Archaeological excavations in Sārnate have uncovered sculptures in bone, horns, wood and amber from the Mesolithic era. The golden age of Sārnate was from around 200-600 AD The period is characterized by cultural progress and trade with the Roman Empire and Germanic empires. Items found are jewelry in amber, solid molded neck rings and fibula of bronze and iron. The jewelry is decorated with or shaped like amazing snakes and animals; characteristic of the area are owl-shaped fibules.
Impulses from the Vikings’ art are also noticeable from the 800s, especially in snake and animal head motifs. Geometric motifs such as rectangles, zigzags, rhombuses and circles were developed in fine ornamental patterns, especially in metal art. Painted objects often had stylized plant and bird motifs.
In the 16th and 16th centuries, the church interiors were decorated with woodcuts in Renaissance and mannerism. Jelgava was the center of woodcarving. The foremost woodcarving work in Riga is in the cathedral.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Latvian artists were keen to document the character of the area. One of the most significant was the portrait and story painter Johann Eggink (1787-1867) who painted in a romantic classicist style. Riga’s first art school was established in 1873, and a growing number of Latvian artists continued their education in St. Petersburg. Kārlis Hūns (1831-1877), the first Latvian artist to join the Russian realism group The Walkers in 1872, painted provincial landscapes and genre scenes. Jūlijs Fathers (1838-1909) made wide views of landscapes; detailed and precise studies of nature, some with impressionistic features.
Kārlis Hūns was a realistic artist who painted many provincial landscapes and genre scenes.
The national romantic art group Rūkis sought to portray Latvia in the 1880s, at a time of intensified Russification. The group went from realism to impressionism and symbolism, and contributed to the development of Latvian art around the turn of the century. Among Rūki’s members were the graphic artist Rihards Zarrinš (1869-1939), who illustrated Latvian folk songs and fairy tales and caricatures, and Jūlijs Madernieks (1870-1955), who combined Art Nouveau elements with geometric shapes from Latvian and Nordic ornament. Janis Rosentāls (1866-1916) developed a lyrical decorative symbolism and Jānis Valters (1869-1932) an impressionism inspired by James McNeill Whistler.
Modernist tendencies prevailed in Latvia after the exhibitions in Riga in 1910; primitivism and expressionism combined with symbolism and post-impressionism. After the First World War, new art groups emerged, including the expressionist Riga artist group, founded in 1924, Mūksala and Radigars in the 1930s. Characteristic of their art is an unusual combination of decorative cubism, purism and constructivism; faceted and geometric shapes are united in an expressive tendency. These elements are evident in Zāle and Marta Liepina-Skulmes’s (1890–1962) sculptures. Other trends in visual art went in the direction of symbolism and visualization of Latvian mythology, often in a popular realistic form.
The Second World War and Soviet occupation limited the development of a new generation of Latvian artists. Under Soviet rule, social realism was introduced into the arts, and many artists emigrated to the West. Remaining artists included Jānis Pauluks (1906–1984), who used a tachistic technique in his expressive works, and the concept artist Boriss Bērzinš (1930–2002). Abstract forms of expression came to the fore in the 1960s; later became both performance, multimedia, hyper-realism and assembly introduced. Alternative art collectives were established in the 1980s; artists used both data, video and country art in their work for freedom and independence. After its release in 1991, new groups have emerged, including groups that want to strengthen a national Latvian culture.