History of Painting – Development, Characteristics and Epochs


What is the history of painting?

Art in all its forms of painting, sculpture, drawing and engraving, appeared in human groups around the world in the Upper Paleolithic period, approximately 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. In Europe, sophisticated and powerful paintings from this period have been discovered in caves such as those at Lascaux in France.  Likewise, in 1994, astonishing works were found in the Chauvet cave in the Ardeche valley, also in France. Likewise in the history of painting, they are considered the first paintings ever made and consist of pigments such as earth colors rubbed into the rock. In some cases these paints appear first mixed in a paste. So, these paintings mostly depict animals but there are also some human images.

Since then, painting has essentially changed very little. Thus, the supports evolved from rock walls, through the walls of buildings, to portable supports of paper, wood and canvas, particularly canvas. The range of pigments expanded through a wide variety of earths and minerals, to modern synthetic extracts and colors. Pigments have been mixed with water and gum to make a paint, but in 15th century Europe the innovation of using oil (linseed) produced a newly flexible and durable medium that played an important role in the explosion of creativity in Western painting in the Renaissance and after. At the same time the subject matter has been expanded to encompass almost all aspects of life (genres).

What is the history of painting

Main periods of painting

The various periods described below show the evolution of painting as an art form over time.

Prehistoric Period

In prehistoric art, rock painting encompasses any parietal art that consists of the application of colored pigments on the walls, floors, or ceilings of ancient rock shelters. A monochromatic rock painting is an image made with only one color (usually black). Whereas polychrome rock painting consists of two or more colors, exemplified by the glorious multicolored images of bison on the ceiling at Altamira, or the magnificent Uros in the room of the bulls at Lascaux. In contrast, the term drawing in caves, refers (strictly speaking) to just an engraved drawing, i.e., one of lines cut into the rock surface with a stone or flint tool, rather than one made by drawing lines with charcoal or manganese.

Prehistoric Painting

At present there is no certain idea when prehistoric cave painting began. One theory links the evolution of Stone Age art to the arrival of modern anatomical humans in Europe during the Upper Paleolithic period. According to this theory, the development of rock art coincided with the displacement of Neanderthal man by anatomically modern man, around 40,000 ADC. In fact, it was around this date that rock art began to appear in the caves and rock shelters of the world, but especially in the Franco-Cantabrian region. Thus, it is believed that painting came first, followed later by furniture art, exemplified by portable Venus figurines such as the Venus of Hohle Fels (38-33,000 B.C.).

Generally speaking, painting techniques and materials in the caves were improved century by century. Thus, the monochromatic paintings of the Aurignacian culture (40-25,000 B.C.) give way to the polychromatic art of the Gravetian (25-20,000 B.C.), towards the apogee of cave painting that is traditionally recognized to have occurred during the Magdalenian period (10,000 B.C.), at Les Combarelles, Font de Gaume, Lascaux and Altamira. During the late Magdalenian, the ice age ended and a period of global warming led to the destruction of the Magdalenian reindeer habitat, along with its culture and rock art.

Most cave paintings were figurative and were almost always of animals. Early Stone Age artists painted predatory animals (lions, rhinoceroses, saber-toothed cats, bears) almost as often as game animals such as bison and reindeer, but from the Solutrean period the dominant images were of game animals. Portraits of humans were a very rare occurrence and were generally highly stylized and less naturalistic than animal figures.

Abstract images (signs, symbols and other geometric markings) were also common and actually comprise the earliest type of Paleolithic art in Late Stone Age caves, as demonstrated by recent results on paintings at El Castillo and Altamira. In addition to figure painting and abstract images, prehistoric caves are also heavily decorated with cave paintings, hand and stenciled, which according to recent research by Dean Snow of the University of Pennsylvania, were done by women, but men and children also participated. Some of the best examples of this type of painting are the hand stencils from the Gargas cave (Haute-Garonne), the Panel of Stamped Hands at Chauvet (Ardéche) and the impressions along the Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands) in Argentina.

Oriental Painting

Mural paintings of court life were found in the tomb of Xu Xiang Xiu, Northern Dynasty 571 A.D., located in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, China, with paintings on silk depicting a man on horseback, and another of a dragon, dated between the 5th and 3rd centuries B.C., Warring States period, from Zidanku in tombs in Changsha Province, Hunan.  Thus, the history of oriental painting includes a wide range of influences from different cultures and religions. Thus, the evolution in Oriental painting is historically in parallel with Western painting, generally some centuries earlier. Thus, African, Jewish, Islamic, Indian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese art each had significant influence on Western art and vice versa.

Chinese Painting is one of the oldest continuing artistic traditions in the world. The earliest paintings were not representational, but ornamental, and consist of patterns or designs rather than pictures. Likewise, early ceramics were painted with spirals, zigzags, dots or animals. Thus, it was only during the Warring States period (403-221 B.C.) that artists began to depict the world around them. Likewise, Japanese painting is one of the oldest and most highly refined of the Japanese arts, encompassing a wide variety of genres and styles.

The history of Japanese painting is a long history of synthesis and competition between native Japanese aesthetics and the adaptation of imported ideas. Korean painting, for its part, was an independent form, beginning around 108 B.C., with the fall of Gojoseon, making it one of the oldest in the world. The art of painting at that time evolved into the various styles that characterize the three kingdoms of the Korean period, especially the paintings and frescoes that adorn the tombs of the Goguryeo royalty. Thus, Korean painting was mainly characterized by a combination of Korean-style landscapes, Buddhist facial features centered on themes and with an emphasis on celestial observation facilitated by the rapid development of Korean astronomy.

East Asian Painting

China, Japan and Korea have a strong tradition of painting that is also linked to the art of calligraphy and engraving. Thus, traditional East Asian painting is characterized by water technique, less realism, elegant and stylized subjects, with a focus on graphic representation, giving importance to white space (or negative space) and a preference for landscape as subject. Thus, ink and color on silk or paper scrolls was used, gold on lacquer was also a common medium in East Asian painting art. Although silk was a somewhat expensive medium for painting the invention of paper during the 1st century A.D. by the Han court eunuch Cai Lun provided not only a cheap and widespread medium for writing, but also a cheap and widespread medium for painting making it more accessible to the public.

The ideologies of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism played important roles in the art of East Asian painting. The most visually impressive painting, however, was the portrait of Luohan because of the richness of detail and bright, opaque colors, in contrast to a misty, nondescript brown of the surrounding woodland. Also, the treetops are shrouded in swirling mist, providing the common negative space mentioned in East Asian art.

Indian Painting

Indian paintings historically revolved around religious deities and Kings. Indian art is a collective term for various schools of art that existed on the Indian subcontinent. Paintings varied between large frescoes of Ajanta and intricate Mughal miniature paintings, as well as the ornate metal works of the Tanjore school. The Gandhar-Taxila paintings are influenced by Persian works in the west. The oriental style of painting developed mostly around the Nalanda school of art. The works are mostly inspired by various scenes from Indian mythology.

The oldest Indian paintings are prehistoric cave paintings, petroglyphs found in places like Bhimbetka rock shelters, are the oldest, from 5500 B.C. Such works continued after several millennia, carved on pillars in Ajanta, Maharashtra. Similarly, the colors used were mostly different shades of red and orange, which are derived from minerals.  Hence, the Ajanta caves in Maharashtra, India are rock-cut monuments dating back to the 2nd century B.C. containing paintings and sculptures considered masterpieces of Buddhist religious and universal pictorial art.

Egyptian, Greek and Roman Painting

The most important paintings reported from these civilizations were made on Hellenistic Greek terracotta funerary walls in the 3rd century BC. Ancient Egypt, therefore, is considered a civilization with very strong traditions of architecture and sculpture, originally painted in bright colors.  They also produced many wall paintings in temples and buildings, as well as illustrations painted on papyrus manuscripts. Likewise, Egyptian decorative painting and wall painting was almost always graphic, sometimes more symbolic than realistic. Likewise, Egyptian painting depicted figures in black outline and flat silhouette, in which symmetry is a constant feature. This Egyptian painting has a close relationship with the written language, characterized by Egyptian hieroglyphs that are painted symbols are among the earliest forms of written language.

In the same vein, the Egyptians also painted on canvas, remnants of which have survived to this day. Meanwhile, ancient Egyptian paintings survived due to the extremely dry climate. Similarly, a transcendent fact is that the ancient Egyptians created paintings to make the afterlife of the deceased a pleasant place. Themes include journeys through immortality or their protective deities introducing the deceased to the gods of the underworld. Examples of such works include paintings of the gods and goddesses Ra, Horus, Anubis, Nut, Osiris and Isis. Likewise, some tomb paintings show the activities that the deceased participated in when they were alive and that they wish to continue doing for eternity.

North of Egypt was the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete. Therefore, the wall paintings found in the Palace of Knossos was similar to that of the Egyptians, however much freer in style. So, by 1100 B.C., the northern Greek tribes conquered Greece and Greek art took a new direction.

On the other hand, Greek painting has evidence of a fresco showing Hades and Persephone riding a chariot, from the tomb of Queen Eurydice I of Macedon at Vergina, Greece, 4th century BC. So, ancient Greece had skilled painters, sculptors, and Architects. Therefore, the Parthenon is an example of architecture that has endured to modern times. Likewise, Greek marble sculpture is often described as the highest form of classical art. Likewise, ancient Greek pottery painting, as well as pottery itself, gives a particularly informative glimpse into the way society in ancient Greece functioned.

Moreover, the painting of black and red figures on vases and vessels gives many examples of the quality of Greek painting. Some famous Greek painters produced works on wooden panels, and some of those mentioned in the texts are: Apelles, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. However, there are no examples of ancient Greek panel painting, of which only writings and descriptions by their later Roman contemporaries survive. Thus, the realism of the paintings was such that one could see birds trying to eat the painted grapes. Apelles is described as the greatest painter of antiquity for his perfect technique in drawing, brilliant color and modeling.

history of painting

European Painting

Considered one of the finest in the world, the European painting collection contains more than 3,500 works dating from the 12th to the 20th century. Holdings include a rare group of 15th century Spanish, Italian and Northern European paintings, as well as an important selection of 17th and 18th century paintings. Major Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works are among its most significant holdings.

The earliest specifically European paintings are Minoan, from Paleolithic art, common to all civilizations. These highly developed decorative frescoes from Crete were of priests and priestesses, bulls, swimming dolphins, flowers, landscapes and animals. The impulse to depict everyday life is as old as the art of painting, but it extends beyond the mundane to invoke the numinous, with scenes of ritual practice. Thus, paintings in ancient Greece include ornate vessels, wall and panel paintings, the latter were the most highly valued, though unfortunately none of these, nor later Roman panels, have survived.

Panel and wall paintings seem to have aimed at a very high degree of realism.  Thus painting the truncated eye technique was already a flourishing genre, and anecdotes about artists such as Apelles, Zeuxis and Parrhasius refer to their ability to deceive the eye, as neighing horses are only seen in Apelles’ painted horses, birds attempting to eat grapes in Zeuxis’ paintings, the curtain by Parrhasius that Zeuxis attempted to draw. Figure paintings were also common, but the surviving group of decorative-only portraits date from the second century, as do the Roman cases of the Fayum mummy from Egypt.

In another vein, European painting after the fall of Rome was a reaction of realism: although early Christian art continued in the classical tradition of early medieval art, concerned with teaching in clear and unambiguous images, uncomplicated by perspective, modeling chiaroscuro or studying anatomical details, as these techniques gradually fell away. Medieval paintings were almost exclusively religious and needed to convey stories and allegories for a mainly illiterate population, projecting into poorly lit chapels and churches. Thus retablos used to contain holy figures (easily recognizable by symbols or colors of vestments) in a shallow space, not interacting with each other and given the state by their relative size.

However, with the cultural exchange between the Far East and the West, due to the arrival in Europe of Chinese art pieces and manufactures, there was an important trend in ornamental languages that flourished from the seventeenth century onwards. In the 19th century, the influence of Japan on Western art was much more decisive. This impact of Japanese art was called the phenomenon of Japonisme. Thus, the interaction between Asian and Western cultures is one of the most significant elements for history. For, the image with which the East has influenced art throughout history has been dynamic and changing. In the field of artistic influence, two variables must be considered, on the one hand, the progressive increase in the knowledge of the art and culture of the Far East and, on the other hand, the development of European art itself, which has sought in the East a different complement at each moment, to its own art.

The great influence of Japanese art as an inspiration for contemporary art has been widely studied, especially in the impressionists, post-impressionists, symbolists and modernists. Since the Meiji Restoration (1868), intellectuals and artists in Paris discovered in Japanese art a way to enrich the culture of their time, so that in the 1980s, more than a novelty, Japonisme was already a consolidated current and spread to the main European and American capitals.

Western Painting

In the West, fresco painting, which reached its highest degree of development at the end of the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, was based on the application of paint on fresh or dry plaster. Another variety of ancient painting was also found, such as tempera painting, which consists of the application of powdered pigments mixed with egg yolk on a prepared surface, on a canvas on a board. Likewise, through the Renaissance, oil painting took the place of fresco and tempera. This technique was traditionally thought to have been developed in the late Middle Ages by the Flemish brothers Jan van Eyck and Hubert van Eyck, but is now believed to have been invented much earlier. Likewise, other techniques implemented in Western painting were enamel, encaustic, gouache, grisaille and watercolor. In more recent years, the use of acrylic paints, which are water-based, quick-drying and do not darken with the passage of time, has become widespread.

Throughout the centuries, different artistic methods and styles have been worked and developed, as well as related theories in the field of art to, in some cases, reappear in later times with some modification. Thus, in the Renaissance, fresco painting on walls and ceilings was later replaced by oil easel painting, but it has been recovered and updated again in the 20th century with the works of Mexican muralists. This is how there is always a need to express intense emotions through art, which unites different painters such as the Spanish, the Greco, from the 16th century, and the German expressionists of the 20th century. Therefore, at the extreme of the expressionists’ attempts to reveal the inner reality, there have always been painters wanting to accurately and precisely represent the outer aspects. Thus, over time, there has been an alternation between realism and symbolism, classical restraint and romantic passion, throughout the history of painting, highlighting significant affinities and influences.

Paleochristian and Byzantine Painting

The influence of Rome and Greece in Europe is believed to begin in the samples of Paleochristian painting dating from the third and fourth centuries, which are frescoes made in the catacombs, which depict scenes from the New Testament, whose characteristics are the style and artistic convention of origin in the classical world.  In one of them Jesus appears as the Good Shepherd, which is believed to be a figure adapted from the representations of the Greek god Hermes. Likewise, the resurrection is believed to be a representation of the story of Jonah being freed from the whale in the Old Testament. Likewise, it is reported that the most emblematic works of this Paleochristian period are the mosaics of the 6th century in the churches of Ravenna, Italy, highlighting those of San Vital, in which both spiritual and profane themes are depicted. Also noteworthy are the stylized and elongated figures placed on the walls of the churches, facing forward, looking at the viewer with their eyes wide open and seeming to float weightless and timeless.

Pre-Hispanic Painting in America

The influence of Europe on painting in America is evidenced in the mural paintings of Teotihuacan and the neighboring towns of Tetitla and Tepentitla in Mexico. These mural paintings express the vision of the creation of the Universe according to the ancient Mesoamerican inhabitants of that area, located in the north and center of America, between the 2nd century BC and 8th century AD. Similarly, the painting reflects a mostly divine tendency, such is the case of the description of the journey undertaken by the soul through the influence of Christianity in what would be called heaven and hell, reflecting the concern about the transcendence of human beings to their earthly existence. Likewise, there are allegories of the most precious elements, such as water, blood, life, serenity, which are captured in frescoes dedicated to Tlaloc, deity of rain, and paradise seen from the Mesoamerican perspective. In addition, scenes of pre-Hispanic life and history have been found in painted books, as well as the mural paintings of Cacaxtla, in Tlaxcala, and Bonampak, in Yucatan (Mexico). These works portray vivid and ceremonial war scenes that reflect the drama of pain and the pride of triumph. The use of colors such as the Mayan blue background and the detail of the costumes of the characters wearing elegant plumes, weapons, jewelry, shoes, masks, lay the fundamental foundations of American art. In a detail of the frescoes of Bonampak (785 A.D.), we can glimpse scenes of prisoners fainting on staircases, very well achieved in ancient painting. Also, it is important to mention the fact that it would take several centuries for the cultures of the Americas to have contact with European cultures before any extra-continental influence developed.