For as long as there have been civilizations, humans have made art to interpret the world around them. The earliest cave paintings in Asia and Europe date to around 40,000 years ago, and include depictions of animals and stenciled outlines of human hands. Ancient cultures like those that flourished between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago in North Africa, Asia, and Southern Europe created an abundance of visual arts, ranging from usable products like jewelry and pottery to murals, decorative mosaics, and relief sculptures.

In particular, the dynasties that ruled Egypt from about 3000 BC to 1000 BC left behind an array of impressive art forms, whose subject matter was often concerned with holy deities and Egyptian rulers. Interwoven throughout the paintings and sculptures in Egyptian tombs, public buildings, and palaces are depictions of religious rituals, mythologies, and symbolic characters, including animals like the ibis and scarab.

Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean, the art of the Greco-Roman world blossomed during a period referred to as Classical Antiquity. From around 500 BC, Greek statues were chiseled to represent specific people, as opposed to the strictly idealized forms produced earlier. This era also marks the first time that the names of individual artists, like the sculptor Phidias, were recorded for posterity. Despite the inclusion of secular themes, much of the art surviving from antiquity focused on religious stories and iconography.

Some of the world’s best-preserved frescoes, or murals painted with natural pigments directly onto wet plaster, were spared by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius near Pompeii in 79 AD. Frescoes remaining from buildings in the area depict a variety of celebrated subjects, such as food, landscapes, animals, gods and goddesses, and even sexual activity.

Artists throughout Asia utilized a different medium—their paintings were executed on long scrolls made from bamboo or silk, which could be rolled up and hidden from view. Chinese and Japanese artists also produced a wide variety of jade sculptures, decorated vases, and Buddhist statues.

Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the visual arts triumphed again in Europe during the Renaissance period, beginning around 1400 AD. A confluence of developments in science, philosophy, music, and other fields brought great shifts in artistic output: The period was characterized by its increasingly secular subjects and innovative techniques, including the adoption of more realistic perspective and the heightened use of contrast in two-dimensional art forms like painting and drawing. Today, the Renaissance is typically remembered through superstars like Leonardo da Vinci, the hand behind the eternally alluring Mona Lisa, and his younger colleague Michelangelo, who created the famous sculpture of David and painted the Sistine Chapel’s “Creation of Adam” fresco.

In the 1600s, after a series of bloody religious wars, the Dutch Republic became Europe’s new art center. A prosperous merchant class helped change the art market, which shifted ...

In contrast to celebrity artists like Rembrandt, most Europeans and early Americans practiced a variety of traditional crafts like quilting, embroidery, or wood carving that were often handed down through generations. Though most of these artists remain anonymous today, these antique folk arts are often highly valuable.

The next major upheaval in the visual arts occurred during the mid-19th century, as the Industrial Revolution made paint supplies more affordable. It also introduced entirely new visual forms, like photography and collage. Working-class people had more free time than ever before, meaning that anyone could pick up a camera or sketchbook and develop a creative outlet for themselves. Improved printmaking techniques meant that engravings or woodblock prints could be mass produced as advertising posters or artist’s prints.

Since artists could travel more easily and photographs could create exact visual reproductions, there was less urgency for realism in art: The new frontier was Impressionism, a visual style that literally blurred the lines between objects, people, and space, creating a more emotional rather than realistic representation. Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir are two of the most successful Impressionists, famous for their imagery of sun-dappled landscapes and Parisians at leisure.

This interpretive view of the world was taken to another level by Expressionism, a movement originating in Germany that emphasized feeling over clarity, as familiar sights took on vibrant new colors and distorted shapes. Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” is one of these Expressionist masterpieces whose chilling vision is still effective today.

Heading into the 20th century, Western artists continued to push the limits of representation, partially in reaction to the global traumas of World War I, the Great Depression, and the rise of fascist dictatorships. In contrast to commercial artists who adopted the aesthetics of Art Nouveau and Art Deco for their advertising fantasies, abstract art dominated the fine-arts scene—artists such as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso developed the distorted, multilayered visions of Cubism, while Fernand Léger and Joan Miro pushed the limits of non-figurative compositions.

Surrealists like Salvador Dali and René Magritte created bizarre fantasy worlds that blended realistic perspective and shadow with mind-bending optical illusions. Italian Futurists including Giacomo Balla used abstract art to represent the movement of the Machine Age in all its technological glory, while the Suprematists and Constructivists eschewed any representational forms for pure abstract geometries.

Following World War II, the Western art world continued to fracture into smaller movements, ranging from the mass-media critiques of Andy Warhol’s Pop Art to the simplified forms of Minimalism explored by Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and others. Painting was no longer viewed as the one supreme medium, and the use of photography, video, screenprints, mixed-media sculptures, and collages exploded. Today, the visual arts make up a highly collectible and volatile marketplace, covering everything from original Greek antiquities to new, limited-edition rock-music posters.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Timeline of Art History

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Timeline of Art History

Travel around the world through art with this museums collection of over 6,000 works of art, from Egypt to North A… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique Trade Sign Folk Art? Tattoo Art? Hand Painted Carved Civil War Era? Rare Max Le Verrier 1930 French Art Deco Temple Dancer Bookends Extase De FayralJoseph Dixon Clark (1849-1944) Signed Oil Painting - Brown Cow Grazing In FieldAboriginal Art Painting By Kathleen Petyarre "bush Seeds"Eric Darbyshire 1916-1982 Retro Vorticist Abstract Painting 1970's The FogOld Painting Nice Miniature Portrait Of A LadyVtg Native American Listed Artist Woody Crumbo Indian & Horse Silkscreen PrintListed Artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988) Collage W/ Acrylic Pen And Ink "beach"Vintage 1940s Hand Colored/tinted Photograph Nude Pin-up Model Admires Bonnet Antique R Atkinson Fox Lithograph Christ Shepherd Moonlight Star Original FrameGeorge Rodrique Blue Dog "blues Can Hide A Bad Apple" Signed 1992Robert Heinrich 1864-1950 Impressionist Landscape Oil Painting C1920Ygn2-6210 Vintage Original Negative Scarce 1960's Leggy Nude Annette JohnsonVintage Stereo Realist Color Photo 3d Stereoscopic Slide Classic Nude 1950s #254R Atkinson Fox Lithograph Original Frame 17 1/4 X 11 1/4 Garden Scene With PoolMarq Spusta Phil Purple Denim Mini Micro Handbill 5" X 7" Art Print SignedJen Buckley Original Puffin Landing Animal Art Wildlife Watercolour Painting A3Full Size-holding Of The Egg Print By Marq Spusta - #/100Ygn2-7918 Vintage Negative Scarce 1960's Latent Image Art Nude Cindy BarnettEsculetin By Damien Hirst; Signed Numbered WoodcutYgq-1909 Vintage 60's B/w 8x10 Buxom Or Leggy French Nude Pinup By Serge JacquesYgn2-7702 Vintage Negative Scarce 1960's Latent Image Fine Art Nude Model CandyYgy-0934 Vintage 60's 8x10 Buxom Or Leggy Nude Pinup Stamped Signed Russell GayYgn2-7942 Vintage Negative Scarce 1960's Latent Image Art Nude Cindy BarnettEsculetin By Damien Hirst; Signed Numbered WoodcutYgq-1907 Vintage 60's B/w 8x10 Buxom Or Leggy French Nude Pinup By Serge Jacques40s Vintage Nude Photo~big Breasts Hairy Bush Nudist Pinup Outside Beach Sun Tan1980's Nude Pinup Model Vintage Original Transparency/classic Art Pose T2Vintage Stereo Realist Color Photo 3d Stereoscopic Slide Classic Nude 1950s #256Vintage Nude Art Pose Studio Photo 1940s-1950s Classic PoseUnique Expressive Original Mixed Media, Painting Signed 2x Jackson Pollock W CoaJose Trujillo Modern Oil Painting Tonalism Impressionist Palette Knife Plein AirYgn2-6258 Vintage Original Negative Scarce 1960's Art Buxom Nude Suzie FlynnLot~1930 Vintage Nude Transparency Stereoview Photo~big Breasts Hairy Bush Pinup1960s Original Gay Male Nude Physique 12 Photo Contact Sheet Sandy PaceDorno Gleep & TundroEd Edward Borein Original Signed Pen Ink Western Texas Longhorn Cow BullLot~1930 Vintage Nude Transparency Stereoview Photo~big Breasts Hairy Bush PinupVintage Male Nude - 1960's Physique Study Of Mystery Sailor - 5 X 7Ygwb-9162 Vintage Transparency 1960's Elmer Batters Legs Nylons Art Posed Model1940s Vintage Nude Photo~big Breasts Hairy Bush Nudist Pinup Outside Sun TanningYgn2-7666 Vintage Negative Scarce 1960's Art Buxom Outdoor Nude Nicole PageKandinsky Aquatint With C.o.a.Wall Art On Canvas, Modern Abstract Paintings, Decorative Wall Painting,no FrameOriginal Oil Painting Original Frame Hand Made Vintage Lion Pottery Sculpture~unique Textured Design Vintage Stereo Realist Photo 3d Stereoscopic Slide Nude Blonde Extreme CleavageLot~1930 Vintage Nude Transparency Stereoview Photo~big Breasts Hairy Bush PinupYgn2-7894 Vintage Negative Scarce 1960's Latent Image Art Nude Cindy BarnettLithograph Signed Henri Cassiers Listed Artist Dutch Scene Arts & Crafts EraLot Of 2~1970s Vintage Nude Transparency Photos~big Breasts Nudist Pinup OutsideAstrid Preston, Artist. Pears And GardenHenri Mangiun - Old French Oil On Cardboard !!! Best !!!Oil painting William Bradford - Beach With Sun Drawing Water Beautiful SeascapeJean Michel Basquiat - Old Oil Handmade !!! Private Collection !!! Painting Original *acrylic On Canvas Fine Art Contemporary - Original - CoaAntique Oil Painting Very Old Sea Land Scape Original 12x12 Post-impressionist Painting Of A City On A Full Moon NightEx Libris By Helfenbein Walter (1893 -1984) GermanyVikings Season 1,2,3