The History of Art in Europe

The History of Art in Europe


If you would like to delve into the history of art, looking at the art of the world in general is of course a fascinating study. You might choose to pick a specific region, and follow the time-line of art in that region. Europe of course is one area where there is much to see and appreciate with respect to its art. Among the earliest works of European art known are those found in cave paintings in France and several other countries, artwork that goes far back into prehistoric times. There have been art treasures discovered that date back to what we call ancient times, from around 4,000 BC on, in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the New World.

Aside from contemporary art, the art Americans are probably most familiar with is the European art that dates from the about 12th century onward, although there are plenty of examples of art from ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt that are familiar to many.


One of the Earliest Sponsors Was the Church


Some of the earliest European artwork that has survived until this day are found in the interiors of chapels, cathedrals, and basilicas. This interior artwork dates from the Gothic period, through the early Renaissance period, and into the High Renaissance period. It is from this latter period that the works of Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Raphael originated. The most famous of these may well be da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, on display in the Louvre in Paris. Three other works, Michelangelo’s David, his paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael’s School of Athens, are all found in the Vatican. The High Renaissance period, which extended from 1480 to 1520, was definitely one of the most important periods in the European history of art.


From the Renaissance to the Golden Age


We can skip 100 years to find the other of the two most important periods of art. That would be what is called the Dutch Golden Age. The most famous painting from this period is probably Rembrandt’s Night Watch. Two other major contributors would be the Flemish master artists, van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens.


The source of  many of the European masterpieces, which earlier centuries seemed to be primarily in what is now Italy, eventually migrated northward to the Low Countries and Scandinavia before settling in Central Europe, particularly France and Germany. Much of the artistic influences seen in various countries were imported from neighboring countries because of the many wars and occupations which Europe was involved in from the High Renaissance on. The Age of Romanticism was introduced in the mid-18th century with much of the art coming from French artists. Romanticism was followed by Realism, which in turn was followed by Impressionism and the works of Monet and Renoir.


Vincent van Gogh and the Post-Impressionists


While Vincent van Gogh is sometimes mistakenly thought of as having created his works during the Dutch Golden Age, he actually entered the scene some two hundred years later during what is now called the Post-Impressionism period. Van Gogh is best known for his Starry Nights, Sunflowers, and a self-portrait. Another giant during this period was the sculptor, Auguste Rodin.


Art Periods Often Come and Go Fast and Furiously

Several of the other so-called ‘artistic periods’ began in the early 20th century and are still with us today. These would include Expressionism, Cubism, Abstract Art, Surrealism, and Pop Art. These artistic periods were dominated by the likes of Pablo Picasso the cubist, Jackson Pollock the abstract artist, Salvador Dali the surrealist, and Andy Warhol the pop artist. Warhol’s Campbell Soup Can is nearly as well known as the Mona Lisa.


When Art Wasn’t All That Great


Mention should be made of two other artistic periods, for which the adjective ‘artistic’ may be somewhat of a stretch. These two periods took root in the 1920s and 1930s, one of them lasting nearly until the last decade of the 20th century. One of these would be the 20-year period encompassing the art of Nazi Germany. Most of these Nazi masterpieces were not particularly beautiful in any sense of the word, as they were primarily created to be used for propaganda. War was the recurring theme in many of the paintings and posters of the time. The same could be said for Soviet art. With its heroes, heroines, tractors, and heavy machinery depicted on canvas, this was art the leaders of the Soviet Union used in their attempt to convince the world, and their own people, how good life was in the worker’s paradise. There is admittedly some Soviet art that is not at all bad, and some, such as is experienced in the music of Shostakovich and others is outstanding. For the most part however, Soviet art was uninspiring, if not downright ‘clunky.’


Today, European artists borrow from American artists in the world of paintings, sculpture, and music, and vice versa. The also borrow ideas from Asia and Africa, and from countries which were at one time European colonies. European art is still distinctively European however, and likely always will be. In any event, it’s come a long ways since the early cave paintings. Or maybe not.