Western art evolved through thousands of years of civilizations using art for various functions such as propaganda, decoration, religion and mythologies, and power and influence. Although there is certainly the desire for human artistic creativity, societies can also dictate the direction of art as seen in Ancient Egypt. Egyptian art changed very little for almost 3000 years because the Egyptians valued cultural and societal stability above all else. They used a calculated formula and a grid system for the depiction of humans in their art. Hellenistic and Roman art allowed for more freedom of expression and is a considered a high point in sculpture and ancient architecture. Medieval art focused on book illumination and church architecture such as the grand cathedrals of Europe. Islamic art is a masterful blending of established styles from earlier Roman, Christian, and Jewish architecture and artwork. Although much of the work is iconoclastic, the focus on mathematics and geometric shapes produces some of the most intriguing visual art of the period. All of this is a prelude to the visual art created in the late Gothic and Renaissance periods. Although the Italian Renaissance masters looked back to the ancient world for insight and inspiration, what they created established a new benchmark that still influences us today.
From the Renaissance to the 1850 we see a common thread in Western art. Late Gothic, Northern Realism, Early Italian Renaissance, High Renaissance, Late Renaissance/Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical, and Romantic paintings, sculpture, and architecture evolve in a fascinating and relatively predictable fashion. However, in 1850 we see a more radical change in Western art eventually leading to the modern art of the twentieth century. Challenging the status quo are French realistic painters like Gustave Courbet, Jean-Francois Millet, and Édouard Manet.
Manet began to look at the painting canvas (visual field) as a flat screen upon he can paint shapes. This was a revolutionary move away from the traditional approach to the canvas. Traditionally, the canvas was used by academic painters since the Renaissance to created the illusion of three-dimensional space. Approaching the canvas as a flat screen was breaking from convention. From this point forward, we see artists challenging the conventional ideas of fine art and pushing Western visual art in new and exciting (some would say dangerous) directions. As Western art moves towards modernism, we see many artistic innovators such as Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, and Salvador Dalí.