Introduction: Art Movements 101


Appreciating art can feel similar to watching a sport you’ve never played. You can enjoy watching the game, but when you understand the rules, a whole new experience opens up. Art movements are kind of like the rules of a game. They offer insight into why, and even how, an artist created the work. This is in a similar way we understand why a player chooses to move the ball or their body.

An understanding of art movements is not only useful to an art student, artist, or historian, but to anyone interested in art appreciation even at a casual level. However, art movements can be very confusing, reinforcing the illusion you need an art history degree to understand them – Surrealism or Symbolism, Impressionism or Post-Impressionism, Realism or Rocco, Dada or De Stijl?!….and I’ve lost you. Stick with me, I sympathize. Despite a degree in Fine Art, 5 semesters of art history, and now an adult life frequenting art museums and galleries, I still struggle with remembering all the movements and their significance.      

What if you could recall them without an art degree or have spent hours dreading through dry descriptions and timelines. I’m going to the purpose you can remember art movements and their meanings with building just a bit of memory muscle and as a result, noticeably enjoy and appreciate art more.  

Over a series of posts, Art Movements 101, I’m going to break down some pivotal art movements and provide what I hope are useful associations and hooks for your brain to pull from your mental archive. So next time you are confronted with Dada or De Stijl, you will have a starting point to consider.

First things first…

What is an Art Movement?

An art movement represents a shift in common styles, ideas, or techniques among artists during a certain timeframe. Some movements overlap, run along one another with fuzzy beginnings and ends. Each shift in art is heavily influenced by the work and artists that came before in either inspiration or rejection. Art in its creation and its subsequent shifts are driven by the events, culture, and society in which it is created.

 Max Beckman
Max Beckman

Some of the finer points.

The naming and categorization of art movements were largely done not by the artists, but by critics and historians in an effort to better understand art and its continuous evolution. Some artists were not attributed to specific movements until after they had died so they have little say in how their work is labeled. Many artists clearly honed one particular style, but they experimented greatly as well. You may see the name Picasso and think Cubist, but then find yourself confused looking at one of his early realist works. With this understanding, consider not only the artist’s name in the identification of the art movement but also the individual style attributes of the work itself.

Do not fear, this is NOT going to be a heady investigation into each art period. There is already a multitude of great resources out there to dive deep into the fascinating world of art movements. (I’ll share some of those resources with you) I want to fill in where these resources in my mind lack which is a practical way to digest the information and actually be able to recall it in the future.

Art movements provide a helpful reference to gain a richer appreciation and experience with any artwork you encounter. Through concise, accessible information, I will guide you to a better understanding of art movements as your coach and your cheerleader.  Are you ready? An amazing world of art is out there. 


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