Looking back at Western history, it is incredible how many kinds of arts have had an impact on society. By tracing the timelines of different art movements, we can see not only how modern and contemporary art developed, but how art reflected its era.
For example, did you know that Impressionism was once considered an underground, controversial movement, or that Abstract Expressionism marked the shift in the art world from Paris to New York? Like building blocks, these different types of art, from realism to vulgarity, are interconnected. As the creative pendulum swings, art styles are often a reaction or tribute to their predecessors. By looking back at some of the most important art movements in history, we gain a clearer picture of how famous artists like Van Gogh, Picasso, and Warhol revolutionized the art world.
These 20 visual art movements are essential to understanding the different types of art that have shaped modern history.
1, Italian Renaissance Art
Michelangelo, “David”, 1501-1504
From the 14th to the 17th centuries, Italy experienced an unprecedented era of enlightenment. Known as the Renaissance – a term derived from the Italian word Rinascimento or “rebirth” – this period saw an increased focus on cultural themes such as art and architecture.
Italian Renaissance artists, such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael, drew inspiration from the classical art of ancient Rome and Greece, employing ancient interests such as balance, naturalism, and perspective. In Renaissance Italy, this ancient-inspired approach manifested itself in humanist portraiture, anatomically correct sculpture, and harmonious, symmetrical architecture.
Famous Artists: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian
Iconic artworks: Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1486), Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495-1498), Mona Lisa (c.1503- 1506), Michelangelo’s David (1501-1504), Raphael’s School of Athens (1509 – 1511)
Bernini’s The Rapture of Santa Teresa. 1647-1652. Cornaro Church, Santa Maria Della Victoria
At the end of the Renaissance, the rise of the Baroque movement was in Italy. Like the previous genre, Baroque art displayed an artistic interest in realism and rich colors. Unlike Renaissance art and architecture, however, Baroque works also emphasized extravagance.
This opulence is evident in Baroque painting, sculpture, and architecture. Painters like Caravaggio allude to drama through their treatment of light and depiction of movement. Sculptors like Bernini achieved a sense of drama through dynamic silhouettes and intricate drapery. Architects across Europe adorn their designs with intricate carvings and a variety of ornaments such as imposing columns.
Famous Artists: Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Bernini
Iconic artworks: The Call of St. Matthew by Caravaggio (1599-1600), Rembrandt’s The Night’s Watch (1642), Bernini’s The Rapture of St. Teresa (1647-1652)
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767
Following the extravagance and power of Baroque art came the light-hearted and frivolous Rococo movement, which flourished in 18th-century France before spreading to other European countries. The term rococo comes from rocaille, a method of decorating grottoes and fountains during the Renaissance using pebbles, shells, and cement.
In the 1730s, rocaille decor inspired rolling curves in decorative furniture and interior design. In painting, this decorative style translates into a love of whimsical narratives, muted colors, and fluid forms.
Notable Artists: Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Antoine Watteau, François Boucher
Iconic Artwork: The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1767)
The Horatio Oath by Jacques-Louis David 1784–5
Neoclassicism was an 18th-century artistic movement based on Roman and ancient Greek artistic ideals. It was partly inspired by an interest in simplicity and harmony, a negative reaction to the too frivolous aesthetic of the decorative Rococo style. The discoveries of the Roman archaeological cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1738 and 1748, respectively) helped to inspire the spirit of the movement.
Notable Artists: Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Antonio Canova
Iconic artworks: Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of Horatio (1784-1785), Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates (1787), Jacques-Louis the Great David’s The Death of Marat (1793), Ingres’ The Lady of the Palace (1814)
Delacroix “Liberty Leading the People”
Romanticism is a cultural movement that emerged around 1780. Before its rise, neoclassicism dominated 18th-century European art, typified by a focus on classical themes, an interest in aesthetic austerity, and ideas consistent with the Enlightenment, an intellectual, philosophical, and personal literary movement.
Artists like Eugène Delacroix found inspiration in their imaginations. This introspective approach has established itself as an art form that primarily explores the spirit.
Notable Artists: Joseph Mallord William Turner, Eugène Delacroix, Theodore Jericho, Francisco Goya
Iconic artworks: Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer over the Sea of Fog (1818), Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (1830)
6, Realistic Art
Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners, 1857
Realism is a school of art that began in France after the French Revolution in 1848. A clear rejection of Romanticism, the predominant style, the Realist painters focused on contemporary people and scenes of everyday life. After centuries of painters depicting mythical and biblical exotics, or creating portraits of nobles and clergy, what seems normal now is revolutionary.
French artists such as Gustave Courbet and Honoré Daumier, as well as international artists such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler, focus on all social classes in their art, for the first time Giving voice to poorer members of society and portraying the social problems caused by the Industrial Revolution. Photography also had an impact on this art, prompting painters to create realistic representations in competition with this new technology.
Notable Artists: Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Jean-François Miller, James McNeill Whistler
Iconic artworks: Jean-François Miller’s The Gleaners (1857), Gustave Courbet’s Tomb of Ornans (1849–1850)
Claude Monet, “Water Lilies”, 1906
It may be hard to believe, but this now wildly popular genre of art was once an abandoned visual movement. Breaking away from realism, Impressionists moved away from realist representations in favor of visible brushstrokes, bright colors with little mixing, and open compositions to capture the emotion of light and movement.
Impressionism began when a group of French artists broke with academic tradition by painting outdoors – a shocking decision when most landscape painters worked indoors in their studios.
The original groups, including Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frederic Bazille, were formed in France in the early 1860s.
After being rejected by traditional French salons, more artists will join their societies to show their work, which they consider too controversial to show. This original underground exhibition took place in 1874, making them popular with the public.
Iconic artworks: Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872), Renoir’s Ball at the Moulin Rouge (1876), Monet’s Water Lilies series (1890-1900)
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889
Originating again in France, this type of art developed between 1886 and 1905 as a response to the Impressionist movement. This time, the artists responded to the need for naturalistic depictions of light and color in Impressionist art. Contrary to earlier styles, Post-Impressionism encompasses many different types of art, from the pointillism of Georges Seurat to the Symbolism of Paul Gauguin.
Artists are not united by a single style, but by including abstract elements and symbolic content in their work. Perhaps the most famous post-impressionist painter was Vincent van Gogh, who used color and brushstrokes to express not the emotional quality of the landscape, but his own emotions and state of mind.
Iconic artworks: George Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of the Big Bowl” (1884-1886), Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night” (1889), Paul Gauguin’s “The Yellow Christ” (1891)
9, Art Nouveau
Alphonse Mucha, The Four Seasons, 1897
At the end of the 19th century, an “Art Nouveau” movement swept across Europe. Characterized by an interest in reinterpreting the beauty of nature in style, artists from across the continent have adopted and adapted this avant-garde style. As a result, it was realized in sub-movements such as the Vienna Secession in Austria, Modernism in Spain, and most prominently the French Art Nouveau.
The French Art Nouveau style was embraced by artists of all mediums. In addition to painting and sculpture, it also featured prominently in the architectural and decorative arts of the period. Perhaps its most enduring legacy, however, can be found in posters – the commercial craft that Czech artist Alphonse Mucha helped elevate into a modern art form.
Iconic artwork: The Four Seasons by Alphonse Mucha, The Kiss by Gustav Klimt
Pablo Picasso, Ladies of Avignon, 1907
Cubism was a truly revolutionary art style and one of the most important artistic movements of the 20th century. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque developed Cubism in the early 1900s, and art critic Louis Vauxcelles coined the term in 1907 to describe these artists.
Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, the two men—along with other artists—would use geometric forms to construct final representations. Quite unlike any previous art movement, objects are analyzed and disassembled, only to be reassembled into abstract forms.
The reduction of images to the smallest possible lines and shapes is part of Cubism’s quest for simplification. The minimalist look also crept into the palette, with Cubism ditching shadows and using limited tones to achieve a flat look.
This is markedly different from the user perspective, which has been the standard since the Renaissance. Cubism opened the door to later art movements such as Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism by abandoning the prescribed artist’s rulebook.
Notable Artists: Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris
Iconic Artwork: Pablo Picasso’s Ladies of Avignon (1907)
Giacomo Barra, “The Energy of a Dog on a Leash” 1912
The futurists of the early 20th century were fascinated by new industries and excited about future developments, and they had a place in history. These artists grew up in Italy and worked as painters, sculptors, graphic designers, musicians, architects, and industrial designers.
Since the early manifestos did not directly address the artistic output of Futurism, it took a while to develop a cohesive visual. A hallmark of futuristic art is the depiction of speed and movement. In particular, they adhere to the principle of “universal dynamism,” which means that no object is separated from its background or another.
This is best exemplified in Giacomo Barra’s The Vitality of a Dog on a Leash, where the action of walking a dog is shown through the multiplication of the dog’s feet, the leash, and the owner’s legs.
Notable Artists: Giacomo Barra, Umberto Boccioni
Iconic artworks: Giacomo Barra, “The dynamism of a dog on a leash” (1912), Umberto Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Spatial Continuity” (1913)
Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain”, 1917
Dada was an avant-garde art movement (often referred to as the “anti-art” movement) of the 20th century, born out of the turbulent social landscape and the turmoil of World War I. It began as a strong reaction and revolt against the horrors of war and the hypocrisy and stupidity of bourgeois society that led to it.
In subverting all aspects of Western civilization (including its art), Dada’s ideals rejected all logic, reason, reason, and order – all of which have been considered the backbone of evolution and advanced societies since the Age of Enlightenment.
Notable Artists: Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Tristan Chara
Iconic Artwork: Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917)
Joos Schmidt’s poster of the Bauhaus movement, 1923
From painting and graphics to architecture and interior design, Bauhaus art dominated many channels of European experimental art throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Although it is most closely associated with Germany, it has attracted and inspired artists of all backgrounds.
The Bauhaus—literally “building a house”—has its origins in the German art school of the early 20th century. Founded by Walter Gropius, the school eventually evolved into its modern art movement, characterized by its unique approach to architecture and design.
Notable Artists: Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Jost Schmidt, Marcel Breuer
Iconic artworks: Wassily Kandinsky’s Yellow Red Blue (1925), Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Chair (1925)
14, Art Deco
Tamara de Lempicka – Straw Hat © 2019 Tamara Heritage / ADAGP, Paris / ARS, New York
Art Deco is a modernist movement that emerged in Europe in the 1920s. While many different aesthetics make up the movement – including different colour palettes and a range of materials, from ebony and ivory to wood and plastic – it is most commonly characterized by streamlined geometric shapes, paired with rich trim and linear decor in stark contrast.
Paintings created in the Art Deco style often feature bold forms and busy compositions. Some, like the work of Polish-born painter Tamara de Lempicka, depict dynamic portraits of fashion subjects. Often, the figures are dressed in bright colors and set in abstract metropolitan locations.
Notable Artists: Tamara de Lempicka
Iconic Artwork: Tamara in a Green Bugatti (1929) by Tamara de Lempicka
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali. 1931. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The precise definition of Surrealism can be difficult to grasp, but it is clear that this once-avant-garde movement has staying power and remains one of the most approachable artistic genres even today. Imagination inspired by the subconscious is the hallmark of this type of art, which began in the 1920s. The movement started when a group of visual artists embraced automation, a technique that relies on the subconscious for creativity.
The Surrealists used the artist’s call to free themselves from limitations and gain complete creative freedom, often challenging notions and reality in their work. Part of the reason is the juxtaposition of a realistic painting style with unconventional, unrealistic subjects.
Notable Artists: Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte
Iconic artworks: Rene Magritte’s Betrayal of Images (1929), Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory (1931)
16, Abstract Expressionism
“Autumn Rhythm (No. 30)” by Jackson Pollock. 1950. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Abstract Expressionism was an American art movement that began after World War II – its first explosion on an international scale. It cemented New York’s position as the new center of the art world, which has traditionally been headquartered in Paris.
The genre developed in the 1940s and 1950s, although the term was also used to describe the work of earlier artists such as Wassily Kandinsky. This art style takes the spontaneity of Surrealism and imbues it with the lingering dark trauma of the post-war period.
Jackson Pollock was a leader in the movement, and his drip paintings highlighted the spontaneous creation and application of gestural painting that defined the genre.
The term “Abstract Expressionism”, although closely associated with Pollock’s work, is not limited to one particular style. Works as diverse as Willem de Kooning’s figurative paintings and Mark Rothko’s fields of color fall under the category of Abstract Expressionism.
Notable Artists: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Steele, Mark Rothko
Iconic Artwork: Jackson Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm” (No. 30)
17, Pop Art
Campbell’s Soup Can by Andy Warhol
Pop Art emerged in the 1950s as a key movement that heralded the beginning of contemporary art. This post-war style appeared in the UK and the US, including images from advertisements, comic books, and everyday objects. Pop Art is often ironic, emphasizing banal elements of common goods, and is often considered a reaction to the subliminal elements of Abstract Expressionism.
Roy Lichtenstein’s bold and vibrant work is a great example of how parody and pop culture can be combined with fine art to make art accessible. Pop Art’s most famous figure, Andy Warhol, helped drive the revolutionary concept of mass-production art, creating many of his popular screen print series.
Notable Artists: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns
Iconic Artwork: Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can (1962)
18, Installation Art
Yayoi Kusama’s “Souls A Million Light Years Away”
In the mid-20th century, European and American avant-garde artists began to create installation art. Installations are three-dimensional structures that interact with space to attract viewers. Often large-scale and site-specific, these artworks transform museums, galleries, and even outdoor venues into immersive environments.
Inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s Dadaist Readymade (a series of readymade objects set in sculpture), this important genre was pioneered by modern masters such as Yayoi Kusama and Louise Bourgeois.
Nowadays, the contemporary artist continues his practice, creating experimental installations using mediums such as rope, paper, and flowers.
Notable Artists: Yayoi Kusama, Louise Bourgeois, Damien Hirst
Iconic Artwork: The Mirror Room by Yayoi Kusama
Untitled by Igar Ozeri, 2012.
Realism is an artistic style that focuses on the technical ability to wow the audience. It was primarily an American art movement that gained momentum in the late 1960s and 1970s as a reaction to Abstract Expressionism.
Here, artists are mostly concerned with replicating a photograph as best they can, carefully planning their work to great effect, and eschewing the spontaneity that is the hallmark of Abstract Expressionism. Similar to Pop Art, Realism typically focuses on imagery associated with consumer culture.
While early realism was steeped in nostalgia for American landscapes, more recently, realistic portraiture has become a more common theme. Hyperrealism is the advancement of an artistic style in which painting and sculpture are executed in such a way as to provoke a remarkable emotional response, reaching a higher level of realism due to technological developments. One thing in common is that all works must start from a photographic reference point.
Notable Artists: Chuck Cross, Lal Goin, Igar Ozeri
Iconic Artwork: Untitled by Igar Ozeri
20, Low-brow Art
Incarnation by Mark Lydon
Low-brow art, also known as Pop Surrealism, is an art movement that originated in the California underground scene in the 1970s. Traditionally excluded from the fine art world, low-brow art shifted from painted artwork to toys, digital art, and sculpture.
The genre also has roots in underground comics, punk music, and surf culture, with artists not seeking mainstream galleries’ approval. By combining surreal imagery with pops of color or figures, the artists achieved dreamlike effects that were often embodied in erotic or satirical themes.
The rise of magazines such as Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose provided a forum for low-brow artists to showcase their work outside of mainstream contemporary art media.
Notable Artists: Mark Lydon, Ray Caesar, Audrey Kawasaki
Iconic Artwork: “The Avatar” by Mark Ryden
In addition, kinetic art represented by Alexander Calder’s Victory Red also had a profound impact on the history of human visual transformation.
The seemingly contemporary art movement had its origins in Impressionism when artists began to try to express the movement in their art. In the early 1900s, artists began to experiment further with kinetic art, propelled by sculptural machines and cell phones.
Russian artists Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko were the first creators of the sculptural mobile phone, which was later perfected by Alexander Calder.
In contemporary terms, kinetic art includes sculptures and installations where movement is the primary consideration. American artist Anthony Howe is a leading figure in the contemporary movement, using computer-aided design for his large-scale wind sculptures.
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