When it comes to visual arts, the second half of the 19th century ushered in a whole new age of modern art that would change the way people thought of art forever.
Prior to 1850, most experts would agree that artists strove to represent their world and the people in it as realistically as possible. This should come as no real surprise since photography was not in existence yet and people of all classes relied on artists to create accurate representations of their loved ones as well as cherished landscapes and objects.
However, the times they were a-changing during the second half of the 19th century due in great part to the Industrial Revolution. Society in general was constantly in the process of inventing and reinventing itself, and that tendency to change and experimentation with new ways of living and thinking were naturally reflected in the art of the times. Movements in this modern art came and went: they were popular for a while then fell into disfavor as the community moved on to "new" and "improved" tastes and aesthetics. But each art movement borrowed from and built on the last, and some movements with the greatest influence can truly be classified as Major. Here's an overview.
Impressionism: There's no doubt that the impressionists were the first to truly revolutionize artistic style and even technique. Artists such as Manet and Monet rejected the stiff formality of the status quo and scandalized the art world with their semi-abstractions and stroke techniques. French artists were the most successful at capturing the effects of light on landscapes which was the preferred subject; artists such as Degas, however, brought that same spirit to his ballerinas and indoor scenes.
Fauvism: The two most famous fauvists, contemporaries and on-and-off friends Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, brought more vivid and intense colors to the impressionist scene. From the French word for "wild animal," Fauvism must indeed have seemed wild for its time. Henri Matisse's semi abstract art is a perfect example of fauvist philosophy and the artist's styles and choice of colors were constantly changing during his long and productive life.
Cubism and Surrealism: These two major movements laid the foundation for abstract art which would come to define the 20th century. Early cubists, most notably Pablo Picasso, relied on geometrical figures to create their realities. Surrealism, a mid 20th century movement, focused on the imagery as seen in dreams rather than in day to day life. Hence, when seen as dream imagery, anyone can appreciate the wild melting watches of Salvador Dali or the flying people so often favored by Marc Chagall.
Art continues to evolve today, of course; after the late 20th century surge in abstract art, semi-abstract is gaining a foothold again. Proof that in the 21st century, art lovers appreciate the modern but still want to keep a foothold on reality.
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