The Age of Modern Art: Part I

Author- Ria Sarkar, For Eikowa

In the timeline of history of art, Modernism as a period falls between 1850 to 1960 CE. Spanning a little over a century, it began with the Realist movement and ended with Abstract Expressionism. The build up and duration of the two World Wars led to an outburst of creativity and artists found themselves pushing the boundaries of accepted rules and conventions to discover novel techniques and innovations in their work. ‘Avant-garde’ meaning ‘vanguard’ or advance-guard in French was the term used to describe Modern artists and their almost aggressive determination for discovering new ideas. Remarkably, during this century the Western world of art progressed in leaps and bounds, with many artists creating masterpieces that are till date being reproduced or taken as inspiration.

The epidemic outpouring of ideas across Europe, particularly in Germany and England led to the mushrooming of so many art movements. The rise of the bourgeois or the new middle class that made its money through industrialization was the new target audience for artists. They were eager to spend money on buying and collecting art that they could relate to and put up in their homes. Religious iconography with mythical figures, gods and symbols of the previous centuries did not appeal to them. Instead they were more into landscape paintings and still life, something that was in tune with modern times. The ‘modern man’ was not devoid of a penchant for art; he just had a new set of priorities in terms of subject matter.

In this article we will trace the movements starting from Realism till Post-Impressionism. While the former is not officially part of the umbrella term of Modern Art, it is a vital predecessor to Impressionism and its concepts were used in some form or the other in a lot of these movements. The progression of technical and thematic development across each movement is not exactly linear. Many of them overlapped, some gained popularity for a brief period and died out. But the idea is that they either developed as a refinement of a previous and/or contemporary ‘ism’, or as retaliation against them.


Realism essentially forms the basis of 20th century art, and continues to be explored in contemporary art today. It emerged around mid 19th century as a reaction against Academic Art and Romanticism. The invention of photography in 1839 led people to question the significance of painting as a medium. Realism presented itself as a breath of fresh air, emphasizing ‘truth to nature’ rather than getting caught up in ‘emotional’ or ‘imagined’ subjects. Gustave Courbet, Jean-François Millet and Edouard Manet were three artists who stressed factual accuracy and avoided exaggeration thereby making them front runners of the Realist movement. They often recorded stark realities of the present-day existence of humble people, and employed a deliberately simple style of painting rooted in popular imagery, which was seen as crude by many critics of the day.

Courbet’s ‘The Painter’s Studio’ is a fine example of this period. It was composed as an allegory of the artist’s life; with friends and admirers on the right, and the challenges and oppositions he faced as an artist on the left. Critics met his technique of using a palette knife to apply the paint with skepticism, but he felt it gave his paintings a coarse realism on a textural level.

Courbet_The painters studio_1855

Gustave Courbet, The Painter’s Studio, 1855, oil on canvas, 359 x 598 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France. Wikimedia Commons


Jean Francois Millet, The Gleaners, 1857, oil on canvas, 83.5 x 111 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France. Wikimedia Commons

Millet gained a reputation as the ‘painter of peasants’ with his works as part of the Barbizon School. During the 1840’s-1850s – A group of French landscape artists painted in the Forest of Fontainebleau near Barbizon inspired by traditions of 17th century Dutch landscape artists and early 19th century English landscape painters.

Among all, Manet’s contribution to Realist painting is considered to be path breaking. He took risks by capturing impressions of passing moments in loose brushstrokes, but more importantly his innovations set the stage for future impressionists. He painted real people in their real surroundings, like the Bar girl in Folies-Bergere. Some of his realistic impressions left viewers scandalized – like ‘Dejeuner sur L’Herbe’ featuring a naked woman between two fully clothed men, or his famous nude ‘Olympia’, which shocked the public and critics alike. In hindsight he produced some of the greatest works of that era characterized by his bold brushwork, juxtapositions of strong color and unique compositions.


Edouard Manet, Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1882, oil on canvas, 96 x 130 cm, Courtauld Instituite of Art, London. Wikimedia commons


Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas, 130.5 x 190 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France. Wikimedia Commons


Le Dejeuner sur I’herbe, 1862-63, oil on canvas, 2.08 m x 2.64 m, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France. Wikimedia Commons

Japonism, Naïve Art, Symbolism

A few movements that surfaced in the backdrop of the larger ones are worth mentioning, as they became important influences for many artists in the Modern Era.


In 1854, when the Japanese monarchy decided to open its seaports to international trade with the West, huge quantities of Japanese Art hit the European markets. Artists were particularly inspired by Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. The craze for Japanese art and products came to be known as Japonism and had a significant influence on modern art throughout Western Europe, and was a source of inspiration for styles like Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Art Nouveau. Artists like Whistler and Van Gogh were particularly fascinated by Ukiyo-e and incorporated some of its features into their works.

Ukiyo-e prints were admired for their asymmetrical compositions, large ‘flat’ (unshaded) areas of vibrant color, and the subtle way of depicting silhouettes. These features were almost the complete opposite of traditional Western academic art and were embraced by 19th century artists as a refreshing new perspective. Katsushika Hokusai and Ando Hiroshige are two Japanese artists whose works were widely appreciated in the European region.


Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, 1831, color woodcut, 25.4 x 37.1 cm, Hakone Museum, Kanagawa-Prefecture, Japan. Wikimedia Commons


Primitivism and Naïve art were more on the lines of approaches rather than art movements. The former is used to describe the kind of art that took inspiration from foreign civilizations such as tribal art from Africa, the South Pacific and Indonesia, as well as prehistoric and very early European art, and European folk art. Such work has had a profound impact on modern Western art. As the term suggests, the motive is to encapsulate a ‘primitive’ or basic way of life on the canvas, unmarred by urbanism and the social restrictions that come with it. An artist that championed Primitive art is Paul Gauguin, who moved from Paris to Tahiti mid-career in 1891 and painted the local tribals there.

Naïve art on the other hand celebrates simplicity of execution and vision. It was developed as an escape from the cultivated ‘sophistication’ that was valued by the traditional system. Modernists were exploring any possible avenue to challenge the age-old accepted traditional artistic conventions and this was another way of doing so.

Paul_Gauguin_tahitian women on the beach_1891

Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Women on the beach, 1891, oil on canvas, 69 x 91.5 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France.


The origins of Symbolism can be found in Literature, with Charles Baudelaire’s poems Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil) in France in 1857. The emphasis was on exploring the inner world of human emotions through mythical or religious themes expressed in dreamlike imagery. It was a reaction against the realistic depiction of the natural world, later developing into surrealism and magic realism that existed entirely in the world of dreams and imagination. The obscure and somewhat abstract imagery was also influenced by new findings in the field of psychology, of which common themes included: love, fear, anguish, death, sexual awakening, and unrequited desire. While Symbolism is most often assumed to be rooted in France, the movement had a widespread reach that influenced the careers of artists from different regions and time periods such as Paul Gauguin, Gustav Klimt, Edvard Munch and Auguste Rodin.


Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard, 91 x 73.5 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway. Wikimedia commons.

Klimt_Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907, gold and oil paint, 1.38 m x 1.38 m, Private collection, Neue Galerie New York


One of the most radical movements of the Modern era, Impressionism was also the official name for a group of artists, which included Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Camille Pissarro, among others. In 1874, after being disallowed to exhibit work in the government-sanctioned exhibitions, also called ‘salons’, they joined together and held their own independent exhibition. Scenes of city life in Paris, landscapes and leisurely pastimes were captured by the impressionists in loose, short, open brushstrokes and bright unblended colors that created an ‘impression’ of a scene or moment. This technique of application highlights that immediacy of expression, almost as if it was captured in one fleeting stroke. Another interesting innovation was the rendering of shadows in highlights of color, rather than the conventional method of using whites, blacks and greys.

Impressionists garnered mixed reviews at that time. Critics either dismissed their work as unfinished or sketchy, or praised its novel way of portraying modern life.

The movement got its name from Claude Monet’s work ‘Sunrise’ which was exhibited in 1874, when the critic Louis Leroy accused it of being a sketch or “impression,” and not a finished painting.


Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre at Night, 1897, oil on canvas, 53.3 x 64.8 cm, National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons

Leisurely pastimes such as dancing were famously captured by Degas and Renoir. While both capture moments that are mid-motion during a dance performance or a dance class, there is a marked difference in the treatment of the ‘impression’. While Degas’ class captures the poise and beauty of ballet, Renoir’s rendition is raw and full of vibrancy.

Edgar_Degas_the tub_1886

Edgar Degas, The Tub, 1886, oil on canvas, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France.


An offshoot of Impressionism, it is usually categorized as a form of Post-Impressionism. Pointillism is a form of painting in which tiny dots of colors are used to make an entire painting. At first glance, some of the best works will seem like a regular painting, and only on closer inspection can one notice the dots. The origin of the term lies in the works of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, who together developed this art style in 1886 in France. Seurat was known for creating large life size works that were made up of thousands of dots painstakingly applied by hand. Henri-Edmond Cross was another pointillist at that time.


Georges-Pierre Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-6, oil on canvas, 207.5 × 308.1 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, US.


The immediacy of ‘impressions’ of the previous era started transitioning into artists’ individual ‘expressions’ by the turn of the 20th century, thereby initiating the shift towards subjectivity that went on to define Expressionism as an art style. Continuing the recurring struggle of the Modern era to find newer ideas and painting techniques, by the late 1880’s artists started retaliating against the naturalism of Impressionism. They wanted to delve deeper into meaningful emotions rather than capture fleeting impressions of people and places. Post-impressionism effectively bridges the gap between two major art movements of Modern Art.


Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Apples and Oranges, 1895-1900, oil on canvas, 74 x 93 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France.


Paul Cezanne, The Card Players, 1894-5, oil on canvas, 47.5 x 57 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France. Wikimedia Commons

The works of Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, as well as the later works of Cezanne all comes under the ‘Post-Impressionist’ label. Despite the fact that their works were very different from each other, all these artists had their own individual approaches and thematic concerns that were introspective. While Cezanne explored multiplicity of perspective with his Still Life of fruits, Van Gogh’s traumatic personal experiences led him to capture raw emotion in a way the entire world would come to admire some day. Nowadays considered to be the greatest Dutch artist after Rembrandt, Van Gogh had a tragic life with little appreciation and sold only one painting in his lifetime. Using color and symbolism to express his feelings, his paintings have a striking quality that form an instant connection with the viewer, catapulting them into the artist’s somewhat bright and somewhat mad world.


Vincent Van Gogh, Vase with 12 sunflowers, 1888, oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm. Neue Pinakothek 8672, Munich.


Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889, oil on canvas, 73.7 cm × 92.1 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York, US.

Post-Impressionists brought a new vigour into the world of Modern Art. It was a unique blend of definitive form, simple colors and the beginnings of abstraction that was expressed in varied combinations and managed to successfully retain individuality.


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