Modern Art
Definition, Characteristics, History, Movements.

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Weeping Woman (1937)
By Picasso, now regarded as the
greatest of 20th Century Painters.

Modern Art (c.1870-1970)


What is Modern Art?
When Did Modern Art Begin?
What Was the Main Modernist Trend in the Visual Arts?
Why Did Modern Artists Reject the Past?
What is the Main Characteristic of Modernism?
When Did Modern Art End? And What Replaced it?
Does Modern and Contemporary Art Overlap?
What are the Most Important Movements of Modern Art?
Who are the Top Artists?
What is the Most Expensive Painting of the Era?
Who are Currently the Top-10 Best-Selling Modern Artists?
Where Can You See Outstanding Collections of Modern Art?

Woman III (1953) Willem de Kooning

For details about the development
of Western painting and sculpture
see: History of Art Timeline.

What is Modern Art?

There is no precise definition of the term "Modern Art", although it usually refers to works produced during the approximate period 1870-1970. Typically, modern artists rejected previous Renaissance-based traditions, in favour of new forms of artistic experimentation. They used new materials, new techniques of painting, and developed new theories about how art should reflect the perceived world, and what their functions as artists should be. In addition, entirely new types of art were developed during the period.

When Did Modern Art Begin?

According to most art critics, Modernism in painting first started with the Frenchman Edouard Manet (1832-83) and the French Impressionists. However, we have decided to include the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as an early forerunner of modernism, for its rejection of traditional academic art forms of the 18th and early 19th century.

Movement In Squares (1961).
By Bridget Riley, Op-Art Movement.

For more information, see:
History of Art.

For the best examples of
oils, watercolours and
acrylics, see:
Greatest Modern Paintings.

For a list of the Top 10 and Top 20
of the finest painters & sculptors:
Best Artists of All Time: Top 10.

After the Pre-Raphaelites, the modern era encompasses ground-breaking movements like Art Nouveau, Cubism, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Pop-Art, as well as a host of smaller schools like Pointillism, Der Blaue Reiter, Die Brucke, Bauhaus, Orphism, Social Realism, Futurism, De Stijl, Op-Art, Hard Edge Painting and Feminist art, to name but a few.

Modern Art also witnessed the emergence of new media, like photography: see, for instance, History of Photography and 19th century photographers. As it was, the development of photographic art was given added impetus during the early 20th century by the growth of fashion photography and the emergence of highly creative comercial fashion photographers like Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. Other new artforms developed during the modern era include collage and its three-dimensional variant 'assemblage', animation and cinematography, as well as avant-garde art forms like Fluxus and early Conceptual art, as practiced for instance by Yves Klein (1928-62).

Modernism in architecture is a more complex notion. The word "modernism" in building design is normally used to describe a particular style which appeared around 1900, courtesy of Behrens, Le Corbusier, Gropius and others. However, in American architecture, one might say that modernism truly began with the Eiffel Tower (1887-89), that extraordinary icon of wrought-iron architecture designed by Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923), as well as with the advent of high-rise buildings in Chicago and New York during the last decade of the 19th century. This style of supertall Skyscraper architecture rapidly became the dominant form of modern building design during the 20th century.


What Was the Main Modernist Trend in the Visual Arts?

Not surprisingly, given the time span, Modern Art is characterized by no single trend, although it is fair to say that after Cubism it witnessed a significant rise in non-representational or abstract art, in both painting and sculpture, which was fully explored during the modern era by such abstract art movements as Constructivism, Suprematism, De Stijl, Colour Field, Op-Art, Post Painterly Abstraction, Minimalism and the St Ives School. (For a major collector of early 20th century modernist works, see: Peggy Guggenheim.)

Why Did Modern Artists Reject the Past?

Basically because they considered that the "official" view of art - represented by the established European Academies - was too backward-looking and no longer relevant to their careers as artists or to the development of their art. The social transformation wrought by the Industrial Revolution had triggered the emergence of new ideas in all areas including fine art, and artists were eager for change. Modernism reflected this new mood and engendered new forms of artistic expression on the grounds that they were more appropriate to modern life. These artforms often reflected a number of political agendas, frequently associated with utopian visions of human society, together with a strong if intermittent belief in progress. Indeed, the history of art in the first two thirds of the 20th century is closely interwined with the politics of the age, as exemplified by the demise of Paris (1940s onwards) as the centre of Western art, and the corresponding rise of New York.

What is the Main Characteristic of Modern Art?

The century between 1860 and 1960 encompassed so many differing styles (from realistic portraiture to whimsical Dada and Pop-Art) that it is difficult to think of any unifying theme which defined the era. But if there is anything that separates Modern artists from both the earlier traditionalists and later postmodernists, it is their self-belief that art mattered: it had real value.

In comparison, their precedessors simply "assumed" that art had value. They didn't even think about it. After all they lived in an era governed by religious meaning. Thus they simply "followed the rules." Those who came after the Modern period (mid-60s onwards), the so-called "postmodernists", largely rejected the idea that art (or life) had any intrinsic value. This is not a defining characteristic of modern art: merely a difference between the periods.

When Did Modern Art End? And What Replaced it?

Modernism didn't just stop, it faded gradually during the late 1960s - a period which coincided with the rise of mass pop-culture and also with the rise of anti-authoritarian challenges (in social and political areas as well as the arts) to the existing orthodoxies. As Modernism faded, a new general idiom emerged, usually referred to as Postmodernist art. In simple terms, Postmodernist schools advocate a new philosophy of art characterized by a greater focus on medium and style. They emphasize style over substance (eg. not 'what' but 'how'; not 'art for art's sake', but 'style for style's sake'), and place much greater importance on artist-communication with the audience. This new direction is closely intertwined with the spread of TV, video and the Internet, which now exerts a significant influence on the development of popular iconography.

Does Modern and Contemporary Art Overlap?

Although the 1960s is the basic cut-off point between "Modern" and "Contemporary" art, the world did not become post-modernist overnight. Some movements (eg. Pop-Art, Minimalism) included artists who were more forward-looking, and developed a more postmodernist or contemporary style. The same goes for new forms like Conceptual, Performance, Installation and Video Art, all of which can be classified as either "Modern" or "Contemporary". We happen to consider them under "Contemporary Art" because this is the era during which they were fully explored.

Modern Art Movements/Periods

Here is a list of Modern art movements, styles or schools, with a very short introduction to each, arranged in a rough chronological order. In some cases, movements have been grouped together for explanatory purposes.

Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1848-55)
Macchiaioli (1855-65)
Impressionist Art (1870s-80s) SEE: Impressionism
Neo-Impressionist Art (1880s on) SEE: Neo-Impressionism.
Newlyn Arts Colony (1880s on) SEE: Newlyn School
Art Nouveau (Fin de Siecle) SEE: Art Nouveau
Symbolists (Late 19th Century) SEE: Symbolism Movement
Post Impressionist Art (1880s on) SEE: Post Impressionism
Les Fauves (1905-1908) SEE: Fauvism
Expressionist Art (1900 on) SEE: Expressionism
The Bridge (1905-13) SEE: Die Brucke
Blue Rider (1911-14) SEE: Der Blaue Reiter
Ashcan (c.1900-15) SEE: Ashcan School
Cubist Art (c.1908-1914) SEE: Cubism
Orphic Cubism (1910-13) SEE: Orphism
Purism (Early, mid-1920s)
Precisionism (Cubist-Realism) (fl.1920s) SEE: Precisionism
Collages (1912 on) SEE: Collage Art
Futurism (1909-1914) SEE: Futurism.
Russian Rayonism (c.1912-14) SEE: Rayonism.
Armory Show (1913) America's best modern art show.
Russian Suprematism (1913-1918) SEE: Suprematism.
Russian Constructivism (c.1919-32) SEE: Constructivism.
Vorticist Art (c.1914-15) SEE: Vorticism.
Dada Style (1916-1924) SEE: Dada Anti-Art Movement
De Stijl (Dutch "style") (1917-31) SEE: De Stijl
Bauhaus (1919-1933) SEE: Bauhaus Design School
Neoplasticism (1920-40) SEE: Neo-Plasticism
Art Deco Design Style (1925-40) SEE: Art Deco
Paris School (1890-1940) SEE: Ecole de Paris
New Objectivity (1925-35) SEE: Die Neue Sachlichkeit
Surrealist Style (1924 on) SEE: Surrealism
Magic Realism (1920s)
Entartete Kunst (1930s, Germany) SEE: Degenerate Art
Social Realism (late 1920s, early 30s)
Socialist Realist Art (c.1928-80) SEE: Socialist Realism
St Ives (late 1930s onwards) SEE: St Ives School
Neo-Romanticism (1930s on)
Art Brut/Raw Art SEE: Art Brut
Organic Abstraction (1940s, 50s) SEE: Biomorphic Abstraction
Existential Art (1940s and 1950s)
Abstract Expressionists (50s) SEE: Abstract Expressionism
L'Art Informel (mid-1940s, 50s) SEE: Art Informel
Tachism (1940s, 50s) SEE: Tachisme
Arte Nucleare (c.1951-60)
Kitchen Sink Art (mid-1950s)
Assemblages (1950 on) SEE: Assemblage Art
Neo-Dada (1950s)
Optical Art (1950s-60s) SEE: Op-Art and Kinetic Art
Pop Art (1960s-70s) SEE: Pop Art Movement
New Realism (1960s)
PPA (Early, mid-1960s) SEE: Post Painterly Abstraction
Fluxus (1960s)
Feminist Art (late 1960s on)


Smaller Modern Art Movements

Other minor or splinter contemporary art groups, or styles, listed in rough chronological order, include: Kapists, Japonism, Bande Noire, Les Vingt, Rose + Croix, School of Pont-Aven, Cloisonnism, Les Nabis, Formists, Synchronism, Eat Art, Metaphysical Painting, Elementarism, Muralism, Sau Al Set, Art Non Figuratif, Lyrical Abstraction, Madi, Cobra group, Spatialism, Funk Art, The Calligraphers, Nuagism, Hard Edge Painting, Gutai Group, El Paso Movement (Spain), Grav, Exat 51, Nul, Zero, Gruppo T, Gruppo N, Equipo 57.

Modernism in Australia
For details, see: Australian Modern Painting (1900-60).

The Most Important Modern Artists

The period from 1860 to the mid-1960s has witnessed a pantheon of brilliant painters, sculptors, and other modern artists. Here is a short selection of the most famous.


Impressionism Movement (flourished 1873-1880)
One of the most revolutionary movements of modern representational art, its leading members included: Claude Monet (1840-1926); Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919); Edgar Degas (1834-1917); Camille Pissarro (1830-1903); Alfred Sisley (1839-1899); Edouard Manet (1832-83); Berthe Morisot (1841-1895); John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). See Impressionist Painters. See also associated groups outside France, such as Australian Impressionism, also referred to as the Heidelberg School (c.1886-1900).

Post-Impressionism Movement (flourished 1880-1900)
Modern artists who separated from mainstream Impressionist painting included: James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); Georges Seurat (1859-1891); Paul Cezanne (1839-1906); Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890); Paul Gauguin (1848-1903); Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901); Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940); Henri Matisse (1869-1954). See: Post-Impressionist Painters.

Primitive/Fantasy Style of Art
This umbrella category of modern painting includes the naive Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) (Le Douanier), and the versatile "symbolist", "expressionist" and "surrealists"; Paul Klee (1879–1940) and Marc Chagall (1887-1985).

Modern Realist Style
Modern realism flourished outside Europe and included these supreme masters of the idiom: Winslow Homer (1836-1910), Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), and Ilya Repin (1844-1930).

Art Nouveau (Late 19th/early 20th century)
Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98) and Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926).

Expressionism Movement (flourished 1905-1933)
Influenced by Fauvism, the Expressionist movement was dominated by German painters, notably members of Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider), Die Brucke (The Bridge) and Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). Leading expressionists included: Wassily Kandinsky (1844-1944), Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Egon Schiele (1890-1918), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Max Beckmann (1884-1950), Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), and Otto Dix (1891-1969). See also Expressionist Painters. For a short biography of one of the great champions of expressionist art, see: Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes (1909-29).

Cubism Movement (flourished 1908-14)
This revolutionary abstract art movement was co-founded by Georges Braque (1882-1963) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), and received valuable contributions from modern artists like: Juan Gris (1887-1927), Fernand Leger (1881-1955), Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) and Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968).

Geometric Abstraction Style
The two greatest abstract painters of the modern art era were Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935); Piet Mondrian (1872-1944).

Art Deco (1920s, 1930s)
As much a decorative art and design movement as a style of painting, its most famous representative was probably the glamorous Polish-Russian society portraitist Tamara de Lempicka (c.1895-1980).

The dominant fine art movement during the late 1920s and 1930s, owing much to the Metaphysical Painting of Giorgio De Chirico (1888-1978), its leading painters included: Joan Miro (1893-1983), Rene Magritte (1898-1967) and Salvador Dali (1904-89). See Surrealist Artists.

Abstract Expressionists
Abstract expressionist painting was the first great American art movement. Also known as the New York school, its leading members included: Mark Rothko (1903-70); Willem De Kooning (1904-97); Clyfford Still (1904-1980); Barnett Newman (1905-70); Jackson Pollock (1912-56); Philip Guston (1913-80); Robert Motherwell (1915-91), Franz Kline (1910-62) and others. See also: Jackson Pollock's paintings (1940-56).

This popular style of modern art superceded the more intellectual Abstract Expressionism and was exemplified by painters such as: Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97); Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008); Andy Warhol (1928-87).

Modern Sculptors

Leading exponents of sculpture during the modern era include: Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Ernst Barlach (1870-1938), Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967), Naum Gabo (1890-1977), Alexander Calder (1898-1976) and Alberto Giacometti (1901-66). Modernist French sculpture was exemplified by Marcel Duchamp's series of "readymades" - mass-produced "found objects". Modern British sculpture was led by Henry Moore (1898-1986), Barbara Hepworth (1903-75) and Ben Nicholson (1894-1982).

Art Appreciation
See: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture (1850-present).

Modern Printmaking

Modern exponents of printmaking - engraving, etching, lithographics and silkscreen - include: James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), MC Escher (1898-1972), Willem de Kooning (1904-97), Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Andy Warhol (1928-87).

Modern Stained Glass Art

Among the top exponents of stained glass art included: Marc Chagall (1887-1985), Joan Miro (1893-1983), Harry Clarke (1889-1931), Sarah Purser (1848-43) and Evie Hone (1894-1955).

Modern Photgraphy

Modern lens-based art is exemplified by the fine art photography of Man Ray (1890-1976), and the black-and-white landscapes of Ansel Adams (1902-84).


What is the Most Expensive Modern Art Painting?

Measured by auction sales prices, the world's most valuable painting of the modern era is: Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932), painted by Pablo Picasso, which sold in 2010 for $106.5 million at Christie's New York. In second place, is Garçon à la Pipe (1905), painted by Pablo Picasso, which sold in 2004 for $104.2 million at Sotheby's, New York. In third place, is Dora Maar with Cat (1941) also by Picasso, which sold in 2006 for $95.2 million at Sotheby's, New York. Reportedly, however, these world records have been exceeded by three paintings sold privately. (See below)

Who are Currently the Top-10 Best Selling Modern Artists?

To give you an idea of who are the most valuable artists in today's art market, here are the top 20 prices for paintings sold at public auction.

(1) The Scream (1895) Edvard Munch ($119.9 million) (2012)
(2) Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932) Pablo Picasso ($106.5m) (2010)
(3) Boy with Pipe (1905) Pablo Picasso. ($104.2m) (2004)
(4) Dora Maar with Cat (1941) Pablo Picasso. ($95.2m) (2006)
(5) Adele Bloch-bauer II (1912) Gustav Klimt. ($87.9m) (2006)
(6) Orange, Red, Yellow (1961) by Mark Rothko ($86.9 million) (2012)
(7) Triptych (1976) Francis Bacon. ($86.3m) (2008)
(8) Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890) Van Gogh. ($82.5m) (1990)
(9) Ball at the Moulin de la Galette (1876) Renoir. ($78.1m) (1990)
(10) Massacre of the Innocents (1611) Rubens. ($76.7 million) (2002)
(11) White Center (Yellow/Pink/Lavender) (1950) Rothko. ($72.8m) (2007)
(12) Lily Pond (1919) Claude Monet £49.9 million ($80.5m (2008)
(13) Green Car Crash (1963) Andy Warhol ($71.7m) (2007)
(14) Portrait of the Artist Without a Beard (1889) Van Gogh ($71.5m) (1998)
(15) Nude Sitting on a Divan (1917) Modigliani ($68.9m) (2010)
(16) Men in Her Life (1962) Andy Warhol ($63.4m) (2010)
(17) 1949-A-No.1 (1949) Clyfford Still ($61.7m) (2011)
(18) Curtain, Jug and Fruit-dish (1894) Paul Cezanne ($60.5m) (1999)
(19) Suprematist Composition (1916) Kasimir Malevich ($60m) (2008)
(20) Woman with Folded Arms (1902) Pablo Picasso ($55m) (2000)

World Record Art Prices
For information about the world's most highly priced works of art and record auction prices, see: Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings.

Where Can You See Outstanding Collections of Modern Art?

Here is a selected list of some of the best art museums and galleries whose collections include works by "Modernist" painters and sculptors. Note however, that museums sometimes use the term "Modern Art" in a narrower sense, meaning works by 20th Century artists only.


Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum
Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum
Berlin: Nationalgalerie
Budapest: Museum of Fine Arts
Dublin: City Gallery: The Hugh Lane
Dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art
London: Tate Britain
London: Tate Modern
London: National Gallery
Milan: Galleria d'Arte Moderne
Moscow: Pushkin Museum
Moscow: Tretyakov Gallery
Munich: Neue Pinakothek
Munich: Pinakothek der Moderne
Paris: Musee d'Orsay
Paris: Musee Marmottan Monet
Paris: Rodin Museum
St. Petersburg: Hermitage
Venice: Guggenheim


Baltimore: Museum of Art
Boston: Museum of Fine Arts
Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago
Cleveland: Museum of Art
Detroit: Institute of Arts
Los Angeles: J Paul Getty Museum
Minneapolis: Institute of Arts
New York: Samuel R Guggenheim Museum
New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York: Museum of Modern Art MoMA
Philadelphia: Museum of Art
Philadelphia: Barnes Collection
Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art
Washington DC: National Gallery of Art
Washington: Phillips Collection

• For more details of modern art movements, painters & sculptors, see: Homepage.

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