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Expressionism was an art movement influential between about the 1890s and the 1930s. Like many famous art movements, you’ve probably come across expressionist artists without knowing that’s what they are. You’ve also probably encountered a lot of art created after the 1930s that can still be classified as expressionist—the original movement had a long-lasting effect on art that can still be seen today.
Whether you’re a professional artist or just starting out, there’s always something to learn from the “greats” that came before you. This article introduces 16 significant expressionism painters and other artists from the late-19th century until the present. Have a browse—you never know who might inspire your next masterpiece!
Contemporary artists continue to draw inspiration from the expressionist movement of the early 20th century. The following 16 artists represent some of the most significant artists throughout expressionism’s long reign.
Although each artist had a distinct style, they all reflect the central expressionist features of boldness, non-naturalistic color, distortion, and exaggeration. After all, expressionism is the artistic approach of representing the artist’s feelings on canvas, rather than what they see exactly.
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Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) is sometimes said to be the first expressionist artist; his work also falls under post-impressionism. He suffered from mental illness throughout his short life, which significantly affected the style and content of his art. Although he wasn’t commercially successful during his lifetime, his style was noticed after his death by German and French artists who went on to develop the expressionist movement and style. He was one of the most successful expressionist painters, despite predating the actual expressionist movement.
Norwegian Edvard Munch (1863–1944) was another artist whose work was influential to the core group of expressionist artists of the early 20th century. He himself was influenced by Norwegian philosopher and anarchist political activist Hans Jaeger, who encouraged Munch to paint his psychological state. Like van Gogh, Munch’s psychological state wasn’t entirely healthy; he feared suffering from an inherited psychological condition.
French Henri Matisse (1869–1954) was one of the most influential artists of the early 20th century and worked across different styles and movements. He was a leader of the fauvist movement, a group of expressionist painters who favored bright and expressive color.
The work of French Georges Rouault (1871–1958) is associated with fauvism and expressionism. Many of his paintings depicted clowns, sex workers, or religious subjects and were interpreted as critiques of society.
German artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938) was one of the founding members of the group known as Die Brücke, or “The Bridge,” in 1905. This group was at the center of the development of the expressionist movement, even though other artists came before and after that worked in an expressionist style. He was a painter and printmaker.
Another of the founding members of The Bridge group of expressionists, German Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884–1976) was a painter and printmaker.
German artist Franz Marc (1880–1916) was one of the key members of another important expressionist movement, known as Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). The informal association was based in Munich. Many of Marc’s works were of, or included, horses, especially blue ones. He died in World War I, at the Battle of Verdun, after being conscripted into the German Army.
Another founding member of The Blue Rider, Russian Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) is generally credited as the pioneer of abstract art. While the above example of his expressionist art is still quite figurative, more of his later work was entirely abstract. He became a French citizen a few years before his death, after leaving the Soviet Union and then Germany when his form of art fell out of favor with the political rulers.
Austrian Egon Schiele (1890–1918) was a student of compatriot Gustav Klimt. The similarity in style, symbolism, and eroticism in the works of the two artists is striking. Schiele died of Spanish influenza three days after his wife, Edith, who was six months pregnant at the time.
Austrian Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980) was a leading figure in his country’s expressionist movement. His expressionist art was mainly portraits and landscapes (and the odd technicolor mandrill from London Zoo). He was also a poet, playwright, and teacher.
The work of Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee (1879–1940) spanned expressionism, cubism, and surrealism. His writings on design theory, based on lectures, have been highly influential in 20th-century art and design.
German artist Max Beckmann (1884–1950) is classified as an expressionist despite the fact that he rejected the term and the movement. He was associated with an offshoot of expressionism in the 1920s, the New Objectivity movement. His work often combines brutal realism and social criticism.
Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) had a long, varied, and distinguished career. Much of his art can be considered expressionist. He was central to the development of cubism, which can be considered a form of expressionism in its rejection of realism.
Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966) belongs to a later period of expressionist artists but is worth mentioning here because he was one of the most influential sculptors of the 20th century. He was heavily influenced by cubism and surrealism, which themselves were forms of expressionism.
Another later artist, French Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985), was a founding member of the art brut movement. Art brut was also called “outsider art” as its artists were self-taught or came from outside the institutionalized art world. Jean Dubuffet’s work has clear links with abstract expressionism, the form of expressionism that dominated in North America after World War II.
German artist Georg Baselitz (born 1938) is the only artist on this list who is still alive. Although much younger than other expressionists, his art has clearly been influenced by them. No, the above example isn’t a technical glitch: in 1969, Baselitz began painting his subjects upside down in an effort to overcome representationalism. The original expressionists might not have gone that far, but they may well have approved.
Learn From Famous Expressionist Artists
Whether you’re a painter, sculptor, or printmaker or you’re still experimenting with various media, you could learn a lot from the expressionists. You don’t need to go all-out expressionist (unless you want to), but playing with bold color, distortion, and exaggeration of your subjects could lead you into a whole new dimension of art.
If you’re a student of art or art history, it’d also be worth reading some of the works of art theory written by expressionist artists, many of whom were teachers and professors. Paul Klee’s art theory lectures were published in English as the two-volume Paul Klee Notebooks, and Wassily Kandinsky authored a few books of art theory.
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