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A History of Ancient Art

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A History of Ancient Art

Ancient to Gothic 



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Welcome to our online Art History course. During the next eighteen weeks, together, we'll have the opportunity to learn about many of the major works of art created during the history of the Western world. We will also be introduced to some of the most celebrated works created in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Our course spans an enormous time period ,from the Paleolithic Era to the end of the Gothic and, consequently, is too vast an amount of time to cover in great detail - even in eighteen weeks. We encourage you to do further research into the lives of artists or artistic periods that intrigue you, but please remember to keep up with your lesson assignments.

What is Art? 

As you begin your first lesson, consider the question, “What is art and why have people created it throughout history?” This question has challenged scholars for centuries and is a difficult one to answer. The visual arts are considered to be a way in which people have communicated throughout time, mirroring the realities they experienced and expressing the ideas and feelings they had about them. Using their creativity and imagination, artists enrich the world for those around them and those who follow them. Their work nourishes us and teaches us about the common humanity we all share. Although artists have created work for many different reasons, the majority of them have felt driven to work with tremendous dedication. Rich or poor, greatly acclaimed or nearly forgotten, they all have felt an impulse to create art. By the end of this course, you will have an increased knowledge and appreciation for the artists we study and the historical periods in which they lived and worked. We hope this will lead you to a better understanding of what art is, why it is made, and what it means to you.

Why do we study Art History? 

When we learn about art from the past, we gain insights into the cultures, lives, and thinking of the people who lived during each period. Such study makes those civilizations and their discoveries all the more vibrant and real to us today. Imagine exploring the culture of Ancient Egypt without looking at the painting, architecture, or sculpture of the time. To study Egypt without also learning about the pyramids, for example, would be much less intriguing, and seems almost impossible. As we continue our study, we begin to see an interconnection among the works from each period, how they related to the art done before  and how they influenced the art that developed after.

Enjoying and understanding works of Art 

There are various ways we can approach a piece of art, to understand and judge its quality for ourselves. Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that helps us do this by identifying three aesthetic qualities called the Emotional, Imitative, and Formal. Also, these can be known as the expressive, literal and design qualities of a work. Briefly, if our first reaction to the work is one of a strong mood or feeling, we say that the work is conveying the Emotional response. The painting, The Scream, (1893) by Edvard Munch, a Norwegian painter, strongly conveys this type of initial emotional impact.

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The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893

The Imitational idea emphasizes the ability of an artwork to reproduce, “imitate,” or remind us of things in the actual world around us. The ability to represent objects in a realistic manner was traditionally considered to be of great importance if the artwork was to be considered “successful.” The painting, Still Life With Pottery Jars, (1630-40), by the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán, demonstrates the artist’s ability to paint in a strongly realistic style.

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Still Life with Pottery Jars, Francisco de Zurbarán, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain, c.1658–64 


The Formalist approach to an image places importance on the way the work is organized and how its composition (shapes, lines, and textures) is arranged, to give it an overall unity.

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Composition in Gray and Light Brown, Piet Mondrian,1918

The painting, Composition in Gray and Light Brown, by Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (1918), is an example of such a work, with strong formal design elements of line and shape.

It's useful to consider these theories when we look at works of art, since they can provide a way of beginning to understand and enjoy them. However, a painting can consist of all three qualities at once, since it can evoke an emotional response, be realistic, and have a definite, strong composition. Therefore, it's often important to employ more than one of these ideas when we study a work. On the other hand, it might not be effective to analyze an abstract painting from the Imitational approach, since there may not be a recognizable subject in the work.

Using Art Criticism and Aesthetics 

When we identify the aesthetic qualities in a piece of art work we're using art criticism and we become art critics ourselves. In using this technique, we try to gather information from the artwork itself, through careful study. We do this by using the four steps below which will help us examine and better appreciate works of art.

Description: Examine the literal qualities of the work (the subject) and how it is put together with shapes, colors, and so on.

Analysis: How is the composition put together? Is it balanced or asymmetrical, and how are the colors used to create the overall effect?

Interpretation: Try to identify the feelings or mood expressed in the work. Do the figures appear stiff or natural, and why do you think they were done in that way?

Judgment: Remember, this is not an expression of your like or dislike of the work, but is rather a decision you make after careful examination . By doing this, it will become easier for you to decide if it is a successful work of art or not.


Discuss your reaction to each of the following works of art in terms of the Emotional, Imitational, or Formal qualities you see in them, or any combination of the three theories that are most striking to you. Describe your initial reactions to each work, and decide if you think the piece is effective in achieving what the artist set out to represent. Try to write at least 100 words for each answer.

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1. The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 1834, JMW Turner. 

In the paint, what we can see are buildings burning up near a river. The scene may sound a bit “boring” but lets see it from the emotional quality; it gives a feeling of frustration, if we have in mind the year this was painted we can have an idea of the time it most had take to turn off the fire from the place. Turner may have painted this to represent how humans are useless when it comes to nature power. You could also say it have the imitation quality, because it represent something that happens in real life, maybe is not really common but it happens, the texture and the way the artist makes the strokes with the brush gives this a beautiful painting.




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2. Composition in Red, Yellow and Blue, 1921, Piet Mondrian.   

In this artwork there’s a quality that stand out and is the formal. We can appreciate the different geometry forms, especially the squares and rectangles. the simple lines and colors that manage to make the work look simple. If you look the paint you could observe that there’s only vertical and horizontal lines giving an overall unity when you put them together and the sensation of stability; which count as a emotional quality.





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3. Lady With an Ermine, (1483-90), Leonardo da Vinci. 

The quality that stand out is the imitational since is a real person portrait but there is also some of the emotional quality, the paint gives a feeling of innocence, it’s even relaxing. Maybe that’s what da Vinci was trying to portray.





Subject Matter in Art: 

The type of subject matter artists choose for their work depends a great deal upon the period in which they live. The society around them also influences the work of artists, as do their own experiences and imaginations. Artists have painted people and places, as well as religious or mythological themes, for centuries.

Types of Traditional Subject Matter 


Depicting people has fascinated artists throughout history. Princes, kings, and peasants have all been lively subjects for them to represent. Whether famous or forgotten, the paintings of these people provide an intriguing glimpse into their lives and the historical periods in which they were created.

Historical, Mythological or Religious Themes 

Paintings of military battles, historic scenes, and other epic events in the lives of royalty or mythological characters were once considered the highest form of subject matter for paintings. Along with these, the lives of saints and other religious themes were also considered most important subjects for representation.

Still Lifes 

These are paintings of arrangements of inanimate objects taken from daily life. In predominately Protestant Holland, Dutch artists in the 17th century found a market for these works, as they turned away from more traditional religious themes. The interest in this type of work also reflected the comfortable lives of the growing and successful business class.


No longer seen as merely background detail, landscapes also became primary subject matter in 17th century Dutch paintings.


In 17th century Japan, artists created decorative painted screens with scenes from nature. These landscapes, done on folding panels, often with luminous gold backgrounds, appealed to a prosperous landowning class.


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4. Describe the seven different subject matter artists have used over the centuries.  

People, landscape, still life, nature, historical, mythological or religious themes




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5. What are some techniques we can use to study and understand a work of art?

The qualities of the emotional, formal and imitative help a lot, because they help you to understand better the piece of art.




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6. Describe reasons why artists have created works of art for centuries, and why we study art history today. 100 words

Art has always been a way to express yourself, to speak through without saying any word at all, that may be a reason but there are others as well, for example, they are paid or wanna be famous, and those artworks help for knowing the context of the time they were made, what was happening, the motive for painting them. So that why people study art history, to know more about the context of the artwork and so of the time they were made. The paintings and other forms of art tell us a story that happen in real life.




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7. Discuss the following painting. Describe the subject matter and the aesthetic qualities that is most striking to you. For example, are you most struck by the emotional mood of the work, the formal qualities, or a combination of qualities?  100 words 
The Bridge at Nantes, by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875)

It is a imitional painting, since it is the painting of a bridge, a river, trees, and a person in a boat. I can say it also have a emotional quality, when I see the artwork it, somewhat, relax me, it could for the colors the artist choose or maybe is because of that man on the boat but I can’t help feeling kind of lonely when I see that man alone, traveling a cross the river alone.






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8. Discuss the following painting. Describe the subject matter and the aesthetic qualities that is most striking to you. For example, are you most struck by the emotional mood of the work, the formal qualities or a combination of qualities?   100 words 
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques- Louis David, (1748-1825)

 The main quality I can see is the emotional, being that because of the subject of the painting, the death of Socrates, who we can see is teaching his disciples for the last time, and he is the first thing is we see on the painting is actually him; in a withe robe and it seems that all the light goes directly to him, so it naturally makes you look at him first.




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9. Discuss the following painting. Describe the subject matter and the aesthetic qualities that is most striking to you. For example, are you most struck by the emotional mood of the work, the formal qualities or a combination of qualities?  100 words 
Eight-Planked Bridge, Ogata Korin, Japanese, 1658-1716)

At first glace like it only have the formal and imitational qualities because of the bridge and the flowers but once you know that it actually represents the artist who miss a beloved one, whom is his wife, because of  far he is from she, and the bridge kind of represent it. You can’t help but thing of this painting as a very emotional one.  




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10. You are an art critic. What are the four steps you could use to determine whether or not a painting is or is not a successful work of art?   List the four steps.

1) Description: Examine the work and how it’s composed .

2) Analysis: How is the composition put together?

3) Interpretation: What mood or feeling is painted?

4) Judgment: Although you liked or disliked the work you have to take your decision on the examination you made.



What are the two descriptions of line?

A mark with a brush and a pen or when to shapes come together they make a line.




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In your own words, explain why a positive shape in a painting automatically creates a negative shape.

The positive shape is the one that shape our object (e. a chair or a table) and the space that surrounds it is called negative shape.




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What is the meaning of the word oblique when referring to direction of line?

 Neither horizontal nor vertical.



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In a painting, how is size a relative term?

the space or dimensions between a shape and another.



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What is a synonym for the word color in art?







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16. Define the word tone as it relates to color. 

Tone is the darkness or lightness of a color. 

Principles of Design


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In your own words, explain why dominance is an important concept in a successful drawing or painting.

Dominance of a color or shape makes the artwork less boring and more pleasant to look at and it makes a emphasis of what important on your work. It’s also the first thing that the spectator will see. 




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18. Relating to the concept of unity in a work of art, how do design principles reinforce the idea behind the work of art?


Re-forces the subject. They are the base for a good work. They are combined with elements to create a good work.







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