Modern Painting


Table Summary

Summary of Modern Painting
Early Modern
ca. 1850-1900
Late Modern
ca. 1900-60
realism impressionism post-impressionism 1900-WWI interwar WWII-1960
Courbet Manet > Monet geometric: Cézanne
fluid: van Gogh
geometric: cubism > geometric abstraction
fluid: expressionism > fluid abstraction
Europe: Dada, surrealism
US: American scene painting
ca. 1960-present
new aesthetics minimalism, hyperrealism, pop art
new media conceptual art, performance art, installation art

General Features

The modern period of art history witnessed the demolition of traditional restrictions, in terms of both form (the appearance of art) and content (the subject matter). This occurred in all branches of art, with painting leading the way; indeed, painters had led aesthetic innovation in Europe since the end of antiquity.F487 The most prominent innovation in form was the rise of increasingly distorted painting styles, culminating in the birth of abstract art. In terms of content, painting of the modern period tends to feature ordinary, everyday scenes, as opposed to the traditional "lofty" subjects (biblical, mythological, historical).

The modern period witnessed the conclusion of the "age of academies". In the context of art history, an academy is an official body that upholds traditional artistic standards, via the provision of artistic training and the hosting of prestigious exhibitions. These exhibitions, which could make or break an artist's career, would naturally only accept works of art that respected the academy's standards. (Such works are known as "academic art".)C116

Academies flourished in Europe from the Renaissance up to the Neoclassical/Romantic era. Though their grip on aesthetic standards was often challenged by unorthodox artists, it was only truly shattered in the modern age. This was largely due to the expansion of the middle class, which allowed artists to sell to a public audience rather than depending on commissions from nobles or clergy (whose tastes generally conformed to academic standards).C116

Modern art movements tended to flourish most strongly in Western Europe and the United States, and to a lesser extent in Eastern Europe. France was the leading region of modern art until WWII, at which point the United States (namely New York) took over for a few decades. Since the late twentieth century, however, the world of art has largely ceased to feature dominant trends led by a particular region, or indeed dominant trends at all.D11,G500

Non-Western art played a key role in the development of modern art. In the search for new aesthetic possibilities, Western artists found limitless inspiration in the traditions of other cultures across the world. Sub-Saharan Africa, the pre-colonial Americas, and Oceania were particularly influential.H1033

Main Article

Early Modern Painting

ca. 1850-1900

The birth of modern painting is often traced to realism, a French movement that depicted scenes of everyday life in a physically realistic manner (see Western Aesthetics). Although realistic scenes of everyday life date back to Renaissance Low Countries painting, the modern "realism" movement took a fresh approach by focusing on harsh realities, including poverty, homelessness, and oppressive working conditions. The movement was led by Gustave Courbet, whose foremost works are The Stone Breakers and Funeral at Ornans.D460,F83,20

<em>The Stone Breakers</em>
<em>Funeral at Ornans</em>
<em>The Grain Sifters</em>

Although distortion, not realism, would become the dominant trend of modern painting, realist art has nonetheless continued to flourish up to the present day. Much of this art is, like the original French movement, socially conscious.29

The next major phase of modern painting was impressionism, a swift, sketchy style that captures the overall impression of a scene (as opposed to precise detail). In particular, impressionism attempts to capture the momentary effects of light, largely via adjacent dabs of bright, contrasting colours (which heightens the brightness of both colours, thus producing a shimmering effect). The impressionists were the first group of artists to paint mainly on site, rather than sketching on site and painting back in the studio.

The roots of impressionism lie in the works of Édouard Manet, who painted in a fairly realistic style. Manet provoked controversy, however, by adhering only loosely to perspective, rendering backgrounds in a simplified sketchy manner, and flattening the surfaces of objects into areas of solid colour (instead of modelling objects with smooth shading). These tendencies first clearly manifested in Luncheon on the Grass, Manet's most famous early painting. They become more pronounced in his later works, including Bar at the Folies-Bergère, often considered his masterpiece.F100,G452,H980-83

<em>Luncheon on the Grass</em>
<em>Bar at the Folies-Bergère</em>
<em>Portrait of Berthe Morisot</em>

The extension of Manet's style led to impressionism, as sharp detail and realistic modelling were abandoned in favour of rapid brushstrokes and dabs of solid colour.C113,F410

The foremost impressionist was Claude Monet, who worked mainly in landscapes and seascapes. His early work includes many coastal paintings around his hometown of Le Havre, including Impression: Sunrise. When this work was criticized as a “mere impression”, the name of the style was secured.6,7

Sometimes Monet would return to a subject multiple times, at varying hours or seasons, in order to capture a full range of lighting conditions. This approach culminated in the famous water-lilies series, which features many treatments of the lily-pond outside the home to which Monet retired.7

<em>Fishing Boats Leaving the Harbour</em>
<em>Impression: Sunrise</em>
Painting from the Water-lilies Series

Impressionism encompasses many of the most recognized names in painting. Along with Monet, impressionist landscape painting was led by Sisley and Pissarro. The most prominent figure painters in the impressionist style were Renoir, Morisot, and Degas.

The impressionists, who lightly blurred and simplified reality, were followed by a group of artists who took distortion much further: the post-impressionists, who found that striking new emotional effects were possible if the forms and colours of reality were more dramatically transformed. Some post-impressionists pursued geometric distortion (in which the world is compressed into geometric shapes, creating a sense of rigidity and control), while others explored fluid distortion (in which the world is skewed in a flowing, organic fashion). Both types of distortion (especially fluid) often feature dramatically unrealistic colours (see Realism vs. Stylization).

The leading pioneer of geometric distortion was Paul Cézanne, who gently simplified the physical features of a scene into geometric forms. This resulted in landscapes (his preferred subject) with a somewhat rigid, "blocky" appearance.H997-98

Mont Sainte-Victoire Landscape
Mont Sainte-Victoire Landscape
Mont Sainte-Victoire Landscape
Mont Sainte-Victoire Landscape
Provence Mountain Landscape
The Bibémus Quarry

The foremost pioneer of fluid distortion was Vincent van Gogh. (Other major figures include Gauguin, Munch, and Toulouse-Lautrec.) Van Gogh's style is flowing and colourful, with particular emphasis on yellow. Starry Night may be his most famous work.F436-38,H998

Starry Night
Café Terrace at Night
Vase with Twelve Sunflowers
Wheat Field with Cypresses
The Night Café
View of Arles with Irises

Georges Seurat developed a highly distinctive form of post-impressionism: pointillism, in which scenes are rendered in many single-coloured dots.2 The most famous pointillist work is Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte.

<em>Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte</em>, Seurat
<em>Eiffel Tower</em>, Seurat
<em>Entrance to the Port of Marseilles</em>, Signac

Symbolism and Cartoonism

The movement known as symbolism flourished during the early modern period of art history (ca. 1850-1900). Unlike most "ism" labels, this term does not describe the form (appearance) of a painting, but rather the content (subject matter). Symbolist painters attempted to convey meaning in a completely indirect manner, through a wide range of visual symbols; these symbols might be taken from existing sources (e.g. religion, mythology) or devised by the artist. The juxtaposition of symbols often gave rise to paintings with a fantastic, dreamlike quality.D517

Yet symbolism, as noted above, is not a visual style. Thus, in order to actually produce a symbolist painting, an artist had to adopt an existing visual style. All available styles, from realistic to highly-distorted, were used by this movement.D517

Symbolist Painting
Symbolist Painting

The aesthetic of cartoonism, used by many artists from the early modern period (ca. 1850-1900) onward, depicts the world in a "cartoonish" way via simplified shapes, textures, and colours. In a typical cartoonist painting, objects have simple shapes and crisp outlines, details are reduced in favour of uniform surfaces, and each surface is filled with a single colour (which may be flat or smoothly graded). The overall effect is distinctly "cartoonish", since these features also characterize drawn animation.

One of the most famous artists to regularly employ cartoonism was Henri Rousseau, known especially for his jungle scenes.

<em>The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope</em>
<em>The Ship in the Tempest</em>
<em>The Chair Factory</em>

Cubism and Expressionism

Art, and especially modern art, is prone to extremes of labelling; every tiny sub-movement has a name (usually ending in "ism"), which can be bewildering. Essential Humanities only cites the most broad and useful aesthetic labels, with the goal of enabling amateur scholars to discuss any work of art in basic, widely-understood terms.

For instance, there are essentially two ways a painter can distort the physical world. One is geometric distortion, which shatters the world in a rigid, geometric manner. The other is fluid distortion, which skews the world in a relaxed, organic manner.

Paintings that feature strong geometric distortion are encompassed by the term cubism (see examples), while paintings that feature strong fluid distortion fall under the term expressionism (see examples). Despite a plethora of other labels, all heavily-distorted painting can be described using these two terms. Cubism, for instance, encompasses such sub-styles as futurism, orphism, and purism.

Rise of Extreme Distortion

ca. 1900-WWI

Ca. 1900-WWI was an extraordinary period in the world of art, which may be dubbed the rise of extreme distortion. To begin with, fluid and geometric distortion were pushed to incredible extremes, giving rise to full-blown expressionism and cubism. Then, once distortion had been pushed to its very limit, abstract art was born.

Rise of Extreme Distortion
post-impressionism ca. 1900-WWI
fluid distortion van Gogh expressionism (Matisse) fluid abstraction (Kandinsky)
geometric distortion Cézanne cubism (Picasso) geometric abstraction (Malevich)

In the field of geometric distortion, Cézanne's style evolved into cubism, in which the world is severely flattened, simplified, and fragmented into geometric shapes, and multiple views of an object are often simultaneously depicted.26 The foremost practitioner (and co-inventor, along with Georges Braque) of cubism was Spanish-French artist Pablo Picasso. Apart from Cézanne, Picasso's chief source of inspiration was traditional Sub-Saharan masks, which often possess harsh, angular features.C172

African inspiration is evident in the founding work of cubism, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon ("The Women from Avignon"; see image).F137,H1046 In this painting, the two women on the right have faces that resemble Sub-Saharan masks. Note that some of the women's faces are presented from multiple angles simultaneously.

Cubism can be divided into two main types. One is analytic cubism, which shatters the world into geometric pieces; Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is one example. The other is synthetic cubism, in which the overall aesthetic is similar, but the picture is created by assembling abstract shapes; perhaps the most famous example is Picasso's Three Musicians (see image). In addition to painting, synthetic cubism lends itself well to collage (another Picasso/Braque invention), which may be defined as "two-dimensional assemblage".C175-79,F138,G477,H1049

As the leading master of cubism (extreme geometric distortion), Picasso became one of the two giants of the early twentieth-century art world. The other was Henri Matisse, the foremost pioneer of expressionism (extreme fluid distortion).C160,F134

The first group of artists to practise fully-developed expressionism were the French Fauves, led by Matisse. The other great early practitioners were the German expressionists, who emerged soon after the Fauves. (The German expressionists can be divided into two main groups, both of which gave themselves unusual names: "The Bridge" and "The Blue Rider".) Fauve paintings are typically bright and cheerful (see examples), while those of the German expressionists are often harsh and sombre (see examples).C170,F130-2,G471,H1033

One of the leading German expressionists was Russian-German Wassily Kandinsky, who is also credited with the very first abstract paintings.11 While abstract designs have been used since the stone age to decorate functional surfaces, only since the "rise of extreme distortion" has abstract art been created for its own sake; in other words, this period witnessed the birth of abstract fine art (as opposed to applied art). These earliest abstract paintings, which are examples of fluid abstraction, resulted from Kandinsky pushing the limits of expressionism until it no longer resembled anything in the physical world.

Before long, fluid abstraction was joined by geometric abstraction, which first appeared in the works of Russian Kazimir Malevich. Geometric abstraction emerged in an equivalent manner to its fluid counterpart, as Malevich pushed cubist distortion to its limits. The specific style of geometric abstraction that Malevich developed, known as suprematism, features geometric shapes floating in white space.22,23

Interwar Painting

ca. 1920-40

The interwar period featured two sharply divergent artistic trends. Europe was dominated by bizarre art, of which the principal strains were Dada and surrealism. Meanwhile, American scene painting (which typically features a cartoonist aesthetic) flourished in the United States.

In the wake of World War I, many artists were overcome with nihilism: the view that traditional values (including notions of beauty and goodness) and life in general are meaningless and absurd. Various philosophers, most prominently Friedrich Nietzsche, had explored the subject of nihilism in recent decades; Nietzsche famously declared the death of traditional religion and morality.

Nihilist artists, known collectively as the Dada movement, embraced meaningless and/or absurd art, such as poems composed of randomly selected words, collages and sculptures made with everyday objects (including junk), and readymades (in which an already-existing object is simply designated as "art"). The rationale behind a "readymade" is that once someone has proclaimed an object to be a work of art, people think about that object in a different way; thus, the proclamation serves as a creative choice that changes the object (in terms of human perception). Sometimes minor alterations were conducted, resulting in an assisted readymade.G488,H1069-73,20,27

Regardless of one's opinions regarding nihilism, one can appreciate the Dada movement's artistic innovations. The most famous figure of the movement is Marcel Duchamp, whose L.H.O.O.Q., a postcard of the Mona Lisa with moustache and beard added (see image), is possibly the most famous work of Dada graphic art.

Dada contributed to the development of surrealism, which also embraced absurdity, but for a different reason. While Dada artists used it to mock traditional values, surrealists argued that absurd images could be used to explore a level of truth largely untouched by preceding styles of art. By depicting the sorts of bizarre images only seen in dreams, surrealist art was intended to resonate with both the viewer's conscious and unconscious mind, thereby conveying truths that conscious images alone cannot reach.F149,28

To generate these "unconscious images", surrealist artists drew upon their own dreams. They also employed automatism, in which an artist lets go of conscious thought and paints whatever images come to mind "automatically". This often resulted in paintings that feature ordinary things in bizarre arrangements. (Thus, surrealist art often resembles symbolist art; indeed, the surrealist movement was partly inspired by the symbolists' notion of expressing truth indirectly.)C196,31

Like symbolism, surrealism only dictated the content (subject matter) of a painting, not the form (visual style); in order to actually execute paintings, the surrealists had to adopt existing visual styles. Again, like the symbolists, they employed a wide range of styles, from realistic to highly distorted.C200 The foremost surrealist painter is Salvador Dalí, whose most famous work is The Persistence of Memory (see image).

The strongest countercurrent to Europe's interwar bizarreness was found in the United States, where many artists resisted the extreme aesthetics radiating from Europe. Here, the interwar period witnessed the flourishing of American scene painting, which portrays scenes of everyday American life, both rural and urban. (Many works of American scene painting have a distinct local flavour; consequently, the movement is also known as "regionalism".)G492

American scene painting was inspired by New York's Ashcan school, which thrived during the rise of extreme distortion (ca. 1900-WWI). Ashcan school artists captured scenes of everyday life in a range of styles, from sharp realism to impressionism (see examples).F154 American scene painting continued the work of the Ashcan school, but instead embraced the visual aesthetic of cartoonism.

American scene painting flourished primarily in two regions: the Midwest and New York. The two leading Midwestern artists of the movement were Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, while the New York branch was led by Edward Hopper. The most famous American scene paintings are likely Wood's American Gothic (see image) and Hopper's Nighthawks (see image).

Postwar Painting

ca. WWII-1960

The foremost painting style to emerge in the wake of the Second World War was abstract expressionism, centred in New York. Abstract expressionism, which features homogenous visual fields with a minimum of distinct parts or sections, can be divided into two main types. One is action painting, in which the canvas is covered in lines of paint (which may be applied with a brush or poured directly on the canvas); the other is colour-field painting, which features rectangles of solid colour.G501,21,30

Action painters often poured their works in an automatist manner, by "letting go" and allowing their movements to be dictated subconsciously.21 The foremost action painter was American Jackson Pollock, while the most renowned colour-field artist was Russian-American Mark Rothko.

Postmodern Painting

ca. 1960-present

Throughout the early (ca. 1850-1900) and late (ca. 1900-60) modern periods, artists swept away traditional limitations on art. Consequently, the postmodern era could be dubbed the age of total aesthetic freedom. This provides a natural conclusion to a survey of art history, as it marks the end of dominant, mainstream aesthetic movements (which had been crumbling throughout the late modern period). While there will always be localized trends within specific regions and disciplines, one can only summarize postmodern art as a whole by stating that "anything goes".

Nonetheless, some postmodern movements can be singled out as particularly innovative and influential. Six of these movements are described below, of which three (minimalism, hyperrealism, and pop art) featured new aesthetics for conventional forms, while the other three (conceptual art, performance art, and installation art) provided new forms altogether.

Minimalism, which was centred in New York, embraces severely simple geometric designs, typically with sharply defined edges.18,32 (Minimalism was presaged by the sparser paintings of the suprematist movement.) Frank Stella is considered the "father of minimalism".C226

In stark contrast to minimalism, the aesthetic of hyperrealism features extremely realistic depictions of the physical world, both two-dimensional (graphic art) and three-dimensional (sculpture). Hyperrealist paintings (the most famous medium of the aesthetic), for instance, are created with meticulous reference to photographs, resulting in painted works that are virtually indistinguishable from photography.

Pop art, which incorporates everyday objects and aspects of popular culture (e.g. movies and television, advertisements, comics), thrived chiefly in America and Britain. Although pop art shared Dada's embrace of unconventional subjects and materials, it was conceived as relateable, everyday art rather than as an expression of nihilism.34 The most famous pop artist is Andy Warhol.

In conceptual art, primary focus is placed on an idea rather than a physical object. The conceptual artist asserts that the very concept of a painting (for instance) constitutes a work of art, regardless of whether it is actually painted. Conceptual art is often conveyed in the form of description or instruction; a conceptual exhibit might consist simply of the words "a painting of a tree by a lake" printed on a card, or a list of instructions for painting this picture. Another method is to videotape an artist in the process of creation, thus documenting the realization of a concept in physical form.37,39

While conceptual art truly began to flourish in the postmodern age, its birth can be traced to the readymades of the Dada movement. A readymade is simply any object that an artist declares to be a work of art. A readymade is thus created solely through the application of a concept, which causes observers to look at the object differently.

A related movement is performance art, in which the work of art is a performed event. The performance may include narration, music, dance, and/or visual art. Traditional forms of performance (e.g. concerts, plays) are usually excluded from the definition of "performance art".40,41

A work of installation art transforms an entire site into a work of art. The "site" may be an interior space (from a single room to an entire building) or an exterior space (from a small urban park to a vast rural landscape). Installation art is thus experienced as an environment, rather than observed as an object. A work of installation art might entail filling a space with an enormous, rambling work of sculpture (which visitors might be required to navigate), or lining the walls of a room with video screens (such that the room is flooded with footage of the artist's choosing). Works of installation art that manipulate the natural environment are often known as earthworks (aka earth art, land art).

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