I wish I were the sort of person who could walk into an art gallery or museum and know exactly what I am talking about. You know, the kind of people who are like, “Wow, the concept of this abstract expressionism really speaks volumes about how New Yorkers were feeling in their post-World War II existences.” But in reality, if you asked me my favorite painting style, I would say, “I don’t know…What is Starry Night?” (Post-Impressionism, by the way).

So, in an effort to understand what the f*ck everyone is talking about, I have decided to familiarize myself with a few major painting styles. I will now pass this knowledge on to you:

Realism

The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe), 1863 by Édouard Manet

Realism has been the dominant style of painting since the Renaissance. The goal of Realism is to portray the subject matter truthfully. Often, Realist paintings are of “real” things; “the movement introduced the idea of average, working class people, contemporary settings, and day-to-day scenes as worthy artistic subjects.” While these paintings often depict images of everyday life, some Realist painters have featured images of angels, so it is more about the style than it is about the subject. Some of the most well-known realist painters are Edward Hopper and Édouard Manet. It is important to note that your name does not have to be Edward (or any spelling thereof) to successfully paint in this style.

Painterly

Henri Matisse, Vase of Sunflowers, 1898–99, State Hermitage Museum Saint Petersburg, Russia.

In short, Painterly refers to paintings that look like paintings. These works are categorized by visible brush strokes and texture. These artists are not trying to hide their techniques or tools used. This style was popularized during the first half of the 19th century. Some famous Painterly artists are Henri Matisse and Claude Monet.

Impressionism

Claude Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil, 1873, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut

Impressionism began in the 1860s and was a major movement that is said to have predicted the emergence of modern art. “Impressionist art is a style in which the artist captures the image of an object as someone would see it if they just caught a glimpse of it.” The goal of Impressionism is to paint one’s own impression of things: how they looked or felt to the viewer in the moment. This methodology includes “applying paint in small touches of pure colour rather than broader strokes, and painting out of doors to catch a particular fleeting impression of colour and light. The result was to [emphasize] the artist’s perception of the subject matter as much as the subject itself.” Some famous impressionist painters include Edgar Degas and Claude Monet.

Surrealism

Philosopher’s Lamp, René Magritte 1936

Surrealist paintings look as if someone managed to translate to the canvas a strange dream or fantasy they had. These paintings are characterized by “fully recognizable images which are realistically painted, taken out of their normal setting and contexts then reassembled or organized within an ambiguous, paradoxical, or shocking framework.” Surrealism was popularized in Europe between World War I and World War II and was heavily influenced by Dadaism. Many claim Surrealism was influenced by Sigmund Freud and his idea of the unconscious. Some famous Surrealist artists are Salvador Dalí and René Magritte.

Abstract

Wassily Kandinsky, untitled (study for Composition VII, Première abstraction), watercolor, 1913

Abstract art, also known as “nonobjective art” or “nonrepresentational art,” is meant to stray from the depiction of the literal. Originating in the 19th century, this art “actively shuns realism, revelling in the embrace of the subjective.” Abstract art focuses on colors, lines, and shapes. Abstract has long been a source of controversy, and the kind of work which visitors in museums often point at and say, “I could have made that.” But, since the 1950s, Abstract has become accepted and celebrated. Some of the most famous Abstract painters are Wassily Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock.

This has been a crash course in art styles, from the perspective of someone who loves looking at art, but still has much to learn about various art styles. Please feel free to bookmark this article and pull it up next time you find yourself immersed in a discussion or debate about the differences between Impressionism and Painterly art.

Content writer at Hangable Technologies LLC.

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