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)
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)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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 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.
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.
Art Nouveau (1890-1910)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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.
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.
Abstract Expressionism (1943-65)
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.
Postmodernism Art Movements
POP Art (1950s-60s)
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.
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.
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)
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)
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)
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 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)
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.