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The "isms"of Art History

The "isms"of Art History

Published: 10/12/2015 by Pat Knepley

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The history of visual art through the ages is generally broken down into movements—periods of time when artists were like-minded and worked around a set of core beliefs . . . whether they knew each other or not! Since the time of the Italian Renaissance in the fifteenth century, there have been many of these periods in art, most of which end in the suffix –ism. The suffix –ism at the end of English words means “pertaining to the root word or signifying a belief,” as is seen in the words racism, atheism, and terrorism.


Throughout history, the term that is attributed to a period of art is usually given not by the artists that are known for the style but by critics who are trying to understand the movement, or by historians at a much later time. Here are some of the major “isms” of art movements after the Renaissance and a brief explanation. Not every period in art history is covered by this list; there are many periods that do not end in –ism, such as the Baroque era and Rococo periods of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century.1


Mannerism (mid 1500s): This movement developed in Europe as the Renaissance was ending in the late 1520s. The most well knowm Mannerist was Michelangelo Buonarroti, who painted the Sistine Chapel. Mannerism is often considered as anti-classical, where the human form is elongated and twisted into exaggerated poses. Another Mannerist painter is El Greco, a Greek artist who spent most of his years living and working in Toledo Spain.


Neo Classicism (mid-late 1700s): Due to recent archeological discoveries in the mid 1700s, there was a resurgent interest in classical Roman and Greek antiquities, which prompted a return to classical forms and ideals for contemporary painters.2Some of the Neo Classical painters include Anton Mengs and Jacques-Louis David in Europe and Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley in the newly formed United States. This art movement is defined by a return to reason and classical ideals and virtue.


Romanticism (late 1700s-early 1800s): Gericault, Delacroix, J.M.W. Turner; intuition and emotion over rationalism, grand heroics over the commonplace. This is also a time when the exotic was embraced—different locales and extraordinary landscapes. There is an air of mysticism to the landscapes of English artist John Constable and his successor, J.M.W. Turner. In France, the Romantic period of painting spanned two wars, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, and was therefore a counter-punch and escape from the reality of a hard French life at that time.


Realism (France, mid 1800s): The Romantic movement was characterized by depicting the world as it really was, i.e., ordinary people doing ordinary things. People were represented as they really were rather than in an idealized version, so if the local banker was a heavy-set man with a wart on his nose, then the artist would paint exactly that. The realism movement was primarily in France and is signified by the works of Millet, Gustave Courbet, and Edouard Manet.


Impressionism (late 1800s): The Impressionist era started in France in the 1860s and is probably the most famous “ism” of the art movements in history. It is characterized by a great attention to the play of light on colors in nature at particular times of the day. Artists could now take their paint tubes out into the world and paint in the open air to capture the impression of a moment in time. Some famous Impressionists in France were Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and Edgar Degas. The most well known American Impressionist (though she studied in Paris) was Mary Cassatt.


Post-Impressionism (very late 1800s and into the turn of the twentieth century): Seurat, van Gogh, Rousseau, Cezanne. This movement overlapped with Impressionism, but those who tried an Impressionistic approach soon abandoned it for a more structural approach to composition and color theory, using dots (Seurat) or patches (Cezanne) of color and optical mixing.3 The actual quality of the paint took on a greater role, as in the works of van Gogh, with his short, thick strokes.


Symbolism (turn of the twentieth century): By the end of the nineteenth century, there was an air of discontent over the continent of Europe and the art world. There was a group of artists who were eager to abandon the realism of Impressionism. This gave birth to Symbolism, in which symbols from mythology and dream imagery took on greater significance. Some of the major artists of this period were Odilon Redon, Marc Chagall, Edvard Munch, and Gustav Klimt.


Cubism (the first two decades of the 1900s): This well-known movement came on the heels of Post-Impressionism and overlapped with Symbolism. Cubism was a term coined by an art critic after he viewed a landscape painting by Georges Braque. Braque and Pablo Picasso were good friends and the co-founders of this movement that truly turned the art world on its head. Influenced by the masks of African tribes, this style is characterized by dividing the picture plane into what appears to be facets. Because we see multiple surfaces and vantage points in viewing an object all at once, it is clear that the cubist artists had abandoned all traditional rules of perspective or realism.4 Though started by Picasso and Braque, other artists soon adopted this style of painting, including Fernand Leger, Robert Delaunay, and Marcel Duchamp, to name a few.


Surrealism: This movement had its birth in 1924 with a publication by artist Andre Breton about spontaneous creation. Surrealism is rooted in the burgeoning field of psychiatry and the influential theories of Sigmund Freud.5 The dreamy and bizarre imagery is simultaneously intriguing and disturbing. Some of the most notable surrealist painters are Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Yves Tanguy, and Giorgio de Chirico.


Abstract Expressionism: This movement came about in New York in the 1940s, as a break from conventional subject matter and techniques. The label of Abstract Expressionist includes a wide circle of artists over a span of many years in which the emphasis was more on process of creating rather than the finished product. The early years were focused on abstracted but recognizable subject matter and certainly more figurative. This morphed into more and more gestural (such as the drip and splatter paintings of Jackson Pollock) to the flat and simple color field work of Morris Louis, Mark Rothko, and Helen Frankenthaler. What contributed to the impact of Abstract Expressionist paintings on the public was the scale: most canvases were of an immense size. Other well-known artists of this genre are Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, and Adolph Gottlieb.


What this list reveals, however incomplete, is that there is so much great art out to explore and understand, even just in the last five hundred years since the Renaissance! Take the time to explore art through the ages, and you will discover that there is an “ism” for everyone.



1. www.museum.state.il.us/ismdepts/art/Abstract/htmls/resources/isms.html

2. www.all-art.org/history356.html

3. www.all-art.org/Architecture/23.htm

4. www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cube/hd_cube.htm

5. www.all-art.org/history580-3.html


Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.