Most people know about the different types of art mediums – painting, sculpture, architecture, drawing, digital media, and so on. But what about the different types of art periods? For as long as humans have been capable of wielding tools to express themselves, it seems we’ve done exactly that. Art history spans thousands of years, from cave painting to World War II-era expressionism to post-modernism, and everything in between. In this guide, we’ll review the different types of art that have spanned the ages, focusing in on the major eras and styles and their characteristics.
For a complete, in-depth guide to the history of art, check out this course on prehistoric art to the early Renaissance.
Stone Age (30,000 BC – 2500 BC)
The Stone Age was the era of cave painting. Well known pieces include the Lascaux Cave in southwestern France, a cave system covered in cave paintings of animals, humans, and symbols, rendered in mineral pigment. Efforts have gone into restoring the paintings, which have faded. They are, after all, over 17,000 years old. Another famous work from this era is the Venus (or Woman) of Willendorf, a very small statuette of a feminine figure, thought to represent fertility, which was a major theme during this early period of art history.
Mesopotamian (3500 BC –539 BC)
The early art of Mesopotamia spans the Sumerian, Assyrian, Akkadian, and Babylonian cultures, all thriving empires that existed in a large region that is known modern day Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Syria and Turkey. This era included many stone sculptures and narrative reliefs, including the stele upon which Hammurabi’s Code is carved, and the Standard of Ur. Writing was invented around this time period, by the Sumerians.
Egyptian (3100 BC –30 BC)
Everyone is familiar with the awe-inspiring architecture of the ancient Egyptians, including the Great Pyramids. Busts and statues of royal figures were a major part of Egyptian art as well, which has many of its own unique artistic periods. “Egyptian Art” is a pretty huge umbrella term for an entire culture, after all.
Greek and Hellenistic (850 BC –31 BC)
The period of early, Hellenistic Greek art was one of idealism and perfection, which was reflected greatly in the era’s architecture and sculptures. The Parthenon was built during this time, a temple dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom and warfare, among other things. Today, the Parthenon exists as a symbol of Athenian democracy. The famous styles of Greek column were also invented during this time: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.
Roman (500 BC – 476 AD)
There’s a vast history of Roman architecture as well, which you can learn more about in this history of Roman art course. During this era, we see the construction of the Pantheon – a temple dedicated to all Roman gods – and the Colosseum, among other classic buildings.
Byzantine and Islamic (476 AD – 1453 AD)
This period saw the birth of the Islamic religion, and structures like the Hagia Sophia and the Alhambra.
Middle Ages (500 – 1400)
This was the era of Celtic and Gothic art, which saw the rise of intricate gothic cathedrals and structures like Notre Dame. It was a dark era, home to the Black Death and the crusades, which was all reflected in the dark, looming, and religious nature of its art.
Early and High Renaissance (1400 – 1550)
The word “Renaissance” is a French term meaning rebirth, which is exactly what the Renaissance movement was. It was a cultural rebirth of art, literature, and intellect after a vast period of darkness, disease, and war. Music, art, science, philosophy, and other schools thrived during this era, which gave birth to such greats as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, and more. For a more in-depth guide to this period, check out this art history course, which begins its focus on the early Renaissance era before moving on to the modern age.
Venetian and Northern Renaissance (1430 – 1550)
During this era, the Renaissance movement spread from Italy to France, Germany, Poland and other northern European countries. Bellini, Jan van Eyck, Bosch, and other artists reigned during this time.
Baroque (1600 – 1750)
The Baroque was a highly religious era that overlapped the Thirty Years War between the Protestants and the Catholics. Baroque artists like Rembrandt and Caravaggio were well known during this time for the tense, moody, and extremely dramatic style of their work, reflected in lighting techniques and subject matter. Baroque architecture like that of the Palace of Versailles was known for its ornate intensity. Many of these art periods were reflected in the music of the time as well! Check out this course on classical music for some examples.
Neoclassical (1750 – 1850)
The Neoclassical era toned down the extremity of Baroque while still capturing the grace and aesthetic perfection of Greco-Roman art periods. It was likely the overlapping Age of Enlightenment, which saw another turn towards the scientific over the religious, that set the tone for this era, as well as the concurrent Industrial Revolution. Jacques-Louis David, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres were well known painters during this time.
Romanticism (1780 – 1850)
While past art eras had embraced the religious and the scientific, Romanticism saw an emphasis on the self, as well as a rejection of the kind of order that the Enlightenment had imposed in favor of a more chaotic approach to life. This took place during the American Revolution and the French Revolution, and saw its crowning artists across a host of different counties. Delacroix, Turner, and Gericault, among others, defined the landscape with their dark and moody works.
Realism (1848 – 1900)
Realism was the first movement to finally reject all the drama, intensely exaggerated emotion, and grandeur of other art styles for a more grounded approach to human nature. The melodrama of religion seen in the Baroque, the false perfection of the sciences seen in the Neoclassical, and the embracing of the chaotic nature of the self seen in the Romantic – all of these things were thrown out the window. The working class ruled the era of Realism, at least as far as art went. Common folks’ lives were pictured there, and all the mundane experiences and struggles that characterize life. Famous artists include Courbet and Millet.
Impressionism (1865 – 1885)
Impressionism might have been one of the first purely aesthetic art periods, a style focused on capturing a visual phenomenon rather than an intensely political or religious one. Impressionism rejected dated techniques that dictated form and order, and painted freely. Their works were like impressions of scenes and people, hence the name. Painters like Monet, Manet, and Cassatt were known during this time. If you want to learn the techniques used by the impressionists, check out this course on acrylic painting. Watercolors were also popular during this time. Check out this introduction to watercolors to get started with the medium.
Post-Impressionism (1885 – 1910)
Post-impressionism was the logical follow-up to impressionism, an art style that maintained its philosophy – a rejection of traditional art rules and its focus on perfection – but also rejected its supposed limitations. Post-impressionism carried on impressionism’s free style and unrestricted brush techniques, but applied it to more common scenes, and also painted forms rather than just impressions. Notable post-impressionists include Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec, and van Gogh.
Fauvism and Expressionism (1900 – 1935)
Expressionism and its cousin Fauvism were partially products of wartime. It flourished during and after the first World War with its harsh colors, bold shapes, and often its disturbing emotional content. Of course, the last part is not a requirement of expressionism. Matisse, a Fauvist painter, usually kept things very light. Then there was German expressionism, influenced highly by the disturbing works of Edvard Munch (who was Norwegian) and Egon Schiele. Consider a course on oil or acrylic painting to learn the techniques used by the expressionists.
Cubism, Futurism, Supremativism, Constructivism, De Stijl (1905 – 1920)
Occurring parallel to expressionism and during and after the first World War, the diverse set of art styles including cubism, futurism, supremativism, and constructivism was important for its explorations of numerous expressionistic styles. No longer were artists forced to capture realistic images of people or beautiful scenery. This era saw shapes, abstract objects, and highly deconstructed renders of landscapes and other things used as a means of expression, rather than traditional techniques seen before. This was a bold period for art, and saw talents like Picasso leading the way.
Dada and Surrealism (1917 – 1950)
Dada and surrealism rejected so much of traditional art that it dived into absurdism. Elements of dreams and the subconscious were explored with this style, as well as wartime horrors (it overlapped World War II and the atomic bombings of Japan). The Dadaists meant to subvert classical ideas of expression, as well as question what art itself even means. This is captured perfectly in Marcel Duchamp’s piece, Fountain, which was just a porcelain urinal he found, signed, and entered into an art exhibition. Notable surrealists include Dali and Magritte.
Postmodernism and Deconstructivism (1970 – )
Much of postmodern art is deconstructing styles of the past and reinterpreting them. Want a career in the fine arts? Get started by practicing your drawing skills with this course, or jump start your creativity with this motivational course.