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The relationship between music and painting in the Early Modern period is the focus of this collection of essays by an international group of distinguished art historians and musicologists. Each writer takes a multidisciplinary approach as he or she explores the interface between music performance and painting, or between music and art theory. The essays reflect a variety and range of approaches and offer methodologies which might usefully be employed in future research in this field. The volume is dedicated to the memory of Franca Trinchieri Camiz, an art historian who worked extensively on topics related to art and music, and who participated in some of the conference panels from which many of these essays originate. Three of Professor Camiz's own essays are included in the final section of this volume, together with a bibliography of her writings in this field. They are preceded by two thematic groups of essays covering aspects of musical imagery in portraits, issues in iconography and theory, and the relationship between music and art in religious imagery.


Part | 2  pages, part i: art and music in italy, chapter 1 | 24  pages, the music of devotion: image, voice and the imagination in a madonna of humility by domenico di bartolo, chapter 2 | 18  pages, musical images for devotions: benedetto coda's altarpiece for the rosary, chapter 3 | 12  pages, music, patrons and politics: a re-assessment of zaganelli's altarpiece for rolando pallavicino and domitilla gambara, chapter 4 | 34  pages, architecture for 'divine hymns': the organ of antonio da sangallo the younger for the church of santo spirito in sassia, chapter 5 | 10  pages, portrait of a lutenist at the museo civico of como: an inquiry, chapter 6 | 44  pages, portraying claudio merulo, 'that great fountain whose value deserved no other prize than heaven itself', chapter 7 | 28  pages, musical portraits of female musicians at the northern italian courts in the 1570s, chapter 8 | 20  pages, humanism and the arts: parallels between alberti's on painting and guglielmo ebreo's on ... dancing, chapter 9 | 22  pages, lomazzo's trattato ... della pittura and galilei's fronimo: picturing music and sounding images in 1584, part ii: art and music in northern europe, chapter 10 | 16  pages, representations of musicians in medieval christian iconography of ireland and scotland as local cultural expression, chapter 11 | 8  pages, the stall of jubal: a flemish reflection of italian humanism, chapter 12 | 46  pages, variations on the theme of the planets' children, or medieval musical life according to the housebook's astrological imagery, chapter 13 | 46  pages, 'all things in this world is but the musick of lnconstancie': music, sensuality and the sublime in seventeenth-century vanitas imagery, chapter 14 | 18  pages, musical indulgence and pleasurable sound in seventeenth-century dutch art, part iii: a tribute to franca trinchieri camiz, chapter 15 | 14  pages, music performance and healing in renaissance rome revealed by text and images, chapter 16 | 10  pages, biblical music and dance through renaissance eyes, chapter 17 | 12  pages, music settings to poems by michelangelo and vittoria colonna, chapter 18 | 4  pages, franca trinchieri camiz's publications in art and music.

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early modern period art essay

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Art and Music in the Early Modern Period Essays in Honor of Franca Trinchieri Camiz

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The relationship between music and painting in the Early Modern period is the focus of this collection of essays by an international group of distinguished art historians and musicologists. Each writer takes a multidisciplinary approach as he or she explores the interface between music performance and painting, or between music and art theory. The essays reflect a variety and range of approaches and offer methodologies which might usefully be employed in future research in this field. The volume is dedicated to the memory of Franca Trinchieri Camiz, an art historian who worked extensively on topics related to art and music, and who participated in some of the conference panels from which many of these essays originate. Three of Professor Camiz's own essays are included in the final section of this volume, together with a bibliography of her writings in this field. They are preceded by two thematic groups of essays covering aspects of musical imagery in portraits, issues in iconography and theory, and the relationship between music and art in religious imagery.

Table of Contents

Katherine A. McIver is Associate Professor of Art History at The University of Alabama at Birmingham, USA. She is also the editor of Art and Music in the Early Modern Period: Essays in Honor of Franca Trinchieri Camiz (Ashgate, 2003).

Critics' Reviews

'Camiz must be considered one of the most important scholars contributing to early modern artistic and musical culture. These essays are equally important to our understanding of both art and music in this period. I strongly recommend them and the whole collection to all scholars who seek fresh perspectives on the early modern period.' The Art Book '... imaginative, rich, and thoughtful...' Renaissance Quarterly

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  • Primary Sources


  • Sharon Howard

Welcome to Early Modern Resources

Early Modern Resources is a research portal for the early modern period (c.1500-1800 CE). It only lists websites that are free to access and focuses on high-quality resources that are suitable for advanced research, study and teaching.

Important note

Regular visitors will have already noticed that the site looks a bit different! This is a temporary version with limited features. There is no search; individual resource pages with more detailed descriptions haven’t yet been rebuilt. Nonetheless, its listings are near complete and I hope to be able to reintroduce all or most of the missing elements in the next few months. ~~ Sharon Howard, February 2021

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  • Collections of images of artworks, artefacts and maps (again, usually with searchable metadata)
  • Databases or calendars , mainly containing abstracts or summary information about sources rather than full transcriptions/images
  • Anthologies : transcriptions of personally selected collections of texts or single texts; may be full text or extracts; probably more suited to teaching than in-depth research
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  • Exhibits : multimedia presentations in which objects and images are the primary focus, with varying degrees of textual analysis or narrative
  • Text essays : text-based (or primarily so) articles, analyses and commentaries; relatively conventional and ‘print-like’ in form
  • Hypertext essays : more heavily textual than exhibits, but created for the Web to exploit its hyperlinking and multimedia capabilities

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Modernism in literature

  • Modernism in the visual arts and architecture
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What did Modernism do?

Where is modernism today.

Art texture. Close-up of yellow abstract painting. Hompepage blog 2009, arts and entertainment, history and society

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Giacomo Balla: Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash

What is Modernism?

In literature, visual art, architecture, dance, and music, Modernism was a break with the past and the concurrent search for new forms of expression. Modernism fostered a period of experimentation in the arts from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, particularly in the years following World War I .

All the arts sought an authentic response to the industrialization and urbanization of the late 19th century. In literature, Modernist writers such as Henry James and Virginia Woolf cast off traditional continuity, employing stream-of-consciousness narration instead. Artists such as Édouard Manet broke from inherited notions of perspective and modeling. Architects sought unique forms for new technologies. Choreographers rebelled against both balletic and interpretive traditions, and composers used untried approaches to tonality.

Scholars suggest that Modernism ended sometime after World War II , between the 1950s and 1960s. There were discernible shifts in all the arts: writers turned to irony and self-awareness; visual artists focused on the process rather than the finished product; postmodern architects used decoration for the sake of decoration; choreographers replaced conventional dance steps with simple movements, including rolling, walking, and skipping; and composers jettisoned such traditional formal qualities as harmony , tempo, and melody .

Modernism , in the fine arts, a break with the past and the concurrent search for new forms of expression. Modernism fostered a period of experimentation in the arts from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, particularly in the years following World War I .

In an era characterized by industrialization , the nearly global adoption of capitalism, rapid social change , and advances in science and the social sciences (e.g., Freudian theory), Modernists felt a growing alienation incompatible with Victorian morality , optimism, and convention. New ideas in psychology, philosophy , and political theory kindled a search for new modes of expression.

early modern period art essay

The Modernist impulse is fueled in various literatures by industrialization and urbanization and by the search for an authentic response to a much-changed world. Although prewar works by Henry James , Joseph Conrad , and other writers are considered Modernist, Modernism as a literary movement is typically associated with the period after World War I . The enormity of the war had undermined humankind’s faith in the foundations of Western society and culture , and postwar Modernist literature reflected a sense of disillusionment and fragmentation. A primary theme of T.S. Eliot ’s long poem The Waste Land (1922), a seminal Modernist work, is the search for redemption and renewal in a sterile and spiritually empty landscape. With its fragmentary images and obscure allusions , the poem is typical of Modernism in requiring the reader to take an active role in interpreting the text.

Eliot’s was not the dominant voice among Modernist poets. In the United States Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg evocatively described the regions—New England and the Midwest, respectively—in which they lived. The Harlem Renaissance produced a rich coterie of poets, among them Countee Cullen , Langston Hughes , Claude McKay , and Alice Dunbar Nelson . Harriet Monroe founded Poetry magazine in Chicago in 1912 and made it the most important organ for poetry not just in the United States but for the English-speaking world. During the 1920s Edna St. Vincent Millay , Marianne Moore , and E.E. Cummings expressed a spirit of revolution and experimentation in their poetry.

Pablo Picasso (right) with M. Ramier, owner of the Vallauris Pottery, shown viewing one of Picasso's pottery designs. 1948.

A sense of disillusionment and loss pervades much American Modernist fiction. That sense may be centerd on specific individuals, or it may be directed toward American society or toward civilization generally. It may generate a nihilistic, destructive impulse, or it may express hope at the prospect of change. F. Scott Fitzgerald skewered the American Dream in The Great Gatsby (1925), Richard Wright exposed and attacked American racism in Native Son (1940), Zora Neale Hurston told the story of a Black woman’s three marriages in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and Ernest Hemingway ’s early novels The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929) articulated the disillusionment of the Lost Generation . Meanwhile, Willa Cather told hopeful stories of the American frontier , set mostly on the Great Plains , in O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918), John Steinbeck depicted the difficult lives of migrant workers in Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and William Faulkner used stream-of-consciousness monologues and other formal techniques to break from past literary practice in The Sound and the Fury (1929).

Across the Atlantic, the publication of the Irish writer James Joyce ’s Ulysses in 1922 was a landmark event in the development of Modernist literature. Dense, lengthy, and controversial, the novel details the events of one day in the life of three Dubliners through a technique known as stream of consciousness , which commonly ignores orderly sentence structure and incorporates fragments of thought in an attempt to capture the flow of characters’ mental processes. Portions of the book were considered obscene, and Ulysses was banned for many years in English-speaking countries. Other European Modernist authors whose works rejected chronological and narrative continuity included Virginia Woolf , Marcel Proust , and the American expatriate Gertrude Stein .

early modern period art essay

The term Modernism is also used to refer to literary movements other than the European and American movement of the early to mid-20th century. In Latin American literature, Modernismo arose in the late 19th century in the works of Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera and José Martí . The movement, which continued into the early 20th century, reached its peak in the poetry of Rubén Darío . ( See also American literature ; Latin American literature .)

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early modern period art essay

The dark ages?

Not so dark after all.

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This section provides information on resources for topics related to art of the Early Modern period (c. 1450-1800), including print books and ebooks, article databases, images, streaming media, and digital resources.

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Print materials on Early Modern art are located in the Music, Art & Architecture Library . Print materials on related history, aesthetics, and humanities topics can be found at the Koerner Library and/or Rare Books & Special Collections .

Start your search by looking at the Databases section of the general Art History & Visual Art guide.

Then explore the topic-specific databases below.

  • Iter: Gateway to the Middle Ages and Renaissance This link opens in a new window Iter resources include the Iter bibliography (with more than 1,070,000 records), the Iter italicum online, the Medici archive project and other databases.
  • Early English Books Online (EEBO) This link opens in a new window Early English Books Online (EEBO) contains digital facsimile page images of virtually every work printed in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales & British North America and works in English printed elsewhere from 1473-1700.
  • Perdita Manuscripts: Women Writers, 1500-1700 This link opens in a new window British women's writings from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries. Contents range from memoirs to account books to medical receipt books.
  • Defining gender This link opens in a new window 110 source documents (books and periodicals) from the early modern period to the nineteenth century supported by introductory essays, biographies, and chronologies.
  • Grand Tour This link opens in a new window The Grand Tour was a rite-of-passage for many aristocratic and wealthy young men between c1550 and c1850: a phenomenon which influenced British art, architecture, urban planning, literature and philosophy.
  • Making of the Modern World This link opens in a new window Tracks the development of the modern, western world through the lens of trade and wealth.
  • ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials This link opens in a new window Compiled by the American Theological Library Association. Covers Biblical studies, world religions, church history, and religious perspectives on social issues.

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For a selective list of print journals related to art of the Early Modern Period, browse the  UBC Library Catalogue  with the following subject headings, while using the "Subject begins with" or "Subject contains" search options. Here are a few examples:

early modern period art essay

Select Art Publications

This is a selection of art journals in UBC Library holdings related to Early Modern art:       

early modern period art essay

  • Renaissance Quarterly Online coverage: 1967-Present. Also available in print at the Music, Art & Architecture Library (ASRSO) at:  CB3 .R36 (1948-2006).
  • I Tatti Studies: essays in the Renaissance Online coverage: 1985-Present.  Also available in print at the Music, Art & Architecture Library at:  N6915 .T288 (1985-2012).
  • Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes Online coverage: 1939-Present. Also available in print at the Music, Art & Architecture Library (ASRS) at:  N1 .L65 (1939-Present).
  • Reformation and Renaissance Review Online coverage: 1999-Present.
  • Sixteenth Century Journal [Journal of Early Modern Studies] Online coverage: 1973-2008 [Select coverage]; 2009-Present [Full text].
  • Early Modern Women Online coverage: 2006-Present.
  • The Art Bulletin   Online coverage: 1919-Present. Also available in print at the Music, Art & Architecture Library at:  N1 .A4  (1913-Present).
  • Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art Online coverage: 2009-Present.
  • Oud Holland: Journal for Art of the Low Countries Online coverage: 1883-Present. Also available in print at the Music, Art & Architecture Library at:  N1.O9 H6 (1941; 1964-Present).
  • Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz Online coverage: 1908-Present. Also available in print at the Music, Art & Architecture Library at:  N14 .F5515 (1908-Present).
  • Rinascimento meridionale Online coverage: 2010-Present. [In Italian, with abstracts in Italian and English].

Listed below is a selection of art subject headings that can be used for keyword searching in the  UBC Library Catalogue . Click on the links to browse books on specific subjects.

By general or  :

[Or search by geographic location]
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[See: history, in art, in literature]  (Cult of Saints)

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[Look here for information about frescoes]
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["as is painting, so is poetry"]

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  • Artstor This link opens in a new window A digital image library for the arts and sciences with an unparalleled range of images licensed for educational use at UBC.
  • Grove Art Online This link opens in a new window Grove Art Online is the foremost scholarly art encyclopedia covering both Western and non-Western art. First published as the Dictionary of Art, edited by Jane Turner, Grove Art encompasses all aspects of visual culture.
  • CORSAIR: Online collection catalogue of the Morgan Library A database providing unified access to over 330,000 records for medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, rare and reference books, literary and historical manuscripts, music scores, ancient seals and tablets, drawings, prints, and other art objects.
  • Web Gallery of Art A virtual museum and searchable database of European painting and sculpture of the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassic, and Romantic periods (1000-1850).
  • Europeana Millions of items from Europe's leading galleries, libraries, archives and museums. Books and manuscripts, photos and paintings, sculpture and crafts, diaries and maps, and more.
  • Gallica From the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, millions of documents including digitized historical books, journals, and images.
  • Internet Medieval Sourcebook Selected Sources: Renaissance Excerpts texts from Early Italian Humanism (Dante, Petrarch), Artists (Vasari), Politicians (Lorenzo de Medici, Machiavelli), Courtly Arts (Castiglione).
  • Internet Medieval Sourcebook Selected Sources: Reformation Excerpts texts related to the Protestant Reformation, Papal Critics, and the Catholic Reformation.
  • RBSC: History of the Book: Print and the Reformation
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By: Editors

Updated: August 11, 2023 | Original: April 4, 2018

The Creation Of Adam (Sistine Chapel Ceiling In The Vatican)The Creation of Adam (Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican), 1508-1512. Found in the collection of The Sistine Chapel, Vatican. Artist Buonarroti, Michelangelo (1475-1564). (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images).

The Renaissance was a fervent period of European cultural, artistic, political and economic “rebirth” following the Middle Ages. Generally described as taking place from the 14th century to the 17th century, the Renaissance promoted the rediscovery of classical philosophy, literature and art.

Some of the greatest thinkers, authors, statesmen, scientists and artists in human history thrived during this era, while global exploration opened up new lands and cultures to European commerce. The Renaissance is credited with bridging the gap between the Middle Ages and modern-day civilization.

From Darkness to Light: The Renaissance Begins

During the Middle Ages , a period that took place between the fall of ancient Rome in 476 A.D. and the beginning of the 14th century, Europeans made few advances in science and art.

Also known as the “Dark Ages,” the era is often branded as a time of war, ignorance, famine and pandemics such as the Black Death .

Some historians, however, believe that such grim depictions of the Middle Ages were greatly exaggerated, though many agree that there was relatively little regard for ancient Greek and Roman philosophies and learning at the time.

During the 14th century, a cultural movement called humanism began to gain momentum in Italy. Among its many principles, humanism promoted the idea that man was the center of his own universe, and people should embrace human achievements in education, classical arts, literature and science.

In 1450, the invention of the Gutenberg printing press allowed for improved communication throughout Europe and for ideas to spread more quickly.

As a result of this advance in communication, little-known texts from early humanist authors such as those by Francesco Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio, which promoted the renewal of traditional Greek and Roman culture and values, were printed and distributed to the masses.

Additionally, many scholars believe advances in international finance and trade impacted culture in Europe and set the stage for the Renaissance.

Medici Family

The Renaissance started in Florence, Italy, a place with a rich cultural history where wealthy citizens could afford to support budding artists.

Members of the powerful Medici family , which ruled Florence for more than 60 years, were famous backers of the movement.

Great Italian writers, artists, politicians and others declared that they were participating in an intellectual and artistic revolution that would be much different from what they experienced during the Dark Ages.

The movement first expanded to other Italian city-states, such as Venice, Milan, Bologna, Ferrara and Rome. Then, during the 15th century, Renaissance ideas spread from Italy to France and then throughout western and northern Europe.

Although other European countries experienced their Renaissance later than Italy, the impacts were still revolutionary.

Renaissance Geniuses

Some of the most famous and groundbreaking Renaissance intellectuals, artists, scientists and writers include the likes of:

  • Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519): Italian painter, architect, inventor and “Renaissance man” responsible for painting “The Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper.
  • Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536): Scholar from Holland who defined the humanist movement in Northern Europe. Translator of the New Testament into Greek. 
  • Rene Descartes (1596–1650): French philosopher and mathematician regarded as the father of modern philosophy. Famous for stating, “I think; therefore I am.”
  • Galileo (1564-1642): Italian astronomer, physicist and engineer whose pioneering work with telescopes enabled him to describes the moons of Jupiter and rings of Saturn. Placed under house arrest for his views of a heliocentric universe.
  • Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543): Mathematician and astronomer who made first modern scientific argument for the concept of a heliocentric solar system.
  • Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679): English philosopher and author of “Leviathan.”
  • Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400): English poet and author of “The Canterbury Tales.”
  • Giotto (1266-1337): Italian painter and architect whose more realistic depictions of human emotions influenced generations of artists. Best known for his frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
  • Dante (1265–1321): Italian philosopher, poet, writer and political thinker who authored “The Divine Comedy.”
  • Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527): Italian diplomat and philosopher famous for writing “The Prince” and “The Discourses on Livy.”
  • Titian (1488–1576): Italian painter celebrated for his portraits of Pope Paul III and Charles I and his later religious and mythical paintings like “Venus and Adonis” and "Metamorphoses."
  • William Tyndale (1494–1536): English biblical translator, humanist and scholar burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English.
  • William Byrd (1539/40–1623): English composer known for his development of the English madrigal and his religious organ music.
  • John Milton (1608–1674): English poet and historian who wrote the epic poem “Paradise Lost.”
  • William Shakespeare (1564–1616): England’s “national poet” and the most famous playwright of all time, celebrated for his sonnets and plays like “Romeo and Juliet."
  • Donatello (1386–1466): Italian sculptor celebrated for lifelike sculptures like “David,” commissioned by the Medici family.
  • Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510): Italian painter of “Birth of Venus.”
  • Raphael (1483–1520): Italian painter who learned from da Vinci and Michelangelo. Best known for his paintings of the Madonna and “The School of Athens.”
  • Michelangelo (1475–1564): Italian sculptor, painter and architect who carved “David” and painted The Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Renaissance Impact on Art, Architecture and Science

Art, architecture and science were closely linked during the Renaissance. In fact, it was a unique time when these fields of study fused together seamlessly.

For instance, artists like da Vinci incorporated scientific principles, such as anatomy into their work, so they could recreate the human body with extraordinary precision.

Architects such as Filippo Brunelleschi studied mathematics to accurately engineer and design immense buildings with expansive domes.

Scientific discoveries led to major shifts in thinking: Galileo and Descartes presented a new view of astronomy and mathematics, while Copernicus proposed that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the solar system.

Renaissance art was characterized by realism and naturalism. Artists strived to depict people and objects in a true-to-life way.

They used techniques, such as perspective, shadows and light to add depth to their work. Emotion was another quality that artists tried to infuse into their pieces.

Some of the most famous artistic works that were produced during the Renaissance include:

  • The Mona Lisa (Da Vinci)
  • The Last Supper (Da Vinci)
  • Statue of David (Michelangelo)
  • The Birth of Venus (Botticelli)
  • The Creation of Adam (Michelangelo)

Renaissance Exploration

While many artists and thinkers used their talents to express new ideas, some Europeans took to the seas to learn more about the world around them. In a period known as the Age of Discovery, several important explorations were made.

Voyagers launched expeditions to travel the entire globe. They discovered new shipping routes to the Americas, India and the Far East and explorers trekked across areas that weren’t fully mapped.

Famous journeys were taken by Ferdinand Magellan , Christopher Columbus , Amerigo Vespucci (after whom America is named), Marco Polo , Ponce de Leon , Vasco Núñez de Balboa , Hernando De Soto and other explorers.

Renaissance Religion

Humanism encouraged Europeans to question the role of the Roman Catholic church during the Renaissance.

As more people learned how to read, write and interpret ideas, they began to closely examine and critique religion as they knew it. Also, the printing press allowed for texts, including the Bible, to be easily reproduced and widely read by the people, themselves, for the first time.

In the 16th century, Martin Luther , a German monk, led the Protestant Reformation – a revolutionary movement that caused a split in the Catholic church. Luther questioned many of the practices of the church and whether they aligned with the teachings of the Bible.

As a result, a new form of Christianity , known as Protestantism, was created.

End of the Renaissance

Scholars believe the demise of the Renaissance was the result of several compounding factors.

By the end of the 15th century, numerous wars had plagued the Italian peninsula. Spanish, French and German invaders battling for Italian territories caused disruption and instability in the region.

Also, changing trade routes led to a period of economic decline and limited the amount of money that wealthy contributors could spend on the arts.

Later, in a movement known as the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic church censored artists and writers in response to the Protestant Reformation. Many Renaissance thinkers feared being too bold, which stifled creativity.

Furthermore, in 1545, the Council of Trent established the Roman Inquisition , which made humanism and any views that challenged the Catholic church an act of heresy punishable by death.

By the early 17th century, the Renaissance movement had died out, giving way to the Age of Enlightenment .

Debate Over the Renaissance

While many scholars view the Renaissance as a unique and exciting time in European history, others argue that the period wasn’t much different from the Middle Ages and that both eras overlapped more than traditional accounts suggest.

Also, some modern historians believe that the Middle Ages had a cultural identity that’s been downplayed throughout history and overshadowed by the Renaissance era.

While the exact timing and overall impact of the Renaissance is sometimes debated, there’s little dispute that the events of the period ultimately led to advances that changed the way people understood and interpreted the world around them.

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Early Renaissance

Early Renaissance Collage

Summary of Early Renaissance

At the beginning of the 15 th century, Italy experienced a cultural rebirth, a renaissance that would massively affect all sectors of society. Turning away from the preceding Gothic and Romanesque periods' iconography, Florentine artists spurred a rejuvenation of the glories of classical art in line with a more humanistic and individualistic emerging contemporary era. Based in this flourishing new environment that empowered people to fully immerse themselves in studies of the humanities, Early Renaissance artists began to create work intensified by knowledge of architecture, philosophy, theology, mathematics, science, and design. The innovations that emerged in art during this period would go on to cause reverberations, which continue to influence creative and cultural arenas today. This Early Renaissance is also known as the Quattrocento, derived from the Italian mille quattrocento , meaning 1400, and refers primarily to the period dominating the 15 th century in Italian art. It was the forebear to the following High Renaissance , North European Renaissance , Mannerism , and Baroque periods that followed.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • An evolution of radically fresh artistic techniques came into practice, departing from the flat-planed and two-dimensional icon artworks that were popular prior. This included the introduction of revolutionary methods such as one point linear perspective, derived from an understanding of math and architecture, rilievo stiacciato , a new style of shallow carving to create atmospheric effect, foreshortening, naturalistic and anatomical detail, proportion, and the use of chiaroscuro and trompe l'oeil to create illusionary realities.
  • New subject matter evolved beyond the traditional religious stories that had historically dominated art. This included battle scenes, portraits, and depictions of ordinary people. Art was no longer a way to solely elevate the devotional, but became a way to document the people and events of contemporary times, alongside the historical.
  • Early Renaissance artists were highly influenced by the Humanist philosophy that emphasized that man's relationship with the world, the universe, and God was no longer the exclusive province of the Church. This resulted in work that emphasized the emotionally expressive and individualistic characteristics of its subjects in fresh new ways, leading to a more intimate way for viewers to experience art.
  • A new standard of patronage in the arts arose during this time, separate from the church or monarchy, the most notable of which was supported by the prominent Medici family. Artists were suddenly in demand to produce work that expressed historical, and often religious, narratives in bold new ways for a community that fostered the arts and nurtured its artists like never before.

Key Artists

Masaccio Biography, Art & Analysis

Overview of Early Renaissance

Early Renaissance Photo

Stating, "I propose to build for eternity," architect Filippo Brunelleschi solved the impossible problem of building the Florence Cathedral dome. And thus, he ignited the Italian Renaissance.

Artworks and Artists of Early Renaissance

Masaccio: Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1426-27)

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

Artist: Masaccio

This fresco portrays a nude Adam and Eve as they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. They walk out through an arch from which black lines emanate, representing the angry voice of God, with a red clad angel holding a black sword hovering above to usher them on their way. Adam buries his face in his hands, his body language and facial expression conveying deep anguish. Eve 's face is open mouthed and stricken, her hands held in a Venus Pudica pose to cover her breasts and pubic area as if in shame. The background is bare, only earth and a singular rock formation, evoking the hard fate ahead for the expunged couple. The composition is remarkably elegant, emphasizing the pair's banishment with heightened emotion. The line dividing earth and blue sky diagonally runs from left to right to highlight the pair's forward motion, as their opposing feet mirror each other along the path. The nudity of the two figures, classically proportioned, is not sensual but suggests the starkness of their situation, stripped of God's favor. This scene is part of a fresco cycle of Biblical scenes in the Brancacci Chapel painted by Masaccio, as well as Masolino and other artists. In depicting the two naked, the artist departed from the Biblical account in which they wore fig leaves, and also, boldly, created the first nudes in painting since the Roman era. He also added the arch and reduced the multiple cherubs mentioned in the Biblical account to focus on one angel. The scene resides at the left entrance to the Chapel hall, becoming the first image encountered by visitors, launching them into the famous narrative, as Adam and Eve walk out of the arch that is a painted extension of an architectural column. The artist's inclusion of the architecture into the pictorial space was not his only radical innovation. His use of linear perspective, chiaroscuro (the strategic use of shadow and light to create depth), and a realistic figurative approach were in direct opposition to the standard flat iconographic style of presenting religious stories and figures. The result is that Adam and Eve become humanized, rather than relegated on the devotional pedestal as sacred symbols. The pair are fully embodied and expressive, inhabiting real space, their shoulders bent, and their steps weighed down by the enormity of their expulsion. Art critic Clyde Haberman noted that Masaccio "broke with medieval traditions by giving raw realism to human forms and expressions. No one can doubt the anguish of his Adam and Eve as they are expelled from Paradise." Subsequent artists would go on to envision their own work within this new aesthetic paradigm of Masaccio's vision. Both Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci extensively visited the Chapel to study and sketch Masaccio's human figures, which da Vinci called "perfect." Later artists like the sculptor Henry Moore also studied his works.

Fresco - Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence

Masaccio: The Holy Trinity (1424-27)

The Holy Trinity

This fresco depicts the Holy Trinity. Christ, crucified, is the central figure with God the Father standing behind him. A small white dove above Christ's head represents the Holy Spirit. Within the architectural niche that holds the three, Mary can also be seen, dressed in blue on the left while John the Disciple stands at the right, both gazing up at Christ in devotion. On either side of the columns, the commissioned work's unidentified patrons kneel in profile. Below them, a skeleton lies in a tomb bearing the inscription: "I once was what you are and what I am you also will be," representing a Memento Mori, or an object that serves as a warning or reminder of the inevitability of death. Customary to Masaccio's work, this piece helped revolutionize painting with its use of one point linear perspective, creating the illusion of three-dimensional space. The artist intentionally aligned the sighting of the fresco with the existing architecture of the church to enhance the trompe l'oeil effect. To create the work, he used a grid framework etched into the surface, and consulted Brunelleschi on linear perspective, as the perspective of even the nails in the cross show his rigorous approach. The design used a Roman triumphal arch and barrel vault to create a rational but divine space that the life-sized holy figures occupy, while the patrons and the skeleton, placed outside the barrel vault, occupy the space of the viewer. Visitors at the time were amazed at the artist's ability to create a work so realistic that many thought they were peering into a real chapel. A visceral experience of the work was spurred, creating an experience of contemplation in regard to mortality and timelessness. The life-sized figures also present a remarkably naturalistic effect of volume, movement, and deep emotional expression. As Mary McCarthy, art historian, wrote, "The fresco, with its terrible logic, is like a proof in philosophy or mathematics, God the Father, with His unrelenting eyes, being the axiom from which everything else irrevocably flows." At the same time, Mary, her face solemn, creates a bridge between the divine and the human by looking toward the viewer and gesturing toward her son, providing a way into the sacred realm, through contemplation. As Vasari wrote in his Lives of the Artists (1550) about Masaccio's work, "Everything done before him can be described as artificial, whereas he produces work that is living, realistic and natural."

Fresco - Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Filippo Brunelleschi: Dome of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence Cathedral) (1420-36)

Dome of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence Cathedral)

Artist: Filippo Brunelleschi

This photograph shows Brunelleschi's famous octagonal dome crowning the Florence Cathedral. Its red stone, emblematic of the Florentine love of stonework and Medici red, dominates the skyline with one of the world's most recognized and iconic views. Consisting of over four million bricks, it remains the largest masonry dome in the world. Brunelleschi's architectural genius can be seen in the structure's sense of buoyancy with its white ribs emphasizing the vertical lift and the steep curvature narrowing at the top. Brunelleschi also designed the white lantern at its tip, though his friend, the architect Michelozzi, completed it in 1461, fifteen years after Brunelleschi's death. The dome became a visual symbol of "The New Athens," as Florence dubbed itself, as it evoked a sense of classical restraint and proportion, echoing the octagonal shape of the cathedral below and drawing it heavenward. The dome was a revolutionary masterpiece, as the architect dispensed with both the internal scaffolding and the external supports (like buttresses) that were previously thought necessary. Instead, he created a dome within a dome, thus inventing a new system of support, where bricks lain in an inverted arch of herringbone pattern directed weight outward rather than downward. He also manufactured the technology he needed to materialize his project, including the first mechanical hoist and, later, the castello , or horizontal crane. Other structural innovations included the use of a catenary arch, a type of pointed arch, for support and internal wood, stone, and iron chains, formed in octagonals, to work like barrel hoops to hold the dome together. This work was informed by Brunelleschi's careful study of the Pantheon (113-125) and other ancient Roman buildings. Yet, in his customary fashion, the architect kept his discoveries to himself, working without notes or plans. As he was later to say, when he applied for and was awarded the first modern patent for a water transport vehicle, "we must not show to all and sundry the secrets of the waters flowing in ocean and river, or the devices that work on these waters. Let there be convened a council of experts and masters in mechanical art to deliberate what is needed to compose and construct these works." Because of his enigmatic working fashion, many critics initially deemed his designs impossible. He was to prove them wrong. As historian Paulo Galluzi wrote of the Cathedral, "It is one of the most beautiful, technically audacious buildings ever constructed. It unites technology and aesthetics in an astonishingly elegant way. It symbolizes perfectly the union of science and of art." All the architects of the next generation were influenced by Brunelleschi's work, and Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated by both his architecture and the technology he invented.

Sandstone, marble, brick, iron, wood - Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence Cathedral), Florence

Donatello: David (1430-40)

Artist: Donatello

This iconic five foot tall sculpture shows the Biblical hero David, depicted as a Classical inspired nude. Wearing only boots and a laurel-ringed Florentine hat, he stands in a jaunty contrapposto pose upon Goliath's severed head, holding a sword in his right hand, its point resting on a victory wreath. His right leg meets the diagonal of the sword to create a triangular space that emphasizes the sensuous curve of his hip. The overall effect is an unusually provocative and intimate rendition of David. With his expression of reverie and an enigmatic smile upon his lips, he jauntily assumes his role as the first freestanding nude created since the Roman era. Donatello also revived and refined the classical technique of lost wax casting to create this work. After casting the form, he finished it by hand, adding a thin layer of gold to create a lustrous surface with warm tones. A sense of the tactile informs the work, as the sleek smoothness of the youth's skin contrasts with the rough materials of Goliath's hair and helmet. One of the wings of Goliath's helmet extends up the back of David's leg, as if caressing him, adding a homoerotic element to the work. At the same time on the fallen giant's helmet the sculptor depicted a scene of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine and excess, suggesting that the virtue of beauty has conquered the pagan warrior. Having recently defeated the larger and more powerful city-state of Milan, Florence identified itself with the story of the shepherd boy who defeated the giant warrior Goliath with a single stone from his slingshot. Later depictions of David by Andrea del Verrocchio, Bartolomeo Bellano, and most notably, Michelangelo and Bernini, took Donatello's sculpture as the starting point, whether drawing upon or countering its influence. Vasari wrote of the work, "This figure is so natural in its vivacity and softness that artists find it hardly possible to believe it was not moulded on the living form." Contemporary criticism in The New York Times stated, "Donatello's sculptures are startling, dramatic and unpredictable.... a sustained meditation on time."

Bronze - National Museum of Bargello, Florence

Fra Angelico: The Annunciation (c.1438-45)

The Annunciation

Artist: Fra Angelico

This fresco, depicting the moment at which an angel announces to Mary that she will be the mother of Jesus, has a classical simplicity. Sitting on a wooden stool in the cloister, Mary, her form a subtle contrast of dark robes that frame her delicate pink tunic, leans forward listening intently. The angel too leans forward, one knee bent, as his robe unfolds in softly curving vertical lines. Both figures have their arms folded across their chests in the shape of a cross, creating a feeling of intimate understanding, emphasized by the matching pink hues of their clothing, cloister walls, floor, and columns. The setting is devoid of many extraneous details, just a patch of grass on the left and a wooden fence with Tuscan cypresses behind it. The emphasis on an ordinary but intimate moment was radically new and reflected Humanism's appreciation of the individual. It also reflects the Early Renaissance's distinct move away from traditional medieval imagery of religious narratives, removing the barriers between the sacred and the everyday in ways that invited viewers to feel part of the devotional tales in more familiar ways. The perspective, emphasizing the repeating diagonal line of Corinthian columns on the left, the arch framing Mary, and the foreground's horizontal edging and column, emphasizes the sacred space the two inhabit, while the viewer stands outside, as if listening in upon a private conversation. The Medici family commissioned this work, along with more than fifty additional frescos and a new altarpiece in 1440, to complete the redesign of the friary of San Marco, which also included the first public library since the Roman Era. Fra Angelico, a Dominican friar, painted small frescos of Biblical scenes in the monks' cells to aid in devotional meditation. His intention was to bring the sacred into the monks' everyday physical reality, and he painted this scene, one of the last frescoes to be painted, in front of the staircase, so that monks returning to their cells would encounter it first. Michael Glover, the art critic, has noted, "austere and more intimate in mood... The whole scene is a masterpiece of quiet understatement."

Fresco - Museum of San Marco, Florence

Piero della Francesca: Flagellation of Christ (c.1455)

Flagellation of Christ

Artist: Piero della Francesca

This painting, divided vertically down the center by Roman columns, depicts the flagellation of Christ in the background on the left in contrast to three aristocratic Florentine men engaged in conversation in the foreground on the right. In the artist's time, religious subjects that employed perspective would usually focus the vanishing point central on Christ. This innovative use of perspective, though, further emphasized the division between the two scenes, conveying the dissonance between two worlds; the self-preoccupation of the important and wealthy ruling class of Florence implicitly critiqued by the suffering of Christ taking place in the adjacent space. Furthermore, the orthogonal lines divide the frame vertically and, contrasting with the red horizontal bands, create a division between interior and exterior space. A separate light source is portrayed in each scene, furthering a sense of the enigmatic relationship between the two. Various scholarly interpretations have tried to identify the various figures depicted, suggesting the power of the work to both suggest and resist narrative. It was notable as an early example of oil painting on a small panel, for which Della Francesca departed from the large frescos, painted with tempera, favored by the artists of his day. A precision of detail and line is evinced in his treatment of the architectural motifs, as seen in the intricate slats of the building on the far right, and the lines of the figures, with a curiously modern effect. The work conveys a sense of surreal calm and order, its almost architectural harmony contrasting with the flagellation. With its precise delineation and scientific use of perspective, the artist, who was also a mathematician, created a naturalistic work that is both convincing, and yet almost modern in its dissonance. The art historian Kenneth Clark was to rank the painting as one of the ten finest paintings of all time.

Oil and tempera on panel - Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino, Italy

Andrea Mantegna: Camera Degli Sposi Frescoes (1465-74)

Camera Degli Sposi Frescoes

Artist: Andrea Mantegna

This fresco depicts an illusory oculus, opening to reveal a painted sky. The oculus is ringed with figures looking down into the room below. An orange tree and a peacock, both symbolizing Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage, perch prominently on the edge.. A number of Cupids - one placing a wreath on his head, one holding an arrow while looking out at the sky, and a third holding an apple that seems as if it might suddenly drop, ring the balustrade. Three housemaids, clustered beside the orange tree, gaze down smiling. On the other side of the tree, an aristocratic young woman stands beside a slave woman in a striped turban. Mantegna's fresco was groundbreaking for the time as it was the first example of di sotto in sù , or illusionistic ceiling painting. It also employed trompe l'oeil to create a scene where the architecture and painting become indistinguishable from each other within the fictive space. He incorporated the fresco into the building by painting the ceiling ribs and lozenges to resemble marble, and the triangular areas at the edge to look like mosaics. He also used extreme foreshortening in the figures to tweak the viewer's perception of the height of the ceiling. This work embodied Alberti's argument in his De Pictura (1435) that a painting should be a window into reality. The Gonzaga family commissioned this piece for their Camera degli Sposi, a small square reception room in their Ducal Palace. In addition to the ceiling fresco, he also painted The Court Scene (1465-71), portraying the Gonzaga family on the north wall, and The Meeting (1465-71), with two other smaller scenes on the west wall, and the last two walls with a decorative pattern. Mantegna's work greatly influenced not only Renaissance artists like Raphael, but also artists of the Baroque and Rococo movements.

Fresco - Palazzo Ducale di Mantova, Mantua, Italy

Andrea Mantegna: Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c. 1480)

Lamentation over the Dead Christ

This remarkable image shows the dead Christ, lying upon a marble slab, his lower body shrouded by a piece of linen, as the stricken faces of St. John and the Virgin Mary peer over him. The extreme foreshortening and vivid details, like the nail holes visible in Christ's feet, result in an experience of intense intimacy for the viewer. Christ becomes less a divine figure, and merely an affronting human cadaver, His flesh is hyperreal, and a harrowing feeling becomes further emphasized by the bloodlike stain of red that imbues the scene. A static stillness is created by the vertical lines of Christ's body and the edge of the slab contrasted with the horizontals of the bolster, the bottom edge of the slab, and the creases at his elbows and ribs. The placement of the scene within a window frame, cropping the viewer from the mourners, creates the claustrophobic sense of being in a morgue. Also known as The Dead Christ or The Lamentation , the image was painted following the death of two of the artist's sons and was meant to convey suffering and grief. The artist's mastery of foreshortening to create a pictorial plane that becomes architectural, as well as the work's near graphic directness, was not only ground breaking for its time, but potently modern. Mantegna's sculptural sense of the human figure is apparent in the image, but his radical innovation was his sense of the painting as part of a total spatial illusion. His techniques influenced artists of his generation but also later masters, like Leonardo da Vince, Albrecht Dürer, and Correggio. Contemporary art historian Nicholas Fox Weber has called the work, "an unsettling masterpiece," where "Mantegna's vision of agony as a prelude to resurrection and celebration resounds."

Tempera on canvas - Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy

Sandro Botticelli: Primavera (1481-82)

Artist: Sandro Botticelli

This masterpiece is a complex and mysterious allegorical work, depicting figures from classical Greek and Roman mythology in the garden of Venus. The goddess of love, framed by an intricate nimbus of sacred myrtle, stands in the center, raising her right hand in a gesture of welcome associated with the Virgin Mary from the Annunciation. The goddess, traditionally shown nude, wears the discrete clothing of a married woman. Above her, a blindfolded Cupid aims his arrows toward the three graces, who wear diaphanous robes and dance, their hands entwined. To the far left, stands the god Mercury, looking upward as he reaches toward one of the golden fruits that glow like orbs in the overarching canopy. On the far right, the artist has combined two myths from the Roman poet Ovid. In the first myth Zephyrus, the god of the wind, depicted here with bluish green skin and puffed out cheeks, raped the nymph Chloris. In the painting, her nude figure, clothed in a diaphanous gown, falls forward, with feet that have already left the ground. As she turns back to look at him, tendrils and flowers emerge from her mouth, leading forward to the figure of Flora, the goddess of spring. The myth states, that full of remorse, Zephyrus changed Chloris into the goddess of spring. This work, commissioned by the Medici family for a wedding celebration, broke new ground by borrowing from classical mythology for its subject. But it also reflects the integration of scientific observation into art as the artist depicted over 500 identifiable plant species into the piece. Each detail in the work is allusive in meaning. For example, the golden oranges allude to the symbol of the Medici family, the orbs of Hesperus from Greek myth, and to the Garden of Eden. The result is, as art historian Gloria Fossi has written, "one of the most written about, and most controversial paintings in the world." Visually the work also presents an idyll of beauty, its female figures depicted with a linear rhythm, soft contours, and subtle color, to create what art historian Kenneth Clark described as, "one of the most personal evocations of physical beauty in the whole of art."

Tempera on panel - The Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Pietro Perugino: Christ Handing the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter (1482)

Christ Handing the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter

Artist: Pietro Perugino

The scene is meant to embody the New Testament moment when Jesus said to Saint Peter, "Upon this rock I will build my church... and I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven." The fresco focuses equally on that biblical narrative as well as the architecture, emphasized by the gold diagonal lines of perspective extending toward The Temple of Solomon in the background. Christ is emphasized slightly in scale and by placement, outlined and set apart by the space that surrounds him, and the diagonal that leads to the Temple's entrance of the building, which begins at the top of his head. The key is directly in line with the Temple entrance, and isolated, too, within its own space. Behind, in the middle distance, two scenes from the New Testament are depicted. The scene on the left shows Christ and the disciples paying the tribute money, and the scene on the right shows Christ escaping from an attempted stoning. Two identical arches, resembling the Arch of Constantine, built by the Roman Emperor who in 313 legalized Christianity with the Edict of Milan, flank the Temple in the background. Beyond the plaza, mountains recede into the distance, due to the artist's employment of aerial perspective. Behind Christ on the left, and behind Peter on the right, illustrious figures of the era, including a self-portrait of the artist, mingle with the disciples. The central one point perspective married with the calculated composition of the painting's subjects, create a perfectly balanced symmetry. The architecture of the scene reflects many things elemental to the Early Renaissance period. The work, commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV for the Vatican, was meant to illustrate the doctrine of apostolic succession and signal the rising importance of papal patronage in commissioning grand works of religious significance. The transmission of divine authority from Christ to Peter also harkens to the same transmission from Temple to the Vatican. Lastly, it is an example of the principles of science, mathematics, and design being injected into art by the leading artists of the time. The elegant figures in their refined clothes, flowing drapery, and delicate detail reflect the influence of Andrea del Verrocchio's figurative treatments on the artist. Vasari was to credit Perugino with creating a new style that blended the Florentine line with a "delicacy blended with color," and the artist's sense of visual rhythm was to influence later artists, including Vasari himself.

Fresco - Vatican City

Sandro Botticelli: The Birth of Venus (1483-85)

The Birth of Venus

This seminal, iconic work, inspired by the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses (8 A.D.), focuses on the birth of Venus, the goddess of love, riding her scallop shell as she arrives on land. To the right, a female with billowing dress and hair leans toward Venus holding out a swirling red robe to clothe her. Flying at a diagonal and also leaning toward Venus, Zephyrus, the god of the wind, puffs out his cheeks, blowing her toward the shore, as pink flowers fill the air around them. Linear flow and movement in the swirling hair of the figures, the billowing draperies that soar along with Zephyrus's flight, and in the curvilinear forms of the figures accentuate the singularity and centrality of the nude. Some have seen in the spirals and swirls of Venus's red hair, Botticelli's allusion to Leon Battista Alberti's words in On Painting , "I am delighted to see seven movements in hair, which is especially pleasing when part of it turns in spirals as if wishing to knot itself, waves in the air like flames, twines around itself like a serpent, while part rises here, part there." The enigmatic work has compelled multiple descriptions. Vasari identified the young woman with her arms entwined around Zephyrus's waist as Aura, a mythological figure personifying light breezes. The woman on the right was thought to represent the Hora of spring, one of three such figures who were attendants of Venus. Other scholars connect this work to Botticelli's earlier Primavera , and have argued that Zephyrus's companion is Chloris, as shown by the symbolism of the flowers, and that the woman on the right is Flora, the goddess of spring. The artist also employed contemporary political symbolism. The laurel trees and Hora's laurel wreath visually pun upon the name "Lorenzo" of the Medici family who commissioned the work, while the motifs and colors of Hora's clothing and the robe she carries allude to the Republic of Florence. The work was innovative for its large scale, for being painted on canvas, as well as it use of alabaster powder to brighten the paint and of gold to create highlights on the wings, the hair, the fabric, and the shell. But these innovations were overshadowed by its unprecedented depiction of the female nude in a pagan setting. While the figure created an impression of classical beauty, the artist has diverged from classical proportions. For instance, her body is off center, and her right leg curves too far over for her left leg to bear her weight. As the art historian Kenneth Clark noted, "Her differences from antique form are...rhythmic and structural. Her whole body follows the curve of a Gothic ivory. It is entirely without that quality so much prized in classical art, known as aplomb. She is not standing but floating." In this too, the artist was innovative, almost modern in his willingness to depart from naturalistic depiction in order to express an imagined internal concept of beauty. The work shows, as contemporary art historian Frederick Ilchman said, "Botticelli's attitude, his yearning to express ideals of beauty and human form." The work also is seen to reflect the era's Neo-Platonic philosophy that the mind could be drawn to the knowledge of divine beauty by contemplation of earthly beauty. During the High Renaissance, Botticelli's works were eclipsed, and he became relatively unknown in the centuries that followed. The title "Birth of Venus" was given to this painting only in the 19 th century when Botticelli's works were revived by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and embraced by the Arts and Crafts movement. Subsequently this work has become one of the world's most recognizable paintings, and artists including Salvador Dalí, Renée Magritte, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and the Superflat artist Tomoko Nagao have revisited it. The painting has endured fame in popular culture as it has been referenced in film, television, music videos, and has also informed the work of fashion designers like Elsa Schiaparelli and Dolce & Gabbana.

Domenico Ghirlandaio: Portrait of an Old Man with His Grandson (1490)

Portrait of an Old Man with His Grandson

Artist: Domenico Ghirlandaio

This tender portrait vividly evokes a moment of embrace, juxtaposing a man toward the end of his life with a child at his beginning. The older man wears a red fur-lined robe, and the younger, a red doublet and cap. Behind them, the wall of the interior room is depicted in black and grey rectangles, framing a window that opens onto a landscape of winding roads through fields that lead toward a small church at the bottom of a terraced hill. Next to it, a monolithic rock rises out of a lake. The golden locks of the boy, echoed in the folds of his doublet, draw the viewer's eye up to the window, which, framed by somber grey and black, evokes a feeling of contrast between the two subjects' phases of existence. The painting creates a poignant moment marked by a sense of mortality. Ghirlandaio was primarily known for his frescos, often portraying notable Florentines, as seen in his celebrated Tornabuoni Chapel cycle (1485-90). What he brought to Early Renaissance painting most, though, was a vividly detailed and emotionally expressive portrayal of contemporary life and ordinary people, an emphasis that this singular portrait shares. The man's grey hair, the mole on his right forehead, and his deformed nose, indicate that he has the skin disorder rhinophyma. These characteristics are depicted with a remarkable realism that made the painting unique for its time. The work also subverted social attitudes, which associated defects in appearance with defects of character, by emphasizing the man's gentle and wise expression and quiet affection. Art historian Bernard Berenson wrote of this work, "There is no more human picture in the entire range of Quattrocento painting, whether in or out of Italy." Ghirlandaio was also a notable teacher, as his most distinguished student was Michelangelo.

Tempera on panel - Musée du Louvre, Paris

Beginnings of Early Renaissance

The proto-renaissance of the 1300s.

The term Proto-Renaissance refers to artists of the 14 th century who developed the naturalistic approach that came to fruition in the Early Renaissance. The early art historian and painter Giorgio Vasari felt that during the Middle Ages the artists Cimabue and Giotto had kept alive the aesthetic principles of classical art with works, which laid the groundwork for the following Renaissance.

early modern period art essay

Like most artists of his time, Cenna di Peppi, known as Cimabue, created primarily religious works. Byzantine iconography and stylization dominated the era, depicting human figures in two-dimensional form on flat pictorial planes. Yet in bold contrast, Cimabue's works emphasized naturalistic elements, such as is seen in his Santa Croce Crucifixion (1287-1288). Still placed within Byzantine iconography, the work innovatively drew upon anatomical observation to create a sense of Christ's physical and emotional suffering.

Artists of this period received their training in a master's workshop, and Cimabue's most famous assistant was Giotto de Bendone, known simply as Giotto. A popular anecdote related how Cimabue discovered Giotto as a young boy, while he was drawing and watching his family's sheep.

early modern period art essay

Giotto was a pioneering figure, his importance acknowledged by his being named Magnus Magister (Great Master) of Florence in 1334. Discarding Byzantine stylization, Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel Frescoes (c.1303-10) in Padua were ground breaking due to their sculptural figurative treatment. Depicted naturalistically, his figures began to take on a three dimensionality, inhabiting real space, and conveying real emotion. This was a radical departure from the Byzantine styles still practiced by many of his contemporaries, and his became a singular influence upon not only his contemporaries like Taddeo Gaddi, Bernardo Daddi, and the noted Masolino, but the painters of the Early Renaissance, including Fra Angelico , Piero della Francesca , and Masaccio .

Defining the Term: The Renaissance

Giorgi Vasari, in his The Lives of the Artists (1550), first coined the term rinascita , meaning rebirth. However, the French-derived term "Renaissance" only became widely used to refer to the historical period later during the mid 19 th century following the historian Jules Michelet's Histoire de France (1855). Subsequently Jacob Burckhardt's model of the period, beginning with Giotto and ending with Michelangelo, defined in his The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), became widely adopted.

Contemporary scholarship has reconsidered these definitions, as in the 1980s historian Randolph Starn, described the overall Renaissance as, "...a network of diverse, sometimes converging, sometimes conflicting cultures, not a single, time-bound culture," and Stephen Greenblatt defined it as "early modern," when describing the period as a transition from the Middle Ages.

The Early Renaissance, informed by Humanism and Classical Roman and Greek art and architecture , was led by Brunelleschi whose works in architecture and the discovery of linear perspective informed the era, as well as the pioneering work of Donatello in sculpture and Masaccio in painting. Together, the three have been dubbed "the triumvirate of the Early Renaissance," centered in the Republic of Florence, as the rising power of Florence, and the patronage of wealthy families like the Medici, created a welcoming environment for the movement.

The Republic of Florence and the Medicis

early modern period art essay

The Early Renaissance flourished in the Republic of Florence, which dubbed itself "The New Athens," indicating that the city-state identified itself as heir to the classical tradition. The city was ruled by the merchant class and noble families, primarily the Medici family which was to become a ruling dynasty that lasted until 1737. The Medici family had made their fortune primarily in the textile trade governed by the Arte della Lana, the wool guild in Florence, and in 1377 Giovanni di Bicci di Medici founded the Medici Bank in Florence. His son, Cosimo di Medici, never occupied office, but used his wealth and political alliances to become, in effect, the ruler of Florence. He was an exceptional patron of the arts, spending a good part of his fortune commissioning art works, collecting classical texts, and supporting cultural projects, like founding the first public library. As he said, "All those things have given me the greatest satisfaction and contentment because they are not only for the honor of God but are likewise for my own remembrance. For fifty years, I have done nothing else but earn money and spend money; and it became clear that spending money gives me greater pleasure than earning it." Subsequently private patronage by wealthy families became an important driver of artistic creation, allowing for subjects and treatments that were off limits for religious and civic commissions.

The Baptistery Competition

This photograph shows Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac (1401) created by Brunelleschi (on the left) and by Ghiberti (on the right). Historian Paul Robert Walker describes, Brunelleschi’s panel as “more dramatic and disturbing, all angles and movement and raw emotion… a new and more powerful vision of reality, “and Ghiberti’s as, “more elegant and more beautiful” with “a perfectly modeled classical nude [that] demonstrates masterful perfection of art.”

It has been argued that the Early Renaissance began in 1401 with a competition held by the city of Florence to award a commission for new bronze doors for the Baptistery of St. John, and the consequences of the feud that followed. The doors would contain panels representing scenes from the Old Testament, and seven sculptors were selected to design a single panel showing the Sacrifice of Isaac for the competition. Only Lorenzo Ghiberti's and Filippo Brunelleschi's designs have survived, and both works reflect a humanistic and naturalistic Renaissance style. Admiring both works, the judges declared a tie between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi and suggested the two artists collaborate on the project. However, stung by the loss, Brunelleschi withdrew and Ghiberti alone took on the project, which made him famous. Nonetheless, it was Brunelleschi's subsequent work that became the foundation of the Early Renaissance, as, bitterly disappointed when his design did not win the competition, he abandoned sculpture and turned his attention to architecture.

Filippo Brunelleschi

The path that led to Brunelleschi's discovery of linear perspective, in which the relative size, shape, and position of objects are determined by drawn or imagined lines converging at a point on the horizon, began after his crushing defeat for the Baptistery project, and radically change art and architecture. He sold his small family farm and used the proceeds to go on a self-imposed exile to Rome, accompanied by his friend, the artist Donatello. For several years, often camping in the ruins until the locals mistook them for treasure hunters, the two artists measured buildings, took extensive notes, and researched classical design principles. Abandoning his focus on sculpture for architecture, Brunelleschi developed his theory and practice of perspective and the mathematical principles of design.

Upon returning to Florence, he entered a 1418 competition held by the wool merchant guild to build a dome for the cathedral. A number of previous architects had worked on the cathedral, including Giotto who had designed the bell tower in the 1330s, and by 1418 the building was almost complete, save for a gaping hole awaiting a dome, which no one knew how to build. Once again, Brunelleschi's primary competitor was Ghiberti, who, while a leading artist of the day, had little architectural experience. The competition required that each architect try to stand an egg upright on a marble surface.

Brunelleschi's solution became legendary, as Vasari wrote, "giving one end a blow on the flat piece of marble, [he] made it stand upright ...The architects protested that they could have done the same; but Filippo answered, laughing, that they could have made the dome, if they had seen his design." For in fact, Brunelleschi had already fashioned a technically accomplished model of the dome. To create his design, he conducted further experiments in perspective, and created several devices, involving the use of mirrors and painted panels. He shared his discoveries only with friends like Donatello and Masaccio, as he felt, "To disclose too much of one's intentions and achievements give up the fruits of one's ingenuity." Accordingly, it was Leon Battista Alberti who wrote the early definitive works on perspective and technique, though he acknowledged Brunelleschi's leadership in all arts by dedicating On Painting (1435) to him.

early modern period art essay

Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, known simply as Donatello, also competed for the commission of the Baptistery Doors, though, at the time, he was only 15 and training in Ghiberti's workshop. His close friendship with Brunelleschi began around the same time. They had much in common, both sculptors having first been trained as goldsmiths, and they were to remain close throughout their lives, described as "inseparable" by contemporaries. In Rome, Donatello studied Roman sculpture and the lost wax casting process used to create classical bronzes. Returning to Florence, his works became the first artworks to use linear perspective, as seen in his marble St. George and the Dragon (c. 1416) where he used perspective and pioneered rilievo stiacciato , a new style of shallow carving, to create atmospheric effect. His bronze relief the Feast of Herod (1423-27) combined emotional expressiveness and classical form with a perspective system based upon orthogonal diagonals and transversals to draw the viewer's eye into the empty space between the two groups at either ends of the table, thus creating a sense of tension.

early modern period art essay

Masaccio, an artist whose career lasted only seven years because he died of the plague at age 27, has also been dubbed "a father of the Renaissance." His work employed linear perspective and naturalistic figurative treatments in a new way that revolutionized painting. Little is known of his life or his art training, though by 1426 he was friends with Donatello and Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi's work on perspective influenced Masaccio, as he consulted the older artist on his The Holy Trinity (c.1424-27), considered to be one of the earliest examples of perspective in painting. Masaccio's painting innovations included the use of one point perspective, a trompe l'oeil approach, naturalistic modeling of the human figure, and a single consistent light source casting accurate shadows. He also pioneered the use of chiaroscuro , thus creating the illusion of depth and portrayed his figures with emotional expressiveness, conveying their individuality. As art historian Mark Michael Astarita wrote Masaccio's, "hallmark oeuvre d'art embodied the shift away from the dreary Gothic...and the gradual shift towards paintings that embodied the rebirth, or Renaissance, of classical art and architecture."

Leon Battista Alberti

Leon Battista Alberti was the most important intellectual theorist of the Early Renaissance due to his three volumes, De Statua ( On Sculpture ) (1435), Della Pittura ( On Painting ) (1435), and De Re Aedificatoria ( On Architecture ) (1452). On Sculpture marked the first use of the terms additive sculpture, in which material is added to create a work, and subtractive sculpture, in which material is carved away or removed to reveal a work, while also emphasizing naturalistic treatments and classical proportions.

His On Painting , which consisted of three volumes, described painting "as a projection of lines and colors onto a surface." He codified Brunelleschi's one-point linear perspective, as well as the concepts of composition, proportion, and the use of disegno , design or line, and colorito , coloring, in creating pictorial harmony. He drew upon the contemporary practices of artists like Donatello, Ghiberti, Luca della Robbia, and Masaccio, though positing them within a theoretical basis that drew upon humanist literature and the classical works of the Romans and Greeks.

Early Renaissance: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

Renaissance humanism.

early modern period art essay

The Renaissance was philosophically driven by Humanism , a belief that placed human life at the center of the universe. The widespread cultural movement, which began in 14 th century Italy advocated for studying and learning the humanities, as seen in works of classical Rome and Greece. Many humanists were priests or church leaders, who felt that enthusiasm for science and its rational discoveries, an interest in geometry and mathematics, understanding of classical ethics and logic, and an aesthetic appreciation of the art and architecture of the classical period would enrich Christian understanding. As a result, a new sophisticated society would emerge, expansive in scope and knowledge.

An early leader of Humanism was the great 14 th century poet Francesco Petrarca, called Petrarch in English, who has been called "the founder of Humanism," as well as a "founder of the Renaissance." A noted scholar and collector of classical texts, he rediscovered the works of classical authors, like the Roman Cicero. His poetry was also revolutionary in that he wrote in Italian, rather than the Latin of medieval Europe, a period for which he coined the term "the Dark Ages." Reviving classical texts became key to Humanist thought. Poggio Bracciolini, whose findings included the rediscovery of Lucretius's De rerum natura ( On the Nature of Things ) in 1417, was a papal advisor, working under seven popes in his lifetime. In Florence, Niccolò de' Niccoli became a leader of Humanist thought primarily due to his extensive library of Latin and Greek classical texts, which became noted fodder for Florentine intellectual life. He was closely associated with Cosimo di Medici.


Brunelleschi's buildings and designs were widely employed by later architects. His innovations included the use of round columns with classical capitals, circular arches, and segmented domes, all constructed through mathematical ratios. His early Ospedale degli Innocenti (1419-27), or Hospital of the Innocents, featured a decorative motif that combined white stone walls with grey architectural features, becoming known as the pietra serena , or serene stone, style. His designs for the Florentine churches of San Lorenzo (c. 1425) and Santo Spirito (c. 1428) launched the use of modular design and a church configured in the shape of a Latin cross. For Santa Maria degli Angeli (1434), he pioneered the design of a centrally planned church, which was widely adopted throughout the Renaissance.

Other noted architects were Leon Battista Alberti and Michelozzo di Bartolomeo Michelozzi. Cosimo di Medici commissioned Michelozzi to design his palace, the Palazzo Medici (1444-84) in Florence. Michelozzi used a tripartite division to give the massive building a vertical lift and to reflect a classical sense of harmony and order. The resulting style became known as the Palazzo Style and continued to be popular into the 19 th and 20 th centuries.

early modern period art essay

In the 1440s, Alberti turned extensively toward the practice of architecture. His De Re Aedificatoria ( On Architecture ) was derived from Brunelleschi and the Roman architect Vitruvius's De Architectura , which advocated proportional harmony based upon the golden mean. In 1450 he undertook his first architectural project, redesigning San Francesco church in Rimini, and subsequently was commissioned to design and complete the façade of Santa Maria Novella (1456-70) in Florence. As an architect, Alberti has been described as a "ghost architect," preferring to focus on design, while seldom engaged in the practical construction matters. Two of his most noted sites, the San Sebastiano church in Mantua and Santa Andrea church in Florence, were completed after his death, and his designs, and particularly his writing, influenced subsequent architecture.

early modern period art essay

Many of the great works of the Early Renaissance were religious frescos, beginning with Masaccio's Brancacci Chapel frescoes, which were studied by subsequent Renaissance masters. Many of the noted fresco masters, including Fra Lippi, Fra Angelico, Pierro della Francesca, Alessandro Botticelli, and Andrea Mantegna, focused on religious subject matter, while employing the new techniques of perspective, foreshortening, the Florentine emphasis on the fluid line, naturalistic and anatomical detail, and trompe l'oeil .

Oil painting was also introduced, as seen in Antonello da Messina's Sibiu Crucifixion (1454-55). Other artists like Pierro della Francesca in his Flagellation of Christ , (c. 1455) experimentally combined oil with tempera on panels. And some artists brought an innovative emphasis on color and texture to tempera painting, as seen in the pastel pink and green palette of Domenico Veneziano's St. Lucy Altarpiece (1445-47), influenced by the Venetian School.

early modern period art essay

New subject matter was also introduced. Andrea del Castagno's commissioned fresco Cycle of Famous Men and Women (c.1449-51) depicted portraits of three Tuscan poets, three famous women from antiquity, and three military commanders from Florence. His treatment was also novel, as he painted them within architectural niches to create the illusion of sculpture. Portraits of noble families were much in demand, as seen in Piero della Francesca's Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino (1465-72), while Domenico Ghirlandaio pioneered the portrait focusing on deeply individualized but ordinary people as seen in his Portrait of an Old Man with His Grandson (1490).

The painter Paolo Uccello pioneered battle painting with his renowned Battle of Romano (1435-60) depicting the 1432 battle between Florence and Siena. Uccello was a noted mathematician who created an idiosyncratic style that combined a pioneering use of perspective with elements of the Late Gothic style. His Funerary Monument (or Equestrian Monument ) to Sir John Hawkwood (1436), like many other works, was a fresco that appeared almost sculptural.

early modern period art essay

The most noted sculptors of the Early Renaissance were Donatello, Ghiberti, and later in the period, Andrea del Verrocchio. The naturalism and classical proportions of Roman and Greek sculpture inspired their works, though interpreted through the era's emphasis on individuality and Humanism. The period's most noted sculptures were created using the lost wax process, also revived from the Roman era.

Ghiberti was to design two sets of doors for the Baptistery in Florence of which the second, depicting ten panels of scenes from the Old Testament, completed in 1452, became the most famous. In them, Ghiberti perfected his use of perspective and figurative modeling to create works that were admired both for their classical beauty and their emotive individuality. Michelangelo dubbed them "The Gates of Paradise," the name by which the doors, 17 feet tall and gilded in gold, have been called since.

early modern period art essay

Donatello's Gattamelata (1453), a piece of realistic grandeur, was influenced by the bronze Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius (c. 173-76 C.E). However, Donatello's version revitalized the subject by emphasizing Aurelius' individuality, the anatomical musculature of the horse, and incorporating symbolic elements such as the horse's hoof resting upon a cannon ball. Evoking Venice's military power, it became a signature reflection of the Renaissance.

Donatello was considered to be the greatest sculptor of the Early Renaissance, in part due to his range of subject matter and his capacity for individualistic expression of each. This can be seen in his innovatively eroticized statue of David , or his powerfully expressive later work Penitent Magdalene (1453-55), Andrea del Verrocchio was notably influenced by Donatello's work, as seen in his own bronze David (1473-75) and his Equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni (1480-88).

Later Developments - After Early Renaissance

The impact of the Early Renaissance cannot be overestimated, as rather than ending in the late 1400s, its innovations spread from Florence throughout Italy and Europe. The works of the Early Renaissance artists became foundational to the High Renaissance , North European Renaissance , Mannerism , and Baroque periods that followed. Florence itself continued to be an inspiring artistic environment for the generation that followed, as Michelangelo , Leonardo da Vinci , and Raphael lived and studied there. Michelangelo was particularly influenced by Masaccio, his teacher Ghirlandaio, and his training in the workshops of the Medici family. Leonardo da Vinci was trained by Andrea del Verrocchio. Masaccio's fresco Expulsion from the Garden of Eden , 1426-1427 influenced him, and his studies of Alberti's On Painting (1435), as well as Pierro del Francesca's study of perspective, informed his thought and work.

The designs of Alberti, Michelozzi, Brunelleschi, and Mantegna's trompe l'oeil ceiling painting were to inform various architectural styles and designs into the 19th and 20 th centuries. Botticelli's paintings, rediscovered in the 19 th century, became a noted influence on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood , and, subsequently among the most popular and artistically revisited works of the 20 th century.

The concept of Humanism that so heavily defined the Early Renaissance period remains an important model for thriving community and a timeless lesson about the benefits of intellectual and creative pursuits informed by a deep knowledge of the arts and sciences within a particular society.

Useful Resources on Early Renaissance

Early Renaissance short documentary

  • Early Renaissance: Style and Civilization Our Pick By Michael Levey
  • Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture Our Pick By Ross King
  • The Lives of the Artists (Oxford World Classics) By Giorgio Vasari
  • Botticelli By Frank Zollner
  • Masaccio and the Brancacci Chapel By Ornella Casazza
  • The Genius of Andrea Mantegna (Metropolitan Museum of Art) By Keith Christiansen
  • Domenico Ghirlandaio: Artist and Artisan By Jean K. Cadogan and Domenico Ghirlandaio
  • The Gates of Paradise Art Institute of Chicago
  • The Early Renaissance in Florence: Slide Show and articles Our Pick National Gallery of Art
  • The Most Iconic Artists of the Italian Renaissance, from Masaccio to Titian By George Philip LeBourdais / Dec 21, 2015
  • A Chapel in Florence Reveals Its Wonders Anew By Clyde Haberman / New York Times / June 9, 1990
  • Masaccio's "Holy Trinity" By Bendicò / Globaldispatches / June 11, 2013
  • Great works: Annunciation (1438-45), Fra Angelico Our Pick By Michael Glover / Independent / July, 15 2010
  • Great Works: The Dead Christ, by Andrea Mantegna c.1480 By Michael Glover / Independent / September 2012
  • Moving a Mantegna Our Pick By Nicholas Fox Weber / Art News / September 23, 2014
  • Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) By Paul Davies / Architectural Review / January 31, 2013

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Introduction to prehistoric art, 20,000–8000 b.c..

Laura Anne Tedesco Independent Scholar

August 2007

To describe the global origins of humans’ artistic achievement, upon which the succeeding history of art may be laid, is an encyclopedic enterprise. The Metropolitan Museum’s Timeline of Art History , covering the period roughly from 20,000 to 8000 B.C., provides a series of introductory essays about particular archaeological sites and artworks that illustrate some of the earliest endeavors in human creativity. The account of the origins of art is a very long one marked less by change than consistency. The first human artistic representations, markings with ground red ocher, seem to have occurred about 100,000 B.C. in African rock art . This chronology may be more an artifact of the limitations of archaeological evidence than a true picture of when humans first created art. However, with new technologies, research methods, and archaeological discoveries, we are able to view the history of human artistic achievement in a greater focus than ever before.

Art, as the product of human creativity and imagination, includes poetry, music, dance, and the material arts such as painting, sculpture, drawing, pottery, and bodily adornment. The objects and archaeological sites presented in the Museum’s Timeline of Art History for the time period 20,000–8000 B.C. illustrate diverse examples of prehistoric art from across the globe. All were created in the period before the invention of formal writing, and when human populations were migrating and expanding across the world. By 20,000 B.C., humans had settled on every continent except Antarctica. The earliest human occupation occurs in Africa, and it is there that we assume art to have originated. African rock art from the  Apollo 11 and Wonderwerk Caves contain examples of geometric and animal representations engraved and painted on stone. In Europe, the record of Paleolithic art is beautifully illustrated with the magnificent painted caves of Lascaux and Chauvet , both in France. Scores of painted caves exist in western Europe, mostly in France and Spain, and hundreds of sculptures and engravings depicting humans, animals, and fantastic creatures have been found across Europe and Asia alike. Rock art in Australia represents the longest continuously practiced artistic tradition in the world. The site of Ubirr in northern Australia contains exceptional examples of Aboriginal rock art repainted for millennia beginning perhaps as early as 40,000 B.C. The earliest known rock art in Australia predates European painted caves by as much as 10,000 years.

In Egypt, millennia before the advent of powerful dynasties and wealth-laden tombs, early settlements are known from modest scatters of stone tools and animal bones at such sites as Wadi Kubbaniya . In western Asia after 8,000 B.C., the earliest known writing , monumental art, cities , and complex social systems emerged. Prior to these far-reaching developments of civilization, this area was inhabited by early hunters and farmers. Eynan/Ain Mallaha , a settlement in the Levant along the Mediterranean, was occupied around 10,000–8000 B.C. by a culture named Natufian. This group of settled hunters and gatherers created a rich artistic record of sculpture made from stone and bodily adornment made from shell and bone.

The earliest art of the continent of South Asia is less well documented than that of Europe and western Asia, and some of the extant examples come from painted and engraved cave sites such as Pachmari Hills in India. The caves depict the region’s fauna and hunting practices of the Mesolithic period. In Central and East Asia, a territory almost twice the size of North America, there are outstanding examples of early artistic achievements, such as the expertly and delicately carved female figurine sculpture from Mal’ta . The superbly preserved bone flutes from the site of Jiahu in China, while dated to slightly later than 8000 B.C., are still playable. The tradition of music making may be among the earliest forms of human artistic endeavor. Because many musical instruments were crafted from easily degradable materials like leather, wood, and sinew, they are often lost to archaeologists, but flutes made of bone dating to the Paleolithic period in Europe (ca. 35,000–10,000 B.C.) are richly documented.

North and South America are the most recent continents to be explored and occupied by humans, who likely arrived from Asia. Blackwater Draw in North America and Fell’s Cave in Patagonia, the southernmost area of South America, are two contemporaneous sites where elegant stone tools that helped sustain the hunters who occupied these regions have been found.

Whether the prehistoric artworks illustrated here constitute demonstrations of a unified artistic idiom shared by humankind or, alternatively, are unique to the environments, cultures, and individuals who created them is a question open for consideration. Nonetheless, each work or site superbly characterizes some of the earliest examples of humans’ creative and artistic capacity.

Tedesco, Laura Anne. “Introduction to Prehistoric Art, 20,000–8000 B.C.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (August 2007)

Further Reading

Price, T. Douglas. and Gary M. Feinman. Images of the Past . 5th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2006.

Scarre, Chris, ed. The Human Past: World Prehistory & the Development of Human Societies . London: Thames & Hudson, 2005.

Additional Essays by Laura Anne Tedesco

  • Tedesco, Laura Anne. “ Blackwater Draw (ca. 9500–3000 B.C.) .” (originally published October 2000, last revised September 2007)
  • Tedesco, Laura Anne. “ Wadi Kubbaniya (ca. 17,000–15,000 B.C.) .” (October 2000)
  • Tedesco, Laura Anne. “ Fell’s Cave (9000–8000 B.C.) .” (originally published October 2000, last revised September 2007)
  • Tedesco, Laura Anne. “ Jiahu (ca. 7000–5700 B.C.) .” (October 2000)
  • Tedesco, Laura Anne. “ Lascaux (ca. 15,000 B.C.) .” (October 2000)
  • Tedesco, Laura Anne. “ Mal’ta (ca. 20,000 B.C.) .” (October 2000)
  • Tedesco, Laura Anne. “ Pachmari Hills (ca. 9000–3000 B.C.) .” (October 2000)
  • Tedesco, Laura Anne. “ Hasanlu in the Iron Age .” (October 2004)
  • Tedesco, Laura Anne. “ Eynan/Ain Mallaha (12,500–10,000 B.C.) .” (October 2000; updated February 2024)

Related Essays

  • African Rock Art
  • Chauvet Cave (ca. 30,000 B.C.)
  • Lascaux (ca. 15,000 B.C.)
  • Neolithic Period in China
  • Prehistoric Stone Sculpture from New Guinea
  • African Rock Art: Game Pass
  • African Rock Art: Tassili-n-Ajjer (?8000 B.C.–?)
  • African Rock Art: The Coldstream Stone
  • Apollo 11 (ca. 25,500–23,500 B.C.) and Wonderwerk (ca. 8000 B.C.) Cave Stones
  • Blackwater Draw (ca. 9500–3000 B.C.)
  • Cerro Sechín
  • Cerro Sechín: Stone Sculpture
  • Eynan/Ain Mallaha (12,500–10,000 B.C.)
  • Fell’s Cave (9000–8000 B.C.)
  • Indian Knoll (3000–2000 B.C.)
  • Jiahu (ca. 7000–5700 B.C.)
  • Jōmon Culture (ca. 10,500–ca. 300 B.C.)
  • Mal’ta (ca. 20,000 B.C.)
  • Pachmari Hills (ca. 9000–3000 B.C.)
  • Ubirr (ca. 40,000?–present)
  • Valdivia Figurines
  • Wadi Kubbaniya (ca. 17,000–15,000 B.C.)
  • X-ray Style in Arnhem Land Rock Art
  • 8th Millennium B.C.
  • Agriculture
  • Archaeology
  • Central and North Asia
  • Eastern Mediterranean
  • Iberian Peninsula
  • Literature / Poetry
  • Musical Instrument
  • Mythical Creature
  • North Africa
  • North America
  • Painted Object
  • Personal Ornament
  • Prehistoric Art
  • Relief Sculpture
  • Sculpture in the Round
  • South America
  • Wall Painting
  • Wind Instrument

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Modern Art – An Exploration of the 20th-Century Modernist Movement

Avatar for Isabella Meyer

The Modernism movement within art, arising in the early 20 th century, referred to art that accurately reflected the society in which artists found themselves. After the French industrial revolution, artists demonstrated a great desire to move away from the traditional aspects that previously governed fine art in favor of creating artworks that sought to capture the experiences and values in modern industrial life. Thus, Modern Art existed as a broad movement that incorporated a variety of other “isms” under its title.

Table of Contents

  • 1 What Is Modernism?
  • 2 An Appropriate Modernism Definition
  • 3.1 The Influence of the Industrial Revolution
  • 3.2 The Influence of War
  • 4 Main Characteristics of Modern Art
  • 5 Criticisms of Modern Art
  • 6.1 Impressionism (1870s – 1880s)
  • 6.2 Fauvism (1905 – 1907)
  • 6.3 Expressionism (1905 – 1920)
  • 6.4 Cubism (1908 – 1914)
  • 6.5 Futurism (1909 – 1944)
  • 6.6 Dadaism (1916 – 1924)
  • 6.7 Surrealism (1924 – 1950s)
  • 6.8 Abstract Expressionism (1940s – 1950s)
  • 6.9 Pop Art (1950s – 1960s)
  • 7 Modern Art in America
  • 8.1 Paul Cézanne (1839 – 1906)
  • 8.2 Claude Monet (1840 – 1926)
  • 8.3 Georges Seurat (1859 – 1891)
  • 8.4 Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954)
  • 8.5 Giacomo Balla (1871 – 1958)
  • 8.6 Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)
  • 8.7 Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968)
  • 8.8 Salvador Dalí (1904 – 1989)
  • 8.9 Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)
  • 8.10 Andy Warhol (1928 – 1987)
  • 9 Modernism into Postmodernism

What Is Modernism?

Known as a global movement that existed in society and culture, Modern Art developed at the start of the 20 th century in reaction to the widespread urbanization that appeared after the industrial revolution. Modern Art, also referred to as Modernism, was viewed as both an art and philosophical movement at the time of its emergence. This movement reflected the immense longing of artists to produce new forms of art, philosophy, and social structures that precisely reflected the newly developing world.

Modernism included a variety of different styles, techniques, and media within the broad movement. However, the fundamental principle that was demonstrated in all the artworks of each movement within Modernism was a complete dismissal of history and traditional concepts associated with realism.

Artists began to make use of new images, materials, and techniques to create artworks that they thought better reflected the realities and hopes that existed in rapidly modernizing societies.

Due to the fact that it was not considered a singular and cohesive movement, many different movements developed that fell into the bracket of Modernism. These Modern movements included Post-Impressionism , Fauvism, Cubism, Dadaism, Expressionism, and Futurism, to name a few. The unifying element that existed within these movements was the consistent yearning to break away from the customs of representational art .

A great influence of Modernism was considered to be the Impressionism movement, as artists practicing within this period began to make use of non-naturalistic colors when depicting subjects. Impressionism was wildly unpopular with high society at the time, as it embraced elements that did not fit into the traditional way of making art. Thus, this deviation from the norm was said to pave the way for the beginning of Modernism Art as it embraced the start of abstract tendencies that were still to be explored.

Modernism Art

Modernists disregarded old rules relating to color, perspective, and composition in order to create their own visions of how artworks should be constructed. These attitudes were strengthened by the rapid changes that were brought on by the industrial revolution decades before, as well as the start of World War One in 1914. Artists, in reaction to the horror and brutality that was seen in society as a result of war, abandoned intellect for intuition within their artworks and depicted the world exactly as they observed it.

This period of rapid changes characterized modern society at the time, leading artists to constantly update and refine their techniques when making art so as to accurately depict the aspirations and dreams of the modern world that had developed. Modernism was a response to the rapidly changing conditions of life due to the rise of industrialization and the beginning of wartime, with artists looking for new subject matter, working techniques, and materials to better capture this change.

Additionally, the reason for this change in technique was because artists regarded traditional forms of art to be outdated and therefore obsolete within modern society. Artists stated that they felt a growing alienation from the previous Victorian society and searched for new modes of expression that would adequately reflect how they felt within the new world. Modernism was heavily motivated by the different social and political agendas of the time, with artists attempting to reflect these ideal visions of human life and society in their works.

Whilst artists experimented with new techniques to adequately depict modern life, they also attempted to express the emotional and psychological effects of negotiating a world in rapid changes in their artworks. This was an important element in Modern art, with artists like Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne exploring their subject matters in-depth and in ways that shocked society.

Modernism Art was essentially the creative world’s answer to the rationalist customs and viewpoints of the new lives and ideas that were provided by the technological progressions of industrialization. Artists attempted to represent their experience of modern life in innovative ways irrespective of the artistic genre they were working from. Thus, Modern Art was characterized by artists who rejected traditional styles and values, instead including their own perspective into their works and portrayed their subjects exactly as they existed in the world.

By the 1960s, Modernism had become a leading movement within the art sphere. While some academics have said that the movement continued into the 21 st century, others have stated that it evolved into a late type of Modernism that was termed “Postmodernism.” Despite using the term “modernism” in its name, the Postmodern art movement demonstrated a vast departure from Modernist principles, as it rejected its fundamental assumptions in an effort to produce a new kind of art.

Modernist Art

An Appropriate Modernism Definition

Modernism has been interpreted to mean a variety of things, ranging from a manner of thinking to an aesthetic form of self-examination. Additionally, the movement has also been viewed as a broad social, cultural, and political initiative that upheld the principles of impermanence within the newly urbanizing world.

The terms “Modernism” and “Modern Art” were used by art historians and critics when describing the series of art movements that emerged after the Realism period that was dominated by artist Gustav Courbet . Realism occurred just prior to the Industrial Revolution in France and along with Courbet’s distinct style, marked the beginning of an art period that abandoned the romanticism that previously dictated artmaking.

The philosophical characteristics that accompanied the Modernist movement helped to define it as a way of thinking in addition to an art medium . This was demonstrated by the self-consciousness and self-reference that artists included within their artworks. These brazen and unashamed elements were used to refer to their new modern reality, as well as to highlight their straying away from what was previously seen as fine art.

In Western society, Modernism was defined as a socially liberal trend of thought. Modern Art was said to acknowledge the strength of human beings in creating, enhancing, and restructuring their environment through the advancements in technology and scientific knowledge. These changes were demonstrated through the subsequent art movements that developed, which all found their basic principles under the broad term of Modernism.

Poet Ezra Pound’s famous 1934 line, “Make it New”, went on to exist as the benchmark of the Modernism approach, as Pound ordered artists and creatives to produce art out of distinctly innovative materials.

Thus, an appropriate Modernism definition would be artworks that rejected all traditional forms of art in an attempt to include the perspective of artists and the consequences and effects of industrialization in the developing contemporary world.

The Origins of Modern Art

Modern Art was said to begin in 1863 after artist Édouard Manet exhibited his shocking and disrespectful painting, Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe , at the Salon des Refuses in Paris. Despite Manet’s artwork paying respect to a Renaissance artwork by Raphael, its exhibition to society is widely considered to mark the start of the changes that began to occur in art, which led to the emergence of Modernism.

After Manet’s painting, the new generation of artists were tired of following the conventional academic art forms that dominated the 18th and early 19th century. These artists were branded as “modern”, and they started to create a variety of Modernism paintings that were based on new themes, materials, and methods.

Modernist Movement

Whilst sculpture and architecture were also affected by these new ideas within art, their period of changes occurred at a later stage. Initially, fine art painting appeared to be the first creative sphere that abandoned traditional views in favor of a Modern outlook that acutely reflected society at the time.

In the centuries that preceded the Modern era, many advancements were made in the numerous styles that developed, as shown in movements such as the Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo periods . The prevailing characteristic that appeared throughout these movements in art was the idealization of the subject matter.

Instead of painting exactly what they saw, artists were known to paint what they imagined to be the epitome of their subject.

The first Modern artist who veered away from these traditional values of art was Gustave Courbet, who sought to establish his own distinct style in the mid-19 th century. Courbet achieved this with his large 1948 – 1850 painting, Burial at Ornans , as he portrayed a funeral of an ordinary man with filthy farmworkers surrounding the open grave. This angered the formal art academy, as only works devoted to classical myths or historical scenes were seen as appropriate subject matter for a painting of this proportion.

Despite being shunned for this artwork, Courbet’s painting went on to be highly influential to the following generations of Modern artists. This idea of rejecting artworks previously reserved for religious and important imagery was embraced by artists when Modernism fully developed, with artists creating immense artworks to depict the lives and struggles of common society as they saw fit.

Modernism Definition

The Influence of the Industrial Revolution

The onset of the Industrial Revolution in France in the mid-19 th century was seen as a turning point in both the world’s history and the elements of formal art. With the invention and rapid advancement of technology, artists began to abandon a romanticized view of the world in order to accurately depict what they were seeing. This drastic urbanization led to a change in the pace and quality of ordinary life, with artists feeling compelled to represent this change in the works.

Many people began to relocate from rural farms into city centers in order to find work, which transferred the center of life from the country and villages to the growing urban capitals. Artists were drawn to these rapid developments and began to depict the new visual landscapes that emerged in society, as they bustled with a variety of modern wonders and styles that were waiting to be fully explored.

A significant technological advancement that occurred within this time frame was the invention of the camera in 1888 , which began to rapidly progress. As technology began to develop, photography became more and more accessible to the general public. Suddenly, ordinary people were able to create their own portraits simply by taking a photograph, instead of commissioning an artwork to be made.

This development in portraiture presented a threat to traditional artistic modes of portraying a subject, as no existing artforms were able to capture the same degree of detail and depth as a photograph could. Due to the accuracy of photography, artists were forced to find new methods of expression, which led to new ideas and paradigms in the artistic community.

Modernism Paintings

The Influence of War

Whilst modern society believed in the idea of progress and its many benefits, this belief faded when the First World War began. This period of time sparked further outrage that was felt in connection to traditional art, as artists began to question the morality of urbanization if it could lead to something as gruesome as war.

World War One had a destructive impact on Europe and on the minds of every individual that it reached. A noticeable shift in artistic creation happened after the war, as societies began to distance themselves from its aftermath. Cities began to quickly expand, which led artists, writers, and philosophers to begin adopting views and beliefs that differed from those that existed prior to the war.

Some artists turned towards notions of beauty, order, and harmony within their modern works as a way to offset the disorder, separation, and ugliness that was left from the war. Others began to represent the individuals as hollow and ghostlike within their artworks, in an attempt to refer to the destruction that the war had caused. This was very noticeable in the artworks that formed part of the German Expressionist movement during World War One.

However, some artists viewed this fragmentation and deformity of figures in the art to be cruel, as society had already suffered so much death and pain when soldiers returned home.

Some artists believed that returning to prewar Cubism and Expression was impossible, and so instead looked ahead for a new form of expression that would appropriately capture their current time whilst not coming across as brutal.

Main Characteristics of Modern Art

Lasting for almost an entire century, Modern Art involved multiple different art movements that all incorporated a variety of different elements and techniques. Modernism embraced everything in its subsequent movements, including pure abstraction, hyperrealism, and anti-art styles to name a few. Due to the movement’s great diversity, it is difficult to consider any unifying characteristics which can be used to define this era.

However, one thing that can be said about Modernism Art that managed to separate it from prior movements, as well as the Postmodern movement which followed it, was that artists truly believed that their art was important and held real value. This differed from their predecessors who simply assumed that their work was valuable if it incorporated traditional elements, purely because the art academies told them so.

Cubist Modernism Paintings

Despite there being no singular defining characteristic of Modern Art, it incorporated various important characteristics over a few of the movements. The first characteristic was that most Modern Art movements attempted to create a new type of art, through using styles such as collage art, assemblage, animation, photography, land art , and performance art.

The second characteristic was that most modern painters attempted to make use of new materials when creating art, such as attaching fragments of newspapers and other items to canvases. A good example of this is artist Marcel Duchamp, who popularized the use of readymade objects through his iconic artworks which he essentially created out of trash. By using a variety of new materials, a type of assemblage art was created, which allowed some artists to combine a variety of different and ordinary materials in one singular work.

The third characteristic that most Modernists incorporated into their work was a vivid use of color. The movements that made use of this technique the most were Fauvism and Expressionism, as artists practicing within these genres tended to exploit color in a variety of ways so as to emphasize the emotions they were attempting to convey.

Lastly, the fourth characteristic that was used within these Modernism movements was the invention of new techniques. Examples of this include automatic drawing and frottage that were invented by Surrealist artists , and benday dots and silkscreen painting that were introduced by Pop artists and brought into formal art.

Criticisms of Modern Art

Like every other artistic period, Modern Art had its fair share of criticisms. Due to the fact that Modernism disregarded conventional elements of art and placed emphasis on freedom of expression, experimentation, and radicalism, it was met with complete disbelief and outrage from audiences. Modernism also managed to alienate certain audiences through its eccentric and unpredictable effects, such as the disturbing motifs that were included in Surrealist artworks.

A major criticizer of the Modern Art era was the Nazi government in Germany, who deemed the artworks that fell into the bracket of Modernism as narcissistic and nonsensical. The Nazis went so far as to label Modern Art as “degenerate art”, and had some works belonging to the German Expressionism movement destroyed.


Most Important Movements Within Modernism

As Modernism was merely an umbrella term for a variety of different movements that came into existence after the Industrial Revolution and in the early 20 th century, it is easy to wonder: what is Modernism? Essentially, Modernism was a period in which many movements existed. What made these movements similar was the unifying characteristic that rejected all traditional forms of art, which made them each modern within their own sense.

Impressionism (1870s – 1880s)

Seen as an important precursor to the Modernist movement, Impressionism made famous the use of non-naturalist colors in the artworks that were created. The importance of Impressionism was demonstrated by artist Claude Monet , whose landscape works focused on capturing transient moments of light and color in excruciating detail.

This attention to detail was also seen when artists chose the colors within their artworks, as these vivid and shocking colors were said to emphasize the emotions that they felt. Additionally, Impressionists made use of loose and highly textured brushstrokes that made the painting unrecognizable if viewed from up close. These specific techniques made Impressionism very disliked in the conventional art spheres, as the works created did not conform to the traditional elements of art.

This led to Impressionism being seen as an important influence of Modernism, as it was one of the initial movements to reject the realism associated with traditional art through the color palette and brush strokes used. Impressionism went on to validate the use of unrealistic colors in artworks, which went on to pave the way for the emergence of abstract art . This continued to be upheld as an important characteristic in the Modern Art movements that developed.

Modernist Paintings

Fauvism (1905 – 1907)

Led by Henri Matisse, Fauvism was an incredibly short-lived movement that existed during the mid-1900s in Paris. Despite its lifespan, it was an incredibly dynamic and influential movement and was seen as a very fashionable and modern style during its time.

Fauvism is known for launching at the Salon d’Automne , with the movement becoming instantly renowned for its intense, loud, and non-naturalistic colors that were used in the artworks created. This excessive use of color made the previous movement of Impression seem monochromatic in its palette choice, with the use of colors being extremely exaggerated in Fauvism.

The major contribution of Fauvism to the Modern Art movement was its demonstration of the power of color. Fauvism showcased the independent strength that colors possessed, which turned artworks into a force to be reckoned with when various colors were combined. Additionally, Fauvism was seen as a highly subjective movement, existing as a strong contender to the previous classical artistic style that was used.

Modernist Definition

Expressionism (1905 – 1920)

Despite being predicted in the artworks by artists such as Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh, the Expressionist movement only truly came into being in pre-war Germany. Two groups within Expressionism emerged named Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter , which went on to define this movement as one that belonged within Modern Art.

Existing before and after World War One, Expressionism was said to be heavily based on the brutalities that occurred. The Expressionist movement used the horror associated with the war as its main subject and created works that accurately echoed the devastation and consequences felt in society after it ended.

What Is Modernism

Die Brücke , translated to “the bridge”, was formed in Dresden in 1905 and existed as one of the integral groups within Expressionism. Founded by artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner , Die Brücke made use of figural distortions, a primal straightforwardness of rendering, and expressive use of color in its artworks.

The second essential group within the Expressionist movement was Der Blaue Reider . Known as “the Blue Rider”, this group was founded by Wassily Kandinsky in Munich in 1911 and centered around the potential of pure abstraction within the art that was created. Kandinsky also argued that abstraction offered completeness that mere representation did not.

The importance of Expressionism within Modernism was that the movement popularized the idea of subjectivity in painting. Additionally, the vivid color palette used in Expressionist artworks existed as a fundamental characteristic within other Modern Art movements.

Cubism (1908 – 1914)

Developed by artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Cubism existed as quite a harsh and challenging style of painting. This art form differed greatly from previous movements that were inspired by the techniques of linear perspective and softly curved volumes made famous in the Renaissance. Instead, Cubism made use of a compositional arrangement of flat and shattered planes that were combined to make up a painting.

Cubism was developed into two versions, namely Analytical Cubism and Synthetic Cubism. Analytical Cubism, which existed from 1910 to 1012, examined the use of basic shapes and overlapping surfaces to portray the individual forms of the subjects in a painting. Synthetic Cubism appeared after and ran from 1912 to 1914. This style emphasized on including characteristics such as simple shapes and bright colors that held hardly any depth in the artworks that were created.

Despite its influence over abstract art, the appeal surrounding Cubism was extremely limited. However, an important contribution of the Cubism movement within Modern Art was that it offered an entirely new alternative to standard perspective due to its creation of the flat picture plane.

Modernist Artwork

Futurism (1909 – 1944)

The Futurist movement, founded by Italian art theorist and poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, was an art form that celebrated technology, speed, inventions such as the automobile and the airplane, and scientific achievement.

This movement saw all of these avenues of development as worthy of praise and believed that they were responsible for the advancement of modern society. Futurism captured the dynamism and energy that existed in the modern world and proposed the creation of art that celebrated modernity and the development of technology in all its forms.

Existing as a heavily influential movement, it borrowed elements from other eras such as Neo-Impressionism, Italian Divisionism, and Cubism. This was demonstrated through the splintered forms and numerous viewpoints that were typical of some Futurist artworks.

Futurism was at its most influential stage between 1909 and 1914, as World War One brought the first wave of Futurism to a close. This led artists to turn to different styles that incorporated elements of modernity. However, after the war had ended, Marinetti revived the movement and continued to develop into what was called second-generation Futurism. Thus, Futurism was seen as a significant Modern Art movement as it introduced the element of movement into art and linked the concept of beauty to scientific achievement.

Futuristic Modernism Art

Dadaism (1916 – 1924)

Seen as the first anti-art movement to be established, Dada was an art practice that rebelled against the system which had allowed the atrocity of World War One to take place. Dadaism began at the Cabaret Voltaire in Switzerland and was led by a group of artists who had relocated to the neutral country during the outbreak of the war.

The boisterous, facetious, and iconoclastic performances that were created were intended to lay heavy criticism on the bourgeois society and the economic forces that the Dadaists blamed for the onset of war. Dadaism quickly became a revolutionary movement as its main aim was to undermine the art establishment in an attempt to point out the futility in order and tradition as it led to war.

Using performance art that could not be commodified, the Dada movement advocated for the eradication of the commercial art institution along with its traditional concepts and reasons. Dada artists embraced the notions of irrationality and originality within their works, as demonstrated by artists such as Jean Arp, Hugo Ball, and Marcel Duchamp.

Existing as the most notable artist within the Dada movement was Duchamp, whose infamous 1917 Fountain caused enormous controversy due to him merely making use of an ordinary urinal in his artwork and submitting it for exhibition. Duchamp also introduced the idea of the “ready-mades” into art, which was the use of everyday items in place of traditional artistic elements.

Dadaism existed as an important movement in Modern Art, as it managed to disrupt the traditional art academy through its anarchistic tendencies. Dadaism brought great creativity and critique into modern society, as demonstrated through its embrace of junk items as art, which forced audiences to consider what intellect within art and society truly meant.

Famous Modernist Art

Surrealism (1924 – 1950s)

Existing right after the Dadaism movement and still maintaining its seditious humor, Surrealism was established in Paris by writer Andre Breton. Surrealism was seen as the last significant avant-garde movement that existed in the interwar period, as it began to fade out with the onset of World War Two.

Evolving out of the nihilistic Dada movement, Surrealism rejected the notions of order and beauty within its artworks, yet it was not viewed as anti-art or heavily political. Surrealism was built on a preference for the irrational and created artworks that used dreams, hallucination, and random and automatic image generation. This was done to evade rational thought processes in the creation of art, in addition to demonstrating the absurdity that existed in the intellectual minds of society.

Surrealist artists avoided any notion of rationality within their works. Instead, artists leaned towards psychological concepts about the unconscious mind that was primarily introduced by neurologist Sigmund Freud, who believed that this was where the base of artistic creativity lay. Thus, Surrealism attempting to connect with the unconscious mind through interpreting dreams and using automatism within the artworks created.

The main contribution of Surrealism to Modernism was its ability to generate a refreshing set of new artworks that were constructed out of one’s subconscious mind. Surrealism was able to introduce a period of imagination and fun into the interwar years within Modern Art.

Surreal Modernist Art

Abstract Expressionism (1940s – 1950s)

Developed in New York City after the ending of World War Two, Abstract Expressionism was established by a group of vaguely associated artists who sought to create a stylistically varied body of work. Abstract Expressionism, also known as the New York School, introduced extreme new directions in art and relocated the art world’s attention to focus on Abstract Modernist art.

Abstract Expressionism, which was strongly influenced by European artists living in America, consisted of two main styles. The first was an extremely energetic form of gestural painting that was introduced by Jackson Pollock, and the second was a more passive mood-directed style known as Color Field painting made famous by Mark Rothko .

Abstract Expressionism aimed to create art that, while still abstract in nature, was able to evoke great expression and emotion as an effect. This was inspired by the previous movement of Surrealism, as Abstract Expressionists also subscribed to the notion that art should develop from the unconscious mind. The influence of Abstract Expressionism within Modernism was its ability to popularize abstraction, in addition to inventing a new style called “action painting”, as demonstrated by Pollock’s drip paintings.

Abstract Modernist Art

Pop Art (1950s – 1960s)

The last influential movement said to exist within Modern Art was Pop Art. Initially emerging in America and England in the late 1950s, Pop Art reflected the popular culture and mass consumerism that existed in America in the early 1960s. Pop Art existed as a dominant form of avant-garde art due to its brazen and easy-to-recognize imagery, its use of vivid block colors, and the inclusion of famous icons.

Andy Warhol was an exemplary figure of the Pop Art movement, as his use of famous icons and popular celebrities in his artworks made his work incredibly well-known. Pop Art also branched into the creation of posters, advertisements, comic strips, and product packaging, to demonstrate the flexibility of art within the new consumer-driven society. Additionally, these materials helped to reduce the separation that existed between commercial art and fine art.

Essentially, Pop Art celebrated the consumerism of the post-World War Two period. The movement rejected Abstract Expressionism in an effort to praise and subsequently glorify advertising, the material consumer culture, and the image representation of the mass production era. Thus, the main contribution of Pop Art within Modern Art was its demonstration that any art deemed worthy could be unsophisticated and mass-marketed, in addition to being constructed out of mere commodities.

Colorful Modernism Art

Modern Art in America

Due to the expansiveness of Modern Art, it is not easy to integrate the various movements of America and Europe into a chronological timeline. A multitude of historical and sociocultural factors exist for both American and European Modernism, which makes combining the two variations of Modern Art very challenging.

Modern Art took slightly longer to ground itself in America among its artists, critics, and the public. Prior to the development of Modernism, there was a variety of other American movements that had started to embrace elements of modernity in the artworks created.

The event that acted as the true catalyst for the growth of Modernism within America was the 1913 Armory Show, which was exhibited in New York. Nearly 1300 artworks created by 300 artists were displayed, with two-thirds of these artists being American. The style within these works included Ashcan, French Impressionist, Cubist, and Fauvist , which gave fellow artists, collectors, critics, and the public a glimpse into the future of Modern Art.

Modernist ideas began to grow within the minds of American artists , which were encouraged in the upcoming years by refugee artists who fled Europe at the onset of World War One. Additionally, the influx of artists who left Nazi-occupied Europe in the run-up to World War Two also brought new techniques and philosophies, which greatly inspired American artists and helped spur the development of Modern Art.

The introduction of Abstract Expressionism was also seen as a major turning point in American Modernism, as artists were largely influenced by the number of European avant-garde artists who had settled in America. Due to the country’s economic advantage that emerged after the end of World War Two, New York replaced Paris as the unofficial capital of Western art. This was thought to lead to the eventual appearance of Modern Art as a full-blown movement within America.

Notable Modern Artists and Their Well-Known Artworks

Throughout the expansive period of Modern Art, many different artistic movements embraced the rejection of traditionalism and the introduction of modernity within the Modernism paintings created. Listed below are some of the more notable artists and their artworks to come out of the Modernism era.

Paul Cézanne (1839 – 1906)

A significant artist existing in the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist period was Paul Cézanne, whose artworks have been considered as important precursors to the development of Modern Art. Completed in the year that Cézanne passed away, The Large Bathers was painted from 1898 to 1906 and existed as one of the finest examples of Cézanne’s investigation of the theme of the modern and courageous nude within a natural setting.

Cézanne created a series of these bathing nudes, with The Large Bathers existing as both his last and his largest composition in the series. Within this work, Cézanne depicted the female nudes in numerous effortless positions, with the ease that he created his composition being likened to him arranging objects in a still life. The archway formed by the overlapping trees and sky helped to ground the figures in the middle of the painting, in addition to turning them into the focal point through drawing the eyes of the viewer inwards.

Popular Modern Art

When painting The Large Bathers , Cézanne attempted to create an artwork that would be viewed as timeless. He achieved this through his deviation from the Impressionist themes of light and natural effect and instead composed the scene as a series where his emphasis fell on the carefully constructed figures. Cézanne was more interested in the way his forms were able to occupy space as opposed to depicting his visual observations as realistically as possible.

This artwork was seen as a significant predecessor in the development of Cubism, as its disruption of illusionism and growing abstraction were elements that were later adopted in the Cubist movement. The brushstrokes within this painting were obvious, which gave Cézanne’s work an incomplete quality. Additionally, he boldly left traces of his working patterns on his paintings, with his colors blending into each other at certain points.

Despite its seemingly unrefined state, The Large Bathers is still seen as a masterpiece of Modern Art due to the characteristics it introduced to the art world. Cézanne’s work was praised for its use of vivid yet cool colors which swirled around the canvas, with the commanding nature of his colors later going on to be an important characteristic within Modern Art.

Claude Monet (1840 – 1926)

Another influential artist within the Impressionism period was Claude Monet. Impressionism was generally thought to be the first fully Modern movement to exist, with some of its characteristics influencing the later movements in the Modernism period. Within his landscape artworks, Monet placed focus on light and atmosphere, which existed as key characteristics of the Impressionism movement. In his 1873 painting, titled Impression, Sunrise , Monet demonstrated his focus on the same elements.

Impression, Sunrise is seen as Monet’s pioneering Modernism artwork. A misty sunrise over a French harbor is depicted, along with a very blurred background. The orange and yellow tones chosen by Monet contrast vividly with the darker ships, with little to no detail being visible to viewers at all.

Monet’s loose style of painting and use of abstraction evoked what he felt and experienced when painting the scene at the harbor, which was a very uncommon approach for a painter at that time. Additionally, the title of his work conveyed the ephemeral nature of his painting, as it was based purely on what Monet observed at the time of the sunrise.

Impressionist Modernism Art

This painting was very unusual of Monet’s own work during this time and of the Impressionist movement in general, as little to no Impressionist methods of light and color were shown. The colors chosen were incredibly restrained and at certain places, Monet left pieces of the canvas entirely visible.

Monet’s work was considered to be extremely atmospheric and subjective as opposed to analytical, which would go on to be an important characteristic of Modern Art. Monet kept details to a bare minimum within Impression, Sunrise , with the painting making use of a fleeting and near-abstract technique. Due to this, the style of his painting drew more attention than the actual composition itself, which outraged viewers at the time. Audiences even claimed that they were unable to identify what they were viewing at all.

Due to the techniques employed by Monet within Impression, Sunrise , this work is viewed as an important precursor to Modernism, as it made use of a variety of styles that would go on to later inform other Modern movements.

Georges Seurat (1859 – 1891)

An important Neo-Impressionist French artist was Georges Seurat, who’s paintings seemed to supersede his own reputation. Seurat altered the direction of Modern Art through his introduction of the Neo-Impressionism movement , which emerged at a time in modern France where painters were searching for new methods to explore. Existing as the best-known and largest painting done by Seurat is his 1884 to 1886 masterpiece, titled Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte , which was an important Neo-Impressionist work.

Seurat’s artwork depicts relaxed individuals in a park on an island in the Seine River known as “La Grande Jatte”, which was a popular place for middle- and upper-class Parisians in the 19 th century. What makes this painting so remarkable is that its theme captured something as boring and ordinary as a normal Sunday afternoon, yet it still carried an air of mystery.

Popular Modernism Art

At first glance, this work appears to be a painting of ordinary people relaxing in the park. However, upon closer inspection, truly peculiar images come to light. For example, the lady carrying the parasol on the right appears to be walking a monkey on a leash, and the little girl wearing the white dress that is placed in the center of the painting is the only figure who is depicted without a shadow.

Additionally, Seurat’s bizarre artwork introduced a new style of painting called Pointillism , with this technique still being known by this name today. This painting technique was highly systematic and near scientific in its development but was relatively easy for other artists to copy. Seurat started with a layer of small horizontal brushstrokes of complementary colors , upon which he later added small dots that appeared solid and radiant from afar.

This was done to prove his theory that painting in dots was able to create a brighter color than painting in strokes, as the viewer’s eye would be able to optically blend the colors from a distance. This led to a radical turning point within the Modern Art era, as artists were presented with an alternative way to define forms within their artworks as opposed to making use of the worn-out traditional methods.

Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954)

Existing as an important artist within the Fauvism movement was Henri Matisse , who was well-known for his expressive use of color and his fluid and original drawing techniques. Matisse is commonly regarded as an artist who helped define the groundbreaking developments within visual arts, with some of his paintings existing as important works in early Modernism.

One such work is his painting, titled Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life) , which he painted from 1905 to 1906. Within this work, Matisse depicted the figures of blue-green and pink nudes dancing, singing, and frolicking in what seemed to be an unblemished and multicolored version of Eden.

Famous Modern Art

Through overemphasizing and simplifying his figures at odd angles, Matisse was able to emphasize the canvas as a mere two-dimensional support for the harmonious contrast of color as opposed to any sort of precise depiction of nature.

Matisse separated color from reasoning within his artwork, as he used these bright tones as an expressive medium that was not intended to make any visual sense.  It was thought that this technique was used to introduce the concept of Primitivism into 20 th century Modernism, with artists like Matisse choosing to paint naïve and simple artworks in an era dominated by rapid industrialization and modernization. Additionally, Matisse’s work implied a lot about the new territory of Modernism that was emerging.

Giacomo Balla (1871 – 1958)

Futurist artist Giacomo Balla produced some incredibly well-known artworks within Modern Art. As a key proponent of Futurism, Balla skillfully depicted light, movement, and speed in his artworks. What set him aside from other Futurists was that his focus on movement did not relate to that produced by a machine, which led his artworks to be quite playful and witty in nature.

Balla’s most notable work, as well as the most well-known work of the Futurist movement, was his 1912 painting, titled Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash . Within this work, Balla combined the idea of art and science, which was influenced by his fascination with chronophotographic studies of animals in motion. Chronophotography existed as a technique whereby several photos were taken in quick succession to capture the movement of a subject.

Dynamic Modernism Art

The artwork depicts a black dachshund walking alongside a woman wearing dark shoes and a dress, which added to the monochrome feeling of the painting. Both the feet of the figure and the dog are shown to be in speedy motion, as signified by their slight blurring and the multiplication of their parts, as well as the numerous depictions of the dog lead.

A striking feature of this artwork is the quiet sincerity that is implied by the skittering dog. Thus, while the painting’s title expressed the lively movement as seen by the motion of the dog, the peaceful honesty present in the work contradicts this.

To reinforce the perception of speed, Balla painted the ground using diagonal lines and positioned his signature and the date at a lively angle. This work made use of characteristics that were significant within Modernism, such as the fascination with speed and technology, which were later referred to in other modern movements.

Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)

An important artist working within the Cubism movement was Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. His artworks have been categorized into different periods, such as his Blue Period and his Rose Period, which allowed Picasso to experiment with a variety of styles. These include both Analytic and Synthetic Cubism, as well as making use of some elements of Neoclassicism and Surrealism in his later works.

Out of all his Cubist works, his 1907 painting titled Les Demoiselles d’Avignon remains one of his most notable works. Considered to be the artwork that essentially launched the Cubism movement, Picasso’s work was met with substantial controversy for its portrayal of a brothel scene and for the rough, prominent, and abstract forms he used to represent the women.

When painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon , Picasso accumulated inspiration from various sources, such as African tribal art , Expressionism, and the Post-Impressionist artworks of Paul Cézanne. These sources are noticeable within Picasso’s work, as demonstrated by several of the women whose faces seemed to be modeled on African masks, as well as the sculptural deconstruction of space that originated from the works of Cézanne.

The multiplicity of the styles used within this painting clearly represented a turning point in Picasso’s career, as well as managing to separate his version of Modern Art from the Western artistic tradition. Thus, the integration of these diverse sources within a single painting demonstrated the new approach to art-making that artists had adopted. This also conveyed how the perspective of artists had expanded with the steady rise of the Modernist movement.


Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968)

Commonly regarded as one of the most influential artists who helped define the innovative developments in the plastic arts at the start of the 20 th century is Marcel Duchamp . Additionally, Duchamp is also commonly recognized as the face of the Dada movement, in which he exists as one of its most notable contributors.

Duchamp’s invention of the “readymade”, in which he made use of common items and claimed them to be artworks, rattled the traditional and formal art academies. In using ordinary items, that were sometimes even considered to be junk, Duchamp managed to separate the items from their utilitarian purpose in order to present them as new forms of art. Thus, Duchamp helped to reformulate what made essentially made up a work of art within the modern era.

Contentious Modernist Art

His most well-known work, created in 1917, remains Fountain . Within this readymade sculpture, Duchamp made use of a store-bought urinal which he signed with the pseudonym “R. Mutt”, before submitting the work to the Society of Independent Artists in New York for exhibition. Fountain caused enormous controversy upon being submitted with the society ultimately rejecting Duchamp’s sculpture, which caused a great uproar in the artistic community at that time.

Duchamp, along with his sculpture, demonstrated that an extraordinary work of art no longer required the act of creation, as an artist simply needed to label the work as art in order for it to be deemed as such. This thought quickly spanned across Europe and the rest of the world, influencing the art-making techniques that existed. Thus, this Dada sculpture is regarded as a major avant-garde landmark in 20 th century Modern Art.

Salvador Dalí (1904 – 1989)

Spanish artist Salvador Dalí was an important figure within the Surrealism movement and was celebrated for his technical skills, drawing ability, and the remarkable yet peculiar images in his work. Existing as an incredibly well-known work of art is his 1931 painting, titled The Persistence of Memory .

This painting depicts an otherworldly landscape in a very organic manner, where time was portrayed as a series of melting watches that were surrounded by crawling ants. The idea of decay as a natural process held great fascination for Dalí, with this concept often coming up throughout history with critics attempting to understand the meaning behind his work.

However, when asked about the meaning of his work, Dalí continuously stated that he did not know the meaning. Additionally, he refused to associate his depictions of clocks with any tangible concepts, simply referring to them only as the “camembert of time.”

Modernist Art Sculpture

Through creating haunting dreamscapes in his Modernism paintings, Dalí succeeded in portraying images of solid absurdity. Dalí developed a technique called a paranoiac-critical method, in which he would self-induce a hypnotic state. He believed that this would allow him to break free of reality as the visions for his paintings would only appear to him in this unrestricted state of mind. Thus, in The Persistence of Memory , a metaphorically empty space is created out of Dalí’s subconscious mind, where time truly had no power.

Dalí’s obsession with dream imagery and metaphor would go on to firmly cement his place in the Surrealism movement of the early 20 th century. Additionally, the unrestrained and seemingly wild thoughts that he translated into his paintings referred to the increasing artistic freedom and experimentation that had developed in Modernism.

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)

The Abstract Expressionism movement developed in New York City as a post-war movement in the 1940s, with Jackson Pollock going on to become one of the movement’s most notable artists. In addition to defining the concept of Action Painting, Pollock developed his “drip” style of painting, which led to him being seen as one of the influential driving forces behind Abstract Modernist art.

Drip painting involved Pollock setting up his canvases horizontally on the ground and then, with a paintbrush or paint jar, walking all around them and letting paint fall wherever he desired. This style within his Modernism paintings allowed Pollock to uncover a new abstract, visual language from his unconscious that moved beyond the techniques associated with Surrealism.

An important drip painting of his, created in 1950, is Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) . At this period of time, Pollock was at the peak of his career and created this nonrepresentational painting out of an unstretched canvas and thinned paint. With his canvas flat on the floor, Pollock dripped, dribbled, scumbled, poured, flicked, and splattered the paint onto the canvas. He then made use of sticks and knives to strengthen and intensify the thick and lyrical composition, which included intricate labyrinths of line.

Within Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) , there is no main point to focus on and no ranking of elements, which allowed Pollock to create a composition where every bit of the surface was regarded as equal. At certain places, Pollock’s work evoked elements of both Impressionism and Surrealism. Pollock’s work was an important contribution to Modern Art, as it demonstrated the complete freedom and lack of formality that artists were experimenting with.

Famous Modernists

Andy Warhol (1928 – 1987)

Lastly, a notable Pop Artist within the Modern Art era was Andy Warhol. Creating artworks that made use of commercial reproduction, Warhol upheld the Modernist art notion that celebrated the development of technology and the use of machinery. An iconic artwork, that falls within both the Modernism and Postmodernism era, is his 1962 silkscreen, titled Marilyn Diptych .

Within this work, Warhol mass-produced a well-known image of Marilyn Monroe using the silkscreen method and repeated the image of her face 50 times in both color and black and white. At first glance, the sheer amount of Monroe’s face encourages a form of worship to the legendary icon. However, Warhol merely selected this image due to its prominence in popular culture at the time and went on to immortalize it as art.

Marilyn Diptych , along with Warhol’s other artworks, embraced the notion of Modernism through their continuous reference to consumerism and commodification. Additionally, the advancement of technology is demonstrated through the method of production chosen, with Warhol demonstrating the influence that pop culture held over society at the time.

Popular Modernists

Modernism into Postmodernism

While some art historians believe that Modernist art principles have lived on into the current 21 st century, others have stated that they evolved into a movement now known as Postmodernism. This movement was said to symbolize an intentional departure from the Modernist values that had previously guided artistic creation and involved a wider range of approaches in art such as visual art, literature, design, and other avenues.

Although existing as a new form of art at the time, Modernism eventually went on to be seen in all the institutions against which it initially rebelled. This led to the development of Postmodernism, which sought to break the established rules about style and worked to introduce even more freedom into the creation of art.

Postmodernism was defined by attitudes of incredulity and irony, as it blatantly dismissed the idea that art or life had any intrinsic value. Postmodernism began to emerge in the 1980s and 1990s and criticized concepts such as reality, human nature, rationale, science, morality, and social progress.

Artists within Postmodernism began to experiment with digital, conceptual, and performance art, among other styles. Postmodernism aimed to surpass the limits set by Modernism and went on to pick apart Modern Art’s grand narrative so as to investigate cultural codes, politics, and social ideology in their immediate context.

It was this engagement with notions of the surrounding world that differentiated Postmodern Art from Modern Art, as well as appointing Postmodernism as a unique factor within the developing Contemporary Art . Postmodernism went on to explore several movements, including Conceptual Art , Feminist Art, Installation Art, and Performance Art.

Modernism was a period of art that encapsulated a variety of different art movements under the same title. Modernists attempted to reflect society exactly as they perceived it and made use of various styles that could adequately capture their thoughts and feelings. Thus, Modern Art existed as a period of great experimentation and rebellion, as the traditional aspects previously dictating artistic creation were rejected in favor of the techniques emerging from the rapidly developing industrialized world.

Take a look at our Modernism Art webstory here!

isabella meyer

Isabella studied at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English Literature & Language and Psychology. Throughout her undergraduate years, she took Art History as an additional subject and absolutely loved it. Building on from her art history knowledge that began in high school, art has always been a particular area of fascination for her. From learning about artworks previously unknown to her, or sharpening her existing understanding of specific works, the ability to continue learning within this interesting sphere excites her greatly.

Her focal points of interest in art history encompass profiling specific artists and art movements, as it is these areas where she is able to really dig deep into the rich narrative of the art world. Additionally, she particularly enjoys exploring the different artistic styles of the 20 th century, as well as the important impact that female artists have had on the development of art history.

Learn more about Isabella Meyer and the Art in Context Team .

Cite this Article

Isabella, Meyer, “Modern Art – An Exploration of the 20th-Century Modernist Movement.” Art in Context. April 28, 2021. URL:

Meyer, I. (2021, 28 April). Modern Art – An Exploration of the 20th-Century Modernist Movement. Art in Context.

Meyer, Isabella. “Modern Art – An Exploration of the 20th-Century Modernist Movement.” Art in Context , April 28, 2021. .

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