Social & Historical Context of Late 19th-Century Art & Architecture

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  • 0:01 Contextualizing Art
  • 0:43 Technological Changes
  • 2:24 New Ideas
  • 3:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore major social and historical developments of the 19th century that influenced art and architecture. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Contextualizing Art

This is art. Look at it. Reflect on it. Look at it some more. Ok, that's all we need to do to understand art, right? Actually, there's something missing. This is still not quite enough. We need context. This piece of art didn't just grow on the art tree, where someone plucked it off and then brought it inside. It was created by a person, and the social and historical context of that person's life impacted the reason and process for creating this work of art. At few times was this as true as in the 19th century. The times were a changin', sometimes in some pretty drastic ways, and those changes majorly influenced the arts.

Person looking at art piece

Technological Changes

The 19th century was full of technological innovations. Periods of major industrial development led to such inventions as synthetic oil paints, giving artists a much wider range of colors that were affordable and available, plus removing the time required to mix all your own paints.

For painting however, the biggest change probably came from this guy: the camera. Photography presented a major challenge to painting: why buy a painting when you can just take a picture? Painters responded by demonstrating just how unique art could be, using it to capture a single moment in time, just like cameras did, but with a very different result. Instead of trying to freeze a moment in time, painters used vivid colors and often rough brushstrokes to present moments passing through time. Photography inspired artists to paint the world as they saw it, focusing on contemporary scenes of daily life and single moments in time.

Person with camera

New technology of the 19th century also impacted architecture. Specifically, new techniques in refining iron made this a practical building material. Cast-iron architecture used iron to create large structures that were open and spacious. Architects were so proud of this style that they designed buildings meant to show off the iron framework.

The Crystal Palace, a giant exhibition hall erected in 1851, was made almost entirely of iron beams and large sheets of glass, creating an incredible spectacle. People were very excited about this style of architecture, and many nations built huge monuments to show off their industrial prowess. Iron frameworks were the basis of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 and even the Statue of Liberty, completed in 1886.

New Ideas

With the rapid industrialization of Europe and the United States, and the expansion of colonial powers across the world, people in the 19th century were exposed to unique cultures, viewpoints, and ideas, and this resulted in a few new ideas about art. One place we see this is in France.

After the United States began trading with Japan, other nations did too, and suddenly, Japanese products were everywhere. The French fell in love with Japanese things, from kimonos to cheap woodblock prints of Japanese life. They even had their own word for the Japanese aesthetic, Japonisme. French artists were inspired by Japonisme and incorporated elements of Japanese prints into their own art.

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