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The history of art refers to the history of the visual arts of painting, sculpture and architecture. It is the history of one of the fine arts, others of which are the performing arts and literature. It is also one of the humanities. The term sometimes encompasses theory of the visual arts, including aesthetics.

Considered encyclopedically, the history of art is an attempt to survey art throughout human history, classifying cultures and periods by their distinguishing features. This is undertaken by people and institutions with diverging goals, but whose efforts interrelate, including: academic art historians, museum curators, auction house personnel, private collectors, and religious adherents. Given these agendas, it is unsurprising that there are many ways of structuring a history of art, as will be outlined below.

Historical development

The field of "art history" was developed in the West, and originally dealt exclusively with European art history, with the High Renaissance (and its Greek precedent) as the defining standard. Gradually, over the course of the twentieth century, a wider vision of art history has developed. This expanded version includes societies from across the globe, and it usually attempts to analyze artifact in terms of the cultural values in which they were created. Thus, art history is now seen to encompass all visual art, from the megaliths of Western Europe to the paintings of the Tang Dynasty in Chinamarker.

The history of art is often told as a chronology of masterpieces created in each civilization in the world. It can thus be framed as a story of high culture, epitomized by the Seven Wonders of the World, which is somehow different from vernacular expressions. The latter can, however, be integrated into art historical narratives, in which case they are usually referred to as folk arts or craft. The more closely that an art historian engages with these latter forms of low culture, the more likely it is that they will identify their work as examining visual culture or material culture, or as contributing to fields related to art history, such as anthropology or archeology. In the latter cases art objects may be referred to as archeological artifacts.

Textbook art history

A useful way to examine how art history is organized is through the major survey textbooks. The most often used textbooks published in English are Ernst Gombrich’s Story of Art, Marilyn Stokstad’s Art History, Anthony Janson’s History of Art, David Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, and Katheryn M. Linduff’s Art Past, Art Present, Helen Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Hugh Honour and John Flemming’s A World History of Art, and Laurie Schneider Adams’s Art Across Time.

Western Europe

Venus of Willendorf

Although some of the books listed above attempt a global approach, they are universally strong in western art history. The books use representative examples from each era in order to create a story that blends changing styles with social history. The Western narrative begins with prehistoric art such as Stonehengemarker, before discussing the ancient world. The latter begins with Mesopotamia, then progresses to the art of Ancient Egypt, which then transitions to Classical antiquity. Classical art includes both Greek and Roman work. With the decline of the Roman Empire, the narrative shifts to Medieval art, which lasted for a millennium. The high intellectual culture of the Medieval period was Islamic, but the era also included Early Christian art, Byzantine art, Gothic art, Anglo-Saxon art, and Viking art. The Medieval era ended with the Renaissance, followed by the Baroque and Rococo. Sometimes another period, Mannerism, is inserted between Renaissance and Baroque, which is a visual hybrid. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries included Neoclassicism, Romantic art, Academic art, and Realism in art. Art historians disagree when Modern art began, but it was either in the mid-eighteenth century with the artist Francisco Goya, the mid-nineteenth century with the industrial revolution or the late nineteenth century with the advent of Impressionism. The art movements of the late nineteenth through the early twenty first centuries are too numerous to detail here, but can be broadly divided into two categories: Modernism and Contemporary art. The latter is sometimes referred to with another term, which has a subtly different connotation, Postmodern art.

Although textbooks periodize Western art by movements, as described above, they also do so by century. Many art historians give a nod to the historical importance of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art by referring to centuries in which it was prominent with foreign terms. These include trecento for the fourteenth, quattrocento for the fifteenth, cinquecento for the sixteenth, seicento for the seventeenth, and settecento for the eighteenth.

The Americas

The history of art in the Americas begins in pre-Columbian times with Indigenous cultures. Art historians have focused particularly closely on Mesoamerica during this early era, because a series of stratified cultures arose there that erected grand architecture and produced objects of fine workmanship that are comparable to the arts of western Europe. Perhaps the most-read textbook is Mary Ellen Miller’s The Art of Mesoamerica.

The art-making tradition of Mesoamerican people begins with the Olmec around 1400 BCE, during the Preclassic era. These people are best-known for making colossal heads but also carved jade, erected monumental architecture, made small-scale sculpture, and designed mosaic floors. Two of the most well-studied sites artistically are San Lorenzo Tenochtitlánmarker and La Ventamarker. After the Olmec culture declined, the Maya civilization became prominent in the region. Sometimes a transitional Epi-Olmec period is described, which is a hybrid of Olmec and Maya. A particularly well-studied Epi-Olmec site is La Mojarra, which includes hieroglyphic carvings that have been partially deciphered.

By the Late pre-Classic era, beginning around 400 BCE, the Olmec culture had declined but both Central Mexican and Maya peoples were thriving. Throughout much if the Classic period in Central Mexico the city of Teotihuacanmarker was thriving, as were Xochicalcomarker and El Tajinmarker. These sites boasted both grand sculpture and architecture. Other Central Mexican peoples included the Mixtecs, the Zapotecs, and people in the Valley of Oaxaca. Maya art was at its height during the “Classic” period—a name that mirrors that of Classical European antiquity—and which began around 200 CE. Major Maya sites from this era include Copanmarker where numerous stelae were carved in the round, and Quiriguamarker where the largest stelae of Mesoamerica are located along with zoomorphic altars. A complex writing system was developed, and Maya illuminated manuscripts were produced in large numbers on paper made from tree bark. Although Maya cities have existed to the present day, several sites ”collapsed” around 1000 CE.

At the time of the Spanish conquest of Yucatán during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Maya were still powerful, but many communities were paying tribute to Aztec society. The latter culture was thriving, and it included arts such as sculpture, painting, and feather mosaic. Perhaps the most well-known work of Aztec art is the calendar stone, which has become a national symbol of the state of Mexicomarker. During the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire many of these artistic objects were sent to Europe, where they were placed in cabinets of curiosities, and later redistributed to art museums. The Aztec empire was based in the city of Tenochtitlan which was largely destroyed during the colonial era. What remains of it was buried beneath Mexico Citymarker. A few buildings, such as the foundation of the Templo Mayormarker have since been unearthed by archaeologists, but they are in poor condition.

Art in the Americas since the conquest has been a mixture of indigenous and foreign traditions, including European, African, and Asian settlers. Thus, books about the visual arts of the United States, such as Francis Pohl’s Framing America, start with the conquest and reconstruct manifold traditions. Numerous indigenous traditions thrived after the conquest. For example, the Plains Indians created quillwork, beadwork, winter counts, ledger art, and tipis in the pre-reservation era, and afterwards became assimilated into the world of Modern and Contemporary art through institutions such as the Santa Fe Indian School which encouraged students to develop a unique Native American style. Many paintings from that school, now called the Studio Style, were exhibited at the Philbrook Museum of Art during its Indian annual held from 1946-1979.

Intertwined with this story of indigenous art, are movements of painting, sculpture, and architecture such as the Hudson River School and the Ashcan School of the 19th century, and Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism of the 20th. Some of the most celebrated images were produced by artists of the American West, featuring “Cowboys and Indians,” and some of the most visually complex objects were created by African Americans.


The long story of African Art includes both high sculpture, perhaps typified by the brass castings of the Benin people, as well as folk art.


The Art of Oceania includes the geographic areas of Micronesia, Polynesia, Australia, New Zealandmarker, and Melanesia. Nicholas Thomas’s textbook Oceanic Art treats the area thematically, with essays on ancestry, warfare, the body, gender, trade, religion, and tourism.

Central and East Asian

Eastern civilization broadly includes Asia, and it also includes a complex tradition of art making. One Eastern art history art history survey textbook is John Laplante’s Asian Art. It divides the field by nation, with units on India, Chinese artmarker, and Japan.

Art museums

The experience of art history, as conveyed by art museums, tends to be organized differently than that of textbooks due to the nature of collections and the institutions themselves. Rather than a full march through time, museums employ curators who assemble objects into exhibitions, often with unique commentary that is later reinterpreted by docents. Because they have the responsibility to store objects, museums develop taxonomies for their collections, using conventions of classification authority for the sake of consistency. This may be undertaken with the museum’s archivist. The result is often a strong emphasis on the history of media in conjunction with the history of culture.

Such an emphasis on media is a natural outgrowth of the internal classification systems used in art museums, which usually include departments of painting, sculpture, decorative arts, and works on paper. Painting itself includes several media, such as oil painting, Tempera painting, watercolor. Sculpture can be divided into carving and casting. The decorative arts are perhaps the most diverse, as they include: textiles and needlework, which includes weaving, lace, shibori, and other work with fabric; Murals, of which frescoes are one form; and objects of adornment such as silver, ceramics, lacquerware, stained glass, and furniture. Museums generally cannot collect full buildings, but they may acquire pieces of architectural ornamentation, which also fall under the decorative arts department. Works on paper includes printmaking, photography, and the book arts such as illuminated manuscripts. Museums may also include a department of applied arts, which includes objects of good design along with the graphic art, illustration, and other forms of commercial art.

Art market

The art market can also be used to understand what “counts” as part of art history. Art dealers and auctioneers organize material for distribution to collectors. Two of the largest, and oldest, art auction houses are Sotheby's andChristie's, and each hold frequent sales of great antiquities and art objects.

In addition to upstanding practices, a black market exists for great art, which is closely tied to art theft and art forgery. No auction houses or dealers admit openly to participating in the black market because of its illegality, but exposés suggest widespread problems in the field. Because demand for art objects is high, and security in many parts of the world is low, a thriving trade in illicit antiquities acquired through looting also exists. Although the art community nearly universally condemns looting because it results in destruction of archeological sites, looted art paradoxically remains omnipresent. Warfare is correlated with such looting, as is demonstrated by the recent archaeological looting in Iraq.

Nationalist art history

Both the making of art, the academic history of art, and the history of art museums are closely intertwined with the rise of nationalism. Art created in the modern era, in fact, has often been an attempt to generate feelings of national superiority or love of one’s country. Russian art is an especially good example of this, as the Russian avant-garde and later Soviet art were attempts to define that country’s identity.

Most art historians working today identify their specialty as the art of a particular culture and time period, and often such cultures are also nations. For example, someone might specialize in 19th century German or contemporary Chinese art history. A focus on nationhood has deep roots in the discipline. Indeed, Vasari’s Lives of the Artists is an attempt to show the superiority of Florentine artistic culture, and Heinrich Wölfflin’s writings (especially his monograph on Albrecht Durer) attempt to distinguish Italian from German styles of art.

Many of the largest and most well-funded art museums of the world, such as the Louvremarker, the Victoria and Albert Museummarker, and the National Gallery of Artmarker in Washington are state-owned. Most countries, indeed have a national gallery, with an explicit mission of preserving the cultural patrimony owned by the government—regardless of what cultures created the art—and an often implicit mission to bolster that country’s own cultural heritage. The National Gallery of Art thus showcases art made in the United States, but also owns objects from across the world.

Academic art history

The study of the history of art is a relatively recent phenomenon; prior to the Renaissance, the modern concept of "art" did not exist. Over time, art historians have changed their views about what art is worthy of scrutiny. For example, during the early Victorian era, the fifteenth century Italian artists were considered inferior to those of sixteenth century High Renaissance. Such a notion was challenged by the Pre-Raphaelite movement. There has since been a trend, dominant in art history of the twenty first century, to treat all cultures and periods neutrally. Thus, Australian Aboriginal art would not be deemed better or worse than Michelangelo—it is just different. Art historical analysis has also evolved into studying the social and political use of art, rather than focusing solely on the aesthetic appreciation of its craftsmanship (beauty). What may once have been viewed simply as a masterpiece is now understood as an economic, social, philosophical, and cultural manifestation of the artist's world-view, philosophy, intentions and background.

Sacred art history

While secular approaches to art history often emphasize individual creativity, the history of sacred art often emphasizes the ways that beautiful objects are used to convey symbolic meaning in ritual contexts. The ten largest organized religions of the world each have image-making traditions. They are Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Bahá'í, Jainism, and Shinto.

Key objects and concepts

Earliest known art

The oldest surviving art forms include small sculptures and paintings on rock and in caves. There are very few known examples of art that date earlier than 40,000 years ago, the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic period. People often rubbed smaller rocks against larger rocks and boulders to paint pictures of their everyday life, such as hunting wild game. A mammoth sculpture found in a German cave was dated to approximately 35,000 years ago.

One of the most famous examples, the so-called Venus of Willendorfmarker (which is now being called "Woman from Willendorf" in contemporary art history texts) is a sculpture from the Paleolithic era, which depicts a woman with exaggerated female attributes. This sculpture, carved from stone, is remarkable in its roundness instead of a flat or low-relief depiction. Early Aegean art, although it dates from a much later period, shares some of the same abstract figurative elements.

Prehistoric art objects are rare, and the context of such early art is difficult to determine. Prehistoric, by definition, refers to those cultures which have left no written records of their society. The art historian judges early pieces of art as objects in their own right, with few opportunities for comparison between contemporaneous pieces. Interpretation of such early art must be done primarily in the context of aesthetics tempered by what is known of various hunter-gatherer societies still in existence.

Ancient art

Ancient art began when ancient civilizations developed a form of written language. The great traditions in art have a foundation in the art of one of the six great ancient civilizations: Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, India, or Chinamarker. Each of these centers of early civilization developed a unique and characteristic style in their art. Because of their size and duration these civilizations, their art works have survived and transmitted to other cultures and later times. They have also provided us with the first records of how artists worked. Ancient Roman art depicted gods as idealized humans, shown with characteristic distinguishing features (i.e.Zeus' thunderbolt).

Medieval Western art

In Byzantine and Gothic art of the Middle Ages, the dominance of the church insisted on the expression of biblical truths. There was no need to depict the reality of the material world, in which man was born in a "state of sin", especially through the extensive use of gold in paintings, which also presented figures in idealised, patterned (i.e."flat") forms.

Renaissance Western art

The Renaissance is the return yet again to valuation of the material world, and this paradigm shift is reflected in art forms, which show the corporeality of the human body, and the three dimensional reality of landscape.

Eastern art

Eastern art has generally worked in a style akin to Western medieval art, namely a concentration on surface patterning and local colour (meaning the plain colour of an object, such as basic red for a red robe, rather than the modulations of that colour brought about by light, shade and reflection). A characteristic of this style is that the local colour is often defined by an outline (a contemporary equivalent is the cartoon). This is evident in, for example, the art of India, Tibet and Japan.

Religious Islamic art forbids iconography, and expresses religious ideas through geometric designs instead. However, there are many Islamic paintings which display religious themes and scenes of stories common among the three main monotheistic faiths of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

Modern and Contemporary art

The physical and rational certainties of the clockwork universe depicted by the 18th-century Enlightenment were shattered not only by new discoveries of relativity by Einstein and of unseen psychology by Sigmund Freud, but also by unprecedented technological development accelerated by the implosion of civilization in two world wars. The history of 20th century art is a narrative of endless possibilities and the search for new standards, each being torn down in succession by the next. Thus the parameters of Impressionism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and other art movements cannot be maintained as significant and culturally germane very much beyond the time of their invention. Increasing global interaction during this time saw an equivalent influence of other cultures into Western art, such as Pablo Picasso being influenced by Iberian sculpture, African sculpture and Primitivism. Japonism, and Japanesemarker woodcuts (which had themselves been influenced by Western Renaissance draftsmanship) had an immense influence on Impressionism and subsequent artistic developments. The influential example set by Paul Gauguin's interest in Oceanic art and the sudden popularity among the cognescenti in early 20th century Parismarker of newly discovered African fetish sculptures and other works from non-European cultures were taken up by Picasso, Henri Matisse, and by many of their colleagues.

Modernism, the idealistic search for truth, and progress, gave way in the latter decades of the 20th century to a realization of its unattainability. Relativity was accepted as an unavoidable truth, which led to the Postmodern period, where cultures of the world and of history are seen as changing forms, which can be appreciated and drawn from only with irony. Furthermore the separation of cultures is increasingly blurred and it is now more appropriate to think in terms of a global culture, rather than regional cultures.


Further reading

Adams, Laurie. Art across Time. 3rd ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2007.

Gardner, Helen, and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner's Art through the Ages: A Global History. 13th ed. Australia: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2009.

Gombrich, E. H. The Story of Art. 15th ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1990.

Honour, Hugh, and John Fleming. The Visual Arts: A History. 5th ed. New York: Henry N. Abrams, 1999.

Janson, H. W., and Penelope J. E. Davies. Janson's History of Art: The Western Tradition. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007.

Oliver Grau (Ed.): MediaArtHistories, Cambridge/Mass.: MIT-Press, 2007.

La Plante, John D. Asian Art. 3rd ed. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown, 1992.

Miller, Mary Ellen. The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec. 4th ed, World of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.

Pierce, James Smith, and H. W. Janson. From Abacus to Zeus: A Handbook of Art History. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.

Pohl, Frances K. Framing America: A Social History of American Art. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2002.

Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2008.

Thomas, Nicholas. Oceanic Art, World of Art. New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 1995.

Wilkins, David G., Bernard Schultz, and Katheryn M. Linduff. Art Past, Art Present. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2008.

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