Art movements

Art Mouvements - Kunstbewegungen

You don’t know what to do in a museum or how to enjoy art? These are the art movements that you should know about to better understand paintings. I hope that this article makes you enjoy more the next time when you visit a museum. Let’s get started by talking about some major art movements and answering some of your questions.

What exactly is Classical Art?

The words classical and classicism can mean different things depending on the topic. In general, classical means things like clearness, simplicity, elegance and symmetry. In some context, it can also mean formal, restrained, and restricted to academic ideals and rules. Since the term is very used in artworks, it is associated to civilizations that developed very formal academic principals like Greek and Romans. There are in general three distinct periods: the first is the age of classical antiquity that took place in the ancient Greek and Roman world. The next term is classicism also known as classical revival which is in fact a revival of the Greek and Roman centuries and took place roughly around the 15th and 16th centuries. The next term is Neoclassicism which is another revival of the classical revival and took place in about the 18th and 19th centuries.

Classical Antiquity

It is this huge time and space that covers the time of the ancient Greece to around the time of the fall of the Roman Empire (almost a thousand year of European history). Starting in the 15th century, the ancient Greek were very fascinated by the human body. They started by representing it in the most naturalistic ways. At one point artists in ancient Greece started to modify the human body in the most idealistic way such as perfect symmetrical body and so on.

Calumny of Appelles by Sandro Botticelli (Classical Antiquity)Calumny of Appelles by Sandro Botticelli

Classical Revival (Classicism)

Vitruvius Ten Books on ArchitectureThe confusion is that classicism is not the classical period of Greek and Roman times, it is a revival of that which occurred roughly around the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe (Renaissance). The “Renaissance” which means Rebirth is a rebirth of the classical Greco-Roman academic traditions. This started with the work of a guy named Vitruvius who wrote a book called “Ten Books on Architecture” that arrived to the hands of Filippo Brunelleschi, Battista Alberti and Leonardo Da Vinci.

The renaissance and classical revival are also socasiated with a movement called Humanism. Humanism is based on human idealism, virtue, individualism separate from religious doctrine and these values of humanism were consistent with Greek and roman thinking.


A volcano called Mount Vesuvius erupted around 79 CE and buried the nearby cities (Herculaneum/Pompeii). Around 1709/1748 those cities were discovered. The discovery of these cities was a motivation to find and recover the art created previously. Neoclassicism is also associated with the Age of Enlightenment which was and still is a movement away from religious doctrine and closer to scientific reasoning and rational thinking by building governmental republics inspired by the Roman and Greek ideals. There continues to be new works on classicism and there is no well-defined beginning or end of an art movement. Much of those explorations on simplicity, harmony and proportionality are still very relevant topics in architectural theory today. Some of the Neoclassicism chief artists are Jaques-Louis David, Lorenzo Bartolini, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and  Antonio Canova.

Venus Induces Helen to Fall in Love with Paris by Angelica Kauffmann (Neoclassicism)Venus Induces Helen to Fall in Love with Paris by Angelica Kauffmann


Romanticism is about a mindset and a way of feeling. Romanticism does not have much to do with love and romance, it is more about passion. The artists try to show their deepest emotions through their works, the objective is to glorify this emotion. In addition to emphasizing the passion of the individual, the destructive power of nature, suffering, hopelessness were some of the famous themes. It could be about the intense drama of a moment. Romanticism can be also understood as a reaction of the birth of the modern world (industrialization, urbanization and consumerism). Caspar Friedrich, Eugène Delacroix, J.M.W Turner, Benjamin West are romanticism chief artists. Romanticism was spread roughly in the period between 1780 and 1850.

Crusaders Thirsting near Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez (Romanticism)Crusaders Thirsting near Jerusalem by Fracesco Hayez

What is the difference between Realism and Naturalism?

Realism refers to realistic portraits of subject matter and content i.e. artwork that closely resembles everyday life. When you want to describe the physical characteristic to an artwork, you want to use the word Naturalism. This refers to things like shapes, colors, forms, lighting, shadows that are more realistic and closely representing the natural world. Think about Realism as more concerned with narrative and Naturalism as more concerned with the visual appearances.  Realism is generally regarded as the opposite of Idealism. Idealism represents subject matter in pursuit of higher principals and goals while Realism refers to depict everyday situations and being more truthful to social realities. Naturalism is the opposite of abstract and stylized. The chief exponents of the realist movement are Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier and Jean-Francois Millet.

The following painting “Matin a Villeneuve” by Henri Biva is realist because it depicts a view that you can find in real life and is also naturalist since the shadows and other details represent the natural world.

Matin a Villeneuve by Henri Biva (Naturalism and Realism)

You can clearly notice that the next painting “Harmony in Red” by Henri Matisse do not represent the objects in their real dimensions, neither the shadows. We can easily tell that this painting is not naturalist. However, this painting is about a dessert. Thus, the painting is realistic.

Harmony in Red by Henri Matisse (Naturalism)

The following painting is “Venus and Adonis” by Peter Paul Rubens. In contrast with the previous painting, the scene described in the painting is not real: Have you ever seen a baby with wings? ( I haven’t). But the shadows, lighting and people are painted in real dimensions which makes the painting naturalist! Venus and Adonis by Peter Paul Rubens (Realism)

And I will let you find out the art movement(s) associated with the following painting titled “The Meeting” by Gustave Courbet.The Meeting by Gustave Courbet (Naturalism and Realism)A nice idea is to find more paintings that represent realism but not naturalism, naturalism but not realism, naturalism and realism simultaneously the next time you visit a painting gallery or museum.


Impression soleil levant by Claude Monet (Impressionism)Impression soleil levant by Claude Monet

In 1872 Claude Monet painted a picture of a boat in sunrise where he did not care about capturing the details of the painting, he only wanted to capture the impression. There was no respect of this type of art that did not care about the details, which was a kind of insulting for previous types of art.

So, Impressionism is a 19th century art movement that originated with a group of Paris-based artists. Their independent exhibitions brought them to prominence during the 1870s and 1880s, in spite of harsh opposition from the conventional art community in France. The name of the style derives from the title of a Claude Monet work, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), which provoked the critic of Louis Leroy to coin the term in a satiric review published in the Parisian newspaper Le Charivari.

Impressionist painting characteristics include: Relatively small, thin, yet visible brush strokes, open composition, emphasis on accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities (often accentuating the effects of the passage of time), common, ordinary subject matter, inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience and unusual visual angles.

The development of Impressionism in the visual arts was soon followed by analogous styles in other media that became known as Impressionist music and Impressionist literature.

The founders of this movement are Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas and Alfred Sisley


An apple can be an apple, but also it can represent temptation in the story of Adam and Eve. In the story of Snow White, it represents Dark Intentions. To Isaac Newton, it represents his discovery of theory of gravity. These are all examples of Symbolism.

Symbolism is a living or nonliving object representing something else.

Vicious Cycle by Jacek Malczewski

Vicious Cycle by Jacek Malczewski (Symbolism)The symbolism art movement began in the late 19th century and is a reaction to realism and an extension of romanticism. Symbolists did not like to be restricted by reality and painting only what was in front of them which is why they were sometimes viewed as a rebellious group. Symbolists enjoy blending facts with fiction.

Symbolism overlapped with many other movements especially surrealism: both symbolism and surrealism depicts visions from the artist’s imagination and often have hidden meanings behind them.


Post-Impressionist artists aim to make art an emotional experience through the use of Symbolism, vibrant, vivid colors and captivating forms. Post-Impressionism can be seen as an exaggerated form of impressionism. It focused on what you might see if you only caught a glimpse of the painting. Instead of focusing on displaying colors and light in a realistic manner like impressionists, post-impressionists used more symbolism to convey meaning in their work. The use of the impressions is more personal. The movement was led by Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh and Georges Seurat.

Nuit étoilée by Vincent Van Gogh (Post Impressionism)Nuit étoilée by Vincent Van Gogh


Neo-impressionism is an artistic movement that wanted to describe modern life like new urban and suburban scenes. The neo-impressionists were very interested in science. They wanted to find new techniques to describe the world and proposed to use only the primary (yellow, red, and blue) and secondary (violet, orange and green)  colors to achieve brighter effects. They refused to mix them and they proposed to use them in small dots of pure colors leaving our eye to mix them by the mean of optical mix. The first result of this technique is obtaining very bright colors with strong vibration. A second result is that very regular dots give two dimensional aspect to the canvas. This very regular application of dots denies the traditional sense of depth and perspective and gives a true sensation of vibration and bright colors. This technique is also know as pointillism as in the following painting by Georges Seurat.

Un dimanche après-midi à l ile de la Grande Jatte by (Neoimpressionism)Un dimanche après-midi à l ile de la Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat

Expressionism / Abstract Expressionism

Expressionist artists aim to express the meaning of being alive and an emotional experience rather than reality. Expressionism is used to denote the use of distortion and exaggeration of emotional effects. Expressionists try to pinpoint the expression of inner experience. An artist expresses only what he has within himself not what he sees with his eyes.

In Abstract Expressionist compositions, the entire composition is one thing i.e. the left corner (for example) is equally important as what is going on in the center. The canvas is flat (not 3D). Those paintings can be categorized in two types: the first is Action painting, with brush strokes and seemingly chaotic forms, the other type is Color Field Painting which is smoother and focuses on color and shapes.

The biggest influences were Surrealism from where they borrowed the idea of unconscious self-personal thoughts and Cubism form where they borrowed the use of strange shapes and abstractions to convey emotion and movement.

Yellow Red Blue by Wassily Kandinsky (Abstract Expressionism)Yellow Red Blue by Vassily Kandinsky

There are plenty of other art movements in art history and much more to say about each one of them. I presented in this article only the major art movements with brief information about each one of them. You are invited to read more about the topic and go visit a painting gallery to see the paintings related to those art movements.

Visting Musee d Orsay

This blog post about art movements is presented as it is without any warranty of correctness or completeness. I highly welcome any comment to rectify this article especially if you are an artist or art student. I write it for pleasure, wish that you enjoy reading it and get more motivated to visit painting galleries and museums. Also, I recommend the Vlog ARTiculations if you are interested in learning more about this topic.

Art movements
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Art movements
You don't know what to do in a museum or how to enjoy art. These are the art movements that you should know about to better understand paintings.
Alaa Khreis

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