Behind a great work of fine art there is not only intention, skill and originality, but also a rich and complex history that goes back centuries. How did we get here? Let’s find out.
Art is such a vast word that we sometimes forget where its weight comes from. We usually take art for granted in our everyday lives, unless we are actually looking for it or we let it find us—either way, at those times we open our senses to art, and we take it in with grace or reluctance as we convey the emotions from the art piece we are appreciating.
A few posts ago we defined what fine art entails and what makes this art form different from others. Fine art has its own particular history as well, and attempting to understand its never-ending evolution is a journey well worth embarking on.
Unveiling fine art: the birth of academic art
The beginnings of fine art can be traced back to the Italian Renaissance of the 16th Century. The focus of Renaissance art was on the technique and aesthetic value of the art piece, and this shift launched the birth of art academies. These emerged in Italy, and later on in the rest of Europe, to teach students about principles such as form, color and composition.
This theoretical take on art shaped people’s minds and introduced them to the notion of fine art. Art students were encouraged to enhance their skills by painting still lifes, portraits and landscapes, which were considered less practical and more beautiful pieces of art.
It took around two centuries before the term “fine art” was actually coined, but by the 19th Century the groundwork was laid for it to define those works of art with advanced skill level and aesthetic value, and to be therefore considered worthy of status.
The evolution of fine art: Art movements
In the early 1860s the concept of “art for art’s sake” started to gain power among European artists. Taken from French literature, “L’art pour l’art” became an ideology for those who promoted a work’s formal properties and beauty over its subject matter and functionality. Paris was the hub for artists like Claude Monet or Pierre-August Renoir, pioneers of this innovative yet criticized concept that influenced the birth of Impressionism, the first official fine art movement in Europe.
Art movements are proof that fine art has been evolving throughout the ages, to the point that every time art arrived somewhere it hadn’t gone before, a new art movement had to be born to distinguish those works of art from everything else seen up until then.
Impressionism, for example, was a term coined to describe the new technique Monet used in his paintings—bright and small, loose brushstrokes that seemed to portray his impression of life itself. Just like that one, a number of other art movements sprung up during the 19th and 20th Century.
Influenced by the impact of the Industrial Revolution and the enhancement of mechanical labor, Romanticism emerged as a response against the industrial progress that looked down on beauty and manual skill. This British art movement strived to exalt the supreme power of nature, or as they called it, the Sublime.
Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibemus Quarry (1897) by Paul Cézanne
Post-impressionist Paul Cézanne wanted to take a different approach to paintings of objects and landscapes by reducing them to their basic geometric forms. Although it took some more time before it became an official art movement, Cubism had its origins in this inspiration from Impressionism, another example of how fine art evolves into something different every time.
The late 19th Century was marked as a period of artistic philosophy, in which artists were pulled into different directions in their search for innovative approaches to already existing trends. Symbolism (subjective dreams and imagination over reality), Synthetism (flattened forms in plain colors to convey emotions over visual impressions), and Naturalism (artists’ temperament and personality over academic knowledge) were some of the movements that arose during this era.
The American Century: Fine art in the Western world
While European fine artists aimed to preserve beauty and integrity of design in a seemingly industrialized world, North America took advantage of industrialization to become independent from Europe—yet its cultural and artistic development was still influenced by European fine art.
Dogana & Saint Marie della Salute, Venetia (1843) by Joseph Mallord William Turner, an advocate of Sublime art.
During the 19th Century, the United States focused on the improvement of formal artistic education, founding the American Academy of Fine Arts as their first initiative. Later on, as fine arts evolved, offering more and more iconic artworks, it became imperative to Western civilization to spread this history and make it accessible to the public.
As a result, museums and galleries were founded and promoted across Western culture, such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Arts or Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, two of the most important art institutions in the world.
By the beginning of the 20th Century, the United States had enough economic and cultural strength to be recognized as a global superpower, and the international artistic scene once ruled by Paris transferred slowly but surely to New York.
Industrial and urban landscapes emerging in North America helped Modernism establish itself as the ruling cultural movement, with its focus on geometric and organic abstraction. Western culture of bohemian experimentation broadened the reach of fine art to other forms such as photography or video, and promoted places to explore and display avant-garde works of art, such as the Greenwich Village in Manhattan.
Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942), an iconic piece of Surrealism.
Modernism was the foundation for many other movements that came afterwards, such as Surrealism (portraying how artificial urbanization brings isolation to contemporary life), or Abstract Expressionism (prioritizing the journey to achieve a piece of art over the work itself). In the mid 20th Century, Andy Warhol and the Pop Art movement became popular for their satirization of post-war capitalism. As we can see, all of them came from questioning existing rules and dynamics, another demonstration of how fine art evolved through originality and impact.
We plan to keep exploring how fine art evolves and spreads new ideas, forms and styles in the art scene. If you’d like to learn more about the latest fine art trends and developments, The Art Dome is the place!