What is Abstract Art? Vincent van Gogh, Mark Rothko, Wassily Kandinsky and Other Defining Artists of the Movement.

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”
- Arthur Schopenhauer
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J. Peeler Howell, Editor

The definition of abstract art is, well, somewhat abstract. On its face, abstract art doesn’t resemble anything at all. Let’s start with Paul Gaugin (1848 - 1903) and Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 90). Sometimes roommates, often good friends, and generally bitter rivalries, these two painters began to use color to express their feelings; color harmonies to emphasize the emotional states of the painter, not just the object being represented. At the time, in the late 19th century, this was revolutionary. Painters were not at liberty to paint in such a manner if they wanted to be taken seriously. Indeed, van Gogh, now recognized as perhaps the most famous tortured soul artist in history, famously couldn’t give his paintings away. Gaugin only became famous after his death as well, having spent the last of his life essentially in exile in French Polynesia. But these painters had started a movement.

Color study: squares with concentric circles by Wassily Kandinsky.

Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866 -1944) began to approach a vastly more extreme version of abstracting painting when he became fascinated not by putting his feelings into the painting but using color in complete abstraction to elicit feelings in the viewer. Kandinsky had his epiphany while listening to a Wagner opera, and realized that music, in its (almost) total abstraction, was a perfect analogy for what he wanted to accomplish. How is it that music can aesthetically move the listener to such emotional depths? Kandinsky completely left behind any sort of representational relationship with the object and began to make only gestures of color and shape on the canvas with no relation to objectivity whatsoever, striving with only color and shape to move the viewer as he had been moved while listening to Wagner.

"Ridiculed, violently opposed, and finally accepted as being self-evident, abstract art has become some of the most celebrated art in the world."

Mark Rothko, arguably one of the most famous color field painters, was also fascinated with music. Mozart in particular. And while there are certainly compositional elements in Kandinsky’s work, Rothko was obsessed with a more highly ordered composition. Rothko greatly admired Mozart’s ability to write brilliant, moving music of simple expression, structure, style, and principles. But Rothko wanted to paint balanced, clean, and ordered compositions that were completely abstract but deeply emotional to the viewer. Rothko accomplished this. But he married the ideas of using color harmonies to express himself in the paintings as well as eliciting a similar emotional response in the viewer. Gaugin, van Gogh, Kandinsky, (and others of course) found the sum of their intentions in Rothko.

Mark Rothko's No. 5/No. 22 1950 painting

This is far too brief an explanation, and a vast quantity of information has been left out, but for the sake of brevity, abstract art uses color, line, and space to express the emotional intent of the artist while, at the same time, striving to aesthetically move the viewer simply by utilizing compositional properties of those elements; completely liberated and divorced from any representation of object apart from the though or the ideas of artist himself or herself.

Ridiculed, violently opposed, and finally accepted as being self-evident, abstract art has become some of the most celebrated art in the world. 

Discover our collection of abstract art.

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 (Cover image and Fig. 2. Mark Rothko. No.5/No.22. 1950. Trisha Howell. Fig. 1. Wassily Kandinsky. Color Study: Squares with Concentric Circles. 1913. Wikiart.org.)



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