History of Modern Art

The history of modern art is often confusing even to people who collect and frequent art galleries. I recently asked a collector to describe contemporary paintings and sculpture exhibited at a local gallery. She said, "Oh, the art is 'contemporary' 'and modern,' "combining two different art movements from two time periods.

History of Modern Art – Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renior

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir, courtesy of the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

The collector's companion chimed in saying, "The art is 'avant-garde,'" citing a term used 100 years ago to describe modern art styles including cubism.

"Contemporary art" is created NOW and is contemporary to us. Contemporary art is works made from the 1960's or 70's up until right now.

According to the history of modern art, "modern" refers to the years, 1860 to 1970, and describes the art style created during that era. If TODAY, an artwork or work of architecture is "modern" in style, but designed and built after 1970, it is "contemporary."

The Museum of Modern Art for example was re-designed and re-built from 2002 to 2004. Its architectural style is modern, modeled after mid-20th century modern designs (presumably to harmonize with the museum's art), with its 630,000 square feet of straight walls, floors and ceilings with no obtrusive columns. Yet its style is contemporary because of its later date.

Postmodern and Contemporary

Pierre-Auguste Renoir's painting "Luncheon of the Boating Party" portrays the light-hearted mood of the French motto liberte, egalite, fraternite among young Parisians at the Maison Fournaise in 1881. The work, at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., depicts celebres of the era, including impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte and milliner Aline Charigot, who would later become Renoir’s wife. The French, enjoying imbibing fine wine and admiring works by great masters, were so overjoyed to have "Luncheon…” visit Paris for a 2006 traveling exhibition that many admirers wept with delight upon seeing the classic work.

The history of modern art looks back to the appearance of the term "postmodernism" in 1960, and to its broader usage by 1970 in essays and art criticism. This philosophical term challenged and reacted against modernism, echoing dramatic changes in our social and economic systems. Further, postmodern essays and critiques coincided with the arrival of contemporary art. (Please see Postmodern Art and Postmodernism pages for more information.)

Contemporary art is generally more socially conscious and philosophically inclusive of several styles and media than art of previous eras. Contemporary art is experimental and often includes hybrids of styles, as well as mixes of many diverse periods of art history from earliest times to the present. The defining line between painting and sculpture is sometimes blurred, while computer technology can be part of the mix.

Contemporary art tends toward conceptual, political and social messages, addressing feminism, multiculturalism, globalization, bioengineering and AIDS, among other trends.

Graffiti art – Desert Scene Examination

"Return from Bohemia" – Grant Wood, Curtis Galleries, Inc., founder Myron Kunin

People not familiar with the specialized vocabulary of academic art history often use "modern" as synonymous with "contemporary" when referring to recently produced artworks. One respected California publication ran a headline recently, "Is World of Warcraft (the popular computer game) Modern Art?" It would be better to say, "Is World of Warcraft Contemporary Art?" because the images are created today.

What is Modern Art?

The history of modern art began in the 1860's with impressionist works by Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and other forward-looking artists.

  • Romanticism in the early 1800's
  • Louis Daguerre's invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, presumably pre-empting the work of realistic painters
  • The writer Baudelaire who in 1846 called upon artists to be of their time
  • The first impressionist art exhibition in Paris in 1874

Modern art, with its departure from tradition and experimentation, prevailed for more than 100 years. It began with impressionism, painted in the open air with clearly visible brushstrokes and dissolving images.

Moon and Sea II - Arthur Dove

"Moon and Sea II" - Arthur Dove,
1923, oil on canvas, 24x18 inches, Curtis Galleries, Inc., founder Myron Kunin

Subsequent modern art movements include: post impressionism (Van Gogh, Cezanne), expressionism (Munch), fauvism (Matisse, Derain), cubism (Picasso, Braque), Dadaism (Man Ray), surrealism (Dali, Miro), conceptual art (Duchamp), abstract expressionism (Kandinsky, Rothko, Pollack), Pop Art (Warhol, Lichtenstein) and minimalism (Donald Judd, Frank Stella). These are just a few of the numerous "modern" artists, many of whom were influenced by and worked within several movements.

Origin of the Word "Modern"

The word "modern" is 500 years old, and was initially used to describe contemporary typographic styles, as opposed to old-fashioned type styles of that time. Modern is also used to define European history; for example, modern European history has been around for about 500 years.

Modern or "mädern" as it was spelled in late Middle English (from late Latin modernus) means of or relating to the present or recent times as opposed to the past. It is characterized by or uses the most up-to-date techniques, ideas, or equipment; signifies language currently used as opposed to earlier forms; and designates current styles or trends in art, architecture and other cultural activities.

"Modern" in its dictionary meaning is similar to "contemporary" which is why many people call contemporary art modern. And these people are not wrong in a general sense.

Moon and Sea II - Arthur Dove

Minimal artwork by Tony DeLap

I am not an historian or expert in the history of modern art. I am an art journalist, striving to speak and write clearly. I call contemporary artworks created after 1970 just that.


Regarding that conversation with the collector, the term "avant-garde" is often used in an informal sense to describe contemporary art.

Avant-garde, originally a French military term, means "advance guard." Modern artists used it to describe their work, meaning their paintings and sculptures were at the vanguard of art trends. The English language adopted the term in 1910.

The paintings and sculpture of Pablo Picasso are avant-garde. So are the works of Shepard Fairey, but "appropriation" more accurately describes his creations.

The history of modern art is interesting, complex and sometimes confusing. But life that is meaningful and fun is often that way.

(Check out New York Armory Show page, commemorating the 100th anniversary of this groundbreaking modern art exhibition.)

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