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First Letter of Zeuxis to Arte

My dear Arte,

You must know by now, from our first lessons, that paintings consist of lines, shapes, and composition in areas. Colour, content and illusion of volume and perspective are other dominant elements. We still have to look into those, but since you are interested by now already into styles of painting and are eager to know more about the history of art, I will explain you about it all but not all in one time. We will do it gradually.

Western painters have expressed their inspiration and the way they reacted to their society, or wanted to change their society, by using all these elements in various ways. I will present some of the styles, without being exhaustive, in approximately chronological order. The following synthesis necessarily remains very sketchy and high-level. It would be easy to find many counter-examples for this kind of categorisation of styles. Many, if not most, painters regularly transgressed the art style of their times, and experimented with other ways of representation.

In all the styles that we will discuss, individual paintings can emphasise just one of the style elements, or apply them all.

We can find paintings that use only vertical or horizontal lines.
There are paintings that consist of primarily simple, large coloured areas.
There are paintings in which we see only the basic shapes like circles, squares and rectangles clearly shown in simple colours, combined in surprising images.
Most Tuscan pictures made during the Renaissance are all about line and design, about clear forms and clear, balanced composition. In fresco art also, an art form practiced much in Italy, lines had to be drawn so that the areas could be filled in with colour easily.
Other art styles gave preponderance to colour, to areas that smoothly passed from one colour hue into another.
Later in evolution, painters emphasised only colour to express their emotions.
Pictures can be categorised in figurative and abstract art, according to whether they contain subject matter or not. Emotions of violence, of love, of surprise, of admiration are sometimes easily obtained from paintings that show known scenes to viewers. Content always enhances a picture in the mind, but pictures without subject matter can induce rich emotions too.
Painters can use the flat canvas and stick to that medium, or enhance the texture of the paint.

Such variety was not reached at once. The variation grew over time, as new means were discovered to enrich the arts.

It is a fascinating story, Arte, to follow this evolution to ever-richer means evolved, how generation after generation added a new aspect, whether it is knowledge or art. This happened sometimes in a slowly advancing way, sometimes in a rapid, revolutionary vision by the insight of a few geniuses or of one genius.

I will propose in a series of letters an overview of the various art styles and tendencies that have succeeded each other in the history of art. I will use generally accepted definitions and names of the styles. I will indicate which style elements changed to the period or movement. You can then look over this evolution in order to better understand the trends in art, and you may remark how each evolution was an evolution in one or more of the elements of painting as we analysed them in the first of our lessons.

The styles that appeared will be presented in my letters illustrated by one or a few paintings. The choice of these pictures is always difficult. It is a vain effort to represent thousands of paintings that were made more or less to a coherent set of style elements, but only more or less, by one or a few pictures. In using a typical example for a style, we would negate the individuality of the artist. Rare are the painters that entirely applied form according to the reasoned and defined styles, as recognised by art historians. Historians have sought in their categorisation the common characteristics of paintings, whereas it is individuality that must be lauded. I have preferred often to show paintings that were at the fringe of the movements, to denote the variations within a style, and to show evolutions to the particular style. I will also prefer sometimes to show you paintings of lesser artists. Indeed, many paintings of the most famous artists are very well known and documented in elaborate detail in many works. Furthermore, it needs to be recognised that the style trends overlap and interplay, and that will be very apparent in many examples.

Edward Lucie-Smith, an art critic who is contemporary to you, wrote at the occasion of an exhibition on Neo-Academicism B22 : “Patterns of innovation do not on the whole evolve smoothly … they tend to progress in a series of violent jerks.”

Transitions in style can be thus usually traced back to one or a few artists who better than others could grasp the end of an era and dramatically, in obvious ways, point to new roads in art. This has been the avant-garde of the period. These were the innovators, the revolutionaries of art. We pass briefly over the transitions initiated by this avant-garde from one style and school to another. The transitions have to some extent already been hinted at in the previous explanation of the various styles. I will explain here further how each new art form evolved one of the elements of painting, that is evolved in line, in forms, in composition of forms, in colour, in coping with the illusion of volume, and in space and content. I will illustrate the evolution in art with examples, and analyse these works according to a process that I will propose to you somewhat later in our lessons, which is by separating the aspects of the work and our reaction to it by first impression, then discovery of the skills of the artist and finally in recognition of the value of the work.

Now, let the paintings talk. Each painting has a fascinating story to tell.

Your loving friend,


Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: May 2010
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