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.