The Top 30 Art Movements In Western History: Characteristics And Styles

From ancient to modern art, western art history has a long and varied background. Take a look at some of the defining art movements of the past 3000 years.

Jun 28, 2020By Charlotte Davis, BA Art History
egon schiele myron donald judd
Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern by Egon Schiele, Discobolus by Myron, and Untitled by Donald Judd


Western art history has undergone a plethora of changes, resulting in an extremely diverse range of techniques, styles, and mediums. Art has long reflected societal contexts and changes, becoming an important indicator of cultural and sociopolitical climates at their times. Below is a comprehensive list of the 30 most prominent art movements in western art history, explanations of their contexts, and their most important artists. 


Ancient Art Movements


Classical Greek Art (510-323 BC)

myron discobolus sculpture
Discobolus by Myron, 5th century BC, Roman copy from the 2nd century CE


Classical Greek Art flourished during a period of heightened intellectualism, literature, philosophy, and architecture. It focused on naturalism and the idealism of the human body in painting, marble sculpture, and architectural ornamentation. It has been recognized as one of the most influential periods in western history, setting the stage for many facets of modern art. 


Notable Artists: Phidias, Myron, Praxiteles, Polykleitos


Early Modern Art Movements


Medieval Art (500-1400) 

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Icon with the Triumph of Orthodoxy, ca. 1400, British Museum 

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Medieval era art encompassed varying periods and styles, including Byzantine, Viking, Anglo-Saxon, Romanesque, and Gothic. Broadly speaking, western medieval art focused on the introduction of Christianity into mainstream European culture. Its most famous examples can be seen in church architecture and decoration spanning throughout Europe and the Near East. 


Notable Artists: Duccio, Cimabue, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Giotto, Jan Van Eyck


Renaissance Art (1400-1600)

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The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, 1485, Uffizi Galleries, Florence


The European Renaissance period was an artistic and cultural rebirth that began in Italy and expanded into the rest of Europe. It was a divergence from the precedent Gothic and medieval styles in favor of the humanism of ancient Greco-Roman art and culture. This period saw the rejuvenation of intellectualism, philosophy and the classical style, yielding some of the most well-known art and architectural masterpieces to date. 


Notable Artists: Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Masaccio, Giovanni Bellini


Mannerism (1520-1620) 

madonna and child parmigianino
Madonna and Child with Angels by Parmigianino, also known as Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-40, Uffizi Galleries, Florence


Mannerism was a period that followed the apex of the High Renaissance. It was highly creative, focusing on the expression of ideas through extreme, sometimes fantastical imagery. These radical elements manifested as dramatic scenarios, asymmetry, and a movement away from the artistic ideal. 


Notable Artists: Parmigianino, Bronzino, El Greco, Paolo Veronese


Baroque (1600-1750) 

rembrandt the night watch
The Night Watch by Rembrandt, 1642, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 


Baroque art originated in Rome in the 17th century with a strong focus on Catholic revival, which eventually spread across Europe. Unlike mannerist art, Baroque art was centered around intricately rendered realism with a strong emotional appeal towards religion. However, not all Baroque art was religious; its hyper-realism was also present in still-lifes done during the time.


Notable Artists: Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Gian Lorenzo Bernini


Rococo (~1700-80) 

the swing jean honore fragonard
The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1767, The Wallace Collection, London


The Rococo period, sometimes also called Late Baroque, focused on decorative ornamentation in a divergence from the (early) Baroque. It favored themes and iconography of fantasy and lush sensuality. The movement was characterized by a culmination of small curved brush strokes, from which the name ‘rococo’ derived as a translation of the French rocaille, or coral.


Notable Artists: Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, François Boucher, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo


Neoclassicism (1750-1850) 

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The Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David, 1784, Toledo Museum of Art


Neoclassicism was a second resurgence of classicism in art during the 18th century after the discovery of the ancient city of Pompeii in Italy. The period saw a dramatic increase in Greco-Roman mythological subject matter in painting, classical style sculpture, and ancient temple-style architecture. It also imposed ancient Greco-Roman idealized aesthetics in art. 


Notable Artists: Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Jean-Baptiste Debret, William-Adolphe Bouguereau


Romanticism (1780-1830) 

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Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, 1830, The Louvre, Paris


Romanticism moved away from the sober idealism of Neoclassicism and towards the expression of emotions in art. It celebrated the intuition of the artist, favoring imaginative and sometimes dramatized representations. This period also saw an increase of landscape imagery.


Notable Artists:  Eugène Delacroix, J.M.W.Turner, William Blake, Francisco Goya


Modernism Art Movements 

Realism (1848-1900) 

the gleaners painting jean francois millet
The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet, 1857, Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Realism was a movement originating in the mid-19th century that favored artistic depiction at a near-photographic nature of accuracy. As a response to the dramatized art periods preceding it, Realism zeroed in on more mundane, everyday subjects. These subjects were then depicted with emphasized authenticity as dissension from previous artistic idealization.


Notable Artists: Gustave Courbet, Jean François Millet, Edward Hopper, Édouard Manet


Impressionism (1865-85) 

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The Boulevard Montmartre at Night by Camille Pissarro, 1897, The National Gallery, London


Impressionism was an art movement that developed in mid-19th-century France. It centered around the depiction of landscapes and outdoor imagery in a spontaneous fashion instead of creating pieces based on pre-done sketches and studies. It also moved away from realistic depictions, focusing instead on the ‘impression’ or a general effect of the sunlight on outdoor subjects.


Notable Artists: Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Mary Cassatt


Neo-Impressionism (1884-1935)

sunday afternoon seurat neo impressionism
A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, 1884-86, Art Institute of Chicago


Neo-Impressionism, also sometimes incorrectly called Pointillism, was a movement following the impressionist that consists of the application of small color dots. Unlike its predecessor, Neo-Impressionism did not focus on the spontaneity of landscape painting. Instead, it employed a systematic, scientific technique and luminous coloration. 


Notable Artists: Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Camille Pissarro, Henri Edmond Cross


Art Nouveau (1890-1910) 

klimt the kiss
The Kiss by Gustav Klimt, 1907-08, The Belvedere Museum, Vienna


Art Nouveau, sometimes called Jugendstil, Sezessionstil, or the Glasgow Style, developed in 1890. It focused on the modernization of decorative ornamentation in a variety of mediums including painting, sculpture, architecture and graphic arts. It also manifested in the abstraction of organic forms and asymmetric geometric shapes. 


Notable Artists: Gustav Klimt, Antoni Gaudi, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Aubrey Beardsley


Post-Impressionism (1885-1910) 

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The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, 1889, MoMA


Post-Impressionism was a reactionary movement against the naturalistic depictions of Impressionism. Rather than depict landscapes based on light or realism, post-impressionists focused on emotional evocation and expression in art. While their work was stylistically broad, it is characterized by bold colors, spatial abstraction, and unblended brush strokes. 


Notable Artists: Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch


Fauvism (1900-08) 

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Portrait of Madame Matisse (The Green Line) by Henri Matisse, 1905, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen


Fauvism was an early 20th-century modern art movement characterized by bright colors and thick, unblended brushstrokes, inspired by 19th-century color theories. The group of artists gained its name from an art critic who called them the Fauves, or wild beasts, after their first exhibition at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1905. 


Notable Artists: Henri Matisse, André Derain, Georges Rouault, Raoul Dufy


Expressionism (1905-20) 

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Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern by Egon Schiele, 1912, The Leopold Museum, Vienna 


Expressionism was an international art movement that originated in Germany and Austria during the early 20th century. Although eclectic and international, broadly speaking expressionist art focused on emotional expression rather than traditional aesthetic. It incorporates elements of fantasy, distortion, and dynamism. 


Notable Artists: Edvard Munch, Wassily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Egon Schiele, Lucian Freud, Amadeo Modigliani


Cubism (1907-14) 

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Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso, 1907, MoMA


Cubism was a revolutionary, avant-garde art movement that is considered one of the most influential periods in 20th-century art. Characterized by the fragmentation of traditional perspective and the use of geometric shapes, Cubism challenged precedent artistic techniques and introduced a new type of representation.


Notable Artists: Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Jean Metzinger


Futurism (1909-40s)

continuity in space umberto boccioni
Unique Forms of Continuity in Space by Umberto Boccioni, 1913; cast 1972, Tate


Futurism was a social and artistic movement that originated in Italy during the early 20th century. As its name indicates, it was focused on forward-thought and the liberation from Italy’s corrupt and oppressive past. It was aesthetically linked with Cubism and focused on abstraction, fragmented perspectives, and continuous movement. 


Notable Artists: Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Giacomo Balla, Gino Severini 


Suprematism (1913-20s) 

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Dynamic Suprematism by Kazimir Malevich, 1915-16, Tate 


Suprematism was a modern art movement that developed in Russia and was heavily influenced by the 20th-century avant-garde. It centered around abstraction, simplistic shapes, and a restricted color palette. Its founder, Kazimir Malevich, stated that Suprematism would be ‘superior’ to all past art forms and movements because of its ‘pure’ abstraction.


Notable Artists: Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitzky, Lazar Khidekel, Ilya Chashnik


Constructivism (1915-30s)

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Proun (Study for Proun S.K.) by El Lissitzky, 1922-23, Guggenheim Museum


Constructivism was the most influential modern art movement in Russia during the 20th century. While it developed from precedent movements such as Futurism, Cubism, and Suprematism, Constructivism was a revolutionary movement that focused on the ‘construction’ of western industrialism. It coincided with the 1917 October Revolution, signifying social and political forward movement. 


Notable Artists: Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Lyubov Popova


Dadaism (1916-24) 

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Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, 1917, replica 1964, Tate


Dadaism was an avant-garde intellectual and artistic movement that developed in Europe after World War I. It utilized a variety of mediums including painting, collage, poetry, and sculpture. The name ‘dada’ encompassed the movement’s focus on nonsensical material as a form of artistic rebellion. It was characterized by satire and political commentary to revolutionize art’s interaction with society.


Notable Artists: André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Hugo Ball, Hans Arp, Francis Picabia, Hannah Höch


Surrealism (1924-60s) 

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The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí, 1931, MoMA


Surrealism was a modern art movement that originated from the avant-garde mentality of Dadaism. Heavily influenced by psychoanalysis, the movement focused on the exploration of the unconscious mind and self-analysis. It was characterized by dreamlike imagery, mythological motifs and abstract symbolism


Notable Artists: Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Frida Kahlo, Joan Miró, Meret Oppenheim


Abstract Expressionism (1943-65) 

woman I willem de kooning
Woman I by Willem de Kooning, 1950-52, MoMA


Abstract Expressionism was an art movement that emerged in New York during the mid 20th century. It encompassed a wide-spanning group of artists whose work included rough brushstrokes, abstract, often chaotic subject matter, and bright color pops. It emphasized expression with gestural, nonrepresentational artistic methods.


Notable Artists: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Lee Krasner


Postmodernism Art Movements


POP Art (1950s-60s) 

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Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol, 1967, MoMA


POP Art was an art movement that originated in the United States during the mid-20th-century. It is known for its appropriation of elements from popular culture including mass media, advertisements, and comic books. It was revolutionary because it utilized ‘lowbrow’ elements and styles and received significant criticism during its early years. Today, it is one of the most recognizable art styles.


Notable Artists: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring, David Hockney


Minimalism (1960-70)

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Untitled by Donald Judd, 1980, Tate


Minimalism was an extension of the artistic abstraction that permeated the 20th century. Its art intentionally diverged from representations of reality to allow the viewer to come to their conclusion without outside influence. Minimalist sculpture generally focused on simple, standalone geometric shapes made of various materials. Its painting also centered around geometric shapes composed in simple block color sequences. 


Notable Artists: Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Yayoi Kusama, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin


Photorealism (1960s-Current)

goings flowered table top
Flowered Table Top by Ralph Goings, 1928, Private Collection


Photorealism was a style that originated in the United States in the 1960s. It was centered around meticulous attention to detail and rendering subjects in near-photographic like accuracy. The movement generally consisted of the replication of photographs in other forms of visual art. 


Notable Artists: Chuck Close, Ralph Goings, Richard Estes, Audrey Flack


Conceptual Art (1960s-Current) 

sol lewitt a wall divided
A Wall Divided Vertically into Fifteen Equal Parts, Each with a Different Line Direction and Color, and All Combinations by Sol LeWitt, 1970, Tate


Conceptual Art was a movement that prioritized the idea behind the artwork above its aesthetic value or composition. Like other movements within modernism, conceptual art focused on the idea of expression and rejected precedent artistic ideals. While spanning a wide scope of mediums, styles, and techniques, conceptual art can be broadly classified as the expression of artistic ideas using nontraditional methods.


Notable Artists: Joseph Beuys, Robert Rauschenberg, Walter de Maria, John Baldessari, Sol LeWitt


Arte Povera (1962-72) 

jannis kounellis untitled 1968
Untitled by Jannis Kounellis, 1968, Tate 


Arte Povera was a movement that originated in Italy during the 1960s. It was a radical, contemporary period focusing on sculpture made from ‘poor’ objects including old rags, scrap metal, and found objects. The use of these objects rejected traditional notions of high art and explored new creative avenues. It was particularly prominent in Turin but was also present in Rome, Milan, and Genoa.


Notable Artists: Giovanni Anselmo, Germano Celant, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz


Land Art/Earth Art (1960s-80s)

sahara circle richard long
Sahara Circle by Richard Long, 1988, Tate 


Land Art, also often called Earth Art, was a conceptual art movement that utilized landscapes as forms of installation-style art. Often site-specific, these works were largely made out of the natural landscape and often documented with photography. The movement coincided with a cultural dissent from urban living, allowing for broader ecological awareness.


Notable Artists: Robert Smithson, Richard Long, Walter De Maria, Nancy Holt 


Neo-Expressionism (1970s-90s)

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Untitled (Boxer) by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982, Private Collection


Neo-expressionism was an early-postmodern movement that originated in the 1970s, and its members have sometimes been called the ‘New Fauves.’ It began as a reactionary movement against the minimalist conceptual art of the 1970s and is regarded as a revival in the expressionist style of painting. It can be characterized by its bright colors and thick, unblended paint application. 


Notable Artists: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Georg Baselitz, Julian Schnabel, Philip Guston


Installation Art (1970s-Current) 

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Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity by Yayoi Kusama, 2009, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C. 


Installation Art refers to an art style that occupies an entire three-dimensional space, creating an immersive visual and sometimes sensory viewer experience. Installation pieces have an intentional relationship with their sites, whether it is permanent or temporary. They are meant to invoke certain feelings, thoughts, or moods, establishing an intimate relationship between viewer and artwork.


Notable Artists: Yayoi Kusama, Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst, Allan Kaprow, Olafur Eliasson

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By Charlotte DavisBA Art HistoryCharlotte is a contributing writer from Portland, Oregon now based in London, England. I’m an art historian with extensive knowledge in art history, classics, ancient art and archaeology.