We all come to art history from some perspective. From this perspective, we are likely to build our mental map of how individual artists and styles of art fit together. When we want to place an artist on the art timeline, we should keep in mind that generalisations are useful only up to a point.
For example, Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky would fit into the movement known as Expressionism (1905-1930). But, his work took on different forms as he associated with various artists in other European cities.
Art should appeal to you first through your senses. It should grab your eye in some way, such as its subject matter, its use of color, its realistic appearance, a visual joke, or any other factors.
Once you've gotten an overall look at the painting, ask yourself what the subject of the painting is. It might be a landscape, a person or group of people, a scene from a story, a building, an animal, etc. Some paintings will be abstract.
Look for symbols in paintings - something that means something else. Often a painting will include obvious symbols. For instance, skulls were often included in portraits of the wealthy to remind them that their wealth was worldly and ultimately meaningless.
Focus on what the work says to you, instead of trying to figure out what the artist meant.
From the 11th century until the end of the 17th century, the definition of art was anything that was done with expertise, with the result of knowledge and practice.
The Romantic period of the 18th century, beauty became the main criteria for defining good art. Nature, spirituality and free expression were sought after and well received.
The 19th Century started the Avant-garde art movement, with art becoming real, modern, futuristic and surreal. Whatever the definitions, the originality of art stands out as a time-tested measure, with new genres and manifestations like performance art, digital art, and electronic art.
Art as Representation or Mimesis. Representation of art as an imitation or copying became the mainstream meaning of art in Greece. Plato first developed the idea of art as “mimesis,” which, in Greek, means copying or imitation. How immaculately it replicated the original subject became the measure of its value.
Art as Expression of Emotional content. Dramatic, sublime and heartfelt art becomes a way to express oneself during the Romantic movement , with audience response becoming key to the valuation of the content. The emotions that were felt when the art was witnessed became its barometer for success.
Art as Form. Formal qualities of art became influential in the 18th century, with the principles of art and design, like balance, rhythm, harmony and unity became as important as the content of the work of art.