European Painting – Definition, Development and Evolution


What is European Painting?

One of the characteristics of the pre-modern empires of the world was their tendency to assimilate the cultures of the more advanced civilizations they conquered. The European empires of the modern age, on the contrary, have shown little interest and appreciation for the cultures and arts of the subject peoples and also of the rest of the world. This fact eventually changed. In the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, many artists in the Western world were captivated by the formal art of the Americas, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and consequently, this fact would transform the visual arts of the West.

Definition of European Painting

Colonialism and European imperialism influenced Western art in three fundamental ways. First, imperial powers, kings and patrons encouraged painting, sculpture and architecture to glorify their expansion, imperialistic and idealistic goals. Second, European expansion and establishment in the world separated European traditions of painting, sculpture and architecture from colonies in America, Africa and Asia. Finally, Europe’s contact in trade and other aspects with the rest of the world allowed the importation of non-European luxury goods, with the aesthetic values and arts of the West, as well as Western artists from the colonies, which gradually came to influence, in various ways, the course of European art.

Definition of European Painting

How did European painting develop?

European painting developed simultaneously with the expansion and establishment of the European continent in different periods. Based on the influence of Greece and Rome. Below is a brief description of each period.

Prehistoric European Painting

The oldest known painting of Europe is found in the various caves and dates back some 40,800 years. Rock painting was also done on cliffs, but very few have survived due to erosion. A well-known example is the Astuvansalmi rock painting in the Saimaa area of Finland. When Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola first found the Magdalenian paintings in the cave of Altamira, Cantabria, Spain in 1879, they were considered hoaxes by scholars at the time. However, recent re-evaluations of these numerous discoveries have already proven their authenticity, while at the same time stimulating interest in the art of the Upper Paleolithic peoples. Likewise, all these cave paintings were made with the most rudimentary tools, as well as providing valuable information on the culture and beliefs of the time (see prehistoric painting).

Ancient European Classical Painting

Minoan palaces are the most representative of this period and were richly decorated. Thus, Minoan painting was unique in that it used wet fresco techniques; it was characterized by the small waist, fluidity and vitality of the figures and because it was enriched with elasticity, spontaneity, and the vitality of high-contrast colors.

Almost all surviving painted portraits from the ancient world are a large number of portraits of coffin busts, ancient forms found in late antiquity in the Al-Fayum cemetery. These portraits give an idea of the quality that must have gone into the finest ancient work. A very small number of miniatures of ancient illustrated books also survive and a somewhat larger number of copies of these date from the early Medieval period. Early Christian art is likewise believed to have emerged from popular Roman and later Imperial art, adapting its iconography from these sources.

Medieval European Painting

The most surviving painting from the Medieval period was religious, often church-funded, commissioned by powerful ecclesiastical individuals such as bishops, communal groups such as abbeys, or wealthy secular patrons. Much of this painting had a specific liturgical function reflected in the crosses and cross bases of altarpieces, for example.

One of the central questions about Medieval Art concerns its lack of realism. A great deal of knowledge of perspective in art and understanding of the human figure was lost with the fall of Rome. But realism was not the main concern of medieval artists. They were simply trying to send a religious message, a task that demanded clear iconic images.   Likewise, this period highlights Anglo-Saxon art, which is the art of England after the Insular period. Highlighting the painting of the illuminated manuscripts that contain almost all the surviving painting of the period.

European Romanesque Painting

Romanesque art refers to the period from about 1000, to the rise of Gothic art in the 12th century. This was a period of increasing prosperity and the first to see a coherent style throughout Europe, from Scandinavia to Switzerland. This Romanesque art was vigorous and direct, originally the paintings were brightly colored and often very sophisticated.

European Renaissance Painting

European Renaissance Painting

The Renaissance is characterized by a focus on the arts of ancient Greece and Rome, which led to many changes in the technical aspects of painting and sculpture, as well as their materials.

It began in Italy, a country rich in Roman heritage as well as material prosperity for artists. During the Renaissance, painters began to enhance the realism of their work by using new techniques in perspective, depicting it in more authentic and defined three dimensions. Likewise, artists also began to use new techniques in the manipulation of light and dark, such as the contrast of tone evident in many of Titian’s portraits and in the development of sfumato and chiaroscuro by Leonardo da Vinci.

European Renaissance Gothic Painting

In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, much of the painting in Italy was Byzantine, painters made their works based on observation of nature. Likewise, other painters of the 14th century promoted the Gothic style of great elaboration and detail. Among these painters, Simone Martini and Gentile da Fabriano stand out.  In the Low Countries, however, the technique of oil painting instead of tempera led to a form of elaboration that was not dependent on the application of gold leaf and relief, but on the detailed depiction of nature. Likewise, the art of painting textures flourished with the great realism evolved at this time.

European Renaissance Painting

Early Flemish Renaissance painting was developed (but not strictly invented), with the technique of oil painting to allow greater control of detail in realism. The best work is reported in illuminated manuscripts and panel paintings.  Similarly, there is another group of painters who use religious themes in their paintings, combining them with grotesque fantasies, colorful images and popular peasant legends. Their paintings often reflect the confusion and anguish associated with the late Middle Ages.

Mannerism, Baroque and European Rococo

In European art, Renaissance classicism generated two distinct movements: Mannerism and Baroque. Mannerism is a reaction against the idealistic perfection of classicism, which is evidenced in the works by the use of distortion of spatial frames and light to accentuate the emotional content of the painting and the emotions of the painter.  Similarly, Baroque art took Renaissance representation and took it to new heights, emphasizing detail, movement, light and drama in its pursuit of beauty.

Baroque art is often seen as part of the Counter-Reformation, the artistic element of the revival of spiritual life in the Roman Catholic Church. In addition, the emphasis of Baroque art is seen as absolutist in nature. Religious and political themes were widely explored in the Baroque artistic context and paintings and sculptures were characterized by a strong element of drama, emotion and theatricality.

The Golden Age of European Painting

In this sense, a somewhat different art was developed out of the northern realist traditions in 17th century Dutch Golden Age painting, which had very little religious art and little history painting, instead playing a crucial role in the development of secular genres of still life, the genre of paintings of everyday scenes and landscape painting.

During the Golden Age, in the 17th century, Dutch painters created a substantial body of marine art, paintings of the sea, depicting naval battles, large fleets, specific ships of daily shipping and trade. Similarly, heroic depictions are made of the Dutch fleet with its flagship, the Eendracht. These historical paintings of sea battles with the Spanish and English, returning East India fleets and large battle ships were extremely popular with patrons and public institutions in the Low Countries, reflecting and promoting Dutch naval pride and commercial pre-eminence.

Similarly, the British glorified their empire in murals, with history paintings, with even real craftsmen. In the Royal Navy Commissioner’s house at Chatham Dockyard there is a large painting on the ceiling of the main staircase, which was completed around 1705.  This painting shows Mars receiving a crown of shells from Neptune, while standing figures symbolizing peace, abundance, justice and charity are displayed in the foreground. The figure of a majestic Neptune was significant to viewers of the time because it was a symbol of the mastery of the Royal Navy of the sea.  More than a century later, Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) residence on the Isle of Wight, at Osborne House, also had an allegorical fresco above the main staircase. Similarly, William Dyce’s Neptune, Britannia’s Empire of the Seas (1847) reveals the figure of Britannia, receiving the crown of Neptune’s sea. Britannia and the maritime empire of Great Britain, is also accompanied by three figures that occurred and were benefit of the global empire: industry, trade and navigation.

From the middle of the 18th century, the British created the imperial history painting, a tradition that portrayed and glorified the great and symbolic events of the creation of the British empire. There are also other works such as, the death of General Benjamin West (1770), by Arthur William Devis, the death of Nelson (1805), and the death of General Gordon (1844-1925), Khartoum, 1885 by G. W. Joy, which recreated the cult of heroism and glorified the British Empire. Likewise, King George III (1738-1820) for example, had the best craftsmen in England making the most remarkable royal coaches in the age of horse-drawn vehicles. Thus, his colossal four-ton carriage topped by three golden cherubs symbolizes the British English kingdoms of Scotland and Ireland.

European Rococo Painting

By the 18th century, however, Baroque painting was falling into a mode that many considered too melodramatic and sad. So, it was converted by a group of artists into Rococo, which emerged in France. This Rococo art was more elaborate than the Baroque, so the paintings were more playful and less serious. Thus, while the baroque used rich, strong colors, the rococo changed to pale, creamy tones. The artistic movement no longer placed emphasis on politics and religion, but focused instead on lighter themes such as romance, celebration and appreciation of nature. Similarly, Rococo art also contrasts with Baroque because it refused symmetry in favor of asymmetrical designs. In addition, it sought inspiration in the artistic forms and ornamentation of the Far East, and Asia, resulting in the enhancement of porcelain figures and Chinese series in general.

Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Academicism and Realism

Throughout the 18th century, a movement against Rococo emerged in different parts of Europe, known as Neoclassicism. This movement sought to change the perceived superficiality and frivolity of Rococo art and desired a return to the simplicity, order and puritanism of classical antiquity, especially ancient Greece and Rome. The movement was also influenced in part by the Renaissance, which in turn was strongly influenced by classical art.  Similarly, Neoclassicism was the artistic component of the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment.  Thus this Enlightenment trend was idealistic and placed its emphasis on objectivity, reason and empirical truth. Thus, Neoclassicism came to spread throughout Europe during the 18th century.  Therefore, what characterizes neoclassical painting is the emphasis on order, symmetry and classical simplicity. Common themes in neoclassical art include courage and war, borrowed equally from ancient Greek and Roman art.

The Painting of European Romanticism

Romanticism emerged as a movement of artists in rejection of the ideas of the Enlightenment and the aesthetics of the Neoclassicals. Thus, Romanticism rejected the highly objective and ordered character of Neoclassicism and opted for a more individual and emotional approach to the arts. In the painting of Romanticism emphasis is placed on nature, especially when it is intended to portray the power and beauty of nature and emotions. So it sought a very personal approach to art. Hence, Romantic art took as the theme of the paintings, the individual feeling, with unusual subjects. In such a way that romantic painting uses colors to express feelings and emotions.

The Painting of European Academicism

Most artists tried to take an approach that adopted different characteristics of the neoclassical and romantic styles, in order to synthesize them. The different attempts took place within the French Academy and collectively is called academic art. Both painting and other types of art were now taught in Art Schools in Europe. One of these early Art Schools was in Italy, which was established in 1583. Later, another Art School was established in Haarlem, Holland, under Karel Van Manda (1548-1606). In France, the first art school was the “Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture”, founded in Paris in 1648 thanks to the efforts of a group of painters and sculptors.

The painting of European Realism

In the 19th century, Europe was radically altered by industrialization. Poverty, misery and despair were the fate of the new working class created by the “revolution”. In response to these changes in society, the movement of realism emerged. Realism attempted to accurately portray the conditions and hardships of the poor in the hope of changing society. In contrast to romanticism, which was essentially optimistic about humanity, realism offered a stark view of poverty and despair. Similarly, while romanticism glorifies nature, realism portrayed life in the depths of an urban wasteland.

In this sense, painting is objective, because it does not try to embellish reality. It represents daily life in the countryside, in the city, intimacy, landscape or work, with meticulousness. It is given a connotation of “ugliness”, because it does not seek beauty in the paintings but represents the daily life of workers and peasants. Therefore, the painting is stripped of conventionalism or any kind of idealization. In contemporaneity, the only subject worthy of being represented is the artist’s contemporary world.

Modern European Painting

From the naturalistic ethic of realism emerged an important artistic movement, Impressionism. The Impressionists pioneered the use of light in painting when they attempted to capture light as seen by the human eye.

After the Impressionists, came Fauvism, considered the first “modern” genre of painting and art. Just as the Impressionists revolutionized light, so the Fauves rethought color, painting their canvases in bright, wild hues. After the fauvists, modern art began to develop in all its forms, ranging from expressionism, concerned with evocative emotion through objective works of art, cubism, the art of transposing a three-dimensional reality onto a flat canvas, to abstract art. These new forms of painting and art, pushed to the limits the traditional notions of painting and art in general, which corresponded with similar rapid changes that were occurring in human society, technology and thought.

What is the importance of European Painting?

Within the framework of modern art, in painting several characteristics of what would later be defined as postmodern painting, within the current of postmodern art, are announced.  In fact, in painting there is a sort of fusion between modern and postmodern art movements, such is the case of pop art. Thus, painting from postmodern art, for example, places a strong emphasis on irony, parody and humor in general. The abstract is much more evident in the paintings and experiments with different textures and trends.   Thus, in postmodernist art there is a kind of confusion between high and fine art, derived from low-end and commercial art. Consequently, there is a kind of blurring of modern art that begins to experiment with novelties, characterized by a significant expansion of what can now be considered art, in terms of materials, media, activity and concept.  Hence conceptual art in particular has had a wide influence.

What is the legacy of European painting

What is the legacy of European painting?

In European painting, artists studied color and atmosphere in depth and these artists are mostly part of the Impressionist movement. This fact was brought about by various circumstantial factors that the artists of previous eras did not have access to. This fact allowed the impressionists a deep study of color and atmosphere, found in the book of color theory by Johan Von Goethe, which left different physicists and philosophers of the time fascinated, and caused such information to spread, allowing other parallel theories and commentaries to emerge. Such themes would be an important influence on Impressionist painting, whose painters engaged in long conversations about the nature of color and its usefulness in approaching their paintings.

The Impressionists appropriated color theory because it allowed them to accurately analyze the nature of color in the landscape. In this way they were freed from the need for faithful imitation.

In European painting, there are artists who set the course and led the way in what would become the art of the times to come. One of those key painters was Gauguin. Gauguin’s artistic achievements, in his vibrant, warm color harmonies and radically decorative flattened surfaces had an enormous impact (on the Western canon), influencing painters from Bonnard to Picasso to Matisse around the world. Thus, his movement from impressionism to a more narrative, personal, expressionistic style opened the door to more subjects and fields in other painters.

Who are the main European Painters?

The greatest representative of the Renaissance was Leonardo Da Vinci. Also other important painters in European painting were Duccio of Siena and Cimabue of Florence, while Pietro Cavallini in Rome was more Gothic in style.  In 1290 Giotto began to paint in a less traditional manner and more based on the observation of nature. Thus, his famous cycle in the Scrovegni chapel, Padua, is seen as the beginning of the Renaissance style.

Dutch painters such as Jan van Eyck or Hugo van der Goes came to have great influence on late Gothic and early Renaissance painting. Jan van Eyck (1366-1441) was a figure in the movement of illuminated manuscripts and panel painting.  Likewise, Hieronymus Bosch (1450?-1516), was a Dutch painter, an important figure in the Northern Renaissance. Similarly, Albrecht Dürer had introduced the Italian Renaissance style to Germany in the late 15th century and would have dominated German Renaissance art.

El Greco’s work is a particularly clear example of Mannerism in late 16th and early 17th century painting.

In the realm of Baroque art, perhaps the best known Baroque painters are Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens and Diego Velázquez.

On the other hand, among the greatest known Romantic artists were Eugène Delacroix, Francisco Goya, J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, Casparo and Diego Velázquez. Turner, John Constable, Caspar David Friedrich, Thomas Cole and William Blake. Likewise, Adolphe William Bouguereau is considered a prime example of academic painting.

Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir were all involved in the Impressionist movement. Thus, as a direct consequence of impressionism came the development of post-impressionism. Thus, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat are the best known post-impressionists.