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Japonisme – The Influence Of Japanese Art On Western Artists

ukiyo-e school printmaking

In 1853, Japanese ports reopened to trade with West. Along with many other goods, Japanese art was one of the main things which were imported into the western art world.

On the crest of that wave were woodcuts prints by masters of the ukiyo-e school printmaking, which transformed Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art by demonstrating that simple, transitory, everyday subjects from ‘’the floating world’’ could be presented in appealingly decorative ways.

Like photography, the style of these prints also contributed significantly to the ‘snapshot’ angles and unconventional compositions which would become one of the main characteristic of these movements.

Paris World’s Fair 1867

When Japan took a pavilion at the World’s Fair of 1867, Parisians saw the first formal exhibition of Japanese art. The exhibition attracted a great deal of interest and resulted in all things Japanese becoming stylish and fashionable.

Equally, shiploads of oriental bric-a-brac, including lacquers, kimonos, bronzes, fans and silks had already begun pouring into France and England. Shops selling Japanese woodcut prints, fans, kimonos and antiquities popped up in Paris like mushrooms.

The French gave this new semi-movement the name ‘’Japonisme’’. It is quite ironic that at the same time when Japanese woodblock printing came to a decline because of the threat of civil war in Japan, it had found its way to inspire many European artists.


It is said that James Whistler discovered Japanese prints in a Chinese tearoom nearby London Bridge and that Claude Monet first came upon them used as wrapping paper in a spice shop in Holland.

The influence of Japan on European art was very different from the influence of other oriental art forms from earlier periods. Previous art pieces from China and other countries were seen as a sort of ‘fancy’ or fantasy for collectors, not having any true impact on European artists of the time.

In addition, Japan was secluded for centuries and the appearance of it art caused a new wave of excitement, and also, artists tried to understand what made Japanese art so unique and were inspired by the works of great Japanese artists.

It can be found several differences between ukiyo-e and western art from the same period. For instance, woodblock printing created an illusion of depth which was practically non-existent in Europeans works of the time.

Ukiyo-e had much stronger emphasis on creating dark outlines in the works, due to the fact that the Japanese consider fine handwriting an important skill by itself and the art of writing is irrevocably connected with Japanese art.

The subject matter of the ukiyo-e in 18th and 19th centuries was drawn from everyday life, celebrated the non-heroic, and was based on the idea that all is transient. These prints were mass-produced as woodcuts and were cheap enough for the average Japanese person, or Parisian, to afford.

In this period, the great master printmakers were Utamaro, Hiroshige and Hokusai.

The art of Japan, in particular the ukiyo-e print, was a revelation to Western artists. A stylized, narrative Japanese art form that emphasized flowing outlines, strong sense of design and simplified forms. This distinctive style of art flourished in Japan from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century.

Impressionists and Post-Impressionists After Ukiyo-e

Impressionism was not only about the specific colors and art based on empirical analysis and the senses, but mainly about the freedom and rather than a specified movement, it is collection of artists who rebelled against conventional art forms and each of them had their own unique style; their ‘freedom’ being the most common factor which bound them together.

The lack of lines, one of the principles in which impressionism differed from previous styles. The impressionists preferred to use natural brushstrokes, without any lines to border their creative vision, and these strokes appeared to be ‘broken’ to the unaccustomed eye.

The movement which followed impressionism was post-impressionism. It was mainly a natural answer to impressionism with a higher focus on experimenting with colors in order to achieve very personal and sacred image.

Artists stylistically influenced by ukiyo-e prints include: Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Marry Cassatt, Henry de Toulouse-Lautrec, Camille Pissarro, George Seurat, Paul Gauguin, Pierre-August Renoire etc.

The influence of ukiyo-e can be seen even within the works of such a popular painter as Vincent van Gogh. He was introduced to ukiyo-e by his brother Theo, when he moved in Paris.

It is believed that he became a collector of Japanese woodblock prints, and also did some copies; he copies two pieces of eastern woodblock prints, adding his own personal touch to them. His famous work called ‘’ The Courtesan’’ (pictured above) is inspired by Japanese art.

The painting bears resemblance to the style of woodblock printers, yet it also has Van Gogh’s personal style characteristics and his typical brushstroke.

Hokusai Katsushika

Hokusai Katsushika was one of the most important ukiyo-e artists of Japan who created several volumes of woodblock prints called ‘Manga.

Today, the term manga refers to a type of Japanese comic books; there is no evidence pointing to a connection between Hokusai’s manga and today’s comic book art – although the first mangas are said to have surfaced in the late nineteenth century, some time after Hokusai’s manga was published posthumously.

It is more widely accepted that manga as a comic book form came from American influence which adopted into the Japanese culture.

Hokusai’s manga series had a wide influence on many French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. It was mainly seen on the prestigious French printmaker Felix Bracquemond, a husband to one of the well-known female artists of impressionism, Marie Bracquemond.

He was intrigued by the representation of nature and encouraged many other artists to study the great art from Japan.

Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas and his friend James Tissot were among the earliest collectors of Japanese art in France. Also, their own art was affected by exotic things in very different ways; Unlike Tissot, and others who came under the spell of Japan, Edgar Degas avoided staging japoneries that featured models dressed in kimonos and the conspicuous display of oriental props.

He absorbed qualities of the Japanese aesthetics that he found most sympathetic: asymmetrical compositions, aerial perspective, elongated pictorial formats, focus on singularly decorative motifs, spaces emptied of all but abstract elements of line and color.

He was fascinated by the depiction of women in manga, as he himself focused very often on ballerinas, dancers and other women in movement. See his work below, “The Dance Class”. Degas’ work also shared similarities with Japanese woodblock prints in the theme of women in day-to-day situations.

Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt, an American artist who lived in Paris, and the one of Degas’ close associates, had ordered and collected many pieces of ukiyo-e, like many of her contemporary colleagues, was intrigued by them.

After visiting a large exhibition of ukiyo-e prints at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, in spring 1890, she produced a set of ten color etchings in open admiration of their subjects, technical innovations and compositions.

In Japanese prints, like those of Utamaro, she found a fresh approach to the description of common events in women’s lives.

Among the things that fascinated Cassatt were the non-complex compositions from unusual standpoints, the blank spaces between the colors and the simple lines that were able to speak to the observer. She created several print series using the woodblock printing technique common in Japan; she even undertook to adding color to these prints by using several different block of wood with different colors spread onto them.

She used these prints to make her own experiments with the effects color combinations could have. Her prints after ukiyo-e, show mainly women in everyday tasks; one of the most prominent works from her series being ‘’Woman Bathing’’ (below).


Claude Monet

Claude Monet’s painting ‘’ Madame Monet en costume Japonais’’ depicts a European woman in traditional Japanese clothing surrounded by fans. Whether this painting could be considered his celebration of Asian art or, on the contrary, a mocking image of Paris, obsession with Japanese art at that time, remains a question of debate.

Monet was an avid admirer of Hokusai and had many of his prints in his possession. There is even a speculation that Hokusai’s focus on flowers may have inspired Monet to use water lilies as a model for painting.


Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin, a notable artist whose works are also placed within impressionism and post-impressionism, was known for his vast travels and for his admiration for native and tribal arts of many cultures. Influence of ukiyo-e on his work is most notable in the absence of shadows, which is a trait that the Japanese woodblocks also share.

Only Paul Gauguin sidestepped the then-current practice of lithography and adopted Japanese woodcut technique to the abstract expression of his forward-looking art.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is also considered to be inspired by ukiyo-e to some degree. He was known to create commercial form of art, such as posters, just as frequently as finer works. The influence of ukiyo-e is mainly notable in these commercial works; he borrowed the style of the prominent Japanese artists, such as Utamaro, Hokusai and Harunobu, successfully recreating the ‘’flatness’’, yet dynamism of their woodblock prints.

He also adopted the exaggerated colors, contours and facial expressions found in Kabuki theater prints in order to create his eye-catching posters. Lautrec died at the same age as Van Gogh, as a result of his decadent lifestyle, but he changed the way people viewed poster printing and is considered a pioneer and revolutionist of this craft.


The End Of Isolation

Japan has been a subject of fascination ever since its harbors opened to the rest of the world. It could be argued that the end of Japan’s isolation was violent and almost plummeted the country into civil war, it also showed the world the wonders of Japanese art.

In addition, many of the most impressive pieces of European and American art were created only because the artists were inspired by what their Japanese counterparts had to offer. Even today, we are still perplexed by what Japan has to offer.

People enjoy the exotic feel of Japanese art, even their modern artists are often sought out by western consumers. In these modern times, many people enjoy Japanese cinematography, music, and their unique form of animated films called Anime.

Japanese culture and art have integrated themselves into today’s cultural consciousness, but they still retain such a degree of exoticism that they fascinate even today’s youth who are, very often mistakenly, considered by their elders to be ignorant in the ways of art.

It is left to wonder how many people who enjoy the works of impressionist and post-impressionist artist have no idea how their favorite artists were inspired by the art of a secluded and uncommon country.

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Artemisia Gentileschi – Famous Women Artists In History

Susanna and the Elders by Gentileschi

By virtue of the excellence of her work, the originality of her treatment of traditional subjects and the number of her paintings that have survived, Artemisia Gentileschi was the most important woman painter of Early Modern Europe.

She was both disdained and praised by contemporary critics, recognized as having genius, but also seen as monstrous, for she was a woman exercising a creative talent thought to be exclusively male. She “has suffered a scholarly neglect that is almost unthinkable for an artist of her caliber’’ (Mary D. Garrard).

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638-9
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638-9

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome on July, 8th, 1593, as the eldest child of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi and Prudentia Monotone Gentileschi. Her mother died when she was twelve.

Artemisia was introduced to painting in her father’s workshop, showing much more talent than her brothers, who worked alongside her. Her father trained her as an artist and introduced her to the working artist of Rome, including Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, whose chiaroscuro style greatly influenced Artemisia Gientileschi’s work.

She had little or no schooling, other than artistic training; she did not learn to read and write until she was adult. Orazio was a great encouragement to his daughter; during the seventeenth century women were considered lacking the intelligence to work.

At the same time, Artemisia had to resist the traditional attitude and psychological submission to this brainwashing and jealousy of her obvious talent.

Susanna and the Elders by Gentileschi
Susanna and the Elders by Gentileschi

By the time she was seventeen, she had produced one of her best known work, a stunning interpretation of Susana and Elders, from 1610. The painting shows how Artemisia assimilated the realism of Caravaggio without being indifferent to the language of the Bologna school, which had Annibale Carracci among its major artists.

It is one of the few paintings on the theme of Susanna showing the sexual accosting by the two elders as a traumatic event.

Among those with whom Orazio Gentileschi worked was the Florentine artist Agostino Tassi, whom Artemisia accused of raping her in 1612, when she was nineteen. When her father found out, he filed suit against Tassi for injury and damage, and, remarkably, the transcripts of the seven-month-long rape trial have survived.

According to Artemisia, attempted to be alone with her repeatedly, with the help of family friends, and raped her when he finally succeeded in cornering her in her bedroom. He tried to placate her afterwards by promising to marry her, and gained access to her person and her bedroom repeatedly on the strength of that promise, but always avoided following through with the actual marriage.

She was examined by midwives to determine whether she had been ‘’deflowered’’ recently, or a long time ago. The trial followed a pattern familiar even today- she was accused for not having been a virgin at the time of the rape and of having many lovers.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Esther before Ahasuerus (detail) (c 1626-9)
Artemisia Gentileschi, Esther before Ahasuerus (detail) (c 1626-9)

Probably more galling for an artist like Artemisia, Tassi testified that her skills were so pitiful that he had to teach her the rules of perspective, and was doing so the day she claimed he raped her.

Tassi denied having had sexual relations with Gentileschi, brought many witnesses to testify that she was ‘’an insatiable’’ whore. Their testimony was refuted by Orazio, who brought countersuit for perjury. Artemisia’s accusations against Tassi were corroborated by a former friend of his who recounted Tassi’s boasting about his sexual exploits at Artemisia’s expense.

Tassi had been imprisoned earlier for incest with his sister-in-law and was charged with arranging the murder of his wife. He was convicted on the charge of raping Gentileschi and he served under a year in prison and was later invited again into the Gentileschi household by Orazio.

During and soon after the trial, Gentileschi painted Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612-1613). The painting is remarkable for its technical proficiency, but also for the original and impressive way in which Gentileschi portrays Judith, a pretty popular subject for art; her first Judith beheading Holofernes painting, clearly a cathartic expression of her rage and violation.

She drew all faces of Judith as hers face and Holofernes are Tassi on her painting. Unlike other ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’, Judith looks like a strong woman and she has a tenacious grip.

Judith Slaying Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi
Judith Slaying Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi

In November of 1612, after the long trial, the pregnant Artemisia was married to a Florentine artist and family friend Pietro Antonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi. They moved to Florence and Arthemisia gave birth to a daughter named either Prudentia or Palmira.

In Florence, Gentileschi returned to the subject of Judith, completing Judith and her Maidservant in 1613 or 1614. During this Florence period of her life, she became the protégé of Michelangelo the Younger, nephew of Michelangelo, who favored her and paid her well for her work on the life of Michelangelo for the Casa Buonorotti.

Artemisia and her husband worked at the Academy of Design, and Gentileschi became an official member there in 1616. It was a remarkable honor for a woman of her day, and probably made possible by the support of her Florentine patron, the Grand Duke Cosimo II of the powerful Medici family.

During her years in Florence, he commissioned quite a few paintings from her, and Gentileschi left Florence to return to Rome upon his death, in 1621.

Afterwards, she probably moved to Genoa that same year, accompanying her father who was invited there by a Genovese nobleman. In Genoa she painted her first Lucretia (1621) and her first Cleopatra (1621-1622), the impressive pieces of artwork.

Artemisia Gentileschi. Lucretia. 1621
Artemisia Gentileschi. Lucretia. 1621

She also received commissions in nearby Venice during this period and met the great Anthony Van Dyck, a very successful painter of the era, and Sofonisba Anguissola, a generation older than Gentileschi and one of the handful of women who worked as artists.

Gentileschi soon returned to Rome and lived there as head of household with her daughter and two servants. Evidently, she and her husband had separated and she eventually lost touch with him altogether. Gentileschi later had another daughter, and both are known to have been painters, though neither their work nor any assessment of it has survived.

During this stay in Rome, a French artist, Pierre Dumonstier le Neveu, made a drawing of her hand holding a paintbrush, calling it a drawing of the hand of “the excellent and wise noble woman of Rome, Artemisia.”

Her fame is also evident in a commemorative medal bearing her portrait made some time between 1625 and 1630 that calls her pictrix celebris or “celebrated woman painter.”

Forever in search of patronage, she lived again in Florence and Rome during the 1620s, and then moved in 1630, to Naples, the second largest city in Europe, where commissions were available. During this time, she was struggling to reconcile her own artistic preferences with the preferences of her patrons, who made her livelihood possible

She collaborated with a number of the male artists while in Naples. In this period, she painted her great Self-Portrait- the Allegory of Painting (1630), a work unique in its fusing of art, muse, and artist, than another Lucretia, The Annunciation (1630), another Cleopatra, and many other great works.

Artemisia Gentileschi / Артемизия Джентилески (1593-1653) – Minerva (Sapienza) / Минерва (Мудрость) (около 1615)

Around 1637, desperate for money to finance her daughter’s wedding, Gentileschi began looking for new patrons. And she found him, eventually. It was King Charles I of England. She was in residence at the English court from 1638 to 1641, among the many continental artists invited there by that art-collecting king Charles I.

She may have gone specifically to assist her father, Orazio, in a massive project to decorate the ceilings of the Queen’s house at Greenwich.

For that commission, Artemisia painted the Allegory of Peace, including most of its Muses – and most notably, Clio, Muse of History. Her ailing father died in 1639, but Artemisia continued to work in England until 1642.

Artemisia returned to Naples, around 1642, where she lived until her death. She remained very active as a painter there, producing at least five variations on Bathsheba and perhaps another Judith.

Artemisia Gentileschi - Bathing Bathsheba
Artemisia Gentileschi – Bathing Bathsheba

During her last ten years, her primary patron was Don Antonio Ruffo; more is known about these years than any others because 28 of her letters to him which still survive.

The timing and the cause of Artemisia’s death is not known, but she most likely died in 1652.

Unfortunately, the rape trial, her unconventional life as a female painter, and her numerous paintings of powerful women struggling against male dominance did not endear her to the male aristocracy.

The only record of her death are two satiric epitaphs–frequently translated and reprinted that make no mention of her art but figure her in exclusively sexual terms as a nymphomaniac and adulterer.

Those derogatory epitaphs were published about her in 1653, such as: “By painting one likeness after another/ I earned no end of merit in the world/ While, to carve two horns upon my husband’s head/I put down the brush and took a chisel instead.”

According to Art historian Charles Moffat, Artemisia may have committed suicide, which would explain why the cause of her death was not recorded.

Thirty four of her paintings survive today, as well as the transcript of the rape trial, published in full in Mary Gerrard’s ‘’Artemisia Gentileschi, The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art’’.

Today she is regarded as one of the most progressive painters of her generation; an artist who fought with determination—using the weapon of personality and of the artistic qualities—against the prejudices expressed against women painters; being able to introduce herself productively in the circle of the most respected painters of her time, embracing a series of pictorial genres that probably were more ample and varied than her paintings suggest.

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Famous Early Renaissance Artwork

Gates of Paradise

After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, there was a time for a few hundred years known as the Middle Ages. People in the Middle Ages were very conservative and restrictive.
The Church began to gain power because people needed emotional and spiritual support, and they could get that from religion. Much of the advances in the arts and sciences, and even government, that had been made by the Greeks and Romans, was lost when those societies collapsed.
For those reasons, some referred to this period as the Dark Ages.
lorenzetti middle ages artwork
In the early 1300’s, a rebirth in all aspects of society began. It was subtle at first, but picked up speed very quickly. People were ready to feel important once again. They had had enough of feeling bad about what happened when the great societies of Rome and Greece collapsed.
It was time for new ideas and a feeling of being positive. This was the beginning of the Renaissance.

The Humanist Movement

Humanism was the beginning of thinking differently about life in general. The more educated the people became, the more they read about the Greeks and Romans. They began to believe that everyone is talented in some way and everyone needs everyone else.
Now, people thought that life could be enjoyable and they could have comforts. They started to think that people should learn about art, music, and science once again. This new information would make life better for everyone.
This was a real change in the way people thought.
There were many rich and powerful families in Florence Italy at this time. Even though Europe was made up of countries with royal families who were very powerful, each city was in charge of its own future.
The government was known as a city state. The Medici Family was one very powerful family living in the Florence area of Italy.
the medici family
Italy was divided in to city states that were controlled by wealthy families and the Medicis had the most money, so they basically controlled Florence. Their government was a republic, which meant that the people elected their own leaders.
There were so many rich families in Florence that they began to compete by hiring artists to create art for them. Religion was still an important theme. The Medicis were bankers and they supported the arts and the Humanism idea.
Education became very important also, and the wealthy families wanted the common people to become smarter so those in power tried to improve the education system. This was a time when explorers were sent around the world to find new lands.
It was a time when scientists were valued and many things were invented. This Humanism way of thinking began to spread throughout Europe. The world was opening up. People such as Columbus, Galileo, Gutenberg, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Da Vinci were all part of this movement.
galileo galilei
Naturalism describes a true-to-life style which involves the representation or depiction of nature (including people) with the least possible distortion or interpretation. Naturalism is different that realism. Naturalism is concern with the method of painting and the techniques used to make the subject look accurate.
The naturalism of the Renaissance was a method of painting that elicited emotions. It was a way to represent the all people as human with all kinds of emotions no matter how much money they had.
Realism came later and was concerned with the content and why certain things were in the painting.

Famous Early Renaissance Artwork

The Early Italian Renaissance artists did not break from Gothic Art completely. These artists did begin a movement that tried to show nature and the human being in its realistic classical sense. These 4 famous examples depict the naturalism and humanism so beautifully.

Well Of Moses (Puits de Moïse)

well of moses early renaissance

  • Located: Chartreuse de Campmol
  • Artist: Jean de Marville and Claus Sluter
  • Date: 1395 – 1406
  • Medium: limestone sculpture … figures are 5’8”

Why is this artwork important?

  1. Depicted the Old Testament characters (Moses, David, 6 prophets and 6 angels) as distinct individuals physically and psychologically i.e. sad old eyes, wrinkles, curly hair, beard, heavy shoulders, and drapery cloaks for volume
  2. Shift from Gothic to Renaissance
  3. Continuous theme of naturalism (flow of the draping cloth) and expression (feelings suggested in the faces)
  4. Individualism to sculpture i.e. look at the faces
  5. Gives weight to his characters

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife

Jan van Eyck - Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife

  • Artist: Jan van Eyck
  • Date: 1434
  • Medium: Oil on panel 33×22.5”
  • Style: panel painting early Renaissance

Why is this painting important?

  1. Early Renaissance continues to portray people as physically and psychologically important individuals
  2. Symbolic of many things i.e. happiness, pleasure, class, love, religion, Christianity, gender roles etc.
  3. Could represent wedding/ betrothal
  4. Details i.e. inscription by artist, beads, chair, candle in chandelier, dog, clothing
  5. Realistic i.e. role of the man vs the role of the woman i.e. position of characters in the room

The Descent From The Cross


  • Artist: Rogier van der Weyden (Flemish)
  • Medium: Oil on panel (1st generation) – central panel from an altarpiece
  • Date: 1435

Why is this painting important?

  1. Use of a popular theme: The use of Jesus in the painting allows the viewer to identify with the main character easily. Jesus and the other characters are expressing EMOTIONS while preparing for the final burial, which makes them more real.
    The corpse is also life size and placed in the centre of the composition.

  3. The use of curved lines is a risky strategy for the artist to make because that makes the picture look more real and the “church” doesn’t want the viewer to think that these characters are human-like.
    The artist displays the figures in very emotional positions and uses women and children and shows the characters in relationships.

  5. Human Sensibility: The positioning of the characters in the foreground and very large was done so that they are as close to the viewer as possible. That way the viewer can’t miss the details and the emotions because the artist wants to make these characters as real as possible.
  6. Expression on their faces and body details i.e. fingernails.

Tres Riches Heures (Very Sumptuous Hours)

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

  • Author: Paul, Herman, and John Limbourg
  • Date: 1413-1416 unfinished
  • Style: Illumination with Gothic Traditions – naturalism
  • Medium: decorated book with over 200 folios – pictorial record or calendar of the Duke’s residences

Why is this manuscript important?

  1. The most important illuminated manuscript of the 15th century.
  2. Featured are the activities of the Duke and his peasants according to the time of year.
  3. gender and social construction in Europe
  4. court patronage
  5. sense of illusionistic space and light
  6. Shows a contrast between the rich and the poor.
  7. minute details, subtle lines, painstaking techniques


The early Italian Renaissance is generally considered to have begun in the southern part of the Netherlands known as Flanders, and in Florence and Venice Italy, around the years 1350 to 1400. It was time to bring emotions back into every day life.
Realistic art, which included not only people, but the natural space that they existed in, was the new challenge of these very talented artistic people.
More on the Renaissance:


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What Was The Italian Renaissance All About?

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni
Around 1340, a series of catastrophes happened in Florence, Italy. Banks and merchants went bankrupt. The government was collapsing. Crops were failing. And then, in 1348, there was an epidemic known as, “the black death”.

This bubonic plague infected many people in the city. At that time, China was trading extensively with Italy and other European countries. Many people in China were suffering from this plague. This deadly condition finally reached the province of Florentine, where Florence was the main city.

It was believed that an Italian merchant ship, brought the rat and flea illness from China to Italy. More than half of the population of the Florence area died because of it.
the black death
The Renaissance was a time of coming out of this “darkness”. The people had had enough bad luck. They needed a rebirth of education, science, the arts, and a positive way of thinking. Florence was the perfect city for this renaissance change to happen.

Florence seemed to have always played an important role in the progress of the world for centuries. Major changes were taking place at the beginning of the 14th century in Florence. Florence was an Italian city that had been around for over 2000 years.

By 1300 to1340, life in Florence and the surrounding area known as Florentine, was beginning to improve. Florentine had political stability, economic strength, and it was expanding in population. Artistic achievement was prospering also.

The people of Florence reacted in two ways to the bubonic plague. Some people believed that God was sending them a message, telling them not to behave in such sinful ways, and curtail their bad actions.

Other Florentine people believed that the plague was a sign for them to enjoy life even more, and that they should try new things and take more risks. Many of these people wanted to bring back the classics of Ancient Greece and Rome, such as Roman stone roads, literacy, art that focused on all people, and a Government made up of responsible, hard-working members of society.

All of these changes were to become known as the Italian Renaissance.

The Italian Renaissance

The Italian Renaissance was born. It is my opinion that Florence Italy played a key role in maintaining and perpetuating this Renaissance movement, because of its location in Europe, the state of its economy, the significance of the guilds, the education of the citizens, the importance of art, and the presence of the Roman Catholic Church.

Florence Italy became the gateway for a rebirth of great ideas at the beginning of the 14th century. Ideas were coming from all directions, as the Renaissance began, and Florence was in the center of all this action.
Florence was first settled in 59 BC by the Romans as a military base. The Romans needed access to Gaul, which later became France, and Florence was the perfect location for the Romans to build a military base.

Florence was in the northern part of Italy, on the Arno River. The Arno River began in the Apennine Mountains in the middle of northern Italy, and flowed west through Florence toward Pisa on the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Rome was a few hours to the south and Greece was Southeast in the Mediterranean Sea. The Alps mountains bordered Florence in the north, and Europe was to its west. Africa was to the south of Italy across the Mediterranean Sea.

Florence was in the perfect location for trade between Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

In early Renaissance Italy, powerful city-states were the form of government. Wealthy families were in control of everything. Florence was a city-state, governed by many wealthy families such as the Albizzis and the Medicis. The Medicis played a major role in the development of Florence by financially supporting new ideas.

Santa Mario Cathedral

There was an important church in Florence at this time. It was a cathedral that was built in the 5th century, but by the 14th century, it was crumbling with age. All of the citizens of Florence cared a lot about the Santa Mario cathedral, as it was known.

It had a hole in the roof that needed fixing. The wealthy families in charge of the church, decided to fix the roof. They organized a contest to find someone who could do the repairs with style and class.

Many architects came from far and wide with their ideas about this important construction. In the end, an unknown hot tempered goldsmith, by the name of Filippo Brunelleschi, was chosen to do the job. His ideas were creative and original, unlike all the rest.
Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) in Florence, constructed between 1296

Brunelleschi was a master at his craft, and Cosimo de Medici, liked his idea of constructing an elliptical dome over the hole. The repairs were started in 1296 in Gothic style, and the structure was completed in 1436.

It was the largest brick dome ever constructed, and many local people assisted with the construction of the project. Everyone was proud of their cathedral and it became famous throughout Europe.

During the 14th Century, a third of the population of Florence was involved with the wool trade, with over one hundred wool shops in the city. The guild of wool merchants was the most powerful of the all the guilds, and it ran the cities textile trade, with St.

Luke being its patron Saint. In Florence, the quality and the quantity of the local wool was not sufficient. To compensate, raw wool was imported from Spain, France and England, English wool being the most prized of all.

These countries supplied a better quality of wool than what came from Flanders. Along with the best wools, they also had the best wool dies, which they imported from the Orient. Later in the 14th century, they would import silks that also came from the Orient.

The Florentines were so good at this textile work, that they even bought in inferior textile products from the cities of the north. The Florentine wool workers would re-work the material, ending up with a better cloth.
14th century Wool Dress

The textiles produced in Florence were sold to markets in Italy, Northern Europe, and the Levant, which was a large geographical area, at the east end of the Mediterranean Sea. Countries like Iraq, Syria, and Jordan were in the Levant.

This patronage social system of wool trade again unified the population of Florence. The people felt more worthy and successful. Patronage was a social system that developed very gradually for hundreds of years prior to the Italian Renaissance.

People, because of their specific skills, came together to learn from each other. It helped everyone involved.

Cosimo II de Medici, Michelangelo, and the Guilds

Between the 14th and the 17th century, groupin like-minded people into guilds, peeked in importance. As an example, Galileo, in his lifelong career as a mathematician and scientist, benefitted from his patronage or connections with the Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cosimo II de Medici.

Prominent people such as the Grand Duke and Cosimo II de Medici, created Guilds. They had the money and authority to do this. In Florence, patronages or guilds were associated with the church. The church had a great deal of power over the Italian people, and like the rich families, they were rich also.

Prior to the beginning of the Renaissance, bishops were competing with wealthy families to become patrons over the land owners. Guilds or patronages were not an option. Florence’s social hierarchy was based on which guild you be- longed to.

Even the very poor, found themselves as part of this system. To obtain upward mobility in Florentine, you had to do it through the guild system. Everyone wanted notability and credibility.

The Medici family was in charge of the wool trade guild. If you were part of that guild, you would obtain your importance and respectability from the Medicis. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was an Italian sculptor, painter, architect, and poet.

He was a good example of an artist who benefitted from belonging to a guild. His patron was Pope Julius II. By the time Michelangelo died, Florence’s artists thought of him as important as the Pope in Rome.
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni

The wealthy people controlled the guilds. They benefitted by sponsoring several clients. The more people you had in your guild, the more money the public thought you had, so the more prestige and power it gave you.

As a result, the guilds and their patrons were cate- gorized. During the Renaissance in Florence, the guilds were set up as separate corporations. The highest ranking seven guilds were known as “Arti Magian”. “Art Median” were the five middle ranking guilds, and then there were nine minor guilds, called, “Arti Minori”.

The quality control of these guild groups was controlled politically. Florence became one of the richest cities at that time because of this system of who did what and which guild you belonged to. The Cloth Makers Guild began in Florence in 1150, and the Medici’s controlled that guild.

There were seven guilds in total at this time. If you wanted to join a certain guild, it would help if your father was already a mem- ber of it. You definitely had to be very skilled at the appropriate craft for that guild.

You also had to pay a tax or joining fee and work as an apprentice. Guilds protected their members and provided them with good working conditions and they would also look after the guild member’s family.

The Guild even had watchmen to oversee any work. Each guild had a reputation to uphold and the guild leaders demanded quality work from their members. As a result, the members and their families thrived.

People started to move out of the poorest ranks of society and become more prosperous. The middle class was being reborn similar to what happened in ancient societies such as in Egypt.

As time passed, a hierarchy of guilds developed. The most important guilds became known as, “Supreme magistrates of the State”. They had their own coat of arms, banners, and even a strict pecking order of importance within.

The patronage life style provided people with opportunities to feel worthy again. The “Dark Ages” had been a bad time, and people needed something to make them feel excited about life again.

Humanism, Leonardo Bruni, and the Return Of Great Thinking

The aristocracy wanted to bring back the great ideas of ancient Greece and Rome, and they needed the majority of the population to think creativity and intelligently to do this. Humanism was the name for this new modern way of thinking.

Humanism began in Florence around 1350.
leonardo bruni
Leonardo Bruni, who lived between 1370 and 1444, was an Italian humanist, historian, and statesman. He and other Humanists wanted as many citizens as possible, to be able to read, write, and speak with elegance and clarity.

This would allow them to partici- pate in civic life, and be part of the decision making process. The Humanists got many of their new ideas about learning from reading Roman and Greek writings.

By the middle of the 15th century, the rich and wealthy families and church personnel, who had easy access to books and libraries, were receiving a humanist education. The church leaders spent a lot of time translating the Bible from Latin into German and English.

They needed all the ideas they could find about the importance of faith, in a world that was becoming more realistic and more reasonable.
15th century bible
Old manuscripts reappeared and were translated into common languages, so because of these, lots of great classic ideas were being reborn. The Italian people wanted to bring back the lost classical cultures of the Greeks and the Romans.

Sculptors used Roman ideas and classical themes. They appreciated the plastic arts, such as anything three dimensional, and the pagan architecture. They wanted to bring back nudity, and they did.

Because of this economic growth, there was more opportunity for art. The rich were able to support art scholarships. Opportunities were many. There was collaboration between architects, artisans, and artists. New buildings appeared. Committees were set.

Lots of collaboration happened to get the jobs done efficiently.

With the expanding northward of trade, wealthy merchants were more than happy to support artists. This support always got the blessings from the Monarchs of other European countries, like England and France. When any art work was completed, people from all levels of society felt proud.
king francois I

About this time, King Francis I, of France, invaded Italy. This enabled him to import artists like Leonardo de Vinci. The King spent lots of money, using many artists to build fancy palaces and produce art to decorate them.

The King named these times, zeitgeist or “The Spirit of the age.” By now, the Renaissance movement had spread to Germany, England, and Scandinavia.

In the early 1300’s, religion and art were starting to combine. Churches were built and they were then decorated by the artists with artwork, such as artists like Giotto. He did paintings on ceilings called, frescoes, which were very popular.

He also painted on wooden panels. He expressed a definite tension in the people, that were in his compositions. His works were a true revival of classical ideals and an expression of the new humanity.

Some remember him as the father of early Renaissance.
arena chapel Lamentation

The Council of Trent had a huge influence on the art world at this time as well. It was the Catholic Church’s response to Reformation. Between 1545 and 1563, this church council met in Trent and Bologna in northern Italy.

The Catholic Church began to realize now that art played an important role in society, so they used paintings, sculptures, and writings to convey the religious message. This increased the importance of artists. Some of the paintings, done by the artists, represented the lives of the Saints.

The Catholic Church encouraged viewers to model their own behavior after them.

The printing of handbooks on religious themes became popular as well, and the reader was encouraged to get involved with the scriptures. One of these handbooks involved spiritual exercises, which advised readers to use all of their five senses.

These exercises would help the reader imagine the feelings of the biblical characters and the early saints.

Sculptors in the early Renaissance took a page out of the Greek and Romans book and made sarcophagi copied from the third century Roman art. These sarcophagi appealed to the wealthy patrons of the Roman upper crust.

On the sarcophagi panels, there were images of the seasons, and displays of the harvesting of grapes and wheat, which were two very important crops. The churches took this as a sign that referred to the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Ghent Altar Piece

One of the many themes in Renaissance paintings was the expulsion of Adam and Eve, from the Garden of Eden. An example of this was displayed on the famous Ghent altar piece. This triptych was painted by Van Eyck, an early Netherlandish painter, who worked in Bruges.

He was considered one of the most significant northern Renaissance artists of the 15th century.
the ghent altarpiece
This popular theme was also painted by other artists of the Renaissance such as Cranach and Rubens.

Donatello’s David Statue

Another famous piece of art from the mid-15th century, was the statue of David, by Donatello. This bronze statue depicts an athletic-looking boy, posing in the nude, with his left foot on the decapitated head of Goliath.

This statue signalled the return of nude sculpting.
donatello's david statue
It was the first such work in over one thousand years, and is one of the most important pieces of art in Western history. It was commissioned by Cosimo de Medici and was considered a classical piece of Renaissance sculpture.

The Laocoon

In 1506, a statue was discovered called, “the Laocoon”. It was Laocoon and his two sons. Pope Julius II sent Michelangelo to the scene to see it, and he then ordered it brought to the Vatican, where it still sits to this day.
The story goes that Laocoon stabbed the Trojan horse with a spear, and for this he and his two sons were attacked by sea serpents. This Laocoon statue had significant impact on Italian Renaissance art, and on sculpting in general.

Martin Luther & the Protestant Reformation

Martin Luther was born in Germany in the late 14 century. He was one of the most influential figures in Christian history. He began the Protestant Reformation. What he did, was to question some of the basic views of the Catholic Church.

This was to lead to Luther and his followers splitting from the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church counteracted this reformation, by forming a council that would look at the concerns put forth. This council was given the name of “The Council of Trent.”

The Council of Trent discussed religious images rejecting erotic and false doctoring or subject matter. This was done fearing recognized the power of the painted image, more so than the spoken word. In the Catholic Church’s view, a painting was an effective tool for inspiring and a teaching the masses.
martin luther's 95 theses
In 1517, Luther nailed to the door of a Catholic Church, 95 points that he thought that the Catholic Church had got wrong. Highlights of the 95 points was the paying of indulgences to the Catholic Church.

Indulgences meant that anybody who had sinned just had to pay money to the Church, and their sins were forgiven. The slate was wiped clean so to speak. The Roman Catholic Church was pretty upset over this, because it meant that it was now making less money.

Luther was called a heretic, and was ejected from the church. This caused a lot of people, who had the same views as Luther, to be very upset. A lot of Northern European countries split away from the Catholic Church and set up their own churches, such as the Reformed Church and the Lutheran Church.

At this time in England, King Henry VIII, split from the Catholic Church, but for a different reason. He wanted to divorce his wife, and the Catholic Church wouldn’t allow him to do that. Protestants and Catholics, which were two different ways of looking at religion, were the end result.

A Much Needed Change

The Italian Renaissance was a time of much needed positive change for the people, and the city of Florence was the perfect fit for this rebirth to take place. Not just because of its location, but Florence had many other positive qualities.

It had smart banking families, like the Medici’s, who were experts with the handling of money and politics.
florence italy renaissance
The structure of the trades, and how the guilds were organized, was a very successful patronage idea from the past. Many people were involved in the wool trade and wool shops were a popular sight. Education was a big factor and people were now able to read, write, and pass on information.

People from all levels of society were thought of as more human.

Art, and its community, had become very important too. All forms of art were used by the Roman Catholic Church to communicate the Church’s ideas to the faithful. Religious leaders liked this idea. Florence Italy had become one of the wealthiest cities in all of Europe and it is still known today for its creativity and positive people.

Video Resources

More on the Renaissance:

Top 20 Michelangelo quotes:

More on Humanism in Italy:

More on Francis I:

More on the Ghent Altar Piece:

More on Donatello’s David Statue:

More on the Laocoon:

More on Martin Luther:

Renaissance Bibliography
1. “Florence Cathedral.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,
2. ”History: Reformation for Kids.” History: Reformation for Kids. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2016.
3. “Humanism.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, wiki/Humanism.
4. ”Il Duomo.” Brunelleschi’s Dome. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.
5. “Renaissance — Focus on Florence.” Renaissance — Focus on Florence,
6. “Renaissance for Kids.” History: Renaissance for Kids,

7. “Renaissance.” History: Renaissance Science for Kids,
8. “Renaissance Textiles Florence.” Renaissance Textiles Florence,


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What Is Renaissance Art All About?

After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, there was a time for a few hundred years known as the Middle Ages. People in the Middle Ages were very conservative and restrictive, and the art reflected this attitude, in that although it depicted life, it too lacked realism and flair.
Or, to put it another way, middle ages art was fairly blah. Oh, doest thou contest? Behold! A typical medieval piece of art…


The Church with the capitol C began to gain power because people needed so much emotional and spiritual support, and they could get that from religion. Much of the advances in the arts and sciences, and even government, that had been made by the Greeks and Romans, were lost when those societies collapsed. Even such things as sanitation systems, which were commonplace in ancient Rome, were now just a sweet memory.
For this and other reasons, some referred to this period as the Dark Ages.

Indeed, if you look upon the paintings of babies that were portrayed at this dark time, you will see that they had been Humunculi, not adorable cherubs, and we assert this as one more reason that Middle Ages art is likely either to strike you blind, or cause a narcoleptic episode the second you see it.

Here is a video which attempts to explain the homeliness of babies depicted around this time period.


Some Say, “Did The Renaissance Really Happen?”

In the early 1300’s, a rebirth in all aspects of society was thought to have begun. It was said to be subtle at first, but then picked up speed very quickly, according to most historians. The general consensus is that people were ready to feel some joy de vivre once again, and leave the dark times behind.

After the great societies of Rome and Greece collapsed, history draws a dark curtain over the people of Europe, but now those same people wanted to regain some elements of the “good life” that those ancient cultures had experienced but had since gone away.
It was time for new ideas and a feeling of being positive.

This was the beginning of the Renaissance, although some have even suggested that the Renaissance didn’t even happen… like Mr. Crash Course World History himself, John Green.

Ok, so maybe the Renaissance didn’t exactly happen the way some books say, but let’s give our art professors the benefit of the doubt here for a moment. Not everything in our history books is bunk.

Any art history textbook is going to tell you the Renaissance is generally considered to have started in the southern part of the Netherlands known as Flanders, and in Florence and Venice Italy, around the years 1350 to 1400.
It was time to bring emotions back into every day life, and, hence, into art.

One must consider that realistic art, which included not only people but the natural space that they existed in, it didn’t come all at once. In fact, those who disagree with the concept of a “Renaissance” suggest that it was not any kind of widespread grassroots movement.
Rather, it actually was specifically reserved for the upper echelons of society who had the money to buy the books that taught of the ways of ancient Greeks and Romans, and spread enlightened thought through then-modern Europe.


During the 14th and 15th centuries, common folk lead their lives in much the same way as they had in centuries previous, by living according to sunrise and sunset, with no real knowledge that big changes were coming for European society as a whole.
Be that as it may, change was in the air, even if the average pleb wasn’t able to kick back with a glass of wine and enjoy this “Renaissance” for themselves. There were those who were in favor of it, and these were the aristocrats.

To add perspective, here is what England looked like in the 1300’s, providing us with a taste of the “feudal” system that prevailed around this time. Surely these folk were not preoccupied by too many lofty aspirations…


Art In The Renaissance

So, no, do not think that there was a single moment where art changed overnight from drab Gothic art to nature-filled scenes of unbridled idealism and progressive thinking. Indeed, it took a few hundred years for paintings to fully transform from the rigid rules that had been established to anything a person from 2016 might consider lively and bursting with creativity.

However, it was during the 1400’s that painters like Fra Angelico began to inject some more natural color palettes into their work, not to mention likenesses of Jesus that began to look less like squint-eyed oldsters.
In these decidedly subtle shifts, the Renaissance had begun, but this was no small matter to art appreciators of the time.


Humanism In The Renaissance

During this time, a new movement had cropped up called “Humanism”, which you might call the specific mindset needed to get the Renaissance rolling along. Renaissance humanism was the beginning of thinking differently about life in general, although it was actually an intellectual movement which started with the elite classes and had to “trickle down” to the common man. Still, the more people read about the Greeks and Romans, the more educated the people became in a general sense.

One of the first humanist thinkers was Petrarch, pictured below, who was quoted as saying “I’m unlike anyone I know”.


As the Renaissance ideologies spread out across Europe, philosophers began to believe that everyone had a uniqueness and a value. Now, people thought that life could be enjoyable and they could have comforts.
They started to think that people should learn about art, music, and science once again, like they used to. This new information, it was decided, would make life better for everyone. This was a real change in the way people thought and this progressiveness is at the heart of what we consider to be the Renaissance.


The Medici Family And The Renaissance

There were many rich and powerful families in Florence, Italy at this time. Even though Europe was made up of countries with royal families who were very powerful, each city was in charge of its own future. The government was known as a city state. The Medici Family was one very powerful family living in the Florence area of Italy. Italy was divided in to city states that were controlled by wealthy families and the Medicis had the most money, so they basically controlled Florence.


The government of Florence was a republic, which meant that the people elected their own leaders. There were so many rich families in Florence that they began to compete by hiring artists to create art for them. Religion was still an important theme. The Medicis were bankers and they supported the arts and the Humanism idea.

Here’s a video showing the Medici family at the height of their influence, and how they reigned over Florence at this time.


Education During The Renaissance

Education became very important also, and the wealthy families wanted the common people to become smarter (strange as that may sound) so those in power tried to improve the education system.

This was also a time when explorers were sent around the world to find new lands, to bring back riches that could support these new and fruitful ideas. It was a time when scientists were valued and many things were invented. This Humanist way of thinking began to spread increasingly throughout Europe, and the world was opening up. People such as Columbus, Galileo Gutenberg, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Da Vinci were all part of this movement.

Now, keep in mind, although a new way of thinking was spreading across the land, this did not always equal happiness for all. For instance, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, he didn’t arrive in America to a crowd of enthusiastic revellers who immediately spit roasted ol’ Tom Turkey and toasted to their arrival.
Instead, the true tale is much more lurid.



What Is Naturalism In Art?

Naturalism describes a true-to-life style which involves the representation or depiction of nature (including people) with the least possible distortion or interpretation. Naturalism is different that realism. Naturalism is concerned with the method of painting and the techniques used to make the subject look accurate. The naturalism of the Renaissance was a method of painting that elicited emotions. It was a way to represent the all people as human with all kinds of emotions no matter how much money they had. Realism came later and was concerned with the content and why certain things were in the painting.

Jacopo Tintoretto: Summer, oil on canvas, c. 1555

As was expected, life in Europe became more and more complicated. There were always groups who wanted to be in control. The Church, the State, the Royal families, the aristocracies, and even the commoners, all needed to feel worthy and wanted control over their lives.
The Renaissance was evolving into a time when more risks were being taken. Around the beginning of the 1600’s, the Baroque period began.


Begin The Baroque

Baroque is a term used to describe a period and style of art. It is used to describe paintings, sculptures, architecture, and music of that allowed much freedom of expression. The Catholic Church was being challenged. Art was representative of what was happening to the people.

The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio

The Baroque style spread to where much of the art of the time became very dramatic, full of life, colours, movement, and emotions. There was lots of action and movement in the paintings, architecture, and sculptures. Angels flew, people fought, crowds cowered in fear, and saints rose to the heavens.
Baroque sculptures were often made of rich materials, such as colorful marble, bronze, or even gilded with gold.

Rococo art happened at the tail end of the Baroque period when artists tried to create lots of emotions through the use of light i.e. Caravaggio was thought of as the father of Rococo and Rembrandt was thought of as the best at it.


Meet famous artists and learn more about their work in the next in a series of articles on the Renaissance and Baroque art.