History of Western Painting, Concept and Styles


What is Western Painting?

Western painting in general is distinguished by its concentration on the representation of the human figure, whether in the heroic context of antiquity or the religious context of the Christian and early medieval world. The Renaissance would have extended this tradition through close examination of nature and investigation of balance, harmony and perspective in the visible world, to painting. The first real separation from figurative painting came with the growth of landscape painting in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Landscape and figurative traditions developed together in the 19th century in Western painting. This field was increasingly characterized by the “painterly” qualities of the interplay of light and color and the expressive qualities in painting. In the 20th century these interests contributed to the development of a third major tradition in Western painting, abstract painting, which sought to discover and express the true nature of painting through action and form.

Definition of Western Painting

Definition of Western Painting

The tradition of Western painting known today inherited most of its roots from Greek art. The basic quest of Western painting is the recreation of nature. The faithful reproduction of what the human eye, as a sensory organ, perceives. The Greeks ’embellished’ nature in an idealized state, as can be seen in their human sculptures. Later, painters used this formula, which faithfully represents what the eyes can observe, while presenting nature in an idealized state. This situation continued until the introduction of the Impressionists (second half of the 19th century).

In this sense, Western painting is mainly composed of patches of colors, unlike Chinese painting which is dominated by lines. Similarly, modernity in the Western tradition and Western art historians often refer to the Impressionist movement as the beginning of modernity. In a simplified way, modernism can be seen as the process by which pictorial language broke away from the requirement of enduring nature, diversifying into other subjects. This process eventually led to abstraction, which has been a predominant theme in Western painting.

Most traditional Western paintings can be easily appreciated as they are congruent with visual sensory perception. Traditionally, Western painting is appreciated for the realism skills of the artist and the atmosphere or mood presented in the painting. At the same time, with the invention of photography, it became more evident that photography could eventually be considered a substitute for realistic painting. As a result, Western artists began to question the position that painting should take.

How did Western painting develop?

In modern Western paintings, whether of natural landscape or urban landscape, human activities that were to be interpreted were introduced into the scene. This concept is closely linked to the hierarchy of genres that have historical paintings as a paradigm and represents the anthropocentrism that would dominate modern Western civilization. Although there are no human figures in the natural image and people were merged with the street landscape, man plays the main role in Western painting.

On the other hand, the increasing popularity of landscape painting, including cityscapes, is related to the development of tourism. Therefore, paintings of this genre offer a variety of places of interest that people wish to visit.  The look that dominates these scenes coincides in principle with the geometric perspective that is particular to urban culture and shares the ideal of modern Western civilization to conquer nature.

Western Painting in America

Western Painting in America

In the 19th century American painting in art history was influenced by the development of a new nation. The established America possessed traditions, self-government and its own institutions. Hence American artists were individualistic as were most Americans and after European traditions, they chose to paint the influences and traditions of a growing American culture. Some American artists traveled abroad but stylistic changes or influences remained generally secondary.

American Painting began in 1825 in the native school of painting ending in 1910 with the artist Winslow Homer and Thomas Cole.  Hence, the period of the Indian school began with landscape painting. Famous artists such as Thomas Cole, Asher Durand and William Cullen Bryant made it clear in their writings that landscape painting represented for them a resolution of conflict between an idealistic, religious disposition and a demand for the tranquility of observing the actual landscape.

The desert as Cole perceived it was an appropriate place to speak of God. Therefore, this period of painting was offered to the American public as a whole. For, American landscapes do not require imaginative and special knowledge of history or style for their appreciation and offer a view of the forest painted in a realistic style.

Thus, in the colonial period between the 18th and 19th centuries, painting consisted mainly of portraits and a few artists engaged in landscape painting. The few opportunities available to artists derived from contacts with the colonial class.

In this sense, independent America offered more opportunities to everyone, including painter-artists. Although photography, invented in 1839, eventually replaced painting as a chronicler of events and experience, nineteenth century America relied on painters to record the events of the time. Portraiture continued to be a genre of painting, but so were the popular American desert landscapes. These two styles were the most famous, emphasizing the panoramic view of painting, both highly romantic, coming mostly from the Hudson school that inspired Thomas Cole (c.1825-65) and its later branch of Luminism (c.1850-75). The French Barbizon school was also influential, while a style known as tonalism grew in the 1880s to 1890s.  Similarly, the European art movements of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism had some followers in the United States, but realism remained the dominant style.

As the American art world expanded during the 19th century, so did its organizations. The American Academy of Arts was founded as early as 1802 and operated until 1841. After that it was replaced by the National Academy of Design (originally called the Society for the Improvement of Drawing) which was created in 1825 in New York. The National Academy was the most active Fine Arts Association in America until the 20th century when its conservative character gradually led it to become more than a historical institution.

Beginning in 1900, European art and, more importantly, European artists, begin to have a much greater impact in America. This is the result of two main factors. The first relates to the rise of American commercial power which in turn led to the emergence of powerful American art collectors and philanthropists, who bought European art for museums in the United States. The growth of American cities, generated ideal clients and the development of new styles of European architecture such as “Art Nouveau” (1890-1914) and “Art Deco” (1920, to 1930). Second, the conflicts of World War I and World War II led many continental artists to emigrate to the United States. One effect of this increased European influence was the progressive emergence of a school of abstract art: initially cubist-oriented, later geometric and coloristic in nature, it provided a stark contrast to native representation.

On the other hand, most American avant-garde art was based on trends emanating from Paris, being the art center of the world. Cubism, Expressionism, Dadaism and Surrealism were the most important of these movements and attracted a number of indigenous American artists, including: the Cubist Expressionist John Marin (1870-1953) of New Jersey; the Modernist Marsden Hartley (1877-1943); the Russian-American Expressionist Max Weber (1881-1961); as well as the New York Bauhaus pioneer Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956). As a result, a series of movements and genres of Western painting and art were cultivated and developed in the 20th century.

Styles incorporated into Western Painting

During the 1940s, with European influence, New York took over from Paris as the innovative center of art. This coincided with the emergence of the major American art movement, known as Abstract Expressionism (flourished from 1943 to the late 1950s).

In the early 1950s, an anti-aesthetic trend known as Neo-Dada art, exemplified by Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and Jasper Johns (b.1930), emerged as a reaction to the intellectualism of Abstract Expressionism. This Dada movement used modern materials, popular iconography and absurd content. It also coincided with assemblage art, which are works of art made from fragments of objects found in the household waste, urban detritus, in fact any material (usually recognizable), large or small.  Although short-lived and one such anti-art group was Neo-Dada, a precursor of Pop Art.

Kinetic Art (mobiles) was initiated by the renowned engineer, draftsman and Aguada painter Alexander Calder (1898-1976). Likewise, the so-called outsider art was represented in America by Alfonso Ossorio (1916-90) who produced paintings on paper covered with wax, as well as decorative sets in cement with numerous complements.

Conceptual art, or conceptualism, is a worldwide movement that argues that the “idea” of a work of art is more important than the work itself. Conceptual artists attempt to produce ingenious ideas designed to surprise and amuse without necessarily leaving behind any impressive artwork.

Influenced by Dadaism and Surrealism, Pop artists attempted to distance themselves from abstract expressionism by using instantly recognizable images (hamburgers, comic strip characters, cigarette butts, cars, baseball gloves) as well as modern printmaking technology such as screen printing, all making a humorous dig at American society.

Graffiti, also called “Scripture”, “Spraycan Art” and “Spray Art”, this art of painting is closely linked to the hip-hop cultural movement, which emerged in several American cities in the 1970s, particularly in the New York subway. By the mid-1970s most of the creative standards in aerosol art had already been established, and the genre began to stagnate. By the 1980s, an avant-garde group of 20th century painters such as the United Graffiti Artists (UGA), founded in 1972 by Hugo Martinez, had expanded its membership to include many of graffiti’s leading taggers and sprayers, in order to show works in official venues such as the Razor Gallery. After that, during the 1980s and 1990s, well-known graffiti artists began renting art studios, showing their works in art galleries.

Postmodernist Art (21st century), exemplified by the innovative works such as kitsch of Jeff Koons, continues to predominate in America, mirroring similar developments in Britain illustrated in the works of Damien Hirst (b.1965). However, while in Britain and on the continent, the underpinnings of postmodernist art exist awkwardly alongside Michelangelo and Monet, the American art world has tended to be more product-based. To put it simply, whereas Europeans cared strongly about aesthetics, Americans buy and sell art as if it were a set of products. This is so true, that the recession of 2008-2009, probably sets a new value on works of American art from the 19th century, the early/mid 20th century and the contemporary era. Thus, it is believed that contemporary art has suffered a significant decline in financial value.

Western Painting in Latin America at the Conquest and Colonial Periods

The artistic traditions that developed in Mesoamerica, Central America and South America after Spanish and Portuguese contact from 1492 and 1500, respectively, have continued to the present.

The discovery, conquest and settlement of the Americas, which began in 1492, created enormous changes in the indigenous cultures of the region. When Europeans arrived, primarily from Spain and Portugal, they came with traditions of painting and sculpture dating back to antiquity. For centuries, the indigenous American peoples had similarly formed civilizations with their own unique artistic practices, from the large political structures of the Inca and Aztec empires, to the scattered presence of small groups of nomadic peoples. The importation of African slaves led to the presence of ancient traditions and African visual arts in the region.

In the course of the decades and centuries after European contact, Latin America experienced cultural and political changes that would lead to the independence movements of the 19th century, the radical social upheavals of the 20th century and that continue in some countries during the 21st century. Therefore, the production of visual arts in the region reflects these changes. Thus, Latin American artists have often superficially accepted styles from Europe and the United States, modifying them to reflect their experiences and local cultures. At the same time, these artists have often retained many aspects of indigenous traditions. Thus, as Latin America has sought its own identity, its artists have looked to its past, its popular culture, its religion, its political environment and its imagination to create a distinct tradition of Latin American painting and art.

The appreciation of Latin American art and its history began as a nationalist effort in the second half of the 19th century, inspired in part by the independence movements that took place at the turn of the century. At first, discussions of the visual arts were written and generally learned from amateurs, often priests and architects, or foreigners with analytical eyes. These writings often had the structure of a narrative, in which the important monuments of each place were described in non-technical, somewhat romantic terms.  The writers generally did not possess a great knowledge of art history, but often brought the knowledge of having lived in Europe and seen the famous monuments that inspired works in various Latin American countries. After the secularization of ecclesiastical property in countries such as Mexico, some buildings were not maintained and their contents were looted, making such documentation very important.

Native art historians initially had to go abroad for training. However, national institutes for the study of the arts were established in Latin America in the 1930s as part of governments or universities. Latin American scholars of this period, therefore, studied their own visual history, and tended to focus on the history of one nation, and rarely examined it in relation to other countries.

During World War II, numerous European scholars fled fascist oppression and went into exile in Latin America. These art historians applied European academic methods to the body of cultural material. So they saw and developed a chronology for the region that is related to Latin American artistic styles linked to Europe. Thus, many U.S. scholars, who had been blocked at the very time from doing the in situ research in Europe for which they had been trained, also apply their methodology to Latin America. Experts from Europe and the United States tended to emphasize similarities across national and regional boundaries in Latin America. Whereas, Latin Americans still tend to emphasize their national traditions, with some exceptions.

Western Painting

Western Painting of Latin America in the Colonial Period

In the colonial period between 1492 and 1820, the first Spanish explorers who traveled to the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries settled as Spanish immigrants in sociopolitical units called encomiendas, which were in effect assistants to the government of the land and dependents of the powerful Spaniards. Under the encomendero, the head of the encomienda, indigenous people served in a variety of capacities, and African slaves were often imported for their labor. Clerics increasingly came to the Americas to function within these encomiendas and to convert the Indians to Christianity.

The Portuguese became more slowly involved in the region. Although they ruled Brazil for many decades, it was not until the mid-1500s that they became more directly involved, with grants of sesmerias, or land donations, to prominent citizens. Likewise, in Spanish America, Christian missionaries became part of this framework. A large number of African slaves were imported to Brazil, partly due to the needs of the sugar industry and partly because only a small number of often insurmountable Indians remained in the area.

Thus, there began in the colonial period, a distinct division that existed at the beginning between indigenous and European émigré artists. In some cases indigenous artists continued to explore their own traditions and themes without alteration. Many European artists also took themes and styles from Europe in literal ways that had little to do with Latin American culture. Increasingly, however, reciprocal influences could be felt from both groups as more of a cultural and ethnic mix came to define the region.

At the time of the conquest, indigenous artists in some areas, although titled under European rule, were still free from such control. These artists included more remote areas such as lower southern and interior South America (especially tropical and desert regions), Central America, tropical forest Mesoamerica, and the northern Mexican desert regions with no mining potential. The dominant arts were from pre-Columbian times, such as weaving, ceramics, metalwork, lapidary, plumaria and mosaic (see Native American art). This art continued to be practiced without alteration in these areas in the postcolonial era. These regions were however indirectly influenced by factors such as: the arrival of Europeans and the spread of diseases to which the natives had no resistance, the movement of native peoples from conquered areas, the spread of new technologies, plant and animal species and, finally, the importation of African slaves into areas depopulated by aboriginal populations.

In the areas most directly in contact with European influence, indigenous artists were taught by the friars. Faced with a growing body of converts, priests responded by creating artistic projects that clearly required the participation of these indigenous peoples. The most popular effort became the construction of huge houses of worship within the encomiendas; called monasteries, these were really the cells for the conversion of the indigenous peoples. In the early art of this period, the personal creativity of the indigenous artists was not encouraged, rather, skill and competence were fostered. Thus, indigenous artists were shown imported works by European artists that served as models for what they were to develop.

The Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus reached the Caribbean on his voyages from 1492 to 1502. In the major societies of the Caribbean islands he encountered, the chiefs were not very demanding in their subjects for goods or services. None of these pre-Columbian peoples had known of pottery (to form the vessel) or enamels (to seal them), although they used polishing methods. The main trades that existed in the region were ceramics and shell and wood carving, which were considered minor arts by the Spanish and other Europeans.

A combination of indigenous and European imagery led to unique forms of religious art in Mesoamerica at the time of the conquest. Indigenous sculptors often communicated Christian images using the symbolic language in which the Indians were accustomed. Instead of the typical European-style crucifix, they erected a heavy stone cross, the crosspiece was made of foliage shoots, suggesting that it is still alive. Similarly, Mixtec manuscripts from pre-Columbian times also depict trees in the form of crosses, but these are thought to be trees of the earthly world connected to the heavens.  Painting, however, is a relatively fragile art, and survives in less abundance than architecture or sculpture. Nevertheless, Mesoamerican painting has been discovered in the form of murals, ceramic decoration and illuminated manuscripts.

In this sense, painting in the Americas before European colonization is in the tradition of pre-Columbian American painting. This painting was relatively extensive, popular and a diverse medium of communication and expression for religious and utilitarian purposes in all regions of the Western Hemisphere.
During the period before and after European exploration and settlement of the Americas; including North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean islands, the Bahamas, the West Indies, and other island groups, indigenous native cultures produced a wide variety of visual arts, including painting on textiles, skins, on the surface of rocks and caves, especially expensive bodies, ceramics, architectural elements including interior murals, wood panels and other available surfaces. Unfortunately, many of the surfaces were perishable, such as textiles, and have generally not been preserved, but pre-Columbian painting on ceramics, walls and rocks has most often survived.

Modern and Postmodern Latin American Western Painting Today

In the late 20th century, as the realm of contemporary art became increasingly global, art from Latin America entered the mainstream of international art criticism and its artists were widely recognized, living as foreigners in New York City and Paris or exhibiting in the cultural capitals of their home countries. The Internet linked the world, and international museums became increasingly willing to look to Latin America for upcoming artists. At the same time, Latin American art centers such as Mexico City developed strong national art scenes with their own establishments, critics, museums and galleries.

In the same vein, in most of the paintings of Latin American artists, the styles of engravings and drawings, murals, oil paintings, genre, graffiti, among others, which give prominence to the human figure, the natural and urban landscape, are evident. Of equal importance are anthropomorphic animals and animistic landscapes, whose roots are discovered in the folklore of Mesoamerica and South America. Pre-Columbian mythology and legends of the colonial era are also found in many works. In painters such as Toledo (Mexico), a deep understanding of the iconography of Mexico as a country has been reached. Therefore, an artistic discourse nuanced with the thought and plastic expression of each of these regions where the art of western painting takes place is also developed. Likewise, when contemplating many of these works of art, the figures in many of them refer to dreams and subconsciousness, taking them immediately to be part of the viewer’s reality.

Internationally, the development of the works of many of the Latin American painters will coexist with other forms of plurality that arise from the sixties and seventies such as: pop art and its derivatives, kinetic and op-art, minimal, action art and happenings, povera and land art, neorealism and neoconcretism, conceptual art, kinetic art, among others. However, the paintings and the different artists cannot be pigeonholed into a movement, nor will they lose their pertinence to a given culture, within the diversity of Latin American cultures.

What is the importance of Western Painting

What is the importance of Western Painting?

Most of the history of Western art seeks to draw attention to the construction of painting from an empirical and realistic vision. Therefore, the idea of these painters was always to represent what was observed in reality. However, at the end of the 19th century, with the rise of impressionism, this approach to painting began to change.  Therefore, impressionist painters sought to show reality from different points of view, using very heavy brushstrokes that made them lose the real silhouettes of objects. Simultaneously, they painted the same scenes by orienting the light in different ways and with different types, using more deformed geometric shapes, which visually generated very striking effects that were highly criticized at the time. Considering that these painters did not know how to paint.  Later, the avant-garde of the twentieth century took these elements as central and distorted reality to transform it into unique and groundbreaking, creative and abstract elements, full of shapes, color and silhouettes never seen before.

What is the Legacy of Western Painting?

Western Art, and in particular Western painting, is part of the international axis, which has New York and Paris as its traditional capitals. However, the art carried out in the last 50 years has incorporated art from other latitudes such as the Orient, Africa, Asia, among other places. In this way, art, and in particular painting today, goes beyond traditional Western concepts, incorporating new cultures, approaches and techniques. However, several critics argue that, even when there is an apparent internationalization of culture, the Western ideology continues to prevail as a model and everything that is foreign is seen as exotic.

Who are the most important painters of Western painting?

American painting began in 1825 with the native school of painting ending in 1910 with the artist Winslow Homer and Thomas Cole. In addition to other famous artists such as Asher Durand and William Cullen Bryant, who made landscape painting in a way between idealistic and religious, but at the same time with a demand for the observation of phenomena in nature. Other famous artists of this period were Albert Bierstadt, Frederick and Fitz Hugh Lane. In the colonial period, the portrait of William Vans Murray by Mather Brown, 1787, stands out.

On the other hand, the painter John Smibert, is considered the first well-trained artist in the United States, who settled in Newport in 1729.  Likewise, Robert FLa of the Ashcan school (New York c.1892-1919), is part of a progressive system of American painters and draftsmen who depicted New York City life in a rough, unpolished style. The Ashcan school also stands out, with the artists Arthur B. Davies, William J Glackens (1870-1938), Robert Henri (1865-1929), Ernest Lawson (1873-1939), George Luks (1867-1933), Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924), Everett Shinn (1876-1953) and John Sloan (1871-1951). Likewise, this school includes a second generation of painters, such as: George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925) and the works of Edward Hopper (1882-1967) who produced numerous landscapes of realistic genre. For example, the House by the Railroad (1925, Museum of Modern Art) and the Lighthouse at Two Lights (1929, Metropolitan Museum) and his work Nighthawks (1942, Art Institute of Chicago).

Other painters such as Feke painted the beauty of the noble yearnings of Colonial society. Similarly, Benjamin West (1738-1820) was a neoclassical painter. of Western painting who emerged as an important history painter in Europe, questioning the allegorical symbols of classical antiquity that had been the norm and basing his work on historical research.

For his part, Benjamin West had an important leadership and influence on later artists; for he was the teacher and mentor to a long list of American students who later became famous painters.