For centuries, painting has been the primary medium of the visual arts, creating the dominant aesthetic of social and political movements through often controversial shifts in style. Whether it was a romantic, realistic, or symbolic composition, trends in Western painting often reacted to the artwork that came before, challenging viewers to see the world anew.

Part of the medium’s power is its lasting legacy: Painting is one of the earliest art forms, dating back at least 40,000 years to a time when cave paintings of daily life were made from natural pigments. As more permanent civilizations were established, painting continued on the walls of buildings. Frescoes like those surviving from the Greek and Roman Empires along the Mediterranean coast were decorated by painting directly onto fresh plaster.

Artists also painted tableaux on smaller, more portable materials. In Europe, these paintings were often executed on wooden panels, either made from a solid piece or multiple conjoined sections. Meanwhile, artists in Asia created paintings on long scrolls made from bamboo or silk, a format that allowed them to be rolled up and hidden from view.

In the Renaissance, which began around 1400 AD, European paintings ventured into secular subject areas, while artists adopted scientific methods for applying perspective. Some of the better known Renaissance paintings include the Sistine Chapel’s “Creation of Adam” fresco by Michelangelo and the portrait of Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, which was painted on a poplar panel.

Canvases made from linen stretched over a wood frame began to overtake wooden panels as the preferred material for paintings during the 16th century. Around this same time, the Dutch Republic became the locus of Europe’s art world, partially due to a booming art market that relied on galleries and art dealers serving a wealthy merchant class. Secular subjects including still-lifes and landscapes dominated the art produced in the Netherlands during the Baroque era, as epitomized by the work of painter Rembrandt van Rijn.

This realistic style was supplanted by Rococo, a flowery and romantic vision of the good life, which was established in France by artists like Jean Honoré Fragonard and Jean-Antoine Watteau. Following the Rococo era, trends like Neoclassicism and Romanticism dramatized historic events and patriotic propaganda as a way of returning a certain seriousness to art.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, untrained artists were also creating their own folk-art paintings. Though ignored by the established art world at the time, these works are often desirable today precisely because of their imperfect, self-taught qualities...

In the early 19th century, artists known as the Pre-Raphaelites looked to the early Renaissance for inspiration. Painters such as John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti worked in a lushly realistic style, often depicting subjects from the Bible, Greek myths, or contemporary poetry.

Industrialization launched painting into an entirely different direction. Ironically, perhaps, the new frontier for the coming Machine Age was Impressionism, a genre that defied nature by creating evocative scenes that blurred the lines of reality. As photography became more widely available, there wasn’t a need for paintings to depict the world in a realistic manner. Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir are two of the painters who pioneered the Impressionist style.

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, many types of painting were prioritizing the emotional appeal of shape, line, and color, rather than attempting to merely reflect reality. Fauvism, as epitomized by Henri Matisse, and Expressionism, as practiced by Edvard Munch and Wassily Kandinsky, pushed the limits of this visual language by using bold, unnatural colors and shapes. Meanwhile, others like Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, and Pablo Picasso concentrated on the fractured aesthetics of Cubism, depicting a single scene from many perspectives at once.

Surrealists like Salvador Dali and René Magritte composed paintings that were supposedly rooted in the unconscious, twisting realistic subjects into dreamlike landscapes. Some painters experimented with new styles that eliminated real-world subjects altogether, as in the geometric compositions of Kazimir Malevich, Joan Miro, and Piet Mondrian.

By the end of World War II, many diverse branches of abstract painting sought to answer a variety of questions about the role of art, such as the importance of making a painting by hand or the minimum threshold needed to incite an emotional response. Jackson Pollock became famous for his abstract expressionist works called “action paintings,” in which the lively movement of applying paint was frozen on the finished canvas. At the same time, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein created their Pop Art critiques of popular culture, while Frank Stella and Sol Lewitt explored the boundaries of both Minimalism and Decoration.

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    

Francesco Solimena - 17th Century Large Italian Old Master Oil - Provenance 16th Century Huge Flemish Old Master Oil Conjoined Panel Tobias Restoring Sight Very Fine Antique 19th Century Portrait Of A Lady Oil Painting WalkerPhilips Wouwerman - 17th Century Signed Dutch Old Master Oil On Panel Fine Large 19th Century London River Thames Moonlit Ship Antique Oil Painting Fine Large Circa 1900 Portrait Of A Girl White Dress Antique Oil PaintingC.1700 Large French Old Master Oil On Original Canvas - Magdalene In EcstasyVirgin And Child Antique 17th Century French / Italian Old Master Oil PaintingLarge 19th Century Classical Italian Landscape Cavalier Antique Oil PaintingAntique German Kpm Porcelain Painting Plaque, Raphael Madonna Della SediaLarge 19th Century American British Navy Ships Battle War Antique Oil PaintingFine 17th Century Italian Old Master Saint Micheal & Devil Antique Oil Painting Fine Large 18th Century Portrait European Boy Tricorn Hat Antique Oil PaintingC.1800 French Old Master Oil - Nocturne Landscape Moonlight Coast - UnlinedFine 19th Century Female Portrait Miniature Painting No Apparent Signature.Fine 19th Century English School Hound Dogs Landscape Portrait Antique PaintingA Pair - Horses In A Landscape Antique Oil Paintings 19th Century English SchoolFine 19th Century Venice Italy Gondola Canal Landscape Antique Oil PaintingFine Antique 19th Century Portrait Oil On Board Painting BaronSpanish School Early 19thc Old Master Portrait Woman Oil Painting Art GoyaFine Large 19th Century Italian Neapolitan Lady Portrait Antique Oil PaintingChildren In A Landscape Antique Oil Painting 19th Century Northern EuropeanC. 17th Century English Old Master Portrait Oil, Nobleman In Armour - Civil War 17th Century Dutch Old Master - Lady With Bouquet Of Flowers - Oil On PanelLarge 19th Century Star & Garter Rowing River Thames Landscape Antique Painting Fine 18th Century Georgian Military Oil Painting Portrait Of Soldier In UniformAntique 18thc Salem Mass, American Folk Art Miniature Portrait Painting, NrAntique T. Bailey Maritime O/c Oil Painting, North America Clipper ShipPencil Drawing Signed Henri Toulouse LautrecVintage Old Painting Oil Musicians Signed Louis JanningsAntique 1902 American Folk Art Black Americana Mcloughlin Watercolor PaintingPencil Drawing Signed Diego RiveraPencil Drawing Watercolor Signed BraquePencil Drawing Signed PicassoOriginal Sydney Laurence Mountain Oil PaintingSteve Kaufman Original John Lennon Signed Pop Artist Studied Under Andy WarholMarc Chagall Important Signed Russian French Cubism Surrealism Artist ExpressionAnton Ebert 1845-1896 "a Superb" Large Portrait Lady Antique Oil PaintingAntique Oil Painting Posimpresionismo Landscape Modern Art Note Signed Vincent Joan Miro Oil On Board SignedAntique Old 1600‘s Century Painting Oil On Wood Panel : CowRare Original Oil, On Canvas Painting, Signed Jean Michel Basquiat W Coa & Docs. Fine Antique Old Master PaintingOriginal Eustace Paul Ziegler Oil Painting18th Century Large Flemish Old Master Oil - Descent From Cross - For RestorationGeorge G Ames Aldrich Old Mill Brittany American French Impressionist Painting18thc Antique Old Master Life Size Oil Painting Young Sleeping Cherub Gilt FrameOriginal Dan Namingha Oil On Canvas "new Mexico Dusk"Antique Italian Oil Painting On Canvas "religious Scene" C.a. 1600Venice Entrance To Grand Canal Antique Oil Painting 19th Century English SchoolMasters Of The Universe He-man Motu Theme Park Concept Art By Claudio Mazzoli Osvaldo Imperiale Sol De Manana Signed Oil Painting 1948 Benito Quinquela MartinRoosevelt Clark Original Oil Painting 42"x48", Oil On Wood,"snowballs Of Cotton"Original Ted Lambert Oil Painting On BoardJohn William Bentley (1880-1951 Woodstock, Ny) Oil On Canvass 20 X 24 InchesVintage Emmett Fritz Seascape Oil Painting On Board1963 Cuba Fine Art By Wifredo Lam ~ Signed Original Work From La Rampa Project Fernando Liger Hidalgo ( Spanish 1880-1945) " Arab Palace Sevilla " OrientalistWonderful 19th C American Folk Art Portrait Of A Mother, Two Children & Dog! Antique Oil Painting Canvas Blackamoor African American Circus Norman Lewis