The term ‘Western art’ largely describes the art of western Europe, but is also used as a general category for forms of art that are now geographically widespread but that have their roots in Europe.
Art historians describe the history of Western art in terms of successive periods and/or movements, including classical, medieval, Byzantine, Romanesque, Renaissance, baroque, rococo, neoclassicism, Romanticism, realism, Impressionism, modernism and postmodernism. Definitions of these periods are often debated, as it is impossible to pinpoint where they begin and end, or to account for the wide array of art produced within them. Nevertheless, such terms are indispensable in navigating the complex history and stylistic shifts of Western art across time.
Two other keys to understanding Western art lie in the changes that occurred in how the art was made and who it was made for.
From the middle ages (late 5th to 14th or 15th centuries) up until the 19th century, most artworks were commissioned (ie custom-made for a specific patron). The church and the state were the most significant patrons, so most artworks depicted biblical or historical scenes, or portraits of rulers and religious leaders. The myths of ancient Greece and Rome became metaphors for royal or noble virtues and deeds. Other genres, such as still life, landscape and scenes of everyday life, were more popular amongst private patrons or in times and places where secular or public tastes dominated – the great tradition of Dutch still-life painting in the 17th century, for example, or the popularity of scenes of love and pleasure in 18th-century France. Imagery was popularised through the distribution of prints (usually engravings) that copied paintings or sculptures, which meant that certain styles, compositions, motifs and symbols were exchanged, re-used and adapted by artists time and again.
The traditional heart of artistic production and training was the workshop or atelier, presided over by a master artist. Apprentices learned their craft by preparing materials and helping the master execute commissions (by painting the background or drapery, for instance). The establishment of state-supported academies of art in major centres from the 16th century onwards changed the profession significantly. Academies trained artists in areas such as perspective and anatomy, and also sought to raise the intellectual status of the visual arts and to represent artists as a professional group (replacing the medieval system of craft guilds). They also initiated the first public art exhibitions, making artworks usually destined for private ownership accessible to all.
The 19th century saw many fundamental changes in society and art. The decline of royal and church power meant that many traditional subjects for art became less and less relevant. The industrial revolution and rise of new technologies produced new working methods and materials – from the development of new synthetic pigments for painters to the invention of entirely new mediums in the form of photography and film. New political and economic structures broadened the free market for art through private galleries and dealers, which meant that, increasingly, artists could be driven by their own desires rather than those of their patrons. Academies generally resisted these changes, leading to a gulf between academic art and the avant-garde. More than ever before, artists came to be regarded as creative and independent – a long way from their medieval predecessors, who were regarded as craftspeople in the service of the state or church.
In recent decades, globalisation has challenged our notions of ‘the West’ and what constitutes Western art. Although some Western traditions of art (such as oil painting, marble sculpture, still lifes and landscapes) still persist, artists, like all of us today, are citizens in a global village. For more information, see contemporary art, photography and Asian art.