Learning for Fun – A History of Art

From cave paintings 40,000 years ago to abstract-expressionist New York, acclaimed author and art historian Michael Bird transports young readers on a journey across continents to introduce the lives and works of history’s greatest artists… 

Human beings looking more or less like us have been around for maybe 200,000 years. But people didnít begin to make art until about 50,000 years ago. Making art ñ taking raw material and using it to carve or model or paint an image ñ was part of a big step in human evolution. The first art that we know much about was made by people who lived in northern Europe during the last Ice Age.

Itís about 2,600 years before the present day. Greece has become a land of small cities and the most important buildings are the temples. Special houses the Greeks build for their gods. The Greeks think of their gods as looking just like people, only bigger, stronger and more beautiful. Like many Greek artists, the vase painter Kleitias knows myths of the gods but also, and even more enthralling, are the tales of heroes from the age of the warrior kings. Like King Agamemnon of Mycenae who waged a ten-year war against the city of Troy. Kleitias and other vase-painters in Athens compete with each other, taking a familiar story and giving it an unexpected twist. And unlike most Egyptian artists and craftsmen, they sign their names.

During the Middle Ages in Europe (800-1425), most art had something to do with the Christian Church.

Artists decorated churches, making Bible stories real for people who couldnít read or afford books or pictures. Most books were kept and made in monasteries.

The time between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries is known as the Renaissance (1425-1550). ëRenaissanceí means rebirth, in this case the rebirth of ancient civilisations. It began with Italian artists, architects, writers and thinkers who wanted to bring the achievements of ancient Greece and Rome back to life. For European artists, there was a huge change in the way they saw their job. Artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci no longer thought of themselves as high-grade craftsmen but as ambitious creators and thinkers, like poets and philosophers.

By the end of the nineteenth century, following the industrial revolution, artists wanted to make the experience of looking so exciting, so full, strange and beautiful that people would see the world around them with fresh eyes. Painters experimented with all kinds of brushstrokes and different ways of combining colours.

Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh 1889 is infamous for cutting off part of his ear after a quarrel with friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin. He was 36 years old, penniless and living in an asylum in France when he painted the oil on canvas The Starry Night of the view from his bedroom window. It now hangs in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and is one of the most recognised paintings in the history of Western culture, estimated worth over 100 million US dollars.

With featured artists including European greats like Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Vincent Van Gogh, as well as global art visionaries such as Katsushika Hokusai, Frida Kahlo and Ai Weiwei, Vincentís Starry Night and Other Stories by Michael Bird and illustrated by Kate Evans, is a thoughtful and inspired tool for parents and teachers to engage children with the magic of art history. Images and text © Laurence King Publishing. RRP £19.95 Hardback. Recommended age 9+.

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