An Introduction to Art History

Western art refers to art created in Europe and regions that share a European cultural tradition, including the United States and Canada. The first piece of art is believed to be created by Neanderthal 64,000 years ago in Spain. Scientists discovered red horizontal and vertical lines, resembling ladders at La Pasiega cave near Bilbao in the north. This ingenious act of mark making has advanced from stones tools to sophisticated digital tools and it is interesting to see the changes in styles and intention of the artists during the different periods.

Like many musicians, artists do find inspirations in masterpieces from previous periods. Pablo Picasso is widely quoted as having said that “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” Hence, all art educators should see the importance of this field of study and include history into the art curriculum. Art history not only lays the basis for art making but also provides students a rich visual understanding of human culture which in turn helps the learning of other humanities subjects.

There are 21 successive periods/movements in Western Art history.

Prehistoric Art

The first paintings were cave paintings done by prehistoric people called Cro-Magnons and they are commonly known as prehistoric art. The Cro-Magons decorated walls of protected caves with paint made from dirt or charcoal mixed with spit or animal fat and used brushes made from horsehair. They used earth pigments such as minerals limonite and hematite to get yellow and red ochre, white from grounded calcite and carbon black from charcoal.

Many beautiful prehistoric paintings were discovered throughout France and Spain at sites such as Lascaux, Eyzies-de-tayac and Altamira. Dozens of red and black painting of bison, horses, deer and other animals were found across the rock surfaces.

Small engravings, reliefs and statuettes of humans and animals were also found and it was assumed that art was sometimes used for religious rites. For instance, large-breasted and wide-hipped pregnant women were depicted in their engravings probably for fertility rites. Many astonishingly stunning carved ivories were also discovered and these decorated tools and weapons were evidences of their incredible intelligence and that they appreciated art not just for religious reasons but also for aesthetic reasons.

Ancient Art

Ancient art in western art history refers to the many types of art produced by the advanced cultures of ancient societies with some form of writing, such as those of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

Medieval Art

Medieval Art is a period starting from the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D. to the early stages of the Renaissance in the 14th century and an amazing range of art and architecture were created during this time.

Renaissance Art

Renaissance Art is a period that first emerged in Italy in about 1400. Many painting, sculpture and decorative arts were created in European countries during this art movement. It is in parallel with the developments in philosophy, literature, music and technology.


Mannerism is derived from the Italian word ‘maniera’ and it means stylishness. This movement first emerged in Rome and Florence between 1510 and 1520 during the later part of Renaissance period.


Baroque is a period that originated during the 17th and 18th centuries. The European artists and architects during this time, very much like the composers, adopted styles that were elaborated, grandeur, rich with vitality.


Rococo came from a French word ‘Rocaille’ which means rubble or rock. It emerged in Paris during the early 18th century. Art during this time depicted scenes of love, nature and light-hearted encounters.


Neoclassicism was a Western cultural movement that drew inspiration from the art and culture of earlier Greeks and Romans.


Romanticism originated in Europe in the late 1700s and and artists during this period had a strong interest in beautiful landscapes, religion and revolution.


Impressionism was a bridge between romanticism and post-impressionism. It emerged from 1870 to 1880. Most of the works were done outdoor. There was great emphasis on the light, colour and movement.


Post-impressionism emerged in the 1890s and artists rejected impressionism’s way of rendering light and colour.  Works during this time were done in the studio unlike many of the impressionist artists who created their paintings outdoor. Post-impressionist artists aim was to evoke emotions rather than realism by using vivid unnatural colours, thick layers of paints and geometric forms.


Fauvism (Les Fauves – meaning the wild beasts) was coinedPostby a French critic who criticised the work of Henri Matisse and André Derain in an exhibition in Paris, in 1950. This style was short-lived, lasted about 30 years and was an early form of expressionism. During this time, there was a liking for radical, non-naturalistic colour schemes.


Expressionism originated in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. During this time, artists applied exaggeration and distortion on their subject matters and employed shocking and vivid colours.


Cubism was developed in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. There was a reduction of fine details in the subject matters and a focus on geometrical shapes and organisation of planes.


Surrealism emerged in the 20th century as an avart-garde art movement. Artists during this period created artworks that touched on the subconscious and irrational juxtaposition of images.

Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism is developed by American painters such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning in the 1940s and 1950s. There are two types of Abstract Expressionist painters, Action painters, and Color Field painters.

Op Art

Op Art means optical art. It used optical illusions, creating a moving visual effect, sometimes flashing and vibrating, swelling or warping.

Pop Art

Pop Art is an art movement that emerged in the United Kingdom and the United States during the mid- to late-1950s. It remains a prominent art movement till today. Artworks during this period used bold imagery from popular and mass culture to challenge definitions.

Arte Povera

Arte Povera  literally means poor or impoverished art. It is a radical art movement which took place between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s in major cities throughout Italy and above all in Turin. During this period, artists used unconventional processes and non traditional ‘everyday’ materials.


Minimalism emerged began in post–World War II, in the 1960s and early 1970s. Artworks during this period were often repetitions of simple geometric forms, like lines or squares. In both music and the visual arts, the aim was to explore just the essential elements of forms and the removal of anything that distracts the pure value. Minimalist painter Frank Stella famously said about his paintings ‘What you see is what you get.’

Conceptual Art

Conceptual Art began in the second half of the 20th century or in the 21st century. Artists during this time placed more emphasis on the concepts behind the work more than the finished art object. This approach towards art making is still adopted in today’s art world, for instance, the banana duct-taped to a wall art, titled “The Comedian” by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan.

Contemporary Art

Contemporary Art  is rooted in the early 21st century till today but it actually emerged as a formal movement in the 1960s and this period created opportunities for female artists and started the feminist art movement in the 1970s. There are many contemporary art forms: Painting, sculpture, drawing, installation art, performance art, photography, conceptual art, animations, internet art, interactive art, print making, new media art, sound art, found art and earth art. Artists explore interesting social themes with the aim to question, understand and envision the future.

Check out Shock Art if you enjoy contemporary art. Shock art is contemporary art that incorporates disturbing imagery, sound or scents to create a shocking experience for the audience.

Asian Art/Eastern Art

Asian Art or Eastern Art is historically parallel to those in Western art but the periods were generally a few centuries earlier… excluding prehistoric art. Different Asian art forms and near Eastern art had significant influences on Western art and vice versa.

The art of Mesopotamia (4500-539 BCE) is the oldest forms of Asian art. They were meant to glorify the Gods and King during that period. Clay was commonly used to create pottery, monumental buildings and tablets for recording of history and legends. It was believed that Mesopotamians developed the world’s first writing system.

To study and understand Asian art, we need to look at art from China, Japan, Korea and Mongolia; South Asia which includes the Indian subcontinent; Central Asia which includes Tibet; and Southeast Asia encompassing Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Boreno, Thailand and Vietnam and Laos.