Searching for New Possibilities: Painting Movements in the 20th Century

The 20th century opened new vistas and possibilities that expanded everyday human experience and greatly influenced the world of art and original painting. From ....

The 20th century opened new vistas and possibilities that expanded everyday human experience and greatly influenced the world of art and original painting. From the earliest years of the turn of the century, artists were beginning to experiment with subject matter, creating realities reflective more of their own inner visions than what lay before them in nature. Concurrent with this was a search for new techniques, materials, and approaches to support these forays into new terrains. As a result, 20th century painting movements and trends inspired artists to set out in many divergent directions, resulting in a broad range of styles and forms. Here are some of the major movements that defined and shaped art in the 20th century and which still influence the art being produced today.


Rooted in the turn of the century and inspired by the likes of Vincent van Gogh, this art form sought to highlight the expression of emotion and the artist’s inner vision rather than pursue an exact representation of nature. Essentially, it became the precursor for many 20th century trends.


The earliest major European avant-garde movement in the 20th century, the term ‘Fauvism’ was coined at a 1905 Paris exhibition from the French term “les fauves,” which means “wild beasts”. Although the style was generally expressionistic in nature, it was characterized by paintings that revolutionized the concept of color in modern art. Rejecting the soft palettes of the Impressionists, the Fauves used bold and sometimes violent colors to portray distorted images and flat planes. At the center of this movement were Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault.


Led by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, this painting movement abandoned traditional perspective, unfolding in two general phases. First came was what was known as Analytic Cubism, characterized by fragmented spaces where the subject is depicted from several angles simultaneously. Synthetic Cubism took this further, converging separate elements in collage fashion to create a layered look. This was a radical shock to the art world, as it completely discarded classic definitions of beauty in the reconfiguration of multiple viewpoints.


Developed during the heart of WWI, the hallmark of this anti-art movement was centered on the irrational and absurd. Dadaism reflected the marked disillusionment of the times and concerned itself with the absence of meaning and the inescapable force of chance in life events.


A response to the tragedies of the First World War, Surrealism turned traditional subject matter on its head, positioning everyday objects in absurd situations in a search for metaphysical truths rooted in the powers of creativity, imagination, and the subconscious. Different styles evolved from this movement, including approaches wherein realistic detail was used to convey irrational images or where unrelated objects were juxtaposed to suggest an alternate reality. Recognizable Surrealist artists include Salvador Dali and René Magritte.

Abstract Expressionism:

Spanning the mid-20th century, Abstract Expressionism was born in New York City in reaction to the horrors of WWII and came to influence similar European movements. Here the focus was on the abstract, with an emphasis on form and color to achieve a subconscious interpretation of the artist’s inner vision. Two styles emerged here: Action Painting (Jackson Pollock), where the physical act of painting became central as artists employed dripping, splattering, and pouring to express emotions and universal concerns, and Color Field Painting (Mark Rothko), where the canvas was saturated and more gently layered with paint, creating a calmer effect.

Pop Art:

A modernist movement that began in the 1950s, Pop Art reflected the influx and influence of mass media and the culture of consumption in everyday society. In essence, Pop artists were interested in raising the mundane to heroic proportions in a realistic, representational way. Stylistically, Pop Art stressed frontal presentation and pure color bound by hard edges. Perhaps the most recognizable figure in this movement was Andy Warhol, known for his iconic Campbell’s soup-can paintings.


This movement is generally associated with art from 1980 until the present day. It was and is a reaction against the simplicity and theoretical nature of Modernism. Of all the movements, Post-Modernism is the most encompassing, including works characterized by their subjectivism, regional character, and social and political relativism.

The art movements of the 20th century continue to influence the images being created to this day. A perusal of the original paintings for sale on the Art-Mine website unveils work from around the globe, many of which are informed by the visions of these pioneering artists and movements.
This article was written for ARTmine by Laura Monroe.

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