Home Magazine What are the main Art Styles?

There is an infinite number of Art Styles. But what are the main ones? Looking back on those which have left a mark in Art History, we can understand the changes which the Arts have seen. 21 Art Styles, spanning from Romanticism to Modernism.

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Listing all the art styles which have ever existed would be an impossible task. Any list is partial and has to reflect the historically mainly White Male European account of Art History. We can imagine taking a walk through a museum – something many of us long for. We will let our gaze focus on the pieces we see, wandering through the imaginary seven rooms. These will set apart distinctive styles, trends and socio-political moods. Entering, we follow the collection from the Romantics until Modernism…


Romanticism (1770-1850)

This is the period of the Sublime and big themes. Of course, the first painting in this tour is one which shows the immensity of God reflected in nature in which an individual can be lost: Wonderer over the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich (1818). The second work in this room covers the socio-political themes which are poeticised in this historical moment, the French Revolution of July 1830. Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix (1830) is perfectly sculptural, with Liberty leading the way and waving the French flag – but at the same time crudely dramatic. The Northern European Romantics and French Romantics differ, with the modesty of the first not found in the second. But the romantic poetic line is present in both paintings.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wonderer over the Sea of Fog, 1818, Courtesy of WikiArt.com, Public Domain.


Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1848-1855)

Moving to the second room: the Pre-Raphaelites. This group was founded in opposition to a focus on the romantic idealised sceneries of the past. Sir John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1851-2) is hanging on our imaginary walls. In this painting everything is organic, pure with a focus on nature. Floating by, in the centre of the scene is Shakespeare’s character Ophelia from Hamlet, who has drowned in the stream. But she is a part of this natural scene, and the significance of the natural elements is highlighted with their symbology. The flowers, roses, willow, and daisies, stand for love, pain, and innocence.


Barbizon School (1830-1870)

Displayed next to this painting, we find another impressive work, The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet (1857). In this painting of the mid-19th century French Barbizon School, Millet depicts the labour of the lower-class and peasant life. It is a subtle reminder of the big themes of the French Revolution, and the rise of Socialism – and for this reason critics did not receive it well. The movements of the workers are broken down, slowing down their arduous labour. The composition makes us focus on their bent over position in the foreground, contrasting with the distant and faded harvest and the steward overlooking their work. It is simple yet representative of a class, with naturalism – evocative of the Romantic movement’s search for comfort in nature, but without the drama.


Realism (1840-1880)

The last painting in this second imaginary room, Gustave Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio (1855), also tackles the theme of the contemporary life. In Courbet’s words he wanted to produce ‘living art’. This painting represents everything of value to him, and the reality which (literally) surrounds him is the very subject of his work. His friends, people he knows – and even the poor deserve a spot. Many are the allegories which symbolically present his view of the present world. For instance, the woman standing by his side is artistic tradition. The dog is his fidelity towards art, his work. In the piece, he displays his pride and the importance of contemporary life – instead of the mythological or historical subjects preferred by the Academy.

Gustave Courbet, The Artist’s Studio, 1855, Courtesy of Gustave-Courbet.com.


Impressionism (1860-1890)

We now move to our third room, and here the style is quite different to what we have seen in the previous two. But we can recognise is straight away: Nymphéas en fleur (1914-1917) by Claude Monet. Consistent with the typical focus on landscapes of this art style, the subject is his water-lily pond in Giverny. It is painted with free brushstrokes and there are even areas where the canvas is not covered. Impressionist painters such as Monet would try to capture the light of a particular moment, by painting quickly en plein air with oil colour tubes – a novelty for artists of the time. Receiving criticism for their paintings, they exhibited in the Salon des Refusés, the alternative they created to the official Salon de Paris. 


Post-Impressionism (1886-1905)

The second painting in this room which greets us is made up of loads of tiny dots which someone meticulously (and painstakingly) painted on the canvas. This post-impressionist painting is quite different to those of Van Gogh, Gauguin, or Cézanne – which were more influenced by Japanese artworks with their strong outlines and bold colours. But what the post-impressionists were doing is well represented in this piece. There is a research for a new style, which contrasts with that of the past and is more organized than that of Impressionism. It is Georges Seurat’s famous Un Dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte (1882-4). It depicts people enjoying a day out in the sun, a contemporary simple theme. The innovative technique used, Pointillism, is based on the theory of colour and the idea is to present pure colours, without mixing them, to create an image. The effect is luminous, and the shapes are moulded on the canvas. The subject is also particular, as all the figures appear in the shade apart from a girl dressed in white facing the viewer. There seems to be an underlaying emotional message about the hypocrisy of the bourgeoise.

Georges Seurat, Un Dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte, 1882-4, Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, Public Domain.


Arts and Crafts Movement (1880-1920)

A modest, but intricate design is the last thing in this room. Very different from the rest, it is an example of the Arts and Craft movement. The motif is floral and repeated. It is Strawberry Thief by William Morris (1883). Decorative, beautiful and inspired by nature – but the modesty is not simplicity as it is truly a masterpiece.  Standing for traditional craftsmanship, the Arts and Craft movement often took from medieval styles, redesigning them for the purpose of the machines which were in use. The design can be perfectly repeated. The purpose is to reinvent the role of the craftsman in the industrial world, and stop the decline of standards which factory production was causing.


Art Nouveau (1890-1914)

Moving to the fourth room, we find a painting by Gustave Klimt, Death and Life (1915). On our left, there is a darker figure resembling Death, and on our right a group of people who seem to embrace each other. The theme of life and time mixes with that of nature. It is also psychological as it reflects on aging and one’s awareness of mortality. It has a threatening and hopeful effect on who admires it, as if you were in the group with the others with Death keeping an eye on you. Figures organically intertwine with floral and geometric motifs – evocative of those of the Arts and Craft movement. The result is extremely fluid and sensual echoing the lines and shapes we find in natural elements – typical of the illustrations, posters, and other works and design products of Art Nouveau. This art style is decorative – a style not only for paintings.


Primitivism (1890-1950)

In this room we also see a work which resembles a jungle. It is an artwork by Henri Rousseau, The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope (1905). This piece takes from post-impressionist Paul Gauguin’s work, as it looks for environments which haven’t been touched by the Western art tradition. The idea of ‘primitive’ refers to this and can also be seen as racist because of how European artists sought other cultures, taking from their artworks to develop their own practices. Although the way the artists took from these cultures is contestable, Rousseau’s painting shows the admiration for the rich colours and fascinating plants which are protected by cultures which are closer to nature – closer to a real ‘pure’ way of living.


Henri Rousseau, The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope, 1905, Courtesy of henrirousseau.net.


Cubism (1907-1921)

Hanging on the third wall of this fourth room, Pablo Picasso’s Violin and Grapes (1912). The subject is fragmented. We only recognise what it depicts thanks to a few details and the title. Geometric angular lines form the cubes of the objects. Like other works of Cubism, the objects are studied from different positions focusing on the plasticity of the objects. Similar to how post-impressionist Cézanne did through colour in his work. In Cubism, different points of view are combined to present the idea of an object, as if the various angles complete it. It is the re-creation of a tri-dimensional shape, the concept of a violin and grapes.


Expressionism: Les Fauves (1905-1908), Die Brücke (1905-1913) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911-1914)

On the last wall, we find Henri Matisse’s Woman with a Hat (1905). This is a work of French Fauvism, from Les Fauves (‘the wild beasts’). This avant-garde movement took from the emotional quality of Van Gogh’s work. Like Van Gogh’s work, Matisse’s painting is characterised by strong colours. Instead of a realistic effect, Les Fauves search for vibrancy through a wise use of saturated colours and simplified images which are remarkably intense. 

Right beside Matisse’s work, another strong piece is displayed: Emil Nolde’s Masks (1911). Die Brücke’s style is contemporary to Fauvism and takes from the same influences. Here, the vibrancy of strong colours are important, but the German movement shows the alienation and disconnection of human life. The masks are melting, distorted like other Die Brücke works. The painting can be described as grotesque and haunting. A violence which does not present in Fauvism.

Focusing greatly on the meaning of the colours, Der Blaue Reiter was also a German style which included artists such as Kandinsky and Klee. The work on the wall, next to these other two, is Franz Marc’s Blue Horse I (1911). The colours are startling – even vivid. But the significance is spiritual. The horse is a symbol of power, and innocence, and the colour gives a sense of depth and meditative contemplation. It is the sentiments of the colours which is central here, with a more peaceful atmosphere than that of the other two paintings on this wall.


Dada (1916-1922) 

What do we find entering the fifth room? A sculpture? It is undoubtedly a urinal but placed on its side. It is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). It is absurd, bizarre, and even funny. This is an artwork of the striking avant-garde movement, Dada. A group of artists launched Dada in 1916, at the Cabaret Voltaire in Switzerland – in reaction to the First World War. Its members opposed the war and stood against the bourgeoise. Their works were a protest. Collages, poetry, visual and sculptural pieces which aimed at shocking the public by presenting known things in unusual combinations – or misplaced objects (‘readymades’) like Fountain.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, replica 1964, Courtesy of The Tate © Succession Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021.


Surrealism (1920-1966)

Behind the sculpture, and deriving from Dada, on the wall is The Accommodations of Desire painted by Salvador Dalì in 1929. It is full of symbols which allude to sexual desires. This example of surrealist artwork adheres to André Breton’s The First Manifesto of Surrealism (1929) – the basis of a movement which involves artists all over Europe and even in America. These artists stand against the rise of Nationalism, having seen the destruction caused by the First World War. Like this painting by Dalì, the work of the surrealists is absurd and sometimes unsettling. Based on Freud’s writings in which he developed the Psychoanalytic Theory, the surrealists’ objective is to represent the reality of the unconscious and dreams. It is the uneasiness which these artists provoke which creates this dreamlike effect. 


Futurism (1909-1914)

Turning to the right wall, we find a work by Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo, The Revolt (1911) made before the First World War. As the other works of this movement, the painting emphasises the idea of movement. This is done by using strong contrasting colours, geometric shapes, and acute angles. What we perceive is a fast movement which cannot be stopped. It is progress and the excitement of the war which the Futurists represented. Indeed, this movement was deeply associated with Fascism, as the artists became avid supporters of Mussolini’s campaign.


Luigi Russolo, The Revolt, 1911, Courtesy of WikiArt.com, Public Domain.​​​


Geometric Abstraction (1910-1960) and De Stijl (1917-1931)

We can now go on to the sixth room, as we get closer to the end of our tour. In this room, the first work we find is clearly hugely different to all the artworks we have seen. It is abstract. Only a few lines and colours make up Piet Mondrian’s Composition II with Red Blue and Yellow (1929). It’s a simple design, in which geometrical figures are highlighted. A typical work of the Dutch De Stijl (‘the style’), of which Mondrian was a prominent figure. This was not only a visual art style, but it also included architects and designers. This was a common trend among artists of Geometric Abstraction, as cylinders, volumes, and shapes are used to create mechanical patterns, objects, sculptures, and buildings in a new revolutionary way.


Constructivism (1919-1932)

Moving along we find ourselves in front of a sculpture which in some way resembles the shattered figures of Cubism. This piece is Head No. 2 by Naum Gabo (1916). Contemporary to the Russian Revolution, Constructivism, a branch of abstract art, makes full use of industrial materials. Here, the material draws the outline of the figure rather than building its mass. It is industrial. Indeed, the art created by the Constructivists is more of a ‘product’, as artists like Gabo would have seen their practice as technical rather than artistic. 

Naum Gabo, Head No. 2, 1916, enlarged version 1964, Courtesy of The Tate © Nina & Graham Williams / Tate, London 2021.


Art Deco (1920-1939)

A picture of a lady is displayed. Unlike other works which depict women, this painting is very dynamic. The painting is Tamara de Lempicka’s Young Lady with Gloves (1929). The female Polish artist emphasises volumes and simplifies them. Her work opposes the decorative Art Nouveau. In fact, the subject is not lost in the background. The fragmented geometric forms are allusions to Cubism and Futurism. The strong lines are those which distinguish the Art Deco movement making this woman appear to be real, solid – not sinuous or fluid. She is real, strong yet elegant and luminous, reflecting exactly the core of Art Deco’s art and design.

Tamara de Lempicka, Young Lady with Gloves, 1929, Courtesy of tamaradelempicka.org.


Bauhaus (1919-1938)

For a moment, we turn our attention to the building. The rooms we walked though are regular and functional. It is clearly meant to have a purpose, fit for a ‘mechanical world’. This is the thought behind the German Bauhaus, born after the defeat of the First World War. Central was their School, where ideas were shared – innovative compared to the traditional teacher-student model. Influenced by Constructivism, it mixes design and function. Simplified forms, rationality, functionality and mass production are the key words of this style.


Kinetic Art (1930-1960)

In the room something catches our attention. It is moving, changing continually, the geometric abstract shapes are reminiscent of Joan Miró works. Indeed, Dada and Surrealism do influence this inventive art style. The artwork we are looking at is Alexander Calder’s Untitled (1937). It reflects the growing importance of machines and the un-stabilising effects of time. Geometric shapes are connected but the whole looks very fragile. The piece is a type of ‘mobile’, typical of this artist. It is truly revolutionary if we think of the fact sculptures are normally very static.

Alexander Calder, Untitled, 1937, Courtesy of the Tate © 2021 Calder Foundation, New York / DACS, London.


Art Informel (1945-1960)

In the last room of the tour through our imaginary museum, we are clearly looking at an abstract piece which is making use of a sack, like that used for potatoes. It is Italian artist Alberto Burri’s Sacking and Red, 1954. The artist, having worked in the war as a doctor, recreates a ragged bandage effect on the canvas. Like other informel art pieces produced mainly in Italy, it is as if Burri is presenting materials which have been through something, reproducing to some extent the effects of a devastating war. The act of cutting, sewing and painting make up this piece – it is an artwork which has been constructed by manipulating these crude materials. The texture and feeling are easily imagined when looking at it.

Alberto Burri, Sacking and Red, 1954, Courtesy of The Tate © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello (Perugia) / DACS 2021.


Abstract Expressionism (1946-1968)

The last two pieces of this tour are undoubtedly powerful. They are made by two American giants of post-war Abstract Expressionism. The first is PH-234 (1948) by Clyfford Still. To create the painting the artist has had to apply layer after layer of oil paint. The brushstrokes are less impulsive than those of Pollock’s Number 1 (1948), dispayed next to it. But they both make us focus on the paint and the act of painting. It is not the grandeur of subject which has our attention, like in Romanticism, but the energy of the artist. Indeed, dripping and pouring with Action Painting, or applying and moulding the paint is just as impressive. But the scope is for art in itself. The focus is on how it was created, and in this we are absorbed.

Clyfford Still, PH-234, 1948, Courtesy of Christies.com.​​​​​


Cover image: Luigi Russolo, The Revolt, 1911, Courtesy of WikiArt.com, Public Domain.​​​

Written by Zoë Rivas Zanello

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