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A Brief History of Art's Major Styles

What are the major styles of art? Painting, sculpture, photography, pencil sketching, charcoal, the list can go on almost endlessly. Where there is room for expression and the freedom to create there is an opportunity for art to be born. Art is many things and most importantly it’s in the eye of the beholder. In the interest of keeping this article brief, the focus will be mainly on the more classically known styles of art. The most well-known art movements and artists who have gained such prominence in their field that their names are known to nearly every man woman and child.

Paintings are probably one of the first things that come to mind when the word art is mentioned. The images of the Mona Lisa, and The Starry Night dance through your thoughts as well as the works of whichever artist you most admire. So this article will just explore artists and art styles in relation to painting, including oil paintings, tempura, watercolor, and the many other paint-related mediums.

In the Beginning

The earliest known paintings were done in various pigments on cave walls in ancient Europe by long-forgotten artists. These works of art were largely thought to be created as a means of recording a person’s history.

Then came the artfully illustrated tombs of the ancient pharaohs.

Followed by delicately decorated manuals scrolls and holy texts of the dark ages and other medieval art. After a time came to a renaissance of the arts.

Canvases and oil paints came onto the scene and the great artists who plied their craft gave birth to a marvelous new chapter in artistic expression. Since that time art has grown and expanded until the very meaning of art becomes almost intangible. Art has become so much more than just records of the men and women who ruled the land and the everyday worlds they lived in. Now art can be anything a person deems worthy of their personal definition.

An Overview of Popular Painting Styles, In No Particular Order


This particular style of art came about in France around 1840 and really took off during the French revolution. This is because realism is art that depicts life as accurately as possible in the form of portraits of the real world. Many of the most famous works of art that are recognized as realism are of workers in fields. The main focus of the style was the common man and woman and their everyday life. Unlike the previous movements in the art world that favored the romanticized side of things.

This style of art was an outlet for artists who wanted to show what real life was all about and document their world. The color pallets of the artists were typically made up of browns greens and bits of red and blue. The scenes were varied from the kitchen table of a farmhouse to the fields and mountains of the region. Some artists recognized and loved for their work in realism are Gustave Courbet 1819-1877, Honore Daumier 1808-1879, Jean Francois Millet 1814-1875, and Jean-Baptist Camille Corot 1796-1875.

Art Deco:

From the 1920s to the 1930s Art Deco was the major style attributed to artist of the time. In essence, Art Deco is one of the most varied art styles. The many artists and craftsmen that employed their skills to create during this time had many different looks and there was little continuity in the style; the style where art and commercialism collide. The Art Deco style influenced everything from fashion, architecture, and furniture to the very design of household objects like vacuum cleaners, toasters and other appliances. This style, which originated in France, was one of the richest styles, encouraging the use of gold leafing, mirrors and other costly, shiny materials.

The art deco movement was further driven by the government's attempt at creating work for unemployed artists. The Federal Art Project, created under the Works Progress Administration, hired painters all over the country to decorate schools, hospitals and other government buildings. Murals and paintings were created to enhance the appeal of the room, which places them solidly in the art deco, or decorative, category of art. There wasn’t a set style for painters at the time and so the works of art created by these painters, though they fall into the category of art deco, have no common thread beyond the fact that they were created as decoration, and they were paintings. Artists who came to be known for art deco style included Diego Rivera and his murals depicting life in the city or buildings that his art decorated. Rockwell Kent and Reginald Marsh also populated the walls of government buildings with murals of postal employees and factory workers.


Cubism is quite a bit like the name would suggest. Painters, sculptors, architects, and other artists used cube shapes and other 3 dimensional images to combine the natural form of the human body with a dreamlike vision from the artist's mind. Paris 1910 to 1920; the art world is exploding with new and innovative ideas on how to view the world. The artist set the stage for future dreamers and their new, fantastic vision of art. Painters like Pablo Picasso began to create works of art using the basic shapes and base forms of their models rather than sticking with the old tricks of realism. Their art came off as a bit abrasive at first and wasn’t well received. It pushed the boundaries of traditional art, combining three-dimensional shapes and the human form to create images that were unforgettable and sometimes unsettling.

Though cubism had a definitive style to it there were several different styles of cubism within the confines of the category. The art could be more subtle with its inclusion of geometric shapes or the cube shapes could dominate the image. Georges Braque, Jean Metzinger, and many other artists also joined in the cubism movement and paved the way for future artists. Abstract art and other future movements that stray from the more traditional and realism based styles owe their heritage to the artists of the cubism movement.

Abstract Art:

Shape form and most importantly color are the basic ingredients for a work of abstract art. The movement which came to life in the middle of the 20th century really shook the art world up. The very fundamentals of art were being challenged and changed to include a wide new variety of styles. Henri Matisse really found his way in the art community during this movement. Along with Pablo Picasso, Arthur Dove, Jackson Pollock, and Barnett Newman. These artists and many others paved the way for modern art styles. The brave influences of these artists and their unusual methods and styles created an opening for any form of art to become recognized and cherished.

Artists like the famed street/graffiti artist “Banksy” would likely have been left to obscurity and wouldn’t be able to make a living at their craft. This new bold movement in art, using bright vivid colors and ignoring the old rules that governed the world of art, allow art to be whatever we want it to be. This however does create the dilemma of what art truly is and whether or not it’s worthy of praise and recognition. The artistic stylings of Jackson Pollock and many other abstract artists are somewhat easily mimicked and could in some people's minds have been created by a small child. The most important thing is to think for yourself. Does this make you happy? Sad? Does it make you feel anything? Would you hang it in your room? If so then it truly is art and it doesn’t matter what the critics say. Art is to be enjoyed and humans need art to express themselves.

This “Banksy” was found in Park City on a wall of the historic main-street businesses after the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. There are a few other Banksy pieces in the area. Go check them out for yourself.

So, whoever, wherever and whatever you are, look for art that moves and inspires YOU.

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