Glossary of Art History Terms

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Artwork that doesn't attempt to depict visual reality, but instead use shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect. Related pages: Abstract Art Abstract Expressionism 


A character, place or event used as a metaphor. Allegorical art often personifies moral, spiritual, or political concepts as people, and uses symbolic imagery to convey meaning. Related pages: Allegory 


Any structure used for sacrifice or worship. Altars may be used to display offerings, and are often the focal point in a place of worship. Related pages: Altarpieces 


An oil painting technique developed during the Renaissance, where a strong light source, and the contrast between light and dark creates a powerful impression of three-dimensionality. The technique defined the baroque style, and its pioneers included Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt. Related pages: Baroque Caravaggio Leonardo da Vinci 


A style of post-Impressionist painting defined by areas of color separated by dark lines. Cloisonnism was coined by the art critic Edouard Dujardin in 1888 in reference to the metalwork technique 'cloisonné,' which uses compartments of colored enamel separated by wire. Paul Gauguin's paintings from Tahiti are exemplary of the style. Related pages: Cloisonnism 


A human posture, when a standing figure places most of its weight on one foot so that its shoulders and arms twist off-axis from the hips and legs. Contrapposto is Italian for 'counterpose' and is used in visual arts to give a figure a relaxed, naturalistic appearance.


The brain-child of Georges Seurat in 1884, divisionism replaced blending colors with small dots of saturated color, that at a distance creates the illusion of a continuous blended surface. Divisionists approached painting scientifically, attempting to achieve the most potent luminosity possible. Related pages: Divisionism Pointillism Georges Seurat 


A construction made from piles of artificially placed or sculpted rocks and soil. Earthworks include barrows, ditches, embankments, and mounds, and were commonly created by prehistoric people.

Exquisite corpse

An image or collection of words assembled by a group, with each contributor unable to see what the previous participants contributed. Surrealist André Breton is said to have co-opted the parlor game for artistic inspiration in 1925. Related pages: Exquisite Corpse Surrealism André Breton 


A political system where a small class of wealthy nobles own the majority of the land. The peasants (villeins or serfs) who live on the property give the 'lords' homage, labor, and a share of the produce, in exchange for protection.


Textbooks for magical works, grimoires appeared around the 4th centuries BCE, and really took off in medieval Europe. Grimoires were remarkably straightforward documents, including instructions for creating magical objects, performing magical spells, and summoning angels and demons to do your bidding. Related pages: Grimoires 


A painting executed entirely in shades of grey, typically as a sketch or underpainting for a final, fully-colored work. Related pages: Grisaille 


A Neolithic structure made up of earthen banks or ditches, and often crowned with massive stone menhirs arranged into circles or lines. Henges were built in Britain and Europe and often align to astronomical phenomena. Related pages: Prehistory Henges 

Hieratic scale

A system used to visually communicate power in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian art, and used through the middle ages. Important people, whether a pharaoh or the Virgin Mary, were depicted as much larger than other figures in a scene. Related pages: Mesopotamia Ancient Egypt 


Where a color sits on the spectrum of visible light.


A philosophy emphasizing human agency, critical thinking, rationalism and empiricism over dogma or superstition.


The relative brightness or dullness of a color.


A rectangular stone tomb used in ancient Egypt before the development of pyramids. Mastabas have sloping sides and a flat roof, are typically 5–6 m tall, and contain an underground burial chamber with rooms above it at ground level to store offerings. Related pages: Ancient Egypt 

Mesolithic Period

The Mesolithic period followed the Paleolithic, spanning 10,000 to 5000 BCE. Mesolithic peoples produced more refined tools than their predecessors and learned to adapt better to warm and cold climates. Related pages: Prehistory 


Images created from the assemblage of many small pieces of glass, stone, or other materials. Related pages: Mosaic 

Neolithic Period

The Neolithic period began with the invention of agriculture. Humans began to transition from hunter-gather tribes to small settlements, domesticated sheep and goats, created polished stone tools, fired pottery, and raised the stone henges and menhirs that survive to the present day. Related pages: Prehistory Menhir Henges 


In the 19th century, Japan was becoming influenced by western art, in a style called Yōga 洋画. Nihonga was the anti-movement, a throwback to traditional Japanese techniques and subject matter. Related pages: Meiji Art Nihonga 

Paleolithic Period

The Paleolithic period began 2.6 million years ago when humans first developed tools using stone, bone, and wood, and lasted until about 12,000 BCE. Paleolithic humans were hunter-gatherers, and harnessed two major technologies: tools — fire, for warmth and to protect from predators, and rafts, to navigate waterways. Related pages: Prehistory 


Not a particularly politically correct term, 'Primitivism' may describe Western art that borrows styles from non-Western peoples, the naïve art by artists like Henri Rousseau, or intentionally childlike work by artists like Paul Klee. Related pages: Primitivism 


A single tile, usually a small flat square, used to create a mosaic. Related pages: Mosaic 


A Renaissance term for a circular painting or a sculpture — from the Italian rotondo, "round." Related pages: Tondo 


The three supreme Hindu deities, Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu. Related pages: Trimūrti Shiva Brahma Vishnu 


A type of painting that illustrates an exaggerated facial expression or a commonly-known character — angels, beggars, old people, farmers or jesters. Common in Dutch Golden Age painting and Flemish Baroque painting. Related pages: Northern Renaissance 


The relative darkness or lightness of a color. Can also be used to describe the contrast between different light and dark spaces.


Artwork depicting the nearness of death, and the futility of worldly pleasure — typically featuring skulls, hourglasses, and dying flowers. Very subtle stuff.


The dominant set of ideals and beliefs that motivate the actions of the members of a society in a particular period in time. Zeitgeist is a German word, translating roughly to 'time mind' and is used in aesthetics to describe the inextricable connection between art and culture.


The Greek God of Thunder, father to the entire pantheon of ancient Greece, and considered the King of the Gods. When Rome subsumed Greek culture, Zeus was renamed Jupiter. Related pages: Greek and Roman Mythology 

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