Art Periods – A Detailed Look at Western Art History Timeline

The Consummation, The Course of the Empire , Thomas Cole (1836)

The Consummation, The Course of the Empire , Thomas Cole (1836)

Humans have been creating art throughout all known history. From early cave paintings to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, human artistic expression can tell us a lot about the lives of the people who create it. To fully appreciate the social, cultural and historical significance of different artworks, the viewer needs to be aware of the broad art history timeline. Here we present a broad overview of many significant eras of art creation in the Western world and the historical contexts from which they have risen. 

Art Eras - A Beginning

For as long as humans have been self aware, we have been creating art. The earliest cave paintings that we are aware of were created roughly 40,000 years ago. We have found paintings and drawings of human activity from the Paleolithic Era under rocks and in caves. We cannot truly know the reason why these early humans began to produce art. We can surmise that painting and drawing were a way to record their lived experiences, to tell stories to young children, or to pass down wisdom from one generation to the next.

Chauvet Cave Painting, Paleolithic Art

Chauvet Cave Painting, Paleolithic Art

Although we have many exquisite examples of early artistic expression, the official history of art periods only begins with the Romanesque Era. Officially recognised art era timelines do not include cave paintings, sculptures, and other works of art from the stone age or the beautiful frescos produced in Egypt and Crete in around 2000 BC. The reason for this decision is simply that these early eras of artistic expression were bound to a relatively small geographical space. The official art eras expanded upon below, in contrast, span across many countries, often all of Europe and sometimes North and South America. Despite their lack of official recognition, these earliest examples of human artistic flair raise a lot of interesting questions such as there more realistic depictions of animals when compared with later periods.

Art Periods Timeline - An Overview

As with many areas of human history, it is difficult to mark the different art periods with and real degree of precision. The dates presented in brackets in the figure below are approximations based on the known progression of each movement across several countries. Many of the art periods overlap considerably, with some of the more recent eras occurring at the same time. Some eras last for a few hundred years while others span less than ten. The diversity of recognised art periods increased considerably in the last hundred years. Art can be comsidered to be a continuous process of exploration, where more recent periods stem from existing ones.

Romanesque Period1000 - 1150
Gothic Era1100 - 1510
Renaissance Era1420 - 1520
Mannersim1520 - 1600
Baroque Era1590 - 1760
Rococo Period1725 - 1780
Neoclassical period1770 - 1840
Romanticism1770 - 1850
1850 - 1925
Impressionism1850 - 1895
Symbolism1890 - 1920
Art Nouveau1890 - 1910
Expressionism1890 - 1914
Cubism1906 - 1914
Futurism1909 - 1945
1912 - 1920
Surrealism1920 - 1930
New Objectivity1925 - 1965
Abstract Expressionism1948 - present
Pop Art1955 - 1969
Neo-Expressionism1980 - 1989
Art Periods

Art Periods - A History of Western Art

Western Art Movements - A Comprehensive Timeline

The following provides a deeper look into the social, cultural, and historical contexts of each of the distinct art eras presented above. Many eras take influence from those before them. Art, like human consciousness, is continuously evolving. It is also worth noting here that this art timeline is a history of Western and predominantly European art. This indepth guide does not seek to diminish art from other regions, indeed we will look at these separately.

The Romanesque Period (1000-1300): Information Sharing Through Artistic Works

The Morgan Leaf

The Morgan Leaf, from the Winchester Bible: Frontispiece for 1 Samuel with Life of David (v.), ca. 1150–80

Art historians typically consider the Romanesque art era to be the start of the accepted western art history timeline. Romanesque art developed during the rise of Christianity ca. 1000 AD. During this time, only a small percentage of the European population were literate. The ministers of the Christian church were typically part of this minority, and to spread the message of the bible, they needed an alternative method. Christian objects, stories, deities, saints, and ceremonies were the exclusive subject of most Romanesque paintings. Intended to teach the masses about the values and beliefs of the Christian Church, Romanesque paintings had to be simple and easy to read. 
As a result, Romanesque works of art tend to be simple, with bold contours and clean areas of color. Romanesque paintings lack any depth of perspective, and the imagery is rarely of natural scenes. There were several different forms that Romanesque paintings could take, including wall paintings, mosaics, panel paintings, and book paintings.

The Gothic Era (1100-1510): Freedom and Fear

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch (1503)

Gothic art grew out of the Romanesque period in France and is an expression of two contrasting feelings of the age. On the one hand, people were experiencing and celebrating a new level of freedom of thought and religious understanding. On the other, there was a fear that the world was coming to an end. The expression of these two contrasting tensions within the art of the Gothic period is clearly visible. 
As in the Romanesque period, Christianity lay at the heart of these tensions of the Gothic era. As more freedom of thought emerged, and many pushed against conformity, the subjects of paintings became more diverse. The stranglehold of the church began to loosen. 
Gothic paintings portrayed scenes of real human life, such as working in the fields and hunting. The focus shifted from divine beings and mystical creatures as more importance was given to the intricacies of what it meant to be human. 
Human figures became more prominent during the Gothic period. Gothic artists painted more realistic human faces as they became more individual, less two-dimensional, and less inanimate. This change is thought to have been developed through the adoption of a three-dimensional perspective. Painters also paid more attention to things of personal value like clothing, which they painted realistically with beautiful folds. 
Many historians argue that part of the reason for the subjects of art becoming more diverse during the Gothic era was due to the increased surface area for painting within churches. Gothic churches were more expansive than those of the Romanesque period. 
Alongside the newfound freedom of artistic expression, there was a deep fear that the end of the world was coming. It is suggested that this was accompanied by a gradual decline in faith in the church, and this in turn may have spurred the expansion of art outside of the church. In fact, towards the end of the Gothic era, works by Hieronymus Bosch, Breughel, and others were unsuitable for placement within a church. 
There are few known individual artists who painted in the Romanesque period, as art was not about the artist but rather the message it carried. Thus, the move away from the church can also be seen in the enormous increase in known artists from the Gothic period. Schools of art began to emerge throughout France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and other parts of Europe.

The Renaissance Era (1420-1520)

Creation of Adam, Michelangelo

Creation of Adam, Michelangelo (1508-1512)

The Renaissance era is possibly one of the most well-known, featuring artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. This era continued to focus on the individual as its inspiration and took influence from the art and philosophy of the ancient Romans and Greeks. The Renaissance can be viewed as a cultural rebirth. A part of this rebirth was the returned focus on the natural and realistic world in which humans lived. The three-dimensional perspective became even more important to the art of the Renaissance, as is aptly demonstrated by Michelangelo’s statue of David. This statue harkened back to the works of the ancient Greeks as it was consciously created to be seen from all angles. Statues of the last two eras had been two-dimensional, intended to be viewed only from the front.
The same three-dimensional perspective carried over into the paintings of the Renaissance era. Frescos that were invented around 3000 years prior were given new life by Renaissance painters. Scenes became more complex, and the representation of humans became much more nuanced. Renaissance artists painted human bodies and faces in three dimensions with a strong emphasis on realism. The paint used during the Renaissance period also represented a shift from tempera paints to oil paints. The Renaissance period is often credited as the very start of great Dutch landscape paintings.

Mannerism (1520-1600)

Lucretia, Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola)

Lucretia, Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola) (1539)

Mannerism, Italian Manierismo, (from maniera, “manner,” or “style”), artistic style that predominated in Italy from the end of the High Renaissance in the 1520s to the beginnings of the Baroque style around 1600. The Mannerist style originated in Florence and Rome and spread to northern Italy and, ultimately, to much of central and northern Europe. The term was first used around the end of the 18th century by the Italian archaeologist Luigi Lanzi to define 16th-century artists who were the followers of major Renaissance masters. Mannerism originated as a reaction to the harmonious classicism and the idealized naturalism of High Renaissance art as practiced by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael in the first two decades of the 16th century. In the portrayal of the human nude, the standards of formal complexity had been set by Michelangelo, and the norm of idealized beauty by Raphael. But in the work of these artists’ Mannerist successors, an obsession with style and technique in figural composition often outweighed the importance and meaning of the subject matter. The highest value was instead placed upon the apparently effortless solution of intricate artistic problems, such as the portrayal of the nude in complex and artificial poses. 
Mannerist artists evolved a style that is characterized by artificiality and artiness, by a thoroughly self-conscious cultivation of elegance and technical facility, and by a sophisticated indulgence in the bizarre. The figures in Mannerist works frequently have graceful but queerly elongated limbs, small heads, and stylized facial features, while their poses seem difficult or contrived. The deep, linear perspectival space of High Renaissance painting is flattened and obscured so that the figures appear as a decorative arrangement of forms in front of a flat background of indeterminate dimensions. Mannerists sought a continuous refinement of form and concept, pushing exaggeration and contrast to great limits. The results included strange and constricting spatial relationships, jarring juxtapositions of intense and unnatural colours, an emphasis on abnormalities of scale, a sometimes totally irrational mix of classical motifs and other visual references to the antique, and inventive and grotesque pictorial fantasies. 
Mannerism retained a high level of international popularity until the paintings of Annibale Carracci and of Caravaggio around 1600 brought the style to an end and ushered in the Baroque. Mannerism was for long afterward looked down upon as a decadent and anarchic style that simply marked a degeneration of High Renaissance artistic production. But in the 20th century the style came to be appreciated anew for its technical bravura, elegance, and polish. Mannerism’s spiritual intensity, its complex and intellectual aestheticism, its experimentation in form, and the persistent psychological anxiety manifested in it made the style attractive and interesting to the modern temperament, which saw affinities between it and modern expressionist tendencies in art.

Baroque Era (1590-1760)

St George Battles The Dragon, Peter Paul Rubens

St George Battles The Dragon, Peter Paul Rubens (1605)

The progression of art celebrating the lives of humans over the power of the divine continued into the Baroque era. Kings, princes, and even popes began to prefer to see their own power and prestige celebrated through art than that of God. The over-exaggeration that classified Mannerism also continued into the Baroque period, with the scenes of paintings becoming increasingly unrealistic and magnificent. Baroque paintings often showed scenes where Kings would be ascending into the heavens, mingling with the angels, and reaching ever closer to the divinity and power of God. Here, we really can see the progression of human self-importance, and although the subject matter does not move away entirely from religious symbolism, man is increasingly the central power within the compositions. 
New materials glorifying wealth and status like gold and marble become the prized materials for sculptures. Opposites of light and dark, warm and cold colors, and symbols of good and evil are emphasized beyond what is naturally occurring. Art academies increased in their numbers, as art became a way to display wealth, power, and status.

The Rococo Art Period (1725-1780)

The Swing, Jean-Honoré Fragonard

The Swing, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1767)

Rococo, style in interior design, the decorative arts, painting, architecture, and sculpture that originated in Paris in the early 18th century but was soon adopted throughout France and later in other countries, principally Germany and Austria. It is characterized by lightness, elegance, and an exuberant use of curving natural forms in ornamentation.
The word Rococo is derived from French rocaille, denoting the shell-covered rockwork used to decorate artificial grottoes. Reacting against the ponderous Baroque that had become the official style of Louis XIV’s reign, the Rococo was light, elegant, and elaborately ornamented. Several interior designers, painters, and engravers—among them Pierre Le Pautre, Juste-Aurèle Meissonier, Jean Berain, and Nicolas Pineau—developed a lighter and more intimate style of decoration for the new residences of nobles in Paris, and the style was disseminated throughout France by means of engravings. In these designers’ work, walls, ceilings, and moldings feature interlacings of curves and countercurves based on S and C shapes as well as on shell forms and other natural shapes. Chinese motifs were also employed. Rococo painting was characterized by easygoing treatments of mythological and courtship themes, delicate brushwork, and sensuous colouring; notable practitioners included Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The Rococo style spread throughout France and other countries, principally Germany and Austria. Among the finest German examples of Rococo architecture is the church designed by Balthasar Neumann at Vierzehnheiligen, near Lichtenfels, in Bavaria. In Italy the Rococo style was concentrated primarily in Venice, where it was epitomized by the large-scale decorative paintings of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

Neoclassical Art (1770-1840)

Oath of the Horatii, Jacques-Louis David

Oath of the Horatii, Jacques-Louis David (1784)

The Neoclassical movement is defined by an interest in classical (i.e. Roman and Ancient Greece) aesthetics, principles, and subject matter. The Neoclassical style had a major influence on painting, sculpture, architecture, and interior design. It revived an interest in symmetry and simplicity that was applied across visual arts. Two of the most famous artists who came to embody the ideals of this style were French painter Jacques-Louis David and Italian sculptor Antonio Canova.
 Its interest in simplicity and harmony was partially inspired by a negative reaction to the overly frivolous aesthetic of the decorative Rococo style. The discovery of Roman archaeological cities Pompeii and Herculaneum (in 1738 and 1748, respectively) helped galvanize the spirit of this movement. 
Neoclassical art shared several characteristics, all of which are built on Roman and Greek views on science, math, philosophy, and art. These characteristics are minimal use of color; emphasis on symmetry, straight lines, and geometric shapes; precise definition of forms and figures; and Classical subject matter. 
The art of French painter Jacques Louis David—the leader of the Neoclassical style—represents the characteristics of Neoclassical painting. His work, The Oath of the Horatii embodies these traits. For instance, it features classical subject matter that is based on a Roman legend about the three Horatii brothers. David also uses a limited, and even austere color palette, to convey the narrative, dominated by bright reds and some blue. Additionally, it is created with a harmonious composition that resembles the balance and clarity of a scene on stage. Lastly, it exhibits precise draftsmanship with bold, strong lines and minimal ornamentation.

Romanticism (1770-1850)

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

Romanticism can be viewed as a rejection of the precepts of order, calm, harmony, balance, idealization, and rationality that typified Classicism in general and late 18th-century Neoclassicism in particular. It was also to some extent a reaction against the Enlightenment and against 18th-century rationalism and physical materialism in general. Romanticism emphasized the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental. 
Among the characteristic attitudes of Romanticism were the following: a deepened appreciation of the beauties of nature; a general exaltation of emotion over reason and of the senses over intellect; a turning in upon the self and a heightened examination of human personality and its moods and mental potentialities; a preoccupation with the genius, the hero, and the exceptional figure in general and a focus on his or her passions and inner struggles; a new view of the artist as a supremely individual creator, whose creative spirit is more important than strict adherence to formal rules and traditional procedures; an emphasis upon imagination as a gateway to transcendent experience and spiritual truth; an obsessive interest in folk culture, national and ethnic cultural origins, and the medieval era; and a predilection for the exotic, the remote, the mysterious, the weird, the occult, the monstrous, the diseased, and even the satanic. 
In the 1760s and ’70s a number of British artists at home and in Rome, including James Barry, Henry Fuseli, John Hamilton Mortimer, and John Flaxman, began to paint subjects that were at odds with the strict decorum and classical historical and mythological subject matter of conventional figurative art. These artists favoured themes that were bizarre, pathetic, or extravagantly heroic, and they defined their images with tensely linear drawing and bold contrasts of light and shade. William Blake, the other principal early Romantic painter in England, evolved his own powerful and unique visionary images. 
In the next generation the great genre of English Romantic landscape painting emerged in the works of J.M.W. Turner and John Constable. These artists emphasized transient and dramatic effects of light, atmosphere, and colour to portray a dynamic natural world capable of evoking awe and grandeur. 
 In France the chief early Romantic painters were Baron Antoine Gros, who painted dramatic tableaus of contemporary incidents of the Napoleonic Wars, and Théodore Géricault, whose depictions of individual heroism and suffering in The Raft of the Medusa and in his portraits of the insane truly inaugurated the movement around 1820. The greatest French Romantic painter was Eugène Delacroix, who is notable for his free and expressive brushwork, his rich and sensuous use of colour, his dynamic compositions, and his exotic and adventurous subject matter, ranging from North African Arab life to revolutionary politics at home. Paul Delaroche, Théodore Chassériau, and, occasionally, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres represent the last, more academic phase of Romantic painting in France. In Germany Romantic painting took on symbolic and allegorical overtones, as in the works of Philipp Otto Runge. Caspar David Friedrich, the greatest German Romantic artist, painted eerily silent and stark landscapes that can induce in the beholder a sense of mystery and religious awe.

Realism (1850-1925)

A Burial at Ornans, Gustave Courbet

A Burial at Ornans, Gustave Courbet (1850)

As the Romanticism era was a reactionary movement to the Classicism period before it, so is Realism a reaction to Romanticism. In contrast to the beautiful and deeply emotional content of Romantic paintings, Realist artists presented both the good and beautiful, the ugly and evil. The reality of the world is presented in an unembellished way by Realism painters. 
Just as with Romanticism, Realism was not popular with everyone. The paintings are not particularly pleasing to the eye and some critics have commented that despite the artist’s claims of realism, erotic scenes somehow miss the real eroticism. Goethe criticizes Realism, saying that art should be ideal, not realistic. Schiller too calls Realism “mean,” indicating the harshness that many of the paintings portray. 
Realism was not consciously adopted as an aesthetic program until the mid-19th century in France, however. Indeed, realism may be viewed as a major trend in French novels and paintings between 1850 and 1880. One of the first appearances of the term realism was in the Mercure français du XIXe siècle in 1826, in which the word is used to describe a doctrine based not upon imitating past artistic achievements but upon the truthful and accurate depiction of the models that nature and contemporary life offer the artist. The French proponents of realism were agreed in their rejection of the artificiality of both the Classicism and Romanticism of the academies and on the necessity for contemporaneity in an effective work of art. They attempted to portray the lives, appearances, problems, customs, and mores of the middle and lower classes, of the unexceptional, the ordinary, the humble, and the unadorned. Indeed, they conscientiously set themselves to reproducing all the hitherto-ignored aspects of contemporary life and society—its mental attitudes, physical settings, and material conditions. 
Gustave Courbet was the first artist to self-consciously proclaim and practice the realist aesthetic. After his huge canvas The Studio (1854–55) was rejected by the Exposition Universelle of 1855, the artist displayed it and other works under the label “Realism, G. Courbet” in a specially constructed pavilion. Courbet was strongly opposed to idealization in his art, and he urged other artists to instead make the commonplace and contemporary the focus of their art. He viewed the frank portrayal of scenes from everyday life as a truly democratic art. Such paintings as his Burial at Ornans (1849) which he had exhibited in the Salon of 1850–51, had already shocked the public and critics by the frank and unadorned factuality with which they depicted humble peasants and labourers. The fact that Courbet did not glorify his peasants but presented them boldly and starkly created a violent reaction in the art world.

Impressionism (1850-1895)

Sunrise, Claude Monet

Sunrise, Claude Monet (1872)

Historians often paint the Impressionist movement as the start of the modern age. Impressionist art is said to have closed the book on classical forms of art. Impressionism is also perhaps, after Cubism, one of the most easily recognizable art periods. Featuring artists like Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh, Impressionism broke away from the smooth brush strokes and areas of solid color that characterized many art periods before it. Initially, the word Impressionism was like a swear word in the art world, with critics believing that these artists did not paint with technique, but rather simply smeared paint onto a canvas. The brushstrokes indeed were a significant departure from those that came before them, sometimes becoming furiously wild. Distinct shapes and lines disappeared into a whirlwind of colors. Individual dots of completely new colors were put together, particularly in the pointillism variety of Impressionist paintings. The subjects of Impressionist paintings could often only be recognized from a distance. 
A significant change that occurred during the Impressionist era was that painting began to take place “en-plein-air,” or outside. Much of the Impressionist artist’s ability to capture the complex and ever-changing colors of the natural world were a result of this shift. Impressionist artists also began to move away from the desire to lecture and teach, preferring to create art for art’s sake. Galleries and international exhibitions became increasingly important.

Symbolism (1890-1920)

The Sacred Elephant, Gustave Moreau

The Sacred Elephant, Gustave Moreau (1882)

Symbolism in painting took its direction from the poets and literary theorists of the movement, but it also represented a reaction against the objectivist aims of Realism and the increasingly influential movement of Impressionism. In contrast to the relatively concrete representation these movements sought, symbolist painters favoured works based on fantasy and the imagination. The Symbolist position in painting was authoritatively defined by the young critic Albert Aurier, an enthusiastic admirer of Paul Gauguin, in an article in the Mercure de France (1891). He elaborated on Moréas’s contention that the purpose of art “is to clothe the idea in sensuous form” and stressed the subjective, symbolical, and decorative functions of an art that would give visual expression to the inner life. Symbolist painters turned to the mystical and even the occult in an attempt to evoke subjective states of mind by visual forms. 
Such Postimpressionist painters as Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh as well as the Nabis may be regarded as Symbolists in certain aspects of their art. However, the painters who are truly representative of Symbolist aesthetic ideals include three principal figures: Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Moreau was a figurative painter who created scenes based on legendary or ancient themes. His highly original style utilized brilliant, jewel-like colours to portray the ornate, sumptuous interiors of imaginary temples and palaces in which scantily clad figures are caught in statuesque poses. His work is characterized by exotic eroticism and decorative splendour. Redon explored mystical, fantastic, and often macabre themes in his paintings and graphics. His paintings stress the poetics of colour in their delicate harmonies of hues, while his subject matter was highly personal in its mythical and dreamlike figures. Puvis de Chavannes is now remembered primarily as a muralist.

Art Nouveau (1890-1910)

Hygieia, Gustav Klimt

Hygieia, Gustav Klimt (1907)

Art Nouveau, ornamental style of art that flourished between about 1890 and 1910 throughout Europe and the United States. Art Nouveau is characterized by its use of a long, sinuous, organic line and was employed most often in architecture, interior design, jewelry and glass design, posters, and illustration. It was a deliberate attempt to create a new style, free of the imitative historicism that dominated much of 19th-century art and design. About this time the term Art Nouveau was coined, in Belgium by the periodical L’Art Moderne to describe the work of the artist group Les Vingt and in Paris by S. Bing, who named his gallery L’Art Nouveau. The style was called Jugendstil in Germany, Sezessionstil in Austria, Stile Floreale (or Stile Liberty) in Italy, and Modernismo (or Modernista) in Spain. 
There were a great number of artists and designers who worked in the Art Nouveau style. Some of the more prominent were the Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who specialized in a predominantly geometric line and particularly influenced the Austrian Sezessionstil. 
Gustav Klimt was one of the most well-known artists of the Nouveau movement. His style perfectly encapsulates the Art Nouveau movement with soft, curved lines, lots of florals, and the stylistic characterization of human figures. In many countries, this style is known as the Secession style.

Expressionism (1890-1914)

Fränzi in front of carved chair, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Fränzi in front of carved chair, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1910)

Expressionism, artistic style in which the artist seeks to depict not objective reality but rather the subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse within a person. The artist accomplishes this aim through distortion, exaggeration, primitivism, and fantasy and through the vivid, jarring, violent, or dynamic application of formal elements. In a broader sense Expressionism is one of the main currents of art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and its qualities of highly subjective, personal, spontaneous self-expression are typical of a wide range of modern artists and art movements. Expressionism can also be seen as a permanent tendency in Germanic and Nordic art from at least the European Middle Ages, particularly in times of social change or spiritual crisis, and in this sense it forms the converse of the rationalist and classicizing tendencies of Italy and later of France. More specifically, Expressionism as a distinct style or movement refers to a number of German artists, as well as Austrian, French, and Russian ones, who became active in the years before World War I and remained so throughout much of the interwar period. 
The roots of the German Expressionist school lay in the works of Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and James Ensor, each of whom in the period 1885–1900 evolved a highly personal painting style. These artists used the expressive possibilities of colour and line to explore dramatic and emotion-laden themes, to convey the qualities of fear, horror, and the grotesque, or simply to celebrate nature with hallucinatory intensity. They broke away from the literal representation of nature in order to express more subjective outlooks or states of mind. 
The second and principal wave of Expressionism began about 1905, when a group of German artists led by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner formed a loose association called Die Brücke (“The Bridge”). The group included Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Fritz Bleyl. These painters were in revolt against what they saw as the superficial naturalism of academic Impressionism. They wanted to reinfuse German art with a spiritual vigour they felt it lacked, and they sought to do this through an elemental, highly personal and spontaneous expression.  
The works of Die Brücke artists stimulated Expressionism in other parts of Europe. Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele of Austria adopted their tortured brushwork and angular lines, and Georges Rouault and Chaim Soutine in France each developed painting styles marked by intense emotional expression and the violent distortion of figural subject matter. The painter Max Beckmann, the graphic artist Käthe Kollwitz, and the sculptors Ernst Barlach and Wilhelm Lehmbruck, all of Germany, also worked in Expressionist modes. The artists belonging to the group known as Der Blaue Reiter (“The Blue Rider”) are sometimes regarded as Expressionists, although their art is generally lyrical and abstract, less overtly emotional, more harmonious, and more concerned with formal and pictorial problems than that of Die Brücke artists.

Cubism (1906-1914)

Juan Gris, The Open Window (1921)

Juan Gris, The Open Window (1921)

Cubism, highly influential visual arts style of the 20th century that was created principally by the artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in Paris between 1907 and 1914. The Cubist style emphasized the flat, two-dimensional surface of the picture plane, rejecting the traditional techniques of perspective, foreshortening, modeling, and chiaroscuro and refuting time-honoured theories that art should imitate nature. Cubist painters were not bound to copying form, texture, colour, and space. Instead, they presented a new reality in paintings that depicted radically fragmented objects. Cubism derived its name from remarks that were made by the critic Louis Vauxcelles, who derisively described Braque’s 1908 work Houses at L’Estaque as being composed of cubes. In Braque’s painting, the volumes of the houses, the cylindrical forms of the trees, and the tan-and-green colour scheme are reminiscent of Paul Cézanne’s landscapes, which deeply inspired the Cubists in their first stage of development (until 1909). It was, however, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, painted by Picasso in 1907, that presaged the new style; in this work, the forms of five female nudes become fractured, angular shapes. As in Cézanne’s art, perspective is rendered through colour, with the warm reddish-browns advancing and the cool blues receding.  
Interest in this subject matter continued after 1912, during the phase generally identified as Synthetic Cubism. Works of this phase emphasize the combination, or synthesis, of forms in the picture. Colour assumes a strong role in these works; shapes, while remaining fragmented and flat, are larger and more decorative. Smooth and rough surfaces may be contrasted with one another, and frequently foreign materials, such as newspapers or tobacco wrappers, are pasted on the canvas in combination with painted areas. This technique, known as collage, further emphasizes the differences in texture and, at the same time, poses the question of what is reality and what is illusion. While Picasso and Braque are credited with creating this new visual language, it was adopted and further developed by many painters, including Fernand Léger, Robert Delaunay, Juan Gris, Roger de la Fresnaye, Marcel Duchamp, Albert Gleizes, and Jean Metzinger. Though primarily associated with painting, Cubism also exerted a profound influence on 20th-century sculpture and architecture.

Futurism (1909-1945)

Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras, Joseph Stella

Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras, Joseph Stella (1913)

Futurism is less of an artistic style and more of an artistically inspired political movement. Founded by Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, which rejected social organization and Christian morality, the Futurist era was full of chaos, hostility, aggression, and anger. Although Marinetti was not a painter himself, painting became the most prominent form of art within the Futurist movement. These artists vehemently rejected the rules of Classical painting, believing that everything that was passed through generations (beliefs, traditions, religion) was suspicious and dangerous. The militant nature of the Futurist movement has resulted in many people believing that it was too close to fascism.

Dadaism (1912-1920)

Lano, Francis Picabia

Lano, Francis Picabia

Dada means a great many things and nothing at all. The writer Hugo Ball discovered that this small word has several different meanings in different languages and at the same time, as a word, it meant nothing at all. The Dadaism movement is based on the concepts of illogic and provocation and was seen as not only an art movement, but an anti-war movement. The illogic of existing rules, norms, traditions, and values was called into question by the Dadaist movement. The art movement encompassed several art forms including writing, poetry, dance, and performance art. Part of the movement was to call into question what could be classified as “art”. Dadaism represents the beginnings of action art in which painting becomes more than just a portrait of reality, but rather an amalgamation of the social, cultural, and subjective parts of being human.

Surrealism (1920-1930)

The Lovers II, Rene Magritte

The Lovers II, Rene Magritte (1928)

With its emphasis on content and free form, Surrealism provided a major alternative to the contemporary, highly formalistic Cubist movement and was largely responsible for perpetuating in modern painting the traditional emphasis on content. The work of major Surrealist painters is too diverse to be summarized categorically. Each artist sought his or her own means of self-exploration. Some single-mindedly pursued a spontaneous revelation of the unconscious, freed from the controls of the conscious mind, while others, notably the Catalan painter Joan Miró (though he never officially joined the group), used Surrealism as a liberating starting point for an exploration of personal fantasies, conscious or unconscious, often through formal means of great beauty. A range of possibilities falling between the two extremes can be distinguished. At one pole, exemplified at its purest by the works of the French artist Jean Arp, the viewer is confronted with images, usually biomorphic, that are suggestive but indefinite. As the viewer’s mind works with the provocative image, unconscious associations are liberated, and the creative imagination asserts itself in a totally open-ended investigative process. To a greater or lesser extent, the German artist Max Ernst, French painter André Masson, and Miró also followed this approach, variously called organic, emblematic, or absolute Surrealism.  
At the other pole the viewer is confronted by a world that is completely defined and minutely depicted but that makes no rational sense: fully recognizable, realistically painted images are removed from their normal contexts and reassembled within an ambiguous, paradoxical, or shocking framework. The work aims to provoke a sympathetic response, forcing the viewer to acknowledge the inherent “sense” of the irrational and logically inexplicable. The most direct form of this approach was taken by Belgian artist René Magritte in simple but powerful paintings such as that portraying a normal table setting that includes a plate holding a slice of ham, from the centre of which stares a human eye. Spanish artist Salvador Dalí, French painter Pierre Roy, and Belgian artist Paul Delvaux rendered similar but more complex alien worlds that resemble compelling dreamlike scenes.

As the surrealists were attempting to move away from the world of physical, concrete, and visible objects, the New Objectivity movement turned towards these ideas. Many of the themes within New Objective art were social critiques. The turbulence of the war left many people searching for some kind of order to hold onto, and this can be seen clearly in the art of New Objectivity. The images represented in New Objectivity were often cold, unemotional, and technical, with some favorite subjects being the radio and lightbulbs. As is the case with many modern movements in art, there were several different wings to the New Objectivity movement.  

Abstract Expressionism (1948-)

A Warped view, Fraser Lucas

A Warped view, Fraser Lucas

Abstract Expressionism, broad movement in American painting that began in the late 1940s and became a dominant trend in Western painting during the 1950s. The most prominent American Abstract Expressionist painters were Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko. 
Although it is the accepted designation, Abstract Expressionism is not an accurate description of the body of work created by these artists. Indeed, the movement comprised many different painterly styles varying in both technique and quality of expression. Despite this variety, Abstract Expressionist paintings share several broad characteristics. They often use degrees of abstraction; i.e., they depict forms unrealistically or, at the extreme end, forms not drawn from the visible world (nonobjective). They emphasize free, spontaneous, and personal emotional expression, and they exercise considerable freedom of technique and execution to attain this goal, with a particular emphasis laid on the exploitation of the variable physical character of paint to evoke expressive qualities (e.g., sensuousness, dynamism, violence, mystery, lyricism). They show similar emphasis on the unstudied and intuitive application of that paint in a form of psychic improvisation akin to the automatism of the Surrealists, with a similar intent of expressing the force of the creative unconscious in art. They display the abandonment of conventionally structured composition built up out of discrete and segregable elements and their replacement with a single unified, undifferentiated field, network, or other image that exists in unstructured space. And finally, the paintings fill large canvases to give these aforementioned visual effects both monumentality and engrossing power.

Pop-Art (1955-1969)

Girl With a Lollipop

Girl With a Lollipop

For the artists of Pop-Art, everything in the world was art. From advertisements, tin cans, toothpaste, and toilets, everything is art. Pop-Art developed simultaneously in the United States and England and is characterized by uniform blocks of color and clear lines and contours. Painting and graphic art became influenced by photorealism and serial prints. 

Neo-Expressionism (1980-1989): Modern Art

Red Room I, Vasiliy Ryabchenko

Red Room I, Vasiliy Ryabchenko

Starting in the 1980s, Neo-Expressionism emerged with large-format representational and life-affirming paintings. Berlin was a central point for this new movement, and the designs typically featured cities and big-city life. The name Neo-Expressionism emerged from Fauvism, and although the artists in Berlin disbanded in 1989, some artists continued to paint in this style in New York.

Art is a fundamental part of the human experience. Many of lifes  troubles and joys can only be captured  through artistic expression. Hopefully, this short summary of the art periods timeline has helped to highlight the contexts surrounding some of the most famous works of art created by the human race.