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The “Isms” of Art History

By Pat Knepley
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 anticlassical, 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. 2
Some 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
• 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.

Pat has been drawing and painting since she was able to hold a crayon. Pat has a
degree in art education, a teaching credential, and has taught art in Pennsylvania
and California. In addition to being the master artist for the See the Light ART
CLASS and ART PROJECTS DVD series, Pat teaches art and chorus at a charter
elementary school in the Los Angeles area. Pat lives in a windy part of southern
California with her husband and two almost-grown sons.
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 or
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