Art History Timeline Part 1: Prehistoric to Romanticism

If you are wondering when and where people began drawing, painting, or expressing themselves through different art mediums, then you have come to the right place. Nourish your artistic mind by learning about the plethora of western art movements through the generations, each bearing distinct styles and characteristics that reflect the political stances and social influences of the era from which they emerged.

History of Art Through the Ages: Origins and Evolutions

Biltmore Loan and Jewelry’s art history timeline offers you a comprehensive explanation of the major art styles, highlighting key artists and creations from each movement.

Prehistoric Art (~40,000 — 4,000 B.C.)

People can trace the origin of art history back to the Old Stone Age, tens of thousands of years before archivists began record keeping. The earliest artifacts known to humankind include rock carvings, engravings, stone arrangements, and pictorial imagery, all of which came from the Old Stone Age or Paleolithic era.

Art from ancient civilization relied on the use of natural pigments, rocks and stones, wooden sticks, and other natural resources to create representations of people, places, animals, objects, and rituals that helped govern a group of individuals’ existence. One popular example is that of the Paleolithic cave paintings discovered in the caves of Lascaux in France in 1940. Historians presume that the cave paintings are over 20,000 years old.

Ancient Art (4,000 B.C. — 400 A.D.)

Glorious ancient art is the creation of advanced civilizations. In this specific case, an “advanced civilization” pertains to individuals with an established written language, including people from ancient Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia, and the Americas.

The medium used during this period varied depending on the civilization that made the artwork. Many of the pieces depicted stories of rulers, gods, and goddesses.

One of the most famed works of art from Mesopotamia is the Code of Hammurabi from around 1792 B.C. The piece was carved onto a massive, finger-shaped black stone pillar. Initially looted by invaders and rediscovered in 1907, the ancient artifact showcases a Babylonian set of laws and an image of King Hammurabi — the sixth King of Babylonia — and Utu, the Mesopotamian god of the sun, justice, and the underworld.

Medieval Art (476 A.D. — 1400)

During the Middle Ages, which historians also call the “Dark Ages,” the fall of the Roman Empire marked a period of cultural and economic decline. Much of the artwork conceived during this time embodied that darkness perfectly with brutal sceneries and grotesque imageries. Artists and their creations were also centered around the Church. And, after the first millennium, people began building more sophisticated and elaborate churches; windows and ceilings were adorned with biblical references and scenes from classical mythology. Furthermore, the Middle Ages is responsible for the emergence of Gothic architecture and illuminated manuscripts.

Some examples of influential art from this time include the catacombs in Rome, the Notre Dame, and the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Renaissance Art (1400 – 1600)

Paintings, sculptures, and decorative pieces focused on nature and individualism characterized art during the Renaissance. Although these ideals were already present during the late Medieval period, they flourished greatly in the 15th and 16th centuries, paralleling economic and social changes such as secularization.

The Renaissance peaked in Florence, Italy, primarily due to the Medici, an affluent family that supported the arts and humanism. Italian sculptor Donatello and designer Filippo Brunelleschi were key innovators in this period.

The High Renaissance, which began in 1490 and concluded in 1527, gave prominence to some of the greatest painters in history, including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Mannerism (1527 – 1580)

Mannerist artists such as Tintoretto and Bronzino emerged from the ideals of Michelangelo and other Late Renaissance artists. However, according to historians, the focus of mannerist artists’ on technique and style surmounted the significance of the subject matter. In many mannerism paintings, the figures have small heads, graceful and elongated limbs, as well as other stylized or exaggerated details. This yielded more complex, non-realistic compositions.

Baroque (1600 – 1750)

The Baroque period that succeeded mannerism produced flamboyant and extravagant visual arts and architecture. Grandeur and richness characterized art during this period, and an interest in broadening human intellect and global discovery accented it. Stylistically, baroque artists are intricate and complex.

Baroque paintings exuded drama and exuberance, as seen in the masterpieces of Rembrandt and Caravaggio. Painters incorporated an intense contrast between light and dark shadows, as well as rich, deep color palettes.

Rococo (1699 – 1780)

Rococo paintings, sculptures, decorative art, and architecture originated in Paris, France. The aesthetic offered a much softer appeal in comparison to Baroque’s exuberance. The epitome of elegance and light contrast, Rococo art features natural forms, subtle colors, and asymmetrical designs.

Renowned painters like Jean-Antoine Watteau and Francois Boucher made use of lighthearted treatments, fresh colors, and rich brushwork to create their masterpieces, including Pilgrimage to Cythera and Triumph of Venus.

Neoclassicism (1750 – 1850)

The neoclassical period drew upon elements from classical antiquities. Archaeological ruins of ancient civilizations in Naples and Athens reignited a passion for discoveries from the past, and artists became enthusiastic about recreating magnificent ancient art. This movement translated to a renewed sense of interest in classical ideals, including simplicity, harmony, and proportion.

However, many neoclassical artists also included modern and historically relevant depictions in their pieces. For instance, although Italian sculptor Antonio Canova often took inspiration from classical elements to create his marble sculptures, he avoided the “cold” and “artificial” qualities present in many early creations.

Romanticism (1780 – 1850)

Romanticism comprises a wide range of disciplines, from paintings and sculptures to literature and music. Each of the art forms in this movement rejects harmony, order, and rationality, which artists embraced in both classical and neoclassical art. Instead, romanticism celebrated the individual imagination. The appreciation for nature is another defining attribute of romanticism, with many turning to Plein air painting. And, as its name implies, romanticism focused heavily on emotion, passion, and sensation over logic and reason.

Some prominent Romantic artists include Henry Fuseli, who brought to life macabre paintings that delved into the deep depths of human psychology, and William Blake, an English painter, printmaker, and poet whose mysterious images and poems conveyed transcendent visions and his disappointment in societal constraints.

The Movement Does Not End Here

Be on the lookout for part two of our art history timeline, where we will be discussing the history of realism, art nouveau, impressionism, and other groundbreaking western art movements from the 1850s and beyond.

If you find yourself in possession of a painting, sculpture, or any other piece from an illustrious artist, you can sell or use artwork as collateral here.