A Short and Irreverent Art History, Part 1

[Note: This is the history of Art as I see it. Expect liberties. Every link in this post launches a popover image that exemplifies the art or artist I discuss, run your mouse over the image for a caption. Click liberally for the full experience.]

For the longest time, Art was all about the church and the bible. Paintings and sculptures and stuff were all about the Glory of God. This makes sense, because for most people, all they did was work in squalor, and go to church, and nobody wants to be reminded of squalor.

There were lots of neat paintings and sculptures by Renaissance artists (if you can remember all 4 Ninja Turtle names, you know them). Eventually, some artists started branching out, and painted mythic scenes, rich people, and bowls of fruit. In Holland they invented the “landscape painting” and paintings of “normal people“. Painting was very realistic, and the more realistic, the better.

All this realistic, “highly skilled” type of painting got stale eventually, and by the mid 1800’s in France, paintings were basically softcore porn, with the excuse that they depicted “mythic” or “historical” scenes. But always with naked chicks.

In the 1860’s this young upstart named Edouard Manet thought this was lame (at least, the “calling it mythic” part – he still liked the naked chicks part). He made a couple paintings that at the time were called “crappy“, and are now called “groundbreaking” and “revolutionary”. The paintings were “painterly“, rather than photorealistic. Before Manet, artists tried to “hide the paint”. Paintings were meant to look like the color had magically appeared on the canvas, not applied with a brush. Basically, they tried to make paintings look as lifelike as possible. Manet ignored this, and made his paintings look a bit more like they were made out of, well, paint.

(By the way, Manet wasn’t just a crappy painter, he actually could paint in the style that was “proper” for the time, he just chose not to – Modern Art wasn’t started by a talentless hack.)

A bunch of guys and gals (Monet, Renoir, Cassatt, Morisot, Pissarro, Degas, etc) thought Manet was on to something, and the Impressionism movement steam rolled forward. The era of Modern Art had begun.

Tomorrow: Modern Art, the style, the era, and what it is all about.

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