With a tendency away from the academic narrative, the genre of modern art challenged the traditions of the past and redefined the entire art scene — the role of the artists, the relationship between representation and significance. Undoubtedly, modern art paintings with its avant-garde aesthetic transcended time and culture to claim their rightful place in art history. Today, modern art is renowned for its innovative aesthetic and styles marked by the sense of optimism and celebrated for its forward-thinking artists imbued with the spirit of experimentation.

The Meaning

Modern art refers to the artistic works produced during the period extending from the late 19th to early-to-mid 20th-century that is from the 1860s to 1970s.  Throwing away the artistic practices, aesthetic values, and traditions of the past, modern artists in their attempt to create art for an age that was rapidly changing, and becoming ‘modern’, experimented with new ways of seeing and with innovative ideas about the nature of materials, mediums, and functions. Re-imagining and reinterpreting the entire art scene, they created modern art paintings that showcased significant elements of abstraction.

Spanning across a century, modern art evolved through a dozen styles and practices from the abstract to the evocative. At one stage, experimentation and distortion reached unprecedented levels, that modern art painting appeared as little more than abstract non-decipherable imagery, splotches of color, and everyday objects literally present in glass cases. This series of dynamic changes finally culminated with modernism becoming ‘old fashioned’, and moving into the post-modernism era and production of contemporary art.

Major Movements

Developing over a course of a hundred years, the genre of modern art comprises of several significant movements and witnessed an eclectic range of artistic styles — starting with light and airy impressionism and culminating with energetic abstract expressionism. Despite the enormous variety inherent in these artistic movements, most of them were characteristically modern in their exploration of the potentials present within the medium of painting itself for expressing a spiritual response to the drastically changed conditions (social, economic as well intellectual) of life in the 20th century and beyond.

  • Impressionism

Challenging the rigid rules and realistic depictions of academic painting, impressionism became the catalyst for modern art. This radical movement started in 1872 when Calude Monte innovatively employed blurred brushstrokes focusing on the fleeting conditions of light using a vivid color palette to paint his famous painting Impression, Sunrise. This painting style dominated French art until the turn of the century, led by artists like Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas.

  • Post-Impressionism

Inspired by the artistic freedom initiated by the impressionists, artists like Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec began producing works in distinctive, unconventional styles. Started in the 1890s, this colorful art movement showcases a fascination towards emotion and subjective interpretation over realistic depictions of the situation.

  • Fauvism

Founded by les Fauves — an avant-garde group of early 20th century artists including André Derain and Henri Matisse, this genre art first appeared in 1904.  Favoring unrealistic tones and emphasizing on individual perceptions, works of fauvist painters were characterized by strong colors and fierce brushstrokes typically featuring recognizable (yet somewhat abstracted) forms.

  • Expressionism

Shortly before World War I at the beginning of the 20th century, painters in Germany and Austria began to undertake an experimental approach to their artistic practices. Eventually known as Expressionists, these artists imbibed the unprecedented characteristics of other modernist movements, for example, some pieces of Expressionist style had elements of post-impressionist and fauvist works of art such as bright, artificial color and individualistic iconography.

With an aim to represent the world solely from a subjective perspective, paintings produced during this period were often distorted radically to evoke moods and emotions.

  • Cubism

Characterized by deconstructed, fractured forms, the revolutionary approach of cubism marked modern art’s shift toward abstraction. Pioneered in 1907 by French painter Georges Braque and Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, this modernist movement also emphasized a subjective approach like other art movements and materialized as topsy-turvy paintings, multi-dimensional sculptures, and cutting-edge collages.

  • Surrealism

Rooted in the subconscious, the surrealism movement was founded in the 1920s by the visual artists Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Joan Miro, Man Ray who were deeply influenced by the Dadaist writer Andre Breton. Lacking any dominance of reason, free from any aesthetic values or moral concern, the genre culminated in a diverse collection of dream-like depictions often with an irrational juxtaposition of images, directly from the artists’ imaginations or unconscious mind.

  • Abstract Expressionism

This avant-garde movement started in the middle of the 20th century when an innovative group of artists gave up figurative styles of painting for new forms of self-expression and abstract aesthetic. The artistic practices of abstract expressionists emphasized not only on modernist characteristics of color, composition, and emotion but on the process of creating the painting itself.

Famous Modern Art Paintings

The genre of modern art begins with the heritage of revolutionary painters like Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec who all broke with tradition and were indispensable for the development of modern art. Here are some of the striking creations of artists who defined the genre:

  • Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937

The town of Guernica, Basque Country town in northern Spain was bombed by Nazi German and Fascist Italian warplanes on 26th April 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. Pablo Picasso created this modern art painting in response to the bombing of Guernica. Highlighting the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, it drew worldwide attention and is considered one of the most moving and powerful anti-paintings in history. The center of this mural-sized painting is dominated by a horse falling in agony as if hit by a strong weapon. Under the horse lies a dismembered corpse of a soldier while towards its right is a petrified female figure which appears to have floated into the room through a window. The right of the canvas portrays an awed woman who seems to be staggering towards the center while the left side has a wide-eyed bull standing above a woman grieving over a dead child in her arms.

  • The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893

With an aim to express the meaning of emotional experience rather than physical reality, Norwegian artist Edvard Munch was deeply involved in the influential Expressionism movement. The Scream (Der Schrei der Natur ) is the most famous artwork of not only Munch but this entire German modern art movement. Featuring a figure with an agonized expression against a landscape with a tumultuous orange sky, it was described as an icon of modern art. Munch created four versions of the painting between 1893 and 1910. This modern artwork has been widely imitated, parodied in popular culture, featured in advertising, films, television making it one of the best-known paintings. Today, with an increase in the number of art galleries that sell paintings online, its digital prints are easily available.

  • The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

Admitted to the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France, Vincent van Gogh painted The Starry Night in 1889 depicting the night view from the window of his room at the asylum. The painting has been much analyzed with various art historians, each of whom have found different symbolic elements in it and given it different interpretations. With bold brush strokes, swirling sky, and dab of colors rolling with the clouds around the stars and moon, this creation of Gogh is regarded as one of the greatest works in modern art. It has been widely referenced and emulated in popular culture including in a sentimental popular song by American song-writer Don McLean titled ‘Vincent’ and its imitated copies feature in the collection of art galleries that sell paintings online.

  • Water Lilies (Nympheas) by Claude Monet, 1896 – 1926

Like other impressionist paintings, The Nympheas or Water Lilies series of Monet also focused on capturing the momentary effect rather than a realistic depiction of a scene. Consisting of approximately 250 oil paintings created by Monet during the last 30 years of his life, this series has been described as ‘The Sistine Chapel of Impressionism’ and is now on display in prestigious museums all around the world. Infused with dazzling complexity of color and light, these paintings give a glimpse of the incredible diversity of nature and the mystery of the life it sustains. Monet painted most of these paintings despite having severely impaired vision due to cataracts, which are among the most celebrated works of 20th Century art, and continue to influence artists even today.

  • The Treachery Of Images by Rene Magritte, 1928 – 1929

Unlike other artists of the surrealism movement who created distorted and dream-like representations, Rene Magritte produced more realistic depictions that evoked strangeness and ambiguity. The Treachery Of Images shows a pipe below which Magritte has painted the words ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ in French which means ‘This is not a pipe. The statement suggests that the painting itself is not a pipe but is merely an image or representation of a pipe, adds eccentricity to the work. Magritte describes his most famous work as “it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!”  Belonging to the series of word-image paintings of Magritte from the late 1920s, The Treachery Of Images was created with an aim to counter oppressive rationalism. Undoubtedly, the most famous painting by Magritte and is considered one of the most influential modern art paintings.

  • The Young Ladies of Avignon (Les Demoiselles d'Avignon) by Pablo Picasso, 1907

Originally titled Le Bordel d’Avignon (The Brothel of Avignon), this revolutionary masterpiece by Pablo Picasso is regarded as one of the most influential paintings of the 20th century as it was crucial in the development of both cubism and modern art. Making a radical departure from traditional European painting, Picasso used different styles to depict each figure in the painting such as the head of the women pulling the curtain in the upper right side of the canvas is done using strictly cubist elements. Though this piece is considered as the most important work of Picasso, it was controversial for its highly radical style and also for its bold subject — depicting the nude female prostitutes in a disconcerting confrontational manner.

  • The Persistence Of Memory by Salvador Dali, 1931

This iconic and much-reproduced surrealist painting that now finds a place in the modern art collection of galleries that sell paintings online depicts an imaginary scene with several watches melting slowly on rocks and the branch of a tree against the backdrop of an ocean. Dali has incorporated the concept of hard and soft in The Persistence Of Memory, with melting watches and rocks representing the softness of the sleep and hardness of reality respectively. As he never provided with an explanation of his work, it has been analyzed and interpreted by several art experts  — the melting watches have been considered to be a representation of the relativity of space and time, while the ants surrounding the watches are a symbol of mortality. Depicting irrationality of dreams, this painting is the most renowned work of the entire surrealism movement.

  • Olympia by Édouard Manet, 1863

Considered as the pioneer of modern art, Edouard Manet contributed significantly to modernizing painting. The most famous among his works is Olympia depicting a nude woman attended by a maid. Its first exhibition in 1865 at Paris Salon sparked a huge controversy owing to the presence of elements that identified the female figurine as a prostitute  — the black cat (the traditional symbol of prostitution), the orchid in her hair, her bracelet, pearl earrings, and the oriental shawl on which she lies. Though this painting was inspired by Titian’s Venus of Urbino, it does not depict a goddess, a bride, or a court lady instead portrays an elite prostitute. The most admired aspect of the painting is the powerful confrontational gaze of the lady, often referenced as the pinnacle of defiance toward the patriarchal society. A key work in modern art, it is perhaps the most famous nude of the 19-century.

  • Observatory Time - The Lovers by Man Ray, 1936

Popularly known as The Lips, this work has been described as the quintessential Surrealist painting, a remarkable example of isomorphism wherein the organic forms are used oddly and obliquely referring to a human, so as to create a meticulous realistic illusion. Depicting the lips of his departed lover, Lee Miller, floating in the sky above the Paris Observatory, it is one of most memorable work of the artist. The image of lips in the picture became an inspiration for many pop culture iconic works including the logo of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The canvas was eight feet long and over three feet high, and it took Ray nearly two years of meticulous daily work to get it perfect as it is.

  • The Two Fridas (Las Dos Fridas) by Frida Kahlo, 1939

A Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo was famous for her self-portraits which were often a symbolic depiction of physical and psychological wounds. The Two Fridas was painted during her divorce with another famous painter Diego Rivera and portrays her loss and emotional turmoil due to the tumultuous relationship. It is a double self-portrait, Frida on the left is customed in a white European style dress with her heart torn and bleeding while the other Frida dressed in a traditional Mexican Tehuana dress has her heart still whole. This painting executed during the surrealist movement is the most notable work of Kahlo.

  • Ciphers and Constellations, in Love with a Woman by Joan Miro, 1941

Rejecting the constraints of the traditional painting, Joan Miro created artworks conceived with fire in the soul but executed with clinical coolness. Though never an official part of the surrealist group, he was widely considered one of them. Using subconscious associations, he pioneered a method of drawing random lines called automatism to express the inner workings of the human psyche. In his works, he used color and form in a symbolic manner wherein the intricate compositions combined abstract elements with recurring motifs like birds, eyes, stars, and the moon. Ciphers and Constellations, in Love with a Woman is a part of the celebrated twenty-four drawings, collectively referred to as the Constellation series, which was produced during a period of personal crisis for Miro due to the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Trapped in France from 1936 to 1940, in an attempt to escape from the tragedies of the ongoing events, Miro created these meticulous works. Despite their modest formats, this series represented the most important works of his career and inspired many artists including Arshile Gorky, who added bold linear abstractions in his works which later proved a foundational influence on abstract expressionism.

  • Marilyn Diptych by Andy Warhol, 1962

After the death of the legendary American actress Marilyn Monroe in August 1962, Andy Warhol, widely acclaimed as the Pope of Pop Art, produced this masterpiece containing fifty images of the actress. All the images depicting in the painting are based on the same publicity photograph from Monroe’s popular 1953 film Niagara. Featuring vividly colored 25 images on the left side and another 25 black and white ones with an effect of fading, it is believed by critics that the contrast is suggestive of the star’s mortality. Considered an iconic work of Pop art — a movement marked by extensive use of recognizable imagery from popular culture, Marilyn Diptych is also the best-known work of Warhol and the most famous painting by an American artist. It was named the third most influential modern art painting in a poll of 500 art experts in the run-up to Turner Prize in 2014.

Read More: Finest Ways to Clean the Modern Paintings You Own

Wrap Up

Clearly modern art embraces numerous different movements, theories, practices and attitudes whose modernism lies particularly in a tendency to repudiate traditional, historical, conventional, or academic forms and norma in an effort to create art in line with the changed social, economic, and intellectual conditions.

Due to the experimental and innovative nature along with overlapping themes of both modern and contemporary art, the genres are often confused for one another, with most people often using them as synonyms. However, comprising of different movements, there is a blurred line that differentiates the two.

Typically, modern art is understood to include airy impressionism, abstract expressionism, and the variety of eclectic styles in between. The series of dynamic changes initiated by impressionism culminated with modernism becoming outdated and finally moving into the post-modernism era. Therefore, contemporary art commences with the first major movement following modernism—Pop Art—and, of course, continues today.