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Modern Art Movements at a Glance

Posted by Missy of on

Category: Design


We often hear terms such as “expressionism”, “impressionism”, and “realism” thrown around when discussing art, but what do these terms actually mean and when should you use them to label art?

We often hear terms such as “expressionism”, “impressionism”, and “realism” thrown around when discussing art, but what do these terms actually mean and when should you use them to label art?

Expressionism is characterized by a distortion of form and use of striking color to convey some sort of emotion from the artist.  Both the neo-expressionist and abstract expressionist movements fall under this category. Expressionist art strives to make you, the viewer, experience the same emotions as the artist creating the piece. The world depicted is distorted by the emotions and thoughts of the artist and the viewer should pick up on these emotions through use of color, line, and subject. Edvard Munch’s The Scream is the classic example for the expressionist movement. Any art that makes you view the world with a bias may have had an Expressionist influence.

Impressionist art represents a cursory glance or momentary look at a scene. This style is characterized by loose brushwork, muted color palettes, and a lack of clarity. Impressionist art seeks to present the viewer with an “impression” of the actual subject. The viewer perceives the world through the artist’s depiction of the “real” and fleeting. The forerunners of the Impressionist movement include Edouard Manet and his Luncheon on the Grass, as well as Claude Monet and his famous Water Lilies. If a painting represents a short moment in time, it likely has an Impressionist influence.

Realism seeks to represent the world as it exists, without a stylistic bias. These artists find inspiration and beauty in the world around them, often in subjects that most people would overlook or even find unpleasant.  While it may not seem like a “typical” modern art movement, Realism is credited with being the first style of modern art. It uses the everyday to overturn traditional values, beliefs, and systems. The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet is one of the best examples of an early realist painting. Paintings with a Realism influence often appear the most life-like or picturesque.

It is important to remember that few artists fall neatly into one category of identification. Expressionism, Impressionism, and Realism all originate from the twentieth century and today act as influences more than actual movements. These terms can help you better understand an artist’s influences, as well as help you discuss modern art with an understanding of its origins. While an artist may not align with any of these movements, you may notice the influence that these modern art movements have on contemporary works—and you’ll be all the more knowledgeable the next time you talk about modern art.

Blog originally published on First Coast Magazine Online by Madison Gilmore-Duffey.

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