Painting is often thought of in purely decorative terms: as a work of art that is meant to be displayed and admired. But is this always the case?

The Mayfair Gallery History of Painting traces the purpose and evolution of paintings through the centuries. By considering how paintings might have been regarded when they were first created, an engaging and intriguing story emerges. Far from simply being decorative objects, paintings were created for a host of different and complex reasons.

Cave creations: the earliest paintings

The oldest known paintings were created by our early ancestors, some 40,000 years ago. These first creations took the form of simple cave paintings, which were crafted onto rocky walls using black pigment and red ochre.

Although these ancient cave paintings are rudimentary in style, they reveal a surprising level of naturalistic detail. At the Grotte Chauvet in France, for example, which boasts the oldest extant cave paintings in the world, individual animals can be distinguished, including lions, buffalos, mammoths and rhinoceroses, in addition to abstract design and geometric patterns.

Painting in the Chauvet Cave depicting a pack of lions, Paleolithic period

There are examples of fine prehistoric cave paintings all across the world, and much conjecture has been made as to their purpose. What did these early paintings signify to those that saw them? Who would see them? Why and by whom were they created in the first place?

Alas, the answers to such questions are ultimately unknown. If there is any meaning to these early paintings – which it seems likely there is – it remains elusive.

One theory is that the paintings were created in order to transmit practical information, such as the size, appearance and track marks of certain animals, for the purposes of hunting and livelihood.

A looser, but equally intriguing idea is that the early cave paintings were crafted with a quasi-religious purpose, with animals depicted in order to “catch” their spirit in advance of hunting, so that they could be hunted more easily. Tying in with this theory is the fact that most painted caves were situated in areas that were not inhabited, perhaps signifying that they were used for ritualistic purposes.

However, the evidence remains inconclusive, and it is equally possible that these beautiful cave paintings were created simply as the result of an innate human desire for self-expression.

Hieroglyphs and harmony: the splendour of Egyptian artwork

Across the world, painting began to develop and become more refined as an art form. The ancient Egyptians were one of the first civilisations to fully explore the possibilities and freedom that painting allowed.

In a similar manner to pre-historic civilisations, the ancient Egyptians created mural paintings directly onto a stone surface. These paintings tended to be on the walls of temples and buildings, where they could be seen by a large section of the population.

Usually, the painting on ancient Egyptian walls was graphic, exploring themes and ideas through symbolism rather than realism. Symmetry was a very important element within ancient Egyptian painting, with images often depicted in silhouette form with a bold outline.

Depiction of farmers in an ancient Egyptian tomb. © Kingn8link via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most important purposes of ancient Egyptian paintings was the creation of artworks for the deceased, in order to make their experience in the afterlife more pleasant. Indeed, it is largely due to their preservation in this fashion that ancient Egyptian paintings have survived, owing to the dry and hot conditions of the burial chambers.

Alongside the dead, beautiful paintings – rendered on walls, linen and papyrus – would be buried. These usually portrayed a combination of hieroglyphic messages and scenes of joy from the dead person’s life.

For example, some tomb paintings depicted activities that the dead person used to carry out when they were alive, so that they could to continue to do so in the afterlife.

Fragment from the Tomb of Amenemhet and His Wife Hemet 

Often images portrayed the deceased embarking on a safe journey towards the underworld, protected by their household deities. It was thought that burial with such paintings would ensure a happy and fulfilling afterlife for dead loved ones.

Painting played thus played a crucial role in the ancient Egyptian mourning and burial process, creating a sense of calm and peace for those saying farewell to family and friends.

Portrait and narrative in ancient Greece and Rome

Evidently, painting in ancient Egyptian times served more than simply a decorative function. The same was true of ancient Greece and Rome, where paintings were used to inform, impress and educate their audiences.

However, it is important to remember that the life of an ancient artist was very different from that of a painter today.

The ancient artist, first and foremost, was considered to be a practical labourer rather than a skilled craftsman. Artists of the ancient world had remarkably little autonomy over what they depicted in their paintings, as they worked to commissions given by their patrons, who were usually members of the wealthy upper classes.

When looking at an ancient painting, it is important to remember this relationship between the artist and their sponsoring patron, as it can help to inform us about what the purpose of a particular painting might be.

An example of this phenomenon is the ancient Roman Fayum burial masks, which were discovered in Egypt. These Fayum portraits were crafted using the encaustic technique on panel and date from the 1st Century BC to the 3rd Century AD.

The Fayum portraits are the earliest example of naturalistic portraiture, in which both face and costume are captured in detail to reflect the personality of the sitter.

Take one of the most famous depictions: that of a young woman painted in the 3rd Century AD and now held in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Fayum portrait of a young woman, 3rd Century AD 

The young woman is portrayed with beautiful precision, with sweeping brushstrokes that depict her youthful and serene face. From her ears hang pearls and she is adorned with further jewellery, demonstrating her wealth and high status.

It was previously thought that portraits such as that of the young woman were completed during the sitter’s life. However, this view is now widely discredited.

If the portraits were commissioned after the death of their subjects, then the artist would be reliant on details from family and friends to construct a realistic portrait of the deceased.

Given the universal beauty and wealthy appearance of all the subjects depicted in the Fayum burial masks, it is clear that these portraits were not only created to remember the dead. Rather, the purpose of the Fayum portraits was to glorify the deceased, and impress the viewer by demonstrating wealth and status.

Not only were ancient paintings used to show the wealth and status of their subjects, they were also a medium through which ancient Greeks and Romans could connect with their history.

The ancient Greek and Roman societies had a long history of story-telling, which largely focused around the themes of mythology and the immortal gods.

In a world where there were high levels of illiteracy, the visual arts became a way through which ancient myths and legends were communicated. The frescos on the walls of Pompeian villas were not only there for decorative effect, but to inform and engage their viewer.

A stunning 19th Century work by the Italian painter Ettore Forti portrays the narrative nature of ancient paintings.

Oil painting of a Roman interior scene by Ettore Forti

The work depicts an ancient Roman interior, with a central figure relaying the myth of Perseus and Andromeda.

To aid his tale, the speaker is referring to a large painted depiction of the story, set within a wooden frame. The speaker’s audience keenly observe the proceedings; this painting within a painting subtly reveals the informative nature of ancient Roman artwork.

Religion, darkness and the masterful Middle Ages

In the 4th Century AD, the Roman Empire began to decline. Simultaneously, Christianity became more and more widespread, and in 313 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian and gave the religion official recognition.

The rise of Christianity had a profound impact on the arts, particularly painting. A new ambition and spirit was given to painting, and artists were commissioned to decorate the walls of churches with mosaics, panel paintings and frescoes. 

The Church also employed artists to decorate religious texts, which resulted in the creation of some of the finest illustrated manuscripts in the world. Under the authority of the Church, a myriad of religious artwork was created in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Folio 27r from the Lindisfarne Gospels, containing the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew 

Thus, similarly to ancient times, in the early Middle Ages artists had little autonomy over what to depict in their paintings. Instead, artists were commissioned by the Church to communicate the teachings of Christianity as clearly as possible through their paintings.

In particular, the medieval period saw the altarpiece develop into a ‘total’ work of art, combining sculptural relief, architecture and painting. The Church commissioned numerous altarpieces from the greatest masters, many of which still stand in the churches across Europe.

Devoted either to a certain saint or to the Virgin Mary or Christ, altarpieces in the Gothic style were artworks of great beauty. The function of these altarpieces was to bring the viewers closer to the God’s majesty, through the painted depiction of Biblical scenes set within a gilt architectural frame.

Late 13th Century painted panel altarpiece by Vigoroso da Siena, now in the Galleria Nazionale in Perugia

It is clear that the purpose of this early Christian art was more than simply ornamental. Rather, this was religious art that intended to impart a message to its viewer by informing them about religion, Christianity and the glory of God.

Much of the early Christian painting was highly stylised and un-realistic, particularly in the Byzantine period. However, by the middle of the 13th Century, with the rise of the Gothic movement, medieval painting became more naturalistic.

The late 13th Century saw a sudden interest in depicting more accurate portrayals of volume and perspective. The beginnings of this innovative, realistic movement occurred in Italy, with the Italian master Giotto.

Although Giotto was still commissioned by the Church, his artworks are notably different in style to examples by his fellow artists. Giotto’s compositions were more free and expressive than those of his predecessors, and laid the foundations for the naturalistic painting style.

Giotto's Lamentation of Christ, early 14th Century fresco in the Scrovengi Chapel in Padua 

Renaissance painting and the return of the Classics

By the 14th century, central Europe was a richer and more cultivated place than in previous centuries. This new found wealth benefited painters, who found new patrons outside of the Church.

The majority of these new patrons came from the noble classes, although there were some middle class patrons too.

The relative freedom of expression permitted by these new patrons was of huge benefit to 14th Century artists, who began to experiment further with the naturalism that was introduced in the Gothic style.

This rise of experimental and creative artwork gave rise to the Renaissance style, which is said by many to represent the golden age of painting.

In Italy, Florence was the first centre of the Renaissance movement. Here, importance was placed on symmetry, harmonious proportions and regularity of parts, which resonated with the ideals of ancient Greek and Roman design.

Master painters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Giovanni Bellini, Titian, Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo Buonarroti elevated painting into a new realm, through their study of the human anatomy, proportion and perspective, and their refinement in painting and drawing techniques.

'The Birth of Venus' by Sandro Boticelli, late 15th Century

No longer constrained by the requirements of the Church, Italian Renaissance painting reflects the intellectual and scientific innovation that occurred during the period.

Following centuries of artworks dominated by religious imagery, the Renaissance saw the slow reintegration of secular subject matter into paintings.

One particularly important development was the birth of the idea that painters were not only artisans, but thinkers as well.

This sentiment afforded painters further artistic flexibility, and artists began to include visions of the world around them, or the products of their own imaginations in their paintings. 

Away from Italy in Northern Europe, the Dutch, German and Flemish painters – such as Hans Holbein the Younger, Pieter Brueghel, Lucas Cranach and Hieronymus Bosch – took a different approach from their Italian counterparts, and painted works that were less idealised and more realistic.

A love of fine detailing characterised the Flemish Renaissance period. This technique became incredibly refined, due to the introduction of oil painting, which allowed a softer gradation of colours due to its slow drying and thus the creation of very realistic effects in both religious and still life paintings.

'The Garden of Earthly Delights' by Hieronymus Bosch, early 16th Century

Both in Italy and the northern European countries, Renaissance painting represented a drastic departure from the work of previous centuries.

The rise of the more naturalistic style, combined with the greater intellectual freedom afforded artists in the Renaissance period, led to the creation of some of the most impressive and beautiful paintings ever seen.

No longer did paintings have to portray the Christian doctrine, but instead could reflect subject matter related to everyday scenes and people.

As a result, paintings became popular additions to private spaces. Whereas previously paintings primarily existed in churches, incorporated into permanent structures such as altarpieces or walls, the 15th Century saw the rise of panel paintings, which could be moved at will and led to an increase in paintings in homes. 

Breaking the mould: Baroque and Rococo style painting

Eventually, the High Renaissance style developed into an exaggeration of 15th Century idealisation, in a stylized art known as Mannerism.

Mannerist painting is defined by its intellectual sophistication and its artificially elongated figures, elegantly rendered in a non-naturalistic palette.

'Madonna with the Long Neck by Parmigianino', early 16th Century

The Mannerist style dominated European paining until the arrival of the Baroque at the end of the 16th Century.

The Baroque cultural movement, and particularly Baroque style painting, is often identified with the Counter Reformation, or Catholic Revival. The ambition of the Counter Reformation was, broadly, to restore Catholicism’s centrality and predominance across central Europe.

The Catholic Church was a leading patron of the visual arts within Europe, and much of the painting produced during this period aimed to reinforce and glorify the Catholic doctrine. Indeed, at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) it was stated that painting, sculpture and architecture all had an important duty to convey Catholic ideology.  

A primary ambition of Baroque art was thus to evoke high emotion and passion, in contrast to the calm rationality that had prevailed during the Renaissance period.

The Baroque style painting that emerged from this period is typified by its depictions of dramatic scenes, rich colour, and intense interplay between dark shadows and contrasting light.

Baroque paintings of the 17th Century are usually characterised by their dynamism, drama and naturalism, with bold colours and loose brushstrokes.

One of the greatest Baroque painters was Caravaggio, an heir of the High Renaissance Mannerist painting style.

'The Calling of Saint Matthew', by Caravaggio, late 16th Century

Caravaggio’s radical vision on religious painting started a trend for theatrical scenes that featured a dramatic contrast between light and darkness, known as the chiaroscuro effect. This effect is evidence in the above painting, where Caravaggio creates a stunning contrast between light and dark.

The artist’s approach to the human figure, painted directly from life and dramatically spotlit against a dark background, shocked Caravaggio's contemporaries and opened a new chapter in the history of painting.

This style reached Northern Europe as well, where we find some of the greatest Old Masters, such as Rubens, Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer and Van Dyck.

Whereas the Flemish preferred grand paintings, full of sensuality and movement, of mythological and religious subjects, like Van Dyck’s Samson and Delila, of which Mayfair Gallery owns an extraordinary copy, the Dutch genre focused on the delicate effects of light in everyday life scenes, portraits and still-lifes.

'Samson and Delilah', after Anthony van Dyck, the original dating to the early 17th Century

However, the taste for the ornate, heavy Baroque style painting fell into decline and was replaced by the flamboyant Rococo style in the 18th Century.

The Rococo style first developed in the interior and decorative arts of France, which reached its peak in the 1730s.

Rococo style painting still drew upon the Baroque taste for intricate patterns and complex forms, but included a range of other stylistic tropes, including exotic imagery and asymmetry.

Works by French masters such as Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard embody the beautiful Rococo style, with its emphasis on frivolity and pleasures of the senses.

'The Swing' by Jean-Honore Fragonard, 1767

Harmony and chaos: Neoclassicism and Romanticism

By 1785, Rococo had passed out of fashion in France, replaced by the order and seriousness of Neoclassicism.

With the beginning of industrialisation, the growth of the bourgeoisie and the new scientific discoveries, rationality again began to play an important role, and numerous philosophers theorised about the importance of education and freedom.

This period is often characterised as the age of Enlightenment, and lasted from approximately 1715 to the French Revolution in 1789.

During this time, order and reason were the precepts for architecture, sculpture and painting.

Academies sprang everywhere across Europe, and as a reaction the excesses of the Baroque and Rococo styles, there was a return to the art of Ancient Rome and Greece, and the Classic masters of the Renaissance.

The Neoclassical movement depicted the beauty and harmony of the world, and emphasised harmonious proportions and a more naturalistic palette.

France was the centre of the biggest stylistic changes, as the country saw a shift from the flamboyant Rococo style, to the strict Neoclassical paintings of contemporary painters.

Perhaps the most well-known of these was Jacques-Louis David, who used Classical subject matter as allegories for present day political turbulence. David’s works are far from simply decorative, and instead impart a clear political message, that foreshadowed the Revolution to come.

'The Oath of the Horatii' by Jacques-Louis David, late 18th Century

Innovation and Revival: the variety of the 19th Century

However, it was not until the mid-19th Century that artists became truly liberated from the demands of their patrons.

Rather than being tied to portraying scenes from mythology, portraiture, history or religion, painters began to express the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ through their paintings.

19th Century paintings are therefore a defining subject of art historical study. The dawn of globalisation, industrialisation, and colonialism led to some of the most innovative painting in the history of art, and no previous century had seen such a variety of painting styles.

Born in response to Neoclassicism, the Romantic movement of the 19th Century extended through all artistic manifestations in Europe. Its interest on dramatic literary and religious subjects, and the opposition of the abstracts of love and death are well represented in the work of the Pre-Raphaelites in England. 

'The Lady of Shalott' by John William Waterhouse, 1888. Inspired by The Lady of Shalott, an early 19th Century poem by Alfred Tennyson

Romantic painters, such as Francisco de Goya, John Constable, and J.M.W. Turner, also began to express the futility of mankind in opposition to the grandeur of nature. This theme was particularly prevalent in landscape painting, which, until then, was considered an unimportant genre of work for painters.

Similarly, of the early stylistic phenomena of the 19th Century were genre paintings, which grew out of distaste for the rigidity of late 18th Century Neoclassicism. 

The simplicity of Frederik Kaemmerer’s During the Directoire is exemplary: the exaggerated stiffness of Neoclassicism scenes is replaced with the subtle delicacy and joy of an every-day scene.

'During the Directoire' by Frederik Hendrik Kaemmerer, 19th Century

Globalisation and colonialism allowed artists to travel and experience new cultures freely, and their amazement in discovering the wonders of the East, considered untarnished by the advances of Western civilisation, led to a genre of paintings that depict the idealised Orient.

In many cases, the places chosen were in Northern Africa and the Middle East, where France had its colonies. However, eclecticism is characteristic of Orientalist paintings, and common features of the Far East, Chinese, Indian and Japanese cultures are blended to create colourful and evocative scenes.

Such paintings coincided not only with colonialism, but also with industrialisation. Artists discovered in Eastern art the craftsmanship and beauty that they felt was lacking in industrial Europe.

Impressionism took this new artistic freedom a step further, adopting a cutting-edge, un-finished and spontaneous effect in their pictures of modern life.

The impressionist interest in light effects and painting directly in plein-air can be seen in  Stanislav Zhukovsky's, 'Summer Meadow in Pobojka', in which the artist has matched the whimsical nature of the subject with soft, loose brushstrokes.

'Summer Meadow in Pobojka' by Stanislav Zhukovsky, early 20th Century

The legacy of painting today

In the 20th Century, the artistic freedom that took hold toward the end of the 19th Century branched out into more directions than it is possible to catalogue or categorise.

Explosive and unpredictable, painted works in the 20th Century celebrate the limitless possibility that the discipline can offer – whether it be abstract painting that embodies a feeling rather than a depiction, or a portrait so skilfully rendered we might believe it to be a photograph.

Even more recently, we can see the impact that technology has had on painting.

In his recent retrospective at the Tate, British artist David Hockney exhibited his iPad drawings alongside his traditional canvas works. Through this, we can see the advances made from canvas to technology in the work of one lifetime.

Japanese artist Takashi Murakami has developed his own style of ‘Superflat’ paintings which are mostly produced using the computer programme Adobe Illustrator, which has the ability to copy the graphic quality of an existing painting. In short, Murakami has been able to import his artistic style and ask a computer to create the work.

With so many tools to allow anyone to self-publish their paintings online, it is easy for anyone to be an artist today.

Perhaps that is the beauty of the history of painting, and what marks a clear distinction between art of the past and art of today.

The historic discipline of painting, by comparison to technological methods, illustrates the openness that the audience of today has for different concepts.

However, the skill of painting has been widely recognised and celebrated for thousands of years. This is what makes fine old master and antique paintings so very precious today.  

Having been enjoyed for centuries, we are lucky to be able to continue enjoying the very same paintings for generations to come.