s long as we humans have been able to use our hands, we have been creating art. From early cave paintings to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, human artistic expression can tell us a lot about the lives of the people who create it. To fully appreciate the cultural, social, and historical significance of different artworks, you need to be aware of the broad art history timeline. This article presents an overview of many significant eras of art creation and the historical contexts out of which they have risen.
Table of Content
- 1 Art Eras: Where to Begin?
- 2 A Brief Overview of the Art Periods Timeline
- 3 A Comprehensive Art Movement Timeline
- 3.1 The Romanesque Period (1000-1300): Sharing Information Through Art
- 3.2 The Gothic Era (1100-1500): Freedom and Fear Come Together
- 3.3 The Renaissance Era (1420-1520): The Reawakening of an Art Era That Never Really Existed
- 3.4 Mannerism (1520-1600): A Window into the Future of Kitsch
- 3.5 The Baroque Era (1590-1760): The Glorification of Power and the Deception of the Eye
- 3.6 The Rococo Art Period (1725-1780): Light and Airy, a French Fancy
- 3.7 Classicism (1770-1840): Throwing It Back to Classic Times
- 3.8 Romanticism (1790-1850): A Break from the Severity of it All
- 3.9 Realism (1850-1925): Objectivity over Subjectivity
- 3.10 Impressionism (1850-1895): Heralding the Era of Modern Art
- 3.11 Symbolism (1890-1920): There is Always More Than Meets the Eye
- 3.12 Art Nouveau (1890-1910): The Pure Gold of Gustav Klimt
- 3.13 Expressionism (1890-1914): Bringing a Political Edge to the Debate
- 3.14 Cubism (1906-1914): Breaking Things Apart and Putting Them Back Together Again
- 3.15 Futurism (1909-1945): Artistic Anarchism
- 3.16 Dadaism (1912-1920): The True Reality That Life is Nonsense
- 3.17 Surrealism (1920-1930): Things Just Get More Bizzare
- 3.18 The New Objectivity (1925-1965): Cold and Technical
- 3.19 Abstract Expressionism (1948-1962): Stepping Away from Europe
- 3.20 Pop-Art (1955-1969): Art is Everything
- 3.21 Neo-Expressionism (1980-1989): Modern Art
Art Eras: Where to Begin?
As long as humankind has been conscious of itself, it has been creating art to represent this self. The earliest cave paintings that we are aware of were created roughly 40,000 years ago. We have found paintings and drawings of human activity from the Paleolithic Era under rocks and in caves. We cannot truly know the reason why these early humans began to produce art. Perhaps painting and drawing was a way to record their lived experiences, to tell stories to young children, or to pass down wisdom from one generation to the next.
Although we have these exquisite examples of early artistic expression, the official history of art periods only begins with the Romanesque Era. Official art era timelines do not include cave paintings, sculptures, and other works of art from the stone age or the beautiful frescos produced in Egypt and Crete in around 2000 BC. The reason behind this decision is that these early eras of artistic expression were bound to a relatively small geographical space. The official art eras that we will be discussing today, in contrast, span across many countries, often all of Europe and sometimes North and South America.
Despite their lack of official recognition, these earliest examples of human artistic flair raise a lot of interesting questions. Why is it that the animals depicted in cave paintings are so much more realistic and vivid than the animals represented in later eras?
This article hopes to give you some insight into the ever-changing artistic style of the human creative mind as we explore the complexities of the different art periods.
A Brief Overview of the Art Periods Timeline
As with many areas of human history, it is impossible to delineate the different art periods with precision. The dates presented in the brackets below are approximations based on the progression of each movement across several countries. Many of the art periods overlap considerably, with some of the more recent eras occurring at the same time. Some eras last for a few thousand years while others span less than ten. Art is a continuous process of exploration, where more recent periods grow out of existing ones.
A note: Circa (ca.) is an expression of approximation, literally meaning “about”.
- The Romanesque Era (ca. 1000-1200AD)
- The Gothic Era (ca. 12th – 16th Century)
- The Renaissance period (ca. 1420-1520 in Florence)
- The Era of Mannerism (ca. 1520-1600)
- The Baroque period (ca. end of 16th Century – 1760)
- The Roco Era (ca. 1725-1780)
- The Period of Classicism (ca. 1770-1840)
- The Era of Romanticism (ca. end of 18th Century- Mid 19th Century)
- Realism (ca. Mid-19th Century- 1925)
- The Impressionist Era (ca. second half of the 19th Century)
- The Period of Symbolism (ca. 1900-1920)
- Art Nouveau (ca. end of 19th Century)
- Expressionism (ca. end of 19th Century- 1914)
- Cubism (ca. 1906-1914)
- Futurism (ca. 1909-1945)
- Dadaism (1912-ca. 1920)
- Surrealism (ca. 1920-1930)
- New Objectivity (ca. 1925-1965)
- Abstract Expressionism (ca. 1950- 1965)
- Pop Art (mid-1950 – 1960)
- Neo-Expressionism (1980-1989)
It may seem strange for our account of the art period timeline to end 30 years ago. The concept of an art era seems inadequate to capture the variety of artistic styles that have grown since the turn of the 21st Century. There is a feeling among some art historians that the traditional concept of painting has died in our era of fast-track living. We do not take this stance. Instead, we continue to share our unique human experiences through the medium of art, just as the cave people did, outside of our modern system of classification.
The Flower Terrace in the Wannsee Garden, Facing Southwest (1919) by Max Liebermann [Public Domain]
A Comprehensive Art Movement Timeline
It is time to dive a little deeper into the social, cultural, and historical contexts of each of the distinct art eras we presented above. You will see how many eras take influence from those before them. Art, like human consciousness, is continuously evolving. It is also important to note that this art timeline is a history of Western and predominantly European art.
The Romanesque Period (1000-1300): Sharing Information Through Art
Art historians typically consider the Romanesque art era to be the start of the art history timeline. Romanesque art developed during the rise of Christianity ca. 1000 AD. During this time, only a small percentage of the European population were literate. The ministers of the Christian church were typically part of this minority, and to spread the message of the bible, they needed an alternative method.
Christian objects, stories, deities, saints, and ceremonies were the exclusive subject of most Romanesque paintings. Intended to teach the masses about the values and beliefs of the Christian Church, Romanesque paintings had to be simple and easy to read.
As a result, Romanesque works of art are simple, with bold contours and clean areas of color. Romanesque paintings lack any depth of perspective, and the imagery is rarely of natural scenes. There were several different forms that Romanesque paintings could take, including wall paintings, mosaics, panel paintings, and book paintings.
Due to the Christian purpose behind Romanesque paintings, they are almost always symbolic. The relative importance of the figures within the paintings is shown by the size, with the more important figures appearing much larger. You can see that human faces are often distorted, and the stories depicted in these paintings tend to have a high emotional value. Romanesque paintings often include mythological creatures like dragons and angels, and almost always appear in churches.
At the most fundamental level, paintings of the Romanesque period serve the purpose of spreading the word of the bible and Christianity. The name of this art era stems from round arches used in Roman architecture, often found in churches of the time.
The Birth in the Stable Christmas fresco in a medieval church. Bjaresjo, Sweden
The Gothic Era (1100-1500): Freedom and Fear Come Together
One of the most famous eras, Gothic art grew out of the Romanesque period in France and is an expression of two contrasting feelings of the age. On the one hand, people were experiencing and celebrating a new level of freedom of thought and religious understanding. On the other, there was a fear that the world was coming to an end. You can clearly see the expression of these two contrasting tensions within the art of the Gothic period.
Just as in the Romanesque period, Christianity lay at the heart of the tensions of the Gothic era. As more freedom of thought emerged, and many pushed against conformity, the subjects of paintings became more diverse. The stronghold of the church began to dissipate.
Gothic paintings portrayed scenes of real human life, such as working in the fields and hunting. The focus moved away from divine beings and mystical creatures as more focus was given to the intricacies of what it meant to be human.
Human figures received a lot more attention during the Gothic period. Gothic artists fleshed out more realistic human faces as they became more individual, less two-dimensional, and less inanimate. The development of a three-dimensional perspective is thought to have facilitated this change. Painters also paid more attention to things of personal value like clothing, which they painted realistically with beautiful folds.
Giotto’s Bell Tower ceiling painting in Florence
Many historians believe that part of the reason as to why the subjects of art became more diverse during the Gothic era was due to the increased surface area for painting within churches. Gothic churches were more expansive than those of the Romanesque period, which is thought to represent the increased feelings of freedom at this time.
Alongside the newfound freedom of artistic expression, there was a deep fear that the end of the world was coming. It is suggested that this was accompanied by a gradual decline in faith in the church, and this in turn may have spurred the expansion of art outside of the church. In fact, towards the end of the Gothic era, works by Hieronymus von Bosch, Breughel, and others were unsuitable for placement within a church.
We do not know many individual artists who painted in the Romanesque period, as art was not about who painted it but rather the message it carried. Thus, the move away from the church can also be seen in the enormous increase in known artists from the Gothic period, including Giotto di Bondone. Schools of art began to emerge throughout France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and other parts of Europe.
The Renaissance Era (1420-1520): The Reawakening of an Art Era That Never Really Existed
The Renaissance era is possibly one of the most well-known, featuring artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. This era continued to focus on the individual human as its inspiration and took influence from the art and philosophy of the ancient Romans and Greeks. The Renaissance can be seen as a cultural rebirth.
A part of this cultural rebirth was the returned focus on the natural and realistic world in which humans lived. The three-dimensional perspective became even more important to the art of the Renaissance, as is aptly demonstrated by Michelangelo’s statue of David. This statue harkened back to the works of the ancient Greeks as it was consciously created to be seen from all angles. Statues of the last two eras had been two-dimensional, intended to be viewed only from the front.
David (ca. 1501-1504) by Michelangelo
The same three-dimensional perspective carried over into the paintings of the Renaissance era. Frescos that were invented around 3000 years prior were given new life by Renaissance painters. Scenes became more complex, and the representation of humans became much more nuanced. Renaissance artists painted human bodies and faces in three-dimensions with a strong emphasis on realism. The paint used during the Renaissance period also represented a shift from tempera paints to oil paints. The Renaissance period is often credited as the very start of great Dutch landscape paintings.
Mannerism (1520-1600): A Window into the Future of Kitsch
Of course, this heading is partly in jest. Not all of the art produced in this era is what we would understand today as “kitsch”. What we understand kitsch to mean today is often artificial, cheaply made, and without much ‘classic’ taste. Instead, the reason we describe the art of this period as being kitsch is due to the relative over-exaggeration that characterized it. Stemming from the newfound freedom of human expression in the Renaissance period, artists began to explore their own unique and individual artistic style, or manner.
Michelangelo himself, in fact, is not free from the exaggeration that distinguishes this era. Some art historians do not consider some of his later paintings to be works of the Renaissance period. The expression of feelings and human gestures, even items of clothing, is exaggerated deliberately in mannerist paintings.
The small S-curve of the human body that characterizes the Renaissance style is transformed into an unnatural bending of the body. This is the first European style that attracted artists from across Europe to its birthplace in Italy.
The Baroque Era (1590-1760): The Glorification of Power and the Deception of the Eye
The progression of art celebrating the lives of humans over the power of the divine continued into the Baroque era. Kings, princes, and even popes began to prefer to see their own power and prestige celebrated through art than that of God. The over-exaggeration that classified Mannerism also continued into the Baroque period, with the scenes of paintings becoming increasingly unrealistic and magnificent.
Baroque paintings often showed scenes where Kings would be ascending into the heavens, mingling with the angels, and reaching ever closer to the divinity and power of God. Here, we really can see the progression of human self-importance, and although the subject matter does not move away entirely from religious symbolism, man is increasingly the central power within the compositions.
New materials that glorify wealth and status like gold and marble become the prized materials for sculptures. Opposites of light and dark, warm and cold colors, and symbols of good and evil are emphasized beyond what is naturally occurring. Art academies increased in their numbers, as art became a way to display your wealth, power, and status.
Ceiling of the Caserta Royal Palace in Italy
The Rococo Art Period (1725-1780): Light and Airy, a French Fancy
The paintings from the Rococo era are typical of the French aristocracy of the time. The name stems from the French word rocaille which means “shellwork”. The solid forms which characterized the Baroque period softened into light, air, and desire. Paintings of this era were no longer strong and powerful, but light and playful.
The colors were lighter and brighter, almost transparent in some instances. Many pieces of art from this period neglected religious themes, although some artists like Tiepolo did create frescos in many churches.
Much like the attitude of the French aristocracy of the time, the art of the Rococo period is totally removed from the social reality. The shepherd’s idyll became the theme of this period, representing life as light and carefree, without the constraints of economic or social hardship.
Classicism (1770-1840): Throwing It Back to Classic Times
Classicism, like the Rococo era, began in France in around 1770. In contrast to the Rococo era, however, Classism reverted to earlier, more serious styles of artistic expression. Much like the Renaissance period, Classisim took inspiration from classic Roman and Greek art.
The art created in the Classicism era reverted to strict forms, two-dimensional colors, and human figures. The tone of these paintings was undoubtedly strict. Colors lost their symbolism. The art produced in this era was used internationally to instill feelings of patriotism in the people of each nation. Parts of Classicism include Louis-Sieze, Empire, and Biedermeier.
Self-Portrait (ca. 1770-1775) by Angelica Kauffman [Public domain]
Romanticism (1790-1850): A Break from the Severity of it All
You can see from the dates that this art era occurred at around the same time as Classicism. Romanticism is often seen as an emotionally charged reaction to the stern nature of Classicism. In contrast to the strict and realistic nature of the Classicism era, the paintings of the Romantic era were much more sentimental.
The exploration of the intangible; emotions and the subconscious, took center-stage. Around this time, people began to go hiking in an attempt to explore the natural world. It was not, however, the true reality of the natural world which they intended to discover, but the way it made them feel.
There is no tangible or precisely determinable style to the art of the Romanticism period. English and French painters tended to focus on the effects of shadows and lights, while the art produced by German painters tended to have more gravity of thought to them. The Romantic painters were often criticized and even mocked for their interpretation of the world around them.
Realism (1850-1925): Objectivity over Subjectivity
As the Romanticism era was a reactionary movement to the Classicism period before it, so is Realism a reaction to Romanticism. In contrast to the beautiful and deeply emotional content of Romantic paintings, Realist artists presented both the good and beautiful, the ugly and evil. The reality of the world is presented in an unembellished way by Realism painters. These artists attempt to show the world, people, nature, and animals, as they truly are. There is a focus on the “obligation of art into truth” as Gustave Courbet puts it.
Just as with Romanticism, Realism was not popular with everyone. The paintings are not particularly pleasing to the eye and some critics have commented that despite the artist’s claims of realism, erotic scenes somehow miss the real eroticism. Goethe criticizes Realism, saying that art should be ideal, not realistic. Schiller too calls Realism “mean,” indicating the harshness that many of the paintings portray.
Impressionism (1850-1895): Heralding the Era of Modern Art
Historians often paint the Impressionist movement as the beginning of the modern age. Impressionist art is said to have closed the book on classical music and other classical forms of art. Impressionism is also perhaps, after Cubism, one of the most easily recognizable art periods. Featuring artists like Claude Monet and Vincent van Gough, Impressionism broke away from the smooth brush strokes and areas of solid color that characterized many art periods before it.
Starry Night (1889) by Vincent Van Gogh
Initially, the word Impressionism was like a swear word in the art world, with critics believing that these artists did not paint with technique, but rather simply smeared paint onto a canvas. The brushstrokes indeed were a significant departure from those that came before them, sometimes becoming furiously wild. Distinct shapes and lines disappeared into a whirlwind of colors. Individual dots of completely new colors were put together, particularly in the pointillism variety of Impressionist paintings. The subjects of Impressionist paintings could often only be recognized from a distance.
A significant change that occurred during the Impressionist era was that painting began to take place “en-plein-air,” or outside. Much of the Impressionist artist’s ability to capture the complex and ever-changing colors of the natural world was as a result of this shift.
Impressionist artists also began to move away from the desire to lecture and teach, preferring to create art for art’s sake. Galleries and international exhibitions became increasingly important.
Symbolism (1890-1920): There is Always More Than Meets the Eye
During this period, the era of Symbolism began to take hold in France. Artists became preoccupied with the representation of feelings and thoughts through objects. The favorite themes of the Symbolism movement were death, sickness, sin, and passion. The forms were mostly clear, a fact which art historians believe was anticipating the Art Nouveau era.
Art Nouveau (1890-1910): The Pure Gold of Gustav Klimt
Although Gustav Klimt was by no means the most important artist in the Art Nouveau movement, he is one of the most well-known. His style perfectly encapsulates the Art Nouveau movement with soft, curved lines, lots of florals, and the stylistic characterization of human figures. In many countries, this style is known as the Secession style.
Death and Life (1908) by Gustav Klimpt
The art produced in the Art Nouveau period includes a lot of symmetry and is characterized by playfulness and youthfulness. Art Nouveau has a lot of political content, although many critics ignore this and hold the decorative aspects against it. Through the art of the Art Nouveau period, artists attempted to bring nature back into industrial cities.
Expressionism (1890-1914): Bringing a Political Edge to the Debate
In the Expressionism art era, we once again see a resurgence of the importance of the expression of subjective feelings. The artists within this movement were not interested in naturalism or what things look like on the outside. As a result, there is a certain tinge of aggression in some Expressionist paintings, which are often archaic and slightly wild.
Expressionism originated in Germany and is intended to contrast Impressionism. Towards the beginning of the First World War, Expressionist paintings had a disturbing intensity about them. Intended to criticize power and the standing social order, Expressionism spread these political ideas through the medium of paint. Art was beginning to become political.
Cubism (1906-1914): Breaking Things Apart and Putting Them Back Together Again
Beginning with two artists, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, the Cubist movement was all about fragmentation, geometric shapes, and multiple perspectives. The dimensional planes of everyday objects were broken down into different geometric segments and put back together in a way that presented the object from multiple sides simultaneously.
Cubism was a rejection of all the rules of traditional western painting and has had a strong influence on the styles of art that have followed it.
Le Tapis Vert (1929) by Georges Braque
Futurism (1909-1945): Artistic Anarchism
Futurism is less of an artistic style and more of an artistically inspired political movement. Founded by Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, which rejected social organization and Christian morality, the Futurist era was full of chaos, hostility, aggression, and anger. Although Marinetti was not a painter himself, painting became the most prominent form of art within the Futurist movement.
These artists vehemently rejected the rules of Classical painting, believing that everything that was passed through generations (beliefs, traditions, religion) was suspicious and dangerous. The militant nature of the Futurist movement has resulted in many people believing that it was too close to fascism.
Dadaism (1912-1920): The True Reality That Life is Nonsense
Dada means a great many things and nothing at all. The writer Hugo Ball discovered that this small word has several different meanings in different languages and at the same time, as a word, it meant nothing at all. The Dadaism movement is based on the concepts of illogic and provocation and was seen as not only an art movement, but an anti-war movement.
The illogic of existing rules, norms, traditions, and values was called into question by the Dadaist movement. The art movement encompassed several art forms including writing, poetry, dance, and performance art. Part of the movement was to call into question what could be classified as “art”.
Dadaism represents the beginnings of action art in which painting becomes more than just a portrait of reality, but rather an amalgamation of the social, cultural, and subjective parts of being human.
Surrealism (1920-1930): Things Just Get More Bizzare
As if the pure illogic nature of the Dadaism movement was not outlandish enough, the Surrealists took the dream world to be the fountain of all truth. One of the most famous Surrealist artists is Salvador Dali, and you are bound to know his painting Melting Watch (1954).
Surrealism is fundamentally psychoanalytical, and many Surrealist artists would paint directly from their dreams. Sometimes dealing with uncomfortable concepts, hidden desires, and taboos, Surrealism was a direct critique of the ingrained ideas and beliefs of the bourgeoise. As you can imagine, this style of art was not popular when it began, but it has greatly influenced the world of modern art.
Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937) by Salvador Dali
The New Objectivity (1925-1965): Cold and Technical
As the surrealists were attempting to move away from the world of physical, concrete, and visible objects, the New Objectivity movement turned towards these ideas. Many of the themes within New Objective art were social critiques. The turbulence of the war left many people searching for some kind of order to hold onto, and this can be seen clearly in the art of New Objectivity.
The images represented in New Objectivity were often cold, unemotional, and technical, with some favorite subjects being the radio and lightbulbs. As is the case with many modern movements in art, there were several different wings to the New Objectivity movement.
Abstract Expressionism (1948-1962): Stepping Away from Europe
Abstract Expressionism is said to be the first art movement to originate outside of Europe. Emerging from North America, Abstract Expressionism focused on color-field painting and action paintings. Rather than using a canvas and a brush, buckets of paint would be poured on the ground, and artists used their fingers to create images.
With well-known artists like Marc Tobey and Jackson Pollock, this art movement was distinct from any that came before it. The application of the paint was sometimes so thick that the finished piece would take on a form unlike any painting before it. Abstract Expressionism spread throughout Europe. As with all art, there are always critics, with conservative Americans during the cold war calling it “un-American.”
Pop-Art (1955-1969): Art is Everything
For the artists of Pop-Art, everything in the world was art. From advertisements, tin cans, toothpaste, and toilets, everything is art. Pop-Art developed simultaneously in the United States and England and is characterized by uniform blocks of color and clear lines and contours. Painting and graphic art became influenced by photorealism and serial prints. One of the most famous English Pop artists is David Hockney, although only a few of his lifetime paintings were in this movement.
Viewer at a David Hockney exhibition in London
Neo-Expressionism (1980-1989): Modern Art
Starting in the 1980s, Neo-Expressionism emerged with large-format representational and life-affirming paintings. Berlin was a central point for this new movement, and the designs typically featured cities and big-city life. The name Neo-Expressionism emerged from Fauvism, and although the artists in Berlin disbanded in 1989, some artists continued to paint in this style in New York.
Art is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. Many of the troubles and joys we experience can only be captured accurately through artistic expression. We hope that this short summary of the art periods timeline has helped you gain some more insight into the contexts surrounding some of the most famous works of art created by the human race.