Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Late 19th-Century Art

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


The major art movements of the late 1800s influencing the directions of 20th-century art included the following.


In 1874 young Parisian artists joined in frustration over their exclusion from the official salons. The establishment and its monopoly on the art world had still retained the ideals of the Renaissance: selection of a noble subject, vanishing-point structure, the value of the work measured by its descriptive likeness to natural objects. When Monet was asked to supply a title of one of his works for a catalogue, he thought the work couldn’t really pass as Le Havre, so he said, “Use ‘Impression.'” Critics coining “-isms” for radical new forms of art became a standard procedure thereafter.

Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pissarro, Cézanne, and others are known for their works’ sketch-like quality, the apparently unfinished look. These “Impressionists” set out to capture a visual impression of a scene. They painted outside instead of in studios to observe the play of natural light and colors. They selected fleeting moments instead of historical or allegorical subjects. Impressionist works seem spontaneous rather than studied and calculated.

Importance to 20th-century art:

  • rejecting traditions and value judgments of criticism.
  • standing for artistic freedom and innovation (preparing for other avant-garde movements).
  • exploring the expressive properties of light, line, form.
  • freeing art from a descriptive duty towards a new language.

    Some soon felt that Impressionism was becoming too ephemeral, that the Impressionists’ work dematerialized the object. For the last Impressionist exhibit in 1886, younger artists’ works (Pissarro, Signac, Seurat) were hung separately for comparison of old and new styles. Seurat and Signac had developed a theory of “divisionism,” involving unblended pigment and the phenomenon of retinal afterimage. They found a scientific basis for the intuitive discoveries of the Impressionists regarding light and luminosity. They realized that color is mixed in the eye, not on the pallet. “Pointillism” became the term coined for this, a term used now for the technique, although “divisionism” was the artists’ preferred term, now used just for the theory.

    Georges Seurat’s Sunday on the Island of La Grand Jatte (1884-1886), which involved 38 different studies and 23 black pencil drawings, offers remarkable optical effects; includes a Renaissance perspective and a subject of urban leisure, not the spontaneity of Impressionism; and the work extends onto a border. (Sometimes Neo-Impressionists extended their technique to the frame also.) The piece is composed not really of round dots, but of minute brush-strokes, splashes of color applied with a technique Seurat called Divisionbrush strokesism. The canvas comes alive at the ideal distance: about 15 feet currently at the Art Institute of Chicago. The piece inspired the Sondheim musical of the mid-1980s, Sunday in the Park with George.


    Post-Impressionism from late 1910 on became a broadly applied term covering art coming out of or reacting to Impressionism and including Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec.



    Founded by British socialist William Morris (1834-1896), Arts and Crafts was a social and artistic movement that sought a reassertion of the importance of design and craftsmanship in the face of increasing industrialization which was seen to be sacrificing quality for quantity. The school was a goal more than a style. Arts and Crafts artists and craftspersons wanted art to be affordable for all, and to break down the hierarchy elevating painting and sculpture above other, especially more functional, forms. Art should be beautiful and functional; it should be a lived experience not just something for the affluent. There was a preference for pre-capitalist and therefore medieval craftsmanship (Morris joined his Pre-Raphaelite friends in this), an era seen as morally preferable too. Morris and others set up an anti-industrial firm, modeled on the medieval guild, where applied art objects were designed and crafted by the artists. Furniture, tapestry, stained glass, carpets, tiles, wallpaper all come out of this.

    Morris’ work is known for its flatness, it richness, and its complexity of design. The principles of this movement will be taken up by several 20th-century art movements.



    This international style of decoration and architecture developed in the 1880s and 1890s, lasting to WWI, but going by different names in the various nations. Art Nouveau emerged in many media, trying to erase the distinction between fine and applied arts and exploring the expressive possibilities of line, form, and color. The emphasis is on the line, whether undulating, representational, abstracted, or geometric — often characterized by writhing plant forms and vines.

    Victor Horta (1861-1947) is known for the whiplash curves as seen in the wrought-iron staircase area in the Hôtel Tassel, originally a monument of private housing for industrialist Belgian Emile Tassel, created in 1893.

    Alphonso Mucha achieved instant Parisian celebrity with his 1894 poster for a Sarah Bernhardt play Gismonda.

    In Vienna, architects like Wagner, Hoffmann, and Olbrich, and artists such as Klimt gathered to promote the style through the Secessionist magazine Ver Sacrum. In Germany, the movement split between the decorative and streamlined design. In America architects like Sullivan and Wright were influenced by European ideas but conceived Art Nouveau in different terms, while designers like Tiffany enthusiastically embraced the movement.

    Proliferation and popularity was the downfall of Art Nouveau. Second-rate imitators saturated the market and Art Deco took over.

    Works Consulted

    The Bulfinch Guide to Art History. Excerpt. http://www.artchive.com/artchive/art_nouveau.

    Dempsey, Amy. Art in the Modern Era: A Guide to Styles, Schools & Movements. NY: Harry N. Abrams Inc., Pub., 2002.