Art History Basics — what makes an Old Master?
And how Impressionists and Modernists were different from them
Paintings are one of the most impressive creations of a human genius. What a pleasure to admire them at museums and galleries, in books, smaller or larger screens. I know how hard it might be to navigate in this world, bearing in mind all the names, and recognising epochs while reading the stories these pictures tell us.
- In the previous blog of Art History Basics, we learned how to understand and easily navigate the terminology of styles, genres, and art schools.
This is a quick guide to the art history timeline used to distinguish painters belonging to different eras and painting traditions.
With this theoretical base, you will feel more confident appreciating art in the flesh in the museums or online with the Smart Art — Art History Escape app — you are always welcome to download it for free on your iPhone or iPad and discover its collection of 1000 original short stories, curious art history quizzes, and over 80,000 artworks carefully categorised by the principles you’ll learn today.
There were thousands of artists in the history of mankind who were teaching, influencing, and inspiring one another. And some of them simply copied others for various reasons.
In art history, we usually distinguish painters by the date of their birth and, hence, their active period.
When we talk about old master art we usually mean a huge period of time from 1250 to roughly 1820s-50s. In other words, these were the artists who lived and worked starting from the Proto-Renaissance epoch up to the beginning of the Impressionist era in mid 19th century.
What makes us divide them from all the successors?
Well, these were the times when artistic ability was measured not only by the innovation of techniques and ideas but also by actual skill in painting.
Simply put, we can easily recognise different objects and characters in the painting as everything would be depicted in a very naturalistic way with a twist of a particular style popular at the exact period in time.
However, the story that the picture tells us is usually way more complicated than it may seem to us today. Paintings were kind of books with a specific narrative and one should sometimes be prepared and know the context to read the message the way it was intended.
History and portrait genres were dominant in art up until the 17th century. While landscape, still life and genre scenes were getting more and more popular ever since. Needless to say, there were no abstracts during those periods of time.
Interestingly, there is no common ground in defining the Romanticists and Realists of the 19th century. Some say they couldn’t be classified as Old Masters since they went far beyond their own perception of art and added that new layer of emotions to their oeuvre. Others believe they were still much closer to their predecessors than to their groundbreaking followers. This way, you may sometimes encounter a separate category for 19th-century art, which is intended to fill the gap between Old Masters and Impressionists.
Impressionists were the other major cohort of artists and artworks that is usually distinguished in the history of art and on the art market. These were the artists working in the middle of the 19th century in a totally new style for the eyes of their contemporaries.
This new style was born in France and was based on an innovative paint application technique. Painters started to use thick amounts of oil paint and this way each subtle stroke was slightly rising above the canvas surface reflecting the light with its curvy waves.
Moreover, they made the first steps away from the naturalistic depiction of the subjects. In their method, the distance helps to see all these colourful strokes becoming recognisable shapes and forms.
In other words, their light and vivid pictures were no longer intended to tell you the exact story or show someone or something with high precision.
On the opposite, their art was about impressions, giving just a glimpse of an idealised world around us.
Post-Impressionists of the end of the 19th century were eventual successors of impressionists and are also included in this cohort. They developed the style further towards the more colourful, more pronounced stroke-dominant technique, where there was almost no resemblance to the traditional figurative painting of previous centuries.
Please, note, that Post-Impressionism is also considered a part of Modern art history.
Modern painting in its various styles and forms shaped the history of art in the period from roughly 1875 to the beginning of World War II in 1945. Most of the artists influenced by these new movements were born before 1910.
Modernism, at the end of the day, did truly change the direction of the art practice development completely.
It was no longer about naturalistic depiction and more about allusions. Not so much about facts and stories, but about emotions and inner experiences.
Artists of the modern epoch went far away from traditional oil painting on the canvas surface. They used myriads of media and supports, created collages, and implemented other ready-made things in their artworks.
Their art made another huge step from figurativeness to complete abstraction. This trend reached its peak in the Post-war and Contemporary years with the rise of Abstract Expressionism of all kinds.
Looks like painting as an art practice went through all possible incarnations to then transform into completely different disciplines.