A Fast and Furious Guide to Major Historical Art Movements

Las Meninas

Brush up on your art history knowledge with Lofty’s guide to the most notable art movements. With this cheat-sheet, you’ll be an expert in no time.


Stone Age – 30,000 to 2,500 BC

00_01 Image: Cave paintings at Lascaux, Source: Lascaux


Stone Age or Prehistoric art can be divided into three periods – Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic. Artists used rock and color pigments to create sculpture and cave paintings to record history and speak to their daily life. During this period, imagery was mostly related to weather, fertility, and agriculture, among other subjects. Some of the patterns and markings found in Prehistoric art inspired the later Abstract Expressionism movement.

Famous works include the cave paintings at Lascaux in France, the Venus of Willendorf, and the rock sculptures or megaliths at Stonehenge in England.


Mesopotamian – 3,500 to 539 BC

standard Image: Standard of Ur in Peace, Source: Penn Museum


There are many ancient cultures that contributed to this movement of art. It was an era of great advances to civilization – the Sumerians invented the written word, Bablyon’s Hammurabi wrote his famous code, and urban structure and design as we know it was first created. The warrior figure, in particular, became an important subject in art, symbolizing strength and fertility.

Notable works include the Sumerians Standard of Ur from 2600 BC and the Babylonian Ishtar Gate of 575 BC.


Egyptian, 3,100 to 30 BC

070610_leadimage Image: Scene from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer Egypt, c. 1280 BC, Source: The British Museum


Egyptian civilization was deeply concerned with the afterlife, making grand preparations for the final rest of its rulers and people. Much of Egyptian art reflects this subject matter and attention to the gods through tomb paintings and carvings in various pyramids.

Wealthy Egyptians would bury themselves with the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a detailed and illustrative guide to navigating the underworld through magical spells and maps. One edition from 16th century BC is seventeen feet long and currently stored at The British Museum. It remains one of the best preserved examples of Egyptian at along with the Bust of Nefertiti and King Tut’s Golden Death Mask, both from 14th century BC.


Greek and Hellenistic, 850 to 31 BC

800px-Pergamonmuseum_-_Antikensammlung_-_Pergamonaltar_13 Image: Part of the Gigantomachy frieze of the Pegamon Altar, Gaia pleads with Athena to spare her sons, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Ancient Greek and Hellenistic art concerned itself with what it saw as true aesthetics – balanced proportions, idealist forms and figures, and classical architecture. The death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC effectively started the Hellenistic period, which produced art diverse in subject matter due to the cultural influence of conquered nations such as Persia and Egypt. Most Greek and Hellenistic work was deeply rooted in historical subject.

Notable works from this era include the Pergamon altar (c. 180 to 160 BC) with its passionate and dramatic sculpture and the golden mask of Agamemnon from 1550 to 1500 BC.


Roman, 500 BC to 476 AD

arch_severus_sw_frieze_b Image: “Frieze B” from the Arch of Septimius Severus, Source: Livius.org


In contrast to ancient Greek art, Roman art simplified much of the decorative detail, opting for less embellishment and idealism. The forms in sculpture and painting were considered to be more realistic than their Greek cousins. In architecture, the arch became an identifiable structural element in residential and public spaces. Ancient Rome was one of the largest empires ever to have existed and the ensuing influence is still felt in contemporary art and architecture.

Much lauded Roman works include the Coliseum in Rome, the Arch of Septimius Severus, and the fresco wall from the house of Livia.


Medieval and Byzantine, 476 to 1453 AD

mosaic Image: Apse Mosaic, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Byzantine art is well rooted in religious iconography. It was a teaching tool of church theology and translated by artists into public and religious architecture. Art during the middle ages is best recognized by major architectural styles, including Romanesque and Gothic, but there were also plenty of incredible illustrative and embellished manuscripts and mosaics created during the time period.

Notable works include the church of Hagia Sofia in modern-day Istanbul and the biblical art of the monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai. The Italian city of Ravenna boasts some of the best preserved Byzantine mosaics.


Renaissance – c. 1300 – 1600

Creación_de_Adán_(Miguel_Ángel) Image: Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, c. 1512, Source: Wikimedia Commons


First gaining speed as a movement in Italy before finding a stronghold in Northern Europe, Renaissance art was an era of rebirth of classical culture and education long-buried during the Middle Ages. New techniques such as linear perspective, sfumato, and chiaroscuro were used by artists to advance the portrayal of classical figures and landscapes.

Italy churned out an array of all-star artists during this movement including Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is still a go-to destination for observing the best of Renaissance painting. Not to be outdone by their southern neighbors, the Dutch also produced many admirable works during this era, including Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait of 1434 and Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring of 1665.


Baroque – 1600 to 1750 AD

judith-beheading-holofernes-1598 Image: Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1599, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Religious ecstasy. That’s one way to describe how the Baroque wanted to express the glory of God and the complete grandeur that such an idea implied. The style was a mix of classic and realist forms accentuated by dramatic color and light. Churches were ornate, paintings were sensual – the Baroque was all in pursuit of heavenly aspirations.

Famous works from the period include Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes of 1599 and Lorenzo Bernin’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa sculpture of 1652 as well as the infamous Palace of Versailles.


Neoclassical – 1750 to 1850 AD

DT40 Image: Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787, Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art


Neoclassical art lived through the age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. It looked back to the Greco-Roman style of its ancestors and re-welcomed classical form and subject. Figurative work spoke to an idealized beauty.

Famous works include Jacques Louis David’s The Death of Socrates of 1787 and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ Grand Odalisque of 1814.


Romanticism – 1780 to 1850 AD

1280px-El_Tres_de_Mayo,_by_Francisco_de_Goya,_from_Prado_thin_black_margin Image: Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808, 1814, Source: Wikimedia Commons


As opposed to Neoclassicism, Romantic art threw caution to the wind and focused on the imaginative and the individual as opposed to the ideal. Much of the artwork was inspired by the era’s spirit of revolution, notably the American Revolution and the French Revolution.

Great examples of Romantic art include Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 from 1814 and Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People from 1830.


Realism – 1848 to 1900 AD

Rowland4 Image: Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers, 1850, Source: Mass MoCA


Following the revolutionary spirit of the 1800s, Realist art wasn’t interested in frivolity and excess. The subject matter turned to working class subjects, illustrating the interest in rendering true to life stories and scenes en plein air (outdoor painting from real life versus historical reference).

Notable works of this movement include Gustave Courbet’s The Stonebreakers of 1850 and Edouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe of 1863.


Impressionism – 1865 to 1885 AD

Claude_Monet,_Impression,_soleil_levant Image: Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Light and movement. For this style, those are the key terms to describe the speed and concern with natural light, which the Impressionists were most interested in conveying through landscapes and city scenes. Art critics of the era were up in arms about the “sloppy” style of the Impressionists. Now one of the most recognizable art movements, it seems like the joke’s on them.

Famous works of this movement include Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise of 1872 as well as Edgar Degas’s The Star of 1878 and Auguste Renoir’s Dance at Bougival of 1883.


Post-Impressionism – 1885 to 1910 AD

1280px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project Image: Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Towards the end of the Impressionism, artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cézanne adopted some of the movement’s principles, particularly with regards to the treatment of light and color. Post-Impressionism, however, was less about art showing a snapshot of the world and more about art as a window into the artist’s psyche. Figures and landscapes were still recognizable, bust not necessarily realistic.

Good example of Post-Impressionism include Van Gogh’s The Starry Night of 1889 and Cézanne’s The Bathers of 1905.


Fauvism and Expressionism – 1900 to 1935 AD

_59620534_jex_1376668_de27-1 (1) Image: Detail of Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, Source: BBC


The interest in emotion, as opposed to realism, continued in the styles of Fauvism and Expressionism, two movements that went hand in hand during the start of the 20th century. Both styles emphasized the use of bold, flat colors to portray psyche and emotion. Fauvism only lasted for a few years, but evolved into Expressionism, first in Germany.

Notable works from these two styles include Henri Matisse’s Portrait of Madame Matisse from 1906, a Fauvist painting, and Edvard Munch’s Expressionist masterpiece The Scream from 1893.


Cubism, Futurism, Supremativism, Constructivism – 1905 to 1920 AD

Les_Demoiselles_d'Avignon Image: Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1906, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Each of these styles look at form and figure as puzzle pieces to reshape, reconfigure and rebuild into new and surprising compositions that commented on scenes from modern life. All of the movements occurred during the same time period, sharing ideas and techniques, but originated in different countries. Cubism – France, Futurism – Italy, Supremativism and Constructivism – Russia.

Ah, Pablo Picasso. You knew he’d be in here somewhere. Looking at the breadth of his work, it’s obvious that he was well skilled in a variety of styles and materials, but he produced some of his most recognizable work during this period. Check out his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1906 – the forms and compositional techniques are Cubist, but influential to the works concurrently being produced by Wassily Kandinsky, Vladimir Tatlin, and Gino Severini.


Dada and Surrealism – 1917 to 1950 AD

Celebes 1921 Max Ernst 1891-1976 Purchased 1975 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01988 Image: Max Ernst, Celebes, 1921, Source: Max-Ernst.com


Certain themes and ideals of Dadaism grew into the closely linked Surrealist movement. Both share many similarities of art based on dream and illusion, exploring the psyche. Each occurred in different cultural contexts – simply put, Dada occurred during World War I as an anti-war movement, a rejection of the rational life that wartime called for. Surrealism arrived post-war, based on the principles of Dada, but exploring further the metaphysical nature of artwork with a heightened sense of perspective and trompe l’oeil.

Max Ernst was one of the most recognizable figures of both movements. His ability to incorporate nuances of both styles is evident in such works as Celebes of 1921.


Abstract Expressionism -1940s to 1950s AD

autumn Image: Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950, Source: Museum of Modern Art


After the turmoil and destruction of World War II, Abstract Expressionism arose from artists wishing to reject representational forms of the past. It was the first American art movement to gain an international following. It emphasized spontaneity, expressive brushstroke, and creating art from the subconscious versus careful study and representation.

Notable figures in this movement were Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Barnett Newman, and Helen Frankenthaler. Mark Rothko’s No. 61 (Rust and Blue) of 1953 is an excellent example of how color and technique convey emotion without form.


Pop Art – 1950s and 60s AD

Warhol, Andy Image: Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962, Source: Museum of Modern Art


Pop Art was popularized first by British artists before finding eager followers in the US and Eastern Europe. The movement commented on the consumerist culture emerging from mass production and criticized elitist art styles. Subject matter was taken from “popular” imagery with mass appeal – a direct contrast from the more theoretical art of Abstract Expressionism.

Who can talk about Pop Art without mentioning Andy Warhol’s soup cans or Roy Lichtenstein’s comic strip paintings? Both series of works embody the notion of mass consumerism and popular appeal.


Minimalism – 1960s AD

sol-lewitt-wall-drawing-11361 Image: Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing 1136, Source: Public Delivery


Minimalism was just what it sounds like – an art movement of minimalist forms, mainly geometric and at a large-scale. It excluded decorative, pictorial, and figurative forms in favor of literal and neutral representation. The art was not about self-expression, but an exploration of scale, materiality, and objective interpretation of form and space.

Famous minimalist works include Frank Stella’s Black Paintings of 1959 and Sol LeWitt’s large-scale wall drawings, which are featured in some of the world’s most renowned art museums and collections.


Postmodernism and Deconstructivism – 1970 to present

83 Image: Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild, 1994, Source: Gerhard-Richter.com


Art produced in these movements rejects the notion of expected pattern, classical architecture, and idealist figures. Instead, the compositions combine – without rules – styles from the past, borrowing aspects from many art movements in order to create a new vision of contemporary art.

Cindy Sherman, Frank Gehry, and Gerhard Richter are but a few proponents of this movement.


Featured Image: Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656 (detail), Photograph: The Gallery Collection/Corbis via The Guardian