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    

Antique Astley Cooper American Western California Indian Luminist Oil PaintingAntique 18thc Lemuel Francis Abbott Portrait Painting British Major ForbesLrg Antique Sidney M Chase Fishing Boat Lobster Fishermen Seascape Oil PaintingFine Quality Antique 19thc American Tromp Loeil Fruit Still Life Oil Painting19thc Antique American Fruit Still Life Oil Painting, Tromp Loeil Fine QualityAntique Circa 1900 American Folk Art Oil Painting Farm & Covered Wagon, NrOriginal 1962 Aaron Bohrod Trompe L'oeil Lemon Stillife, Milch Galleries LabelAntique 1883, Emilia Janni, Fine Portrait Watercolor Painting St. Mary MagdaleneLarge Antique John Benson Maritime Seascape Oil Painting W/ Schooner Boat, NrFine 19th Century Angling Oil Painting - Man Fishing Pond In His House - SuperbFine 19th Century English Yachting Oil Painting Yawl Sailing Boat Off The CoastVintage 1966 Philippe H Noyer French Modernist Oil Painting 1920s Art Deco StyleLrg Antique Victorian J Smybert, O/c Oil Painting, First Step, No ReserveLarge Antique Arthur Loysen Gloucester Fishing Boat Harbor Oil Painting, NrAntique Circa 1900, Francis Hopkinson Smith Orientalist Watercolor Painting, NrAntique Peter Woltze New Orleans Cotton Black Americana Watercolor PaintingAntique Fritz Muller German Genre Portrait Oil Painting, Man W/ Beer Stein NrLarge 19thc Antique J. Knight English Country Landscape O/c Oil PaintingAntique Dutch Folk Art Cut-paper Miniature St Peter Painting Silver Gold Frame19thc Antique Italian Genre Watercolor Painting Carved & Gilded Wood Frame, NrPair Of Antique Japanese Woodblocks Gouache Watercolour On Silk No ReserveClementine Hunter 18x24 Folk Outsider Art Wedding African American Louisiana Antique 19th C Primitive Watercolor Fraktur Flower Stem Folk Art Painting Nr YqzAntique "cows & Ducks In Barn" Scene Oil Painting On Canvas ~ 18" X 27"Investment Lovely~barbara Weir, ~Dark Horror Oil & Acrylic Canvas Painting Surreal Portrait By L Dolan 23x23" CoaLouis Wain Pen & Ink Drawing, Watercolour Cat Family With Kittens & GrandparentsFlorida Highwaymen Harold NewtonAdolphe Gaussen (1871-1954) Signed French Impressionist Oil To £28,000 St MaximeC.1600 Italian Renaissance Old Master Oil On Panel - Saint Sebastian MartyrdomHuge 17th Century German Old Master Oil Painting - Christ Before Pontius PilateGuitar PaintingC.1600 French Old Master Oil Portrait Of Noble Lady Holding Fruit - Superb Piece19thc Antique Classic Hudson River Landscape Oil Painting, Gold Gilt Frame NrVery Large Fine 19th Century Summer Landscape Oil Painting Of The Surrey Hills17th Century Italian Old Master Oil - The Lovers In Hiding - Stunning WorkThomas Couture (1815-1879 Large Oil Sketch Dedcadence Of Romans - Beautiful 17th Century Flemish Old Master Oil On Copper, The Crucifixion - Superb PaintingChris Cornell Speed Painting By Dave SantiaRolph Scarlett (1889-1984), New York, California / Canadian Artist, Oil / Canvas17th/18th Century Old Master Painting, DutchEdouard Frere (1819-1886) Signed French Oil To £60,000 Winter Snow FarmhouseOriginal Oil Painting Signed Cuban Art By Acostaneyra.Large Fine 19th Century Oil Painting Of White Horse On River Thames Night FerryEdmond Maire (1862-1914) Large Signed French Still Life Oil Flowers To £17,000Antique Charles Green American Country Farm Horse-drawn Carriage Oil Painting NrFine Antique 19th Century Salisbury Cathedral Oil On Canvas Painting PaulOriginal Red Skelton Signed Drawing On Twa 16 X 20 Linen "linda Dear Heart" 1989Pierre De Mougins (b.1966) Large Signed French Cubist Oil Nude By Sea Eugene Begerat (b.1943) Signed French Pointillist Oil Paris Seine Pont Neuf1920’s Large French Impressionist Oil Wildflowers Gladiolus - Stunning Painting!Emil Kazaz Mixed Media Artwork (armenian-american)Jean Arnavielle (1881-1961) Signed French Impressionist Oil Evening Rouen Seine18th Century English Old Master Portrait Of A Boy Purple Jacket Antique Painting16th Century Venetian Italian Old Master Oil On Panel- Portrait Man In HatSmall Antique 19thc Harrison Bird Brown Maine Coast Seascape Oil Painting, Nr1888 Vincent Signed Original Oil On Board Painting "mistral" Original Frame NiceFine Huge 19th Century South Downs Sheep Grazing Morning Landscape Oil PaintingRichard Ansdell 1815-1885 British Hunting Dog In Landscape Oil To $900,000Very Large Classic English Racehorse & Jockey Scene Oil Painting - Gilt Framed