History of Art - Quatr.us
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What is Art?

Horse from Lascaux
Cave painting of a horse from Lascaux, ca 32,000 BC

Nobody knows when the first people began to produce art, but it was pretty early on - probably more than a hundred thousand years ago. The earliest art we know about is stone carvings from Africa. We also have a lot of cave paintings and rock carvings from Africa and Europe from about 32,000 BC. You might think these early paintings would be pretty bad, but actually they're just as good as later ones in their ability to show what the animal really looked like.

Statue from Jericho
Stone Age statue from Jericho

When people started settling down in permanent villages instead of being nomads, about 9000 BC, they began to make bigger, more permanent pieces of art. The first large stone and clay statues, from West Asia and Egypt, are from this time. Artists also began to produce decorated pottery.

Around 3000 BC, people learned how to work metal, and we get the first bronze statuettes - small ones at first. By this time people in Greece and India were also beginning to produce art. In Egypt, sculptors began to carve life-size stone statues, and paint them realistically.

Indian Buddha statue
from about 300 AD

By 1100 BC, a Dark Age around the Mediterranean Sea and West Asia meant that nobody could afford great art, and for several hundred years artists pretty much stopped producing art. But when that was over, they made up for lost time. In Greece, this is the time of Archaic and Classical sculpture, and of black-figure and red-figure vase painting. In Italy, the Etruscans created big stone and clay statues, and their own painted pottery as well. In West Asia, the Assyrian kings had wonderful stone carvings on the walls of their palaces.

When Alexander the Great conquered West Asia in 325 BC, artists were able to travel throughout this empire and exchange ideas about art. That's how the first Greek stone statues came to India, where Indian sculptors quickly used Greek methods to carve statues of the Buddha. Soon Buddhists travelling to China brought the stone statues with them, and artists in China also began to carve life-size stone statues.

The rise of the Roman Empire in the Western Mediterranean spread Greek art skills to the west as well, so that artists in North Africa and northern Europe also began to create art in the Roman style. Phoenician artists invented blown glass, which they sold west to England and east to China. By around 200 AD, Roman artists were beginning to experiment with a more abstract, less real-looking style, where they carved statues with big eyes, for example, to indicate that they had a strong soul.

Tang Dynasty painting
Five Oxen, a Chinese painting
How has this changed since the Lascaux painting at the top of the page?
How is it the same?

The fall of Rome and the decline of the Sassanian Empire around 450 AD meant that people were poorer and couldn't afford as much art as before, so there was a second Dark Age and not much art produced for several hundred years. In China, however, artists made new kinds of paintings, using their new invention, paper.

When Western artists began to work again, they were able to combine many new ideas to produce new ways of looking at the world - Islam and Christianity both made big contributions to medieval art, but also the artistic traditions of the Goths and Vikings. The Islamic Empire and the Silk Road brought Chinese porcelain to West Asia, where artists imitated porcelain with cheaper lead glazes. Then the Mongol Empire brought the ideas of Central Asian art to West Asia and Europe, as well as to China. At first medieval artists, like Late Roman ones, were more interested in expressing spirit and symbolic ideas than in making the people and houses look real, but in the later Middle Ages artists like Giotto and Donatello began trying to combine the new medieval art with older Greek and Roman traditions to create a style that would soon lead to the Renaissance.

Bibliography and further reading:

Exploring World Art, by Andrea Belloli (Getty Museum, 1999). For teens.

History of Art for Young People (5th Edition), by Anthony F. Janson. Aimed at high school students. Janson is the big name in college art history; this is a version for younger people. It leans heavily on European art.

Sculpture (Eyewitness Art), by Mary-Jane Opie (1994). For kids - all kinds of sculpture from all over the world. In the Eyewitness series.

The Usborne Story of Painting: Cave Painting to Modern Art, by Anthea Peppin (1980).

Egyptian Painting
Greek Statues
Chinese Art
Medieval Painting

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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