Expressionist Paintings Key Facts

Over the course of centuries, art history has taken several twists and turns. In the past, painting styles depicted the world with a life-like accuracy of details. But modern art movements like Impressionism and Expressionism defied the rules of these classical creations.

In a nutshell, Expressionism in art was all about feelings and moods, as its name indicates. The 20th-century art movement prioritized personal emotions and subjective perceptions. Therefore, this avante-garde concept contrasted with the objective realism of traditional works.

Expressionism was partly a reaction to industrialization and the spiritual dearth in the new urban cities. Anxieties about the disintegration of authentic human relationships also led to its rise.

It is also considered a reaction against Impressionism. This was because the movement was more about inner experiences than external ones.

Expressionist Paintings

Credit: Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation VII, reproduced in “Expressionism” by Ashley Bassie

Expressionist artists often used bold, distorted colors to emphasize and evoke sentiment. Symbolists like Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and James Ensor had this influence on German creators. They began challenging the bourgeois high culture and tried to express their psyche, sexuality, and spirit rawly.

Expressionism is said to have lasted roughly between 1905-1920. But later on, it branched into other styles like Abstract Expressionism and Neo-Expressionism. It started in the early twentieth century and continued till around 1945, till the end of world war II.

This modernist art movement also influenced poetry, cinema, music, and dance. Additionally, expressionist architecture became prominent.

What is The Main Idea Behind Expressionism?

To understand Expressionism, let’s consider its history. The art style originated in 19th-century Germany and France. At this time, a group of artists who embraced subjective feelings emerged and flourished. The main goal of Expressionism was to evoke these emotions in the viewer.

The 20th century was a period of rapid modernization and ruin caused by the world wars. Many consider Expressionism as both a rejection and a reaction to the changes in contemporary life. It was also a rebellion against academic painting, which they considered superficial.

Dance Around the Golden Calf

Credit: Emil Nolde, Dance Around the Golden Calf, via Wikiart

Post-Impressionists like Van Gogh and Munch influenced new artists to use bold and expressive lines and vivid colors. The paintings depicted the creators’ mental state and were intensely emotional and dramatic. So, Expressionist images were raw, distorted, and unsettling, often created spontaneously.

In Expressionism, artists did not put the subjects on a pedestal. Instead, they presented them as they perceived them. The compositions were not as aesthetically stunning as Impressionist paintings.

The pieces did not focus on fleeting moments of modern life, either. Instead, they were dynamic and instinctual, reflecting their disillusionment and disappointment.

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Delve into the intriguing world of Expressionism as we unravel key facts and insights about this revolutionary art movement, exploring its profound impact on the art world and understanding its unique approach to capturing raw emotion and human experience on canvas.

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Portrait of Maude Abrantes

Credit: Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Maude Abrantes, via Wikiart

Expressionism is also widely classified based on the regions where it simultaneously emerged. So there is German Expressionism, French Expressionism, Austrian Expressionism, and Norwegian Expressionism. German Expressionists were inspired by medieval mysticism and Nietzche’s philosophies.

Austrian Expressionism was more about moral hypocrisy, death, violence, and suppressed sexuality. French Expressionism focused on deep emotions and subjective experiences. Despite the variety, the common thing about Expressionist art was that it was always about the psyche.

7 Important Facts About Expressionist Art

Several unique features and qualities differentiate the movement from other artistic styles. Let’s look at seven interesting facts and characteristics of Expressionism:

1. Extreme angles, flattened forms, flashy colors, and distorted views.

Sharp, jutting angles and two-dimensional forms characterized expressionist art. Artists used unnatural colors that stood out in a brash and vulgar way. They also used exaggerated swirls and swayed the brushstrokes to create highly-textured paintings.


Credit: Marianne von Werefkin, Self-Portrait via Wikimedia

So, intense colors, warped and jumbled subjects, and extreme outlines were standard in Expressionism. Flat geometric patterns were seen as more “primitive” and “raw”, so they adopted such stylistic techniques. These expressed their disturbed inner persona and their anxieties and longings.

2. In the late 1800s, a group of artists in Germany gave rise to expressionism.

Although Expressionism developed in many countries simultaneously, it began to stir more strongly in the late 19th century in Germany. A group of German expressionist painters formed an organization called Die Brücke (the Bridge) in Dresden.

Painter and printmaker Ernst Ludwig Kirchner led the group. Historians consider this 1905 group the foundation of German Expressionism. They were inspired by the past and wanted to connect it to the present.

The Collector

Credit: The Collector

They used many colors and had a straightforward approach. Often, the focus was on middle-class life and sexual expression.

Another similar group of German artists formed Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), titled so after Kandindsky’s painting of the same name. This 1911 Munich group consisted of Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Paul Klee, and August Macke. Their main focus was on the spiritual essence of art.

Although it has many non-German precursors, the movement is traced back to this early 20th-century group. It was a reaction to the changing world and a rejection of realism.

3. Expressionism forced artists to depict their feelings in paintings.

As the name suggests, Expressionism is about expressing feelings and emotions. It was primarily a reaction to the isolation and discontent people felt in the war-torn urban scenario. Artists conveyed these emotions and other anxieties of modern life through their creations.

The Orders of the Night

Credit: Anselm Kiefer, The Orders of the Night, via Seattle Art Museum

Compositions became more about the inner world within the artist than the visual exterior. Expressionism established a new standard for producing and assessing art.

4. Expressionist art promoted social criticism and psychoanalysis.

Expressionist artists used their vivid palettes and bold lines to comment on the alienation of individuals in urban areas. This choice was both a sociological and psychological commentary.

For example, they discussed the miserable condition of prostitutes. It was a relevant issue, especially in the context of rising capitalist inequality and seclusion.

Self-portrait of a Soldier

Credit: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self-portrait of a Soldier, via Bridgeman Images

Similarly, the subconscious mind and Freudian concepts of repression also made their way into Expressionist subject matters. The effect of the world war on one’s mental landscape was a dominant theme in modern art.

Anxieties, breakdowns, dreams, and such psychological concepts were expressed in these creations. Existential and metaphysical themes were also common in Expressionism. The expressionist style included themes of death, nothingness, etc.

5. The term ‘Expressionism’ came up in contrast to ‘Impressionism’.

There is some contention regarding the origins of the term ‘Expressionism’ as we know it. Most experts agree that Czech art historian Antonin Matějček came up with the name in 1910. He called them ‘Expressionists’ to contrast them against the Impressionists.

He devised the term by analyzing how Expressionist artists sought to express themselves and “complex psychic structures”. On the other hand, Impressionists focus on immediate perceptions and mental visuals. The Expressionist artists rejected those who explored nature and the external world.

Expressionist artists

Credit: Gabriele Münter, Jawlensky and Werefkin, via Wikiart

Many artists associated with the movement did not identify with the term ‘Expressionism’. These include Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Franz Marc, Alexej von Jawlensky and Wassily Kandinsky.

However, in 1901, artist Julien-Auguste Hervé displayed some paintings in Paris and called them Expressionismes. The term expressionist can even be traced back to 1850 in the modern sense of what it means. It is believed to have been properly established in 1913.

6. Expressionist works used spiritual, sensual, and mythical imagery.

As Expressionists tried to convey their mental torment through art, they were filled with various imagery. For instance, while depicting physical suffering, Expressionist artists like Schiele and Munch have been influenced by biblical themes of crucifixion.

It could have been inspired by the 15th-century renaissance creations of Grünewald’s paintings of Christ in pain.

Renaissance painting

Credit: Egon Schiele, Kardinal Unf Nonne ("Liebkosung"), via the Leopold Museum , Vienna

But they rarely used religious and mythological imagery in its divine sense. Most of these works were considered blasphemous and profane. For example, Schiele painted an image of a bishop and a nun in a sensual embrace, leading to outrage.

Many other Expressionist artists, like Kokoschka, created erotic paintings exploring sexuality. Fantastic, mythical, magical, and grotesque visuals were also dominant in Expressionist art. In this way, the aesthetics of Expressionism were often shocking.

7. Expressionism had a significant influence on other art forms and styles.

Expressionism influenced many artistic spheres, from sculptures and architecture to dance and cinema. It also affected literature, music, and drama. Bruno Taut’s ‘Glass Pavilion’ of the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition (1914) and Erich Mendelsohn’s ‘Einstein Tower’ in Potsdam, Germany (1921) are two important works of Expressionist architecture.

modern art

Credit: Einstein Tower, via Wikipedia

Expressionism is also associated with other modern art movements. These include Dadaism, Surrealism, Cubism, and Futurism. It led to newer styles like Abstract Expressionism, The School of London, and Neo-Expressionism.

Abstract Expressionism explored spontaneity and gestural strokes. Neo-Expressionism rebelled against minimalist conceptual art, leading to color-charged, emotional creations.

5 Popular Artists of Expressionism

So far, we have heard the names of some pioneers who experimented with Expressionism. Now let’s explore some of its main propagators in depth:

Edvard Munch (1863–1944)

Although he was Norwegian, Edvard Munch significantly influenced early 20th-century German Expressionism. Perhaps owing to his tragic childhood, he was fascinated with psychological themes in paintings. He received support from Hans Jaeger, a Norwegian activist and philosopher, to explore it further.

Death, diseases, and mental illness in his family worsened his disturbed psyche. It was a significant contributor to his art.

modern art of Paul Gauguin

Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

He was also associated with Symbolism and Modernism. The modern art of Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Claude Monet were some of his main inspirations.

Over 60 years, he created several stunning artworks. He is most known for his 1893 piece, The Scream. Some other famous paintings by Munch are Anxiety (1894), Separation (1896), and Vampire (1893).

James Ensor (1860-1949)

James Ensor was a Belgian artist and printmaker known to be an Expressionist and a Surrealist. Bizarre elements like grotesque masks, carnivals, skeletons, and puppets dominated his style. His creations were bright, colorful, and theatrical, even when he covered psychological topics or Christ’s suffering.

James Ensor

Credit: Wikiart

Most of his biblical-themed artworks were controversial at the time. His later works were mainly of socio-political or self-reflective nature.

However, many of his paintings were displayed in exhibitions and received positive reviews. His most acclaimed creations include Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889 (1888), The Intrigue (1890), and Skeletons Fighting over a Hanged Man (1891).

Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890)

Vincent Willem van Gogh is a Dutch painter whose name is familiar even to today’s generation. Although he is primarily associated with Post-Impressionism, his contributions to Expressionism cannot be denied. His troubled mental state impacted what and how he painted.

Vincent Van Gogh

Credit: Vincent Van Gogh, Self-portrait, via Britannica

He only gained prominence after suicide, especially for his night sky and natural landscape paintings. He created these using bold, unblended brushstrokes in colorful hues, putting together ethereal compositions. It was only posthumously that he got recognized by other French and German artists of Expressionism.

The tortured artist ended up being extremely successful commercially after his death. He also did still life and figure paintings, and many of his works followed themes of rural life. Some of his most famous works are The Starry Night (1889), Sunflowers (1888), and Self-portrait (1889).

Paul Gaugin (1848-1903)

A Post-Impressionist and Symbolist, Paul Gaugin is a French artist who paved the way for Expressionism. He is known for using the Synthetist style with many vibrant colors. His trips to Tahiti resulted in several paintings of the landscapes and people from the area.

Paul Gaugin

Credit: Wikipedia

His primitivist and pastoral works in the expressionist style became well-known post his death. He also made Woodcuts and engravings, which enhanced the magnitude of his legacy. His most notable creations include When Will You Marry? (1892), The Yellow Christ (1889), and Arearea (1892).

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky is known for his abstract expressionist creations. He was one of the founding members of the expressionist group ‘The Blue Rider’ and a recognized art theorist. His initial pieces were symbolic and meaningful. But they grew more geometric and abstract towards the end.

Artworks of Expressionism

Credit: Wikipedia

He left Russia to become a French citizen since those in political power in the Soviet rejected his art. His paintings were about his inner world and spirituality rather than the external, tangible world. Apart from Der Blaue Reiter (1903), some of his other famous paintings are Couple Riding (1906) and Composition IV (1911).

9 Famous Artworks of Expressionism

Now that you are acquainted with the pioneers of Expressionism, let us look at nine famous Expressionist paintings:

1. The Scream (1893), Munch

Possibly the most popular Expressionist painting, The Scream by Edvard Munch, is iconic. The abstract style of the image perfectly captures the change from Impressionism to Expressionism. It also includes more visible brushstrokes in complementary colors.

The painting was inspired by an incident in which Munch was walking with his friends. He randomly experienced a sense of sadness and fear as his friend walked ahead, leaving him behind. The sky turned red as the expressionist painter felt a piercing scream.

Edvard Munch

Credit: Edvard Munch, The Scream, via Wikiart

The scream is what the figure in the painting represents and feels, as Edvard Munch felt this anguish within and around him. It stands for the terror, loneliness, and anxiety that accompanied the 20th-century mind. Thus, this Expressionist painting is an autobiographical and psychological reflection of Munch’s life.

He created the classic painting using oil, pastels, and tempera paint on cardboard. He also included his friends in the background of the composition. There are two versions of this painting, and both are currently in Oslo.

2. Der Blaue Reiter (1903), Kandinsky

The Blue Rider is the painting that gave its name to the Expressionist group Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, formed in 1911. In the image, you can see a rider dressed in blue galloping across the green fields on horseback. Still trees loom in the background while there is a lot of swift movement in the composition.

Der Blaue Reiter

Credit: Wassily Kandinsky, Blue Rider, via Wikiart

The painting shows thick, heavy, and irregular paint strokes and bold colors and tones. This piece is also representative of the transition between Impressionism and Expressionism.

The blue robes of the lone rider indicate concepts of the supernatural, heaven, tranquility, and eternity. Kandisky’s interest in contrasting light and dark stands out in Der Blaue Reiter. Overall, the picture is undefined and hazy, a step towards Abstract Expressionism.

3. Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat (1909), Kokoschka

Art historian couple Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat commissioned portraits from Kokoschka. It became one of the most popular expressionist paintings. In the picture, the two subjects have central attention, while the background is vivid and abstract.

commissioned portraits

Credit: Oskar Kokoschka, Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat, Museum of Metropolitan Art

Kokoschka often dissects the internal tension between the figures. He explores the anxieties and dramatic emotions in the air between them. In this painting, you can see angst through the motions of their hands. Thus, it is more about their mental state and persona than their physical appearance.

This psychological and emotional aspect is what makes the painting an Expressionist one. The formless colors that vaguely whirl around in the backdrop are also an Expressionist technique. Kokoschka used it to depict infinite space.

4. Large Blue Horses (1911), Marc

German expressionist France Marc loved painting animals, as seen in his 1911 creation, Large Blue Horses. Many vibrant blue horses graze in the field in this oil-on-canvas. Beyond the curve of the horses, there are red hills and other elements in yellow and green.

Large Blue Horses

Credit: Franz Marc, Large Blue Horses, via Wikiart

As he was passionate about animal symbolism, one can interpret that the blue horses stand for the link between nature and the spiritual world. In that sense, he had much in common with Wassily Kandinsky, especially regarding the symbolism of colors. The choice of blue could indicate masculinity, spiritual renewal, and transcendence.

The picture is vibrant and uses large geometric shapes to create distinct spaces, which was an influence of Cubism. The scene has abstract and organic forms, coming together harmoniously through contrasting primary colors. He turned away from the realistic by turning to the emotional, connecting the material world with fantasy and spirituality.

5. Houses at Night (1912), Schmidt-Rottluff

This painting of a city block is by The Bridge co-founder Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. This colorful yet minimal and abstract creation is an integral part of Expressionism.

Houses at Night

Credit: Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Houses at Night, via Wikiart

Houses at Night shows a set of jagged apartment complexes. They are leaning away from each other at odd and distorted angles. The desolate streets hint at the isolation one felt in the urban setup.

His interest in wood blocking also influenced this painting, evident from the distinct and graphic nature of the shapes. The image is unsettling and eerie, which the bright, playful colors strangely exacerbate. This kind of Avante-garde experimentation perfectly captured the lonely, uneasy silence of the isolated modern world.

6. Street, Berlin (1913), Kirchner

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s oil painting Street, Berlin is a scene of the crowded Berlin city in which people seem to be in a rush. In it, the chatting humans are amidst chaos and disquiet. He used pointed, irregular brushwork to create the angular human figures lounging in the Berlin streets.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Credit: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Street, Berlin, via Wikipedia

The image is filled with somber shades of blue, black, and purple. Kirchner used these sharp, pungent colors to create a sense of estrangement in the modern atmosphere. The packed crowd brimming the frame leads to a suffocating or disorienting feeling.

How he depicts the figures and forms in a completely different style from Impressionism was groundbreaking. The revolution moved away from realism through a twisted, lopsided character presentation. He also added two prostitutes in the picture, another act of rebellion against the time.

7. Sitting Woman with Legs Drawn Up (1917), Schiele

Austrian artist Egon Schiele is a controversial figure for his interest in themes of sexuality. In this expressionist work titled Sitting Woman with Legs Drawn Up, his wife, Edith Scheile, modeled for him in a convoluted pose. She is wearing loose, open clothes, her knee drawn up and her cheek resting on it, as she intensely gazes at the viewer.

Sitting Woman with Legs Drawn Up

Credit: Egon Schiele, Sitting Woman with Legs Drawn Up, via Wikipedia

The composition is jarring because it is the opposite of fragile, mellow feminity. Edith’s feisty eyes become the piece's focal point, confronting the viewer. Schiele used firm lines and expressive colors to evoke emotions. It was based on his subjective and personal perspectives.

The painting is intimate and sensual, as we view it from a unique, close-up angle. The subject appears relaxed and simultaneously fierce, defiant, and sexual. The specialty of his work lies in his subtle rather than explicit way of capturing subversive themes like sexuality.

8. Portrait of a Man (1919), Heckel

German artist Erich Heckel’s 1919 woodcut artwork, Portrait of a Man, is another famous Expressionist painting. The subject has sharp, bony features and an elongated face.

His hand is on his chin, and he has an expression of deep introspection. His face seems skeletal and convulsed, and his eyes are tired.

Portrait of a Man

Credit: Erich Heckel, Portrait of a Man, via Wikimedia Commons

His dreaded anticipation likely stems from the destruction and unpredictability of the world war. This feeling of anxiety and apprehension comes across through the use of dull, cool colors and thick outlines. The raw expression of profound emotions through this minimal yet crisp style was common in his works.

As is typical with Expressionist paintings, the image is not about realistic portraiture. Instead, it reveals the subject’s mental, spiritual, and physical torment, indicating the general psychological state. It could also be a self-portrait associated with his personal anguish and weariness.

9. Mad Woman (1920), Soutine

Another distorted Expressionist painting that conveys psychological agony is Mad Woman by Chaim Soutine. He painted two, and the more distressing piece is the one currently being discussed. In the image, a woman sits hunched in a red coat, wearing a green hat, her uneven face shadowed and disturbed.

Expressionist painting

Credit: Chaim Soutine, Mad Woman via Useum

He used violent brushstrokes to capture the disconcerting sense of unease in the woman. She is a captivating and dynamic subject that invites viewers to analyze her. However, this oil-on-canvas is a very different type of portrait from the traditional realistic kind.

The painting represents the Expressionist movement's ability to touch the viewer and evoke their sentiments. It also provides insight into a woman’s psyche and her internal distress. Overall, the image radiates a mystery, terror, thrill, and intrigue, but it also hints at Soutine’s empathy.


With that, we have explored the Expressionist movement in depth. We examined everything from its meaning and facts to the prominent artists involved and their art. As people felt lost and dejected after the world war, it became reflected in the art and media.

After Impressionism broke the rules of traditional paintings, Expressionism pushed the limits even further. These days you can even turn your photos into Impressionist Paintings using apps.

Thus, Expressionism made history in the early twentieth century. This modernist art movement resulted in a paradigm shift in its stylistic and philosophical aspects. Expressionism continues to impact contemporary paintings and other artistic creations today.