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Most Important Art Movements

Taking a look at the most important art movements of our past, their historical contexts, defining characteristics and famous examples!


Approximate start and end dates of the different art movements.

most important art movements timeline

Art is all around us. Not only in museums and exhibits but we truly are surrounded by art everywhere – while taking a stroll through a city we may come across mesmerizing façades, breathtaking sculptures, luscious gardens, or majestic fountains; while watching a movie we may be presented with sublime shots, captivating stories, and outstanding performances; even while visiting a friend’s house we may come across our favourite book or a painting or two.

Of course art is a completely subjective experience and every person’s interests are legitimate. Yet, if you’re here, hopefully, you find art and painting interesting and want to learn more about it – and that’s great! In this article we will be focusing on our selection of the most famous art movements in our history (focusing mainly on the painting) because exploring and understanding art enriches us, broadens our horizons, develops our aesthetic sensibilities, helps us reflect and introspect on multiple levels and allows us to interact and engage with the world in a more meaningful way.

But enough of this – let’s jump into it!


Click on the paintings below!

Romanesque art emerged around 1000 A.D. during the development and rise of Christianity in Europe. Building on this religious fervour, and since wealth and prosperity were spreading across Europe, the Church sought alternative ways to appeal to the population on a deeper level, since scriptures had a limited effect due to the exorbitant illiteracy rates – only a small percentage of the population was able to read, so most people were dependent on priests or ministers to access Christian teachings. Thus, the Romanesque art movement arose.
This art movement was profoundly religious – it took form in paintings, mosaics, book paintings, or wall paintings which usually depicted religious scenes, intended to teach the masses about the values and ideals of the Christian church and spreading the word of the bible. Its religious nature also granted it a deeply symbolic essence. The size of the figures depicted in Romanesque paintings was proportional to their importance; backgrounds are usually abstract and rarely depict natural scenes or depth of perspective; colors are primary and very vivid and contours are demarcatedly bold.
It is thus fair to conclude that Romanesque art had one clear objective – to teach the population about the Christian church. Paintings had a clear religious nature and were made to represent a given scene as clearly as possible, removing any distractions or intrusion that may hinder the final goal.
During this era, the individual painter was not given the same importance as in subsequent art movements since the focus was still largely on religion rather than the individual, so there aren’t many well-known names from this era. Nonetheless, the most prominent Romanesque painters include Berlinghiero Berlinghieri, Master of Pedret and Master Hugo.


Renaissance – the great cultural rebirth. Undoubtedly one of the most famous art movements. Emerging in the 14th century, it represents the revival of Classical art and wisdom from Rome and Greece and conveyed profound changes in the mentalities and ideals of the population.
During a period in which religion was the central social element, dictating most of people’s lives, Europe was ravaged by a calamity known as the Black Plague. Once it subsided, after taking the lives of 75 to 200 million people, the individual began taking a more central role in society. Life and all the beauty and culture it encompasses started to be appreciated to a much greater extent – and the Renaissance represents exactly this greater appreciation of beauty and culture. Renaissance art reflects a larger awareness of nature and a deeper appreciation of the individual, carried out through realism and three-dimensionallism. Paintings saw a shift from the tempera to the oil painting medium and the emergence of perspective. Painters from this era explored different representations of light, shadow, or even human anatomy. Nature and human aesthetics were the primary motto.
It is not a difficult feat to list Renaissance painters. Names like Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Raphael, Botticelli, Bosch, or Tintoretto echo throughout the world, their works nearing eternity.

Click on the paintings below!


Click on the paintings below!

The Mannerist art movement stemmed directly from the Renaissance period, but instead of focusing on body anatomy and idealized naturalism, artists developed their own artistic style, taking it one step further from the previous period. Its origins have been said to lay in the then perceived inability of the apprentices of some Renaissance artists to follow the footsteps of their masters. Presumably destined for failure or plagiarism, they dropped the idyllic classicism and realism and began developing their own style, their own manner.
Mannerism is often characterized by exaggeration and artificiality – figures are frequently depicted in unnatural and artificial poses, their faces showing strong emotions, their limbs elongated. The three-dimensionalism and focus on the background from the previous movement waned. Paintings are characterized by deep contrasts, both in terms of strong, unnatural colours as well as in terms of space and scale or even materials and motifs. Thus, paintings often portray constricting spaces with abrupt color contrasts, writhing and artificial bodies, and irregular size scales.
There are painters solely associated with Mannerism, but also plenty of others who have art associated with other movements, mostly Renaissance. The most famous ones include Tintoretto, Parmigianino, El Greco, Raphael and Caravaggio.


The 16th century in Europe was marked by profound religious transformation – in 1517, a German priest called Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five thesis on the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, laying the foundation for the Protestant Reformation which quickly gained massive support. The Catholic church needed to find ways to rival with this emerging religious sect and one of the ways was through art – it endorsed an art movement known as Baroque. Countering the simplicity and seriousness of the Protestant experience, the Baroque was characterized by extravagant aesthetics, vivid colours, emotional intensity, grandeur, and theatricality. It was used by the Catholic church as a way to associate itself with a feeling of grandiosity, wealth, prosperity, or even salvation and instill it in everyone who came across a Baroque piece.
In painting, more specifically, the Baroque is set apart by its display of exaggerated expressions, emotions, and lighting as well as a sense of movement and dramatism. Due to its connection with Catholicism, the motifs in this art movement at times revolved around religion and divinity.
Its most famous proponents include Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Rubens, Gentileschi, Velázquez, El Greco, and Vermeer.

Click on the paintings below!


Click on the paintings below!

The Rococo emerged in Europe as a response to the Baroque movement (most prevalently in France – rococo derives from the French rocaille, meaning “shellwork”), although it can also be seen as a final expression of this movement, hence is sometimes referred to as Late Baroque.
It deviated from the grandiousness, extravagance, and intensity of the Baroque, and instead favoured light motifs, delicate colours, and embellished ornamentation (although it kept some of the theatricality and dramatism) – it placed its main focus on elegance, beauty, and charm. Paintings are often asymmetrical, with flowery surroundings, commonly feature warm colours and frequently depict scenes of leisure, romance, or everyday life. All these aspects make the Rococo movement instill light, lively, and playful feelings in the observer.
Fragonard, Watteau, Boucher, and Tiepolo are examples of the most renowned Rococo painters.


Now, onto one of the least appreciated art movements of its time – Impressionism. This art movement and its painters suffered harsh criticisms and stoic resistance, mainly coming from the most conservative painters of the time – Impressionism broke with academic conventions due to its free, loose, and vibrant brushwork, unconventional subject matter, an unusual set of colours or even because Impressionist painters, to capture the fleeting impressions of nature, began painting outdoors, straying away from the enduring habit of paintings in studios.
Impressionism aimed at capturing fleeting moments or precise instants and their transitory nature rather than accurate details or polished renderings (another feature that caused reproval of the movement by the conservative art establishment). To achieve this, painters used short and loose brushstrokes, very often visible, as well as bright and vivid colours to instill a sense of vibrancy and movement in the paintings. The motifs also contrasted with previous art movements – Impressionism portrayed scenes of everyday life just as we see them (such as domestic life, leisure activities, and countryside settings), instead of highly theatrical or extravagant depictions. Impressionism is also associated with the technique of Pointillism, in which the painting is formed by small dots of colour (see A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, in this subsection).
This art movement would only be appreciated many years after its emergence, but eventually became one of the most well-known and influential art movements, not only in France where it emerged but worldwide. Its challenging of the status quo and perseverance through hardship inspired many and even paved the way for other art movements, such as Post-Impressionism or Fauvism. Its most prominent painters include Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, Cassat, Seurat, and Degas.

Click on the paintings below!


Click on the paintings below!

The Surrealist art movement emerged in the aftermath of the World War I and, similarly to Impressionism, it challenged the rationalistic nature of traditional art movements. It aimed at defying reason, revolutionizing the experience of interacting with art as well as achieving full freedom to explore one’s artistic imagination. In the world of painting, it explored the realms of dreams and the subconscious. It challenged traditional notions of reality by depicting bizarre, unnatural, or fantastic scenes and imagery, devoid of any type of rational framework. Unlike other artistic movements, Surrealism also frequently carried with it political and social commentaries.
Artistically speaking, this movement did not bring a huge revolution to the art world in terms of colours, shadows, painting mediums, or places in which painters worked the canvas. Instead, its main divergence from traditional artistic movements lied in its motifs and their representation. Surrealist paintings often portrayed unexpected juxtaposition of elements or abnormal depictions of mundane items. Spatial and temporal lines are frequently disrupted, and proportions and perspectives are distorted. As a way to access the subconscious and trigger psychological responses, Surrealist painters employed techniques like decalcomania (pressing paint between surfaces) and frottage (rubbing graphite over wood or other grained substances to create texture), originating unpredictable and novel patterns and textures. Although irrational, paintings very often carried underlying meanings on topics that ranged from desire and sexuality to the human mind or political critiques.
Of all Surrealist painters, some of the most famous are Dalí, Miró, Magritte, Ernst, and Breton.

Congratulations, you just went through around 900 years of art history! Wasn’t boring, was it?
So, the next time you’re looking at a painting, whatever or wherever it is, you can now try to frame it within a specific art movement, it’s a fun exercise! And even if you don’t find correlations with any of the famous ones, you can always try to dig deeper, analyzing the techniques, perspective, symmetry, motifs, contrasts, or colours used, and ponder why the author chose them, what was he or she trying to convey? What is the historical context of the painting or the beliefs and ideals of the painter? Can I find out what was the painters’ mindset when the painting was created?
Answering these questions can lead to fascinating discoveries and allows us to more meaningfully interact with the world around us!


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