Fine Art
Definition, Meaning, History: Painting, Sculpture, Prints.

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For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest European painters,
see: Old Masters.

For a list of the best examples of
oils, watercolours, mixed
media from 1300-present, see:
Greatest Paintings Ever.
For the top 3-D artworks, see:
Greatest Sculptures Ever.

Fine Art: Definition & Meaning

The term "fine art" refers to an art form practised mainly for its aesthetic value and its beauty ("art for art's sake") rather than its functional value. Fine art is rooted in drawing and design-based works such as painting, printmaking, and sculpture. It is often contrasted with "applied art" and "crafts" which are both traditionally seen as utilitarian activities. Other non-design-based activities regarded as fine arts, include photography and architecture, although the latter is best understood as an applied art.

Problems of Definition

The area of fine art is constantly being extended to embrace new activities arising because of either new technology, or artistic invention. The former is exemplified by acrylic painting, as well as silkscreen printing and giclee prints; the latter by the invention of mixed-media artworks employing collage, decollage, photomontage, or "found-art". Because of this gradual widening process, it is almost impossible to define or fix a meaning for fine art. (See also: Types of Art.)

For important dates in the
development of fine art and
other artforms, see:
History of Art.

See: Art Definition, Meaning.

For the definition, history
and types of decorative arts, see:
Crafts: History, Types.

Read our article for students and
teachers on appreciation, see:
Art Evaluation: How to Appreciate Art
and How To Appreciate Paintings.

Difference Between Fine Art and Decorative Arts/Crafts

Until the English Arts & Crafts Movement of the late 19th century, there was a rigid distinction between fine art (purely aesthetic) and decorative art (functional). During the 20th century, with the introduction of the category of visual art, this arbitrary distinction has become blurred, and certain crafts or decorative arts (notably ceramics) are now considered to be fine art.

For artworks made out of
salvaged materials, see:
Junk Art.
For painting/sculpture made
by artists outside mainstream,
see: Outsider Art.
For works by mental patients
see: Art Brut.

For a general guide to forms
of non-representational art,
see: Abstract Art.
For geometric abstraction,
see: Concrete Art,
or Non-Objective Art.

What Does Fine Art Include?

Definitions of fine art are obliged to change with the time, but most encompass the following activities:

- charcoal
- chalk
- pastel
- pencil
- pen and ink
- book illustration
- caricature

- encaustic painting
- tempera painting
- ink and wash
- oil painting
- watercolour painting
- gouache
- acrylics

- bronze
- stone
- wood-carving

- woodcuts
- engraving
- etching
- lithography
- silkscreen-printing

Other Fine Arts
Photography But see: Is Photography Art?
Manuscript Illumination


History of Fine Art

This type of art dates back to the Acheulian period of prehistoric art: to proto-sculptures such as the Venus of Berekhat Ram (a basaltic figurine, 230,000-700,000 BCE) and the Venus of Tan-Tan (quartzite figurine, 200,000-500,000 BCE); and to cave paintings from Chauvet Cave (c.30,000 BCE), Lascaux, Altamira, Pech-Merle, and Cosquer.

During the era of ancient Mediterranean civilizations, including those of later Greek, Roman and Byzantine culture, as well as medieval Carolingian, Ottonian, Romanesque and Gothic art, fine artists were regarded as mere skilled-workers - like skilled interior decorators or carvers. It wasn't until the Renaissance, that the profession of "artist" was raised to a new higher level, reflecting the newly perceived importance of the "design" element - or "disegno".

Fine Arts Academies

From the 16th century onwards, students who wished to enter the new profession of artist were trained in special academies, set up across Europe. The two earliest were the Academy of the Art of Design in Florence (Accademia dell'Arte del Disegno) and the Fine Art Academy of Rome (Accademia di San Luca). These educational institutions taught a highly traditional type of "academic art", founded on the principles of Renaissance art, which regulated things like subject matter, form, message, composition, colour and so on. [See: Best Renaissance Drawings. See also our list of the Greatest Renaissance Paintings.] They also laid down a strict Hierarchy of the Genres, which ranked the painting genres in the following order of importance: (1) History painting (2) Portraiture (3) Genre-paintings (4) Landscape (5) Still Life. Thus a history painting (meaning a picture with an uplifting "istoria" or narrative) was rated as more edifying than a landscape, devoid of any human content, or moral. Academies remained the bastions of traditional fine art until the 20th century, when Cubism, Dada and Surrealism swept away their neat set of rules.

Modern/Contemporary Fine Art

Contemporary artists have further extended the boundaries of fine art. The plastic art of sculpture now employs a range of new materials, as well as new forms (assemblage, land art etc). Printmaking has taken advantage of new commercial printing processes, like silkscreen printing and giclee prints. It surely won't be long before installations are regarded as fine art.

Movements/Periods of Fine Art

Here is a short chronological list of the major schools of fine art:

• Romanesque Art (Carolingian, Ottonian) (c.775-1050)
• Gothic (c.1150-1280)
• International Gothic Style (c.1300-1500)
• Early Renaissance (c.1400-90)
• High Renaissance (c.1490-1530)
• Mannerism (c.1530-1600)
• Northern Renaissance (c.1400-1530)
• Baroque (c.1600-1700)
• Rococo (c.1700-50)
• Neoclassical (c.1750-1815)
• Romanticism Movement (Flourished c.1790-1830)
• English School of Landscape (18th & 19th Century)
• English School of Figurative Painting (18th & 19th Century)
• French Realism (c.1845 onwards)
• Impressionism (c.1870-80)
• Post Impressionism (1885 on) (Pointillism, Intimisme, Cloisonism, Primitivism)
• Fauvism (c.1900-10)
• Expressionism (c.1900 onwards)
• Cubism (c.1908-12)
• Dada (c.1916-24)
• Surrealism (1924 onwards)
• Abstract Expressionism (1945-60)
• Op-Art (c.1958-70)
• Pop Art (c.1958-73)
• Minimalism (1960s, 70s)
• Photorealism (1960s, 70s)

The Anomaly of Architecture

Architecture is traditionally seen as a fine art, particularly if its aesthetics are spotlighted, rather than its engineering components. Moreover, architectural works, like the Egyptian Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Greek Parthenon, as well as Chartres Cathedral, the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower, are important cultural symbols and works of art, symbolizing their historical civilization. Even so, architecture shares little with other fine art disciplines, and may rightly be regarded as more of an applied art.

• For more about the meaning of art terms, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

Art Glossary
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