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.

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