What is the History of Mural Painting?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Murals are large scale paintings which are applied directly to walls, ceilings, and other large flat surfaces. They are probably the oldest human art form, as cave paintings at numerous human settlements suggest, and can be found all over the world decorating homes, institutions, and public spaces. A wide variety of artistic styles are used in mural painting, but all of them incorporate a large sense of scale, and the ability to portray a complex scene which is readable up close or far away.

Michelangelo's mural on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Michelangelo's mural on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

In many cases, a mural is commissioned by a government or institution, because it represents a costly endeavor. For this reason, this type of art is often found in places like schools, government buildings, and on the outside of buildings in urban areas. Murals and the people who create them often become well known, due to the large scale and themes depicted. Diego Rivera and Leonardo da Vinci were both muralists, as was Michelangelo. Most muralists produce artwork in multiple media, demonstrating a remarkable range of skills.

Cave paintings are perhaps the earliest art form.
Cave paintings are perhaps the earliest art form.

Classically, a mural is applied directly to a prepared surface such as a fresco. Fresco like that used in the Sistine Chapel is a wet plaster to which paints are added. As the paints dry, they fade slightly, but also lock into the plaster, making them longer lasting and less likely to flake or peel. Usually, a team of artists works together under the supervision of a master artist, who keeps the plans for the overall design and directs individual team members as they work on specific projects.

Murals can be political, such as those on the Berlin Wall.
Murals can be political, such as those on the Berlin Wall.

Murals are often associated with political expression, thanks to the work of artists in the United States and Mexico in the 1930s and 1940s. In the United States, an earlier tradition of political murals at the turn of the century had given way to more neutral themes, but the New Deal and the Works Progress Administration rekindled the political focus. In both nations, murals focused on workers, the lives of the lower classes, harvesting food, preparing meals, and other errata of daily life, a marked departure from the highly religious paintings and frescoes of the Middle Ages. It was also a shift from the glamorous promotional public art of the 19th century, which encouraged viewers to “Move to Sunny California!” or enjoy various commercial products.

Many modern muralists continue the tradition of political expression in their work, and produce large scale commentaries on social issues which also beautify the places they are installed in. Other mural artists focus on producing beautiful pieces of artwork which enhance environments like board rooms and other corporate spaces, along with environments like public buildings and schools.

Most muralists, like Leonardo da Vinci, produce artwork in multiple media.
Most muralists, like Leonardo da Vinci, produce artwork in multiple media.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@wavy58 – I often get hired to paint nursery murals. I do things like cartoon animals and butterflies, and sometimes, I find myself thinking back to what the original mural artists painted.

Their subjects were so much more serious than mine. They painted religious figures and realistic scenes of family life. It kind of makes my work feel a bit trivial.

I'm glad that murals are a longstanding tradition that many people are familiar with, because this enables me to make extra money painting them. Believe it or not, mural artists are in high demand.

I painted a mural on the wall of one of the exam rooms at my veterinarian's office. I had worked part-time there as a receptionist, and once he found out that I could paint, he hired me to do a mural of one of his dogs.

He grew up wit ha dog named Snoopy, and he wanted to honor his memory with a mural. So I took the photo he gave me of the dog and some semi-gloss latex paint and went to work.

I painted a huge version of the dog on the wall, and I included a paw print in the bottom right corner with the name “Snoopy” out beside it. He loved it so much that he paid me more than we had agreed upon originally.


There are some large exterior wall murals on a couple of buildings around my town square. They have been there for as long as I can remember, and they add a unique touch to the town.

One entire side of a drugstore on the street leading to the square is covered in a big landscape of trees and grass. There are painted people fishing, children playing with dogs, and various flowers and plants. It's all very idyllic.


I had no idea that painted murals contained plaster! I didn't even know that you could mix paint with plaster. I just assumed it would gunk up and be ugly.


A lot of what we learn about ancient civilizations in archaeology has to do with the murals of that culture. Groups would put their stories, values, and dreams, into what they painted, and it really flowed out of their soul. We see striking similarities in murals all over the world and throughout history which indicate many common threads in the human psyche.


I recall going on a trip to Italy with my family when I was young and seeing intricate and beautiful murals in almost all large buildings. This culture of art was driven by city-states which sought to establish artistic capacity superior to the next town over. This kind of healthy competition helped to beautify the environment, so that today Italy has had an immense sociocultural and artistic impact via the Renaissance.


Landscape murals are helpful in making an otherwise bland environment seem exciting. In a closed space or an apartment, a mural can give the appearance of a window, causing a very positive psychological effect on people living in these kinds of confines spaces. Hologram webcam murals are being developed for mass marketing, so that soon we will be able to have a window on many parts of the world.


Murals have important cultural significance and can form an artistic core to a community. They are often used to express the ethos of a group of people in a deep way which words cannot communicate. History has been recorded and passed down in the form of Egyptian wall paintings and hieroglyphs. This early form of communication sprung out of murals and influenced many modern systems of writing.

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