It was in the late 14th century when the first glimmers of more realistic handling of light, shadow and spacial composition began to throw off the flat, primitive way of painting that best denoted the art of the Middle Ages.
A generation later, realism in the Renaissance reached its zenith as a handful of Italian artists (most notably Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael) pioneered a more scientific and mathematical approach to depicting natural light, color, and perspective.
With perfection achieved, there was no where to go but in a Mannerist approach favored by painters in the 16th century, marked by stylized poses over balance and realism. The era is perhaps best exemplified by artists such as El Greco (Baptism of Christ) and Parmigianino (The Vision of St. Jerome) in their flattened perspective and depiction of elongated limbs and torsos.
In the 17th century, Mannerism was followed by the Baroque, an era greatly influenced by the rich and powerful of the day who commissioned works that would hopefully reflect their riches and grandeur to impress the viewer - followed by the even more overwrought Rococo period, or High Baroque.
Overturning the highly decorative style, (even today, Baroque is a term that best describes any over-the-top artwork) painters next set their sights on returning to the order and simplicity of Greece and Rome. The 19th century Neoclassical and Romanticism ushered in scenes depicting strength, bravery, or other iconic subject matter set in more harmonic compositions favored by the ancients.
Next, as an almost allergic reaction to Neoclassicism by a new generation of late 19th century Impressionist painters, the age off the Old Masters was finally brought to an end, signaling a complete break with the past in the rise of 20th century modern art.
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