Photo credit: Brian Kerr
An Extremely Brief Art History Timeline
Save your money and skip buying the latest edition of Janson’s History of Art. Start your education with our cheat sheet to help navigate through some of the major art history movements.
Ancient art: sky people
Medieval art: the Dark Ages, Pulp Fiction
Renaissance art: ugly babies
Baroque art: Patrick Bateman’s (and company’s) radicchio with free-range squid and monkfish ragout with violets at Deck Chairs on Columbus; or the monkfish with mango slices and red snapper sandwich on brioche with maple syrup and cotton he didn’t order at Vanities in Tribeca
Rococo art: Patrick Bateman’s blood-splattered business card
Realism: Gustave Courbet and L’Origine du monde
Symbolism: #dark #feelings
Fauvism: a cacophony of artificially colored pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars, green clovers, blue diamonds, and purple horseshoes
Expressionism: madness, The Scream
Pablo Picasso, LesDemoiselles d’Avignon
Cubism: Pablo Picasso
Futurism: really rich Italian Satanists
Dada: the original Cabaret Voltaire
Surrealism: Hegel, Marx, Freud + communism, anarchy = André Breton, Salvador Dalí, and Salvador Dalí dorm posters
Abstract Expressionism: Jackson Pollock and a plethora of “no.” paintings.
Pop art: Andy Warhol
For our purposes, this sums up everything that came after:
Photo credit: gusto1
Photo credit: Lonely Planet
Museum and Gallery Etiquette
Since you’ve probably mastered the art of not acting like an animal in public by now, you can focus on the particulars that neurotic museum-goers will be thankful you paid attention to. You can liken the rules of art watching to the rules of Fight Club:
The first (and second) rule of art is: you do not talk about art
Though you’re not necessarily wrong to wonder aloud about the meaning of an artwork, it’s a dead giveaway that you’re a neophyte. It can also be a bother to the people around you. Flaunting your “expertise” is annoying and suspect. Use your inside voice if you must chat, and let your eyes do most of the work.
Third rule: someone yells “Stop!” goes limp, taps out, the fight is over
You’re probably in the modern/contemporary art wing of the museum if this actually happens. (Don’t act like a tourist with a map. Wander with purpose. You’ll be surrounded by amazing stuff no matter where you end up.)
Fourth rule: only two visitors to an artwork
Newbies will crowd around art in sequential order, because they’re usually following the audio tour. Spread out, mix things up, and explore the exhibit without the help of gadgets. This especially comes in handy during ticketed, “blockbuster” art shows, but if you “cultivate a taste for the overlooked, the off-putting, the little understood and the poorly reviewed,” you’re more likely to blend in with seasoned vets. Don’t obsess about reading the museum wall labels, but they’re a handy cheat sheet in a pinch.
Fifth rule: one exhibit at a time
Save the gallery hopping for solo jaunts and First Friday events where you can quietly guzzle free booze to ease the pain of your own ignorance.
Alonso Cano, The Miraculous Lactation of St. Bernard
Sixth rule: No shirts, no shoes
If you have a problem with nudity, get over it. Works from the Italian Renaissance alone are filled with nude children, nude baby Jesus, and elaborately coiffed male pubic hair (many of the female nudes had none). If that TIME Magazine photo bothered you, get over it. Prepare to see paintings of adult, male Saints breastfeeding. The Virgin Mary sometimes nursed people right in the eye, too (it was said to cure infections).
Seventh rule: art will go on as long as it has to
Gazing at art for several minutes is highly encouraged and totally normal. It’s also the best thing to do if you forget everything else.
The Ongoing Mystery of the Mona Lisa
Current talking points are good to have in your back pocket. One of several Leonardo da Vinci masterpieces, the Mona Lisa — believed to be a commissioned portrait of Lisa del Giocondo by her wealthy silk merchant husband Francesco del Giocondo — is the subject of great and recent speculation. The portrait lacks eyelashes and eyebrows, and there are a number of different stories that suggest why. Initially, historians indicated that it was common for genteel women to pluck them. Later, high-resolution technology supported a theory that Da Vinci did paint the hairs in, but overzealous cleaning and restoration may have accidentally erased them. The most recent analysis of the artist’s 16th-century painting involves a group of researchers who are exhuming Giocondo’s remains so they can reconstruct her face and determine if the mother of five was truly Da Vinci’s model. This may also solve the mystery behind that elusive smile, which some believe didn’t actually belong to Gioncondo, but to Da Vinci’s assistant, and rumored lover, Gian Giacomo Caprotti. There are also recent questions as to the authenticity of a second version of the painting, known as the Isleworth Mona Lisa — a younger-looking portrait made 14 years before the Louvre version. Is this sounding like a Law and Order episode yet? It should also be noted that many people don’t know how small the Mona Lisa is (30″ x 21″). If your conversation extends beyond the classics, you can always chat about Yellowism. Also, ignore everything you saw in The Da Vinci Code or read in a Dan Brown novel (good life advice in general).
Don’t Confuse Friends and Rivals
Monet vs. Manet
Both bearded French gents have similar names, they each painted scenes of modern Paris life, both were rejected by the Salon at one point or another, and they were friends. The quickest way to tell the two apart: Claude Monet was fond of landscapes and painted with smaller, visible brushstrokes, while Édouard Manet (who preceded Monet slightly) preferred to paint people or everyday subjects and employed looser brushwork that feels more spontaneous.
Monet’s Impression, Sunrise gave its name to the Impressionist movement
Manet’s first major painting, The Absinthe Drinker, was rejected by the Paris salon
Gauguin vs. Van Gogh
Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh were the original frenemies. The Post-Impressionist duo struggled with mental illness, which is obvious since they decided that spending nine weeks locked away in a house painting together was a good idea. Their relationship began to deteriorate, jealousy erupted, threats were made, Van Gogh sliced (part of) his ear off, and Gauguin essentially deserted him.
Piero della Francesca, Flagellation of Christ
They Call It the Renaissance for a Reason
Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Piero della Francesca were just a few of the earliest Renaissance men — serious overachievers who embraced elements of science, religion, math, and language in equal measure. The 14th to 17th-century cultural rebirth changed the face of art and resulted in some of the most iconic images in history (The Creation of Adam, for example). Geometric arrangements, realistic linear perspective, human anatomy, and a return to classic forms populated the period.
Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man
Figure of Dionysos from the east pediment of the Parthenon, ca. 438-432 BC, Acropolis, Athens, British Museum
3D Art > 3D Film
Too often when discussing the classics of art, people fixate on paintings and ignore three-dimensional mediums. Get stone-cold smart with iconic pieces like the Parthenon sculptures and know at least five of the greatest sculptors of all time: Donatello, Michelangelo, (Raphael, Leonardo, Splinter, April O’Neil, Casey Jones… ) Bernini, Rodin, and Brancusi. Learn the difference between free-standing sculptures (sometimes referred to as sculpture in the round — viewable from all sides), and the many types of relief (sculpture raised from the surface plane) so talking about 3D art doesn’t sound like a commercial about indigestion: bas-relief/low relief (think of the head on a coin), high relief (arms and legs and other wackiness projecting from the background), sunk-relief (Ancient Egyptian art “carved” into the surface), counter-relief, normal reliahhhhhhhhh. Really, just stick to knowing the difference between the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Old Master sculptors.
Photo credit: @PAFAcademyDavid Lynch next to a scale replica of Michelangelo’s David at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Peter Paul Rubens, Family of Jan Breughel the Elder
Dutch and Flemish Painters Were Pretty Weird
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Jan Bruegel the Elder, Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder: it’s fun to imagine Flemish painters named “the Elder” belonging to a secret noble house in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, but really the moniker helped distinguish family members with the same name. However, painters like Jan Bruegel the Elder did give their relatives unusual nicknames like Flower and Paradise. (These were things found in Bruegel’s favorite still lifes. His nickname was “Velvet.”) Also see: the surreal painted orgies of famous art weirdo, Hieronymus Bosch.
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (Detail)
Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew
Like most things, art has its own lingo. You should familiarize yourself with terms* and abbreviations so you can follow the conversation. Here are just a few that should be on your artspeak key:
The V&A: The Victoria and Albert Museum, London MoMA: Museum of Modern Art, New York The Metropolitan: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York LACMA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles
Chiaroscuro: a strong contrast between dark and light (See: Caravaggio)
Impasto: thickly applied paint (See: Van Gogh)
Contrapposto: the relaxed pose sculptural figures assume, resting weight on one foot (See: all classical Western sculpture)
Pointillism: painting technique using dots of color (See: Georges Seurat)
Iconography: “the science of identification, description, classification, and interpretation of symbols, themes, and subject matter in the visual arts. The term can also refer to the artist’s use of this imagery in a particular work.” (See: any art with the words Virgin, Madonna, Annunciation, Assumption, illuminated, altar, and Reformation)
Robert Campin (Master of Flémalle), Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece)
You really don’t want to talk to the person who frequently drops these terms in casual conversation, but knowing their definitions could help you draw connections between artists and art movements. Try to avoid talking like an overwrought artist statement or an art history 101 syllabus. You’re more likely to discuss the elements of art (form, color, line, space, etc.), the personal lives of the artists, or one of the many “isms” (see: our art history timeline) more than anything else (and even that can quickly get out of hand). Never admit that you’re one of those people who believes “art is everywhere,” that “a three-year-old could paint that,” or that you own a Starry Night umbrella unless you want to be alone forever.
Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808
All Art Is Political
Pope Julius II strong-armed Michelangelo into painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling as part of his propaganda campaign to assert headship of Italy through the church. Goya’s The Third of May 1808 depicted the horrors of war. Early artists were commissioned to create for church and state, which didn’t come without its own price, while others risked their lives and careers to criticize them. It’s usually fair to conclude that if you want to truly understand a work of art, consult the history books.
The Woman of Willendorf may have been a Paleolithic self-portrait
Where Are the Women?
Sadly, it’s unlikely that you’re very familiar with female artists who created works before the 19th century. There aren’t record numbers of them, but they did exist. During this period, most female artists were from wealthy families and trained by male artist family members, or they were nuns — both largely banned from academies and working with male, nude models, which explains the large number of self-portraits. Others worked alongside craftsmen in textiles. Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi is one of the 39 women who has a seat at Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party installation. Related: decide if you think Picasso was brilliant or a repugnant misogynist.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes (1614–20), Oil on canvas, 199 x 162 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence