Modern vs Contemporary Art – What’s the Difference?

Both the contemporary and Modern art movements have impacted the world as a whole in everything from films and music to graphic design and other areas.

Many art enthusiasts unknowingly describe art from the 20th century onward as “modern” art, but the style of Modern art has many hallmarks that set it apart from other new age art movements.

While quite a bit of Contemporary art is often mistakenly viewed as Modern art, there are some stark differences between the two genres that stand out when properly noted.

When compared to the wide array of artists and masterpieces throughout the centuries, the works from notable artists within the last 150 years seem relatively recent.

AspectModern ArtContemporary Art
Time PeriodLate 19th century to roughly the 1960s or 1970sLate 20th century to the present day
Characteristics– Experimental with new forms, styles, and materials
– Reflects changing social, political, and technological landscape
– Diverse and lacks a dominant style or movement
– Reflects the complexity of the contemporary world
Key Artists– Pablo Picasso
– Vincent van Gogh
– Henri Matisse
– Jackson Pollock
– Damien Hirst
– Jeff Koons
– Ai Weiwei
– Cindy Sherman
– Many others

Modern vs Contemporary Art

The main differences between Modern and Contemporary art is that Modern art is dated from the 1880’s up until the 1960’s whereas Contemporary art is considered to be from the 1960’s to the present day.

Artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, and others from the latter part of the 19th century make up some of the more well known artists of the Modern art era.

According to most art historians and critics, Modern art began around the 1880’s and lasted well into the 1960’s and spanned across many nations and cultural shifts throughout the world.

Dejeuner sur lHerbe by Edouard Manet

Contemporary art, on the other hand, can accurately be described as art that was created by those who are still living today. Much of the social, cultural and political developments of the early 1900s and going forward had a significant impact on Contemporary artists.

Modern art includes the era of Impressionism and the movements that followed after it throughout the beginning of the 1900’s.

Many 19th century paintings are still revered as some of the greatest ever, and this period in time can be said to have one of the biggest impacts on the world of art.

While both Contemporary and Modern art have many similarities, a closer look at their differences reveals some of the more interesting details of art history in the last two hundred years.

Modern Art Origins

Modern art includes the era of experimentation for many of the most prominent artists during the latter portion of the 19th century into the mid-20th century.

Many of the popular art movements that came before this time period adhered to the same principles of accurate portrayal of real scenery or figures, but many artists sought to carve a new path into the end of the millennium and explore new avenues of expression that were previously uncharted in art history.

Impression Sunrise
Impression Sunrise, Claude Monet

Modern art began at a time when painters like Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gaugin, Paul Cezanne and others were delving into the world of Impressionism.

This same group would also later move into the Post-Impressionist era as they each began to develop their own personal flairs that would lead the modern art movement in a variety of different directions.

One of the most peculiar new styles in the Modern era was known as Cubism and would see some of the more prominent artists of the early 1900s strike out away from the norms of art and perspective and into a new and exciting form of expression that drew as much criticism as it did praise.

Cubist Self-Portrait, 1923 - Salvador Dali

Throughout the early 20th century, painters continued to work in the Cubist painting arena and many artists showed a true talent for the abstract nature of this movement. Cubism would have many offshoots which included Analytic Cubism and Synthetic Cubism.

Surrealism was another major art movement that enveloped the Modern era after the first World War. Many surrealist artists no longer felt the same amount of social or intellectual pressure to adhere to the same confines of their predecessors and began working in areas that reflected the various inner recesses of the mind.

Artists like Salvador Dali and others developed their skills in the Surreal art style, painting scenes that were warped and often inconceivable to most art critics and enthusiasts of the time.

At the time the established art world had a difficult time with surrealist paintings and they were see as almost too modern.

Following the generation after World War II, many artists, as well as art critics started to move away from the Modern era and into what is now considered the Post-Modern movement.

Contemporary Art Movement Origins

Simply put, the Contemporary art movement consists of art pieces that were created by artists who are still alive today. Much of the most important works in the Contemporary movement was created during the last decades of the 20th century and very early in the 21st century.

While most of the works that are considered Contemporary artworks are always changing, the movement can be traced down to a few artists that began the style in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

However, many art historians point to the fact that several prominent artists in the early part of the 20th century began painting in a way that would later lead to the development of the Contemporary movement as we know it today.

First Abstract Watercolor

The Contemporary Art Society was founded in England around 1910 and included a group of artists and art enthusiasts that purchased some of the more interesting art pieces of the time period and placed them in art museums around Europe and other areas of the world like Australia.

During the 1950’s, many art museums and institutes began to shed the “Modern” moniker and would seek to incorporate the Contemporary name into their organizations in some capacity or another.

From the 1960’s onward, it can be difficult to point to a specific break in the cultural and artistic differences of the most prominent artists of the Contemporary movement.

While the art genre is ever-changing, many of the most well-educated and esteemed art critics and historians still point to the current age as being part of what many would call the Contemporary movement.

Across the United States, Europe and other parts of the world, many artists and art enthusiasts are showcasing their works in increasingly smaller commercial galleries or art magazines in an effort to stake out a more exclusive nature to their work.

Major Differences Between Modern and Contemporary Art

Throughout much of the early 20th century, the most prominent artists in the world had a clear goal of breaking away from their current ‘norms’ of artistic expression.

Modern Artists like Van Gogh, Manet and Cezanne were not secretive in their efforts and aspirations to break free of the confines of the styles of art they had been painting in for decades and seek new forms of reaching the viewer with different angles and concepts that were largely viewed as obtuse by some of the more prominent art critics during this period.

Mont Sainte Victoire Courtauld

Modern art was notably different in that artists from this time period did not seek to replicate or work within the lessons and teachings of the popular art academies and institutes where they had begun learning different forms of expression.

Some of the most successful painters from the early Modern art movement completely diverged from the teachings of their predecessors and began to explore new areas that can accurately be described as a new frontier for many artists.

Part of what made the Modern art era so different from those that came before was the extensive effort on behalf of the artist to explore the many new ways one could express different forms of perspective regarding one single object.

While many art critics of the day viewed this as a strange, unfruitful way of artistic expression, the movement of Cubism was born and quickly took shape.

Many artists afterward would also see the beauty and wonder of painting a work that portrayed several different angles at which the viewer would normally otherwise not have an opportunity to experience were it not for this new method of painting.

Portrait of Picasso

Cubism and the many different genres within the Modern art movement were full of artists who were seeking and striving to bring new forms of expression to the two-dimensional canvas, as well as show the viewer various new perspectives that could otherwise not be gained by looking only at one single point of view.

This underlines the single-most obvious difference between Modern and Contemporary art—the effort on behalf of Modern artists to strive toward portraying the beauty of an object as opposed to the efforts of Contemporary artists to focus more on the concept of the work itself.

Contemporary artists have, since the 1960’s, worked toward finding new and different ways of expressing the concept of whatever the subject matter is, which in itself is a relatively novel approach compared to the hundred and even thousands of years before the movement began.

While Modern art paintings were largely confined to a two-dimensional canvas, Contemporary art has seemed to spark new life into areas like sculpture, architecture, and many other forms of expression.

Damien Hirst Room at ARKEN gallery

Instead of trying to force students to work within the normal confines of what has largely been taught in traditional art institutes, many scholars are encouraging their students to explore new avenues of expression in the spirit of the Contemporary movement.

This has become evident, in the most obvious sense, in the realm of architecture throughout the world’s most prominent cities as we see more and more buildings incorporate new forms of perspective instead of simple, straightforward designs.


While the Modern art movement has long been viewed as being responsible for much of the world’s most aesthetically pleasing artworks, many of the new masterful pieces of art can be attributed to the Contemporary movement that is ever-seeking to depict the world around us in a new manner.

Modern art is widely viewed as one of the most important art periods in human history, mainly due to the fact that artists encouraged one another to seek new forms of expression and portrayal of the world around them in ways that were totally foreign compared to their predecessors.

Contemporary art, however, has seen a significant impact on the social implications of the world. Artists in the Contemporary movement have much more freedom and liberty to explore themselves, as well as their own personal forms of expression in ways that artists have never enjoyed since the dawn of time.

My Bed

Contemporary art is now dominated by artists focusing on real-world issues that affect the whole of humanity, instead of their own nation or geographical region as artists have experienced hundreds of years before them.

Things like global warming, human rights, and environmental destruction are now at the forefront of the Contemporary art movement and are the driving force behind some of the most dedicated artists in the world who seek to use their newfound freedom to create a new form of masterpiece.

This new freedom brings on a sense of pressure and anticipation as to what the next masterpiece will be, but many Contemporary artists embrace the challenge of producing a work that is truly profound and able to shape the world around them in a way that has never been done before.