Home Magazine What is Modern Art?

What can we define as Modern Art? Often confused with Contemporary Art, the term Modern Art is used to refer to a period of about one hundred years – more specifically to the period from the 1860s to the 1970s, a time when experimental artistic styles and philosophies gave birth to a variety of new expressive outputs.

Related articles: Modernism in visual art - 51 Most Popular Contemporary Artists 

Modern Art Definition

Modern Art includes artistic work dated roughly between the 1860s and the 1970s and characterized by the attempt of throwing aside traditions of the past, in a spirit of experimentation. Although it may seem difficult to identify a red thread connecting all of the different movements that characterize Modern Art, there indeed is a common ground that links all of the famous modernist solutions. The rise of Abstraction, the advent of the famous Avant-garde movement and the newest possibilities given by the discovery of new industrial materials, are all united by their need towards expressiveness as the main and overall trend of Modern Art. As a matter of fact, a gradual metamorphosis, slow but steady, took place in the course of the development of Modern Art. A series of famous Modernist novelties and styles were adopted by artists in different nations, trying to escape from ancient narratives in order to create an inedited future.

Modern art has a close relation with Modernism - a response to the radically shifting conditions of life which sparked due to the rise of industrialization. Hence it’s definition is often expressed in the following terms: the term modern art defines the style and conception of art typical of the period between the mid-nineteenth century and the twentieth century and, more generally, to artistic expressions that express a form of "rejection" of the past and openness to experimentation. Modern art was conceived within the modernized context of the society of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries; when the social, economic, and cultural life was revolutionized in the widest sense by a new view of the world.

The pioneers of Modern Art were Romantics, Realists, and Impressionists. Realism, with its attention to detail and its atypical point of view, is often recognized as the first truly modernist movement in visual art. What are nowadays known as Realists, aimed to capture the truths that could be found in their surroundings, with uncompromising and unidealized accuracy. This stood as a heavy response to the mainly religious and highly idealised paintings that populated the “Salons” in Paris. 
Modern Art movement
Even though the exact date of birth of Modern art is most commonly identified in 1863, when Edouard Manet’s masterpiece “Le Dèjeneur Sur L’Herbe” was shown in the Salon des Refusés. There is an earlier painting that changed the way of perceiveing society; in “its worst, and its average”, as Gustave Courbet once explained. It is in fact the Realist work titled “The Painter's Studio” (1855) by Gustave Courbet, that represents the prodrome stages of the Avant-Garde as well as the new vision of Modern Art.
Edouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass, 1863. Image via Wikipedia Common.


Modern art and the fame of the famous modern art artists, lasted until cultural critics began to talk about "the end of painting” - the title of a provocative article by Douglas Crimp first presented as a lecture in Los Angeles in 1981. 

Nowadays, museums and art collections cover an incredibly important role, allowing us to look at the beauty and greatness that was created during the past. Modern Art, as well as the periods that came before and after this time of incredible growth, is nowadays treasured within the walls of Museums and private collections. Speaking of which, it may be interesting to follow the case of the new Museum opening soon in Seoul; an institution that will host the Samsung Group chairman’s private collection, which will allow the public to admire over 23,000 works of art. As can be read in the Korea Herald, “The aim is to share the donator’s collection and his philosophy behind collecting the artwork with the wider public”.

In this article, we will traverse Modern Art discovering 20 essential artists who embody the main features that define them as modern art artists, ranging from the 19th Century to the time after World War II, including Andy Warhol’s and his research surrounding the Icons of what is now known as Pop Art.
Gustave Courbet, The Painter's Studio: A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life, 1855, oil on canvas, 361 cm × 598 cm (142 in × 235 in), © Muséè d’Orsay, Paris.


1. Gustave Courbet (b.1819)

Gustave Courbet was the pioneer of Realism and is still nowadays recognized as its most famous exponent. Stylistically, he often employed the use of a palette knife to create heavy and materic paintings which created a visible distance from the overly finished and carefully refined aesthetic that belonged to academic paintings. 

Courbet, who was born at Ornans, exhibited at the Paris saloon in 1844. However, his revered reputation was affected from this point on, due to the controversial nature of his work. He is well-known for staging the first solo show outside of any institution, after he was rejected from showing in Paris’ Exposition Universelle in 1855. To counterattack the academic institutions, he put on what is known as the “Pavilion of Realism”; a tent-like structure, which was used to showcase his works and his position as a realist, a statement which shows Courbet’s close relation with the experimental approach of the yet to come Modern Art. 
Generally speaking, Courbet was highly committed to painting non-romanticized visions of the world, and this is reflected in works such as The Stone Breakers (1849). 


Gustave Courbet, The Stone Breakers, 1849. Courtesy of Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister.


2. Edouard Manet (b.1832)

Édouard Manet was a French painter, famous for his importance within the aesthetic revolution that happened during the end of the 19th century. Like Courbet – who was of large influence on his work – he was one of the first 19th-century painters of modern life, and is now regarded as a central part of the shift from Realism to Impressionism; still nowadays, Manet is recognized as a crucial turning point towards the newest stages of modern art. 

Despite the fact that he was born into an upper-class household with strong political connections, Manet made the decision, after failing to enter the Navy, to commit himself to his art. He is now well-known for works he did early in his career such as “Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, and Olympia, both of which were painted in 1863, and which led to much controversy. Despite Manet’s numerous attempts to defend his work, these scenes were often criticized throughout the decade. Olympia was considered the most scandalous work in the Salon of 1865. At the time, a voluptuous goddess was deemed acceptable, whereas a prostitute pushed the boundaries. 


Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863. Courtesy of Musée d'Orsay


3. Paul Cezanne (b.1839)

Paul Cézanne was one of the greatest post-Impressionist painters, an individual whose works and ideas were hugely influential in the aesthetic progress of the beginning of the 20th-century. Many artists and movements were greatly conditioned by Cezanne’s discoveries, in particular those painters that later defined themselves as Cubists. Cézanne’s art, like many of the figures that will follow in this text, was often publicly misunderstood. His practice began with a close relation with the Impressionist movement but ended up effectively challenging many of the conservative ideals of visual art in the 19th century, distancing himself primarily due to his subjective vision. 

Cezanne was a vigorous innovator and was constantly updating his practice to reflect different schemes of representation. For example, in his still-life paintings from the mid-1870s, Cézanne left behind the thickness of the surfaces he was known for and developed a new vision which communicated mainly in terms of form and color. He created a scheme which was made of “constructive brushstrokes,” which aimed to give more weight and substantiality to his forms. For example, in his painting “Still Life with Jar, Cup, and Apples” (1877), Cezanne shows his attention towards colour tones and gradients, which will later become a crucial part of his research. 


Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Jar Cup and Apples, 1877. Courtesy of Gallery 826, MET Museum.


4. Claude Monet (b.1840)

Claude Monet is the painter most associated with Impressionism: in fact it was after a work he completed called “Impression, Soleil Levant” (1874), that the Impressionist movement arose. Monet was a pioneer of this movement for a number of reasons: he firmly advocated working en plein air, and that the artist must study nature and the optical effects of light in person. He is also well-known for completing series of works which center around one subject matter in order to study the effects of light on the same scene throughout the day, or in different seasons. Examples of these works are haystacks and churches. Monet’s house at Giverny is also considered to be a crucial setting for the painter’s latest body of works. After buying the house in 1883 Monet engaged in his research surrounding the large lily pond, a subject that he would paint countless timesaver the last 20 years of his life. 


Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise),1874. Courtesy of Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris.


5. Vincent Van Gogh (b.1853)

Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch post-impressionist painter, who is recognized to be amongst the most famous Modern Art artists. Living a relatively short life, most of his work was done in a very prolific ten-year period, where he painted almost 2,100 artworks. They encompass a broad range of subjects including portraits and self-portraits, landscapes and still lives. Stylistically, Van Gogh’s works form a relatively homogenous continuum and are broadly typified by their bold, bright colour schemes and the dramatic, often impulsive and highly expressive brushstrokes, which contributed to the foundations of all the following modern art movements. It is well known than Van Gogh found no commercial success in his lifetime and was drawn to commit suicide at the age of 37.


Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889. Courtesy of Gallery 822, MET Museum.


6. George Seurat (b.1859)

Georges Seurat was part of the post-Impressionist movement in France. His largest innovation came from developing the famous technique of “pointillism”, as well as focusing on the scheme of “chromoluminarism”, both of which share a common ground in terms of their focus, which is directed to the different parts of light and its prism of color gradients. Effectively, pointillism is that technique which uses single dots of colour to describe forms and depths, relying on the eye’s ability to reconstruct a deconstructed image. The result of this painterly scheme is a highly sensitive aesthetic which is enhanced by the artists attention to detail and by the scientific theorems surrounding light and its constructive truth. If we think about Modern Art as innovation, experimentation but also attention to the past, we may look at the famous painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (1884–1886) as undoubtedly one of the most iconic works from the Modern Art period. 


Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, (1884–1886). Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago. 


7. Hilma Af Klint (b.1862)

Hilma af Klint was a Swedish Modern Art artist who extended her visual interests into mysticism and spirituality. Her paintings, which have only very recently been appropriately considered and examined, are considered the first examples of Western abstract art (many of her abstract works were seemingly made before what are considered to be the first ‘purely’ abstract works by Kandinsky). Hilma Af Klint was part of a unique group known as "The Five", which consisted of a number of women who advocated attempts at reaching what Af Klint called the ‘High Masters’. Her paintings, although commonly seen as abstract, can also be seen as diagrams which represent spiritual paths of meaning. Klint certainly stands in a very unique position within the wider story of Modern Art, and her personal vision draws very few comparisons.  

Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest, No. 7, Adulthood, Group IV, 1907. Courtsey of Guggenheim Museum.


8. Edvard Munch (b.1863)


Edvard Munch was an enigmatic Norwegian painter recognized for his anguish-driven depictions of figures, often represented in expressive settings and communicating the painter’s mindscapes. “The Scream”, his most famous work, is an iconic image within the Modern Art period, due to its crudeness and forward-looking appearance, but also due to its influence on a wide number of images that were made in the years after it was shown to the public. Munch came up with the idea of “The Scream” in the city of Oslo. It is said that the painter was out walking one evening when, suddenly, he ‘heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature'. The tortured face depicted in the work is commonly thought to be referring to the anxiety that is often associated with the archetypical Modern Art artist, and or individual. 

Most of Munch’s works are categories as being ‘Symbolist’, due to their focus on the internal self of the subject, rather than only on his, or her, external appearance. Symbolist painters advanced the idea that art should in some way be subjective and embody emotions and abstract ideas rather than focus on narrative and an objective rendering of things. 


Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893. Courtesy of National Gallery Oslo.


9. Piet Mondrian (b.1872)

Piet Mondrian was a Dutch painter and discoverer of visual theories, who is now seen as one of the most innovative Modern Art artists to have emerged in the 20thcentury. Working tirelessly on nature’s beauty, studying and experimenting with the element of the “Red Tree” throughout his early years, his artistic journey can be seen as a constant attempt to overtake form and allow shapes and gestures to break free from their perimetral. During his later years, nature left its place to the element of the city and metropolitan surroundings, in which straight lines and the primary colours create his very famous compositions. 

In 1914 he said ‘[A]rt is higher than reality and has no direct relation to reality. To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual’. 
The Modern Art movement Mondrian is commonly associated with is called Neoplasticism which essentially refers to 'pure plastic art' which focuses mainly on plasticism and the expression of universal beauty. 


Piet Mondrian, Composition C (No.III) with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1921. Courtesy of Kunstmuseum Den Haag.


10. Pablo Picasso (b.1881)

Pablo Picasso was initially a Modern Art artist born in Spain but who is often associated with France. His work encompassed a large number of genres, and he is renowned as a: painter, printmaker, sculptor, ceramicist and even theatre designer who spent most of his adult life in France. 

He was an immensely prolific artist, but some of his two most notorious works are generally considered to be Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), and Guernica (1937). Arguably the most important artist of the Modern Art period, he is renowned for the part he played within the founding of Cubism, as well as a host of other achievements such as the formation of constructed sculpture, a pioneer of the collage form, and also for the myriad of later techniques and styles he continued to experiment in. The work of Picasso is often split into a variety of loosely defined time-periods, namely: the Blue Period (1901–1904), the Rose Period (1904–1906), African-influenced Period (1907–1909), Analytic Cubism (1909–1912), and Synthetic Cubism (1912–1919). 


Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907. Courtesy of MoMA.


11. Georges Braque (b.1882)

Georges Braque’s life and work is often overshadowed by that of Picasso, with whom he founded Cubism in the early 20thcentury. Of a very similar age and with similar visual theories, both of their work at the early stages of the cubist movement – from 1908 and up until 1912 - was difficult to tell apart. Aside from Cubism, Braque was renowned as an excellent draughtsman, collage artist, sculptor as well as printmaker. Braque was also involved in the fauvist movement from the first decade of the 20thcentury. 


Georges Braque, Bottle and Fishes, 1910. Courtesy of © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022


12. Amedeo Modigliani (b. 1884)

Amedeo Modigliani was an Italian painter, famous for his portraits and feminine nudes, filled with sensuality and extremely forward-looking. After his formation, which began in Tuscany and was completed in Venice, “Modì” moved to Paris (1906) where he met Picasso and the highest standards of the avantgardes. As a modern artist, Modigliani worked towards the unveiling of something new and inedited, both in painting and in sculpting, even though he had to abandon the idea of being a sculptor due to his phisical conditions. 

"Life is a gift, from the few to the many, from those who know and have to those who don't know and don't have."

13. Georgia O’Keeffe (b.1887)

Georgia O'Keeffe was an American artist who is universally acclaimed for her role in American modernism and for developing a totally unique visual vocabulary which centers around paintings of enlarged flowers alongside New York skyscrapers as well as landscapes from New Mexico where she lived at the end of her life. In her early artistic career, she was introduced to the artistic theories and philosophies of Arthur Dow who was a highly esoteric artists working with principles of subjective vision and interpretation. 


14. Marc Chagall (b.1887)

Moishe Segal, also known as Marc Chagall, was a Russian Jewish painter, who was naturalized French. His works express a strong attachment to religion and ancient storytelling. As a modern artist, he created a vast number of paintings depicting fables and colourful stories, ranging from popular stories, to the ones that he studied from the Bible. Chagall also created a series of illustrations about the Bible itself which still nowadays remain some of the greatest outcomes of his painterly career.

15. Marcel Duchamp (b.1887)

Marcel Duchamp was one of the most radical and progressive artists of the 20thcentury, often seen as the first truly conceptual artists and most famous for incorporating everyday ‘readymade’ objects into his practice. He was French and American and worked variously as a painter, sculptor and subsequently chess player and writer. Despite his enigmatic qualities, he overlapped with a number of highly important movements including that Cubism, Dada, and conceptual art. 

By the end of the first decade of the 20thcentury, Duchamp had become increasingly radical and was no longer interested in traditional mediums and the artists that employed them. He came up with a critical binary of ‘retinal’ art and non-retinal art, which allowed him to categorise art made as serving either solely the eyes (retinal art) or both the eye and the mind. Most enduring of all his works is his 1917 readymade, Fountain, which was become a symbol for all subsequent avant-garde art. 


Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917. Courtesy of la Galleria Nazionale, Roma.


16. Giorgio De Chirico (b.1888)

Giorgio De Chirico, born in Volos (Grece), was the father of the so called metaphysical painting movement. Besides the beauty and mistery that characterizes his paintings, he is recognized to be one of the greatest masters in terms of technique and canvas preparation, creating works that will last throughout the centuries due to the importance that the artist gave to preparation soils and methods. In his works, the past itself is not rejected as in other modern artists’ paintings, it is instead re-elaborated and transposed into a modern and avantgardist setting, hence allowed to activate itself under a new and mysterious life.


17. Mark Rothko (b.1903)

Mark Rothko occupies a position as one of the most mystical and brooding artists of the Modern Art period, and his colour-plane paintings are often seen as attempts to depict the inner depths of the human psyche. Not personally identifying with any concurrent artistic movement, Rothko was most often associated with the Abstract Expressionists owing to the large scale and abstract nature of his work. His works are all variations upon a common arrangement of varying colours, and stand totally alone as paintings in the history of art.

Rothko’s most well-known quotation reads: ‘[I]’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions. If you…are moved only by their colour relationships, then you miss the point’. 


Mark Rothko, Light Red over Black, 1958. © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/DACS 2022


18. Salvador Dali (b.1904)

Salvador Dalì, needless to be said, is one of the greatest artistic figures of all time, with a research that lead him to touch an incredible numer of media and expressive outputs. Highly controversial and extremely eclectic, Dalì spent his life creating and researching within the Surrealistic world, a fact that connects his works with the newest researches in terms of psychoanalysis. As a modern artist, he overtook most of the previous preconceptions and created a movement that was both solid and never endingly open. In his life Dalì was a painter, sculptor, photographer, movie director, stage designer and performer; a chronological history that made him the most experimentitative artist of the whole century. Besides all of the greatness expressed by his paintings, Salvador Dalì created a museum-sized artwork, in Figueres (Spain), that goes by the name of “Museo Dalì”. 

19. Frida Kahlo (b.1907)

Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter whose own personal narrative looms just as large as her art in the popular imagination. This is in part due to the fact that almost a third of her entire artistic output consisted of self-portraits, and all of her other work closely referenced her life. Some of her most depicted themes were her difficult personal life, her relationship with the mural painter and revolutionary Diego Riviera and her persistent illness. 

Her style has been defined in a variety of ways, all sharing some common elements: Kahlo’s foundational motifs were drawn from Mexican popular culture, and she utilized an essentially folkish and naïve style to render her often mythical, surreal and fantastical worlds. Politically, she was very active and belonged to the post-revolutionary Mexicayotl movement, which aimed at its core to advance a novel form of Mexican personhood.


Frida Khalo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Dr Leo Eloesser, 1940. Courtesy of fridakahlo.org


20. Francis Bacon (b.1909)

Francis Bacon created some of the most unsettling and perverse paintings of the 20thcentury, often understood in relation to the horrors of modern life. Bacon was an Irish-born but English painter mainly working in a figurative manner. His subject matter varied, and included within it scenes of crucifixions, portraits of anguished popes, unnerving self-portraits. Often, Bacon employed the use of a geometric framework to lend a space to the otherwise formless, color-plane environments that his subjects existed within. Never fitting into an artistic movement, Bacon was often seen as part of the diverse School of London that existed at the time and included other luminaries such as Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach who have all become renowned in modern painting. 

It is possible to categorize Bacon’s paintings into various different time periods. Bacon worked a lot with photographs and was very influenced by early experiments in such genre and by individuals such as Eadweard Muybridge. The loosely defined periods include: the Furies and bio-morphs he made throughout the 30’s, the mostly-male faces and heads standing alone in rooms or barely defined spaces in the 40’s, the series of ‘screaming popes’ from the 50’s, the early various scenes of crucifixions done in the 60’s and finally the self-portraits from the 70’s. 

Read more about Francis Bacon here.

Francis Bacon, Triptych August 1972, 1972. © Estate of Francis Bacon


21. Jackson Pollock (b.1912)


Jackson Pollock invented the contemporary idea of the mythical artist through his nonchalant public persona, personal issues and enigmatic working style, with Life Magazine dubbing him the ‘greatest living painter’ in 1951. 

His main formal breakthrough came in the late 1940’s when he began to law his canvases horizontally on the floor of his studio and drip enamel paint on them from above, creating his ‘drip paintings’. This performative process which directly and physical engaged his body and its movement into his paintings was one of the largest stylistic innovations of the 20thcentury. Pollock believed in the utopian quality of the pure, unbridled abstraction of line and form, and didn’t want his paintings to be understood as representing anything in the world. In political terms, Pollock’s work came to be seen as emblematic of American individualism during the cold war and there have been suggestions they were used as propaganda tools by the CIA. 


Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1949, 1949. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.


22. Joseph Beuys (b.1921)

Joseph Beuys was a German artist mainly working in a Conceptual and performative vein. He has become well-known for the totally unique way he worked and the often bizarre subject matter he chose to illustrate his themes of war, love and life. Always committed to a radical agenda, Beuys’ “social sculpture” was an attempt to collapse the divide between art and life and eventually aimed at making visual art more of a democratic process that every single individual was capable of taking part in. 


23. Yves Klein (b.1928)

Much like Beuys, Klein also often incorporated a live, performance-related element to many of his most significant works of art. Klein was a French artist and became the principal figure in the France-based post-war movement called Nouveau réalisme that was founded by the art critic Pierre Restany in 1960. Klein’s career intersects with many movements, including those of performance art, minimal art, and even pop art.

International Klein Blue remains Klein’s most well-known artistic creation, and it was a colour that he patented in 1961. Klein commented that ‘[B]lue…is beyond dimensions, whereas the other colours are not. All colours arouse specific ideas, while blue suggests at most the sea and the sky; and they, after all, are in actual, visible nature what is most abstract.” Klein employed the colour in a variety of monochromatic works which have come to typify his whole oeuvre, including when used in a performance involving nude women who dipped themselves in the paint before pressing themselves onto paper, all directed by Klein in formal evening attire.

Yves Klein, Anthropometry of the Blue Period, 1960. Courtesy of Christie's.


24. Andy Warhol (b.1928)

Andy Warhol’s name has become synonymous with the movement he was so fundamental to, and which he embodied in his personal life and public persona: pop art. Often describing himself as a machine, Warhol investigated the role of images and specifically mass-media in contemporary, consumerist American society in the 1960’s. 

His now incredibly valuable and ubiquitous silkscreens of pop cultural and brand consumer icona (including figures such as Marilyn Monroe and brands such as Campbell’s Soup Cans) — have become the default way to understand American society at the time. Warhol claimed that ‘[T]he best thing about a picture is that it never changes, even when the people in it do’. 



25. Gerhard Richter (b.1934)

Born in Dresden in 1934, Gerhard Richter is one of the most acknowledged and quoted living artists, together with David Hockney and Jeff Koons. His upbringing saw him ranging from adverstising to stage design, but, as you may or may not know, he is recognized to be one of the best drawers and figurative painters of the whole century. At a certain point of his life, Richter, thanks to his capacity to observe and meditate, noticed the ability of oil paint to be moved and stretched around the surface while still being wet and moisty. This moment of epiphany is often recognized to be the same moment in which the artist overtook forms and shapes and arrived into a new pathway, made of expressive and abstractive colour marks; those same marks that nowadays stand as a statement of  his artistic persona. As much as Mondrian and Rothko, Richter reached abstraction through the study of form and realism, which is, in many people’s opinion, the only thruthful path to follow in order to reach the abstractness of the unconscious.


Cover image: Piet Mondrian, Composition C (No.III) with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1921.

Written by Max Lunn and Mario Rodolfo Silva

Stay Tuned on Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.

Kooness Recommends