There are so many “isms” in the world of art and art history that you could be forgiven for being confused. What’s the difference between impressionism and cubism, fauvism and surrealism, abstract realism and expressionism? 

While you’d need a degree in art history to learn all the finer details, in this article we’re providing a crash course. But it’s not simply an intellectual exercise: If you’re a practicing artist in any medium, it’s incredibly helpful to know about a variety of art movements. You might find inspiration in unexpected places. 

What Is Expressionism?

starry night
Van Gogh painted Starry Night while in an asylum.

The expressionism definition that you’ll find in the dictionary sums up the artistic style nicely: “a theory or practice in art of seeking to depict the subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse in the artist.”

But what does this definition mean in practice? Expressionism is the artistic approach of presenting the world through a subjective perspective; of representing the artist’s feelings on canvas rather than what they see exactly. 

Instead of seeing a pond of lilies and trying to paint a photo-like replica of those lilies, for example, an expressionist painter would paint a depiction of what those lilies made them feel. They might end up looking somewhat like lilies or they might not. Expressionist art evokes mood rather than reality. (And, to be honest, expressionist artists were often too angsty to paint a serene subject like a pond of lilies! That was more of an impressionist thing…)

Expressionism is not just a form of visual art; literature, poetry, music, and theater can also be expressionist. But for the purpose of this article, we’re talking mostly about painting.

Take a Crash Course in Art History

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Characteristics of Expressionism

Boldness? Check. Non-naturalistic color? Check. Distortion? Check. It’s expressionist. (Wassily Kandinsky’s Murnau Street With Women, 1908).

Not all expressionist artworks are the same, by any means. But a few common themes and stylistic elements run throughout much expressionist art and make them distinguishable as belonging to this style. 

  • Boldness: From the themes to the visual effects, expressionist art is bold. There are few dainty watercolor flowers here!
  • Angst: Not all expressionist art is angsty, but it often is. Expressionist art often reflects inner turmoil, which is the result of troublesome social conditions. 
  • Non-naturalistic color: Don’t expect colors to reflect reality in expressionist art! Color combinations might look jarring and even sickly to the viewer’s eye.
  • Texture: Paint is often applied liberally and freely in expressionist art, creating texture on the canvas. 
  • Free brushwork: Expressionist painters express themselves through the brush, and that usually means works are anything but dainty and controlled!
  • Distortion: Expressionist artists don’t try to represent external reality. Many aspects of the subject may appear distorted.
  • Exaggeration: Size, perspective, color, and other aspects of reality might be bigger or smaller than in real life.
  • Agitated compositions: Expressionist artists knew the “rules” of composition and deliberately broke them for extra effect.
  • Tonal contrasts: Shadows, heavy outlines, and contrasting areas of color and shade are common in expressionist paintings.

The Expressionism Era

painting of hands in expressionism
A contemporary work of expressionist art.

“Expressionism” as an artistic term can be used in two broad ways. Artists nowadays might create art that’s expressionist or inspired by expressionism. But also, the expressionist movement was a particular period in the history of art lasting roughly from the 1890s to the 1930s. Art created in the decades after this often drew upon expressionism and may be called abstract or neo-expressionism. 

Going back even further, expressionist tendencies have been seen in a lot of Northern European and Scandinavian art since the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The expressionist features of these older artworks may have influenced the late-19th and 20th-century expressionists, but such artists didn’t see themselves as part of an expressionism movement per se. It would be anachronistic to call pre-1890s art expressionist, but you could definitely say that it contains some expressionist features.

The Expressionism Movement

the scream - expressionism at work
Source: Wikimedia Edvard Munch’s The Scream, 1893.

The expressionism movement is sometimes said to begin with the works of Vincent Van Gogh—the famous Dutch painter of well-known works like “Sunflowers” and “Starry Night” —and Edvard Munch, who painted “The Scream” in the 1890s. Van Gogh is also often called a post-impressionist artist, which shows how fluid some art historical periods are. Naturalism and impressionism were important artistic trends of the 19th century, and expressionism can be seen as a reaction to—and even a rejection of—these movements.

The expressionism movement “proper” began a few years later, in 1905, with a group of German artists who called themselves Die Brücke (The Bridge). The movement is mostly associated with German and Austrian artists, although many artists of other nationalities were involved in artistic movements connected to expressionism and those that developed out of it. 

Expressionism became influential in Northern Europe before the First World War, which started in 1914. In Germany, where the movement originated, art was stamped out when the Nazis came to power in the 1930s. After the Second World War (which ended in1945), expressionism became more influential in North America and became known as abstract expressionism.

While expressionist art has never really stopped being made, these were the broad parameters of the time period and the movement that bears its name. As an approach to art, expressionism endures.

As with many other art movements, expressionism overlaps with some other art movements of the same time or that came immediately after. Some art can be considered expressionist and something else, such as:

  • Fauvist
  • Symbolist
  • Cubist
  • Surrealist
  • Abstract

Each of these movements had its own characteristics but shared with expressionism the general preoccupation with the expression of feelings and emotion rather than perceived “reality.”

Expressionism Art Examples

Expressionist art has been created by many lesser and well-known artists. Some names you’re likely to be familiar with are Edvard Munch, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. Here are a few examples of expressionist art.

painting in expressionism
Source: WikimediaThe Blue Horse by German artist, Franz Marc.
Henri Matisse’s The Dance, 1910. Expressionism painting.
Source: Wally Gobetz Henri Matisse’s The Dance, 1910.
Source: PIxabayPablo Picasso’s Guernica is cubism, a form of expressionism.
van gogh
Van Gogh suffered from mental illness for much of his life, and this influenced his art that reflected feeling rather than plain reality.

Incorporate Expressionism into Your Art

painting in expressionism
Student work by Carla Rebel-ish for Modern Abstract Expressionism: A Journey in Brush Strokes, Texture, and All the Feels.

While you might be about a century too late to “join” the expressionism art movement, anyone can gain inspiration from expressionist artists and artwork. Take a look at a book on expressionism, or search for some images online. Study the use of color, composition, textures, and themes of these artworks and see what resonates with you. 

Although the expressionism art movement was a response to particular 19th and 20th-century issues, you may find ways to use the style to reflect your 21st-century life and society. Have fun!

It’s Time to Get Expressionist

Modern Abstract Expressionism: A Journey in Brush Strokes, Texture, and All the Feels

Written By

Elen Turner

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