Original Expressionism Paintings

The key to the expressionist style is the expression of emotion. The Impressionists provided the push that cast painting off from its long history of smooth representations of reality. Their loose brushwork, Gauguin's "primitive" style and Cezanne's experimentation with perspective opened the door for Expressionism. Dutchman Vincent van Gogh used energetic brushstrokes and vivid colors to impart emotional impact to his paintings. Norwegian Edvard Munch used flowing lines to depict anguish and love, while Austrians Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele handled eroticism and death. Influences from outside the arts include Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis and the calamity of the two World Wars. Experimentation with the expressionist style was perhaps most important in Germany. Though Hitler would attempt to squelch what he called "Degenerate Art," the style would spread throughout the world, and Expressionists like Wassily Kandinsky would pave the way for pure abstraction.

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Expressionism was introduced as an avant-garde style before World War I and remained popular throughout the 1930s. It has influenced most of what we think of as “modern art” today, largely due to its deeply subjective and turbulently emotional approach to self-expression. It is an abstract artistic style that is rooted in the emotions and inner experience of the artist who creates it. Unlike Impressionism, the objective of Expressionism is not to capture a moment in time with precise accuracy; instead, it is to exaggerate and distort the subject in an attempt to express the artist’s mood (and often, their inner angst) when they think about the subject. This is accomplished by applying formal elements in an exaggerated way. Expressionist art is dynamic and psychological. The artist shows us his or her subjective, emotional reaction to objects and places by exaggerating colors, shapes, and movement. 


Colors are often chosen arbitrarily and may make little sense to the naked eye when put together on the canvas; they often contrast and clash, and shapes are often distorted and almost appear to be a work of pure fantasy, such as in one of the most famous Expressionist paintings, The Scream by Edvard Munch. Due in part to the importance of the graphic arts to expressionism, strong lines and bold, black outlines are often featured. These lines serve to draw the eyes of the viewer from place to place in a picture, increasing the dynamic effects of figures and objects depicted. The colors enable the artist to create her own personal symbolism in the painting. Color taking on a symbolic meaning is common in expressionist painting. Paul Gauguin embraced this storytelling technique in the late 19th century.