When you're looking at some “old paintings” chances are pretty good these artworks sit somewhere in a wide, loose slice of the timeline called by many names: Age of Discovery, the Contact Period, or the Age of Exploration. Leonardo da Vinci and the Vitruvian man? Yep he’s in there. Hokusai and his Great Wave? Definitely. Like most efforts to slice up history into clean lines, the Age of Exploration is a flawed, blurry concept—but its unifying theme is travel.
There was no single invention or political maneuver that kicked off the Age of Exploration, rather, many innovations, technologies and techniques came to together to enable global travel, at first slowly, and then accelerating faster and faster into the first true global networks. For millennia, travel over land had been arduous and dangerous, and without sophisticated navigational tools, sea trade had largely stayed close to shore. When explorers returned with tales of far off lands bringing stories and exotic treasures, it was exciting, but it didn't change the economy, it didn't change culture. But with the proliferation of the magnetic compass, an already ancient Chinese invention, the evolution of ship design like the Portuguese caravel and the massive Chinese bao chuan treasure ships, the miraculous maps of Arab geographers like Muhammad al-Idrisi and many more right-place-right-time innovations—previously isolated cultures were connected by new trade routes, leading to an explosion of new media, new products, new culture.
It all ended badly of course, with European powers realizing they could extract more profit from the cultures they traded with if they colonized them, enslaving people and strip mining sacred artifacts like the Benin Bronzes. But for art, the impact of global contact was profound. New forms of expression, new sciences, new beliefs were suddenly on the table.
Reed Enger, "Age of Exploration, Trans-continental travel and the enlightenment," in Obelisk Art History, Published October 20, 2016; last modified August 13, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/timeline/age-of-discovery/.
Cultural rebirth though intellectual inquiry1350-1500
Orderly government and social stability1368-1644
500 years of spirit objects and power plays1390-1891
How Humanism beats down Feudalism with the printing press1420-1650
Sculpting divine history1440-1897
Religion and the laws of perspective.1492-1600
Power, sophistication, luxury and might.1500-1800
Tension, distortion and ice-cold style1520-1600
The drama of deep color and shadow1600-1725
Art, culture, and NO OUTSIDERS1603-1868
Benevolent emperors and the height of literature and art1644-1912
Allegory, craft, and the unrelenting dictatorship of the Academy1661-1900
Dare to Know1685-1815
The best truth is secret truth1690-1947
Opulent, playful embrace of the ornate — 18th century swag.1715-1774
Classical imagery, democratic ideals, and the bloody hands of change.1760-1830