Every time the art world seems to reach a point of stasis and critics began to bemoan the lack of anything truly novel, an innovative artist comes along to challenge all of the traditional and firmly established artistic notions and sets an entirely new course. These artists are rightly considered giants in the visual arts, and their innovative practices completely redefined the genre and eliminated the boundaries and limitations for those who would ultimately follow. The following seven artists are among the most innovative of them all, and their contributions to the fine arts are absolutely immeasurable.
A surrealist painter whose work ultimately influenced artistic luminaries such as Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, Rene Magritte sought to redefine the perceptual experience of the viewer. His most famous works, including “The Pilgrim” and “The Treachery of Imagery,” serve as potent examples of Magritte’s effort to provoke the viewer into reexamining the manner in which they perceive reality and the visual arts. Magritte’s innovative style has been said to have deeply influenced artists belonging to the pop art, minimalist art, and conceptual art genres.
Considered the “Father of Modern Art,” Paul Cezanne earned his title by serving as something of a stylistic bridge between the Impressionist movement and the Cubist movement. Deeply intrigued by the nature of perception, particularly as it related to basic geometric shapes, Cezanne expressed a desire to “treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone.” Cezanne’s exploration of optical phenomena, especially depth, challenged the traditional ideals regarding perspective and radically altered the art world for artists like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.
Vincent Van Gogh
Now one of the most recognizable styles to even the most casual of observers, Vincent Van Gogh’s innovative take on the use of color, perspective, and contour did not win him much acclaim during his lifetime. While his art was not commercially successful until after his untimely death at the age of 37, Van Gogh’s innovative style succeeded in influencing an endless array of artists for more than a century. Through his broad brushstrokes and unique color palette, Van Gogh imbued much of his work with a deep symbolism reflecting complex internal emotional states.
Perhaps best known as the innovative force behind the artistic concept of Cubism, Pablo Picasso is rightly recognized as one of the most important figures of the 20th century. The Spanish painter was responsible for the invention of collage as well as constructed sculpture, permanently revolutionizing the plastic arts through his experimental approach to artistic theory, technique, and conception. Like Da Vinci, Picasso was an artist of diverse talents and did not limit his artistic output to painting alone; he was also a sculptor, printmaker, stage designer, playwright, poet, and ceramicist.
The founder of Impressionism, Claude Monet’s innovative approach to plein-air landscape painting was met with a great deal of derision from the artistic establishment of the time. Such was the initial resistance to the new style created by Monet that the Impressionist movement actually adopted its name after a prominent art critic used the term “impressionists” as an insult in a published review of the initial exhibition of the new and innovative style.
Those who initially derided the Impressionists — a group of artists that, in addition to Monet, also included Pierre-August Renoir, Edgar Degas, Alfred Sisley, and Camille Pissarro — were clearly too beholden to their own preconceived constraints and limitations in the creation of fine art that they could not recognize the artistic genius of Monet’s innovative contribution to the visual arts.
Leonardo Da Vinci
One of the most celebrated artists of all time, Leonardo Da Vinci is perhaps the individual most synonymous with the concept of the “Renaissance Man.” Also considered by many as the personification of the “Universal Genius,” Da Vinci was a painter, sculptor, and inventor, and his expansive interests included diverse subjects such as mathematics, architecture, engineering, botany, astronomy, and archeology, among countless others.
Da Vinci’s work is famously associated with the “Divine Proportion” — also known as the “Golden Ratio” — and, along with Luca Pacioli, the revered Italian artist changed the manner in which mathematical proportions could be applied to perspective in the visual arts. Two of Da Vinci’s most famous works — the “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper” — are often cited as prime examples of the application of the “Golden Ratio” in artistic perspective.
A contemporary — and perhaps the only true peer — of Da Vinci, Michelangelo possessed a rare versatility and is rightly considered as one of history’s great artistic geniuses. The artist responsible for sculpting “David” and painting the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s timeless contributions go beyond the fine arts as well, as he also served as the architect of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Examples of Michelangelo’s innovative contributions — best expressed in the “Medici Madonna” and “Victory” — deeply influenced the tension and the twisted forms associated with the Mannerist movement, and his sculptures would go on to have a tremendous effect on the work of sculptors even centuries after his death, including Auguste Rodin and Henry Moore.
As the work of the aforementioned artists clearly demonstrates, the impact of one’s innovative contribution is often immediately apparent in the works of the artists that have the benefit of standing on the figurative shoulders of these artistic giants. Each of the previous seven artists remained true to their artistic vision, even if doing so meant breaking away from the established norms of their respective eras. As a result, these brilliant and innovative artists succeeded in making critical and timeless contributions to the fine arts.