Art means different things to different people, but one thing that most art historians can agree on is that the themes depicted in art can be split into different categories. While such distinctions might seem unnecessary, they help art historians see how aesthetic tastes changed over time, and how new forms, techniques, and technologies played a role in the still-unfolding story of visual art. Themes are broad categories, each of which contains a particular idea, message, or purpose, whether that has to do with human nature, society at large, or life in general. Themes in art should not be confused with types of art, which more likely refers to the medium of expressions (painting, sculpture) or style. If you’d like to know what are the different types of art in terms of theme, look no further than these six types:
A portrait is a depiction of an actual person, almost always with a focus on their face. Even though full body portraiture exists, portraits that focus on the face and upper torso are more prevalent. Portraiture has existed for thousands of years and is arguably one of the oldest themes in art. The ancient Egyptians painted portraits of the Pharaohs on papyrus and carved their likeness into stone. The Greeks and Romans captured athletes, philosophers, and generals in marble and bronze, and patrons had their likeness eternalized into the plaster walls of Roman villas at Pompeii. In the middle ages, portraiture fell out of vogue, although monarchs might have their likeness stamped on coinage. During the Renaissance, portraiture made a return, most famously with Leonardo DaVinci’s The Mona Lisa. The theme has continued to develop through several time periods and their attendant styles, but the common thread has been the role of the artist in not only depicting the likeness of the subject’s physical features, but their inner personality as well. At times this is achieved by the use of props that surround them, such as scenes through a window. At other times certain colors are used to evoke a mood. Nudes can be considered a subset of full-bodied portraiture.
The landscape genre was arguably non-existent until the Baroque period, when French painters such as Nicolas Poussin began to shift the focus of mythological paintings away from the characters and more toward the scenery that overwhelmed their almost miniscule depiction. However, art historians have suggested that the story of the landscape begins in the Renaissance, when the gold or blue skies of Medieval painting were replaced with realistic backgrounds. It is additionally noteworthy that the landscape genre was already a staple in Asian art for thousands of years. As the Baroque period continued, artists such as Piranesi became fascinated with the classical ruins of Rome. In the Romantic period, artists explored the possibilities offered by nature’s own charming visual appeal, and painters like John Constable were especially enamored with the English countryside. Joseph Turner began to bring a bit more abstraction to the genre, which was taken to new heights by Impressionist and Post-impressionist painters like Vincent VanGogh, whose Starry Night is perhaps the most recognizable landscape of all time.
#3: Still Lifes
Some art historians will argue that the earliest still lifes appeared in Egyptian tombs, as funerary paintings at burial sites might include an arrangement of everyday items like food. However, these were likely representations believed to be imbued with magical powers and almost certainly not conscious arrangements made for aesthetic purposes. By contrast, the still life as a theme is one that focuses on creating a balanced and pleasing composition, one that highlights the relationship between forms, colors, and textures. The first still life artist was arguably Italian painter Jacopo de Barbari. Contrary to first impressions, there are worlds of meaning behind the still life arrangement, such as the vanitas theme that touches upon mortality. The Spaniard Francesco de Zuburan brought layers of theological meaning into his still life compositions. The still life as a theme continued to develop further under Dutch artists during the Baroque era, and later the French painters such as Paul Cezanne, who is considered by some critics to be the greatest artist in this genre with his arrangements of fruits and vegetables.
#4: Genre Paintings
Genre paintings depict everyday life in action. The earliest genre paintings (and sculptures) can be found in ancient tombs like those of the Egyptians and Etruscans. In Crete, frescos show us Minoan bull riders. In the Roman villas of Pompeii there are also scenes of everyday life. They dot the pages of richly illustrated manuscripts in bold colors and adorn the capitals of churches and cathedrals like that at Conques, France. But while scenes of everyday life were depicted for thousands of years, the theme of the genre painting did not really emerge into a conscious art form until the Dutch Golden Age. Two factors that perhaps contributed to the plethora of genre paintings among Dutch artists were the fact that the Netherlands as a Protestant country had less of a place for religious and/or mythological themes, and the economic prosperity of the region created a free market of merchants who wanted artwork in their homes. Hals, Hooch, and Rembrant were just a few of the painters well known for capturing everyday life at home, in taverns, and with dashing mercenaries. These artists were doubtlessly influenced by the pre-Baroque master Carravagio, both for his use of chiaroscuro and his translation of religious narratives into everyday settings. Vermeer’s compositions elevated mundane daily tasks in domestic settings, such as that seen in The Milkmaid, where he gives an almost sacred treatment to this everyday event. The impressionists and post-impressionists would carry the torch of genre painting, also drawing inspiration from a new invention—photography, and its ability to capture snapshots of life—along with the influence of Japanese woodblock prints.
Abstract artists take scenes or objects and transform them beyond recognition. The first abstract artists were the impressionists like Claude Monet, whose garden paintings slowly transformed into a swirl of colors. The work of the post-impressionists with form and color paved the way for Fauvism. Artists like Derain and Matisse continued this work, playing with new mediums as well such as cut paper. The works of artists like Kandinsky were seemingly indecipherable celebrations of colors and shapes, while Peter Mondrian rectilinear compositions of limited color palettes were inspired by the cubism of Picasso. It was Pablo Picasso who is regarded as the greatest of modern artists, but while his work was inspirational to many abstract artists—especially the notion of exploding forms into a variety of shapes, such as that seen on his massive canvas Guernica—he himself should not really be considered an abstract artist, as much of his work is still recognizable portraiture or narrative material. By contrast, abstract art seems to live by the credos of Dutch artist Doesburg who says art has “no significance other than itself” and “nothing is more real than a line, a color, a surface.” Abstract artists like Jackson Pollock and his riotous canvases like Autumn Rhythm have influenced a generation of others whose work evokes a message without clear reference to reality.
#6: Narrative Paintings
Narrative painting tells a story, and as such, captures a basic need in communication. The oldest paintings in the world in the caves of Lascaux, France, depicting animal hunts, are likely narrative paintings. Narrative painting in the ancient world might depict what happens in the afterlife, such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It might capture the heroic exploits of Emperors, such as the battle scenes depicted on Trajan’s column. In the main, narrative painting is either religious, historical, or mythological. The popularity of each genre has depended on the place, time, and client. During the middle ages and the Renaissance, narrative artwork of Christian themes abounded, such as those depicted in Michelangelo’s timeless Sistine Chapel. But it was also during the Renaissance, mythological subject matter came back into vogue, and surged during periods of nationalism like the French Revolution, where it sometimes became intertwined with historical topic matter, such as the Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix. Narrative painting took somewhat of a backseat with the advent of impressionism and the -isms that followed, but in movements like Realism it gained primacy as it melded somewhat with the Genre theme, such as in the 20th century scenes of Edward Hopper which communicated loneliness and urban alienation. Perhaps one way to distinguish the narrative theme from the genre theme is to say that genre paintings focus on the aesthetic beauty of an isolated incident as sufficient for artistsic inspiration, while narrative paintings clearly allude to a part of a larger story.
As you can see, there is so much to learn about art and art history. For a stunning compilation of retouched visuals spanning every period in art history, along with excellent commentary of the imagery, I recommend Art: The Definitive Visual Guide by DK Publishers. For an excellent narrative treatment of the story of art as it’s unfolded over the centuries, I recommend The Annotated Mona Lisa.