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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
Email: [email protected] / Phone: +44 7429 011000

The 19th century provided a wealth of new art movements which marked a movement away from the traditional methods of the past. There were also many advances in technology that impacted European society as a whole.

Initially, in the early years of the 19th century we would see a continuation of styles from the late 18th century, such as Neoclassicism and Romanticism.

There was also a continued use of the Academic art movement which stuck closely to formal teaching and was particularly prominent in France, though this movement would start to fall away by the end of the century, having been the foundation to much of France’s success in the visual arts for a number of years.

Over the course of this eventual 100 years, though, this would transition into new forms of expression such as Impressionism, followed by Post-Impressionism. These lay the foundations for the rise of the Expressionists in the early 20th century, and a push towards modern art more generally.

Continued Strength of Neoclassicism and Romanticism

Neoclassicism continued into the early 19th century for visual art, whilst architecture continued to display its qualities well into the 21st century. The movement began in around 1760 and so was well established by the turn of the century. We would witness Jacques-Louis David’s final two decades, before he passed the baton on to one of his highly skilled pupils, namely Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres who lived until 1867.

Whilst Ingres drifted off into Orientalism in the latter part of his career, Neoclassicism itself was joined by the considerable momentum of Romanticism in the first half of the 19th century, when the likes of Caspar David Friedrich, Eugène Delacroix and Philipp Otto Runge would produce most of their best work. Neoclassicism and Romanticism served two very different tastes, allowing the two to co-exist alongside each other for a number of decades.

Those who appreciated accurate, clinical art would then look towards the Realism movement which started to appear in the second half of the 19th century and brought about the likes of Gustave Courbet and Ilya Repin, with this approach spreading all across the European continent.

Slow Decline of Academic Art

Academic Art was a style which was taught and encouraged by the many European art academies which held a great significance in the 19th century, particularly in Paris, France. The French Académie des Beaux-Arts was particularly prominent and a number of artists who passed through its rigorous technical training methods would attempt to merge the qualities of Neoclassicism and Romanticism together.

Many of the art academies formed elsewhere in Europe would use the French model as their inspiration. Conflicts would often appear within the ranks of the Academic institutions over which artists should be followed, and these problems continued for centuries. Ultimately, the styles which were derived from these institutions would start to fall out of fashion towards the end of the 19th century, with a more expressive manner being encouraged by various artist collectives.

The art public also appeared to desire something new and fresh, with Realism bringing in some real and natural, opposing the seemingly idealized depictions produced by Academic art. Many of the artistic institutions from this era still exist today, but their influence has waned considerably, particularly because of how the art public now hold a great variety of tastes, encompassing the full breadth of art history.

Realism offers depictions of the Everyday and Contemporary World

Soon after the French Revolution of 1848 there would be the rise of the Realism art movement across France. It reflected an interest in the common man and a push towards socialist politics. The essence of Realism was to portray a natural world accurately, just as we would all see it and not to try to create idealized versions or to incorporate elements of the supernatural.

This honesty was immediately rejected by some of the more prudish of art followers, deeming it to be ugly, but its popularity with the public continued to grow, and so its styles and techniques would spread to the rest of Europe. Scenes of the countryside filled a large proportion of its oeuvre, but Realism would also capture the lives of ordinary folk hard at work.

Those in the agricultural industry were ideal subjects, as were other sections of the working poor to be found in the countryside. Their lives would be depicted as hard, but without the same tragedy or extreme emotions that you might have found in the Romanticism era from earlier in the 19th century.

Repin’s work in Russia provides perhaps the best examples of this, with classic works such as Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870–1873), Religious Procession in Kursk Province (1880–1883) and Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks (1880–1891). Russia itself would achieve great success within the Realism art movement, which also includes the likes of Vasily Surikov (1848-1916), with a new offshoot then forming the Socialist Realism movement.

In France, Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was a controversial but highly gifted artist who led the Realism movement with classic works such as The Stone Breakers (1849), Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet (1854) and A Burial At Ornans (1849–50). He used his work to get across his socialist values, particularly in the earlier part of his career, but the quality of his technique ensured even those with opposing political views could still marvel at his oeuvre. Elements of the Realism movement would be seen in later European artist collectives such as the French Barbizon School and the Düsseldorf school of painting.

The Rise of the Impressionists

The emergence of the Impressionist movement would be the most significant artistic development to occur in Europe in the 19th century. It was the latest phase in the rise of landscape painting, which had only become a respected genre just a few centuries earlier.

The innovations of the Impressionists brought a mastery of light and atmosphere, with many of the same subjects being re-visited within changing conditions. Claude Monet would spearhead the movement, and other notable contributors included the likes of Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas. This open minded artistic collective chose to organize themselves having been continually rejected by the traditionalists of French art, forcing them to band together and set up regular exhibitions in and around Paris.

Their style was loose and relaxed, with approximate brushstrokes which produced a feeling, or impression, of a location, rather than attempting to reproduce it in a photo-realistic manner. Initially, their work was viewed as incomplete, even lazy, but this new approach slowly began to build support with the art public, with French institutions eventually being forced to take note themselves.

This return to nature within art was provoked by the industrialisation of western Europe, with sprawling, choking metropolises leaving people to need an escape from reality. Monet himself would expand his oeuvre to include architecture, experimenting with angles, seasons and climatic conditions to release large series of work on a single point of focus.

He famously created his own garden in Giverny in order to study such changes from the comfort of his own property, and its design featured a considerable influence from Japanese culture, which had started to spread across Europe at this time. The Impressionists were also famed for their en-plein air techniques, where artists worked outdoors in order to better connect with the environment around them.

Post-Impressionists Point to the Future

Towards the end of the 19th century European artists would start to look beyond the Impressionist era, experimenting with how its ideas could be further extended. The result would be a further movement away from reality, where form and structure would be adapted by the artist. One of the most respected Post-Impressionists was Paul Cezanne who created fractal images of landscape paintings, where angles would be amended and a three-dimensional form would be presented within these two-dimensional artworks.

Crucially, this approach would provide the inspiration to the Cubists who followed on in the early 20th century. Vincent van Gogh brought a boldness to European art, with contrasting color schemes which shocked and excited the public. Although not commercially successful within his own lifetime, the artist contributed some of the world’s most famous paintings, including Sunflowers and Starry Night.

His methods were deemed childish by some, but have retained their popularity all the way up to the present day, with many of the public also obsessed with the artist behind them, who lived something of a turbulent life that reflected the emotion of his work. Georges Seurat brought a new technique known as Pointillism to French art which was related to the Post-Impressionist and made use of further experimentations with color.

Environmentalism and Art Combine in America’s Hudson River School

In what some believe to have been the first major American art movement, the Hudson River School would illustrate the natural beauty of this young country, thanks to a number of highly skilled and passionate landscape painters. Combining elements of European art with the unique environment of this region, the likes of Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and Albert Bierstadt attempted to remind the world of the importance of protecting and cherishing the natural world.

Indeed, a number of the artists would actually spend time living in the national parks that inspired their work from time to time, and grew concerned about the continued encroachment of humanity upon these sacred environments. This was hastened by the Industrial Revolution in which the western world would start to promote money and industry over more traditional values.

Similar values were held in the UK by Victorian artists which resulted in the formation of the Arts and Crafts movement, which itself aimed to protect traditional artistic techniques against the rise in automation.

Art Nouveau Embraces Nature and Decorative Arts

The Art Nouveau was a collection of European movements which appeared in the late 19th and early 20th century who focused on ornamental design and illustration, using inspiration from the natural world. Their work would cover a wide variety of forms, including the likes of jewelry, furniture, architecture and the visual arts.

Their work remains highly influential in modern-day graphic design and their most famous contributors, such as Alphonse Mucha and Gustav Klimt remain household names.

The term of Art Nouveau serves as an umbrella label which covers groups from France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, the UK and others, including the likes of the Bauhaus, Vienna Secessionists, Art Deco and much more besides. There would also be an influence in theater, thanks to some impactful poster designs which decorated the streets of Paris to advertise major productions.

Art in Victorian England

The British Victorian era generally refers to the period between 1820 and 1914. The first half of the 19th century was dominated by the work of Romanticism painters John Constable and JMW Turner who peaked during this era and left behind a legacy which would later spread into French art in the form of the Impressionists.

They were replaced soon after by the Pre-Raphaelites, who took inspiration from medieval literature and mythology with intricate, charming scenes. Some of their contributors were also involved with the traditional techniques of stained glass window design.

There would also be the rise of Aestheticism, in which the beauty of art, for art’s sake was promoted. The Arts and Crafts Movement fitted into this era, with the likes of William Morris, in which traditional methods were protected. Stylish patterns would adorn furniture, in a crossover with the visual arts.