The Age of Modernity—Art History

The age of realism raised the idea of what it meant to be modern. Alcoholism, prostitution, and rampant poverty were results of the industrial revolution. Art and architecture of the modernist period reflected the competing ideas about modernity when speaking of progress and decline for Western Civilization.


Philosopher Georg Simmel addresses “the transition to the individualization of mental and psychic traits which the city occasions in proportion to its size” (134), suggesting “The same factors which have thus coalesced into the exactness and minute precision of the form of life have coalesced into a structure of the highest impersonality; on the other hand, they have promoted a highly personal subjectivity” (132).

Simmel (image from here)

Therefore, in order for a person to preserve a sense of self and security, a person must create barriers. A person creates bubbles in order to be not over-simulated. As a consequence, meaningful relationships are not formed, dehumanizing us from one another. Progress during the modernist period included technology, social justices, and new ideas of expression and technique.


The Year of Revolutions was 1848. France, Italy, and Germany had little small revolutions where the workers rebelled, who found the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels as giving shape or name to the concerns and ideas circulating about the time of social injustices. These revolutions enabled people to explore new ideas about human experiences and rights, impacting the modern world. There was, however, also a decline shown in themes of dehumanization and isolation/alienation. The modern period exhibits these displays of both progress and decline through subject matter, style, sources of inspiration, and mood.

World Fairs enabled people to explore new ideas of other countries and see developments of technology. The Eiffel Tower was built by Gustave Eiffel in Paris in 1889 to commemorate the World’s Fair there.

The Eiffel Tower (image from here)

France desired to build an icon to Modernity, using the latest materials and engineering. This building had no façade or veneer. When going up the tower, the viewer could see how it actually works. At first, Parisians hated it, thinking it ugly. People thought this looked unfinished, that it need to be covered, that it was merely a frame. It was painted different colors in different eras.

The tower was meant to be temporary. It was one of the tallest structures at the time, scaling new heights at 920 feet. There are important religious connotations; the verticality draws the eye upwards into the heavens.


In London, at the Courtauld Gallery, there are several paintings on display from the era of modernity. About Impressionistic art, the exhibit explained that Impressionistic works engaged with the changing nature of modern society because the Impressionists interest in contemporary subjects was expressed through innovative techniques, which aimed to convey a more direct and powerful experience. One named this style impressionistic, but it was originally meant to be a critique. Impressionistic art appeared loose and sketchy in comparison to conventional standards of art. The developments of pre-prepared canvasses and tubes of paint enabled the artists to work out of doors and paint quickly and efficiently.

For example, Monet’s Saint-Lazare Train Station (c. 1877) depicts a nave-like space, suggesting that the train is shutting into a new holy area. Monet does not give the viewer every element and detail but rather the impression of the time, supposing the atmosphere is productive. There is the aspect here of modernity of people coming and going and isolation. The forms of the people are mere shadows. They are not in detail. There is a sense of energy or excitement by the different perspectives though, based off of new knowledge of technology and communication. Monet was not very interested in painting people. There are tighter and looser brushstrokes, indicating the experimentation of the application of paint. Monet, ultimately, was more interested in the urban environment than in painting people very often.

Saint-Lazare Train Station (image from here)

Another example is Degas’s The Rehearsal on Stage (c. 1874). This shows the behind-the-scene look of training very young dancers and the depravations that go on there. Degas offers an oblique perspective. He liked dance in attempts to perfect the sense of moment and movement. His faces of the women were not all that sympathetic. They can be seen in a kind of demoralizing light. Too often women were treated like animals. This contemporary world of the modernity showed progress in Impressionistic art in depicting ideas such as movement and light yet depicted less of the individual, highlighting their isolation from one another.

The Rehearsal on Stage (image from here)

Whistler was loosely associated with the Impressionists. His Nocturne in Black and Gold (The Falling Rocket) (c. 1875) shows a painting of fireworks while on the Thames, which was what Whistler was trying to capture the effects of fireworks.

Nocturne in Black and Gold (The Falling Rocket) (image from here)

Whistler was inspired by Japanese prints, the vertical through of Japanese firework displays, which emerged possibly from World Fairs and other communications and expansions between various countries. The figure down below seemed absolutely indiscriminate and abstract to him, thus dehumanizing, and “More interested in conveying the atmospheric effects than in providing details of the scene, Whistler emphasized creating a harmonious arrangement of shapes and colors on the rectangle of his canvas” (Gardner 831). When the painting was brought to court, Whistler was brought to the stand. The barrister asked how long it took Whistler to knock this thing off. Whistler answered that it took a day but a lifetime to conceptualize. Whistler was essentially saying that art is about conception and about ways of looking at the natural world and finding a wholly new means of expression. The artist must decide the most effective way, which could take a lifetime to learn to see the world in a new way and deconstruct it.


The Courtauld Gallery also had an exhibit on pointillism or divisionist technique. It explained that pointillism relies on the scientific theory that colours are stronger if juxtaposed in small dots instead of being mixed together.

For example, post-Impressionist Seurat’s The Bridge at Courbevoie (c. 1886–7) was an oil on canvas that showed disembodied human figures, giving it a sense of melancholy. The mood was silent and somber, but the scene was tragically beautiful, as well. The blues and different hues meshed together to give it this conflicting scene of beauty and isolation.

The Bridge at Courbevoie (image from here)

Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (c. 1884–86) also reveals these conflicting ideas of modernity. At first glance, it may not appear that anything political is happening here, being simply a beautiful Sunday. But this could reveal socialist practices, with every individual being part of the whole or collective identity and mentality here like in a Utopic space because “La Grande Jatte (the Big Bowl) is an island in the Seine River near Asnieres, one of Paris’s rapidly growing industrial suburbs. Seurat’s painting captures public life on a Sunday—a congregation of people from various classes . . . . Most of the people wear their Sunday best, making class distinctions less obvious” (Gardner 833). By looking at this painting, there is a suggestion that art is harmony or community or well-being. This is displayed not only in the subject matter but also the style of neoimpressionism or pointillism. Every dob of color, about the size of the top of a pencil eraser, is the same size and just as important as the next. The idea is that you are contributing to the whole. There is something meaningful embedded in that practice, raising the question of how much do we understand as viewers. Could this look bleak, frozen, or artificial? Instead of seeing engagement, there seems to be alienation, suggesting the topic for the period of modernity. There was great concern among artists concerning the alienating affects of modern, urban society.

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (image from here)


Some artists were called post-impressionists “Because their art had its roots in Impressionist precepts and methods, but is not stylistically homogenous” (Gardner 831). Artists “By the 1880s, . . . were more systematically examining the properties and the expressive qualities of line, pattern, form, and color” (Gardner 831).

Although Van Gogh is also considered a post-impressionist painter, “in marked contrast to Seurat, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) explored the capabilities of colors and distorted forms to express his emotions as he confronted nature” (Gardner 833). The mood is very solitary in his Le café de nuit (The Night Café(c. 1888).

Le café de nuit (The Night Café) (image from here)

The figures are slumped. They are together but alone in their own thoughts. The bar tender is a specter-like form. The colors are quite dissonant and jarring, arbitrary, or non-naturalistic in color. This is not, of course, the poor design of the interior decorator. The green goes against the red. Van Gogh is trying to capture the mood by trying to talk about the way one could lose one’s mind in the café, through drinking, whoring, gambling, etc. The use of color, or artificial color, creates dissonances. The billiard table is coming down right into the viewer, making this an oppressive work and making the viewer feel uncomfortable. The thick layering of impasto paint comes out so much, adding that physicality or materiality to the painting. The urgency, palpable experience of painting the radiating light is done by short, broken brush strokes. The artificiality of the light adds to the ominous tone. This painting becomes one of decline, of isolation, of loneliness so inherent in Modernist paintings.


The modernist period, a time of progress and of decline, enabled artists to explore new concepts, new techniques, and new styles. This led to the explosion of –isms, even more so than ever before. The modernist ideas of there being no universal truth would lead to the idea that humans can select from millions of different truths to live life by or outright silliness suggested by the Dadaists.

Questions lead by the Modernists of what is good or right and no way of knowing would lead into the idea of there being no hierarchies of value, shown by pop artists of the 1960s. The modernist concern that we can never really know ourselves or others would lead in to the idea of post-modernists about experimenting with multiple selves, as displayed in the art of Surrealists.

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