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The history of art is a huge topic that covers thousands of years of human history all over the world. Many people devote their entire careers to its study, and since art history is such a large topic, historians usually specialize, focusing on either a time period, such as the Renaissance or the early 20th century, or a particular area, such as Mexico or Southeast Asia.

Anthropologists and historians speculate that the earliest works of art were created for their function rather than for decorative or aesthetic value. The Venus of Willendorf, a figure carved from limestone around 21,000 to 25,000 B.C., might have been a part of fertility rites and rituals. The cave paintings of France and Spain, which date back to between 15,000 and 17,000 B.C., were probably ceremonial, meant to bring good luck to the hunt.

Much of early visual art was religious, reflecting the beliefs and legends with which people tried to understand their place in the world and in life. Art was also political, used to glorify society or the leaders of society. For example, the immense sculptures of Ramses II of ancient Egypt and the sculptures of Roman art depicted their rulers and their stature in society.

The art of Greece and Rome exerted a profound influence on much of the history of Western art. The sculptural ideals developed by the ancient Greeks, particularly with their perfection of anatomical forms, continued to dominate Western sculpture until well into the 19th century. In painting, artists sought methods to depict or suggest a greater realism, experimenting with techniques of lighting, shading, and perspective.

The rise of the Christian era brought a return to symbolism over realism. Illuminated manuscripts, which were written texts, usually religious in content, and decorated with designs and motifs meant to provide further understanding of the text, became the primary form of artistic expression for nearly a millennium. The artwork for these manuscripts often featured highly elaborate and detailed abstract designs. The human figure was absent in much of this work, reflecting religious prohibition of the creation of idols.

Artists returned to more naturalistic techniques during the 14th century with the rise of Gothic art forms. The human figure returned to art and artists began creating works not only for rulers and religious institutions, but also for a growing wealthy class. Portrait painting became an increasingly important source of work and income for artists. New materials, particularly oil glazes and paints, allowed artists to achieve more exact detailing and more subtle light, color, and shading effects.

During the Renaissance, artists rediscovered the art of ancient Greece and Rome. This brought new developments not only in artists' techniques but also in their stature in society. The development of perspective techniques in the 14th and 15th centuries revolutionized painting. Perspective allowed the artists to create the illusion of three dimensions, so that a spectator felt that he or she looked not merely at a painting but into it. Advances in the study of anatomy enabled artists to create more dramatic and realistic figures, whether in painting or sculpture, providing the illusion of action and fluidity and heightening the naturalism of their work. Artists achieved higher status and were sought out by the wealthy, the church, and rulers for their talent and skill.

Renaissance artists became bolder and experimented with line, color, contour, shading, setting, and composition, presenting work of greater realism and at the same time of deeper emotional content. The style of an artist became more highly individualized, more a personal reflection of the artist's thoughts, beliefs, ideas, and feelings.

Artists continued to influence one another, but national and cultural differences began to appear in art as the Catholic Church lost its dominance and new religious movements took hold during the 16th and 17th centuries. Art academies, such as the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris, were established and sought to codify artistic ideals.

During the next two centuries there were profound changes in the nature of art, leading to the revolutionary work of the impressionists of the late 19th century and the dawn of the modern era in art. Sculpture, which had remained largely confined to the Greek and Roman ideals, found new directions. The individual sensibility of the artist took on a greater importance and led to a greater freedom of painting techniques. Many of the ideals of the French academy were challenged, leading to the avant-garde work of the early French impressionists. Artists began to take on a new role by presenting society with new concepts, ideas, and visions and radical departures in style. Artists no longer simply reflected prevailing culture but adopted leadership positions in creating culture, often rejecting entirely the artistic principles of the past.

The image of the artist as cultural outsider, societal misfit, or even tormented soul took hold. Artists working in the avant garde achieved notoriety, if not financial reward, and the "misunderstood" or "starving" artist became a popular 20th-century image.

The 20th century witnessed an explosion of artistic styles and techniques. Art, both in painting and sculpture, became increasingly abstracted from reality, and purely formal concerns developed. Impressionism and postimpressionism gave way to futurism, expressionism, fauvism, cubism, nonobjective art, surrealism, and other styles.

American art, which had largely followed the examples set by European artists, came into its own during the 1940s and 1950s, with the rise of abstract expressionism. During the 1950s, a new art form, pop art, reintroduced recognizable images and often mundane objects to satirize and otherwise comment on cultural and societal life.

More recent trends in art have given the world the graffiti-inspired works of Keith Haring and the "non-art" sculpture of Jeff Koons, as well as the massive installations of Christo. Artists today work in a great variety of styles, forms, and media. Many artists combine elements of painting, sculpture, and other art forms, such as photography, music, and dance, into their work. The rise of video recording techniques and especially of three-dimensional computer animations has recently begun to challenge many traditional ideas of art.

This brief art history time line has covered only Western fine art, but different art trends and developments occurred around the world simultaneously. Europeans had acquired art objects from other parts of the world for centuries as curios, status symbols, and collectors' items, but the appreciation of these objects and paintings as works of art is relatively recent. Westerners now recognize paintings, sculpture, and functional objects from even the remotest parts of the world as having great artistic value and making significant contributions to the development of Western art.

The debate continues about whether some functional items, such as pottery, furniture, rugs, and jewelry, for example, can be considered works of art. The lines have become blurred between artistry and craftsmanship, since many objects created for a specific function are beautiful to look at, make social and cultural commentary, or push the limits of convention as much as any painting or sculpture. Many media forms traditionally considered craft media, such as woodworking, ceramics, silversmithing, and papier-mâché, are used in sculpture and mixed-media works, further confusing the distinctions between art and craft.

Early commercial art may have its beginnings with signage, when symbols and pictures were used along with lettering to advertise places of business. Commercial art began to flourish with the advent of printing technology and the subsequent development of the publishing industry. Artists illustrated stories and advertisements and arranged type and artwork for books, magazines, and newspapers. The growth of the advertising industry throughout the 19th and 20th centuries fueled the growth of commercial art. Artists used black-and-white line art in the beginning, which gave way to color drawings, and then photography, and then computer-generated visuals. Today commercial artists work in all phases of publishing, including decorative and explanatory illustration, photography, layout, typography, and print production. Advertising art includes art direction, print advertising (magazines, newspapers, catalogs, and direct mail), package design, film production, and Web design.

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