Like world history, the evolution of art involves protagonists and antagonists, leaders and dissidents, winners and losers. Many art movements began when artists channeled their frustration with mainstream ideas and systems into their work. For example, Realism was sparked by the scientific revolution across Europe and Romanticists reacted to the Enlightenment by seeking a return to nature.
Similar to societal critique, many artists challenged the idea that all art is meant to be beautiful. While some artists chose to paint light subjects, others wanted to convey strong feelings or create a realistic depiction of the time in which they were living. Movements like Impressionism came about when a group of artists decided to band together to challenge preconceived notions about the way art is made. Take the quiz below to see which art movement you most closely identify with and then read through the brief descriptions of each to learn more.
Romanticism 1780s – 1830s
After the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, artists across Europe were disillusioned with the values of reason and order. The Romantic Era allowed artists like Jacques Louis David, Antoine Jean Gros, and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres to temporarily escape back into imagination and emotion. Nature was seen as all-powerful, and many of the most famous paintings from this era depict men fighting against the awesome power of nature or being awed by the beauty of wilderness.
Romantic painters employed a technique called chiaroscuro to convey the depth of their feeling by playing with light and shadows.
Realism 1840s – 1880s
Broadly considered the beginning of modern art, the Realist movement aligned with society’s transition towards the sciences and away from classical definitions of beauty. Unafraid of ugly truths, Realism explored new, unsociable topics and thus operated outside of the esteemed art academies across Europe. Artists like Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet were able to gain wide public acclaim thanks to the printing press.
This movement made use of earth tones and focused on capturing everyday people rather than the rich and royal, as was popular.
Impressionism 1870s – 1890s
Like Realism, Impressionism was rejected from the state-sanctioned salons and academies. Rather than paint things as they appeared, Impressionists sought to capture an essence through color and brush work. These artists, including Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, played with brushstrokes and figuration, moving away from symmetry and form because they believed painting should reflect the imperfections in the world.
The Impressionists’ loose treatment of color, light, brushstrokes, and form made way for many art movements to follow.
Pointillism 1890s – 1910s
Originally inspired by the Impressionists, Pointillists paint many small dots in primary colors in a manner that ultimately generates secondary colors and creates a complete image. Popularized by Georges Seurat, the technique relies on the ability of the eye to blend color spots. Unlike Impressionism, this movement relied heavily on science and theory rather than light and emotion.
Pointillism evolved since its creation and now refers more commonly to the technique rather than the movement.
Abstract Art 1900s – today
Forever altering the course of art history, Abstract Art marks a complete break from the classical imagery of traditional European painting. In the broadest terms, Abstract art can be defined as something that does not depict a person, place, or thing in the natural world. Abstract art made room for all of the movements following it and freed artists to explore as they wished.
The goal of Abstract artists is to be non-objective and non-representational, and thus allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions.
Cubism 1900s – 1920s
Created by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Cubism further removed form from art. Breaking objects down into shapes, Picasso and other Cubist artists stylized their subjects. Rather than copy the natural perspective, they looked to African art for inspiration and contrasted vantage points through the reduction of form. In early Cubist work the subject was discernible, but as the movement evolved objects became harder to decipher.
The Cubist palette often used earth tones and the focal point was usually everyday items. Slowly, Picasso and Braque combined representational motifs like letters with their fractured figures.
De Stijl 1910 – 1930s
Founded by Piet Mondrian, De Stijl simply means style in Dutch. This movement embraced a pared-down aesthetic for the modern world, focusing on primary colors, lines, and form. De Stijl removed all of the decorative excess seen in the Art Deco era.
Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg reached far behind the canvas to spread their vision of form and function. This movement expanded into sculpture, industrial design, literature, typography, and even music. Mondrian also created a magazine called De Stijl, in which he popularized his ideas.
Surrealism 1920s – 1960s
Powerfully influenced by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists sought to explore the depths of the unconscious. Artists like Salvador Dalí and André Breton looked for revelations in everyday life, dreams, and the imagination. Many of the most influential Surrealists also played with automatism in attempts to bypass reason.
The imagery in Surrealist art is iconic for its uniqueness. Dalí’s work often includes fantastical subjects like dysmorphic figures, ants or eggs.
Abstract Expressionism 1940s – 1960s
Abstract Expressionism was an American painting movement that flourished post World War II. Difficult to define broadly, this group of artists created highly expressive abstract art. Completely breaking from figurative, classical art, Abstract Expressionism leaves no trace of a discernible figure and uses size and color to impress an emotion on the viewer. The movement carried American traits of scale, romanticism, and freedom of expression.
Pop Art 1950s – 1970s
Rather than avoiding imagery, Pop Artists exploited contemporary iconography. Bursting on the scene during the height of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art highlighted culture rather than focus on the “high art” themes of mythology and history. The Industrial Revolution and commercialization allowed for the creation of one of the most recognizable styles of modern art.
To view additional examples of art from each of these movements, explore our paintings home page.
Image Sources: Antoine Jean Gros, “Bonaparte Visits the Plague Stricken in Jaffa“, 1804 | Gustave Courbet, “A Burial at Ornans, Gustave Courbet“, 1849 | Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Dance at the Moulin de la Galette“, 1875 | Georges Seurat, “La Seine à la Grande-Jatte“, 1884 | Pablo Picasso, “Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon“, 1907. Oil on canvas | Wassily Kandinsky, “Composition VII“, 1913 | Piet Mondrian, “Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow“, 1930 | Jackson Pollock, “Number 1 (Lavender Mist)“, 1950 | Andy Warhol, “Campbell’s Soup Cans“, 1962 | Salvador Dalí, “The Persistence of Memory“, 1931. Oil on canvas