Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Modern art

core definition

Modern art refers to Western European and North American art that began in the middle of the 19th century when painters turned away from the traditional concept of 'history' painting that had dominated European art since the Renaissance.

explanatory context

Courbet, among others, argued that art should deal with the real everday natural and social world of common human experience.


Arguably, modern art is concerned with ways of representing reality and is obsessed by the form of that representation as much as its content. This is evident in Cubism.


Modern art is not to be confused with modernism.

analytical review

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines positivism as:

What is Modern Art?

Not to be confused with contemporary art, the "modern art" label refers to late 19th and early-to-mid 20th century art. Works produced during this time showcase artists' interest in re-imagining, reinterpreting, and even rejecting traditional aesthetic values of preceding styles.

History: Major Movements and Artists

Starting with light and airy Impressionism and ending with energetic Abstract Expressionism, the modern art genre is composed of several major movements.


Widely considered the catalyst for modern art, Impressionism challenged the rigid rules and realistic depictions of academic painting. The movement emerged in 1872, when Claude Monet innovatively employed blurred brushstrokes, a focus on light, and a vivid color palette to paint Impression, Sunrise. 

This style dominated French painting until the turn of the century, with artists like Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas at the forefront.


Inspired by the artistic freedom introduced by the Impressionists, artists like Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec began working in distinctive, unconventional styles. Known as Post-Impressionism, this colorful movement started in the 1890s and showcases an interest in emotion and a preference for subjective interpretation over realistic representation.


Founded by les Fauves—an avant-garde group of artists including André Derain and Henri Matisse—Fauvism first appeared in the early 20th century. Like the Post-Impressionists, Fauvists favored unrealistic tones and an emphasis on individual perceptions in their depictions, which typically featured recognizable (yet somewhat abstracted) forms.


Shortly before World War I, painters in Germany and Austria began to take an experimental approach to their practice. Eventually known as Expressionists, these artists adopted and adapted the unprecedented characteristics of other modern movements. Like Post-Impressionist and Fauvist works of art, pieces rendered in the Expressionist style convey a fascination with bright, artificial color and individualistic iconography.


Characterized by deconstructed, fractured forms, Cubism marked modern art's shift toward abstraction. Pioneered in 1907 by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, the avant-garde movement materialized as topsy-turvy paintings, multi-dimensional sculptures, and cutting-edge collages. Like other modern art movements, Cubism emphasized a subjective approach to creating. "When we discovered Cubism," Picasso explains, "we did not have the aim of discovering Cubism. We only wanted to express what was in us."


In the 1920s, visual artists Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Joan Miró, and Yves Tanguy came together to found Surrealism, a movement rooted in the subconscious. Lacking "any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern" (André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism), the genre culminated in a diverse collection of dream-like depictions straight from the artists' imaginations.


In the middle of the 20th century, an innovative group of artists forewent figurative styles of painting for an original, abstract aesthetic. Known as Abstract Expressionists, these painters placed artistic emphasis not only on modernist characteristics like color, composition, and emotion, but on the creative process itself.






associated issues


related areas

See also


art history

art criticism


Richman-Abdou, K., 2017, What is Modern Art? Exploring the movements that define the groundbreaking genre, My Modern Met website, 4 November 2017, available at, accessed 10 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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