I have discovered that I have little to no interest in art created prior to the Renaissance. With that in mind, I've decided to list the major art movements/periods that have taken place since that time and attempt to explain them in my own words, as I understand them.
Renaissance — From the end of the Roman Empire until the 1400s, artists were consumed with thoughts of God, heaven and hell. Secular art was considered pagan. This might seem like a good thing at first, but most people's view of God during this time was determined by the Catholic Church, and men had certainly lost sight of grace. The Renaissance was a return to the culture of the Greek and Romans, with an emphasis on humanity. Artists discovered perspective and were able to give depth to their paintings. Figures were drawn heroically, with muscles. Michelangelo and de Vinci are the most famous artists from this period.
Gothic — As the Renaissance progressed, artists quit trying to emulate the Greeks and Romans. People were drawn to look naturally, the first time this was really accomplished. Culture focused on the individual, which resulted in a demand for portraits.
Mannerism — Now (middle and late 1500s) that the rules of perspective and composition were widely known, artists began breaking them. Proportions were exaggerated and perspective was distorted.
Baroque — At root, this was the Catholic Church's response to the Renaissance. The church used dramatic art to attract people back to its folds. Protestant countries used the same heroic style to promote patriotism. Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer painted during this period.
Rococo — In the 1700s, the Baroque style went loco. Artist used bright colors, gold filigree and a lot of sensuality. In England, the period was a little more sedate, as can be seen in the paintings of Gainsborough and Reynolds.
Neoclassical — The philosophers of the Enlightenment pushed man's reason as the way out of the wars, injustice and poverty of their day. This was reflected in art that was created to teach, with a simplicity that deliberately countered the excess of Rococo.
Romanticism — Artists in this period were concerned about teaching their viewers to care about their fellow men. Paintings showed injustice against the weak or poor. Philosophers thought man was good at heart but that society was evil. They pushed the idea of the "noble savage," and artists followed. Goya's paintings fall in this category.
Realism — As the name implies, artists in this period painted life as they saw it — the common laborer, the view out their back door. Winslow Homer is an example.
Impressionism — This term began as in insult but was adopted by the artists themselves. They weren't worried about the details of their subjects, just the general impression. They used quick brushstrokes that gave paintings a blurred, unfinished look. They concentrated more on how the light fell on the scene than on the scene itself. Monet and Renoir are famous Impressionists.
Post-Impressionism — Since the Impressionists broke the rules of color, form and subject, the Post-impressionists took it to the next level. Instead of painting with thick brushstrokes, they painted with tiny dots or reduced their subjects to elemental shapes. Gauguin and van Gogh were Post-impressionists.
Cubism — Cubism attempts to show all sides of an object at the same time. Images are broken down into abstract shapes. Picasso is the best know Cubist.
Futurism — An attempt to incorporate speed, or at least the essence of speed into painting and sculpture. They also tried to blend humans with the environment to show the interaction of the two.
Dadaism — A deliberate attempt to create art that rejects all styles and programs that existed up to that point.
Surrealism — An attempt to create art from the subconscious alone. Think Salvador Dali.
Abstract Expressionism — From drawing the subconscious, the next logical step is to draw from the unconscious. Jackson Pollock is the most famous artist in this movement. He once said, "When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about."
Pop Art — Andy Warhol pioneered the effort to combine art with culture, advertising and money-making.
And that's where I am in my current studies. I actually understand a little of what I'm talking about, although I probably haven't explained it very well. And I probably couldn't look at a painting and identify which period it came from. But there's this — even though I haven't really begun to study individual paintings yet, I already have gained an appreciation for (some) art that I never had before.
Isn't this exciting? Stay tuned.