9 Major Art Painting Styles: An Introduction

6/3/2020

Since the beginning of civilisation, human and art have never parted ways. Over the millennia, the world has seen a plethora of beautiful art movements led by great artists. Now in the 21st century, we can appreciate different styles of art, painting in particular, ranging from Western to Eastern style. Here are some of the major art painting styles throughout history.

Realism

Realism as an art movement firstly emerged in France in the 1840s circa the infamous 1848 Revolution. It was a direct response to Romanticism, which was dominating Europe in the early 19th century. As an art painting style, rather than the scrupulous attention to visual appearances, Realism is defined by the choice and treatment of the subject matter. It is an attempt to visually represent the subject and all its mundane merits.

Farmers of Flagey on the Return From the Market (1850) by Gustave Courbet | Source: bestarts.org 

Realism is a departure from any artistic approaches that make the painting look artificial. It uses perspective to create a visual illusion of space and depth in such a way to make the subject appears real. Likewise, subjects in Realist paintings are mostly ordinary folks engaging daily activities in a non-dramatic surrounding. The style could be vividly seen in the works of Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier, Jean-François Millet, and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.

Painterly

The Painterly style appeared in Europe in the end of the 19th century as the Industrial Revolution swept the continent. The art painting style emphasises on the character of the brushwork and pigments. Painterly artists don’t try to disguise what they use to create the painting by smoothing out the texture or marks left by brushes or any other tool in the paint. The works of Henri Matisse and Eugenie Baizerman are some of the great examples of the style.

Matisse's Vase of Sunflowers (1898) | Source: hermitagemuseum.org

Impressionism

When art critic Louis Leroy wrote the article The Exhibition of the Impressionist as a satirical review on Claude Monet’s Impression, soleil levant (1872) for Parisian newspaper Le Charivari, he didn’t realise he was subsequently naming an art movement—a radical one, that is. Monet’s oil on canvas work involves the proclivity towards freely brushed colours over lines and contours, which Leroy rendered as “a sketch at most”.

Monet's Impression, soleil levant (1872) | Source: wikimedia.org 

The technique, deemed radical in the era, was a pastiche of the works of Romantic painters J. M. W. Turner and Eugène Delacroix, notably Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire (1839), which was influential on the onset of the style. Impressionism is also an antithesis of academic style, where still life and portraits including landscapes were oftentimes painted in a studio.

With Impressionism, artists worked en plein air, whereby they captured the transient and momentary effects of sunlight by painting outdoors. Impressionists tried to portray overall visual effects rather than details. To achieve an intense colour vibration effect, they used short “choppy” brush works of mixed and pure unblended colours.

Fauvism

Just like Impressionism, the Fauvism term was coincidentally coined by art critic to depict a painting in a rather derogatory way. It was Louis Vauxcelles who first expressed the remark after he saw shockingly bold and bright paintings hemming in a Renaissance artwork in Parisian Salon d’Automne in 1905, to which he sarcastically commented, “Donatello au milieu des fauves!”.

Matisse's The Dessert: Harmony in Red (1908) | Source: henrimatisse.org

The art painting style is associated particularly with Henri Matisse as its leading figure. The Fauves believed that colours and physical reality should be detached from one another. They wished to freely incorporate colours regardless of their descriptive qualities as a form of artistic freedom. To the Fauves, colours should express the artists’ feelings, hence the experiment to use intense colour, particularly red, rejecting the soft portrayal of colours in Impressionist artworks. Concurrently, they redefined the traditional purpose of colour as it became a dominant force in their paintings, in which they also simplify shapes into two-dimensionality.

However, the Fauvism movement was not exactly organised, so it didn’t age very well. Fauvism finally disintegrated by the year 1908.

Expressionism

An art painting style meant to express emotions, Expressionism and Fauvism are somewhat similar. But unlike Fauvism, Expressionism didn’t focus on colours, which Fauvism is known to emphasise on the unrealistic use of.

The hyperbolical flow of human emotions, distortion and pleonastic portrayal of places, people and objects, vague forms and shapes; these are the distinguishing characteristics of Expressionism. One of the best examples is the widely popular The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch. Originally titled Der Schrei der Natur, the painting was his way to convey the grotesque and horror in daily life with hyper-stylised brush strokes and horrific illustration.

Munch's The Scream (1893) | Source: artsy.net

Cubism

Cubism as an artistic movement pioneered in 1907 by artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, later joined by the likes of Albert Gleizes, Henry Le Fauconnier, and Fernand Léger. The work that profoundly influenced Cubism was that of Paul Cézanne. Cubist artists analysed, broke up and then reassembled objects in an abstracted shape. As an art painting style, Cubism is a visual language in which geometric planes challenged the conventional representation of objects in a multitude of viewpoints as opposed to a single perspective to represent the object in a greater context. Cubist artists reinvented traditional subjects such as landscapes and nudes as fragmented two-dimensional compositions, as Cézanne once said, “everything in nature takes its form from the cylinder, the cone, or the sphere.”

Picasso's Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier) (1910) | Source: moma.org

Abstract Style

Abstract art is not an art painting style on its own, as it is embodied in multiple styles where accurate depiction of visual reality is not the purpose. An abstract art can be a total or partial abstraction. Geometric and lyrical abstraction style are usually total abstraction, which is almost mutually exclusive with figurative art style found in Realism, Renaissance, Mannerism, and the Baroque. Nevertheless, figurative art, or representational art, often incorporate partial abstraction, as shown in the untitled landscape by Jay Meuser, which reflects the Abstract Expressionism.

Piet Mondrian's Tableau No. 2/Composition No. VII (1913) | Source: guggenheim.org

Abstract Expressionism itself is a new form of abstract art introduced by American painters such as Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning , and Jackson Pollock post-World War II, while “pure” abstract painting was pioneered by Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian circa 1910-20. Abstract Expressionism, characterised by mark mark-making and the sense of spontaneity, was further divided into two groups: Action painting and colour field painting. Action painting, led by Pollock and De Kooning, involves the impromptu application of vigorous, sweeping strokes of the brush and the impression of spilling paint onto the canvas. Rothko, as well as Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, led the colour field painting style that is characterised by broad areas of a single or more, flat colour.

Pollock's The Deep (1953) | Source: artpaintingartists.org
Rothko's No. 3/No. 13 (1949) | Source: moma.org

Surrealism

As an artistic movement, Surrealism began flourishing in Europe in the aftermath of World War I. Founded in 1924 by the Parisian poet André Breton, it was highly influenced by Dadaism. It aimed to liberate thought, language, and human experience beyond boundaries of reality and rationalism.

Surrealist artists painted illogical juxtapositions of images in daunting scenes, creating bizarre and perplexing creatures from everyday objects. The unconscious minds and dreams are greatly valued and favoured in Surrealism. After all, the definition of Surrealism, as Breton once declared in his Surrealist Manifesto, is “dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation”.

The Tilled Field (1923-4) by Joan Miró | Source: guggenheim.org

Chinese Painting

One of the most significant Eastern art painting style is probably the traditional Chinese painting. It was so significant to the point it had notable influences on Western art painting styles as well as Japanese painting and, to an extent, Korean painting.

There are two styles in Chinese painting: Gongbi (工筆) and Xieyi (寫意). Gongbi, meaning “meticulous”, features the use of rich colours and details involving detailed brushstrokes that curtail details very precisely and mostly depicts portraits or narratives. Xieyi, or freehand style, often contains embellished and unreal forms, emphasising the artist’s emotional expression and is mainly used in landscapes painting, which until now is still deemed as the highest form of Chinese painting.

Golden Pheasant and Cotton Rose Flowers (11th century) by Emperor Huizong, in Gongbi style | Source: wikiart.org
Clearing after Snow at the Han Pass by Tang Yin, in Xieyi style | Source: comuseum.com 

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