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Becoming Modern

by Dr. Parme Giuntini
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 one that remains tied to the 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 19th century, however, modernity and its connection with art had certain specific associations that people began recognizing and using as barometers to distinguish themselves and their culture from earlier nineteenth century ways and attitudes.
Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, oil on canvas, 1882 (Courtauld Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Chronologically, Modernism refers to the period from 1850 to 1960.  It begins with the Realist movement and ends with Abstract Expressionism. That’s just a little over one hundred years. During that period the western world experienced some significant changes that transformed Europe and the United States from traditional societies that were agriculturally based into modern ones with cities and factories and mass transportation.
Here are some important features that all modern societies share.


Capitalism replaced landed fortunes and became the economic system of modernity in which people exchanged labor for a fixed wage and used their wages to buy ever more consumer items rather than produce such items themselves. This economic change dramatically affected class relations because it offered opportunities for great wealth through individual initiative, industrialization and technology—somewhat like the technological and dot.com explosion of the late 20th and early 21st century. The industrial revolution which began in England in the late 18th century and rapidly swept across Europe (hitting the U.S. immediately following the Civil War) transformed economic and social relationships, offered an ever-increasing number of cheaper consumer goods, and changed notions of education.  Who needed the classics when a commercial/technically oriented education was the key to financial success? The industrial revolution also fostered a sense of competition and progress that continues to influence us today.
Claude Monet, Le Boulevard des Capucines, 1873–74, oil on canvas, 80.3 x 60.3 cm (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

Urban Culture

Urban culture replaced agrarian culture as industrialization and cities grew.  Cities were the sites of new wealth and opportunity with their factories and manufacturing potential.  People moving from small farms, towns to large cities helped to breakdown traditional culture and values.  There were also new complications such as growing urban crime, prostitution, alienation, and depersonalization.
In a small town you probably knew the cobbler who made your shoes and such a personal relationship often expanded into everyday economics—you might be able to barter food or labor for a new pair of shoes or delay payments.  These kinds of accommodations that formed a substructure to agrarian life were swept away with urbanization. City dwellers bought shoes that were manufactured, transported by railroads, displayed in shop windows, and purchased only for cash.  Assembly lines, anonymous labor, and advertising created more consumer items but also a growing sense of depersonalization.  The gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” increased and were more visible in the city.
"The omnibus—a horse-drawn carriage that picked up and deposited people along an established route—was introduced into London on 4 July 1829 and quickly became a popular mode of transport" (Tate). William Maw Egley, Omnibus Life in London, 1859, oil on canvas, 44.8 x 41.9 cm (Tate, London)


Technological advances such as industrialization, railroads, gas lighting, streetcars, factory systems, indoor plumbing, appliances, and scientific advances were rapidly made and these changes dramatically affected the way people lived and thought about themselves.  One consequence was that people in industrialized areas thought of themselves as progressive and modern and considered undeveloped cultures in undeveloped countries as primitive and backward.


Modernity is characterized by increasing secularismand diminished religious authority. People did not abandon religion but they paid less attention to it.  Organized religions were increasingly less able to dictate standards, values, and subject matter. Fine art moved from representing human experience and its relationship to God's creation, to a focus on personal emotions and individual spiritual experiences that were not based in any organized and institutionalized religion.
Joseph Stella, The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme, 1939, oil on canvas, 70 × 42 inches / 177.8 × 106.7 cm (Whitney Museum of American Art)


The modern world was extremely optimistic—people saw these changes as positive. They welcomed innovation and championed progress. Change became a signifier of modernity. Anything that was traditional and static signaled outmoded, old-fashioned, conservative and was to be avoided by the new modern public. Modern Europe and the U.S. internalized these positions and used modernity as a way of determining and validating their superiority. The nineteenth century was also a period of tremendous colonial growth and expansion, in the name of progress and social benefit and all of these activities were spearheaded by newly industrialized western countries.
Many artists closely identified with modernity and embraced the new techniques and innovations, the spirit of progress, invention, discovery, creativity and change. They wanted to participate in creating the modern world and they were anxious to try out new ideas rather than following the more conservative guidelines of Academic art. This is not to say that these mid-nineteenth century artists were the first to challenge an older generation or set of ideas. Many academic artists had argued over formal issues, styles  and subject matter but this was much like a good natured agreement within a club; everyone in the group agreed to disagree.
Winslow Homer, Croquet Scene, 1866, oil on canvas, 40.3 x 66.2 cm (Art Institute of Chicago)

A middle-class audience

By the mid-1850’s polite academic disagreements were being taken out of the Academy and onto the street.  Artists were looking increasingly to the private sector for patronage, tapping into that growing group of bourgeois or middle class collectors with money to spend and houses to fill with paintings. This new middle class audience that made its money through industrialization and manufacturing had lots of “disposable income”, and they wanted pictures that they could understand, that were easy to look at, fit into their homes, addressed subjects they liked. Not for them the historical cycles of gods, saints and heroes with their complex intellectual associations and references; instead, they wanted landscapes, genre scenes, and still life.  They were not less educated than earlier buyers, but educated with a different focus and set of priorities. Reality was here and now, progress was inevitable, and the new hero of modern life was the modern man.
Modernity is then a composite of contexts: a time, a space, and an attitude. What makes a place or an object “modern” depends on these conditions.

The Avant-Garde

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 French socialist Henri de Saint-Simon first used the term in the early 1820’s to describe an artist whose work would serve the needs of the people, of a socialist society rather than the ruling classes.
Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1918, oil on canvas, 31 1/4 x 31 1/4 inches / 79.4 x 79.4 cm (The Museum of Modern Art). Malevich "viewed the Russian Revolution as having paved the way for a new society in which materialism would eventually lead to spiritual freedom." (MoMA, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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.  In some cases the avant garde was closely associated with political activism, especially socialist or communist movements; in other cases, the avant garde was pointedly removed from politics and focused primarily on aesthetics. The avant garde was never a cohesive group of artists and what was avant garde in one nation was not necessarily the same in others.
Finally, although modern artists were working throughout many countries in Europe and the United States, most 19th art and much 20th century modern art is centered in France and produced by French artists.  Unlike England which was politically stable in the 19th century, France went through a variety of governments and insurrections all of which provided a unique political and cultural environment that fostered what we know as modern art.
Additional resources:
Essay by Dr. Parme Giuntini

Want to join the conversation?

  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Alex Uemura
    Why aren't these paintings new when they are called modern?
    (0 votes)
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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    I disagree with the conclusion drawn from urbanization that was outlined above in the following sentence, "The gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” increased and were more visible in the city."

    Frankly, I think there is validity in the statement that "the gap" (between the wealthy and poor) may have been "more visible" in the city, but I don't think there is any such evidence to support the statement that the "gap" itself was widening post-industrialization. For example, I cannot imagine that under a Feudal system, the serfs and servants of a land would have seen them selves as even in the same world as their Kings, Princes, and landowners. As opposed to the workers in large factories...who in many cases were still able to work hard and move up the ladder of society and thus become foremen or even own a factory some day. This sort of "upward mobility" would have been practically and physically impossible for your average working man or woman to accomplish in the centuries that preceded Industrialization and Capitalism coming into existence...
    (8 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user erikavisual
    Does the term avant-garde only apply to Modern Art or can it also be applied to current art of this decade? If so, what artists or art of today might be considered avant-garde?
    (4 votes)
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    • leafers seed style avatar for user Khalil Pineda
      Hey, Erika. One thing the lecture noted is the "optimism" of modernity, the idea of progress. What gave the "avant garde" its value was the fact that artists that did something different were seen as proponents of progress, as somehow being more culturally advanced, as ridding of the (worse) old to have the (better) new. Today people are not likely to use that term because they do not view things that way anymore. Most people don't believe the future is necessarily better than the past, that one culture is more "advanced" than another, or that everyone's future is or ought to look the same. The author of this text mentioned the legacy of colonialism - part of the reason why a lot of people aren't fond of the idea of progress is because the idea of "modernizing" was often used (and still is used) as a pretext for the west to colonize other nations. Without the narrative of progress, without this idea that history is a line constantly progressing towards a better future, the idea of the avant garde becomes a philosophical anachronism. Newness doesn't enjoy the connotations of progress and advancement that it did in the early 20th century, so innovative or experimental art is no longer called "avant garde".
      (6 votes)
  • marcimus pink style avatar for user Ester Malzahn
    I feel the need to point out that while capitalism may have offered opportunities for great wealth, it also offered opportunities for great exploitation.
    (4 votes)
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  • leafers sapling style avatar for user Priscilla vides
    i wonder why they call it modern art
    (1 vote)
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  • leafers seed style avatar for user jechevarria
    Did religion get in the way of art at this time?
    (1 vote)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Gretchen
      Religion sort of stepped back. Painting biblical or religious scenes was not popular and not many people bought the works. There were a couple of artists who did center their artwork on religion, but they were persecuted. One artist who did paint spiritual works was James Tissot. His work is still used in a lot of illustrated bibles. But he was more popular for his portraits of young ladies than his bible scenes.
      Here's a couple lines from the passage that help:
      "This new middle class audience that made its money through industrialization and manufacturing had lots of “disposable income”, and they wanted pictures that they could understand, that were easy to look at, fit into their homes, addressed subjects they liked. Not for them the historical cycles of gods, saints and heroes with their complex intellectual associations and references; instead, they wanted landscapes, genre scenes, and still life."

      Hope that helps. :)
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Michael Boudreaux
    Where can I find information about Miro
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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jake Suzuki
    I find it slightly curious that a lot of the massive social, cultural and artistic upheavals of the period between 1850-1960 are kinda glossed over. I mean, if you're going to start an essay with "capitalism is a inherent identifier of a modern nation" I'd like that backed up a bit more than with simple silence on all the lower class achievements in those 110 years.

    Even if you don't feel leftist political thought is relevant today, can you ignore the massive influence it had in those years? Doesn't it seem a little bit glib just to relegate those entire spheres of modern thought to "well, the capitalists won"?

    It just seems a little strange to me to mention in passing the soviets, the industrial revolution, and movements akin to the Paris Commune, and not say anything specific to the topic, even though capitalism gets its own paragraph?
    (1 vote)
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    • marcimus pink style avatar for user Ester Malzahn
      I have the same hesitations, but am hoping there is more in-depth political analysis in the coming sections. There's also a lot in the partner sections, especially the Tate, that you might find interesting (I'm working my way through the general history sections while jumping into more specific partner content - the Tate's section on women in art has been really good so far).
      (3 votes)
  • piceratops seedling style avatar for user CherenceJerboh
    were women allowed to vote in the 1800's
    (1 vote)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Aquila Mandelbrot
    When did the avant-garde artists begin to appear?
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user danderson
      Can't say exactly, because the definition of avant-garde doesn't include how far ahead or away from the mainstream it has to be. In the 1850s, look at Manet, then follow up with the Impressionists, who self-identified as being outside the academic tradition of their time.
      (1 vote)