Modern Art for Skeptics

Have you ever looked at a painting and only saw...paint? Others stood in awe around you, gawking at the “emotions conveyed” or the “theme”, yet you just saw a colorful canvas. If you don't get the point of art, don’t think art takes much skill, or think that art analysis is purely subjective, you may be an art skeptic. 

Skepticism is not a terrible thing to have. No one should believe everything they hear or see. However, not believing in any rhyme or reason for art is a tragedy! Art is a way that generations communicate across the eras of time, sharing stories and opinions in aesthetic ways. To move from skepticism to appreciation (or even just interpretation), recognizing the style used is key. Art styles tell what era works were constructed in, and can shed light on the message the artist is trying to convey. There are many different styles that span thousands of years, but this cheat-sheet will focus on interpreting modern styles of art (1880-Present).

Whether you want to learn more about art to enjoy a trip to a gallery, or to have a good conversation starter, this cheat-sheet is for you. Below are the most well-known modern styles of art, how to distinguish them, and some famous works and artists that incorporated the style.

Impressionism (1870-1880). 
  • Known for: loose brush strokes, spontaneous manner of painting, capturing the artist’s impression of light in a scene

  • Origin: France

  • Why: reaction against conventional and restricting Academic art, marks the beginning of all modern art styles.

  • Major Artists: Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissaro and Pierre Auguste Renoir. 

  • Popular Works: Sunrise (Monet), Luncheon of the Boating Party (Renoir)

Fauvism (1890-1908).
  • Known for: vivid, exuberant colors, non-naturalistic, simplification, abstraction

  • Origin: Paris

  • Why: emphasizes painting qualities instead of the real values in impressionism

  • Major Artists: Henri Matisse and André Derain

  • Popular Works: The Green Line (Matisse), Les Toits de Collioure (Matisse)

Expressionism (1890-1939).
  • Known for: extreme distortion, expressing intense emotion

  • Origin: Germany

  • Why: displays personal moods and ideas, imposes the artist’s emotions onto the viewer

  • Major Artists: Van Gogh, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, René Magritte, Edvard Munch

  • Popular Works: The Scream (Munch), The Starry Night (Van Gogh)

Cubism (1907-Present).
  • Known for: three-dimensional subjects, fragmentation, simplification of natural shapes into geometric figures, monochromatic scheme 

  • Origin: Paris

  • Why: rejects the single viewpoint, broke centuries of tradition, introduces many viewpoints simultaneously to enhance the experience

  • Major Artists: Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali

  • Popular Works: The Old Guitarist (Picasso), Cubist Self-portrait (Dalì)

Surrealism (1922-1939).
  • Known for: nonsense, anti-rationalist, unpredictable, shocking, offensive to reality

  • Origin: Paris

  • Why: expresses the imagination as revealed in our dreams, free of conscious control and reason, influenced by Freud’s model of the subconscious

  • Major Artists:  Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Joan Miró

  • Popular Works: The Son of Man (Magritte), The Persistence of Memory (Dalì)

Abstract Expressionism (1940s-Present).
  • Known for: lack of a recognizable subject, non-objective and non-representational, color and form are the subject

  • Origin: USA (other forms of abstract art originated elsewhere)

  • Why: better intuitively felt rather than visually understood, emphasis on how it makes the viewer feel

  • Major Artists: Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning

  • Popular Works: Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? (Newman), No. 5, 1948 (Pollock), 

Pop Art (1950s-Present).
  • Known for: a fascination with popular culture, everyday items used by average people, turning soup cans and washing powder into icons

  • Origin: Britain and the USA 

  • Why: comes from surrealism in the way that it mocks the art world by using images from the supermarket, media, or street as subject matter

  • Major Artists: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns

  • Popular Works: Campbell’s Soup Cans (Warhol), Crying Girl (Lichtenstein)