- Subject Matters
- If the Shoe Fits...
- The Shape of Time
- Toward the Ideal
- Reading Between the Folds
- How was that Made?
- Signature Strokes
- Hidden Meanings
- The Birth of the Avant-Garde
The subject of a work of art can offer an important clue to understanding its place in history. Check out these clues:
- Ancient Greeks and Romans used art to represent a wide variety of subjects. These included portraits of gods, rituals, heroes, rulers, and thinkers.
- Medieval subjects focused largely on the spiritual (representations of Christ, Mary, the saints, miracles, etc.).
- Renaissance subjects expanded beyond the religious to include classical and literary subjects, portraits, and the representation of the figure in a physical setting (landscape, interior, etc.).
- Baroque artists added pure landscape (in other words, a landscape that wasn’t a setting for another story), genre (scenes of everyday life), and still life.
- Modern art from the 19th century added new subjects including urban and suburban life.
Can you identify the subject matter and locate these images in their historical period?
Answers: A-5, B-4, C-3, D-1, and E-2
Works of art
- Baroque: Hans Bollongier, Still-Life with Flowers, 1639 (Rijksmuseum)
- Modern: Auguste Renoir, Dance at la Moulin de la Galette (Musée d’Orsay)
- Renaissance: Sandro Botticelli, La Primavera, 1481-82 (Uffizi Gallery)
- Medieval: Virgin and Child in Majesty, 1150-1200 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
- Ancient: Aphrodite (Venus of Taurida), Ancient Greece, 2nd century BC (The State Hermitage Museum)
The Google Art Project is a trove of visual inspiration for creatives. Here’s an idea to get you started.
Match these shoes to their owner.
- God of War
- Little Girl
Answers: A-5, B-7, C-6, D-3, E-2, F-1, G-9, H-8, I-4, J-10
Works of art
- Saint’s shoes. Giovanni Bellini, St. Francis in the Desert, c. 1475-78 (The Frick Collection)
- Lover’s shoes. Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Progress of Love: The Meeting, 1771-3 (The Frick Collection)
- Christ’s shoes. Altobello Melone, The Road to Emmaus, c. 1516-17 (The National Gallery, London)
- Emperor’s shoes. Jacques Louis David, The Coronation of the Emperor and Empress, 2 December 1804, 1808-22 (Palace of Versailles)
- Aristocrat’s shoes. Jacques Louis David, The Coronation of the Emperor and Empress, 2 December 1804, 1808-22 (Palace of Versailles)
- Little girls shoes. James McNeil Whistler, Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room, 1860-61 (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian)
- God of War’s shoes. Sandro Botticelli, La Primavera, 1481-82 (Uffizi Gallery)
- Venus’s shoes. Sandro Botticelli, La Primavera, 1481-2 (Uffizi Gallery)
- King’s shoes. Antoine-François Callet, Louis XVI, King of France and Navarre (1754-1793), wearing his grand royal costume in 1779, 1789 (Palace of Versailles)
- Peasant’s shoes. Max Liebermann, The Flax Barn at Laren, 1887 (Alte Nationalgalerie)
The roughly 1500 year span, between the fall of the Roman Empire (c. 300 C.E.) and the beginning of our Modern era (c. 1750), is broadly divided into the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods. Each era found a unique way to shape human figures and the spaces they inhabit—an expression of the values of that particular period. Here are some simple ways to recognize these strategies.
Medieval (c. 300-1420)
Medieval artists were interested in the invisible realm of the soul, and often used a flat gold background to represent the heavenly. They were influenced by the East, specifically Byzantine culture, which had its capital in Constantinople (modern Istanbul). As a result, figures were rendered in a highly stylized manner, unnaturally tall and flat, with elongated, elegant features.
Renaissance (c. 1400-1600)
Renaissance artists were more interested in the world we can see than their medieval predecessors. Artists in the Renaissance placed their more weighty, more three dimensional figures in a physical space. These artists also used strong horizontal and vertical lines or pyramids that convey balance and stability.
Baroque (c. 1600-1750)
The Baroque favored more energized compositions that use diagonals and strong contrasts of light and dark. Baroque paintings can feel off balance as the compositions set the picture in motion.
Match the images to the styles below.
Answers: 1-B, 2-A, 3-B, 4-B, 5-B, 6-A, 7-A, 8-C, 9-C
Works of art
- Sandro Botticelli, Madonna with Saints, 1485 (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)
- Duccio, The Rucellai Madonna, c. 1278-1318 (Uffizi Gallery)
- Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac, 1603-04 (Uffizi Gallery)
- Quieten Massys, Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels, c. 1495 (The National Gallery, London)
- Antonio de Solario, The Virgin and Child with Saint John, c. 1500-10 (The National Gallery, London)
- Andrey Rublev, Holy Trinity (Troitsa), 1425-27 (The State Tretyakov Gallery)
- Processional Cross, 1150-74 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
- Rembrandt, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, c. 1659 (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)
- Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Holofernes, 1620-21 (Uffizi Gallery)
The first part of the Italian Renaissance, until Leonardo da Vinci’s emergence in the 1480s, is known as the Early Renaissance. The latter period is known as the High Renaissance. In the Early Renaissance, artists began to represent the figure nude, and in motion, for the first time since antiquity. In the High Renaissance, artists created figures that moved elegantly and gracefully in space and sought an ideal, perfect beauty.
Can you match theses images to their stylistic period?
- Early Renaissance
- High Renaissance
In the 1400s, the Renaissance evolved in both Italy and Northern Europe (in what is today Belgium and Holland). In fact, museums often divide their European painting galleries by geography. In the Italian Renaissance, drapery flows and falls very naturally, while in the Northern Renaissance, artists often depicted drapery with complicated angular folds that almost look like fragments of broken glass. Can you spot the Northern Renaissance painting?
Works of art
- Robert Campin, Triptych with the Annunciation, known as the "Merode Altarpiece," c. 1427-32 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
- Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child with Two Angels, c. 1460-65 (Uffizi Gallery)
- Domenico Veneziano, St. Lucy Altarpiece, c. 1445-47 (Uffizi Gallery)
- Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, 1483-85 (Uffizi Gallery)
Material can tell us a lot about a work of art. The ancient Greeks often cast sculpture in bronze while Romans often carved marble. Some of the earliest paintings of the Renaissance were made from egg tempera. Later, artists switched to oil. There are lots of reasons for these choices including cost, technical knowledge, the availability of a given material, and taste.
- Fresco, a water based paint applied to damp plaster, is often used to cover large walls. Fresco has less saturated colors because the intensity of the pigments are softened by the white of the plaster.
- Watercolor, a translucent medium, is used for small, finely detailed paintings on paper.
- Tempera, a raw egg yolk medium dries quickly once it is applied to a surface, so artists generally use it only in small, relatively short brush strokes. This also means that colors can’t be mixed together on the surface of the painting.
- Oil paint, a more fluid medium that takes much longer to dry, allows artists to create longer brush strokes and to mix paint directly on the surface of the canvas.
Can you tell which mediums were used in the details below?
Match the images to the correct medium.
Answers: 1-D, 2-C, 3-B, 4-A
Works of art
Artists develop unique ways to apply paint, their “signature strokes.” One of the great things about the Google Art Project is that you can use the zoom to see these “signature strokes” and learn to recognize the different ways that paint is handled by different artists and in different historical periods.
Art historians study these "signatures" in order to make judgments about the attribution of a work of art. This practice is called connoisseurship. Sometimes these attributions are disputed, or unclear. In the past, art historians relied on their eye, along with archival research, to make judgments. Today we have many more tools at our disposal (including chemical analysis of paint samples, microscopic analysis, and imaging techniques including X-ray, ultraviolet and infrared images) to study objects and make more accurate attributions.
Look closely. Can you read these signature styles? Which eye is from the seventeenth century, before artists experimented more aggressively with color and brushwork to construct the forms of the face?
Answer: #4. Frans Hals used loose brush strokes brilliantly, but his colors remained tied to the natural world, in other words, to what he saw. In contrast, Vincent van Gogh used color in an entirely new way—expressively and structurally.
Works of art
- Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Joseph Roulin, 1889 (The Museum of Modern Art)
- Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1887 (Van Gogh Museum)
- Vincent van Gogh, La Berceuse (Portrait of Madame Roulin), 1888-89 (Van Gogh Museum)
- Frans Hals, Malle Babbe, c. 1633 (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)
At The National Gallery, read about how Raphael’s painting The Madonna of the Pinks (c. 1506-7) was once accepted as a work by Raphael, then considered a copy, and now confirmed to be a work by that great Renaissance master.
More on “Fakes Mistakes and Discoveries” at The National Gallery.
Images often speak through subtle symbols to those that know the code. Five hundred years from now, someone who looks at a photograph of an American city, might not recognize the corporate logos we take for granted. In the same way, symbols pervaded the art of the past.
Can you find the symbols below?
Hidden in Gerard David’s Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors is a symbolic representation of the blood of Christ, a reference to the moment during the Last Supper when Christ tells his apostles that the wine is his blood and the bread is his flesh. Can you find this important reference?Show Answers
Answer: The angel in the background on the left is picking grapes from a vine and from which wine is made.
More on Gerard David from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Millais’s Ophelia was considered one of the most accurate renderings of nature ever made. Look closely and you’ll see daisies, poppies, loosestrife, forget-me-nots, pansies, and nettles. But of all the flowers Millais represented, one holds a privileged place for Ophelia—violets. These small flowers symbolize faithfulness, chastity and a young death. Find them and see how the location of the violets emphasize their importance.
The battle between the Titans and the Gods of Mount Olympus was a central myth for the ancient Greeks—referring to the triumph of order over chaos. The Great Altar of Pergamon depicts this drama on a huge scale. In one segment, Athena, the powerful goddess of war and wisdom vanquishes Alcyoneus as his mother, Gaia, looks on helplessly. Look closely and you’ll see that the goddess Nike tells us who will win the battle.Show Answers
Answer: Nike, the personification of Victory, crowns the victorious Athena.
More on the Hellenistic period in Greek Art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Naturally, when a married couple commissioned an artist to paint their portrait, they wanted to emphasize their devotion and loyalty to one another. The painting by Frans Hals, Portrait of a Couple in a Landscape, contains several symbols of faithfulness, can you find one? Here’s a hint: couples cling to one another.Show Answers
Answer: The ivy at the bride’s feet symbolizes her faithfulness. She clings to her husband, just as ivy clings to a support.
More on Frans Hals from the National Gallery of Art, and from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Christian images often use abstract symbols as a means to convey spiritual ideas. The four Evangelists, the authors of the gospels, are often depicted by four symbolic beings, can you find John’s symbol in Nicolas Poussin’s Landscape with Saint John on Patmos?Show Answers
Answer: John is symbolized by the eagle. The other three evangelists are symbolically represented as follows: Matthew with an angel, Mark with a lion, and Luke with an Ox.
More on Poussin from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Symbols of the fragility and brevity of life are common in Renaissance painting, reminding viewers that material wealth distracts from the path to eternal salvation. While this painting by Holbein of the Merchant Georg Gisze celebrates the merchant’s earthly success, it also contains a poignant reminder of life’s transience and fragility. How has Holbein given these serious ideas form?Show Answers
Answer: The fading flowers and the glass vase that contains them symbolize the transience and fragility of life.
Symbols can be misleading, here the playful represents the tragic, a testament to the sometimes complex roots of art’s symbolism. Look carefully. Where in this painting of Christ’s childhood did Raphael represent Christ’s future suffering?Show Answers
Answer: The goldfinch held by Christ’s elder cousin, John the Baptist, is a symbol of The Passion, the events leading up to the crucifixion. The bird is said to eat thistle, which is seen as a reference to the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head during his torture.
More on Raphael from the National Gallery of Art.
Artists of the middle ages were often asked to represent things that can’t be seen, like the soul, God, and heaven. In Giotto’s Entombment of Mary, the Virgin’s physical body is lowered into the tomb. How did Giotto represent her soul?Show Answers
Answer: Giotto represents Mary’s spirit in the guise of an infant held by Christ.
Burne-Jones conveys the dual nature of hope in his allegory of the same title. Hope is grounded in reality even as she yearns for a different future. She is chained to the ground, but pulls the sky toward her. Burne-Jones gives us an important clue as to her likely fate, can you find this beautiful, deadly symbol?Show Answers
Answer: The periwinkle flower, seen here strewn about Hope’s feet, was used in antiquity to garland the condemned as they were led to execution.
In the nineteenth century, artists were no longer so tied to the institutions that had long dominated Western culture—the church, the monarchy and the aristocracy. Academies of art wrote the rules and favored a classical style that told a clear story, often based on ancient Greek and Roman literature. The Realists (for example, Courbet and Manet), the Impressionists (Monet, Renoir and Degas), and the Post-Impressionists (Van Gogh, Gauguin) rebelled, and instead chose subjects taken from modern, urban life. Can you identify the academic works and the paintings by the Realists and Impressionists?
Answers: 1-A, 2-B, 3-A, 4-B
Works of art
- Jules Cavelier, Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, 1861 (Musée d'Orsay)
- Vincent van Gogh, In the café: Agostina Segatori in Le tambourin, 1887-88 (Van Gogh Museum)
- Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland, The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas, exhibited 1766 (Tate Britain)
- Édouard Manet, In the Conservatory, 1878-79 (Alte Nationalgalerie)