Art History 101: A Brisk Walk Through the Art Eras

Art History Made Simple

A Greek vase from 540 BCE

Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Put on your sensible shoes as we embark on an extremely abbreviated tour of art through the ages. The purpose of this piece is to hit the highlights and provide you with the barest of basics on the different eras in art history.

Prehistoric Eras

30,000–10,000 BCE: Paleolithic Period

Paleolithic peoples were strictly hunter-gatherers, and life was tough. Humans made a gigantic leap in abstract thinking and began creating art during this time. Subject matter concentrated on two things: food and the necessity to create more humans.

10,000–8000 BCE: Mesolithic Period

The ice began retreating and life got a little easier. The Mesolithic period (which lasted longer in northern Europe than it did in the Middle East) saw painting move out of the caves and onto rocks. Painting also became more symbolic and abstract.

8000–3000 BCE: Neolithic Period

Fast forward to the Neolithic age, complete with agriculture and domesticated animals. Now that food was more plentiful, people had time to invent useful tools like writing and measuring. The measuring part must have come in handy for the megalith builders.

Ethnographic Art

It should be noted that "Stone Age" art continued to flourish around the world for a number of cultures, right up to the present. "Ethnographic" is a handy term that here means: "Not going the way of Western art."

Ancient Civilizations

3500–331 BCE: Mesopotamia

The "land between the rivers" saw an amazing number of cultures rise to—and fall from—power. The Sumerians gave us ziggurats, temples, and lots of sculptures of gods. More importantly, they unified natural and formal elements in art. The Akkadians introduced the victory stele, whose carvings forever remind us of their prowess in battle. The Babylonians improved upon the stele, using it to record the first uniform code of law. The Assyrians ran wild with architecture and sculpture, both in relief and in the round. Eventually, it was the Persians who put the whole area—and its art—on the map, as they conquered adjacent lands.

3200–1340 BCE: Egypt

Art in ancient Egypt was art for the dead. The Egyptians built tombs, pyramids (elaborate tombs), and the Sphinx (also a tomb) and decorated them with colorful pictures of the gods they believed ruled in the afterlife.

3000–1100 BCE: Aegean Art

The Minoan culture, on Crete, and the Mycenaeans in Greece brought us frescos, open and airy architecture, and marble idols.

Classical Civilizations

800–323 BCE: Greece

The Greeks introduced humanistic education, which is reflected in their art. Ceramics, painting, architecture, and sculpture evolved into elaborate, highly crafted and decorated objects which glorified the greatest creation of all: humans.

Sixth–Fifth centuries BCE: The Etruscan Civilization

On the Italian peninsula, the Etruscans embraced the Bronze Age in a big way, producing sculptures notable for being stylized, ornamental, and full of implied motion. They were also enthusiastic producers of tombs and sarcophagi, not unlike the Egyptians.

509 BCE–337 CE: Rome

As they rose to prominence, the Romans first attempted to wipe out Etruscan art, followed by numerous attacks on Greek art. Borrowing freely from these two conquered cultures, the Romans created their own style, one which increasingly stood for power. Architecture became monumental, sculptures depicted renamed gods, goddesses, and prominent citizens and, in painting, the landscape was introduced and frescos became enormous.

First Century–c. 526: Early Christian Art

Early Christian art falls into two categories: that of the Period of Persecution (up to the year 323) and that which came after Constantine the Great recognized Christianity: the Period of Recognition. The first is known primarily for the construction of catacombs and portable art that could be hidden. The second period is marked by the active construction of churches, mosaics, and the rise of bookmaking. Sculpture was demoted to works in relief only—anything else would have been deemed "graven images."

c. 526–1390: Byzantine Art

Not an abrupt transition, as the dates imply, the Byzantine style gradually diverged from Early Christian art, just as the Eastern Church grew further apart from the Western. Byzantine art is characterized by being more abstract and symbolic and less concerned with any pretense of depth—or the force of gravity—being apparent in paintings or mosaics. Architecture became quite complicated and domes predominated.

622–1492: Islamic Art

To this day, Islamic art is known for being highly decorative. Its motifs translate beautifully from a chalice to a rug to the Alhambra. Islam has prohibitions against idolatry, so we have little pictorial history as a result.

375–750: Migration Art

These years were quite chaotic in Europe, as barbarian tribes sought (and sought, and sought) places in which to settle. Frequent wars erupted and constant ethnic relocation was the norm. Art during this period was necessarily small and portable, usually in the form of decorative pins or bracelets. The shining exception to this "dark" age in art occurred in Ireland, which had the great fortune of escaping invasion. For a time.

750–900: The Carolingian Period

Charlemagne built an empire that didn't outlast his bickering and inept grandsons, but the cultural revival the empire spawned proved more durable. Monasteries became small cities where manuscripts were mass-produced. Goldsmithing and the use of precious and semi-precious stones were in vogue.

900–1002: The Ottonian Period

The Saxon King Otto I decided he could succeed where Charlemagne failed. This didn't work out either, but Ottonian art, with its heavy Byzantine influences, breathed new life into sculpture, architecture, and metalwork.

1000–1150: Romanesque Art

For the first time in history, art is described by a term other than the name of a culture or civilization. Europe was becoming more of a cohesive entity, being held together by Christianity and feudalism. The invention of the barrel vault allowed churches to become cathedrals and sculpture became an integral part of the architecture. Meanwhile, painting continued mainly in illuminated manuscripts.

1140–1600: Gothic Art

"Gothic" was first coined to (derogatorily) describe this era's style of architecture, which chugged on long after sculpture and painting had left its company. The gothic arch allowed great, soaring cathedrals to be built, which were then decorated with the new technology of stained glass. During this period, too, we begin to learn more individual names of painters and sculptors—most of whom seem anxious to put all things Gothic behind them. In fact, beginning around 1200, all sorts of wild artistic innovations started taking place in Italy.

1400–1500: 15th-Century Italian Art

This was the Golden Age of Florence. Its most powerful family, the Medici (bankers and benevolent dictators), lavishly spent endless funds for the glory and beautification of their Republic. Artists flocked in for a share of the largesse and built, sculpted, painted, and ultimately began actively questioning "rules" of art. Art, in turn, became noticeably more individualized.

1495–1527: The High Renaissance

All of the recognized masterpieces from the lump term "Renaissance" were created during these years. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and company made such surpassing masterpieces, in fact, that nearly every artist, forever after, didn't even try to paint in this style. The good news was that, because of these Renaissance Greats, being an artist was now considered acceptable.

1520–1600: Mannerism

Here we have another first: an abstract term for an artistic era. Renaissance artists, after the death of Raphael, continued to refine painting and sculpture, but they did not seek a new style of their own. Instead, they created in the technical manner of their predecessors.

1325–1600: The Renaissance in Northern Europe

A renaissance did occur elsewhere in Europe, but not in clearly defined steps as in Italy. Countries and kingdoms were busy jockeying for prominence (fighting), and there was that notable break with the Catholic Church. Art took a back seat to these other happenings, and styles moved from Gothic to Renaissance to Baroque in sort of a non-cohesive, artist-by-artist basis.

1600–1750: Baroque Art

Humanism, the Renaissance, and the Reformation (among other factors) worked together to leave the Middle Ages forever behind, and art became accepted by the masses. Artists of the Baroque period introduced human emotions, passion, and new scientific understanding to their works—many of which retained religious themes, regardless of which Church the artists held dear.

1700–1750: Rococo

In what some would deem an ill-advised move, Rococo took Baroque art from "feast for the eyes" to outright visual gluttony. If art or architecture could be gilded, embellished or otherwise taken over the "top", Rococo ferociously added these elements. As a period, it was (mercifully) brief.

1750–1880: Neo-Classicism versus Romanticism

Things had loosened up enough, by this era, that two different styles could compete for the same market. Neo-classicism was characterized by faithful study (and copy) of the classics, combined with the use of elements brought to light by the new science of archaeology. Romanticism, on the other hand, defied easy characterization. It was more of an attitude—one made acceptable by the Enlightenment and dawning of social consciousness. Of the two, Romanticism had far more impact on the course of art from this time forward.

1830s–1870: Realism

Oblivious to the two movements above, the Realists emerged (first quietly, then quite loudly) with the conviction that history had no meaning and artists shouldn't render anything that they hadn't personally experienced. In an effort to experience "things" they became involved in social causes and, not surprisingly, often found themselves on the wrong side of authority. Realistic art increasingly detached itself from form and embraced light and color.

1860s–1880: Impressionism

Where Realism moved away from form, Impressionism threw form out the window. The Impressionists lived up to their name (which they themselves certainly hadn't coined): Art was an impression, and as such could be rendered wholly through light and color. The world was first outraged by their effrontery, then accepting. With acceptance came the end of Impressionism as a movement. Mission accomplished; art was now free to spread out in any way it chose.

The Impressionists changed everything when their art was accepted. From this point on, artists had free rein to experiment. Even if the public loathed the results, it was still art and thus accorded a certain respect. Movements, schools, and styles—in dizzying number—came, went, diverged from one another, and sometimes melded.

There's no way, really, to accord all of these entities even a brief mention here, so we will now cover only a few of the better-known names.

1885–1920: Post-Impressionism

This is a handy title for what wasn't a movement but a group of artists (primarily Cézanne, Van Gogh, Seurat, and Gauguin) who moved past Impressionism and on to other, separate endeavors. They kept the light and color Impressionism brought but tried to put some of the other elements of art—form and line, for example—back in art.

1890–1939: The Fauves and Expressionism

The Fauves ("wild beasts") were French painters led by Matisse and Rouault. The movement they created, with its wild colors and depictions of primitive objects and people, became known as Expressionism and spread, notably, to Germany.

1905–1939: Cubism and Futurism

In France, Picasso and Braque invented Cubism, where organic forms were broken down into a series of geometric shapes. Their invention would prove elemental to the Bauhaus in coming years, as well as inspiring the first modern abstract sculpture.

Meanwhile, in Italy, Futurism was formed. What began as a literary movement moved into a style of art that embraced machines and the industrial age.

1922–1939: Surrealism

Surrealism was all about uncovering the hidden meaning of dreams and expressing the subconscious. It was no coincidence that Freud had already published his groundbreaking psychoanalytical studies prior to this movement's emergence.

1945–Present: Abstract Expressionism

World War II (1939–1945) interrupted any new movements in art, but art came back with a vengeance in 1945. Emerging from a world torn apart, Abstract Expressionism discarded everything—including recognizable forms—except self-expression and raw emotion.

Late 1950s–Present: Pop and Op Art

In reaction against Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art glorified the most mundane aspects of American culture and called them art. It was fun art, though. And in the "happening" mid-60s, Op (an abbreviated term for optical illusion) Art came on the scene, just in time to mesh nicely with the psychedelic music.

1970s–Present

In recent years, art has changed at lightning speed. We've seen the advent of performance art, conceptual art, digital art, and shock art, to name but a few new offerings.

Ideas in art will never stop changing and moving forward. Yet, as we move toward a more global culture, our art will always remind us of our collective and respective pasts.