Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Paul Gauguin, 1897–1898 - photo by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Defining Modern Art

Modern art, traditionally speaking, refers to works of art produced roughly from 1850 to 1970. The term is often used ambiguously to refer to artwork created after the said period. After all, the term modern is used to refer to the current time.

Some modern art institutions, such as the Musee National d’Arte Moderne at the Paris Pompidou Centre and London’s Tate Modern point to the year 1900 as the starting point for modern art. It’s also good to note that these two, together with New York’s Museum of Modern Art, do not distinguish “modern” and “postmodern” (which is said to occur after 1970) art. For these institutions, both fall under the category “modern art”. Nevertheless, art historians always place modern art during the late 19th century to the mid-20th century (roughly 1860 to 1970).

The Birth of Modern Art

The late 19th century was a period of change. Western Europe saw the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, a critical turning point in history. It was the era of inventions and innovations, the arrival of machines brought about the birth of factories, transforming industries, and altering the quality and pace of life in leaps and bounds. This wave of change, not only swept over the lives of ordinary people but that of artists as well. These transformations brought forth new philosophies, as well as new sceneries that drew in artists all over the world.

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renior, 1881 – photo by The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

With the numerous inventions came a new way of creating art. The invention of the camera allowed one to capture a scene with perfect accuracy. Though conceptually, photography posed a threat to artists, eventually, some saw it as a new technique by which one could produce art. Some would later incorporate the use of photographs in the production of their work.

Artist of this era, experimented with new styles and techniques, often throwing out the traditional philosophies that governed the artists before them. Modern artists, unlike their predecessors, drew and painted their subjects as how they saw them and not how they idealise them to be.

New movements in art arose from the experimentations and incorporations of the technologies and philosophies of the time. Modern art saw the birth of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, and Pop Art.

Modern Art: Artists’ Perspectives

The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud – photo by Biblioctopus

Social changes in the late 19th century influenced the exploration of new themes in art. Modern artists created art about subjects – people, places, and ideas that they found interesting. Modern artists turned away from the religious, mythological subjects that their predecessors chose and idealised, and instead focused on the cities and its changes, suburban villages, holiday spots, as the subject of their landscape paintings. The style in portrait making also changed, with artists focused on capturing the likeness of their subject – flaws and all, instead of creating an idealised rendition that presented the subject as an epitome of beauty. Most modern art movements depicted the subject the way they actually looked.

The publishing of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams had an impact on later art movements. Freud’s concept of the “sub-conscious mind” caused a wave that inspired artists to explore and make use of symbolism in their works, eventually leading to the Surrealist movement. This discovery of self-consciousness was also linked with the emergence of Expressionism, allowing the artist to express through their works their experiences and emotions.

Modern Art: Important Movements and Artists


Considered the catalyst of modern art, Impressionism began in Paris around 1860. It started with a group of artists who were discontent with the Salon’s operation. The Salon, the organising body for the Academie des Beaux Artes, makes use of a selection-jury that operated with severe unpredictability. Because of this, despite other artists’ impression on the works of the members of the movement, it wasn’t acknowledged as an important style until later on. Impressionists at the time suffered financially and had to compete for the attention and commission of patrons and collectors.

Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe by Édouard Manet, 1863 – photo by Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Impressionists were known for their loose brushstrokes and the avoidance of clarity of form, a deviation from the linear perspective and fine form in paintings by artists from before. They also started the en plein-air technique or the technique of outdoor painting. Impressionists aimed to capture the moment as it is and made use of the effect of light on their subject. Artists of the movement are also known for their series of paintings depicting the same scene at different times of the day or in different seasons. Impressionism, simply put, is a movement that aimed to capture an ephemeral moment – an impression, and immortalise it through their art.

Some notable Impressionists were Camille Pissarro (Jalais Hill, Pointoise, 1867), Pierre Auguste Renoir (Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1881), Edgar Degas who is well known for his dancers like those in Foyer de La Danse, (1872), and Edouard Manet (Le Dejeurner sur l’Herbe, 1863) who was a great influence to the Impressionists, especially to Claude Monet.

Impression, soleil levant by Claude Monet, 1872 – photo by Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

Though Manet may have influenced the Impressionists, it was Claude Monet who was considered its leader and the one who was the reason for the movement’s name. At the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, art critic, Louis Leroy coined the term after seeing Monet’s Impression: Soleil Levant (1872). Monet had only decided to name that painting as such upon the completion of said exhibition’s catalogue. Monet was also the one who preferred the en plein-air technique. Unlike most art students of his time who would copy the great masters when visiting the Louvre, Monet would sit by the window and paint what he saw outside. Monet was also known for his series of paintings that depicted the same scene at various times of day or seasons. Among these are the Haystacks, Rouen Cathedral, Poplars, and the largest of them all, Water Lilies, most of which were created while he suffered from cataracts.


A response to the optically focused Impressionist movement, Post-Impressionism is composed of a variety of styles that emphasises the artist’s subjective vision. It includes Neo-Impressionism as well as Symbolism. For Post-Impressionists, their works serve as a window to their souls and minds. Post-Impressionists looked to their emotions and memories instead of depicting what they observe. Works under this movement are characterised by the pattern of application of paint as well as abstract forms. Post-Impressionism would influence the rise of other artistic movements in the 20th century such as Expressionism and the contemporary movement of Feminist Art.

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, 1889 – photo by Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Notable Post-Impressionists include Paul Gauguin, George Seurat, Paul Cezanne, Edouard Villard (The Suitor, 1893), and Vincent Van Gogh. Gauguin would be known for his lush Symbolism and works such as Four Breton Girls (1886) and Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897). Seurat, on the other hand, would be associated with Neo-Impressionism (as seen in his Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884) which includes Divisionism and Pointillism (La Seine à La Grande-Jatte, 1888). Gauguin, Cezanne, and Seurat would influence later artists such as the Fauves. Vincent Van Gogh, who can be considered the poster boy for Post-Impressionism is known by his works Starry Night (1889), Fourteen Sunflowers in a Vase (1888), and The Potato Eaters (1885) as well as his tragic life story. Van Gogh was also inspired by Ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige, which he collected. His work The Courtesan (after Eisen)(1887) is evidence of this influence.


Fauvism was a short-lived movement (1905-1907) inspired by post-Impressionist artists like Paul Cezanne and George Seurat. Vincent Van Gogh’s techniques may have also been influential to the movement. The movement got its name at the 1905 exhibition at the Salone d”Automne, when critic Louis Vauxcelles described their art as made by fauves (wild beasts in French). The artists took the insult as the name of their movement.

Luxe, Calme et Volupté by Henri Matisse, 1904 – photo by Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Fauvism was an avant-garde form of art, perhaps the true parent of modern avant-garde art. It is known for its decorative composition, colour saturation, and simplified forms. The movement is not known for any manifesto, agenda, or even a set of aesthetics agreed upon by its members. Fauves were simply comprised of a loosely knit group of artist friends who shared the same ideals about painting. The Fauves consisted of the students of Gustave Moreau, a Symbolist whose emphasis on personal expression was greatly admired by those under his instruction. These included Albert Marquet, Georges Rouault, and Henri Matisse. Matisse would emerge to be the leader of the Fauves and would be well known for his works such as Luxe, Calme, et Volupte (1904-05) and Joy of Life (Le Bonheur de Vivre, 1905-06).


From Post-Impression, two movements sprung forth, one of this was Expressionism. Expressionism centres on the artist’s expression of what he feels about the subject he is portraying. The movement was inspired by the Symbolists and artists such as Van Gogh, Munsch, and Ensor. Expressionist art is characterised by the distorted renderings of the subject’s form and bold colours that convey the artist’s emotions. Artists also employed swirling, exaggerated brushstrokes in their depictions. Expressionists developed a mode of social criticism, and their representations included alienated individuals.

Unemployment by Käthe Kollwitz, 1909 – photo by Städel Museum

Artists of the Expressionist movement include Käthe Kollwitz who portrayed the plight of workers and peasants (Misery (Not) 1897) and (Unemployment (Arbeitslosigkeit) 1909), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (Street, Berlin 1913), and Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky’s works incorporated influences from Fauvist (Der Blaue Berg (The Blue Mountain) 1908-09) and Impressionist (Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) 1903) movements. His works would later become more and more abstract (Compositio IV, 1911) as he viewed abstract art as the ideal mode to visually express emotion.


The other off-shoot of Post-Impressionism. The use of geometrical patterns and forms characteriSe works under this movement. It turns away from the realistic rendering of the subject. It challenges the depiction of space of Renaissance art, with its merging of background and foreground, and examining objects from various angles. The movement is a precursor to abstract art and is traditionally known to have three stages.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso, 1907 – photo by

Early Cubist paintings (1907-09) began with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It was an exploratory phase for Picasso and Georges Braques wherein they worked together to create new art principles. The two were also influenced by Cezanne’s The Large Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses). Their work eventually gave rise to the second stage of Cubism, Analytical Cubism (1909-12). This stage was ushered by Picasso’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (1909). Analytical Cubism does away with Early Cubism’s cube-like imagery. Instead, it disassembles the subject’s figure into a series of intersecting flat transparent geometric shapes. These shapes intersect and overlap at different angles. Works that feature this style include Picasso’s Girl with Mandolin (1910) and Braque’s Mandora (1909). The last stage, Synthetic Cubism (1912-14) incorporates various extraneous materials and is more colourful than those in the previous stage. It is often linked with Picasso’s collage technique and Braque’s papier colles. Both techniques insert pieces of the real world to serve as a bridge over the gap between life and art.

Other notable artists of Cubism include Juan Gris (Flowers, 1914), Fernand Léger (Nudes in the Forest, 1909-10), and Robert Delaunay (Saint Severin No.3, 1909).


Egg in the Church or The Snake by André Breton, 1932 – photo by Curiator

The last major art movement connected to L’Ecole de Paris and the most influential of the avant-garde styles, Surrealism was a movement that aimed to produce imagery by tapping into the creative powers of one’s subconscious mind. Andre Breton defined this movement as an expression of thought by bypassing reason and rationality through the accessing of the unconscious mind. The technique is known as automatic writing or in the case of painters, automatic painting. Surrealists reject the application of rationality in the creative process. To achieve subconscious creativity, they utilise a variety of techniques. Dreams, hallucinations, and random image generation were used by Surrealists for their automatic painting or writing.

Works under the Surrealist movement is known for their Surrealist imagery, which is often outlandish, uncanny, and sometimes even troubling. Each artist makes use of a recurring motif that is derived from their dreams or subconscious mind.

The emergence of Freudian theory, introduced through Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) greatly influenced the Surrealist movement. The importance of dreams as revelations of emotion became part of the movement’s theoretical framework. Despite his work being an important framework for Surrealists, Freud didn’t seem to like the artists under this movement.

Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali, 1931 – photo by

Although founded by Andre Breton, Surrealism was often associated with the artist Salvador Dali. Dali, like any Surrealist, saw Freud’s book as a great influence on his work. When Dali met Freud, the psychoanalyst was known to have said that Dali changed his perception on Surrealist, a statement which delighted Dali.

Aside from Andre Breton (Egg in the Church or the Snake) and Salvador Dali (The Persistence of Memory, 1931), other notable Surrealists were Joan Miro (The Harlequin’s Carnival, 1925), Yves Tanguy (Noyer Indifférent, 1929), and Leonora Carrington (The Meal of Lord Candlestick, 1938).

Some works of Frida Kahlo was considered to be Surrealist, even though she wasn’t directly associated with the movement.

Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism is considered a vague term — this movement developed in the 1940s to 1950s in New York. The term is used for a group of artists that produced works featuring abstract forms and fields of colour, as well as those that create art with dynamic expressionism. This was the era of post-war trauma and anxiety and the works and techniques reflected this atmosphere. Abstract Expressionists saw art as a means to express oneself. Artists of this movement set the stage for American dominance in the world of art.

Going West by Jackson Pollock, 1934-1935 – photo by Smithsonian American Art Museum

Surrealism’s technique of digging through one’s subconscious was influential to this movement. Abstract Expressionists’s interests included mythical and archetypal symbols. Aside from leftist politics, this movement valued art with one’s personal experiences as its foundation. Hailed as the American avant-garde, Abstract Expressionist art was empathic with the American spirit. Works under this movement were characterised by its romantic mood, gigantic scale, and its expression of individual freedom.

Notable artists of this movement include Jackson Pollock (Going West, 1934-35), Willem de Kooning (Seated Woman, 1940), and Franz Kline (Chief, 1950). Though not directly associated with the movement, Georgia O’Keeffe (Black Place, Grey and Pink, 1949) was also influenced by the movement.

Pop Art

Pop art was brought about by the emergence of popular culture and 1960s consumerism. Pop art focused on the commonplace, objects seen and used every day like a can of Campbell soup, boxes of detergent, etc. Works under this movement are very recognisable as it often features brands and logos familiar to the public as well as celebrities and well-known personalities. Pop art aims to show that there is no hierarchy of culture. Pop artists believed in the interconnection of all things and showed this in their creations.

Campbell’s Soup I by Andy Warhol, 1968 – photo by The Museum of Modern Art

Techniques that emerged under this movement includes silk-screen printing, oxidation painting, and advanced photography techniques. Pop artists used a variety of media for their works.

Most Pop artists began as commercial artists, working for advertising companies and magazines. The most notable artist of this movement is Andy Warhol, known for his Marilyn Monroe series, Campbell’s Soup I (1968), his movie Sleep (1963), among others. Other pop artists include Roy Lichtenstein (Drowning Girl, 1963), Rosalyn Drexler (Marilyn Pursued by Death, 1963) and George Segal (The Costume Party, 1965-72).

Modern Art: Art of Change

One could say that modern art is the art of change. It was born in an era that saw the dawn of industrialisation that created a wave of change, affecting everything. Modern artists created works that reflected the joys and pains of the decade they were in. Their techniques adapted with the changing philosophies and technological advancements that emerged in their time. Their era was punctuated by the inventions of the Industrial Revolution and its creations, the devastation of two World Wars, and the rise of consumerism and popular culture. Modern artists focused on and tried to capture what was happening around them, how they saw it, and how it made them feel.