What is Art?

Deliverance of Saint Peter, Raphael, 1514, fresco, Stanza di Eliodoro, Vatican, Rome

"What is art?"  This ages old question is often discussed and has widely varying answers.  We consider painting to be art as well as sculpture and architecture.  Opinions are more divided on the decorative arts such as pottery, textiles and stained glass. Art is sometimes the result of creativity and other times the result of political propaganda.  Art can be all of these things or none of them. 

A better question may be- can a single blog post successfully answer the question of what art is?  Let's look at some of the components involved in the creation of art through the ages.

I often begin art history lectures by stating: "Art is a reflection from the society that created it."  The values of a culture show through in art, when looking at any work of art the more you understand about the culture and society at the time, the more you will understand the art coming from it.  

When viewing art ask yourself several questions such as: 
  • Who was in power when this was created? 
  • How did they come into power? 
  • Who commissioned this and what is known about them? 
  • Who created it and what is known about them? 
  • Where was this meant to be seen originally? 
  • Why was this work of art commissioned and/or created?
For example in the above fresco by Raphael the Pope (Pope Julius II) was in power and as was the case with most popes he came into power after his predecessor died and he was elected into office by a council.  It was also Pope Julius II that commissioned this from the highly talented and sought after Renaissance painter Raphael.  This was in the Pope's private apartments where the general public was not allowed, today those apartments are part of the Vatican museums and hundreds of visitors see these frescoes daily. 

Here is a sampling of some objects which have been considered "art" let's ask what do they have in common and what separates them?

Pictured above from left:
Chartres Cathedral, northwest tower c. 1140,  west façade and southwest tower c. 1160-16th century

David, Michelangelo,1501-1504, Accademia Gallery, Florence, photo- © Rico Heil /public domain, via Wikimedia Commons  

Woman Holding a Balance, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1664, National Gallery of Art

Here we are comparing and contrasting a medieval French church, a larger than life Renaissance marble sculpture of a man and a rather small, realistic oil painting from the Dutch Baroque.  They were all created in different centuries from vastly different materials. These examples are all beautiful objects which express the creativity of the artist and they also all are expressions of Christianity and the religious faith of the creator. What else do these things have in common?  Can each of these be considered art?

Wall painting of Reindeer, Lascaux Cave, France, c-15,000 B.C.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines art as-
The conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also : works so produced

I agree with that description, whatever style, medium or use that objects of art have they are created with a combination of "the conscious use of skill and creative imagination."  Even as far back as the cave paintings from Prehistoric society that definition can be applied.

 Ixion, Jusepe de Ribera, 1630, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Today one may think of art as being created to be a beautiful object, but for millennium art was not created with the primary purpose in mind of being beautiful.  While often beautiful, the aesthetic value of the object was typically its secondary purpose.  Though many examples of art weren't beautiful at all and were meant to be purposefully ugly, grotesque, disturbing or frightening such as Ribera's work above.
What then was the primary purpose of a work of art? This is often very apparent such as art as a historic record, a form of propaganda for those in power or a way of spreading a message such as the message of Christianity to those who couldn't read.  

 In other instances the primary purpose of works of art are still debated and not known, such as the case for nearly all Prehistoric art.  Even later art can be difficult to interpret, the primary purpose of some art works may need the equivalent level of research of a Ph.D. thesis to decipher them.

Let's look at some examples of art with a specific primary purpose-

Pictured above from left:
Column of Marcus Aurelius, c-193 A.D., Rome, photo- © Matthias Kabel / public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola, Anguissola, late 1550's

In the first example we see a monumental column built during the Roman Empire, its primary purpose was that of political propaganda.  The images carved into the marble relief panels winding up the length of the column show a victorious military campaign fought by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

The second example is a panel which was created for Christian devotional purposes painted by the artist Cimabue in the late 13th century.  The final example is a clever type of self-portrait by the painter Sofonisba Anguissola.  She painted this to show her skill, cleverness and importance as an artist.

Symphony in White no 1: The White Girl - Portrait of Joanna Hiffernan,  
James Abbott McNeil Whistler, 1862, National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.)

The phrase "Art for art's sake." didn't come about until the late 19th century.  It refers to the creation of art to be a work of art as its primary purpose.  Artists such as the French Impressionists, Eduoard Manet and James Abbott McNeill Whistler subscribed to this idea and it is the root of artistic ideas in the 20th and 21st centuries.

What then of architecture or the decorative arts?  Are they too to be considered art?  There are many examples of both which feature prominently in art history books and courses.  

Pictured above from left:
"Il Duomo" Santa Maria del Fiore, dome by Brunelleschi, 1420-1436

Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, Greece, 449-415 BC, photo- © Sharon Mollerus / public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 

San Giorgio Maggiore, Andrea Palladio, Venice, 1566-1610

When I am teaching I always explain that if architecture weren't art then all buildings would look the same and would only be created to protect people from the elements. I have always strongly felt that architecture is art when it falls under the definition of "production of aesthetic objects."  

Meaning that not every structure ever created would be considered an art form, but those structures that transcend their primary purpose by also being aesthetic objects art are in fact art.  I apply the same idea to the decorative arts such as the Greek Amphora shown below.  

Not that every single piece of pottery, glass and textiles falls under the category of art, but again those that transcend their primary purpose, combining skill and creativity to become an object with aesthetic value are certainly to be considered art.

Greek Attic Amphora, 550-560 BC 
photo- © Jean-Pol GRANDMONT / public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The 14th edition of Gardner's Art Through the Ages has an interesting way of describing the role of art in its opening paragraph:

“Except when referring to the modern academic discipline, people do not often juxtapose the words “art” and “history.”  They tend to think of history as the record and interpretation of past human actions, particularly social and political actions.  Most think of art, quite correctly, as part of the present- as something people can see and touch.  Of course, people cannot see or touch history’s vanished human events, but a visible, tangible artwork is a kind of persisting event.  One or more artists make it at a certain time and in a specific place, even if no one today knows just who, when, or why.  Although created in the past, an artwork continues to exist in the present, long surviving its times.”1

I agree with this statement and think that it is well phrasedWorks of art are visible manifestations of the cultures that they were created in.  In this way all the political and historic events that have led to 


What then blog readers is your definition of "art" and why do you think so?  I think the question can have many answers and I am interested in hearing them all.



1. Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner's Art through the Ages: A Global History. 14th edition. New York: Wadsworth Publishing, 2012. p. 1.


Mantegna in Mantua: La Camera degli Sposi

Andrea Mantegna's beautiful frescos in the Camera degli Sposi are among my very favorite works of art.  I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to visit these in Mantua in the summer of 2006 and it made me appreciate them even more.

The 15th century painter Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) was the court painter for the Gonzaga family who ruled the Italian city of Mantua (Mantova in Italian).  During his time there one of his most important commissions was the fresco cycle in the Camera degli Sposi (Bridal Chamber) also known as the Camera Picta (Painted room) which was painted between 1465 and 1474 in the Ducal Palace.

Ceiling Oculus from the Camera degli Sposi, Mantegna
Ducal Palace, Mantua, 1465-1474

Mantegna was invited as the court painter of the Marchese, Ludovico Gonzaga II, in 1456 when the artist was 25 and working in Padua (Padova).  Mantegna was already working on a variety of commissions and began additional work on some Gonzaga owned palaces before finally relocating to Mantua in 1460.

After moving to Mantua Mantegna worked on a variety of other projects for the Gonzaga before starting painting the fresco cycle in the Camera degli Sposi in 1465. Originally the bedroom of Ludovico Gonzaga II, it was later used as a private audience room.  Later it was abandoned and required restoration.  

The room is just over 26' square (8 m) and the fresco above is a detail of the "oculus" which is an especially charming element painted on the ceiling.  Here Mantegna has used foreshortening to great effect, it is as if the ceiling really has opened up to the sky and a group of people and plump cherubs are looking down at us.  The shapes in the railing are particularly convincing as he has used perspective in a very sophisticated way.

Mantegna also uses a bit of humor in the oculus.  Watch out below viewer....if the bar holding the heavy potted plant gets rolled away it will fall right on your head!

Ceiling Oculus from the Camera degli Sposi, Mantegna
Ducal Palace, Mantua, 1465-1474
diameter of oculus- 8.85 ft/270 cm 

The artist married into the famous family of Venetian artists, the Bellini.  Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini were brothers-in-law and Mantegna learned some painting skills from Jacopo Bellini though he had been originally trained as a painter by the artist Squarcione who he was later estranged from. 

Above is an view of the entire ceiling, as you can see the oculus is just a small part of the ceiling, which was covered with faux relief panels and arches. The roundels have portraits of Roman emperors and the small lunettes contain mythological scenes.

Mantegna painted using the effect of trompe-l'œil, it is convincingly very sculptural and the painted arches appear to be architectural elements of the room.  As was traditional, the ceiling was the first part of the room to be painted and it was painted using true fresco technique. 

Portrait of the Gonzaga family: the Marquese Ludovico II and his wife Barbara of Brandenburg surrounded by their children and members of the court

Camera degli Sposi, Mantegna, Ducal Palace, Mantua, 1465-1474

The rest of the frescoes were commissioned by the patron to show the importance of the Gonzaga family.  This group portrait was the scene which was painted next and appears to show a specific event in addition to serving as a portrait.  Ludovico II is being handed a letter and the figures to our right are both coming and going.  The meaning isn't entirely clear but one interpretation has suggested this was when the Sforza family of Milan had written to the Gonzagas asking for help.1  That letter famously arrived on January 1, 1462 which was the same day that festivities were planned to honor their son Francesco who was being given the title of Cardinal in Rome (more info below).

As one enters the room this fresco is on the same wall to their left, just over the fireplace.  Mantegna again is aware of the viewpoint of the viewer in regard to the placement of his fresco.  He includes in his use of perspective a slight foreshortening as if the people he is showing us actually exist on a terrace just above the level of the viewer.

As Keith Christiansen writes in his book, Andrea Mantegna, Padua and Mantua:

"The impact of Mantegna's work- both in Padua as later in Mantua- stems from the carefully calculated relationship of the architectural setting to the frescoed decoration."

Unlike the ceiling painted in true fresco, the walls were painted using a combination of fresco with walnut oil on plaster.  This technique hasn't lasted as long and has needed quite a bit of restoration through the years.

Camera degli Sposi, Mantegna, Ducal Palace, Mantua, 1465-1474

By looking at this wall we see how Mantega has used fresco to turn the room into a garden pavilion with landscape scenes between the archways of the painted pilasters.  The event here is taking place in Rome with a meeting between Ludovico II and his son Cardinal Francesco Gonzago. Though it isn't clear if this event is taking place in 1462 commemorating the event of Francesco being given the title of Cardinal or in 1472 when he was to return to Mantua to serve in the church of Sant'Andrea.2  The city of Rome is not shown in an accurate way, the buildings are meant to represent the idea of classical architecture.

This fresco cycle can help illustrate the importance of patronage in the arts during the Renaissance.  Of course until the late 19th century an artist primarily created work based on the request of a patron who commissioned and paid for it.  Patronage could come from an individual (typically a wealthy individual), the church/papacy, head of state, royalty or an emperor.  Patrons played an enormous role in shaping the arts whether deciding on subject matter or which artist to hire.  The importance of patronage in the arts still continues today, though the individual voice of an artist is equally important in the 21st century.

Though tucked away in a room in the Ducal Palace of Mantua (the Gonzaga family received the title of Duchy in 1530), these charming and delightful frescoes are among the works that Mantegna is best known for.

1 Camesasca, Ettore. Mantegna. Milan: Scala/Riverside, 1992. p-42.
2 Ibid.