Looking back through Western history, it is incredible to see how many types of art have made an impact on society. By tracing a timeline through different art movements, we are able to not only see how modern and contemporary art has developed, but also how art is a reflection of its time.
For instance, did you know that Impressionism was once considered an underground, controversial movement or that Abstract Expressionism signalled a shift in the art world from Paris to New York? Like building blocks, from Realism to Lowbrow, these different types of art are interconnected. As the creative pendulum swings, artistic styles are often reactions against or homages to their predecessors. And by looking back at some of the most important art movements in history, we have a clearer understanding of how famous artists like Van Gogh, Picasso, and Warhol have revolutionized the art world.
These 10 visual art movements are fundamental to understanding the different types of art that shape modern history.
Realism is a genre of art that started in France after the French Revolution of 1848. A clear rejection of Romanticism, the dominant style that had come before it, Realist painters focused on scenes of contemporary people and daily life. What may seem normal now was revolutionary after centuries of painters depicting exotic scenes from mythology and the Bible, or creating portraits of the nobility and clergy.
French artists like Gustave Courbet and Honoré Daumier, as well as international artists like James Abbott McNeill Whistler, focused on all social classes in their artwork, giving voice to poorer members of society for the first time and depicting social issues stemming from the Industrial Revolution. Photography was also an influence on this type of art, pushing painters to produce realistic representations in competition with this new technology.
Artists to Know: Gustav Courbet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Jean-François Millet
Iconic Painting: The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet
It may be hard to believe, but this now beloved art genre was once an outcast visual movement. Breaking from Realism, Impressionist painters moved away from realistic representations to use visible brushstrokes, vivid colours with little mixing, and open compositions to capture the emotion of light and movement. The Impressionists started as a group of French artists who broke with academic tradition by painting en plein air—a shocking decision when most landscape painters executed their work indoors in a studio.
The original group, which included Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille, formed in the early 1860s in France. Additional artists would join in forming their own society to exhibit their artwork after being rejected by the traditional French salons, who deemed it too controversial to exhibit. This initial underground exhibition, which took place in 1874, allowed them to gain public favour.
Artists to Know: Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Mary Cassatt
Iconic Painting: Water Lilies series by Claude Monet
Again originating from France, this type of art developed between 1886 and 1905 as a response to the Impressionist movement. This time, artists reacted against the need for the naturalistic depictions of light and colour in Impressionist art. As opposed to earlier styles, Post-Impressionism covers many different types of art, from the Pointillism of Georges Seurat to the Symbolism of Paul Gauguin.
Not unified by a single style, artists were united by the inclusion of abstract elements and symbolic content in their artwork. Perhaps the most well known Post-Impressionist is Vincent Van Gogh, who used colour and his brushstrokes not to convey the emotional qualities of the landscape, but his own emotions and state of mind.
Artists to Know: Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin
Iconic Painting: The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh
A truly revolutionary style of art, Cubism is one of the most important art movements of the 20th century. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque developed Cubism in the early 1900s, with the term being coined by art critic Louis Vauxcelles in 1907 to describe the artists. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, the two men—joined by other artists—would use geometric forms to build up the final representation. Completely breaking with any previous art movement, objects were analysed and broken apart, only to be reassembled into an abstracted form.
This reduction of images to minimal lines and shapes was part of the Cubist quest for simplification. The minimalist outlook also trickled down into the colour palette, with Cubists forgoing shadowing and using limited hues for a flattened appearance. This was a clear break from the use of perspective, which has been the standard since the Renaissance. Cubism opened the doors for later art movements, like Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, by throwing out the prescribed artist's rulebook.
Artists to Know: Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris
Iconic Painting: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso
A precise definition of Surrealism can be difficult to grasp, but it is clear that this once avant-garde movement has staying power, remaining one of the most approachable art genres, even today. Imaginative imagery spurred by the subconscious is a hallmark of this type of art, which started in the 1920s. The movement began when a group of visual artists adopted automatism, a technique that relied on the subconscious for creativity.
Tapping into the appeal for artists to liberate themselves from restriction and take on total creative freedom, Surrealists often challenged perceptions and reality in their artwork. Part of this came from the juxtaposition of a realistic painting style with unconventional, and unrealistic, subject matters.
Artists to Know: Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte
Iconic PaintingThe Persistence of Memoryby Salvador Dalí
Abstract Expressionism is an American art movement—the first to explode on an international scale—that started after World War II. It solidified New York as the new centre of the art world, which had traditionally been based in Paris. The genre developed in the 1940s and 1950s, though earlier artists like Wassily Kandinsky also used the term to describe work. This style of art takes the spontaneity of Surrealism and injects it with the dark mood of trauma that lingered post-War.
Jackson Pollock is a leader of the movement, his drip paintings spotlighting the spontaneous creation and gestural paint application that defines the genre. The term Abstract Expressionism, though closely married to Pollock’s work, is not limited to one specific style. Work as varied as Willem de Kooning’s figurative paintings and Mark Rothko’s colour fields are grouped under the umbrella of Abstract Expressionism.
Artists to Know: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still
Iconic Painting: Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) by Jackson Pollock
Rising up in the 1950s, Pop Art is a pivotal movement that heralds the onset of contemporary art. This post-war style emerged in Britain and America, including imagery from advertising, comic books, and everyday objects. Often satirical, Pop Art emphasized banal elements of common goods, and is frequently thought of as a reaction against the subconscious elements of Abstract Expressionism.
Roy Lichtenstein’s bold, vibrant work is an excellent example of how parody and pop culture merged with fine art to make accessible art. Andy Warhol, the most famous figure in Pop Art, helped push the revolutionary concept of art as mass production, creating numerous silkscreen series of his popular works.
Artists to Know: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns
Iconic Painting: Campbell's Soup Cans by Andy Warhol
The seemingly contemporary art movement actually has its roots in Impressionism, when artists first began attempting to express movement in their art. In the early 1900s, artists began to experiment further with art in motion, with sculptural machine and mobiles pushing kinetic art forward. Russian artists Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko were the first creators of sculptural mobiles, something that would later be perfected by Alexander Calder.
In contemporary terms, kinetic art encompasses sculptures and installations that have movement as their primary consideration. American artist Anthony Howe is a leading figure in the contemporary movement, using computer-aided design for his large-scale wind-driven sculptures.
Artists to Know: Alexander Calder, Jean Tinguely, Anthony Howe
Iconic Artwork: Arc of Petals by Alexander Calder
Photorealism is a style of art that is concerned with the technical ability to wow viewers. Primarily an American art movement, it gained momentum in the late 1960s and 1970s as a reaction against Abstract Expressionism. Here, artists were most concerned with replicating a photograph to the best of their ability, carefully planning their work to great effect and eschewing the spontaneity that is the hallmark of Abstract Expressionism. Similar to Pop Art, Photorealism is often focused on imagery related to consumer culture.
Early Photorealism was steeped in nostalgia for the American landscape, while more recently; photorealistic portraits have become a more common subject. Hyperrealism is an advancement of the artistic style, where painting and sculpture are executed in a manner to provoke a superior emotional response and to arrive at higher levels of realism due to technical developments. A common thread is that all works must start with a photographic reference point.
Artists to Know: Chuck Close, Ralph Going,
Iconic Painting: Untitled by Yigal Ozeri
Lowbrow, also called pop surrealism, is an art movement that grew out of an underground California scene in the 1970s. Traditionally excluded from the fine art world, lowbrow art moves from painted artworks to toys, digital art, and sculpture. The genre also has its roots in underground commix, punk music, and surf culture, with artists not seeking acceptance from mainstream galleries. By mixing surrealism imagery with pop colours or figures, artists achieve dreamlike results that often play on erotic or satirical themes. The rise of magazines like Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose have given lowbrow artists a forum to display their work outside of mainstream contemporary art media.
Artists to Know: Mark Ryden, Ray Caesar
Iconic Painting: Incarnation by Mark Ryden