Ⅰ. Devotion and Renaissance
After emerging in Florence, Renaissance culture flourished and spread across Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Moving away from the medieval worldview, centered on Christian faith and theology, it idealized and sought to give “rebirth (renaissance)” to the older humanist values of ancient Greece and Rome.
Italian Renaissance painters developed realistic, three-dimensional means of expression, taking their cue from classical antiquity. In contrast to the rather flat depictions of Christ and the Virgin Mary typical of the Middle Ages—otherworldly images that emphasized their sanctity—Renaissance paintings were inclined to render them as fully rounded human figures. The space surrounding figures in Renaissance art also started to be arranged more rationally, such as by using the one-point perspective method to suggest depth. And, during this period, mythological painting featuring ancient Greek and Roman anthropomorphic deities joined religious painting based on Christian themes as a major genre.
Following the Protestant Reformation in northern Europe in the sixteenth century, the prohibition on the veneration of sacred images led, in Germany and the Netherlands, to an increased demand for mythological painting and portraiture in preference to religious painting. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance were characterized by detailed realism; and, in landscapes adopting the aerial perspective, artists mimicked the atmospheric phenomenon whereby more distant views appear bluer and hazier. The keen observation of nature and minute depictions to be found in works by northern artists greatly influenced Italian painters.
This chapter presents seventeen works by leading painters of the Italian and Northern Renaissance.
Ⅱ. Absolutism and Enlightenment
This chapter presents thirty masterpieces by artists from various countries who were active from the seventeenth century, a period in which Europe’s absolute monarchs reasserted their sovereign power, through to the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment.
The Baroque style that emerged at the start of the seventeenth century in Rome, the center of the Catholic world, spread quickly throughout Europe in a rich array of guises. Characterized by strong light-and-shade contrasts and dramatic, vivid depictions, Baroque pictorial expression served to proclaim two loci of power, one sacred, the other secular: the Roman Catholic Church and the absolute monarchies.
In the Catholic sphere of influence, many paintings on religious subjects, dramatically rendered to inspire piety, were produced in Italy, Spain, and Flanders. And, particularly in Spain, painters executed magnificent portraits of royalty and the nobility. In the Dutch Republic, officially Protestant and with a developed civil society, other types of painting—landscapes depicting closely observed natural settings, still lifes of flowers and other objects, and genre paintings of everyday life—formed independent genres, ushering in a new phase of art history. In contrast, France under Louis XIV, le Roi Soleil, favored art exalting the power of the sovereign. This led to the Classicist style of painting, marked by order and harmony, which was modeled after Classical and Renaissance art and based on theories propounded by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture (founded in 1648), arbiter of art policy for the state.
Late in Louis XIV’s reign, at the start of the eighteenth century, the delicate and graceful style of the Rococo appeared, seemingly in reaction against austere classicism, and held great appeal until the middle of the century. Another aspect of the French experience at this time was the number of artists who gained prominence while executing works low in the academy’s hierarchy of subject matter, such as genre painting and still life.
By the latter half of the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment had penetrated European society. With Rococo art in France now encountering criticism for its vulgar and sensual aspects, Neoclassicism took center stage. Drawing inspiration from the art of ancient Greece and Rome, it pursued the very ideal of beauty. During this period, women began to make conspicuous contributions in various fields of endeavor by pushing past social restrictions. Though modest in number, professional women painters emerged and gained fame. At the same time, the Royal Academy of Arts was founded in London in 1768, following similar institutions established on the Continent, a move that affirmed the newly elevated status of British painters.
Ⅲ. Revolution and Art for the People
The nineteenth century was a time of great upheaval as the tide of modernization swept across Europe. Taking for its historical context the development of civil society, this chapter presents eighteen masterpieces by painters of the era noted for their innovative approach to art.
The eruption of the French Revolution in 1789 proved a turning point not only for France but for the whole of Europe, ushering in modern society. The revolutionary wave reached its peak in 1848 when popular uprisings engulfed many countries. In the art world, different movements arose, one after another, reflecting the rapid changes in society. During the first half of the nineteenth century, Romanticism gained a following with depictions of fantastic landscapes and narrative scenes. The individual artist’s sensibility and unfettered imagination held sway, in reaction against academicism’s rigid pursuit of a universal ideal of beauty modeled on ancient art. In the middle of the century, Realism came to the fore with its precise and truthful depictions of subjects, such as the daily lives of farmers and laborers, and renderings of spontaneous scenes eschewing idealization.
The achievements of Realism were inherited by Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, who began depicting various aspects of urban life in Paris as modernization took hold, as well as by Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir, whose works came to be known by the term “Impressionism” in the late 1870s. Impressionist painters directed their gaze toward the remodeled thoroughfares of Paris and to the city’s environs, viewed under different weathers, and attempted to capture on canvas the fleeting image of a moment, using pure colors and small, dab-like brushstrokes.
The second half of the 1880s saw the appearance of painters, including Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh, who, in respect to both methods and ideas, departed from Impressionism. Their works, while varying widely themselves, are generally grouped under the umbrella term of “Post-Impressionism.” Characterized by, among other things, simplified forms, flat composition, and intense coloring (with frequent use of primary colors), they heralded the avant-garde art of the early twentieth century.