What Classifies a Painting as Modern?

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What Classifies a Painting as Modern?

Painting is one of the oldest art forms, and has been practiced throughout most of human history. All kinds of implements have been used for painting, including knives and sponges, and paintings have been made on clay, rock, wood and glass. The most recognisable types of painting today were made upon canvas, paper or similar materials, and made using a variety of different types of paintbrush.

There are many different classifications of painting, and among the most popular and widely available is the modern painting. Numerous different elements can classify a painting as modern, and modern paintings can include a many different stylistic techniques and artistic movements. A wide range of modern paintings are available on eBay.

This guide aims to highlight the difference between modern, contemporary and antique paintings, with specific considerations related to how to classify a painting as modern.

When the Painting Was Painted

One of the most important deciding factors on whether or not a painting can be considered modern is the time it was painted.

Paintings made throughout much of the Twentieth Century, from 1900 and later, are often considered to be modern paintings, though there is often a great deal of academic debate on specific dates.

Sometimes, modern art can blend with contemporary art, which is that made closer to the present day. A good guide is that most art from the Twentieth Century can be considered modern, whereas paintings made in the Twenty First Century, and sometimes the latter years of the Twentieth, can be considered modern art.

The work of individual artists may also be broadly considered to count as modern paintings.

The generally accepted modern period covers numerous major artistic movements, including impressionist and abstract movements.

It is important to note the modern era paintings, Modernism, and Modern Art can all be considered as separate and distinct concepts, though there can sometimes be overlap.

Painting Types

There are a number of major artistic movements that modern paintings can be considered a part of. These movements are a vital element in classifying a painting as modern. There are a number of major artistic movements within the era of modern paintings.

Modernist Paintings

Modernism was a cultural and artistic movement that emerged in Western society at the start of the Twentieth century, and many paintings painted during that time exhibit the styles and tendencies of the movement. Emerging out of the great changes that were occurring within European societies caused by emerging industries and revolutions, these artists rejected more traditional forms of art.

Modernist art tends to be considerably more abstract than more traditional forms of painting, and the meaning of modernist work is not always immediately apparent. A key tendency of Modernist paintings is self-awareness, and it is not uncommon for Modernist works to draw attention to the materials and processes used in their creation.

Impressionist Paintings

Impressionist paintings can also be considered as early examples of Modernism. Impressionism developed into one of the most influential artistic movements of the century, and impressionist works remain popular today. A key tenet of impressionism was the idea that the human eye sees light, rather than the objects themselves. Impressionist paintings often use sweeps of colour, with a focus on the accurate depiction of light. Impressionist paintings often feature thin but visible brush strokes. Claude Monet is a well-known impressionist painter.

Expressionist Paintings

Expressionist paintings are another popular element of Modernist work. Originating in 1920s Germany, expressionist works attempt to interpret the world in a purely subjective way. These paintings attempt to significantly distort reality in order to express emotional meaning and experiences. As a result these paintings are also often very abstract.

Abstract Paintings

Abstract paintings are a widely popular type of modern painting, and began to emerge in the 1920s. Abstract painters do not take visual references from the real world, and their work can appear as a chaotic, anarchic combination of form, colour, and line. Particularly famous kinds of abstract painting include the Italian Futurists, whose work focused on youth, technology, speed and violence, and the Cubists, a movement pioneered by Pablo Picasso.

Photorealist Paintings

Photorealist works can be seen as a rejection of the more abstract styles that emerged in the early Twentieth Century. Emerging in the 1970s, photorealist paintings strive to display physical reality in an accurate way, and were based upon the photograph. These paintings remain popular, and bear similarity to the still life paintings which were prevalent in the Nineteenth Century and earlier.

Figure Paintings

Figure paintings are another popular genre of painting. These paintings focus upon the human form and the human body. Often more realist and less abstract than other paintings, there are a wide range of different styles of figure painting. This is one of the oldest kinds of painting, though many modern figure paintings are also available.

Landscape and Portrait Paintings

This type of painting has remained a mainstay of art throughout much of history. Landscape and portrait paintings are often much more realistic than some of the more abstract pieces that exploded in popularity during the Twentieth Century, and remain popular today. Portraits are commonly realistic depictions of individuals, though some more abstract portraits are available. Self-portraits are also widely available. Landscapes are often scenic pictures of countryside, though sometimes urban areas feature in more recent paintings.

Painting Materials

There are a wide range of materials used in painting, and are commonly used in differentiating between modern paintings. The materials used can significantly affect the look of the final piece, and many collectors have a preference which they focus on, be it oil paintings or watercolours.

  • Oil paint is one of the oldest types of paint used, and has remained popular for many years. Oil paintings were among the most common throughout much of the modern period, with many types of painting being painted in oil. Different oils in paint provide different properties, for example preventing yellowing with age.
  • Watercolours are another popular type of painting. Watercolours have a very long history of use in China and Africa, becoming widespread in Europe later on. Water colours are very often used for landscape paintings, and many modern paintings are painted with watercolours. Thicker watercolour pains such as gouache are also often used.
  • Acrylic paints emerged much later than oil or watercolour, becoming available in the 1950s, and only the more recently made modern paintings are likely to be acrylic. Acrylics can resemble oil paintings and watercolours, or sometimes have their own unique appearance which is not achievable with other mediums.
  • Numerous different surfaces are also often used. The most commonly used surface for modern paintings is canvas. Made of linen, cotton, or similar materials these surfaces were stretched out over wooden frames and used as the base of a painting. Canvases would often absorb paint, making them a popular choice for watercolours. Canvas paintings will often be sold in frames.
  • Boards made of wood or other solid material are also sometimes used, to provide a sturdy and rigid surface.  Paper has also sometimes been used, with heavier paper often being needed for use with paint. Some more unusual surfaces have also been used for paintings, including leather and glass.

Buying a Modern Painting on eBay

eBay offers a wide range of artistic pieces, including paintings from numerous eras. To view the full listings of available paintings, visit the Collectables & Antiques section. Modern Paintings can be found in the Paintings category, under Art. Items can be arranged by categories such as price, condition and distance to seller. Auction and Buy it Now buying options are also available, providing flexibility in how a modern painting can be purchased.

Prominent information about an item, such as the type and subject matter of the painting, will often be prominently displayed in the item listing. Further information about an item can be accessed on the item page. Here, more detailed information about a painting can be accessed such as the painter, place of origin and age of the piece.

Information about the seller can also be accessed here, such as item reviews and feedback ratings. It is often a good idea to pay attention to these before making a purchase, so that it can be made with confidence. It is also possible here to ask the seller a question about the item.

If a specific painting is desired, it may be easier and more effective to use the search function available at the top of every page. Searches can be made to return results from the entire site, or from within specified categories. Further information on effective use of the search function is available on the Search Tips page.


A wide range of modern paintings are available, from turn of the century oil paintings to avant-garde abstract pieces. Modern paintings cover a broad range of varied artistic movements, meaning that these paintings offer a wide choice of style and subject matter.

Some may prefer the more traditional realist paintings, such as landscape or photorealist pieces. Others may prefer more abstract works. A variety of modern paintings can be found on eBay.

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