Home Magazine How can we define Modern Art Painting?

Towards the end of the 1800s, Modern Artists began to move away from tradition. Armed with more freedom than ever before, they revolutionised Oil Painting. 

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Modern Art encompasses all the pieces which were created from the end of the 19th century up until mid-20th century. It refers to a practically entire century of artworks and revolutionary ideas. This was a period of flourishing artistic movements and ground-breaking techniques. 

Running from about the 1880s up until to the arrival of Pop Art in the 1960s-70s - after this, we normally talk about Contemporary Art - Modern Art history is a pivotal moment for the Arts. 

If we look back on all movements preceding this moment in time, we can easily find that the techniques would blend into the background with tiny brushstrokes and delicate shades. 

Until the end of the 19th century Art History was characterised by quite impersonal and epic scenes. A work of art had the purpose of talking to a vast audience about leading classes and central religious themes. It was a way of speaking to the masses and reinforcing a dominant narrative. 

Realist paintings were the first to introduce a different and rather humble perspective belonging to poorer classes. But Modern Art Paintings took this further. They represented a true revolution for the Art World, moving from the big epic topics of the past to those of an individual’s life. Emotions and subjectivity which were absent before, took centre stage.

With Modern Art, conventions and technical requirements are broken and overthrown. Tradition is seemingly abandoned by many artists. It is not an exaggeration to say that these masterpieces revolutionised Art, its purpose and the way we see an Artist today.

Claude Monet, Irises, 1914-17, Courtesy of The National Gallery ©2016-2021 The National Gallery.


What is Modern Art?

What is Modern Art? What is so revolutionary about Modern artworks? 

The history of Modern Art has been marked by a constant effort to define, or re-define, its boundaries. Many art critiques have had opposing views on what is Modern Art, what defines it and when, or if it can be ascribed to a particular period in time at all.

Many see Modern Art continue up until today, not having a sharp separation between Modern and Contemporary Art.

Nevertheless, Modern Art showed us a completely new vocabulary for artists working with oil paintings. It truly represented a whole new language, reflecting the Modern Era.

In fact, towards the end of the 1800s, some artists started to use their artworks to depict the figurative with more freedom than ever before. Slowly the canons of art and representation which linked art to a realistic, truthful and faithful way of capturing the real world, were seen as outdated.

Soon after, artists like Vincent van Gogh shifted their focus to an internal, subjective and emotional dimension. The depiction of this, and how the outer world can be distorted, emphasised or transformed came to be at the centre of the Art World.

However, this shift was not automatic. As most of us will know, Vincent van Gogh was not seen as a central ground-breaking artist during his life. It was only after his death that he was recognised. Others were much more fortunate. But still, in the last 20 years of the 19th century, there were only a few artists breaking the rules.

How do Vincent van Gogh’s masterpieces stand apart from the artworks of the pre-modern Art World? Looking back on the History of Art, why can we say this was a break with the past?


Emile Bernard, Self-Portrait with Portrait of Gauguin, ca. 1888, Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum ©2021 Van Gogh Museum.


The first step away from this was taken by the Impressionists in the 1800s. They opened the path for the modern Era by turning to the world that surrounds them and rejecting the requirements of the Academia.

So, what do we see in the Modern Era? Well, after the pre-expressionists like Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, many artists took from these rebels. 

The works of the post-impressionists showed how paint could be used very differently. Rather than the quiet and invisible brushstrokes of realism, these artists introduced masses of texture and glossy paint or free strokes and bold colours and lines.

Even the themes were different, showing much more personal research behind their body of works. There was a whole new vocabulary in painting, and this language grew more and more as artists started to break the rules and take from each other.

This is why art critic Clement Greenberg has defined Modernism and Modern Art, as the art movement which turned to the medium itself. This was what we see when we look at the artworks. Modern Art Paintings are all about the paint.

In fact, Modern Art Paintings take this focus to the limit with artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. More than any others before them, these two artists matured and developed a completely different way of using paint, basing themselves on revolutionary techniques as well as a more individual and nearly sacred understanding of art. 

For example, Jackson Pollock took the expressive gesture we saw in Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, making the action even more central. 

It is the immediacy of act, the graphic and bold vibrancy of the colours and the visibility of the brushstrokes which define the Modern Artists’ work.


Jackson Pollock, Yellow Islands, 1952, Courtesy of the Tate ©ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021.


Why did Modern Art emerge?

In the second half of the 1800s, we had scientific and social transformations which changed the way we see individuals, perceived the upper classes and view the Arts. As a consequence, Modern Art Painting reflected this booming period.

Religion was no longer at the centre of society and ruling classes were questioned and dethroned in many countries in Europe. 

Photography also played its part. This technique became more and more widespread making portraiture less time consuming and more affordable. Works of art did not need to capture reality accurately and truthfully anymore. Now Photography could document real life scenes.

In the 1800s, Medicine and Science also changed as Psychology has begun to question the human mind, giving particular importance to lived and individual experiences.

What’s more, the possibility of travelling and meeting different cultures, traditions first-hand increased. This meant artists could learn from different canons of representation opened up many people’s minds. 

For instance, Japanese art prints really influenced Western artists as they became increasingly available. Vincent van Gogh took the motifs, flat colours and the strong outlines typical of Japanese works of art, incorporating them in his work.

So many innovations and events lead to profound changes in society and political and social ideas started to echo the needs of the poorer working classes. 

Everything started to change. It is only by looking at the history of the 20th century that we can say that the unpredictable social and political changes – as well as the technological innovations – came extremely quickly, revolutionising all aspects of Western Society.

The purpose of Art – and painting especially – had to reflect these transformations. Artists began to reflect the conditions in which many were living and offer a much more subjective point of view in their works. It was a direct result of social and political change. Art had to renew itself in this moment in time.

Indeed, after centuries of rather conservative art movements, Modernism was the current which started to see the Artist as a true revolutionary, someone who brings a very personal and strong perspective to the Arts.

The Artist slowly became a celebrity, and artworks were seen to have an authenticity which connected the viewer to the star creator.


Henri Matisse, André Derain, 1905, Courtesy of the Tate ©Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2021. 


What Art Movements mark Modern Art?

The post-impressionists appeared soon after the Impressionists. Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin were to be the first big figures as Modernism developed. They set the foundations for the many movements which are the peak of Modernism.

Inspired by the simple graphic effects of Japanese prints, other cultures or mediums, they created pioneering paintings becoming the basis for the theories and manifestos of the (extremely close) peak of modernism.

At the turn of the century, many groups started to appear, following the teachings of the post-impressionists.

These groups gave shape to the Avant-Garde movements. Political and revolutionary ideas were at their centre. Dada, Fascism, Primitivism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Surrealism, Abstract Art…These are just some of the names which spring to mind. 

Cubism with its focus on shapes, colour and solidity, and artists such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, followed the teachings of Paul Cézanne. With artists such as Henri Matisse, Expressionism and Fauvism gave an incredible emotional weight to each brushstroke, taking from Vincent van Gogh’s works. Gauguin was the father of Primitivism, turning more abruptly away from the Western World and fleeing tradition to explore other cultures. 

This was when we see Modern Art, and Modern Art Painting, enter the art world with a roar.


Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Fruit Dish, 1897-80, Courtesy of the MOMA ©2021 The Museum of Modern Art.


Georges Braque, The Billiard Table, 1945, Courtesy of the Tate ©ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021.


These movements brought strong colours and lines, energetic brushstrokes and bold shapes. They took from the post-impressionists but leaped forward courageously. 

Of course, the First and Second World Wars left their marks. The focus on the individual’s emotions became even more central as terror, suffering and death affected so many across Europe, and the World.

In particular, from the disastrous events of the Second World War, stemmed Artistic movements such as Art Informal and Abstract Expressionism. The focus on paint and material slowly strengthened as the already fragile link with the figurative was lessened to give space to the medium, the processes and the actions of the painter.

Other movements of this Post-War Era, as well as the most well-known Abstract Expressionist movement, included Colour Field Painting, Lyrical Expressionism, Hard-edge and Minimalist Art.

The proximity we sense with the artist, the quality, vibrancy and research in these works is incredible. Paint was used like never before.

It is the climax of Modern Art History. 

And this final act ends up overlapping the emergence of Pop Art which could not be less tied to the materiality of the medium. With this movement we reach the end of Modern Art, which shifted away from the artwork’s unique connection to the artist, moving towards a nearly infinite reproduction of printed series. 

With the end of the Modern, technologies and the media entered the Art World in a bewildering way.


Mark Rothko, No. 10, 1950, Courtesy of the MOMA ©1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Like Society, Art was forever transformed in the Modern Era. It is an acceleration which ruptured everything known and accepted until then. But as the political and social context created the Modern, many unforeseeable events continue to change the Arts at an even faster pace leading to the Contemporary corpus of Art created today.

Moreover, from the Modern we learn that as the world innovates itself, Art must do this just as fast. Paintings and the canons of representation are reinvented to reflect a specific moment in history, new ideas and currents.

Modern, Contemporary and what next? 

We cannot know how artists will adapt the medium of painting in present or future times.


Cover image: Salvador Dalí, Illumined Pleasures, 1929, Courtesy of the MOMA ©2021 Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Written by Zoë Rivas Zanello

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