The 20th century heralded a major shift in the art world, with famous artists of the era leaving behind vast collections spanning many important art movements.
Not only was the conventional medium of brush and canvas revolutionized by a succession of innovative new art styles, but the modern age changed how we look at art, including redefining what “art” constitutes.
1. Georgia O’Keeffe
Seamlessly blending aspects of multiple art movements into her own distinct style, Georgia O’Keeffe was an American artist who was born in 1887. She commenced her art training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1905, subsequently attending the Arts Students League of New York. O’Keeffe studied under the guidance of Arthur Wesley Dow, who taught the artist how to incorporate her own style into her work.
Best known for her paintings of New York skyscrapers, New Mexico landscapes, and colored flowers, Georgia O’Keeffe quit painting three times due to mental health issues and financial problems, along with deteriorating eyesight. Despite several significant setbacks, her passion for art was never-ending. When she passed away in 1986 at age 98, she left an everlasting legacy, her unique artistic style contributing to a cultural shift in America’s feminist perspective.
2. Raoul Dufy
French painter Raoul Dufy is renowned for his open-air scenes and depictions of lively social engagements incorporating the Fauvist movement’s characteristic colorful style. He studied at the same art academy as the famous Cubist artist Georges Braque. Influenced by Impressionist landscape painters like Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet, Dufy is best known for his depictions of social events.
Born in 1877 in Normandy, France, Dufy left school at the age of 14 to work in the coffee industry. He took art classes in the evenings beginning at 18. After winning a scholarship from the Beaux Arts School in Paris, he staged his first exhibition in 1901. He was particularly fond of painting beach scenes in his native Normandy, as well as depicting scenes of crowded beaches, parties, and yachts in the fashionable South of France.
3. Piet Mondrian
Born in 1873, this esteemed Dutch painter went on to become one of the 20th century’s most important and influential artists. A founding father of abstract art, he confounded the De Stijl art movement with Theo van Doesburg.
Mondrian’s art was a spiritual pursuit. He was a member of the Dutch Theosophical Society, and his artistic technique was defined by Theosophical doctrine, meaning that he believed that spirituality could be accessed through the creation of art, specifically where forms are reduced to their most basic elements. In using basic compositions and shapes, they reveal the universe’s fundamental and opposing forces (e.g., masculine and feminine, black and white, etc.).
4. Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp’s work spanned several key movements of the 20th century, including Dadaism and Futurism. Duchamp is probably best remembered for his controversial 1917 work Fountain, a porcelain urinal upon which the artist added the bogus signature ‘R. Mutt.’
Outrageous and enigmatic in equal proportion, Duchamp’s work replaced the prerequisite for art to be aesthetically pleasing with an emphasis on intellectual provocation. His works were entirely representative of the Dadaist attitude, which revolted against the notion of artistic value and “fine” taste and instead advocated for art that appealed to the mind rather than the eyes.
Completed in 1912, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase was due to be exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants. The day before the exhibition’s opening, Duchamp’s friends and brothers demanded the expulsion of the painting, however, judging it to be contrary to Cubist orthodoxy. Just one year later, the same painting was exhibited at the Armory Show in New York, where it drew rapturous applause and was embraced by Americans as the epitome of the avant-garde style.
5. Henri Rousseau
This self-taught outsider won the respect of insider peers. Henri Rousseau was a toll-collector-turned-painter who was discovered by none other than Pablo Picasso. In time, Rousseau’s dreamy mix of exotic landscapes and naïve figuration become one of the most recognizable styles of 20th-century art.
While he was ridiculed in life, in retrospect, Rousseau is regarded as one of the 20th century’s most influential post-Impressionist painters, holding his own against the likes of Gauguin, van Gogh, and Cézanne. Born in poverty in the French town of Laval in 1844, the young Rousseau was required to work with his tinsmith father as a boy to help the family make ends meet.
Rousseau studied at Laval High School as a day student and was eventually forced to board there after his family was thrown out of their home due to debt. Though mediocre at many subjects, he won prizes for drawing and music.
Following his discovery, he became renowned for his jungle paintings that depicted lush, dreamlike worlds where giant, exotic plants loomed across the canvas. It is for these striking images that the artist is best remembered, as his bright colors and surrealism push the boundaries of traditional art.