Major Visual Art Movements in Western History (Part I)

The history of art is vast, dating back to early cave paintings 27,000 years ago. Studying the major art movements in history allows us to see not only the development of art, but also how art is shaped by its time period and setting. Listed below are some of the visual art movements which have revolutionized the art world.


Realism refers to the precise, detailed, and unembellished depiction of nature or contemporary life. It comprises many artistic currents throughout history including the Hellenistic Greek sculptures, the work of 17th century painters like Caravaggio and the Le Nain brothers. Realism, which recognized as the first modern movement in art, began in France when local painters turned in the idealistic images which are typical of traditional art with real-life events.


Impressionism started with Paris painters, spreading throughout Europe, and eventually into the United States. It is a style wherein the artist captures the image of an object as someone would see it if they just caught a glimpse of it. Impressionists abandoned traditional linear perspective and avoided the clarity of form which characterized traditional art. As a result, the pictures tend to be very bright and vibrant. Some notable impressionists include Monet, Degas, and Manet.


The term Post-Impressionism was coined by the English art critic Roger Fry to refer to the work of 19th-century painters like Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin, van Gogh, and de Toulouse-Lautrec. The key features of the movement include symbolic and highly personal meanings, a reliance on the interrelations of color and shape to describe the world, and a focus on abstract form and pattern in the application of paint to the surface of the canvas.


Cubism, a revolutionary new approach to representing reality, brought various perspectives of subjects (typically objects or figures) together in one picture. As a consequence, the paintings appear fragmented and abstracted. The style underscored the two-dimensional flatness of the canvas instead of creating the illusion of depth. Picasso and Braque are credited as the founders of this movement.