What Is Modern Art?

Late-19th-century artists broke with tradition to create art for the modern age.

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What Is Modern Art?


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The birth of modernism and modern art can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution, a period that lasted from the 18th to the 19th century, in which rapid changes in manufacturing, transportation, and technology profoundly affected the social, economic, and cultural conditions of life in Western Europe, North America, and eventually the world. New forms of transportation, including the railroad, the steam engine, and the subway changed the way people lived, worked, and traveled, both at home and abroad, expanding their worldview and access to new ideas. As urban centers prospered, workers flocked to cities for industrial jobs, and urban populations boomed.

A Modern Art

Prior to the 19th century, artists were most often commissioned to make artwork by wealthy patrons, or institutions like the church. Much of this art depicted religious or mythological scenes that told stories and were intended to instruct the viewer. During the 19th century, many artists started to make art about people, places, or ideas that interested them, and of which they had direct experience. With the publication of psychologist Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) and the popularization of the idea of a subconscious mind, many artists began exploring dreams, symbolism, and personal iconography as avenues for the depiction of their subjective experiences.

Challenging the notion that art must realistically depict the world, some artists experimented with the expressive use of color, non-traditional materials, and new techniques and mediums. One of these was photography, whose invention in the 1830s introduced a new method for depicting and reinterpreting the world. The Museum of Modern Art collects work made after 1880, when the atmosphere was ripe for avant-garde artists to take their work in new, unexpected, and “modern” directions.

Relating to or characteristic of a city.

The method with which an artist, writer, performer, athlete, or other producer employs technical skills or materials to achieve a finished product or endeavor.

A form, sign, or emblem that represents something else, often something immaterial, such as an idea or emotion.

The part of the mind below the level of conscious perception. The Surrealists derived much inspiration from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theories on dreams and the workings of the subconscious mind.

Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.

The materials used to create a work of art, and the categorization of art based on the materials used (for example, painting [or more specifically, watercolor], drawing, sculpture).

An element or substance out of which something can be made or composed.

Subject matter in visual art, often adhering to particular conventions of artistic representation, and imbued with symbolic meanings.

To request, or the request for, the production of a work of art.

The perceived hue of an object, produced by the manner in which it reflects or emits light into the eye. Also, a substance, such as a dye, pigment, or paint, that imparts a hue.

French for “advanced guard,” this term is used in English to describe a group that is innovative, experimental, and inventive in its technique or ideology, particularly in the realms of culture, politics, and the arts.

Related Artists: Eugène Atget, Hippolyte Blancard, Paul Cézanne, Robert Delaunay, Vincent van Gogh, Hector Guimard, Raoul François Larche, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Georges-Pierre Seurat, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Édouard Vuillard