Art History For Dummies, 2nd Edition book cover

Art History For Dummies, 2nd Edition

By: Jesse Bryant Wilder Published: 04-13-2007

Ready to take a time-traveling journey through the history of fine art? It might seem intimidating at first. But with Art History For Dummies, 2nd Edition, anyone can learn to appreciate and understand the stimulating and beautiful work of history's greatest painters, sculptors, and architects.

Articles From Art History For Dummies, 2nd Edition

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8 results
Art For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 03-01-2022

Appreciating art is as easy as making a trip to your local museum where you can compare notes and make your own judgment about whether a work is any good or not. Art pieces recognized as great works today were produced by the up-and-coming artists of yesteryear, so it pays to keep an eye on today’s future classics.

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Art History For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 02-22-2022

The history of art is immense; the earliest cave paintings pre-date writing by almost 27,000 years! If you're interested in art history, the first thing you should do is take a look at the timeline table in this Cheat Sheet, which briefly outlines the artists, traits, works, and events that make up major art periods and how art has evolved to the present day.

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The Birth of Impressionism: Manet and Monet

Article / Updated 11-11-2021

Impressionism began to take shape in the 1860s on the canvases of Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. But the actual birth of Impressionism was probably the summer of 1869, when Monet and Renoir painted views of a swimming resort at La Grenouillère on the Seine. That summer, they learned to catch the transitory moods of nature with quick, suggestive brushstrokes. It was here that the broken-brushstroke style (painting in flecks of color) became a standard characteristic of Impressionist art. The movement didn't yet have a name — that came five years later when a critic attacked one of Monet's early paintings: Impression — Sunrise. Monet and Renoir pioneered this new art style by borrowing and adapting techniques that Manet had developed a few years earlier. Édouard Manet: Breaking rules to free the artist The classically trained Édouard Manet (1832–1883) straddled Realism and Impressionism. He influenced the Impressionists and was, in turn, influenced by them. In the 1860s, the Impressionists began meeting near Manet's studio at Café Guerbois. He was the unofficial head of the twice-weekly meetings, which included Monet, Renoir, Degas, Alfred Sisley, Émile Zola, and sometimes Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, and others. What was the bridge between Realism and Impressionism? It was Manet's new approach to painting, his innovations with color and brushwork. Earlier artists began painting their canvases with a layer of dark, usually brown, paint and then built layers of paint on top of it. Of course, they had to wait for each layer to dry before adding the next one. Finally, they glazed the painting to give the surface a smooth finish. This process could take weeks or months. Obviously, the models couldn't pose all that time, so painters frequently added layers without the model present. As a Realist, Manet preferred to paint from life — in other words, with his model in front of him. He did this by completing his paintings in one sitting. How did he achieve this high-speed efficiency? By not painting in layers and not glazing the final product. That meant he had to choose the perfect color right off the bat because there were no layers to fall back on. When he made a mistake, he scraped off the paint, down to the bare canvas, and then repainted that area. The Impressionists adopted Manet's alla prima ("at once") technique. Without it, they couldn't have painted fast enough to capture the shifting effects of light. Manet also painted in patches of color, cutting out in-between values (shades of color) to make sharper contrasts. So instead of painting a range of progressively lighter or darker shades of orange to indicate how close an orange dress is to a light source, he would simply slap on a patch of bright orange. This technique is called Tachism. (Tache means "spot" or "blot" in French.) The Impressionists modified this technique by breaking up Manet's color patches into much tinier patches, flecks, and dabs of color. Claude Monet: From patches to flecks The new style of Claude Monet (1840–1926) came from a shift in focus. He looked at the colors of objects instead of the objects themselves. He advised another painter: "When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you — a tree, a house, a field. . . . Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape." He believed that people should always judge based on first impressions, before getting to know something or someone. Becoming familiar with an object or a face falsifies it. You get the gist of what you see — a blue car, a red house, or a man's double chin — so your eyes don't search out details. You settle for an approximation. But the first time you encounter a face or place, you examine it thoroughly. "Ah, her eyes are green with flecks of blue; the window has a Z-shaped crack in it." To notice the color components of an object, Monet had to stop seeing the object and focus on the color. In the second half of his long career, Monet painted series of the same scene captured at different times of day. Some of these paintings are like pictorial clocks, especially the haystack series. You can tell the time by the light and shadow on the hay bundles. The first independent Impressionist exhibition was in 1874. Among other works, Monet showed Impression, Sunrise, which is now owned by the Musée Marmottan Monet. The name inspired one critic to condemn all the paintings in the show for being "impressionistic" or incomplete. Although it was intended as an insult, most of the artists liked the label, so it stuck.

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Paul Gauguin and the 'noble savage'

Article / Updated 11-11-2021

The bright colors and shocking contrasts of Paul Gauguin's paintings have amazed and perplexed artists and art lovers for over a century, and the story behind Gauguin's life and style is as interesting as his artwork. Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) tried to return to a primitive state through art and to find the proverbial "noble savage" or natural person. Gauguin was inspired by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "back-to-Eden" concept. According to Rousseau, "Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they." Gauguin claimed that everything in Europe is "artificial and conventional. . . . In order to do something new we must go back to the source, to humanity in its infancy." Eventually, his quest to shed civilization and become a noble savage took him to Tahiti. But first, he sought primitivism in rural France. The concept of the noble savage, man living in harmony with nature, was popularized in the 18th century. It refers to an individual uncorrupted by civilization. Jean-Jacques Rousseau helped spread the idea, though he never actually used the term. In Émile, he wrote: "Everything is good in leaving the hands of the creator of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man." Brittany paintings In 1886, Gauguin moved to Pont-Aven, Brittany, hoping to find primitivism among the ancestors of the ancient Celts (the Bretons). Instead, he found that even the rural Bretons were socialized. Gauguin, who had studied under Pissarro and began his painting career as an Impressionist, abandoned Impressionism in Brittany. He created a new movement called Synthetism (also known as Symbolism) by building on Cloisonnism, a style invented by his friends Émile Bernard and Louis Anquetin in about 1887. In Cloisonnism, large patches of vivid color are painted on the canvas and then bordered by thick, black lines like in stained-glass windows, except each patch is one color, with a minimum of shading. Gauguin used Cloisonnism in his turning-point painting The Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), which now lives at the National Galleries of Scotland. In this mystical work, praying Breton women, some with eyes shut, envision the holy wrestling match between Jacob and the angel, which their priest has just described to them in church. The battle takes place on an otherworldly red carpet spread over the landscape (in one large color patch), around which the women gather like sports spectators. The psychological side of the painting is even more revolutionary than the technique. Gauguin weds two worlds in one work: the physical reality (the women in their Breton dresses) and the psychological reality (a picture of the women's collective vision). He had, in fact, discovered a way to reveal the inmost, unfiltered thoughts of people. By using flattened perspective and Cloisonnism, he was able to harmoniously splice people's inner visions with the world around them. Gauguin took his discovery even further in Tahiti, for which he set sail in 1891. Tahiti paintings Tahiti didn't fulfill Gauguin's dream of finding the "noble savage." When he arrived, he discovered that thousands of European expatriates had already turned the island into an extension of Europe. But in his work, Gauguin was able to use the contrast between what he'd hoped for and what he found. He juxtaposed the two realities, making them confront each other on adjacent picture planes. Often, he placed a primitive scene in the foreground and images or symbols of the civilized world in the background, and then flattened the painting (eliminating perspective and most shading) so the background would encroach on the foreground, peer over its shoulder, and infect it. Gauguin's manipulation of traditional perspective and his expressive use of color had a major influence on late 19th- and early 20th-century art movements, especially Fauvism and Expressionism and the Nabis (Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, and Paul Sérusier, who called Gauguin their spiritual father). Also, in 1901, Picasso encountered several Gauguin paintings at a friend's house, and they inspired him to launch into his Blue Period. The Fauves were influenced by Gauguin's loud colors and shocking color contrasts: chartreuse next to blues, hot reds, oranges, and yellows that often seem to burn each other.

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Defining Romanticism in the Arts

Article / Updated 11-11-2021

Many art historians will tell you that Romanticism slips through your fingers when you try to define it. That's partly because Romantic artists didn't have one style like the Impressionists or Expressionists. The movement was about intense personal expression, so artists could focus on whatever turned them on. In addition, the movement wasn't grounded in France or Italy. It spread across most of Europe and later to the United States. Romanticism wasn't merely a visual-arts movement — it included poetry, fiction, and music. There were even Romantic philosophers! The fact that Romanticism was so widespread and diverse makes it hard to squeeze it into one definition. Romanticism doesn't mean lying dreamy-eyed on a patch of clover or gazing wistfully into your lover's eyes. It doesn't refer to romance at all. It means being a staunch individualist, believing in the rights of other individuals, and expressing deep, intense, and often uplifting emotions — like Beethoven (whose Fifth Symphony marked the beginning of the Romantic era in music). Often, but not always, it means having a deep, spiritual relationship with nature. "Nature never did betray the heart that loved her," wrote the British Romantic poet William Wordsworth in "Tintern Abbey." The most famous Romantic works of art are not paintings, poems, or symphonies, but three novels: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Misérables, both by the French writer Victor Hugo; and Frankenstein, by 18-year-old British writer Mary Shelley. All three works are outcries against man's inhumanity to man. To drive home the point, the writers magnify the inhumanity so we can see it better. They do this by directing it against outcasts: a hunchback, an ex-convict, and a manmade monster. The more of an outsider someone is, the more people abuse that person. The Romantic period was the first time in history that art focused on teaching people to care about each other. In this sense, Romanticism was "art with a heart." Romantic artists were also concerned with promoting individual liberty, ending slavery, and supporting democratic and independence movements, like the Greek war for independence from Turkey and the nationalism movement in Italy. To promote democracy in England, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (husband of Mary) said to his countrymen in "Song to the Men of England:" Men of England, wherefore plough For the lords who lay ye low? Wherefore weave with toil and care The rich robes your tyrants wear? The French painter Delacroix used his paintbrush to win support for the Greek struggle for independence against the Turkish Empire. His painting The Massacre at Chios broadcast the terrible price the Greeks were paying in their struggle for liberty (in 1822, the Turks massacred 42,000 inhabitants of the island of Chios and sold about 50,000 as slaves in North Africa), moving many Europeans to sympathize with the Greek cause. The British Romantic poet Lord Byron put down his pen to help out. He died in Greece from a fever in 1824. Today, Byron is a Greek national hero. Besides trying to improve social and political conditions, many Romantics went on inward quests to find and express a higher, truer reality than the one that confronts us from day to day. These painters and poets became prophets of a new Romantic spirituality. In "A Defense of Poetry," Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote: "The great secret of morals is Love; or a going out of our own nature. . . . A man, to be greatly good . . . must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of the species must become his own." Many Romantics believed that there was a basic goodness in man buried under layers of socialization. The idea was largely born in the brain of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his influential book The Social Contract, he wrote, "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains." Rousseau said man was naturally good and honest (innocent as a babe) and that society made him bad. His Social Contract started a "back-to-Eden" movement, and a lot of the Romantics got onboard. Rousseau's ideas spurred the cult of the noble savage (Tarzan is an early 20th-century example), the natural man, born in the wild and unpolluted by socialization. The noble savage was natural, good, honest, and free — just like Tarzan or Mowgli in The Jungle Book. Originally, Romantic also meant the opposite of classical. Classical is calm, orderly, even serene, like the Venus de Milo. Romantic is wild — a painting or poem bursting at the seams with energy, meaning, and often intimations of something spiritual.

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Discovering the Baroque Masters: Caravaggio and His Followers

Article / Updated 11-11-2021

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, known more simply as Caravaggio (1571–1610), was the greatest and most influential painter of the Baroque style. He was also a quick-tempered Bohemian who was often jailed for brawling and was forced to flee from the law and his enemies, escaping to Naples, Malta, and Sicily at various times. His "travels" helped to spread his extraordinary style, which was soon imitated across Europe. Caravaggio infused his work with more gritty naturalism than any previous artist, hiring common people as models for saints and apostles, which shocked many of his contemporaries. He dramatized his religious scenes by throwing a diagonal light across his subjects, highlighting some of their features (to emphasize certain emotions and actions), and leaving the rest in shadow. Caravaggio's lighting technique is called tenebrism, from the Italian word tenebroso, which means "gloomy" or "murky." His paintings recount climactic moments while powerfully suggesting the events that precede and follow them. Caravaggio created his dramatic lighting effects by letting natural light stream through a high window or with a highly placed lamp that threw a beam down onto his subjects. This technique, known as cellar lighting, yields dramatic effects if the artist positions his models well. In Calling of Saint Matthew (1599–1600; created for the Contarelli Chapel), the cellar light slashes across the back wall and illuminates the faces of some of the men crowded around a wooden table where Matthew counts his money. Three of Matthew's companions regard Jesus, who has just entered and stands in the shadows. The cellar lighting streaming through the window almost traces the line of Jesus' index finger, which points at the tax collector Matthew, who's about to change jobs. But the future apostle resists, avoiding Jesus' eyes and staring stubbornly at the stack of coins on the table. The painting illustrates the tug-of-war going on inside Matthew. The tension between light and dark, between pointing fingers and gazing eyes staring in opposite directions, heightens the drama to the breaking point. Notice that despite Matthew's reluctance to sign on, Jesus' feet are already turned toward the exit and the future. Caravaggio was the first to depict a single tense moment and let the tension stretch the moment backward and forward in time. To help break the barrier between a painting and the viewer, Caravaggio and other Baroque painters placed highly illusionistic objects — a bed, a copper bowl, someone's foot — at the bottom edge of their paintings so that the objects appear to project into the viewer's space. You feel that you can touch these objects, so you become more involved in the painting. Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi were two artists who were influenced by Caravaggio. Orazio Gentileschi: Baroque's gentle side, more or less Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1639) was the first of Caravaggio's many followers. Gentileschi emphasized realism like Caravaggio and placed his subjects close to the viewer in a stop-action moment as in his The Lute Player (1610). In this sensitively rendered painting, a female lute player, illuminated by Caravaggio's cellar lighting, gently strums her instrument. It's a fine work, but there's no tension and no stirring sensuality as in Caravaggio's The Musicians (1595–1596) and The Lute Player (1595–1596). The stop-action in the Gentileschi painting is truly stopped. The frozen moment doesn't pull us in multiple directions as in a Caravaggio painting. One of Gentileschi's most moving works is his Madonna with Child in the Gallery Borghese in Rome. The tender warmth in the mother's face as she gazes at her child is magnified by the lighting. Shadow and light dramas: Artemisia Gentileschi Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–c. 1652) wasn't the only female artist in the Baroque period, but she is one of the few to paint historical and religious paintings. Most other female artists were pigeonholed into portrait, still life, and devotional paintings. Among Artemisia's greatest works are Susanna and the Elders (1610), Judith Slays Holofernes (1620), and Lucretia (1621). Like the heroines in Lucretia and Susanna and the Elders, Artemisia was raped. Her personal experience resonates in these works. Like her father Orazio and Caravaggio, Artemisia placed her figures intimately close to the viewer.

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The Rococo Influence in British Art

Article / Updated 11-11-2021

Although the Rococo movement never got a foothold on British soil, English artists still felt its influence like a fresh breeze from across the English Channel. Without becoming flamboyant, a new, lighter look infused English art. The two leading British painters of the period, Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, were both influenced by French Rococo artist Jean-Antoine Watteau, as well as Italian Renaissance and Baroque artists, and Dutch and Flemish painting. The third great 18th-century British painter was William Hogarth. William Hogarth The woodblock prints of William Hogarth (1697–1764) caricature upper-class Englishmen. Hogarth was one of the few artists of the period who used his talent to critique and mock the upper classes: their excesses, extravagance, and moral depravity. He had trained to become an engraver and later switched to painting. But the engraver in him never died. In fact, he made engravings of some of his paintings so he could sell multiple copies of them. Smart guy. Hogarth's paintings look like theater pieces — in this case, comedies of manners. He created series of paintings that tell stories like cartoon strips; each painting is a chapter in the story. His first moral painting series is called A Harlot's Progress. It was a sensation. The series chronicles the conversion of a country bumpkin into a city prostitute and follows her gradual decline. Hogarth even depicts the woman's horrid death and funeral — as a moral lesson. He followed this series with a second hit, The Rake's Progress. This painted story follows the moral collapse of Tom Rakewell. In one of the episodes, The Orgy, Tom drinks himself into a stupor at a brothel. Though a prostitute caresses his chest, he looks too nauseated to notice. In the dark background, a servant holding out a candle looks on aghast at the scene. The final painting in the series finds Tom Rakewell in a lunatic asylum. Although Hogarth's paintings and engravings are intended to be moral lessons, his art never feels preachy. Each painting brims with entertaining and often humorous details. Thomas Gainsborough The paintings of Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) have perfect manners. Everything and everyone is in its proper place. His specialty was portraits of English gentry and aristocrats and wholesome English landscapes. He began as a landscape painter but found that painting portraits was more profitable. Even so, Gainsborough never abandoned landscape painting. He often placed his country ladies and gents in the sedate English countryside. For example, in his great portrait Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, housed at the National Gallery in London, Gainsborough poses the elegantly dressed Andrews couple in a beautiful late-day, countryscape. Mrs. Andrews, attired in a blue taffeta dress and pointed, pink velvet slippers, looks like she's ready to go to the opera, yet she's at ease in her rural surroundings. Mr. Andrews, with his trusty English whippet at his side, appears ready for a fox hunt. But his elegant white jacket and white hose aren't up for a rustic jaunt. As rural gentry, they're very much in their element, yet they've obviously never lifted a hoe. They own the land, but they don't work it. In fact, the landscape looks like it's been tamed by his gun and her dress. To facilitate their comfort, Gainsborough planted an ornate wrought-iron bench in the midst of the meadow. The bench, on which the lady perches and on which the man leans, further separates them from the landscape that they dominate. Sir Joshua Reynolds Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) brought Italy to England. He had studied in Rome from 1750 to 1752 and then taken the Grand Tour of Italy. Highly influenced by Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and the Mannerist Giulio Romano, he imported what he called the "great style" to England. As the first president of the Royal Academy of Art, Reynolds helped shape artistic tastes throughout Great Britain. Reynolds hoped to bring Italian subject matter to England, too — in particular, mythological and historical painting. But British tastes inclined toward portraiture; 16th- and 17th-century foreign painters who'd worked in England, like Hans Holbein and Anthony van Dyck, focused on portraits, helping foster a taste for that kind of painting. So, like his rival Thomas Gainsborough, Reynolds painted portraits. The most striking difference in their styles is in how they posed their models and embedded them in their surroundings. Gainsborough's models sit like they're posing for their picture between sips of tea; the background is just that — background. The sitters don't interact with it. The figures in Reynolds's portraits are almost always active and dramatically or poetically wedded to the landscape. Reynolds incorporated the landscapes he found in Italian art into his portraits of English lords and ladies, especially after 1760. Often, he placed English women in Italianesque settings accented with a Greek column or bust or a Roman arch or relief. Frequently, the ladies wear flowing Roman gowns and make grand or poetic gestures. Reynolds was so inspired by Romano that he actually borrowed poses and even figures from his paintings. He said, "Genius . . . is the child of imitation." Hogarth, Gainsborough, and Reynolds did create a world-class English School of painting as Reynolds had hoped. The next great school of English artists, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, built on their achievements, primarily by rebelling against the aesthetics of Reynolds.

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The Art of American Realism

Article / Updated 05-18-2021

Some American artists followed traditions developed in Europe; others preferred homegrown styles. Realism — painting that is grounded in the ordinary and captures day-to-day life — was a natural for pragmatic Americans, especially when it celebrated majestic natural scenery or rural pleasures like boating and fishing or paintings of the sea. Westward ho! with Albert Bierstadt Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) was born in Solingen, Germany; grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts; returned to Germany for four years to study painting; and came back to the United States to paint. Bierstadt's specialty was spectacular mountain scenery. He made sketches and took photos of the scene, often in treacherous and dangerous locations. From these photos, he painted his awe-inspiring landscapes. For example, he headed west with an expeditionary party in 1859 and, in the summer of 1861, sketched in Eastern Shoshone country in the Wind River region of Wyoming. In The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak (housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City), he works the natural sunlight to highlight pieces of the landscape as if he were shining spotlights on them. Although Native Americans and animals populate the foreground and middle ground of the painting, they don't project any personality — they're simply local color and ambience. It's the light in the painting that has personality. Bierstadt always went for the long, wide shot, so to speak, and never the intimate close-up. Navigating sun, storm, and sea with Winslow Homer The earliest paintings of Winslow Homer (1836–1910) are of the Civil War, which he covered as a pictorial reporter (sketcher) for Harper's Weekly in 1862. After the war, he studied in Paris for a year (in 1867), but it doesn't appear that he absorbed much from the French Impressionist movement, which was coming into its own at that time. In fact, after he returned to the United States, Homer painted mostly realistic scenes of happy rural life, many of them of pastoral figures in sun-drenched landscapes. He began experimenting with watercolors and soon mastered the medium to become one of the greatest watercolor artists in history. Homer's best paintings are watercolor seascapes done primarily in the 1880s in Maine. Man against nature is the "Maine" theme that runs through most of his sea paintings. In Homer's Summer Night (which is kept at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris), silhouetted figures ensconced on black rocks gaze at a glassy sea. Two women in evening gowns — one with a wistful expression — dance solemnly on the shore as if to the music of the crashing waves, but the other figures take no notice of them. The glorious scene entrances them. Boating through America with Thomas Eakins Like Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) studied in Paris in the 1860s. But he stayed much longer than Homer and appears to have absorbed more art styles. His most famous paintings are of boat racers. In The Biglin Brothers Racing (kept at the National Gallery of Art), he captures a sense of cinematic action. You feel the effort of the rowers, yet the scene is peaceful. The tension between rowing and the surrounding serenity of nature gives the painting its power and interest. But Eakins was more than a boat painter. He was a very versatile master of many genres. His Agnew Clinic, a painting of a surgical operation performed on a woman before an auditorium of medical students (reminiscent of Rembrandt's famed Anatomy Lesson), is a probing study of character. He examines the personalities of the medical students as carefully as the surgeons examine the body on the operating table.

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