Gestural Painting
Style of expressive, gesturalist art like Action Painting.

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Gestural Painting (1950s, 1960s)


What is Gestural Painting? (Characteristics)
Origins and History
Abstract Expressionism


Woman (1950)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
By Willem de Kooning. A typical
example of the artist's agitated and
expressive brushwork.

Pasiphae (1943)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
By Jackson Pollock. An early example
of his "all-over" gesturalism.

Black Reflections (1959)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
By Franz Kline. A rare colour painting
by the artist who was noted for his
black and white gesturalism.

Homage to Death (1950)
Private Collection.
By Georges Mathieu, the brilliant
French gesturalist.

What is Gestural Painting? (Characteristics)

The term "gestural painting", also known as "gesturalism", is used to describe a method of fine art painting characterized by energetic, expressive brushstrokes deliberately emphasizing the sweep of the painter's arm or movement of the hand. In other words, the brushwork in a gesturalist painting expresses the artist's emotions and personality just like a person's gestures reflect their feelings in everyday life. Gesturalism also emphasizes the physical act of painting itself, drawing attention to the "process of creating".

Origins and History

Up until the mid-19th century, the art world was dominated by a style of painting known as Academic art. This highly polished form of oil painting was promoted by Europe's great Academies of fine art for its classical, high-brow appearance, in which no trace of the artist's brush was visible. From about 1850 onwards, as these ultra-conventional aesthetics began gradually to relax, painters acquired greater freedom to paint as they felt. New themes began to emerge (eg. the everyday lives of ordinary people - as championed by Barbizon and French Realism), as well as new styles of brushwork and impasto texturalism. One of the most famous gesturalists was Van Gogh (1853-1890), many of whose oil paintings - notably Wheat Field with Crows and Roots and Branches (both 1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) - are marked by feverish, highly animated brushstrokes that express all too clearly the mental anguish from which he was suffering.

Abstract Expressionism

In terms of movements, the gesturalism tag has been applied especially to Abstract Expressionism, notably painters of the New York School, such as Willem De Kooning (1904-97), Jackson Pollock (1912-56), his wife Lee Krasner (1908-84), and Franz Kline (1910-1962). Other gesturalists in the movement included Robert Motherwell (1915-91) (famous for his Elegy to the Spanish Republic series), and Mark Tobey (1890-1976) (calligraphic style).

Within the genre of abstract expressionist painting the purest form of gestural art can be seen in Jackson Pollock's Action Painting - in which paint is applied all-over a horizontal canvas using a "drip, dribble and splash" method. See also: Jackson Pollock's paintings (c.1940-56). In contrast, Pollock's contemporary De Kooning became famous for his gestural figurative painting, a tradition later pursued by neo-expressionist artists during the late 1970s and early 1980s

In Europe, gesturalism was practised in the Art Informel movement (the European version of Abstract Expressionism) by artists like Georges Mathieu and Wols, by exponents of Tachisme, and by Asger Jorn (1914-73) and Karel Appel (1921-2006) of the COBRA group.

Pollock's and De Kooning's methods heralded a major shift in the aesthetic perspective of North American painters and critics. Several art critics - such as Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978) and Clement Greenberg (1909-94) - saw these methods as revolutionary. Greenberg saw the clotted and oil-caked surfaces as reflecting the artists' existential struggle; Rosenberg saw the finished object as only a kind of residue of the actual work of art, which he thought lay in the "process" of the painting's creation.


Neo-Expressionism embraced a variety of different painting styles but which shared certain common characteristics. The latter included an extreme expressiveness of colour, figurative subject matter, as well as significant surface activity and texturalism.

Neo-expressionist art was known in Germany as Neue Wilden ('New Fauves'); in Italy, as Transavantguardia; in France, as Figuration Libre; and in America, as Energism. Leading neo-expressionist artists included Georg Baselitz (b.1938), Rainer Fetting, Anselm Kiefer (b.1945), A.R.Penck and Frank Auerbach (b.1931). For more, please see also: History of Expressionist Painting (1880-1930), as well as The Expressionist Movement (1880 onwards).

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