Throughout history, every civilization and era has had its own very specific style of art associated with it. European culture over the past few hundred years has especially been defined by a series of art movements, all of which have had a massive impact on society. In fact, by following a timeline of the different types of art, we can get a clear picture of the social, political, and artistic feeling of each period.
Just like most features of society, art trends come and go. As new types of art come into the spotlight and pick up popularity, they are often heavily inspired by the styles that came before them.
From Renoir to Warhol, the works of iconic painters have revolutionized the art world and can be studied to give us a clear understanding of what the different art types are all about. Below, discover the major movements which have come to define different eras and find out more about the unique styles that exemplify each one, as well as the most notable artists and their works.
So what are the different types of art?
Romanticism was the prevailing type of art for much of the 19th century. This dreamy style celebrated beauty, awe, and emotion in a classically romantic way. The artists who pioneered this movement frequently focused on the deeper, sometimes more spiritual, side of the human experience as well as scenes from religious history or mythology.
One of the most significant names in Romanticism was J.M.W. Turner, known for his use of swirling strokes and light-filled depictions of the British coast and landscape. A contemporary of Turner was the world-renowned John Constable whose idealized paintings of agricultural life in the English countryside have come to define the Romantic movement. Other significant artists who captured the lives and landscapes of the 1800s in this style were John Hamilton Mortimer and Henry Fuseli.
Emerging in France after the Revolution of 1848, Realism was a direct rejection of the styles and ideals of Romanticism. In contrast to the sentimental paintings of picturesque natural settings or grand portraits of religious/ancient mythological figures, Realist artists focused on the authentic contemporary life of people from all social classes.
Gustave Courbet and Jean Baptiste Camille were two figureheads who brought social realism to the forefront of the art world, documenting impoverished members of France’s working class and their daily lives around the time of the Industrial Revolution. One of the best-known Realism works is The Gleaners, this 1857 oil painting by Jean Francois Millet depicts three peasant women collecting leftover crops from a field of stray wheat stalks after the harvest, a familiar scene which never would have been acknowledged or depicted by pre-Realist artists.
Another type of art to come out of France in the 19th century was Impressionism. The group of artists who cultivated this style rejected the polished, perfectly-finished style of those that came before them in favor of innovative, shifting colors and deliberately visible strokes. The ways that the Impressionists painted scenes of everyday events and places still life captured light, movement, and atmosphere in a way that had never been seen before.
Due to the ground-breaking nature of this visual movement, Impressionism was viewed unfavorably by society when it first emerged. It took some time for the genre to gain popularity, but it is now considered one of the most beloved art types of all time, with artists to this day taking inspiration from the painterly strokes and vivid hues of the original Impressionists. This small group who broke away from the conventions of Realism and Romanticism included Pierre Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet, whose Water Lilies series has come to be known as the ultimate example of Impressionism.
Following on from the trailblazing use of color in Impressionism, Fauvism was first established in the early 20th century by a collective of artists, including Vincent van Gogh, who favored outrageously-bold colors and swirling, spiraling gestural strokes.
Paul Gauguin is widely considered to be the most important figure in Fauvism, thanks to the iconic use of vibrant colors in his post-Impressionist paintings. The bold way that Gauguin applied color to the page was a major influence on fellow Fauvist pioneer, Henri Matisse. In one of his best-known works, The Joy of Life (1907), Matisse depicts a group of merrymaking nudes dancing, playing music, kissing and lounging in a pastoral setting. Bright colors are daringly paired together on the canvas in curved lines and sweeping strokes.
If there’s one name that springs to mind when most people think of Cubism, it’s Pablo Picasso. This revolutionary form of modern art was developed by Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907 and 1911 and was the 20th century’s first foray into abstract art.
During this period, the world was changing at an unprecedented speed, as new technologies and political movements emerged that would alter society immeasurably. Cubism was a reaction by the art world to these changes and an attempt to give a fresh take on styles that came before it. Cubists painted the world in a way which had never been seen; images were broken down and painted from different angles in fragmented forms which completely disregarded visual reality. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles (1907) represented a total break from conventional composition and would later go on to influence artists all around the world, including those who created the Abstract Expressionist movement.
Expressionism is a broad term which encompasses a series of musical, literary and artistic creations in the late 19th and early 20th century with a shared view of the world. When it comes to Expressionist art, some common themes seen throughout include vivid color schemes and abstract forms – like those seen in Cubism – to create intensely-emotional and psychological depictions of war, turmoil, cityscapes, and modern life.
Expressionism is typically associated with Northern Europe, particularly Germany. Norwegian artist Edvard Munch painted some of the most famous Expressionist works in history, including The Scream (1893), which has been described by many art historians as providing the blueprint for the entire Expressionist movement.
Very few avant-garde movements have had as much influence over the art world than surrealism. Established in 1920s Paris by a small group of artistic and literary revolutionaries, surrealism aimed to channel the subconscious, dream-like part of the brain into the tangible world to unleash the power of the imagination.
Inspired by the theories of Sigmund Freud, surrealists created incredibly chaotic and unusual images which completely defied the rules of reality, often showing scenes which appeared to have come straight out of the artist’s dreams. This new style provided artists with a newfound creative freedom, allowing them to challenge perceptions of reality entirely.
The Persistence of Memory (1931) by Salvador Dali is considered a surrealist masterpiece and sums up the genre thanks to its scientifically impossible subject matter (melting clocks) and difficult to grasp meaning which encapsulates its viewers.
After the boom of Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ and chart music, popular culture was big business in the mid-20th century. Pop Art was the visual art movement which characterized the commercialism and optimism of culture in the 1950s and 1960s. Pop Art revolved around youth culture; it was young, full of fun and heavily influenced by famous figures such as musicians, movie stars and even famous brands (like in Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans series).
The easily-identifiable subject matters depicted in Pop Art was a break from the traditions of fine art and made the medium more accessible to a broader, younger audience. Roy Liechtenstein used comic book imagery in much of his Pop Art work, something that can especially be seen in the iconic BLAM (1962).
Ever since the dawn of photography, the camera has influenced visual arts; however, artists from all different movements have typically opted to use brush strokes, lighting and color to convey emotions and meanings in a very human way, rather than focusing on the technical realism of an image.
Photorealism, which first gained popularity in the late 1960s, acknowledges the importance of technology in the modern age and uses distinctive painting techniques to capture the effects of photography rather than the world as seen with our eyes. Famous photorealists, such as Chuck Close and Audrey Flack, even go so far as to mimic photographic aesthetics such as blurriness, special effects, and pixelation.
Some photorealist works have garnered international attention for their incredible lifelikeness, making it difficult to differentiate between them and actual photographs. This artistic style questions the conventions used in more traditional movements and aims to blur the lines between reality and artificiality. As technological advances in digital artistic equipment and cameras developed in the 1990s, photorealists were able to produce higher definition images than ever, and the style saw a surge in interest.