Introduction to Western Art History
Western Art originates with artists working within the physical and cultural boundaries of Western Civilization. Thus it begins first in Europe, then with imperialist conquests beginning around A.D. 1500, it encompasses many countries around the world. This limitation does not, of course, discount Western Art’s drawing on the heritage of its ancestors and influences of its neighboring, or conquered, civilizations. This quick survey will identify how artistic movements have linked with the political and social developments of Western Civilization.
Art reveals something of the people who have produced and admired it. The hand as it molds clay, strokes the brush, pounds the chisel moves with the times in which it acts. A survey of this kind, however brief, hopes to identify significant characteristics that separate one historical period from another, identify some of the leading practitioners, and explain the important subjects and themes, within the general social context.
Whether aiming for the highest divinity, or the most intimate desires, art has framed human existence. Art is often part of the fabric of what holds a society together. Throughout history, elites have paid for art that expressed their sense of self-importance and the values they sought to promote. Thus art has been usually been produced by and for the elites, often in a religious context. Because of art’s religious function, it can require a certain level of education and training to appreciate and understand. Common people have also supported art, whether involved in its production, or in admiration of what the elites have ordained. Art has also been expensive and important community projects, shared by many. Art can express the virtues of a culture, captured in the past moment, displayed to us now.
The following sections, corresponding to the chapters in A Concise Survey of Western Civilization: Supremacies and Diversities throughout History, offer a brief summary of the artistic trends, then some comments about important developments in painting/graphic arts (art done on a flat surface, in two-dimensions), sculpture (art done in three dimensions), and architecture (the design and decoration of buildings in which humans work, live, and celebrate). Links connect to pictures or other websites.