Fine Arts


In general, the Fine arts can be considered any visual or performing art, including painting, sculpture, dance, theatre, music, and architecture. For the sake of saving space we will focus on painting. We will look at three stages in the history of painting: Prehistoric Painting, the Renaissance, and 20th Century Painting. By examining these three separate periods we will discover how art has evolved through time. Some people hold back from going to museums, or looking at paintings because they fear their own ignorance of not understanding the painting’s message. Gaining a knowledgeable background will help make art become more accessible. If we know that we know, we can perhaps dare to look.


Prehistoric Painting


The story of painting is one that is rich in meaning. Art can be seen from its ancient beginning. It does not begin in history, but actually in prehistory, thousands of years ago. It is clear that Stone Age cave dwellers were artists, and not only artists in that they could describe in visual terms the animals with which they came into daily contact-such art may be no more than illustration. Cave painting is much more than this: it is art in the grand manner, great art, manifested in works that have never been surpassed.

This painting was discovered in a cave in France and is thought to be made around 10,000 B.C. The caves are fully underground, and therefore permanently in darkness. Archaeologists have discovered that the artists painted with the aid of small stone lamps, filled with animal fat. The initial designs were engraved into the soft rock, or thin designs were blown onto the wall through a hollow reed. To make colored paint, the artists used a natural mineral that could be crushed to a powder that would yield red, brown, and yellow pigments, while black may have been made from powered charcoal. The means were simple, yet the effect, especially in the strange silence of the cave, is overwhelming.


It is thought that these paintings had some deep importance to prehistoric society. The bison seems to be almost quivering with power as it displays its massive chest, dense hindquarters, and short thin legs. It brandishes an aggressive pair of horns. Was this animal sacred to some ritual? We may never know the true significance of the cave paintings, but they almost certainly served a ritualistic, even magical function. How much the art was produced for its own sake-and this cannot be entirely ruled out-will remain a mystery.


The artists were also hunters, and their lives depended on the animals whose images they painted in the caves. It is possible that these hunter-artists believed they were accurately depicting the animals’ power, strength, and speed, they would acquire magical power? With this they might be able to take control of the animal’s spirit and remove its strength before the hunt. Many of the paintings show the animals wounded or pierced with arrows, and some examples even show the evidence of actual physical attacks on the painted image.


 The naturalism with which the animals are painted and drawn does not extend to the portrayal of humans-perhaps for this very reason. The sticklike man is lying in front of a bristling, disemboweled bison. Below him is a figure that looks as if it could be a bird. The painting has an awesome power: we have to confess our ignorance of its meaning, yet this lack of knowledge does not affect our response-unless, indeed, it deepens it. In this alone, prehistoric art is representative of all art to follow.


The Italian Renaissance


In the arts and sciences as well as society and government, Italy was the major catalyst for progress during the Renaissance, the rich period of development that occurred in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages, around 1400. Because of the number of different fields in which it applied, “Renaissance” is a word with many layers of meaning. Renaissance art was born out of a new, rapidly evolving civilization. It marked the point of departure from the medieval to the modern world and, as such, laid the foundations for modern Western values and society.

The name “Renaissance” meaning “rebirth” is given to a period of broad cultural achievement spanning three centuries. The idea of rebirth lies at the heart of all Renaissance achievement: artists, scholars, scientists, philosophers, architects, and rulers believed that the way to greatness and enlightenment was through the study of the golden ages of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The first and perhaps most famous of the Renaissance masters was Leonardo da Vinci. Like most of the Renaissance masters, Leonardo began his career as an apprentice to a painter who was already of good standing, and each took the path of first accepting, then transcending, the influence of his master. Like Shakespeare, Leonardo came from an insignificant background and rose to universal acclaim.

One of the most dazzlingly poetic pictures ever created was the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa has the innocent disadvantage of being too famous.


It can only be seen behind thick glass in a heavy crowd of awe-struck sightseers. It has been reproduced in every conceivable medium; it remains intact in its magic, forever defying the human insistence on comprehending. It is a work that we can only gaze at in silence.

Mona Lisa is named for Lisa del Giocondo who was most likely the sitter. Lisa was a member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany who married Francesco del Giocondo, a successful silk merchant. The painting was commissioned for their new home and to celebrate the birth of their second son, Andrea. The title stems from the description of the painting by Giorgio Vasari in his biography of Leonardo da Vinci, published 31 years after the artist's death. "Leonardo undertook to paint, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife...."

In Italian, ma donna from donna meaning woman became madonna, and its contraction mona. Mona is thus a polite form of address, similar to Madam or my lady in English. In modern Italian, the short form of madonna is usually spelled Monna, so the title is sometimes Monna Lisa, rarely in English and more commonly in Romance Languages such as French and Italian.

Leonardo used a pyramid design to place the woman simply and calmly in the space of the painting. Her folded hands form the front corner of the pyramid. Her breast, neck and face glow in the same light that softly models her hands. The light gives the variety of living surfaces an underlying geometry of spheres and circles. Leonardo referred to a seemingly simple formula for seated female figure: the images of seated Madonna, which were widely spread at the time. He effectively modified this formula in order to create the visual impression of distance between the sitter and the observer. The armrest of the chair functions as a dividing element between Mona Lisa and us. The woman sits markedly upright with her arms folded, which is also a sign of her reserved posture. Only her gaze is fixed on the observer and seems to welcome him to this silent communication. Since the brightly lit face is practically framed with various much darker elements (hair, veil, shadows), the observer's attraction to Mona Lisa's face is brought to even greater extent. Thus, the composition of the figure evokes an ambiguous effect: we are attracted to this mysterious woman but have to stay at a distance as if she were a divine creature.

The painting was one of the first portraits to depict the sitter before an imaginary landscape. The enigmatic woman is portrayed seated in what appears to be an open balcony with dark pillar bases on either side. Behind her a vast landscape recedes to icy mountains. Winding paths and a distant bridge give only the slightest indications of human presence. The sensuous curves of the woman's hair and clothing are echoed in the undulating imaginary valleys and rivers behind her. The blurred outlines, graceful figure, dramatic contrasts of light and dark, and overall feeling of calm are characteristic of Leonardo's style. Due to the expressive synthesis that Leonardo achieved between sitter and the landscape it is arguable whether Mona Lisa should be considered as a portrait, for it represents rather an ideal than a real woman. The sense of overall harmony achieved in the painting — especially apparent in the sitter's faint smile — reflects Leonardo's idea of the cosmic link connecting humanity and nature, making this painting an enduring record of Leonardo's vision and genius.

It is also notable that Mona Lisa has no visible facial hair at all - including eyebrows and eyelashes. Some researchers claim that it was common at this time for genteel women to pluck them off, since they were considered to be unsightly. For modern viewers the missing eyebrows add to the slightly semi-abstract quality of the face.

The painting has been restored numerous times; X-ray examinations have shown that there are three versions of the Mona Lisa hidden under the present one. The thin poplar backing is beginning to show signs of deterioration at a higher rate than previously thought, causing concern from museum curators about the future of the painting.



The 20th Century


It has been calculated that there are more artists practicing today than were alive in the whole Renaissance, all three centuries of it. In modern times we are no longer following one story-line: we are in a new situation, where there is no mainstream. The stream has flowed into the sea and all we can do now is trace some of the main currents.


Twentieth century art is almost indefinable, and ironically we can consider that to be its definition. This makes sense, because we live in a world that is in a constant state of flux. Not only is science changing the outward forms of life, but we are beginning the outwards forms of life, but we are now beginning to discover the strange centrality of our subconscious desires and fears. All this is completely new and unsettling, and art naturally reflects it. The story of painting now loses its way temporarily. It enters upon an encounter with the unknown and the uncertain. Only the passage of time can reveal which artists in our contemporary world will last, and which will not.


One of the most famous artists in the 20th Century was  Pablo Picasso. Picasso’s genius was fashioned on the largest lines, and for sheer invention no artist has ever bettered him-he was one of the most original and versatile of artists, with an equally powerful personality. Picasso would have scorned any thought of limiting himself to a single style. He experimented continually, his versatility and creativity always amazing his contemporaries. Whenever he seemed to have settled in a particular mode of seeing, he changed again almost overnight. Picasso had several distinct phases during his long career, including his Blue Period, and his later Rose Period. He began his blue paintings in 1901, reflecting his sadness at a friend’s death. Picasso felt that blue was the color of solitude and melancholy, which certainly reflected his own bleak circumstances at the time. Directly after his Blue Period Picasso moved on to his Rose Period in 1905. One of Picasso’s most creative phases took place between 1908 and 1912 and is known as Cubism. The first Cubist painting was called Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It is almost impossible to overestimate the importance of this picture and the profound effect it had on art subsequently. The savage, inhuman heads of the figures are the direct result of Picasso’s recent exposure to tribal art, but it is what he does with their heads-the wild almost reckless freedom with which he incorporates them into his own personal vision and frees them to serve his psychic needs- that gives the picture its awesome force.

 Whether he did this consciously or not we do not know, since he was a supremely macho man: Les Demoiselles makes visible his intense fear of women, his need to dominate and distort them. At first Picasso did not dare to show the painting even to his admirers, of whom there were many. Cubism involved seeing reality simultaneously from all angles, of meshing the object in the network of its actual context.




Culture and Environment Mod 3 – Worksheet


1. In general, the Fine arts can be considered any visual or performing art, including: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.

2. We may never know the true significance of the cave paintings, but they almost certainly served a ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.

3. Describe your reaction to the Bison Cave Painting: What was your first impression? __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.

4. What does “Renaissance” mean?_______________________________________________________________.

5. Mona is a polite form of address, similar to ____________________ or _________________________ in English.

6. According to X-Rays, how many versions are of the Mona Lisa are under the present one? ______________.

7. Describe your reaction to the Mona Lisa: What was your first impression? __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.

8. Picasso had several distinct phases during his long career, including his _______________ Period, and his later ___________________________ Period.

9. Picasso felt that ______________________________ was the color of solitude and melancholy, which certainly reflected his own bleak circumstances at the time.

10. One of Picasso’s most creative phases took place between ______________and ________________ and is known as _____________________________________.

11. _______________________________________ involved seeing reality simultaneously from all angles, of meshing the object in the network of its actual context.


12. Describe your reaction to the Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: What was your first impression? __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.


13. On the back of this sheet I want you to draw yourself either a) five years from today or b) draw something that means something to you and reveals something about yourself. Indicate which one you drew and what it means to you below: ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.