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The Birth of Modern Art

The origins of Modern Art can be traced to the Industrial Revolution from the 18th to the 19th century. This was a period of brisk changes in society as a result of changes in manufacturing, technology and transportation which in turn affected the socio-economic and cultural lifestyle of western countries and later the rest of the world.


Photo by Stephen B Whatley, CC BY 2.0

Modern art is the style and philosophy produced during the 18th and 19th century. It usually means art that has let go of age old traditions and methods and instead adopted experimentation.

Nineteenth Century

Before the 19thcentury, artists were often commissioned to make artwork by rich patrons, kings and institutions like the church. Many of these works represented religious or mythological scenes that narrated stories. All that changed in the 19th century when artists started to create art about people, places, scenes and ideologies that appealed and interested them. After Sigmund Freud’s book, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) was published; artists began to explore dreams, and symbolism to depict their paintings and art work.

Some artists began to use colors as a form of expression, different mediums and techniques to express themselves. Photography, which was invented in the 1830’s, became a new method for many to depict their interpretations.

Modernism paintings began to show as early as 1784 with Jacques-Louis David’s The Oath of the Horatii depicted a scene from a well known Roman legend about the importance of self-sacrifice for one’s own country. It showed three brothers with their father holding their swords for them. The painting was a huge success and is one of the most known in the neoclassical style.

Gradually, over a period of a century, paintings and art works evolved and became what is known today as modern art.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a philosopher from Germany who is considered one of the central figures of modern philosophy. His works inspired painters and artists who went on to break away from the conventional work of their times.

The true pioneers of modern art were the Romantics, the Realists and the Impressionists.

Romanticism was first recognized around the 1800’s. It gained popularity and momentum in parts of Europe in the early nineteenth century. This version of art glorified imagination and emotion. The artist through this art asserted his originality—an integral part of this school of painting. Nature in all its uncontrollable glory and man’s struggle to fight and tame it, was one of the recurring themes.

Realism or Naturalismdominated art during many periods. In this school of art, paintings were represented truthfully without exaggeration and artistic conventions. It involved a lot of training and mentoring and imparted techniques. Inspirations were drawn from nature, still life and everyday objects. This art form came to dominate literature and art in France.

Impressionism came about in 1874 when a group of artists organized an exhibition in Paris. Many renowned artists like Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro were members of this movement that came to be called Impressionism. Their paintings stood apart from the other artists as they broke away from traditional and established styles by incorporating new technology and ideas while depicting modern life. Impressionists also used bright colors instead of the more sober colors dominating the canvasses of their time.

The term ‘Impressionism’ was coined when art critic Louis Leroy opined that Claude Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” was not a finishes painting but a sketch or an impression because of the artist’s loose brush strokes. This look of effortlessness was a deliberate effort to mask the artist’s careful and studious constructions. This art depicted modern life in vivid and synthetic colors.

Modern art began to emerge as post-Impressionism and Symbolism. Post-Impressionism is predominantly a French movement that took place between 1886 and 1905. Post-Impressionism was a movement against Impressionism.  While the latter was a truthful and natural depiction of colors and light, the former concentrated on the abstract. While the same vivid colors were used, geometric shapes and forms were used with distortions of subjects for effect.

Although Symbolism began as a literary concept, it made its way to art. A younger breed of painters believed art needed to be a reflection of an idea or emotion instead of a representation.

Eastern art, especially Japanese printmaking highly influenced these schools of artists in their quest of a more realistic depiction of life.

Early 20th century

Between 1910 and the end of World War I, Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism and Futurism flourished.

After World War-I ended some artists through their work, portrayed anti-government messages. Some European artists had migrated to the United States of America during World War-I and exhibited their works at the Armory show in 1913. This was America’s introduction to Modern Art.

After World War-II, America became a hotspot for new artistic revolutions. Between 1950-1960 Abstract Expressionism, Color-filed Painting, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimal Art, Hard-edge Painting, Lyrical Abstraction, Video Art, Post-minimalism, Photorealism and many other concepts and art forms surfaced and flourish till today.

Modern Art is in many ways a benchmark and reminder of the progress we have made as a global society. It symbolizes change and progress with evolution as its vehicle.