The Evolution of Modernist Art

Topics: Impressionism

The Modernist movement is loosely defined by the period from the mid 19th century to the mid-to-late 20th century. The term is used to classify art that throws conventional techniques out the window instead of artist expression and experimentation. Modern artists experimented with new ways of seeing and, in turn, expressing what they saw. Although Modern Art is a wide-arching term, the forms of art produced during that era evolved so profoundly, paving the way for even later movements like contemporary or postmodern art.

Gustave Courbet was pivotal in the emergence of Realism in the mid-19th century and, in turn, was an early founder of modern art. In the wake of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, the modernist movement took hold as people began questioning and rejecting traditional values and beliefs. Realism followed suit by portraying society, politics, and the economy as they were seen by the lower and middle classes, rather than focusing on the bourgeoisie like popular art of the time.

Whereas “high art” employed the use of bright, lively colors, “realist art” utilized dark, earthy tones and critics took note, accusing the style of showing unpleasant, or sometimes ugly, depictions of life.

When Gustave Courbet started working as an artist in the late 1830s to early 1840s he rejected the teachings of the French Academy about the classical and romantic styles of art, focusing instead on the physical reality of his subjects regardless of whether they were plain or imperfect or not. Courbet chose countrysides, workers, etc.

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as his subjects – subjects usually reserved for minor genre painting – and turned them into large, meaningful works of art.

These ideals that Gustave Courbet followed made Burial at Ornans one of his most successful and well-known paintings. At 10’ by 22,’ the painting commands the room and engulfs the viewer. It makes use of earth tones to create a dark composition, rendering all of the subjects equal. No preference is given to the religious figures or motifs on the canvas and, unlike in a romantic painting where the artist might have painted the sky with a bright sunset to emphasize religion and the transition of the soul from one world to the other, Courbet painted dark clouds over the horizon so that it forces the viewer’s eyes to the scene below. Gustave Courbet famously said, “The Burial at Ornans was, in reality, the burial of Romanticism” and its success in opening the door for the modernist art movement seems to prove his point.

Éduoard Manet pushed for the shift from Realism to Impressionism around the beginning of the 1860s. Like Realist paintings, Impressionist art strived to represent the urban and everyday life of the people. Unlike the work of the Realist painters before, though, impressionism worked to include pure, striking colors and loosened their brushwork. The term “impressionism” comes from the artists’ attempt to depict a moment in time that a human might experience rather than painting an “image”; a split-second impression.

Adopting influences from the art of other cultures as well as that of realism painters, Éduoard Manet pushed a style known as impressionism. Like Gustave Courbet, he was one of the most influential painters to follow Charles Baudelaire’s call for artists to better represent images of

modern life. Although he grew up in an upper-class household, he lived a bohemian adult life, which he depicted in his work, throwing out academic conventions of the past. He brought this all together in a style that read as flatness on a page.

The piece Olympia by Manet is a good example of the flat composition on the canvas, which the artist chose to use rather than the perspectives the academies promoted. An even bigger indication of Olympia’s impressionist style comes instead from its subject matter. The art world is not unfamiliar with lounging nude paintings, but Manet chose to make the subject a more humanlike figure, put her under harsh lighting, gave her a confrontational gaze, and used symbolism (her slippers, her necklace, the cat, etc.) throughout the painting which suggests she may be a prostitute. All of this accounted for, Manet also put the image on a large 51”x75” canvas; a size usually reserved for historical or mythological events. Therefore, it shocked the viewers when it was released in 1865 and continues to be analyzed. Recently, historians have been discussing the racial dialogue Manet may have been hinting at with the inclusion of the woman in the background, considering slavery had been illegal in France for 15 years by the time the painting was put on display.

Paul Cézanne appreciated the progress Realism and Impressionism made in the art being produced by well-known artists at the time, but he was unsatisfied with the idea that Impressionist art was simply a reflection of what the artist perceived, so he set out to create a style that expressed his visual sensations as he stared at his subject. Cézanne used varying pressures and brush strokes to distinguish between forms, as well as light and dark, to “construct” a scene instead of “painting” it. These planes of color created a modeled dimensionality by attempting to render three dimensions on a two-dimensional space, which gave his paintings (especially his still lifes) a sense of multiple perspectives. His Post-Impressionist style has been credited with bridging the fleeting aspects of Impressionism and the more abstract styles of Cubism, Fauvism, and Expressionism.

Many of these techniques are apparent in Paul Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire, the most obvious being his use of vibrant, differing colors to show the way light and dark distinguish forms. He worked to make it seem as though the light was emanating from the forms on the page rather than having an outside source influence the subject. On top of using different values to create depth in his paintings, he used different brush techniques to

differentiate objects from one another rather than relying on outlines.

Post-Impressionist painters were split between those who depicted scenes that evoked memories or emotions that could connect with their audience and those who used colors and shapes to represent the world around them. Either way, the principles of using the application of paint on the canvas as a way to portray abstract forms and patterns, applied by Paul Cézanne in Mont Sainte-Victoire, are crucial to the movement as a whole.

Henri Matisse began his career as a Post-Impressionist painter. As he matured, cubism was being introduced and, although Cubism interested him, he passed on it and created a unique artistic style known as Fauvism. Matisse was inspired by his time viewing and studying different cultures’ art, which is where his work gets its flatness, angularity, and decorative qualities. Fauvism, though, centered around the use of colors, not in a descriptive manner, but as an independent element to represent a feeling or to show structure in the subject. By using these simplified forms and bold colors, the Fauves brought attention to the two-dimensional nature of the medium where every element must play a specific role to create a greater image. Finally, Fauvism centered around the artists’ expression, believing that the artist’s impression and instinct were more important than academic theories.

It was after the first showing of Woman With a Hat that the word “Fauve” (wild beast) was coined by an art critic and it became the term used to represent the brightly colored works released from then on. Henri Matisse’s use of expressive brushwork and bright colors, which gave the piece a sketchy feeling, shocked the viewers at the time. Leo Stein (an American art collector and critic) called it “the nastiest smear of paint I had ever seen” but then, realizing the impact the painting and its style would have on the modern art world, bought it. The Fauvist art movement had a big impact on cubism and expressionism and was a launching point for future forms of abstraction.

Pablo Picasso has become one of the most dominant and influential artists of the 20th century, mostly associated with the invention of Cubism alongside Georges Braque, although he has also been successful in sculpting, printmaking, and ceramics. With influences from other artists like Paul Cézanne and Henri Rousseau, as well as from tribal art of different cultures, his forms became geometric and angular while he simultaneously defied the fundamentals of perspective, leading to the introduction of Cubism.

Cubist artists paid no attention to the conventional modeling of figures and allowed the background to flow to the foreground and back, bringing into question both space, movement and time. As Cubism progressed, artists began using non-conventional materials (like a newspaper) as abstract forms throughout the piece. Ultimately, Cubism worked to create a unity between the subject and the surface of the canvas.

Guernica was created at a time when Pablo Picasso’s Cubism had evolved to employ some characteristics of surrealism like the figures’ angular features. Guernica is considered, at 11.5” by 25.5”, to be one of the most moving and powerful anti-war paintings of all time. Created after reading about the bombing of Guernica, Spain by Nazi Germany and Italy during the Spanish civil war, it uses strong imagery to show the suffering that people and animals endure during war. After its completion, it toured around the globe where it gained widespread acclaim and brought the world’s attention to the Spanish Civil War. Its lack of color intensifies the somber mood of the message and is still a source of debate between art historians on its deeper messages.

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The Evolution of Modernist Art. (2022, Apr 24). Retrieved from

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