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Becoming modern

People use the term “modern” in a variety of ways, often very loosely, with a lot of implied associations of new, contemporary, up-to-date, and technological. We know the difference between a modern society and our less advanced past and it usually has less to do with art and more to do with technology and industrial progress, things like indoor plumbing, easy access to consumer goods, freedom of expression, and voting rights. In the nineteenth century, steam-powered machines and unskilled laborers in factories began to replace skilled artisans. London, Paris, and New York led the unprecedented population growth of cities during this period, as people moved from the countryside or emigrated to find a higher standard of living. Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker of Smarthistory together with leading art historians, and our museum partners have created hundreds of short engaging conversational videos and articles, making Khan Academy one of the most accessible and extensive resources for the study of the history of art.
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A thumbnail for: Introduction—Becoming Modern

Introduction—Becoming Modern

A thumbnail for: Romanticism


As is fairly common with stylistic rubrics, the word "Romanticism" was not developed to describe the visual arts but was first used in relation to new literary and musical schools in the beginning of the 19th century. Art came under this heading only later. Think of the poetry of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and William Wordsworth and the scores of Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and Chopin. Romantic music expressed the powerful drama of human emotion: anger and passion, but also quiet passages of pleasure and joy. So too, the French painter Eugene Delacroix and the Spanish artist Francisco Goya broke with the cool, cerebral idealism of David and Ingres’s Neoclassicism. They sought instead to respond to the cataclysmic upheavals that characterized their era with line, color, and brushwork that was more physically direct, more emotionally expressive.
A thumbnail for: Early photography

Early photography

By modern standards, nineteenth-century photography can appear rather primitive. While the stark black and white landscapes and unsmiling people have their own austere beauty, these images also challenge our notions of what defines a work of art. Photography is a controversial fine art medium, simply because it is difficult to classify—is it an art or a science? Nineteenth century photographers struggled with this distinction, trying to reconcile aesthetics with improvements in technology.
A thumbnail for: Victorian art and architecture

Victorian art and architecture

Victoria was eighteen years old when she was crowned Queen in 1837. She ruled for nearly 64 yeas over the vast, powerful, British Empire until she died in 1901. Although the monarchy can be seen as a constant of British tradition, her reign witnessed radical change brought about chiefly by industrialization and the want and reform that resulted. The was a period of contradiction when progress often meant idealizing a lost past.
A thumbnail for: The birth of the avant-garde in France

The birth of the avant-garde in France

Throughout the 19th century there were artists who produced pictures that we do not label “modern art” generally because the techniques or subjects were associated with the conservative academic styles, techniques and approaches. On the other hand, modern artists were often called the “avant garde.” This was originally a military term that described the point man (the first soldier out)—the one to take the most risk. The avant garde is also used to identify artists whose painting subjects and techniques were radical, marking them off from the more traditional or academic styles, but not with any particular political ideology in mind. Avant garde became a kind of generic term for a number of art movements centered on the idea of artistic autonomy and independence.
A thumbnail for: Symbolism & Art Nouveau

Symbolism & Art Nouveau

The 1880s saw a shift away from the modern-life focus of Impressionism, as artists turned toward the interior self, to dreams, and myth. There was a sense that Impressionism had been too tied up with the materialism of middle-class culture. In some ways, van Gogh and Gauguin can also be seen as Symbolists. Many Symbolist belonged to groups of artists who broke away (or seceded) from the art establishment in their respective countries, to hold their own exhibitions. For example, Klimt belonged to the Vienna Secession (he was its first president), Khnopff to a similar group in Belgium called Lex XX (The Twenty), and Stuck co-founded the Munich Secession.
A thumbnail for: America: Civil War to the Gilded Age

America: Civil War to the Gilded Age

Find here the art of Winslow Homer, the expat Mary Cassatt, and work by other American artists in the 2nd half of the 19th century.