What is Modern Art? Definition

Posted by Robert Lange on

Modern art refers to the time between roughly the 1850s and 1960s. What makes the period significant is the trend for artists to reject many values enshrined in the artistry of the Renaissance in favor of increased experimentation, particularly with shapes and colors. Modern art spawned an uncountable number of movements that collectively defined it. If you’d like a more detailed breakdown, we invite you to read on.

How Do You Define Modern Art? A Historical Context

Other than going by its placement on the art history timeline, modern art is defined by its rebellion against the traditional approach to art. Up until the early nineteenth century, owning or enjoying art was considered a pastime reserved for the upper echelons of society. Artists ended up taking influence from the social unrest and resentment toward the elites and monarchies. All throughout the early-to-mid 1800s, access to art in general saw major democratization and a growing anti-idealistic approach.

Beauty in Everyday Life – Main Inspirations of Modern Artists

Over time, as art became more and more accessible, its subject matter was no longer centered only around beauty or the extravagant life in Parisian salons. Instead, artists began taking inspiration from the common and ordinary, aiming to show all aspects of life without its frills and facades. That is, in short, how Realism came to be, and it’s considered one of the first sub-schools of modern art. Later on, Impressionists argued that light is what truly evokes the beauty in objects and not the objects themselves.

Throughout the period, artists challenged the norms and provoked thought among their viewers. Experimenting with form constituted a cornerstone of what distinguished modern artists from their predecessors, ultimately giving rise to creators who earned their fame through abstract symbolism or even anti-art.

Years later, in the late stages of modernism, art started to question itself and its nature. In a post-World War II landscape, with increased globalization and commodification of art, artists began taking experimentation to new heights. Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and other off-shoots proved that art doesn’t have to be steeped in intrinsic moral or aesthetic values. Creating for the sake of creation meant the canvas became a vector for individualism and self-expression more than ever before.

Perception - 12" x 18" oil on panel

What Are the Main Movements in Modern Art?

Modern art is defined by the plethora of distinct and unmistakable schools it consists of. Let’s take a closer look at the major ones:


Impressionist painters diverged from tradition by creating their work mostly outdoors to capture landscapes bathed in natural light rather than working from studios. In their paintings, they often omitted details, focusing on the simple yet enchanting beauty of the world.


As the name suggests, Cubists strayed from natural shapes and depicted objects in a geometric style. This unique perspective, coupled with portraying subjects from multiple points of view, allowed Cubism to become one of the most influential movements in twentieth-century art.


Born in the wake of World War I, Surrealists blended dream and reality in their works to blur the distinction between the two. Surrealist creations are thus often dream-like and rich in symbolism, often subverting reality and expectations. It’s often credited as a direct inspiration for Abstract Expressionism.

Abstract Expressionism

Characterized by its spontaneity and emotionality, Abstract Expressionism became mainstream in the 1950s after World War II. Widely regarded as an authentic style, Abstract Expressionism was greatly influential for contemporary art movements and remains relevant today.

Pop Art

Pop Art flourished alongside the rise of celebrity culture in the 1950s and 1960s, often serving as a touch point between everyday life and fine art. Pop artists often used bold colors and irony in their works to blur the lines between what can or can’t be considered typical of high society.


Often easily recognizable due to its clean lines and plain colors, minimalist art relies on simplicity of expression. This lack of ornamentation does not equal a lack of meaning, however, as minimalists explored themes of perception and the relationship between artist and consumer.

The Takeaway

What is modern art by definition, then? Let’s attempt a succinct summary. Modern art refers to the collective styles used by painters and artists between roughly the 1850s and 1960s. Various historical events drove artists over the decades to create an incredibly diverse art landscape. Therefore, it’s not possible to single out a particular movement as the dominant one. Importantly, though, modern art definitely changed what art means and who it is meant for by making incredible strides in terms of accessibility and democratization.

Enjoyed this article? Then perhaps you’d also like our exploration of what came after modern art: What is Contemporary Art? Definitions and Examples.

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