timeline of abstract art

The following is a list of events that introduce some of the elements which contributed to its development. Go the the Web sites linked in the descriptions to learn more about these landmark events, people, and inventions.


L.J.M. Daguerre (pronounced duh-GAIR), a French inventor, announces the development of the Dagurreotype, one of the first commercially viable methods of creating what we now call photographs. The technology, though clearly revolutionary, produces images in only black and white. It will be 97 years before the Eastman Kodak company develops a commercially viable film that will produce color images.


Karl Marx publishes The Communist Manifesto proclaiming the rights of the working class to control their destiny. In art, this gives rise to Realism, in which the gritty day-to-day existence of the peasant class is revealed.


Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy sails into Tokyo Bay in Japan and begins negotiations to open the country of Japan to Western trading. Soon, Japanese woodblock prints make their way to Europe and cause a stir among young artists who are impressed by the unique manner by which the Japanese artists create a flattened, yet believable, articulation of space.


Jean Dominique Ingres(pronounced Angr) completes The Source, an allegorical figurative painting that demonstrates the height of illusionistic idealism which painting had achieved.


Charles Baudelaire (pronounced bo-DLAIR), a critic and friend of the Impressionist painter Edouard Manet, reviews an exhibit of photographs saying, in part: “If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether...its true duty...is to be the servant of the sciences and arts — but the very humble servant, like printing or shorthand, which have neither created nor supplemented literature...”

The same year the French manufacturer LeFranc combines a screw cap with the collapsible tin tube patented in England by American John Goffe Rand in 1841 and creates the portable tube for oil paint. This releases artists from the artificiality of the studio and allows them to travel and respond to their surroundings en pleine-air (on-plen-AIR) , or outside, “in plain air.”


The American expatriate painter James MacNeil Whistler completes Symphony in White, No. I; The White Girl. He is one of many artists and musicians who actively attempt to synthesize the two art forms.


A close-knit group of artists experiments with radical ideas about color mixing and perception. Combining their new found color sense with the growing influence of images coming out of Japan, the group hangs a show in 1874 which has been organized by Claude Monet (mo-NAY). A French critic, Louis Leroy, derides the title of Monet’s painting of London Bridge, Impression, Sunrise, characterizing the entire show as an “exhibition of impressionists.”The name sticks.


George Abbot McNeil Whistler completes Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket, continuing his exploration of the relationship of music and painting. The painting approaches complete abstraction but is rooted in experience. John Ruskin, a British critic, famously comments, “I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler initiates a libel lawsuit that will eventually ruin him financially.


Claude Monet (clode mo-NAY) moves his studio to Giverny, France (zhee-vair-knee) and begins a series of paintings of his gardens and ponds. Over the next forty-three years, his images of nature gradually dissolve into broken strokes of color which eventually depict a world that literally floats between abstraction and realist imagery.


Georges Seurat conceives and completes the complex A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte. His method of applying individual dabs of color which, with distance, become optically mixed becomes a foundation for later artists whose interest is primarily the interaction of color.


George Eastman introduces the first transparent film as we know it today.


Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh (go-GAN and von-GOCH rhymes with Loch) spend six weeks living and working together in Arles (arl), France. The flat areas of color they employ and the shift in emphasis from a strict depiction of reality to a synthesis of the ideal and the real signals a major development in the growth of abstraction.


The Eiffel Tower is completed for the Paris Exposition revolutionizing structural engineering in architecture. The structure is ridiculed as an eyesore: “We, the writers, painters, sculptors, architects and lovers of the beauty of Paris, do protest with all our vigour and all our indignation, in the name of French taste and endangered French art and history, against the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.”


Paul Cézanne (say-ZAHN) moves to Saint-Victoire in the south of France and begins a series of works which will eventually number 44 oil and 43 watercolor paintings using the nearby mountain as his subject. His careful process dissects the color and form of the landscape, simplifies it, and then reassembles it as an abstract rubric of compositional elements which reads as a landscape painting. His classical composition and flawless structure provide the springboard for later artists such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque to develop Cubism.


Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian lawyer with an abiding appreciation and deep love of music, refuses a teaching position in Moscow and moves his family to Munich in order to devote himself completely to studying art.


Eastman Kodak company begins to market Brownie Cameras for $1.00. Film costs 15 cents a roll. “You press the button — we do the rest.“ is the company’s slogan. The ability to recreate images of reality is brought within both the technological and financial means of the average person. The Gustave Nordstrom family of Rockford, Illinois decides to document life in their affluent neighborhood.


The Interpretation of Dreams is published by Sigmund Freud.


Henry Ford establishes the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan. By 1927 the company’s innovative manufacturing and marketing ideas make and sell 15 million Model T automobiles. The Wright brothers fly their aeroplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.


Maurice Vlaminck “discovers” ‘Primitive’ art in the form of three Yoruba figures he purchases at a bistro in Argenteuil, France. He rapidly acquires two more figures and a white Fang mask from other sources. Short of cash, he sells the mask to his friend Andre Derain who hangs it in his studio. Shortly afterward, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso visit and are quite impressed by the piece.


Artwork by a group of artists who had developed in the wake of Post-Impressionism is hung together in the Salon d’Automne. Their love of line and uninhibited use of color sets them apart from what by that time was the tradition of Impressionism. Upon entering the gallery of colorful paintings surrounding a sculpture by the Italian Renaissance master Donatello, the critic Louis Vauxcelles is said to have remarked, “Ah, Donatello au milieu des fauves! (Ah, Donatello is found among the wild beasts!).” The term Fauves (fove) remains associated with the group.


Responding to the mask seen in Andre Derain’s studio, Picasso has begun to collect African artworks. He visits an exhibition of Archaic Iberian relief sculptures at the Louvre, which influence a group of works, including the Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1905-06). He meets Georges Braque (brock).


Picasso begins work on a major painting, executing studies of figures combined with elements of Iberian motifs and a radical approach to the articulation of space. By the end of May, a first draft of the painting is completed. During June he visits the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. Surrounded by African figurative objects whose proportions were often reinvented by the carver: very large heads, large torsos, prominent genitals, relatively small limbs — what might be called “social” rather than anatomical proportions (Flam, 1984) — and deeply steeped in an animist spirituality, Picasso experiences “shock” and “revelation.” “At that moment,” he said later, “I realized what painting was all about.”(Rubin, 1984).

Once Picasso returns to his studio, Western art never looks the same. The painting, which eventually will be titled Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Prostitutes of Avignon) is not just a formal exercise, but speaks directly to Picasso’s turbulent relationship with women. The painting’s revolutionary manifesto of appropriation and spatial discontinuity continues to outrage viewers, even now.


Georges Braque completes Houses at L’Estaque (le-STAHK). He and Picasso initiate a friendship and begin a deeply personal six-year aesthetic odyssey that will result in the development of Cubism, Analytical Cubism and Synthetic Cubism, revolutionizing thought about two dimensional space as well as the invention of collage and papier collé, two completely new art forms.


Wassily Kandinsky fuses his love of music with his mastery of abstract design to create Composition #7, often considered to be the first completely abstract painting.


World War I. Georges Braque enters the French military (Picasso is exempt as a Spanish national). Braque returns with a severe head wound but continues to make art. The carnage of the war is horrific and, by the end of the conflict, artists are so disgusted with a society that would condone such slaughter they begin to create deliberately chaotic, nonsensical works. Dada art is born.