August 21, 2020 in Art
Art History: Paintings


Art history can be considered as a representation of art through historical periods that have evolved with the evolution of humans from ancient art to modern art. Thanks to Art historians who engage themselves in the study of the history of arts. They are responsible for identifying and recording timeline of artworks. According to Fred Kleiner, art historians “study the visual and tangible objects humans make and the structures human build”. Research studies have attempted to show the evolution of art according to historical timeline. According to Esaak, ancient art covers 30,000 B.C to 400 A.D, mediaeval to early Renaissance art covers a period from 400 B.C to 1400 A.D, Renaissance to early modern art covered 1400 to 1880, then a period of modern art from 1880 to 1970 and finally the present contemporary art. Works of art have been traditionally categorized into architecture, sculpture, the pictorial arts such as drawing, photography, painting, printmaking and crafts arts such as ceramics, metalwork, jewelry. This paper explains some of the significant issues that, paintings as works of art, address in its historical period.

Art historians have used different ways to determine the historical period of artwork and the subject it addresses. Scholars identify four different ways to determine the date and age of an artwork. The first is through physical evidence, which involves examining the material used in painting like oil, ink and paper. Second, is documentary evidence, which examines the date written in the work. Third is the internal evidence which involve observing the nature of the paintings or artwork to determine the corresponding time in history. Finally, there is the stylistic evidence, which analyzes the style used in painting or in the artwork to determine its age.

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Similarly, art historians apply the style of artwork to determine its significance and historical period. For example, period styles determine the period and culture associated with particular style of painting or artwork. Regional styles relate the style of the artwork to its region and personal style relate a particular style of artwork to a particular artist. In addition, art historians use several ways to identify the subject matter of the art work. According to Kleiner, subject “is the artwork itself, its colors, textures, composition and size”. Traditionally, art historians have classified subject into religious, landscape, historical, portraiture, architectural and mythological. For example, cross, in most cases, symbolize religion, and in particular, the crucifixion of Christ. Artists have also employed use of personification, and symbols to determine the subject matter. For example, in the figure below:

Fig. 1. 7′ 7″ x 7′ 9″ painting found in Fresco Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

The fig. 1 above is a painting by Giotto. According to art historians, it was created in the period 1305 to 1306. The subject matter of the painting is mourning or lamentation of Jesus Christ. The artist show Christ surrounded by over ten people both males and females. The clothing of the people symbolizes biblical costumes to mean that this is a religious painting and Christian art in particular. The artist also uses mythological and iconographic symbols to represent angels coming from heaven wearing golden halos and having wings. A closer look at Christ’s feet reveals that this was after crucifixion as his feet show nail marks. Therefore, among the women who are holding Christ cab be Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus. The painting also shows iconographical symbol of Jesus’ disciples. A keen study of images can reveal that the one at the center represent Apostle John. Golden halos have also been used as an iconographic symbol to represent biblical people. The mood of the painting is that of deep sorrow and sadness as depicted by women holding the body of Christ.

Giotto who lived in the 13th century show that the painting is during the early Renaissance period. Giotto, in his paint, creates a 3-dimensional world and applies plane to separate spiritual world and physical world. He uses his mastery of arts to clearly depict humans and angelic being as well. Gietto’s paint is significant in representing the life and death of Christ. The painting preserves the historical event of life and death of Jesus which in turn pass the message to the present time. This is a fine example of historical art.

Fig2: Ruben’s elevation of the cross

The figure above is a painting of Paul Rubens created around 16th century. The time period of the painting is early Renaissance. The painting shows many similarity with that shown in fig1 clearly confirming that the style of the painting is that of periodical style. The paint represents a religious scene. Rubens portrays the crucifixion of Jesus as symbolized by the Jesus on the cross and men trying to erect the cross. The paint uses strong men as iconographical symbol to represent Roman soldiers. The text on the top of the cross attests to biblical accuracy. The time of the day is noon as depicted by a blue sky. Similarly, the significance of this paint is to preserve an historical event of crucifixion of Christ. The artist tries to preserve the accuracy of the biblical event.

Fig3: Virgin origin

The paint depicts two women and two babies. It may have been created in the same period as that of Rubens. Thus, the period of painting is early Renaissance that is around 1400 to 1880 A.D. This can be attested by the style of painting which is known as period style. The artist uses a rocky background to portray that may be the women and their children were living near a cave. The subject of the painting is landscape and the artist is depicting a family with the absence of a father. It reveals the warm relationship between the mother and her babies. The significance of the painting is to preserve a historical landscape and to preserve the culture of the people at that time especially The role of women in particular.

Fig 4: The Last supper

The figure 4 above shows a painting by Leanardo. Historians suggest that it was created between 1494 and 1498 and, therefore, it belongs to the early renaissance period. The subject of the painting is the Lord’s last supper. At the center of the painting is Jesus surrounded by his disciples. The artist tries to portray a biblical scene in which Jesus, at the last supper, prophesies of his betrayal by one of his disciples. The clothing of Jesus and his disciples symbolizes the biblical costumes. The artist uses 3-dimension in his painting to depict the house and the table. The time is around evening as portrayed by blue sky. The significance of the painting is to preserve an historical event of last supper of Jesus. The painting also is important as it preserve the style of painting that was common during the early renaissance period.

Fig 6. Human skull

The figure 6 above is a modeled plaster and paint of human skull. The plaster is found in archeological mesuem of Amman. It is dated 7200 to 6700 BC, which means it belongs to the period of ancient art. The art represents neeolithic culture. The significance of the art is that it shows the style of art during the ancient period. It is also essential in understanding the culture of the people of neolithic period.

In conclusion, art history help in understanding the evolution of art through history. It is because art history preserve the works of art from ancient period to modern period. There are a number of methods used by art historians to determine date, style and subject of artwork. However, the understanding of style, date and subject of art is essential in explaining the significance of different artwork in their own historical period. Painting, as work of art, helps in preserving the historical events during that time period for example a religious event like crucifixion of Christ. It also helps in detremining the subject matter of a given art thereby makeing it easier for historians to study historical events. Finally, by examining date, style and subject of an artwork, historians are able to study the culture and nature of people who lived at that time.


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