Art in 19th Century Europe: The Definitive Guide for Travellers

Key 19th century painters No trip to any country in Europe is complete without a visit to one of the many impressive art galleries that are lined with the artistic talents throughout history. Especially in…

24 Jan 19 · 9 mins read

Key 19th century painters

No trip to any country in Europe is complete without a visit to one of the many impressive art galleries that are lined with the artistic talents throughout history. Especially in London, Paris and Vienna, the artists that pushed the boundaries of what art could be and created avant-garde independent art movements are celebrated. In the 19th century more than most, the push-back from the traditional, conservative renaissance-romantic styles was evident and innovation was rampant. Artists such as John Constable, Claude Monet, and Paul Cézanne, all contributed to the modern movement that brought art into a new age.

This article outlines some of the key moments from the 19th century that had a major impact on the direction that art took and the elements to look out for on your next art tour.

Shifting Focus to the Everyday

There were a number of great strides made in the 19th century to advance art and painting techniques. One such stride was championed by John Constable and his rival J. M. W. Turner early in the century. The two created a new style that detailed nature as the focal point in the art, rather than placing it simply as a backdrop to a historical scene being played out in the foreground. In the previous renaissance-romantic decades, the majority of art focused on the characters of mythical, religious, or historical stories. Instead, Constable and Turner wanted to portray the daily views, objects, and activities that people could relate to personally.

To create depth and enhance realism of his landscape paintings, Constable altered light and shadow to mimic changes to cloud cover. This can most famously be seen at the National Gallery in London, where Constable’s the Hay Wain is housed.

John Constable’s The Hay Wain (1821), Source: The National Gallery, London

The ingenuity of Constable and Turner shifting style to landscape painting was highly influential on artists both in the UK and abroad. It is said that impressionist painters, such as Théodore Géricault, Eugène Delacroix, Claude Monet, and Camille Pissarro, among others, took inspiration from this style to find beauty in everyday life.

Early Photography and the Daguerrotype

Thanks to Daguerre’s update to the camera obscura, which had been in use for centuries by artists to increase the likeness of their paintings to real life, the future of photography was realized. Daguerre, who was both an artist and chemist, married his two passions to create the Daguerrotype in 1839, which reduced exposure time to mere minutes. Thus, the new mechanism was able to capture people who managed to stay very still. For example, the first ever photograph of a person is Daguerre’s View of Boulevard du Temple.

Daguerre’s Boulevard du Temple (1839), the first photograph of a person; Source: Time 100

This first image of a person, getting their shoes shined, was created on a shiny copper panel, which gave the image added dimension. The relative ease with which an image could be snapped inspired William Henry Fox Talbot, who mere weeks later announced his advanced prototype of a cheaper and faster photo machine, which created negatives that could then be printed into multiple identical images. This was much the same process that was used until digital technology was invented.

The Invention of Portable Paints

Longing to escape their studios and follow the style of Constable and Turner, the invention of paint tubes made of malleable metal filled with pre-mixed paint colours, led to the impressionist style that we know today. In 1841, John Goffe Rand patented and sold the concept of squeezable paint tubes, and greater spontaneity erupted among French artists, who were then able to carry supplies to wherever inspiration hit.

“Without colours in tubes, there would be no Cézanne, no Monet, no Pissarro, and no Impressionism” – Auguste Renoir

(Quoted in Cheshire 2018, p. 80)

Popularity of the collapsible tubes only grew in the following decades to today and is now a staple with many paints, toothpastes, hand lotions and many other products. Claude Monet was notably excited by the prospect of portable paints, as his work became focused around gardens and other outdoor scenes. In the decades that followed, Monet moved to his cottage in Giverny and all but exclusively painted outdoors.

Claude Monet, Banks of the Seine, Vétheuil, (1880) Source: Chester Dale Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington

Not only did this invention facilitate changes of scenery, it also allowed for greater convenience of colours as they were pre-mixed. Where previously artists had to mix their own pigments with oil to create a paste of the desired colour, as chemists developed new pigment colours, they could be mixed right away and sold as a paste. A number of new coloured paints came into being in the mid-19th century, including chrome yellow and cerulean blue.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

In a subtle revolt against the the Royal Academy of Arts, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, began inputting the initials PRB into their works. On display at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, Isabella, painted by Millais in 1849, was the first painting to bear the iconic ‘PRB’. Another example of this inscription is in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848), in London Tate’s collection. It was an ode to the time before Raphael was dubbed the standard to which all artists should aspire. The PRB rejected the idea that Raphael’s style be taught by the Royal Academy as the do-all-end-all of art technique and that all other styles were frowned upon.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith (1867); Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

So, the young boys created one of the first avant-garde art movements, whose doctrine outlined four key areas: (1) to be an innovative thinker and express their own ideas; (2) to study natural details; (3) to appreciate emotion and intention behind previous works; and (4) to make good artwork. According to Jennifer Meagher of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the aim of their portfolio of medieval-style arts were to inspire their audience to scrutinize societal problems of morality, corruption, and justice (2004). The movement grew to a brotherhood of seven, but the ideals of their doctrine had a much further reach.

The Salon des Refusés

In 1863, at the request of the Napoleon III, a counter-exhibition was created by the committee that judged the art submissions for the annual Salon after an large number of complaints were drawn against their entry decisions and snobbery toward styles outside of renaissance-romantic. The Salon was held to showcase the best artists of the time, a coveted position which was directly linked to artists’ livelihood and reputation. Those that were refused entry would struggle to sell their pieces and get sufficient exposure to sustain their careers. The complaints from those who were rejected for their different styles and perspectives on their subjects, led to a decision by Napoleon III to hold a second exhibition. The counter-exhibition was named the Salon des Refusés (or “rejects exhibition”) by the jury of committee members in an attempt to humiliate the artists that questioned their decisions and to discourage artists to enter their art. Even still, thousands of art pieces were put on display, and in among some sub-par pieces were the impressive beginnings of a new style of painting, which had not been rejected for lack of talent but for differing artistic expression.

Leading the ‘independent movement’ from traditional renaissance style, was Édouard Manet. His work, entitled Déjeuner sur l’herbe, was displayed at the first Salon des Refusés and was a controversial topic of gossip throughout the crowds that attended. Now on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, it was a symbol of modernism and innovation for its scandalous depiction of a naked woman in the company of two clothed men. Manet regularly painted subjects in contentious scenes.

Édouard Manet’s Mademoiselle V… in the Costume of an Espada (1862), displayed at the 1863 Salon des Refusés ; Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Subsequent Salons des Refusés were held in 1864 and 1873. The pressure that the movement of contemporary artists to hold the Salon des Refusés paved the way for non-traditional works to become more mainstream and profitable. The impressionists and surrealists then followed, allowing art to be completely subjected and appreciated in different ways.

International Exhibits at the Exposition Universalle

After international pressure to re-open its borders from its voluntary withdrawal from international affairs and trade in the 1640s, Japan showcased its re-entry into international society by an impressive contingent of artists sent to Paris for the Exposition Universelle, which wowed the crowds in their millions. Because the Japanese had kept their culture and art within their borders, not much was known about their ways of life. That was until the works of Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai were displayed in this world exhibition and were celebrated by the public and other artists alike.

Utagawa Hiroshige’s Sendagi Dangozaka (1856); Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

A number of European artists were motivated by the ukiyo-e style because it reinforced their avant-garde movements, helping to renounce renaissance-romantic styles as the ultimate standard. Artists began to learn from and emulate international techniques, artists, and style from Asia and Africa in particular.

Modern Sculpture

After a rocky path on his way to international fame, Rodin is hailed one of the greatest sculptors of all time. Initially, his extreme realism was criticised and accused of being created from a mold of the human model instead of hand-sculpted. This accusation followed him throughout his career as he struggled to get accepted in the Salon and struggled to sell his works. With perseverance and the accreditation of a number of artists who vouched for his immeasurable skill in creating life-like sculptures, he managed to build his career and create some of the most recognizable sculptures in the world, including the Kiss and the Thinker, both of which reside at the beautiful Musée Rodin in Paris.

Rodin’s The Thinker (1880); Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

This was a key moment in art history because his real, proportionate sculptures did not depict an idealised image of the human form. He also used the effect of human movement in contorted poses so that his sculptures could be appreciated from different sides and angles. This was a new style, that again strayed from the traditional thinking of Salon juries at the time.

Toward Surrealism

Cézanne, more than most other artists, had the financial liberty to find his own artistic voice. Because his father was a wealthy bank owner, Cézanne never had to worry about conforming to a particular style in order to sell his work and make money to sustain himself. He lived at his father’s estate in Aix-en-Provence, where he was somewhat secluded from the other French painters of that generation. This freedom allowed him to develop a unique perspective on still-life and landscape painting and to take his time to perfect this style in every piece. For example, hanging in the MET is Cézanne’s Mont Saint-Victoire:

Paul Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire (1902); Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

His style is modern impressionistic, and the very early transition to more surrealistic art forms. His work strayed from the use of impeccable detail to be more general interpretations of the views before him, rather than an attempted copy image. Cézanne’s vision heavily influenced latter artists including Pablo Picasso, George Braque, and Jean Metzinger, who further extended their interpretations to a surrealist world.

International Muses

The beginnings of modern art were also inspired by the boundaries that were pushed by Paul Gauguin. A life of travel led to a varied portfolio of exotic landscapes and people, rarely before seen in Paris. For two years, Gauguin resided in Tahiti, immersing himself in the culture and society and even taking up several lovers, who featured heavily in the pieces of art he sent back to Paris. The majority of Gauguin’s paintings remain in France, a large majority being at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, but they can also be viewed around the world. The non-western characteristics of his new subjects greatly intrigued European audiences and inspired a new generation of artists who significantly veered from traditional European styles.

Paul Gauguin’s La Orana Maria (1891); Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Art as an Experience and the Vienna Secession

Similar revolts occurred in Vienna, as the modernized paint styles were shunned by the Austrian Artists’ Society, which was the authority on displaying and selling art at the time. The Society was reluctant to move away from the traditional pieces, which sold better. As a result, a movement of artists from different mediums, following Gustav Klimt’s lead, founded the Vienna Secession. Supported by the government, the Vienna Secession constructed a Secession Building to exhibit their works in an immersive “artistic environment” (Cheshire 2018, p. 109) from the architecture of the building to the paintings displayed.

The Secession Building in Vienna

The original building did not survive the world wars as it was torn down by the Nazis, but the movement stayed strong. They rebuilt the Secession Building and continue to hold art displays to this day. No art lover’s trip to Vienna will be complete without a stop at the Secession Building that represents the passion that contemporary artists have for their craft and for pushing recognition of different art forms.

The variety of avant-garde movements throughout the 19th century that spawned the contemporary art today are on display around the world. While a number of these artists were based in France, the UK, and Vienna, their influence can be felt world wide. On your next tour to Europe, keep an eye out for this highly influential period and the names that sparked the modern movement.


Cheshire, L. (2018). “19th Century,” Key Moments in Art. Thames & Hudson: London.

Meagher, J. (2004). “The Pre-Raphaelites,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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