Art History Timeline: From Ancient to Contemporary Art

The History of Art in Five Easy Steps

There is a lot to be found in a timeline of art history. It begins over 30,000 years ago and takes us through a series of movements, styles, and periods that reflect the time during which each piece of art was created.

Art is an important glimpse into history because it is often one of the few things to survive. It can tell us stories, relate moods and beliefs of the era, and allow us to relate to the people who came before us. Let's explore art, from Ancient to Contemporary, and see how it influences the future and delivers the past.

Image © University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; Used with permission.
Great Lyre from the "King's Grave" (detail: front panel) (Mesopotamian, ca. 2650-2550 B.C.). Shell and bitumen. © University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

What we consider ancient art is what was created from around 30,000 B.C.E. to 400 A.D. If you prefer, it can be thought of as fertility statuettes and bone flutes to roughly the fall of Rome.

Many different styles of art were created over this long period. They include those of prehistory (Paleolithic, Neolithic, the Bronze Age, etc) to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the nomadic tribes. It also includes the work found in classical civilizations like the Greeks and Celts as well as that of the early ​Chinese dynasties and the civilizations of the Americas.

The artwork of this time is as varied as the cultures that created it. What ties them together is their purpose.

Quite often, art was created to tell stories in a time when oral tradition prevailed. It was also used to decorate utilitarian objects like bowls, pitchers, and weapons. At times, it was also used to demonstrate the status of its owner, a concept that art has been used for ever since. More »

© Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice; used with permission
Workshop of Giotto di Bondone (Italian, ca. 1266/76-1337). Two Apostles, 1325-37. Tempera on panel. 42.5 x 32 cm (16 3/4 x 12 9/16 in.). © Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice

Some people still refer to the millennium between 400 and 1400 A.D. as the "Dark Ages." The art of this period can be considered relatively "dark" as well. Some depicted rather grotesque or otherwise brutal scenes while others were focused on formalized religion. Yet, the majority are not what we would call cheery.

Medieval European art saw a transition from the Byzantine period to the Early Christian period. Within that, from about 300 to 900, we also saw Migration Period Art as Germanic people migrated across the continent. This "Barbarian" art was portable by necessity and much of it was understandably lost.

As the millennium passed, more and more Christian and Catholic art appeared. The period centered around elaborate churches and artwork to adorn this architecture. It also saw the rise of the "illuminated manuscript" and eventually the Gothic and Romanesque styles of art and architecture. More »

© Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; used with permission
Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632-1675). The Milkmaid, ca. 1658. Oil on canvas. 17 7/8 x 16 1/8 in. (45.5 x 41 cm). SK-A-2344. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

This period covers the years 1400 through 1880 and it includes many of our favorite pieces of art.

 

Much of the notable art created during the Rennaissance was Italian. It began with the famous 15th century artists like Brunelleschi and Donatello, who led to the work of Botticelli and Alberti. When the High Rennaissance took over in the next century, we saw the work of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael.

In Northern Europe, this period saw the schools of Antwerp Mannerism, The Little Masters, and the Fontainebleau School, among many others.

After the long Italian Renaissance, Northern Renaissance, and Baroque periods were over, we began to see new art movements appear with greater frequency. 

By the 1700s, Western Art followed a series of styles. These movements included Rococo and Neo-Classicism, followed by Romanticism, Realism, and Impressionism as well as many lesser-known styles.

In China, the Ming and Qing Dynasties took place during this period and Japan saw the Momoyama and Edo Periods. This was also the time of the Aztec and Inca in the Americas who had their own distinct art. More »

© 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris; used with permission
Fernand Léger (French, 1881-1955). The Mechanic, 1920. Oil on canvas. 45 5/8 x 35 in. (115.9 x 88.9 cm). Purchased 1966. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Modern Art runs from around 1880 to 1970 and they were an extremely busy 90 years. The Impressionists opened the floodgates on new paths to take and individual artists such as Picasso and Duchamp were themselves responsible for creating multiple movements.

The last two decades of the 1800s were filled with movements like Cloisonnism, Japonism, Neo-Impressionism, Symbolism, Expressionism, and Fauvism. There were also a number of schools and groups like The Glasgow Boys and the Heidelberg School, The Band Noire (Nubians) and The Ten American Painters.

Art was no less diverse or confusing in the 1900s. Movements like Art Nouveau and Cubism kicked off the new century with Bauhaus, Dadaism, Purism, Rayism, and Suprematism following close behind. Art Deco, Constructivism, and the Harlem Renaissance took over the 1920s while Abstract Expressionism emerged in the 1940s.

By mid-century, we saw even more revolutionary styles. Funk and Junk Art, Hard-Edge Painting, and Pop Art became the norm in the 50s. The 60s were filled with Minimalism, Op Art, Psychedelic Art, and much, much more. More »

© Ellsworth Kelly; used with permission
Ellsworth Kelly (American, b. 1923). Blue Yellow Red IV, 1972. Oil on three canvas panels. 43 x 42 in. overall (109.2 x 106.7 cm). The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Los Angeles / © Ellsworth Kelly

The 1970s is what most people consider as the beginning of Contemporary Art and it continues to the present day. Most interestingly, either fewer movements are identifying themselves as such or art history simply hasn't caught up yet with those that have.

Still, there is a growing list of -isms in the art world. The 70s saw Post-Modernism and Ugly Realism along with a surge in Feminist Art, Neo-Conceptualism, and Neo-Expressionism. The 80s were filled with Neo-Geo, Multiculturalism, and the Graffiti Movement, as well as BritArt and Neo-Pop.

By the time the 90s hit, art movements became less defined and somewhat unusual, almost as if people had run out of names. Net Art, Artefactoria, Toyism, Lowbrow, Bitterism, and Stuckism are some of the styles of the decade. And though it's still new, the 21st century has its own Thinkism and Funism to enjoy. More »

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Esaak, Shelley. "Art History Timeline: From Ancient to Contemporary Art." ThoughtCo, Jul. 4, 2017, thoughtco.com/art-history-timeline-183476. Esaak, Shelley. (2017, July 4). Art History Timeline: From Ancient to Contemporary Art. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/art-history-timeline-183476 Esaak, Shelley. "Art History Timeline: From Ancient to Contemporary Art." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/art-history-timeline-183476 (accessed November 24, 2017).