The great monuments of European painting, sculpture, and architecture from the age of Charlemagne to the onset of World War II include major works by the greatest visual artists of a millennium of Western civilization. To fully understand the works of these great artists, they and their masterpieces need to be placed in the political, religious, and social context of their time, so as to gain a more profound understanding of both why an artwork was created and how it responded to a particular set of historical circumstances.
But how best to gain an understanding of great works of art? First the five essential aspects that are crucial to the understanding of artists and their works – subject, interpretation, style, context, and emotion – should be examined. Then the definitive areas of subject matter that constitute the major categories of art – narrative or historical art, portraiture, landscape, still life, and scenes of daily life – should be considered, to understand how artists communicate important social and political ideas and values.
At what point in history should our examination of European art begin? European art, as we think of it today, started in the Middle Ages, with the early architectural monuments of the Carolingian Empire, and the massive cathedrals and exquisite sculpture of the French Gothic style. This was a period of great creativity and provides a necessary background to the consideration of the achievements of the Renaissance that followed, in both Italy and the north.
The Renaissance was both a rebirth of interest in Classical literature and art, and a revival of interest in learning that, together, led to a reevaluation of man’s place in the world. Following this was the evolution of the Baroque style by the great artists of Italy, which then spread throughout Europe. The 18th century reactions to the Baroque style followed with the Rococo style of art.
After this were the beginnings of modern European art with the Neoclassical and Romantic movements of the late 18th century. These gave way to Realism, which in turn, led to the greatest movement in the history of art, the Impressionist movement, which helped shape the future of painting and whose influence can still be seen in art today.
This was followed by the reactions to Impressionism which led to the early movements of the new century, including Fauvism, Cubism, German Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, and Modern art, as well later artistic styles which are evident in today’s art.