How to Identify Modern Versus Contemporary Art


Modern and contemporary art are two fields often discussed but rarely defined. Some use the terms interchangeably, and there is overlap between them, but understanding the nuances between modern art and contemporary art can mean a world of difference in terms of approach, importance, and, for the collector, value.

A closer look at the distinctions between modern and contemporary eras reveals the incredible level of novelty infused into art in the last century. Here, we’ll explore the overarching attributes, styles, and artists of both modern and contemporary art to showcase the incredible dynamism of art from the later nineteenth century to the modern day. We’ll also explore the major figures who helped shape this conversation. 

Characteristics of Modern Art

Generally speaking, the commonly-accepted dawn of modern art is often traced to the latter half of the nineteenth century, a period where art and society were evolving at a frenzied pace. Fueling this innovation was the Industrial Revolution, which both transformed daily life and, particularly from an artistic perspective, introduced new media and modes of artistic expression (think photography). 

This novelty opened a new space for artists to use their work as a space for pure creative expression, summed up in English painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s credo of “art for art’s sake.” Stripped away were the themes of history and the rigid, refined styles of painting that had dominated prior generations, and replacing them were new perspectives that celebrated modernity and revolution through the first half of the nineteenth century.


“Arrangement in Pink, Red and Purple,” oil on canvas, by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Famous Modern Art Examples

The modern artists noted here are some of the biggest names of their era and thus coveted universally on the collector’s market: 

Impressionism and Post-Impressionism

Few art movements over history are as universally adored as that of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, who burst onto the scene in the 1870s and ushered in a new love for the study of light, atmosphere, and color. Inspired by the writings of Charles Baudelaire, who emphasized the value in absorbing one’s surroundings, the Impressionists, including Claude Monet and Pierre-August Renoir, sought to capture seemingly spontaneous moments from the world around them.  Along with such spontaneity came a much looser brushstroke, which emphasized both the hand of the artist and a playful sense of color.  


“Luncheon of the Boating Party”, oil on canvas, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (image via Wikimedia Commons)

The Post-Impressionists pushed forward with these explorations to experiment with how color and form came together in their compositions. From the heavy use of impasto and eclectic color of  Vincent van Gogh’s paintings to the meticulous points of color in the work of George Seurat, this subsequent generation of artists laid the foundation for the even bolder statements of future masters. 

Fauvism and Expressionism

Though emerging from different European artistic centers, the modern art movements of Fauvism and Expressionism both united in their passionate pursuit of kaleidoscopic color and its powerful application to the painted surface. The Fauves, who took their name from the French word for “wild beasts” and whose style is epitomized in the art of Henri Matisse or André Derain, challenged themselves to make color the focal point of their work: while other subjects were depicted, the arbitrary assembly of colors in many Fauve compositions allowed color to take center stage.

The same can be said of Expressionism, a style characterized by  Wassily Kandinsky, a member of the German Expressionism group Der Blau Reiter. Sensing an indelible link between color and music – so much so that some scholars have suggested he suffered from synesthesia – Kandinsky argued for the pursuit of harmony between hues within his paintings. So focused was he on this exploration of the sensation of color that his paintings became increasingly nonrepresentational as his career progressed, thereby laying the foundation for modern abstract art.


“Woman with a Hat” by Henri Matisse (image via Wikimedia Commons)


A modern art movement pioneered by Pablo Picasso, Cubism involves the breaking down of form within a composition to planes or facets of color that are then often reassembled or reconfigured in an exploration of how space is constructed within a picture plane. This breakdown of form was in part inspired by a desire to assess the elemental qualities of art while also thinking about the dynamism of that object in space.

As the style developed, Cubism followed different paths: Analytical Cubism, for example, stressed this breakdown into rudimentary elements, while Synthetic Cubism emphasized the assembly of objects (and actually gave rise to the invention of the collaged work). At the same time, it proved inspirational to entirely other artistic movements in the early twentieth century, among them Futurism in Italy and Vorticism in England.   

Pablo Picasso, 1910, Woman with Mustard Pot

“Woman with Mustard Pot (La Femme au pot de moutarde)” by Pablo Picasso, oil on canvas, 1910 (image via Wikimedia Commons)


One of history’s most psychologically profound movements, Surrealism asked its artists to seek their subject matter from deep within their subconscious. The result, as demonstrated in the work of celebrated Surrealists Salvador Dalì or René Magritte, was art that paired elements of reality with aspects of fantastical – or at times nightmarish – worlds. Spurring these artists was the pursuit of uncharted artistic ideas that they felt might lurk deep within our subconscious mind.

Court west of the Isle of the Dead

Court west of the Isle of the Dead, Salvador Dali, realized £798,650 via Bonhams on October 19, 2004

Characteristics of Contemporary Art

While one can propose loose bookends to modern art as that produced between roughly 1860 and 1945, less defined is the movement of contemporary art. Part of the challenge in defining this era is that it is the “now” of art: technically, it incorporates all of the art being produced by living artists today. Thanks to its “living” status, we cannot assign it an end date, but we can propose that often World War II serves as its starting point. This is owed to the shifts in the art world that occurred during the postwar years, including a greater focus on American artists in the international art scene and the evolution of work that spoke even more directly to the contemporary cultural experience.

Accordingly, contemporary artists have embraced myriad themes from the deep to the superficial and from the ephemeral to the eternal while also exploring a seemingly endless expanse of media and modes of expression, from performance pieces to the pint-sized pixels of digital art.

Key Contemporary Art Examples

If the modern art era showcased rapid innovation, then the era of contemporary art can be seen as exponentially increasing the rate of that novelty. Since the end of World War II, the contemporary art world has increasingly become a space for edgy and powerful new modes of expression. Some of these modes highlighted here are perennial favorites among the connoisseurs of the contemporary field:

Abstract Art

With the rise of artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, a new day for abstract art had arrived. These two iconic artists, leaders in the field of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting, respectively, helped to introduce the world to the pure power of color. Pollock explored this concept through his unconventional painterly style involving paint drips and splatters and using industrial – rather than painterly – tools to explore rhythmic patterns of colors.

Rothko, meanwhile, embraced the purity of color in his Color Field paintings, applying large swaths of singular hues to his canvases to evoke raw emotion from his viewer. By returning to such elemental components, the abstract art of both Rothko and Pollock carved out a new space for nonrepresentational art and for the appreciation of the very elements of art itself.

Mark Rothko - No. 15

No. 15 by Mark Rothko, sold for an astonishing $50,441,000 via Christie’s (May 13, 2008)

Pop Art

While Pollock’s Abstract Expressionism aimed at disconnecting from the contemporary world through abstract form, Pop Art sought the exact opposite. This movement used contemporary culture and its idiosyncrasies as its main subject matter. From Roy Lichtenstein’s blown-up comic book still paintings to Andy Warhol’s screen-printed replications of Marylin Monroe and Elvis Presley, Pop artists incorporated these cultural references as part of a deeper questioning as to the role of art in modern culture. 

Roy Lichtenstein Sailboats oil and magna on canvas

Sailboats by Roy Lichtenstein, oil and magna on canvas, $7,041,000 via Sotheby’s
(May 14, 2008)

This profound contemplation submerged beneath the superficial image of celebrity allowed Pop Art to become one of the most celebrated movements of the later twentieth century. Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) serigraph, for example, sold at Sotheby’s in 2013 for $105.4 million, while Lichtenstein’s Masterpiece reached a $160 million price tag when it was auctioned in January 2017.

Making Sense of Modern and Contemporary Art

Navigating the nuances of modern and contemporary art might seem daunting at first, particularly as there is no clear-cut division of time into which either movement falls. Reviewing these easy-to-follow distinctions, though, might set those who wish to collect such works on course to distinguishing these movements while also learning more about art’s amazing history in the process.

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