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A Brief Breakdown of Different Art Genres and Movements

A Brief Breakdown of Different Art Genres and Movements

The genres of art describe subject matter and characteristics of works. Many people refer to this as “style”, but style has more to do with the techniques used by the artist. Movements are used to explain what was going on in the world at the time and the underlying themes in the work. Knowing different movements will help you discover what you like so you’re able to narrow down your search when looking to purchase new pieces. We’ll run through the history of genres, the different movements, and the characteristics of each.

Establishing Genres

The French Royal Academy first established the hierarchy of genres in the 17th century–their ideology said that man was above all, so historical paintings and portraits were considered of the highest caliber. After that, scenes of everyday life (or genre painting) came next in order of importance. Landscape came next, then animals, then still lifes. Still lifes were often painted just for practice. Paintings were priced based on the subject matter–wealthy kings commissioned historical pieces and portraits, while poorer people could only afford still lifes. The reason for establishing the hierarchy was to make fine art as important as architecture–they needed to standardize the craft.

Prehistoric Art

There have been many art movements and some are developing in the present. Prehistoric art refers to the first ever cave paintings and carvings. What made humans decide to start creating art? Historians believe that it may have been for communication. Cave drawings warned others of danger and important facts. There wasn’t a lot of self expression happening and it was mostly born out of necessity, but it shows us how universal art it. Language wasn’t necessary–the pictures were enough.

Chauvet cave paintings

Ancient Art

Ancient art refers to pieces from approximately 30,000 BC to 400 AD. It focused mostly on religious depiction and symbology–it was used to teach people. People also began to decorate utilitarian objects, like carving intricate shapes on the handle of a knife. Art was still widely inaccessible and only really used for institutional purposes. Stone carvings were most popular. The Greek and Romans created beautiful sculptures and detailed architecture. It had an otherworldly sense: they wanted people to feel awe as they looked upon the face of gods.

Ancient Greek vase

Medieval Art

Medieval art (up until the 1400’s) depicted grave economic decline. It is dark and grotesque. It was still centered around religion, but instead of beautiful gods, it depicted plague and decay. The disturbing subject matter was juxtaposed with a ton of gold leaf–they loved creating incredibly ornate pieces for churches.

Vyšší Brod Altarpiece, The Annunciation


With the Renaissance came a focus on the individual. After years of suffering, people finally felt stable enough to explore things such as expression and free thinking. Thus, we saw the birth of humanism; an emphasis on man rather than the religious or supernatural. Characteristics of Renaissance art include realism, a focus on the human form, dramatic lighting and shading, and attention to detail. It was during this period that paintings were becoming more important in the eyes of the world. This lasted up until the 1600’s.

Titian, Sacred and Profane Love


The Baroque period somewhat returned to the medieval times with ornate designs and sometimes over the top gilding. Here we saw a focus on globalization and exploring. The lighting was intense and dramatic.They were made to invoke emotion over rationalization. 

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring


Rococo originated in France. It was light and elegant, similar to the French style we see today. The lighting was very bright and the colors were vivid. The subject matter was fun and fresh. Porcelain decorations became incredibly popular during this stage of history.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing


Neoclassicism emerged as Athenian ruins were rediscovered. People became way more interested in all things history, and it was viewed in a very idealistic way. They chose to focus on beauty and grandeur rather than hardships. 

Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life


Romanticism was a very widespread movement. It leaked into music, writing, and psychology. Romanticists rejected rationalism and instead embraced emotion and drama. There was an increase in the exploration of psychology as a valid science, and the paintings often have a strong emotional impact on people. Paintings of stormy water and ships were very popular during this time, and even today some interior designers avoid putting pictures of ships in homes because it is said to have a negative emotional effect on people. However, this has never been proven. 

Caspar David Friedrich, The Abbey in the Oakwood


Realism can be considered one of the first “modern” movements. It paved the way for hyper realism that we often see today. People began to reject the frivolous nature of romanticism for journalism and photography. Paintings of everyday life were not being appreciated where they were considered a bit low caliber in the past. You see many depictions of farm life during this movement. 

Jean-François Millet, Des Glaneuses

Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau announced the turn of the 20th century. Artists wanted to create a completely new style that didn’t imitate the past. This is often considered the birth of graphic design–as cars were now becoming an increasingly popular component of everyday life, merchants needed to invent a way people could quickly read information as they flew by in their vehicles. There was an emphasis on lines, balance, and bright colors. Impressionism coexisted with this movement and referred to the artist quickly painting to capture an emotion rather than detail. Post-impressionism used very small dots to construct an image rather than painstakingly blending things together. 

See Also

Zo’s L’Andalouise


Matisse spearheaded the Fauvism movement that was considered one of the first avant-garde styles. These designs were bold and flat. There was very little three-dimensionality and the colors tended to be very bright with loose lines.

Henri Matisse, The Beast on the Loose


Expressionism focused on displaying the artist’s emotions and anxieties. It was similar to impressionism in the way that feelings were quickly captured. Artists began to take inspiration from other cultures. Cubism co-existed with this movement and focused on distorted everyday objects by depicting them from many different vantage points.

Edvard Munch, The Scream


Surrealism completely denied reality. It feels mystical and otherworldly. Once again, there was a focus on psychology and the imagination. Famous artists include Dali and Magritte. Surrealism birthed abstract expressionism. Abstract expressionists created work that didn’t really make sense–here, we started to see oversized works that took up entire walls. 

René Magritte. The Double Secret


Optical and pop art were popular and very identifiable movements in the 60’s. They were characterized by a disdain for consumerism and sought to mock capitalism. Minimalism came after this in the 70’s–minimalism is what many people today often refer to as “abstract” art. Artists focused on general form rather than anything else–minimalist works are often just simple lines and solid colors. 

Roy Lichtenstein, Ohhh… Alright….


Today’s contemporary art genres created various niche movements that are still developing. We see irony, feminism, street art, photography, and digital art. Art is now used as a way to push political ideology, fight for human rights, and document history in a visceral way that continues to push the boundaries.

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog

View our guide to discovering artists and genres you like here.

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