Three Important Periods of Art History


Art historians divide the scope and expanse of world art into defined periods and movement. Within each period and movement, artists use similar techniques and often portray similar subjects of themes. Three important periods in the history of Western art are the Renaissance, Romanticism and Impressionism. These three art movements had a lasting impact on artists who came afterwards.

The Renaissance

  • The word "renaissance" means rebirth. In terms of art history, the Renaissance is the period during which there was a rebirth of interest in Greek and Roman art forms. The Renaissance began in Italy in the 1300s and was characterized by an intellectual movement away from the religious themes that had dominated the Middle Ages. Instead, Renaissance artists began to focus on worldly themes such as the importance of the individual. At the same time, artists began to emulate the styles, particularly in sculpture, that were common in antiquity.

    The Renaissance was a time when learning in many disciplines expanded due to a higher standard of living which led to increasing numbers of universities, academies, and libraries. Much of this learning influenced the art styles of the period. Painters during the Renaissance used increasing levels of mathematical precision in their work, learning how to apply techniques we take for granted today, such as the use of perspective to portray scenes which appear highly realistic to the viewer. Portrait artists used improved anatomical knowledge to paint human figures which looked authentic. The main distinction between the art of the Middle Ages and that of the Renaissance is the level of realism present in painting and sculpture.

    Soem of the most famous artists of the Renaissance include Michelangelo for the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and his statue of the biblical David; Leonardo da Vinci for his many paintings including the Mona Lisa; and Raphael for his painting The School of Athens, which depicts important philosophers from antiquity.


  • The artistic movement of Romanticism, which began in the late 1700s and lasted about a century, was first and foremost a reaction against the industrial revolution which swept across Europe during that period. Beginning in Britain and then spreading to Germany, France and northern Italy, the industrial revolution transformed Europe from a mainly agricultural economy to a factory-based one. This caused a huge increase in the growth of cities and the destruction of the natural environment.

    The Romantics were artists and writers who looked back to the pre-industrial past as a better time to live. They valued the past over the present and the natural world over the industrial one. They also focused on the importance of the individual; this was a reaction against the tendency in industrial societies to regard humans as cogs in a machine. Romantic paintings frequently depicted glorious scenes of cliffs, mountains and meadows that existed only in the artist's imagination. These scenes would depict nature as wild and free, with no sign of human intrusion anywhere. At times a single human figure would be present, admiring the view and representing the value of the individual. An example of such a painting is "The Wanderer Above the Mists" by German painter Caspar David Friedrich. Other important painters of the Romantic period include William Blake, John Constable and JMW Turner.


  • Impressionism was a short but highly influential period in art history. It began in France and lasted less than 30 years during the late 1800s. Impressionist painting was a reaction against the rigid rules that characterized "proper" art during this period. Instead of taking months to meticulously paint a scene so that it would resemble reality as closely as possible, the Impressionists would use quick brush strokes to capture an "impression" of the object. In part, this was a recognition that the improving technology of photography, then in its infancy, would always surpass painting as a means of expressing objective reality. Artists therefore needed to use art to express something other than stark realism.

    A major goal of Impressionism was to "catch the light" as it was falling during a particular moment in time. They were interested in playing with color so that their paintings would seem to depict how light was shifting and reflecting on buildings or flowers, particularly at key times of the day such as early morning and twilight. An Impressionist painting is like a quick glimpse of an object, implying that the object will appear differently in different light and at other times of the day. In order to capture such images in paint, impressionists worked very quickly, using dabs of paint and large, obvious brush strokes. In this they broke the old rules which said that fine paintings do not have any brush strokes visible. Impressionists often finished a painting in 15 minutes; some could produce a dozen or more paintings in a single day.

    The most famous Impressionists are Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who often included people and city scenes in his paintings, and Claude Monet, whose painting "Impression: Sunrise" gave the movement its name. Monet is best known for his many paintings of the water lilies in his garden.

The Legacy of These Art Periods

  • These three art periods have left a lasting impressions on Western art. The Renaissance artists provided those who would follow with standard techniques and procedures that endure to this day, such as the use of perspective to make a scenes painted upon flat canvas appear to have realistic depth. The Romantics popularized the idea of using artistic expression as a form of social protest against what they saw as the evils of their time, a trend which continues to this day. The Impressionists were perhaps most influential of all. By breaking with the established "rules" for art during their time, they demonstrated that what should drive an artist is his own sense of what is right and proper in terms of style and technique.

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