Expressionism in Art
Characteristics of Expressionist Painting & Sculpture.

Pin it

The Large Blue Horses (1911)
Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis.
By Franz Marc. One of the
greatest 20th century paintings
of the expressionist school.

For details, see: History of Art.
For the chronology and dates
see: History of Art Timeline.
For details of modernism,
see: Modern Art Movements.

Expressionism in Art (c.1890-present)


What is Expressionism?
What is the History of Expressionism?
How Did Expressionism Develop?
Abstract Forms of Expressionism
Figurative Expressionism

What is Expressionist Art? - Characteristics

Expressionism is an intensely personal art form. The expressionist artist strives to convey his personal feelings about the object painted, rather than merely record his observation of it. Thus, in order to achieve maximum impact on the viewer, representational accuracy is sacrificed (distorted) in favour of (eg) strong outlines and bold colours. Compositions tend to be simpler and more direct, and are often characterized by thick impasto paint, loose, freely applied brushstrokes, and occasional symbolism. The message is all-important.


Interior at Petworth (1837)
Tate Collection, London.
By JMW Turner, an outstanding
pioneer of expressionist painting.
How else can we understand this
extraordinary interior of Petworth.

Expressionism As a General Style

As you can see from the above explanation, expressionism, is really a general style of art - rather than a specific movement. Thus, one might argue that the expressionist movement really began with prehistoric cave painting, was continued by anonymous artists throughout Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages, before being taken up by Italian Renaissance artists like Donatello (1386-1466), Matthias Grunewald (c.1475-1528), Mannerists like El Greco, and artists throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, modern innovators such as Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Matisse (1869-1954) and Picasso (1881-1973) up to mid-20th century masters like Jackson Pollock (1912-56) and Francis Bacon (1909-1992).

In short, as a general style of painting and sculpture, expressionism has always existed, and will always continue to exist.

For other important trends
similar to expressionism, see:
Art Movements, Schools
from about 100 BCE.

The History of Expressionism

As a movement, the term 'Expressionism' usually denotes the late-19th century, early-20th century schools of emotive or interpretive art, which emerged mainly in Germany and Paris as a reaction to the more passive style of Impressionism. In the sense that it was a reaction to Impressionism, we may describe expressionism as an example of "post-Impressionism". In any event, whereas Impressionist painters sought only to reproduce nature (notably the effects of sunlight), Expressionist painters sought to express their feelings about what they saw. It was a more active, more subjective type of modern art.

The roots of expressionist art during the modern era can be traced back to the extraordinary landscapes and other works (see Interior at Petworth, left) of the British artist JMW Turner (1775-1851). His unique style predated the emergence of the late 19th-century Expressionist impulse by at least 40 years. After Turner, the next most important pioneer of the movement was the Dutchman Vincent van Gogh. He was one of three important late-19th-century exponents of the style, as follows:


Pioneers of Expressionism

Van Gogh (1853-90) exemplifies expressionism. Not only were most of his pictures autobiographical, in that they chronicled his thoughts, feelings and mental equilibrium, but even the composition, colours and brushwork of his paintings were a close reflection of his feelings as he painted. Few artists have since equalled his genuine intensity of self-expression. See his unique style of expressionist painting at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and at the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo.

If Van Gogh distorted form and colour to convey his inner feelings, the French artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) relied on colour to express his emotions. He also employed symbolism, but it was his colour in painting that truly set him apart. As well as expressionism, he also influenced the development of Synthetism as well as Cloisonism, during his time at Pont-Aven.

The third great pioneer of expressionism was Edvard Munch (1863-1944), the neurotic Norwegian painter and printmaker who, despite being emotionally scarred in early life, managed to live to over 80 years of age. However, nearly all his best pictures were painted before his nervous breakdown in 1908.

Another harbinger of expressionist art was the Swiss Symbolist painter Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918), and the Symbolist James Ensor (1860-1949). See also: History of Expressionist Painting (c.1880-1930).

How Did Expressionism Develop?

Although one might say that the Worpswede group (1889-1905) in Germany and to a lesser extent Les Nabis group in Paris, were expressionistic - see, for instance, the primitivist portraits of Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) - the first distinct style of expressionism was Fauvism. It emerged in Paris in 1905 and was led by Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Other Fauvist painters included Andre Derain (1880-1954), Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), Georges Braque (1882-1963), Raoul Dufy (1877-1953), Albert Marquet (1875-1947) and Georges Rouault (1871-1958). Characterized by violent and vivid colours, fauvist paintings were first exhibited at the 1905 Salon d'Automne exhibition in Paris. However, the movement was short-lived.

Expressionism really took root in Germany, in Dresden, Munich and Berlin. Three separate groups emerged, which are collectively referred to by art historians as German Expressionism: Die Brucke (1905-13), Der Blaue Reiter (1909-14), and the post-war Die Neue Sachlichkeit (1920s).

Die Brucke (1905-13) (The Bridge)
Based in Dresden, this group combined traditional German art with African, Post-Impressionist and Fauvist styles. Important members included: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976), Erich Heckel (1883-1970), Emil Nolde (1867-1956), Otto Mueller (1874-1930) and Max Pechstein (1881-1955). Others included the Dutch ex-Fauvist painter Kees Van Dongen (1877-1968).

Der Blaue Reiter (1911-14) (Blue Rider)
Based in Munich, it was named after a Kandinsky painting from the cover of their 1912 Manifesto. The group included a number of avant-garde artists, such as Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941), Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Paul Klee (1879-1940), Franz Marc (1880-1916) and August Macke (1887-1914).

A late convert to expressionism was Lovis Corinth (1858-1925). Meantime, Austrian expressionists included the graphic artist, portraitist and landscape painter Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), and the erotic Viennese figurative painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918).

Die Neue Sachlichkeit (1920s) (New Objectivity)
Centred on Berlin, this group explored a new form of realism with a socialist flavour. Vividly satirical in its portrayal of corruption in wartime and postwar Weimar Germany, its leading members included: George Grosz (1893–1959) Otto Dix (1891-1969), Max Beckmann (1884-1950), and Christian Schad (1894-1982).

Expressionist Artists in Paris

Paris was not as avowedly expressionist as cities in Germany, but many of the 20th century painters associated with the Paris School explored expressionism at some point during the first two decades of the 20th century. Arguably the four greatest expressionists of the Ecole de Paris were Frank Kupka (1871-1957), Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Chaim Soutine (1894-1943) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). The last three were collected in particular by Dr Albert C Barnes (1872-1951) and by Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947).

Nowhere was expressionism better executed than in Germany, during the decade leading up to World War I. Artist groups like Die Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter created a huge number of unforgettable images of raw beauty. My favourite expressionist paintings include nearly all Kandinsky's early landscapes; Head of a Woman (1910, Museum of Modern Art, NY) and Head of Medusa (1923, Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon) by the "Russian Matisse" Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941); Tiger (1912, State Gallery, Munich) Large Blue Horses (1911, Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis) by Franz Marc (1880-1916); Semi-Nude Woman with Hat (1911, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne) and Portrait of Gerda (1914, Van der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal) by Ernst Kirchner. As far as expressionist prints go, can there ever be a more awesome image than The Prophet (Woodcut, 1912, Museum of Modern Art, New York) by Emil Nolde (1867-1956)? The Paris School had its own masterpieces, some of whom are just as beautiful. My favourites are Seated Nude (1916, Courtauld Institute) by Modigliani (1884-1920), Le Coquelicot (The Corn Poppy) (1919, Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, Albi) by the Dutch-born Kees Van Dongen (1877-1968), and Self Portrait (1911) by Georges Rouault (1871-1958). Picasso was undoubtedly one of the greatest expressionists, thanks to works like La Vie (1903), Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) and Weeping Woman (1937). Less well known expressionists worth a closer look include: Lovis Corinth (1858-1925), for his portraits; Gabriele Munter (1877-1962) for her garish portraits and landscapes; Erich Heckel (1883-1970) for works like Landscape Near Dresden (1910, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin); and the underrated Fauvist painter Emile-Othon Friesz (1879-1949). The Austrian genius Egon Schiele (1890-1918) is probably the most talented expressionist draughtsman, but his portraits are too strident for my taste. I prefer Modigliani, especially his Gypsy Woman with Child (1919, National Gallery Washington DC), Girl with Braids (1918, Nagoya City Art Museum), his portraits of Paul Guillaume and his Portrait of Leopold Zborowski.

Expressionist Sculptors

Expressionism was also popular in sculpture. Notable exponents included the wood-carver Ernst Barlach (1870-1938) and Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881-1919).

Abstract Forms of Expressionism

As New York superceded Paris as the centre of innovation in modern art, the style reemerged as Abstract Expressionism, in early 1940s America, with the so-called action painters led by Jackson Pollock (1912-56) and Willem De Kooning (1904-97), and the colour-field painters, such as Mark Rothko (1903-70), Barnett Newman (1905-70) and Clyfford Still (1904-80). More abstract than expressionistic, this new school had little tangible connection with the more representational, if not completely realistic, style of early 20th-century expressionism.

Figurative Expressionism (1940s, 1950s)

Although American and European art of the post-war period was dominated by abstraction, in Australia, representational expressionism was still popular, as exemplified by the work of artists like Russell Drysdale (1912-81) and Sidney Nolan (1917-92).


The latest revival of expressionist art occurred during the 1980s in America, Britain, Germany, Italy and France, under banner of Neo-Expressionism.

Viewed primarily as a reaction to the Minimalism and Conceptual art of the 1970s, its leading exponents in America included Philip Guston and Julian Schnabel, and in Britain (New Spirit Painting) Paula Rego and Christopher Le Brun. In Germany, the Neo-Expressionist school was also known as Neue Wilden (new Fauves), and included: Georg Baselitz (b.1938), Gerhard Richter (b.1932), Jorg Immendorff (b.1945), Anselm Kiefer (b.1945) A.R.Penck [Ralf Winkler] (b.1939) and others. In Italy, Neo-Expressionist painting appeared under the banner of Transavanguardia (beyond the avant-garde) and featured artists such as Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Nicolo de Maria and Mimmo Paladino. In France Neo-Expressionism coalesced around a group called Figuration Libre, formed in 1981 by Remi Blanchard, Francois Boisrond, Robert Combas, and Herve de Rosa.

• For styles of expressionism, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.