In the 15th and early 16th centuries, culminating with the High Renaissance in Italy, new standards were set for the representation of the human body and perspective. The Renaissance, which means "rebirth," saw the intellectual and artistic revival of classical values, and laid the foundation for modern humanism. By 1650 prevailing aesthetic concerns heralded a new style known as Mannerism, and classicism gave way to an intensely subjective expression. Patronage spread from church and court to the nobility and wealthy merchant class, and the new outlook embraced secular subjects.

The large area of northern Europe—roughly equivalent to modern Belgium, Germany, and Holland—had a vital and distinctive artistic tradition in the 15th and 16th centuries. Some of the greatest changes in the art of this period came as a result of the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century, and subsequent reforms brought on by the Catholic Counter Reformation. The established Gothic style persisted, but it gradually incorporated Renaissance techniques and subjects. The demand for landscapes, portraits, and still lifes increased significantly, foreshadowing the golden age of Dutch painting.