The 19th century was a time of remarkable change in the world of art. At its start, the grand, cleanly executed canvases of the French Academy dominated Western art. However, as the century came to a close, modernism had taken hold, and the expressive swirls and dots of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were all the rage. Seemingly shifting from one extreme to another, Western artists of the 19th century evolved their style more rapidly than at any previous point in art history to reflect the societal attitudes and issues of their own time and place. Here, we will explore these history-altering shifts that propelled the evolution of the Western art style in the 19th century.
Neoclassicism and the IdealAt the turn of the 19th century, Neoclassicism was the prevailing trend in art. The last quarter of the 18th century had seen a renewed interest in classical antiquity, an interest that manifested itself in the fine and decorative arts of the age, which incorporated the subject matter and styles of ancient Greek and Roman art. This focus was partly fueled by the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement grounded in rationality. Classical cultures found favor with Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, who considered them the height of civilized, democratic society. In turn, Neoclassical art became popular during the revolutions in America, with an influence on American art culture, and France of the late 18th century, with an influence on French art styles.
A highly polished style marked neoclassicism, usually depicting mythological or historical themes. An artist working in this style was preoccupied with mastering their technique and creating idealized figures and grand settings on canvas. They believed practical experience and observation, rather than abstract thought, were essential to understanding their subjects. Training within the rigid academic system, whether at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in France or the Royal Academy of England, was the gold standard within the movement. These institutions’ highly structured teaching methods were based on a foundation of drawing from ancient Greek mythology sculptures and Old Master paintings and then from life with nude models.
Romanticism and the Art of Expression
Early in the 19th century, some European artists began to move away from the structured confines of Neoclassicism and instead chose to infuse their canvases with passion, feeling, and high visual drama. This intense expression lent itself well to a variety of subjects and themes, making Romanticism somewhat difficult to define as an art movement. Still, it had little to do with love or personal relationships and more to do with man’s relationship with nature or society.
This movement took one of its fundamental premises from the great philosopher and author of Social Contract, who famously wrote, “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains!” The Romantics focused on individualism and imagination, emphasizing heightened emotion and nature. These new ideals directly opposed the notions of Rationalism and Neoclassicism that pervaded French society during the Enlightenment. Although Romanticism as a way of thinking began in the late 18th century, Romantic art flourished from about 1800-1850.
The Abduction of the Sabine Women by Jean-François Millet, circa 1844-47. Millet’s early works, such as this, display his early training in the Romantic style — his use of broad, gestural brushstrokes evoke the scene's emotion.
Romantic artists released their own imaginations to convey subjective emotion rather than objective nature and depict images of the sublime and the exotic on canvas. This displayed a key shift from the traditional Academic style that had prevailed in France for decades. Instead of depicting historical scenes imbued with idealized and neoclassical elements, canvases now depicted emotional, tragic, and highly dramatic subject matter. They also successfully represented a brief moment in time — scenes that did not feel posed or planned, unlike in neoclassical art.
Le Gué aux Cinq Vaches by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Circa 1865. A significant example from the Barbizon School, this oil by Corot represents a realist rendering of the French landscape.
Realism and the Birth of Modernism
The second half of the 19th century saw an entirely new approach to painting emerge: Realism. Many scholars consider realism to be the first modernist art movement. As the name would suggest, Realism was marked by a more realistic approach in both subject matter and style, with artists documenting the world as they saw it. Its proponents sought to create visual art that was more objective than the idealized forms of Neoclassical art or the exotic themes of Romanticism.
The movement’s beginnings can be seen in the work of the Barbizon School of painters in France. The Barbizon School artists, wanting to escape urban centers and rediscover authentic nature, specialized in detailed paintings of the forest and countryside. Notable French Realism artists included Theodore Rousseau and Camille Corot, who settled in the remote village of Barbizon to be closer to their rural subjects and often painted en plein air to form a closer connection with their works of visual art and the natural landscape. One of the founders of the Barbizon school, Jean-François Millet, would become a pioneer of the Realist movement.
The Sower by Vincent van Gogh, 1881. This early work by van Gogh reflects the profound influence of Realism and Jean-François Millet. It closely resemble Millet’s important work, also entitled The Sower, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The Sower by Jean-François Millet, 1850 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Realism grew out of the aftermath of the 1848 French Revolution, which overthrew King Louis-Philippe due to a desire for democratic reform. As a result, artists produced art that sought to convey a truthful, objective view of contemporary French life. These artists rejected the idealized, overly dramatic themes of French Romanticism in favor of more everyday subjects. The common Realist painter endeavored to capture in the grittiest of detail everyday life and the working class, elevating the working class into the realm of high contemporary art. They held the strong conviction that everyday life was an acceptable, if not extraordinary, subject for art, inspiring future modernist painters like Vincent van Gogh, Salvador Dali, and Pablo Picasso.
Impressionism has had a long-lasting impact on the art world and has proved to be one of the most recognizable and best-loved artistic movements in art history. In the 1860s, some artists, like Edouard Manet, began experimenting with a new painting style involving faster, looser brushwork, heavier paint application, and flattened compositions, a marked departure from traditional Academic ideals. At the time, the French Academy, the Salon, and critics of the day still preferred the cleaner, more detailed neoclassical or romantic approaches to painting, and they shunned the new art style.
Impressionism made its official debut in 1874 when several artists, weary of being rejected for participation in the Salon year after year for not working in the Academy’s approved style, launched their own exhibition. These artists included Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and others, all showcasing their trademark loose, spontaneous brushstrokes. The exhibition scandalized the Parisian art market, and the works were criticized for lack of finish.
Au bord de la rivière by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Circa 1896. Renoir’s landscapes represent some of the Impressionists most audacious experimentations in light and color.
In many ways, the style grew out of Realism in the sense that both chose to capture everyday life and the natural world as they saw it. The French Impressionists took their interest in contemporary art and life a step further, depicting aspects of social life and ordinary domestic scenes. The Industrial Revolution had redefined society, giving the emerging middle class more time for leisurely activities. The Impressionists captured their subjects enjoying cafes, parks, and the grand avenues of Paris. They also differed from the Realists in their technique. The Realists imparted far more detail into their canvases. At the same time, the Impressionists focused instead on capturing the fleeting aspects of their surroundings, especially variations in light, with some artists painting the same scene over and over en plein air in different light conditions. The results were artworks purely of their time and place.
Post-Impressionism and Looking Towards the 20th Century
Remarkably, within a few short decades, Impressionism had become an accepted and quite popular painting style, even becoming commonplace at the Salon in the 1890s. But art continued to evolve and splinter rapidly, and a variety of avant-garde Post-Impressionist styles were born. It is important to remember that Post-Impressionism included numerous smaller factions, such as Pointillism, Symbolism, and Neo-Impressionism — all with their own unique practices and aesthetics.
Many Post-Impressionists went a step further than their Impressionist predecessors, seeking to create conceptual art that provided an emotional experience on canvas rather than mere optical occurrences and objective depictions of modern life. This type of artist attempted to compose deeper, symbolic compositions, often through simplified forms and a vivid color palette. They pushed the boundaries of painting further than ever before, with broad swathes of solid color, flattened planes, geometric forms, and intentional distortion, providing an expressive, inspiring jumping-off point for the next century.
Explore M.S. Rau’s entire collection of fine 19th-century artworks here.