-century advertising posters have a special place in French art history. The printing techniques were developed in Germany then perfected in England, but the first masters of the color-poster form are strongly associated with France and its cabarets. The father of them all is Jules Chéret, who pioneered brightly colored designs for the most famous Parisian nightclubs and entertainers of his time:
From the first reported painting competition in the 5th century BC to the latest innovations in digital imagery, one of the major features of Western cultural history is a fascination with the perfect imitation of reality and all its lights, colors, textures and volumes.
This is the painting that is considered to be the source of the word “Impressionist:”
Before photography and the Internet, knowledge of art collections spread through art itself, as collectors and artists collaborated to show their worth, especially in painting. This resulted in a genre of paintings about galleries of paintings, which was popular in the 17th and 18 centuries.
This is the story of a common hat from Ancient Turkey that became a major symbol of freedom in Western cultures, a hat that can be seen in the United States Capitol, in representations of the French Republic, and more generally in flags, paintings and sculptures from Ancient Greece to the modern age. Here it is at the top of the Official Seal of the United States Senate, still used today to authenticate documents:
Creativity strives on the careful balance of control and letting go, which few artworks embody more gracefully than Alexander Calder’s mobiles, the suspended, freely-moving structures he invented in the early 1930s.
While Monet was breaking new ground with his water lilies and Van Gogh creating his sunflowers series, Henri Fantin-Latour painted roses. He also produced much-admired individual and group portraits as well as other still-lifes, but he remains associated with roses more than any other 19th century painter.
Stripes have had complex and sometimes contradictory meanings throughout Western history — think the American flag vs. prison uniforms — but in modern visual arts, stripes are less complicated. They’re all about rhythm, division and unity, as evidenced by their use on canvas, installations, and even warships.
Blue used to be a minor color with negative connotations in much of Western Europe, but now it’s the favorite color of over 50% of Europeans, and the color they wear more than any other. How did that happen?
The most reproduced American painting of all time is known to all who have ever held a dollar, but it is perhaps less known as an unfinished work. Here it is:
Opened 150 years ago, the London Underground is not only the oldest metro system in the world, but also the source of a graphic design revolution that has influenced the way information is communicated on transportation maps worldwide.
Before 1933, the London Underground authorities experimented with different kinds of maps, which were often difficult to read because they were designed like regular maps, showing the correct distances between stations and their actual locations over a city map, as in this 1926 example:
By taking over entire spaces, installation art has the power to put you right in the middle of a work of art. When you combine that power with an exploration of the wonders of color, you get the spectacular experience of walking through color itself.