Unit 5: The 19th Century

Portions of the following text are taken from smarthistory.org, which is available for use under CC BY-NC-SA. Please see the citations at the bottom of the page for more information. The text has been adapted to more closely adhere to Chicago Manual of Style and Ensign College Style Guide. 

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 19th-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)
Figure 6A A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Édouard Manet, oil on canvas, 1882. Courtauld Gallery, London, (Photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.)

During the 19th century, 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, factories, and mass transportation. The following is a list of some important elements developed during this period and widely shared by societies throughout the century.


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 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 US 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 or 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.

Urban culture

Claude Monet, Le Boulevard des Capucines, 1873–74, oil on canvas, 80.3 x 60.3 cm (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)
Figure 6B Le Boulevard des Capucines, Claude Monet, 1873–1874, oil on canvas, 80.3 x 60.3 cm. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. 

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 and towns to large cities helped to break down 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 became 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)
Figure 6C “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). Omnibus Life in London, William Maw Egley, 1859, oil on canvas, 44.8 x 41.9 cm. Tate, London.


Technological advances, such as industrialization, railroads, gas lighting, streetcars, the evolution of factory systems, indoor plumbing, appliances, and scientific advances came rapidly. 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 secularism and 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 on 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)
Figure 6D The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme, Joseph Stella, 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, and conservative and was to be avoided by the new modern public. Modern Europe and the US internalized these positions and used modernity as a way of determining and validating their superiority. The 19th 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-19th-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.

A middle-class audience

Winslow Homer, Croquet Scene, 1866, oil on canvas, 40.3 x 66.2 cm (Art Institute of Chicago)
Figure 6E Croquet Scene, Winslow Homer, 1866, oil on canvas, 40.3 x 66.2 cm. Art Institute of Chicago.

By the mid-1850s, 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, were easy to look at, fit into their homes, and addressed subjects they liked. Not 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 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 and the one to take the most risk. The French socialist Henri de Saint-Simon first used the term in the early 1820s 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)
Figure 6F Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1918, Kazimir Malevich, 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-century 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.

Chapter 15: RomanticismChapter 16: RealismChapter 17: ImpressionismChapter 18: Post-Impressionism and Symbolism
Previous Citation(s)
Dr. Parme Giuntini, "Becoming Modern, an introduction," in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, accessed June 28, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/becoming-modern-an-introduction/.

This content is provided to you freely by BYU Open Learning Network.

Access it online or download it at https://open.byu.edu/history_of_the_fine_arts_music/the_19th_century.