The history of painting is a never-ending chain that began with the very first pictures ever made. Each style grows out of the styles that came before it. Every great artist adds to the accomplishments of earlier painters and influences later painters.
We can enjoy a painting for its beauty alone. Its lines, forms, colors, and composition (arrangement of parts) may appeal to our senses and linger in our memories. But enjoyment of art increases as we learn when and why and how it was created.
A painting always describes something. It may describe the artist's impression of a scene or person. It also describes the artist's feelings about the art of painting itself. Suppose, for example, the artist paints a picture of the birth of Venus, the Roman goddess of love—a subject that has been used many times. The viewer may not learn anything new about the subject from the more recent version that could not have been learned from the older one. Why, then, do painters bother to depict the same scene again? The answer is that they want to tell us something new about the way the scene can be painted. In a way, the artist is saying, "I have painted the birth of Venus as no other artist before me has painted it." The artist not only depicts the birth of Venus but also makes a statement about the art of painting itself.
Many factors have influenced the history of painting. Geography, religion, national characteristics, historic events, the development of new materials—all help to shape the artist's vision. Throughout history, painting has mirrored the changing world and our ideas about it. In turn, artists have provided some of the best records of the development of civilization, sometimes revealing more than the written word.
Cave dwellers were the earliest artists. Colored drawings of animals, dating from about 30,000 to 10,000 B.C., have been found on the walls of caves in southern France and in Spain. Many of these drawings are amazingly well preserved because the caves were sealed up for many centuries. Early people drew the wild animals that they saw all around them. Very crude human figures, drawn in lifelike positions, have been found in Africa and eastern Spain.
The cave artists filled the cave walls with drawings in rich, bright colors. Some of the most beautiful paintings are in the Cave of Altamira, in Spain. One detail shows a wounded bison, no longer able to stand—probably the victim of a hunter. It is painted in reddish brown and outlined simply but skillfully in black. The pigments used by cave painters were earth ochers (iron oxides varying in color from light yellow to deep orange) and manganese (a metallic element). These were crushed into a fine powder, mixed with grease (perhaps animal fat), and put on with some sort of brush. Sometimes the pigments were used in sticks, like crayons. The grease mixed with the powdered pigments made the paint fluid and the pigment particles stick together. The cave dwellers must have made brushes out of animal hairs or plants, and sharp tools out of flint for drawing and scratching lines.
As far back as 30,000 years ago, people had invented the basic tools and materials for painting. Techniques and materials were refined and improved in the centuries following. But the discoveries of the cave dweller remain basic to painting.