The art that came from the Ancient Chinese was heavily influenced by the idea of all things natural and spiritual. In many ways, it shares characteristics with Japanese and Indian art. These are typically referred to in the umbrella term of Ancient Asian art. Yet each have their own unique characteristics and show the culture and history of its origins. They all start around 653 BC and end late into the grand scale of art history, coming to an end around 1900 AD. This was likely due to that being the start of man’s true industrial expansion. They also placed value on showing the stories of everyday people as opposed to revering those in power. We will explore the intricacies of Ancient Japanese and Indian art in further blogs but for now let us focus on Ancient Chinese Art.
Chinese art takes a great deal of influence from great philosophers, teachers, religious figures and political leaders. It covered a vast and ever-changing geopolitical landscape and the art it produced over three millennia is, unsurprisingly, just as varied. Despite continuous technical developments as well as changes in materials and tastes, there are certain qualities inherent in Chinese art which make it possible to describe in general terms. It also makes it possible to recognize no matter where or when it was produced. These essential qualities include a love of nature, a belief in the moral and educational value of art as well as an admiration for simplicity and the appreciation for accomplished brushwork. There was also a loyalty to much-used and loved motifs and designs, from lotus leaves to dragons. Chinese art has tremendously influenced its neighbors in East Asia. Its reach even extended across the world through their work in ceramics, painting and jade work.
Ancient China produced many types of beautiful works of art and different eras and dynasties had their specialties. Chinese philosophy and religion have an impact on artistic styles and subjects. There is a concept that refers to The Three Perfections and refers to the arts of calligraphy, poetry, and painting. Often these would be combined together in art. It is a concept that became important with the Song Dynasty. Ancient Chinese considered writing to be an important form of art. Calligraphers would practice for years to learn to write perfectly, but with style. Poetry was an important form of art as well and great poets were famous throughout the empire. However, all educated people were expected to write poetry. During the Tang Dynasty, poetry became so important that writing poetry was even a part of the examinations to become a civil servant and work for the government. Painting was typically inspired by calligraphy and many paintings featured landscapes of mountains, homes, birds, trees, and water. Amongst these art forms, the Chinese specialized in silks, lacquers, and pottery. One of the most notable aspects of Ancient Chinese art was the construction of the Terracotta Army. It was created for the burial of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang to protect him in the afterlife. It consists of sculptures that make up an army of soldiers. There were over 8000 sculptures of soldiers and 530 horses. Every single sculpture was life-sized and highly detailed. Each soldier has his own uniform, weapons, armor and each one even had his own unique face.
An important difference between China and many other ancient cultures is that a large proportion of Chinese artists were not professionals. Many were gentlemen amateurs who were also scholars. They were students of Confucius and his principles and were often men of literature who also published poetry. For them, art was a means to capture and present a philosophical approach to life. For this reason, the art they produced is often minimal and without false details. Art throughout most of China’s history was meant to express the artist’s good character and not merely as a means to display their skills. There were, of course, professional artists too, as there are today. They were employed by the Imperial court or wealthy patrons to decorate the walls and interiors of their buildings and tombs. Of course, there were also thousands of craftsmen who worked with precious metals and crafted objects of art for those who could afford them. However, they were not regarded as artists. In ancient China, the real arts of merit were calligraphy and painting. Even back then the art world was plagued by questions of what is and what is not art.
Because of this connoisseurship of art, more and more people became collectors of it. Texts were even printed to help guide people on the history of Chinese art with helpful rankings of the various merits of past artists. In a certain way, art became quite standardized, with conventions to be adhered to. Artists were expected to study the great masters and copy their works as part of their training. One of the most famous and long-lasting sources of advice on judging art is the six-point list from 6th-century art critic and historian, Xie He. They were originally published in the now lost Old Record of the Classifications of Painters. When viewing a painting, the viewer should consult the list to determine the merit of the painting. It is as follows:
These rigid rules of art creation and appreciation were there largely due to the belief that art should somehow benefit the viewer. The idea or acceptance that art could and should express the feelings of the artist themselves would only arrive in more modern times. That is not to say that there weren’t the occasional eccentric outliers who ignored social convention and created works in their own, original way. There will always be these people who don’t abide by the rules of convention. There are cases of artists who painted to music, not even looking at the painting. There was one who only painted drunk and another who used his fingers and toes to paint. Innovation is always present, even in a society that thrived off of structure. One does need both, to ensure balance.
The topic of ancient Roman art is very broad, spanning over almost 1000 years and 3 continents, from Europe into Africa and Asia. The first record of Roman art dates back to 509 B.C.E with the first formation of the legendary Roman Republic. Roman art encompassed a broad spectrum of media, from marble to painting, mosaic and gems, silver and bronze work as well as terracotta. The city of Rome itself was a melting pot of culture and influence. The Romans had no problem adapting other artistic styles from the Mediterranean cultures that surrounded them. For this reason, it is common to see Greek, Etruscan and Egyptian influences throughout Roman art. Despite their knack for adopting other styles, there is still something very “roman” about Roman art. In fact, one of the larger challenges of art history is identifying what that is.
Greek art had a significant influence on Roman art. After conquering Greece, Rome adapted much of Greece’s culture and artistic heritage. They even imported many of Greece’s most famous works to their own lands. The Romans were quite taken with Greek culture. The Roman poet Horace even famously said that “Greece, the captive, took her savage victor captive.” Many Romans commissioned versions of famous Greek works and sculptures from earlier centuries. The Romans did not believe that having a copy of artwork was of any less value than having the original. The copies did typically have some variation though, with small changes made to them. These changes were often made with a sense of humour, turning the more serious and somber elements of Greek art on its head. For example, a famously gruesome Hellenistic sculpture of the satyr Marsyas being flayed was converted into a Roman dining knife handle. The irony here is clever, as the tool used in the flaying is now the structure itself. This demonstrated not only the owner’s knowledge of Greek Mythology but also a dark sense of humour. This shows that the Roman artist was not simply copying, he was adapting in a conscious and clever way. It this ability to adapt, convert and combine elements with a touch of humour that makes Roman art distinctly “Roman”.
The founding of the Roman Republic, as we know it, occurred after the last Etruscan king, Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown. The Etruscan civilization is the modern name given to the civilization of ancient Italy. During this period, the Romans were governed by magistrates, who were elected annually. There was also an overarching ruling body of the state referred to as “the Senate”. Eventually, this system broke down and civil wars ensued between 100 B.C and 42 B.C. The wars ended when Augustus defeated Mark Antony in the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. During this era, art was produced in the service of the state, depicting public sacrifices or celebrating victorious military campaigns. Portraiture depicted the common goals of the Roman Republic, which was about hard work, age, wisdom, being a community leader and a soldier. Patrons of the arts would deliberately choose to have themselves represented with balding heads, large noses, and extra wrinkles. This demonstrated that they had spent their lives working for the Republic as model citizens. The would show off their wisdom with each wrinkle and furrow of the brow.
Augustus’s rise to power signaled the end of the Roman Republic and the formation of Imperial rule. Roman art shifted here to represented the power, status or wealth of the ruler and his family. The different periods here were named after the ruling families at the time. Imperial art often referred back to the Classical art of the past, again borrowing heavily from Greek culture. The term “Classical” is often used when speaking about this type of art. It refers to the smooth lines of the work, the elegant drapery, idealized nude bodies, highly naturalistic forms, and balanced proportions. The Greeks had spent centuries perfecting this practice and the Romans simply continued the effort. There was a dynamic shift here. In this case, figures were idealized and people no longer wanted to be shown as wise, wrinkly old men but rather young, powerful warriors.
We, unfortunately, know very little about the artists making these works, especially during the Roman period. There is a significant lack of documentary evidence such as a contract or letters. The evidence we do have refers more to famous Greek artists of the past. As a result, historians will refer not to specific artists but consider them as a largely anonymous group. The Romans were an adaptive group of people and this really was their defining characteristic, when it came to art anyway. They had a remarkable ability to adapt, to take in and uniquely combine influences over centuries of practice. This is truly what made them distinct.
Ancient Greek culture was full of different types of art. They decorated almost every part of their lives, from their buildings and streets to the inside of their homes. Many objects were created with beauty in mind and they worked primarily with paints, metalwork, mosaic, sculpture, architecture, and pottery. Ancient Greek art was produced from about 1000BC to about 100BC. Many historians generally accept that Ancient Greece as a distinct culture ended with the establishment of Roman rule over the Greek-speaking world in about 100 BC. After this, art and other forms of cultural expression were labeled more as being Greco-Roman because they were inspired by earlier Greek examples and while the scale of work produced here was impressive, there was a significant decline in quality. Finally, the advent of Christianity brought the classical era to an end in the 5th century AD. However, despite this, Greek art had an enormous influence on the culture of many countries, from ancient times to the present, particularly in the areas of sculpture and architecture.
The art of Ancient Greece is usually divided stylistically into three periods: the Archaic, the Classical and the Hellenistic. The Archaic period is widely regarded as being the start of Ancient Greek art at around 1000 BC. The onset of the Persian Wars in 480 BC is usually taken as the dividing line between the Archaic period and the Classical period and the reign of Alexander the Great is taken as the start of the Hellenistic period, which began around 336 BC. In reality, there was no sharp transition from one period to another, and there very rarely is when it comes to the history of art. Forms of art developed at different speeds in different parts of the Greek world and innovation tended to happen slowly and through experimentation. While we can categorize artworks as being from certain periods, it doesn’t happen overnight and new styles did tend to develop slowly, particularly because there was no such thing as the internet back then.
There is also a question that relates to the word “art” itself in Ancient Greece. There is a word in Ancient Greek culture that commonly translates to “art” but more accurately means “skill” or “craftsmanship”. This word was “tekhni” and was considered an ideal that was highly regarded. Greek painters and sculptures were craftsmen who learned their trade as apprentices. They were not regarded at first as being in a social class of their own. They were considered to be more skillful than talented and It was only really in the Hellenistic period that artists were regarded as being on the level we know today. In fact, poets and playwrights were considered distinguished “artists” before painters were. Artists were typically hired by wealthy patrons rather than having their work in galleries and as such were considered craftsman for a long time.
Ancient Greek art has survived most successfully in the form of sculpture and architecture as well as in more minor arts like coin designs, pottery, and gem engraving, as these are made of materials that have more durable qualities. However, despite this, through writings and recordings, we know that the late Greeks regarded painting as the highest form of art. There was a painter called Polygnotus of Thasos who worked in the mid 5th century BC and was regarded by the Greeks in much the same way that we regard Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo. However, today none of his works survive, even as copies. Greek painters worked mainly on wooden panels and these perished rapidly after the 4th century when they were no longer actively protected. Nothing survives today of Greek painting aside from some examples of painted terracotta and a few paintings on the walls of tombs. Because of the eras that followed, many works from the Greek period have not survived as they were seen as pagan idols.
Even in the fields of sculpture and architecture, only a fragment of the total output of Greek art survives. The acute shortage of metal during the Middle Ages led to the majority of Greek bronze statues were melted down. Those statues which did survive did so primarily because they were buried, forgotten or lost at sea. Many of the buildings too were pillaged in war, looted for building materials or destroyed in Greece’s many earthquakes. Only a handful of temples like the Pantheon and Temple of Hephaestus in Athens have been spared.
Many of the Greek’s sculptures and artworks represented the gods, great heroes of war and the ultimate desire for perfection. Art reflects the society that creates them and nowhere is this truer than in the case of the ancient Greeks. Through their temples, sculpture, and pottery, the Greeks incorporated a fundamental principle of their culture, arete. To the Greeks, arete meant excellence and reaching one’s full potential. Their goal was to reach the pinnacle of their ability to create. It is a pity that so much was lost to history and time but we can take inspiration from the artworks and buildings that remain and strive for our own arete.
Ancient Egyptian art is approximately five thousand years old. It emerged in ancient Egypt from the civilization of the Nile Valley. Their art was expressed in paintings and sculptures. They were highly symbolic and intended to keep the culture alive and prospering. Ancient Egyptian art will typically refer to the two and three-dimensional art that developed from 3000 BC and was used up until almost the 3rd century. It is notable that many artifacts from the era have survived the test of time and it is due to the excellent craftsmanship and materials of the age as well as the extremely dry climate of the area.
A lot of what we know about the Ancient Egyptians comes from their art. From their many pieces of art, sculpture, pottery, and architecture we can learn about what they looked like, the jobs they worked and even the clothes they wore. Over the span of those years, their art changed very little, despite moving through six different eras of rule. Art is an essential aspect of any civilization and once the basic needs of food and shelter have been accounted for, it tends to blossom as a way of expressing community beliefs, religious ideologies and cultural nuances. Much of their artwork emphasized their devotion to their religion. For example, they would fill the tombs of the Pharaohs with paintings and sculptures that would help guide them into the afterlife. Temples particularly were a popular place for art as a sign of worship and reverence to their gods. The first forms of Egyptian art represented animals, human beings and supernatural figures inscribed on rock walls. These early images were fairly crude in relation to later developments but they still reflected the most important value of Egyptian culture and consciousness. This was the concept of balance. Because many of the surviving forms of sculpture and art come in the form of tombs and monuments, we are particularly aware of their focus on life after death as well as the preservation of knowledge.
Egyptian society functioned mainly on the concept of harmony and balance which was known as ma’at. This came into being at the dawn of creation and was the matter that, in their eyes, sustained the universe. All Egyptian art reflects this ideal because it mirrors the world of the gods. The same way these gods provided gifts to humanity, the artwork too was imagined and created to provide a use. Egyptian art was always first and foremost a functional piece. No matter the aesthetic quality of it, its purpose was to serve as a home for a spirit or a god. For example, an amulet would have been designed to be attractive and beautiful but was not the driving force of its creation. It was beautiful because it needed to be worthy of housing a spirit or giving protection to a tomb. All tomb paintings, temple tableaus and even home and palace gardens were created so their aesthetic forms suited their function. In many cases, this function was a reminder of the eternal nature of life and the value of personal and communal stability and balance.
Because of the highly religious nature of Ancient Egyptian civilization, many of the great works of art depict gods, goddesses, and Pharaohs, who were also considered to be divine beings. As mentioned, Ancient Egyptian art is characterized by the idea of order. Clear and simple lines combined with simple shapes and flat areas of colour helped to create a sense of order and balance in their art. They used vertical and horizontal reference lines in order to maintain the correct proportions in their work. Political, religious as well as artistic order was emphasized. In order to clearly define the social hierarchy of a situation, the artist would draw or paint the figures in sizes that were based on their importance and not necessarily from a logical perspective point. For example, the Pharaoh would be drawn as the largest figure in a painting no matter where he was standing and his servants, animals and even nature was represented as being smaller.
The Egyptians are famous particularly for their giant works of sculpture. Some examples of this include the Great Sphinx of Giza and the statues of Ramses II at the Abu Simbel Temples. The statues are over 60 feet tall and the Great Sphinx of Gaza is over 240 feet long. Their smaller and more ornate sculptures were made from a variety of rich materials, from alabaster to ivory, wood gilded with gold, limestone and sometimes even solid gold. They would use crushed precious stones to colour and tint the works and would work primarily in blue, black, red, green and gold.
The Ancient Egyptian culture, in general, was actually highly advanced and their art forms reflected that. They were capable of creating statues and monuments on a scale never seen before and they recorded everything on paper made with river reeds, called papyrus. They invented and used a system of writing we know as hieroglyphics and used this as a form of documentation. It is only because of their near fanatical need for knowledge that we know as much about them as we do and the advancements that they made to art and technology lived on for longer than their actual civilization did, which was by no means a small period of time.
Mesopotamia is often referred to as the “cradle of civilization” and was a sizable ancient land that roughly corresponds geographically to modern-day Iraq, southwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey, and northeastern Syria. It was the site of a series of early cultural advances, including the first system of writing. With the disappearance of the nomadic lifestyle, there was suddenly enough security and stability for the culture to develop more formal means of religious worship in permanent structures like temples. It also led to an important series of contributions to the history of art, especially to the fields of pottery, sculpture, and metalworking.
Mesopotamian sculpture, for example, includes a wide spread of ceramic arts, varieties of stone sculptures, mosaic art, and monumental architecture. Archaeological excavations show that Mesopotamia was first settled in about 10, 000 BC by unknown tribes of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers. Around 7000 BC the culture changed from a primitive, semi-nomadic style of hunting and gathering food, to a more settled type of lifestyle where farming and the rearing of domesticated animals was their primary means of survival. During this period, the formation of settled communities like villages, towns, and cities, led to a series of new activities that the region had not seen before. This included the rapid increase of trade, the construction of boats to transport goods and the growth of religious beliefs and ceremonies. All of this led directly to improvements in the supply of food and ultimately, the rapid rise of population.
There is a common misconception that when dealing with forms of ancient art is that the culture creating the work must have been more primitive than we are today. Joan Aruz, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says emphatically that is certainly not the case, saying that the society was actually highly elite, with sophisticated music, art, and literature. Architecture, art, and literature were some of the core creations that that rose out of the Mesopotamian era. Mesopotamian sculpture featured a highly distinct stylized aesthetic that is achieved through the repetition of lines or dots. Figures are typically presented either from the front or side on, in both sculpture and art. The statues and reliefs produced by Mesopotamian sculptors were highly impressive, with perhaps the most noteworthy being the “portal guardians” which were figures that guarded and watched over doorways. These guardians took the form of animals, real or imaginary, or animals with human heads. In fact, animal-human hybrid forms, or anthropological forms, are a fairly common feature of ancient art throughout the world and not just in Mesopotamia.
Throughout ancient history and before the rise of industry and the machine, the main types of large scale buildings that were made were typically palaces, temples, and royal tombs. Often, two of these or even all three were combined into a singular building. As such, these give us the best window into what the people of the time considered to be their best work. As the Mesopotamian area is virtually devoid of stone; bricks were made from clay and mud and were the primary construction material used. Unfortunately, this does mean that very little survived of Mesopotamian architectural as clay brick is less likely to withstand the pressures of time. Large scale Egyptian and Greek buildings do still stand, however, for the opposite reason. Stone is durable, clay faces the weathers of time with less grace. The most distinctive type of Mesopotamian architecture is the ziggurat, which is a structure shaped like a stepped pyramid. A ziggurat featured little to no interior space, instead of serving mainly as the platform for a temple. The exterior of a ziggurat was often decorated with glazed tiles, murals or mosaics.
There are four key periods in the Mesopotamian era. These consist of the Early Period, the Third Millennium, The Second Millennium and the Fall of Babylon. The Early period featured works made primarily of ceramic pottery, which, to some, was arguably far superior to any type of Greek pottery. The best examples featured geometric designs or plant and animal motifs. In addition, various artifacts and artworks began to be ornamented with precious metals. Interestingly around 3200 BC in Babylonia, we see the earliest known instance of nail art, when men coloured their nails with kohl and ancient cosmetics containing lead sulfide. The Third Millennium saw the rise of free-standing sculpture in stone and wood as well as bronze statuettes, personal jewelry and decorative designs on a variety of artifacts. The Second Millennium saw the innovation of glass working and glazing and there are several examples of multicolored, opaque glass from the region. Egyptian sculpture, as well as Ancient Persian art, would have had an influence on the carving work that came out of this period as they were existing around the same time and in a similar region. Great reliefs were carved in stone, often featuring detailed animals and royal hunting parties but human figures were still relatively rigid and wooden looking. The Fall of Babylon saw the construction of huge temples and ziggurats guarded by stone portal lions, winged bulls or genii. War campaigns were recorded in great detail in limestone slabs and many of these ventures saw them bringing back with the spoils of war, in the form of many different types of art.
This particularly is an era that was inordinately vast and complicated but saw the rise of expert craftsmanship once more. It is unfortunate that many of their physical structures no longer exist but many artifacts, artworks, and sculptures do still exist and give us an insight into one of the leading, ancient civilizations of the time who stood quite uniquely apart from the styles and influence of the Romans and Greeks.
Ancient art is more of an umbrella term that refers to the many different types of art that were produced by the advanced culture of ancient societies. These refer primarily to ancient China, India, Mesopotamia, Persia, Palestine, Egypt, Greece and Rome. The art of pre-literate societies is normally referred to as pre-historic art and doesn’t actually typically fall into this category. This is also referred to as the Stone Age. For the sake of these writings and to create a clear, cohesive image of the timeline of mankind, we are going to cover the Stone Age as part of ancient art, for it was there that the journey really started.
Between approximately 5000BC and 300AD “advanced” civilizations emerged. An “advanced” Civilization is generally considered one with written language and they thrived in regions like Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Mexico and Asia, amongst many others. Mesopotamia is a historical region of Western Asia which is now more commonly known as the area which houses Iraq, Kuwait, parts of Northern Saudi Arabia and parts of Syria and Turkey. Art played an important role in these growing societies by providing a means of enforcing religious and political order. For example, one of the most famous works of art from Mesopotamia, which, as a land, was often referred to as the “cradle of civilization” is the Code of Hammurabi. This was a set of laws carved in stone and adorned with an image of King Hammurabi and the Mesopotamian god Shabash. It was created to govern and exemplify the importance of the law in the land. Similarly, the art of ancient Egypt includes symbolic imagery alongside text, which is referred to as hieroglyphs, that tell the stories of rulers, gods and goddesses. Although prehistoric humans made art as far back as 40,000 years ago, ancient art is considered to be the foundation of all of art history with many of its techniques, forms and subject matter continuing to be explored by the art of today. Art reflected the culture it came from and can give us so much insight into civilizations and cultures long dead.
In the next few weeks we will explore the different ages associated with Ancient Art in much more depth, but for now, let’s look at what they are briefly about.
Stone Age 30 000 B.C – 2500 B.C
The first Ice Age ended around 10 000 – 8000 BC and the first permanent settlements started popping up. Which meant that life was not necessarily about surviving the deadly cold anymore. There were obviously still great dangers but humanity was in a critical phase of development. Life was about the survival of the human race more than anything else so most pictorial depictions and artifacts that come out of this era feature fertility icons, goddesses associated with women and birth, the hunt and the group. Natural resources were always utilized and many things involved stone in some way. Cave paintings, etchings and sculpture were the primary mediums.
Mesopotamian 3500 BC – 539 B.C
The Mesopotamian era was largely associated with the emergence of ‘advanced’ civilization, although there is some evidence to consider that the first attempts at writing and language started in the Stone Age. Warrior art was key here and many things were carved or narrated into stone. There are three key things to consider here in Mesopotamian art. First was the impact of the socio-political organization systems of the Sumerian city-states, and of the Kingdoms and Empires that succeeded them. The second was the role of organized religion in the affairs of the state and the third was the influence of the natural environment. Each of these three concepts influenced the art that was made and was usually a response to things that had occurred within those bounds.
Egyptian 3100 B.C – 30 B.C
The ancient Egyptians heavily revered the gods and represented them in any way they could. Monstrous temples and monuments were built in awe of the gods and a common theme that ran throughout their art was the thought of an afterlife. Tombs were ordained with priceless jewels and painted with ornate images and hieroglyphs. Egyptian Art reached a high level of painting and sculpture and was both highly stylized and very symbolic. One could stare at a wall of Egyptian art for years and still never fully understand the intricacies of the symbolism.
Ancient Greece 850 B.C – 31 B.C
The case for art reflecting culture is nowhere truer than in the case of the ancient Greeks. Through their temples, sculpture and pottery, the Greeks incorporated a fundamental principle into their culture. This was the principle of arete. To the Greeks, this meant excellence and the ability to reach one’s full potential. Ancient Greek art emphasized the importance and accomplishments of human beings. Even though much of Greek art was meant to honour the gods, those very gods were often created in the image of humans.
Roman 500 B.C – 476 A.D
The ancient Roman way of art was to capture the beauty of life. In many ways they were Realists and it is here too that scholars writing worldly philosophies and epic novels found their place. Their art was practical in many ways and exhibited the gentle quality of man and nature but also the fury and majesty of the gods. It also encompasses a massive spectrum of work, ranging from marble, silver and bronze sculpture to painting, mosaic work and terracotta pots.
Indian, Chinese and Japanese 653 B.C – 1900 A.D
Works from these regions typically took on a serene, almost meditative quality and much of it was about self-introspection. Many of the developments of Eastern art parallel those of Western movements, in fact, in general, they made the developments a few centuries earlier. Much like the Western world, Eastern art was a melting pot of various cultures and societies and they borrowed and took influence from these many cultures and religions. From Buddhist art to works coming out of Korea, Thailand and India, there is an abundance of history present here.
Byzantine and Islamic 476 A.D – 1453 A.D
This emerged primarily from the depths of the Roman decline and the Byzantine Empire flourished under the rule of Emperor Constantine the Great. They borrowed heavily on Greek art and culture and decorated the capital city with elaborate Greek statues, exquisite gold and marble art and mosaics that glorified the Christian religion. Their focus lay in these heavenly mosaic works but also in the impeccable, finely detailed designs on their architecture. They embellished everything with rich, gold mosaics and this carried across both Byzantine and Islamic culture.
In the middle of the 19th century, around 50 years after Romanticism came about, artists in Europe adopted a new style of art making. This was called Realism. It was characterized by an unprecedented attention to everyday subject matter and it is an art movement that transformed the western art world. Realism emerged in France in the 1850s on the heels of the 1848 French Revolution, which was an event that established the “right to work” in the country. It introduced the idea that the average, everyday working class person was considered a worthy artistic subject. As was the ordinary, day to day working scenes of the contemporary French lifestyle. Some artists associated with the movement were Jean-Francois Millet, Gustave Courbet, John Sargent and Honore Daumier. The style was later taken up and adapted by French Impressionists like Edgar Degas.
Artists who worked in the Realist style rejected the standards that Romanticism put forth. Romanticism was a genre defined by emotion and drama and featured mythological figures and awe-inspiring scenes of nature. Either way, Romanticism glorified the subject matter, which is a trait that the Realists threw away. They valued the image as a whole, a representation of the real and the raw. There was no drama, no mysticism and the only emotion that was present was the gritty reality of the working class.
One of the key concepts to remember here is that Realism is all about class. It is important to remember that throughout history, the middle class didn’t always exist. There was the aristocracy (the rich landowners with powdered faces and fancy wigs) and then there was everyone else, usually the ones working their lives away on land owned by the aristocracy. The 19th century saw the rise of the middle class, thanks to industrialization, a peasant could, over time, become a wealthy merchant and start living a little more comfortably. Society was changing, social structures were being transformed and Realism reflected these changes.
Realism directly inspired prominent contemporary art movements like Photorealism and Hyper-realism. It was a revolution to painting and expanded the conceptions of what constituted art. Up until this point, art was about highlighting great and important things. Historic moments, kings and queens, biblical stories and the occasional merchant’s wife. The subject matter was portrayed as being worthy of reverence. The choice from the Realists to bring everyday life into their canvases was a desire to merge art and life, ordinary, everyday life. It is quite broadly considered the beginning of modern art and it is because of this urge to paint the ordinary and the conviction that it was worth something.
There was a larger, overreaching concern for Realism and it was more than laying the subject bare on the canvas. It concerned itself with how life was structured socially, economically, politically and culturally in the mid-19th century. This is what led to the unflinching, sometimes “ugly” portrayals of life’s unpleasant truths. They also tended to use dark, earthy palette tones that also confronted the ideals of high art and beauty.
The invention and subsequent explosion of newspaper printing and mass media that came with the Industrial Revolution brought with it a new mode of publicity for artists. Realism brought in a new conception of the artist as a self-publicist. Many artists purposefully danced along the line of controversy and used this new media to enhance their celebrity status. It is something that is still very much done today.
Art Realism in France was an outcome of a nationwide desire for democracy. Simultaneously, England’s version of art realism depicted the rebuttal of Victorian materialism and the classicism that came with it. Much like Romanticism, Realism was not subject to fine art alone. Many authors, particularly, but even some musicians, adopted the style as a means to portray their own art through a cleaner lens. Through both art and literature, there are still some core concepts that separate the movement from other genres of art. The language used was transparent and this was true for literature and painting. There was no attempt to hide behind hidden meanings and flowery words and imagery. There was a certain verisimilitude in Realism. Verisimilitude is just an over the top word for “truthfulness”. Realist literature and art were famous for the way it tried to create a world that seemed real or true. Realist artists and writers wanted us to believe we were watching real life unfold on the page or canvas. There was an emphasis on the individual or the “character”. Even through art, the characters were portrayed in extreme detail. In writing, this meant that there was an emphasis on describing, analyzing and dramatizing personality. Its good to remember that when Realism was emerging, psychology as a discipline was also emerging.
In many ways, Realism was almost a direct contradiction to Romanticism. As we spoke about in the previous post, the Romanticists had a particular interest in the mythological figure and the individual independent from society. The Realists chose to focus on social networks and the individuals place within these social networks as opposed to a single grand hero. This quote by Emile Zemo sums up the overarching themes of Realism very well. “It is not a question, here, of searching for an ‘absolute’ of beauty. The artist is neither painting history nor his soul… And it is because of this that he should neither be judged as a moralist nor as a literary man. He should be judged simply as a painter.”
Romanticism is an art movement that spread across Europe and the United States. It’s an art movement that challenged the ideals held onto so tightly during the Enlightenment era. The artists emphasized their sense of emotions, and these were just as important as reason and order. They honed in on emotion as a way of experiencing the world. It celebrated the individual imagination and intuition in the everlasting search for individual rights and liberty and it fueled many avant-garde movements well into the 20th century. It originated in Germany then spread to England and the rest of Europe. The Enlightenment era or the “Age of Reason” was a period that glorified rational thinking, secularism and scientific progress. This was the time of true revolution in the industrial world with the first operational steam engine being built in 1712. However, at the turn of the 19th century, not everyone believed that science and reason could possibly explain everything. The romanticists looked beyond reason and sought inspiration in intuition and imagination. Being emotionally engaged was the ultimate aim of their artwork. It also borrowed heavily from religious imagery and stories and found inspiration in them in the same way that they found inspiration in mythology and folklore. Recurring themes of human vulnerability and isolation were often portrayed in the genre. Romanticism was, in a lot of senses, the direct opposite of rationality. It was about passion, intuition and the mysterious.
Romanticism found a home in many expressions of creative pursuits, including literature, music, art, and architecture. They valued originality, inspiration, and imagination which produced many different styles within the same genre. In many ways, it was a contrast to Neo-Classicism which was quite sober and grim. The genre rose up out of the Industrial Revolution as a means of combating the rise of machines and industry. Additionally, in an effort to stem the tide of increasing industrialization, many of the Romanticists emphasized the individual’s connection to nature and an idealized past. In part, gaining inspiration from the French Revolution, Romanticism embraced the struggles for freedom and equality as well as the promotion of justice. Painters used current events and atrocities to shed light on these injustices in dramatic compositions and over the top scenes that played the drama out on canvas.
With this in mind, when thinking of Romanticism and Romantic art, don’t think of terms like love or romance itself. In the context of art, its a reference to the strength of emotions in general. Up until this moment in Art History, most artworks were created with beauty at its heart. Romantic art was “Gothic”. It was dark, macabre and grotesque. Fine art had been taught as a discipline while romantic art, on the other hand, was there to fascinate and horrify. Some of their paintings were the most horrific to be seen in the West at the time. For example, Saturn Devours his Children by Francisco de Goya was an image that evoked real horror in the enlightened viewer. The artist’s deep troubles and personal struggles came out in his paintings. The stereotype in our popular culture of the artist or the intellectual as a self-tortured, lonely soul with a “nobody understands me” attitude very much originated out of the romantic period.
They embraced the individual and subjective to counteract the insistence for logic. They explored various emotional and psychological states as well as moods. As French poet, Charles Baudelaire, described it, “Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling.” The romantic artist was considered a ‘hero’ of art, unburdened by academic taste. In many countries, Romantic painters turned their attention to nature and ‘plein air’ painting, much like the Impressionists. Works were usually based on close inspection of the landscape and the sky and when human figures were involved they were usually at one with nature. The unpredictability and power of nature were often emphasized and was meant to evoke a feeling of the sublime, which speaks about the feeling of awe that arises when one is faced with something greater than themselves. It emphasized local folklore, traditions, and landscapes and was closely bound up with the emergence of a new nationalism that was sweeping across many countries after the American Revolution.
There are some core concepts to keep in mind when trying to differentiate Romanticism from other art genres. The skies are typically quite dramatic with an imminent sense of danger or fear of the unknown. The focus on nature, as we have spoken about, but perhaps with a dark or mysterious ambiance in both a literal or a figurative sense. There will be a dramatic scene of man or nature with undertones of nature’s triumph over man. The brushstrokes are usually visible with an overall sense of softness to the quality of the edges. Sometimes the imagery can be quite Gothic and occasionally horrific where the faces express feelings such as intense pain, anguish, anger or fear. Romanticism is a genre that still holds a place in our own world today. It embodied a disdain for a dehumanized and mechanical world and held onto the nostalgia of a simpler life, which we see in our lives today even. And people still make art about escaping technology, it’s just depicted in different ways.