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Humanities

Art history

Spontaneous conversations about works of art where the speakers are not afraid to disagree with each other or art history orthodoxy. Videos are made by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker along with other contributors and maintained at http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/.
Community Questions
A thumbnail for: Art History Basics
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Art History Basics

New to art? If so, this is a good place to start. We often think we should understand what we see and that we know what we like, but art can be challenging. It has meant different things at different moments in history. Art gives us access to the way other people have seen the world. Jump in and explore!
A thumbnail for: - 400 C.E. Ancient cultures
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- 400 C.E. Ancient cultures

Humans have been making art for tens of thousands of years, long before there was writing. Why was Egyptian art obsessed with death? Why did the ancient Greeks seek the perfect human form? How did the ancient Romans use art as state propaganda? Why was the naturalism of ancient Greek and Roman art abandoned with the rise of Christianity? This topic explores the art of the ancient world, from the Venus of Willendorf to a 6th-Century Chinese Bodhisattva.
A thumbnail for: 400-1300 Medieval Era
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400-1300 Medieval Era

Were the Middle Ages really all that dark? Hardly! How could we call the period that saw the building of Chartres Cathedral with its stunning stained-glass windows, dark? Sure, the Roman empire collapsed, but with the Christianization of Europe came magnificent churches, illuminated bibles, and intricately designed broaches. This period also saw the birth of Islam, the third great monotheistic religion.
A thumbnail for: 1300-1400 Proto-Renaissance
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1300-1400 Proto-Renaissance

This is a transitional period. In the art of Florence and Siena there is a move away from medieval abstract depictions of space and the human body as artists began to focus on the illusion of mass and space and the expression of human emotion. With hindsight, it is possible to trace elements of Renaissance art back to this period. This century saw the creation of the beautiful poetry of Dante and Petrarch, but it is also the century that saw the worst outbreak of the Bubonic plague (known then as the Black Death) which wiped out close to half the population of Europe—a terrifying statistic, difficult to imagine today. This topic focuses on two Italian city-states—Florence and Siena, both proud republics in the 14th century, and the great painters of those city-states, Giotto and Cimabue in Florence, and Duccio, Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers in Siena.
A thumbnail for: 1400-1500 Renaissance in Italy and the North
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1400-1500 Renaissance in Italy and the North

This is the century that sees the full realization of the Renaissance and the end of the medieval way of thinking about the world. The Humanist rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman culture is supported by the wealth accumulated in prosperous cities such as Bruges, Florence, and Venice. New wealth and increasing trade created a demand for an art based on the world we see. The second half of the century saw the invention of the printing press, and Columbus’s voyage. And though he was heading for the East, Columbus landed in the Americas, and suddenly there were vast new continents for Europe to exploit economically and to Christianize. The century begins with the magnificent sculptures of Claus Sluter and ends with the elegant figures of Leonardo da Vinci.
A thumbnail for: 1500-1600 End of the Renaissance and the Reformation
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1500-1600 End of the Renaissance and the Reformation

If there was one century in the past that saw radical changes in established ways of thinking comparable to the 20th Century, it would be the 16th. Before this, in Western Europe, there was only one type of Christianity—under the authority of the Pope in Rome. But in 1517 a German theologian and monk, Martin Luther, sparked the Protestant Reformation. His ideas spread quickly, thanks in part to the printing press. Luther challenged the power of the Pope and the Church, and asserted the authority of individual conscience. At the same time, it was increasingly possible for people to read the bible in the languages that they spoke. It is also during this period that the Scientific Revolution began and observation replaced religious doctrine as the source of our understanding of the universe and our place in it. At mid-century, Copernicus suggested that the sun was at the center of solar system (not the earth), radically repositioning human beings and therefore calling into question our centrality in the universe that God had created.
A thumbnail for: 1600-1700 The Baroque
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1600-1700 The Baroque

The 17th Century is the era of the Baroque style, characterized by energy, drama, and movement. The Church in Rome needed art that spoke to its resurgent power even as the conflict between Protestant and Catholics continued. A new realism—with a special sensitivity to light—also pervades the art of this period across Europe and can be seen especially in the work of Caravaggio, Velazquez, Ruysdael, and Vermeer. But where in Catholic countries, the Church remained a major patron of religious images, in the Protestant Dutch Republic, artists painted an expanded range subjects like still-lifes, landscapes and genre paintings for the middle class.
A thumbnail for: 1700-1800 Age of Enlightenment
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1700-1800 Age of Enlightenment

From the frivolous paintings of Fragonard to the politically-charged moralizing images of David, this tutorial brings us from the King of France and his court—the 1%—to the democratic aspirations of the French and American revolutionaries. The Kings of France ruled by divine right, but Enlightenment thinkers (for example, Voltaire and Diderot) asserted our ability to reason for ourselves rather than rely on the teachings of established institutions. Rousseau in “The Social Contract,” stated that power to govern resided in the hands of the people. In 1788 the new United States ratified its Constitution, and in 1793, King Louis XVI was beheaded. Artists in France, America and Britain—some sympathetic to revolutionary ideals, others not—were nevertheless all caught up in the political upheavals of this period.
A thumbnail for: 1800-1848 Industrial Revolution I
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1800-1848 Industrial Revolution I

With the failure of the French Revolution (Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, and after his defeat, a King was restored to power in France), there was a turn away from public, political life, toward personal, subjective experience. In large part, this turn characterizes the new style of Romanticism (don’t confuse this with our own use of the term romantic!), whether we look to art in France, Spain, England or Germany. Where Neo-Classical painters created virtuous and heroic subjects with figures willing to sacrifice for the public good, Romantic painters asserted the primacy of emotion and the irrational.
A thumbnail for: 1848-1907 Industrial Revolution II
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1848-1907 Industrial Revolution II

The art of this period is familiar, since the world of the Realists, Impressionists and Post-Impressionists is much like our own. More and more people lived in cities and worked in factories or shops for wages. Scientific and technological advances increased dramatically during this period and although there was dislocation and privation, standards of living increased sharply. In essence, modern mass culture was born. Artists responded sometimes by embracing these radical changes, and at other times by resisting them. Key here is understanding the authority of the various art academies in Europe, which controlled matters related to taste and art, and which were, to some extent, always connected to the government. A small number of artists rebelled against the strictures of the academy, and against the demand for art to tell clear stories for a middle class audience, and formed what we know as the “avant-garde.”
A thumbnail for: 1907-1960 Age of Global Conflict
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1907-1960 Age of Global Conflict

Europe in 1907 was powerful, wealthy and stable. The British Empire was unmatched with huge territories that stretched across the globe. The Austrian-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires remained intact, and the Italians, Germans, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese retained colonies. Nevertheless, the old order would soon collapse, a result of the Great War in 1914. But this trauma was only the beginning. A global financial collapse precipitated by the stock market crash of 1929 allowed Mussolini, Franco and Hitler to seize power. The violence only worsened with the Holocaust, Japanese Imperial expansion, and the Second World War. At the same time, this was a period of radical advances in music (Stravinsky, Bartok, etc.), in dance (Duncan, Graham, etc.) in literature (Joyce, Pound, etc.), science (Einstein, Heisenberg, etc.), and of course, in art (Matisse, Picasso, etc.). In the years between the wars artists explored abstraction and the irrational. After the war, and with Europe in ruins, the focus of the art world shifted from Paris to New York where Abstract Expressionism was born.
A thumbnail for: 1960 -  Age of Post-Colonialism
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1960 - Age of Post-Colonialism

By 1960, the unprecedented violence of the first half of the century had ebbed, replaced by the Cold War and threat of nuclear catastrophe. The vacuum left by European powers as they withdrew from their colonies instigated a global power grab as small nations sought autonomy but became proxies in a global strategic confrontation between Western and Soviet or Chinese ideologies. At the same time protest movements in the West called for an end to war, racism, and gender inequality. Powerful, entrenched conservative institutions such as the Catholic Church were transformed. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., coupled later with Watergate, created a deep distrust for institutional authority. Artists responded by producing exceptionally thoughtful, original and provocative work that became increasingly global in its perspective.
1848-1907 Industrial Revolution II
The art of this period is familiar, since the world of the Realists, Impressionists and Post-Impressionists is much like our own. More and more people lived in cities and worked in factories or shops for wages. Scientific and technological advances increased dramatically during this period and although there was dislocation and privation, standards of living increased sharply. In essence, modern mass culture was born. Artists responded sometimes by embracing these radical changes, and at other times by resisting them. Key here is understanding the authority of the various art academies in Europe, which controlled matters related to taste and art, and which were, to some extent, always connected to the government. A small number of artists rebelled against the strictures of the academy, and against the demand for art to tell clear stories for a middle class audience, and formed what we know as the “avant-garde.”

Pre-Raphaelites

In 1848, a small group of young artists banded together and formed “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood,” a name which sounds intentionally backward-looking and medieval. The Pre-Raphaelites looked back to art before the time of Raphael (before about 1500 that is)—before the art of the Renaissance was reduced to formulas followed for centuries by artists associated with the art academies of Europe. Their idea was that the art before Raphael was more sincere, more true to nature and how we see, and therefore less formulaic. These artists also embraced a wide range of subjects, including modern life, biblical and literary subjects, and even history. By looking backwards, the Pre-Raphaelites led British art into the modern era.

Late Victorian

British art saw a return to the classical after the 1860s, not just in terms of style, but also subject matter. Alma Tadema created sensual Victorian visions of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and Leighton too rendered classicizing figures and subjects. Both of these artists, together with Sargent, were influenced by the Aesthetic Movement, where the subject or narrative of a work of art was minimized in favor of a focus on issues of form (color harmonies, line, composition).

Realism

In the mid-Nineteenth Century, great art was still defined as art that took it’s subjects from religion, history or mythology and its style from ancient Greece and Rome. Hardly what we would consider modern and appropriate for an industrial, commercial, urban culture! Courbet agreed, and so did his friend, the writer Charles Baudelaire who called for an art that would depict, as he called it, the beauty of modern life. Courbet painted the reality of life in the countryside—not the idealized peasants that were the usual fare at the exhibits in Paris. The revolution of 1848, in which both the working class and the middle class played a significant role, set the stage for Realism. Later, Manet and then Degas painted modern life in Paris, a city which was undergoing rapid modernization in the period after 1855 (the Second Empire).

Art and the French state

Despite the brief dismantling of the Royal Academy during the French Revolution, art remained an extension of the power of the French State which regularly purchased art that it favored (often art that supported its political objectives). Through the Royal Academy (originally been founded by Louis XIV), the state extended its reach to the official exhibitions (salons) and to matters of style and subject matter through the École des Beaux Arts (School of Fine Arts). These were not just the official institutions of art, they were, in essence, the only institutions available for living artists to train and to make their work known. This tutorial looks at a crucial moment for painting, on the eve of the Revolution of 1848. We also examine one of the great State commissions of the Second Empire, The Opera House, as well as The Dance, a sculpture that adorned its façade.

Impressionism

Impressionism is both a style, and the name of a group of artists who did something radical—in 1874 they banded together and held their own independent exhibition. These artists described, in fleeting sensations of light, the new leisure pastimes of the city and its suburbs It’s hard to imagine, but at this time in France, the only place of consequence that artists could exhibit their work was the official government-sanctioned exhibitions (called salons), held just once a year, and controlled by a conservative jury. The Impressionists painted modern Paris and landscapes with a loose open brushstrokes, bright colors, and unconventional compositions—none of which was appreciated by the salon jury!

Post-Impressionism

The work of van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Seurat together constitute Post-Impressionism and yet their work is so varied and unrelated, we might never otherwise think of these four artists as a group. Certainly van Gogh and Gauguin were friends and they briefly painted together, but each of these artists was concerned with solving particular issues that had to do with their own individual sensibility. Ironically, if anything ties these artists together it is this focus on subjectivity. This tutorial explores the sketchy multiperspectival views of Cézanne, Seurat’s systematized critiques of upper middle-class Paris, Gauguin’s fascination with the primitive and exotic, and van Gogh’s unerring ability to convey deeply human experiences.

Symbolism & Art Nouveau

The 1880s saw a shift away from the modern-life focus of Impressionism, as artists turned toward the interior self, to dreams, and myth. There was a sense that Impressionism had been too tied up with the materialism of middle-class culture. In some ways, van Gogh and Gauguin can also be seen as Symbolists. Many Symbolist belonged to groups of artists who broke away (or seceded) from the art establishment in their respective countries, to hold their own exhibitions. For example, Klimt belonged to the Vienna Secession (he was its first president), Khnopff to a similar group in Belgium called Lex XX (The Twenty), and Stuck co-founded the Munich Secession.