Back To CourseArt 101: Art of the Western World
23 chapters | 278 lessons
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Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
You know that game where you put up two images side by side and try to spot the differences between them. Well, we are going to play a round of that game. Ready for the images? Here you go. Try and spot the differences. Take your time.
If you looked at the one on the left and immediately thought, 'Well, that's from the High Renaissance', then looked at the one on the right on thought, 'Definitely 16th-century Northern Europe', good for you. But if not, don't feel bad. Yeah, they're different images, but not all of the differences are easy to spot. And that's where this lesson comes in handy.
Although the Italian Renaissance had been in full swing really since the early 1400s, the culture, style, and techniques of this movement reached their full maturity from roughly 1495-1520, a period called the High Renaissance. The level of genius operating in Italy at this time was unparalleled and really captured in the personalities and artwork of three men: Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo.
High Renaissance painting perfected the goals of the Renaissance in every way. Painters mastered Classical proportioning, creating figures that were defined by geometric symmetry. They achieved the highest levels of illusion with compositions of accurate spatial depth. They demonstrated their knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman culture. They pushed their scientific understanding of the world, studied and experimented, and sought to present the most perfect, rational, carefully-planned composition possible that was accurate in every detail. So, what were the masters of the High Renaissance striving for? In a word - perfection.
Let's look at a few major works. Here's the famous Last Supper, painted by Leonardo da Vinci around 1498. The figures are all modeled in Classical beauty and together form a wide triangle, leading the eye upwards and inwards to Christ. That's what we mean when we say that these were geometrically organized.
Moving on to the most famous painting of Michelangelo, the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, we see some similar trends. But we also see many nude figures, which both connected Michelangelo to ancient Greek and Roman traditions in art and let him show off his skill in representing an ideal human body.
Finally, let's look at one of the many masterpieces of Raphael. Here we have the School of Athens, considered by many to be the best example of the High Renaissance. Completed around 1511, it has idealized figures and perfect spatial illusions of depth but also has an important theme. The dozens of men here are the philosophers, engineers, and intellectuals of ancient Greece and Rome. By painting this in the Pope's apartment, which is where it was painted, Raphael demonstrated that a Christian society could look back on a pagan past for knowledge without being hypocritical. The techniques, styles, beliefs, ideas, and goals of the Renaissance are all perfectly captured in this masterpiece.
So, how was the painting in Italy different from that in Northern Europe? For one, the artists of Northern Europe in the 16th century came from a slightly different set of experiences. Northern artists greatly admired and respected Italian Renaissance artists but also developed their own styles and techniques.
One of the notable differences was oil paint, first majorly used in the 15th century by painters in the Netherlands. Oil paint made all the difference. It dries evenly and the colors don't bleed, making it perfect for intricate details. By the 16th century, most Italians were using oil paints, too, but it never quite meant the same thing to them as it did to the Northern Europeans. You see, those intricate details were the hallmark of Northern painting. They weren't as concerned with perfect, ideal figures or mathematical illusions of spatial depth, but they were obsessed with presenting objects with unbelievable accuracy.
And this turned into a love for symbolism, hidden in the most discrete, subtle of places. For example, this painting by Quinten Massys, called the Money-Changer and His Wife, shows average people conducting their business. On the table are a glass of water and a candle, symbols of the Catholic faith, but the couple are ignoring them to focus on the coins. Totally changes the meaning of the painting, right?
Daily life was a subject that was very commonly painted by Northern European artists but was almost never depicted in Italy. The focus on details and symbolism in the everyday meant that these Northern artists were more willing to use mundane subjects, and they did. Scenes of daily life, called genre paintings were very common. But again, they often had symbolic meaning and creating this effect was more important to the overall composition than achieving perfectly symmetrical and rational space.
Here's one from Pieter Bruegel the Elder called Netherlandish Proverbs. What looks like a scene of a busy city is actually a landscape of people literally acting out common proverbs, things like 'swimming against the tide,' to show the foolishness of society.
But perhaps the best representation of the Northern painters is Hieronymous Bosch. His masterpiece, the Garden of Earthly Delights is so packed with enigmatic details that to this day, nobody is completely sure what it means. Again, the figures themselves are not perfect nor is the sense of spatial depth, but that's not what matters. The actions of the people, the subtle symbolism hidden in the dozens of exotic animals and plants found across this painting, the fantastical and bizarre landscapes: these were the focus of the artist.
In the 16th century, Europe was creating art in many styles and many places, and each of these was different in unique ways. The High Renaissance was the period from roughly 1495-1520 when Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael perfected Renaissance techniques and artistic goals. High Renaissance art was logically organized, using geometric and mathematical models to create ideal figures and illusionistic spatial depth. Artists also demonstrated their connections to the Classical traditions of ancient Greece and Rome and uplifted this as the basis of European knowledge.
Northern European art in the 16th century was less concerned with idealized figures and compositions and more concerned with details, particularly in terms of everyday objects, things like candles and water glasses that could have special, symbolic meaning. Northern paintings were intricate and enigmatic, often using daily life as a subject to explore deeper critiques about society and religion.
So, if we put those two paintings back up again, what do you think now? Can you spot the differences?
When you are finished, you should be able to:
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Back To CourseArt 101: Art of the Western World
23 chapters | 278 lessons