Art after the Rococo period art began an accelerated evolution. New styles began cropping up all over Europe, and the first art museums were opening (the first being in 1764) sharing fine art with the common man. Most importantly, the Louvre opened in 1794 after the French Revolution which marked the beginning of art moving from the private collections of the aristocracy and into the public eye. From the 1800s, art belonged to the people.
Following the Rococo period was Neoclassicism, which is precisely what its name suggests. There was rising interest across Europe in the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. This was more than likely fueled by the start of the excavation of Pompeii and Herculeum in the early 1800s.
In art, neoclassicism seemed to be less of an art style, and more of a recurring theme since there were many art styles that were becoming popular across Europe during this time, though their subjects often centered around classical stories of heroic deeds and virtues.
Romanticism was a major and widespread art movement beginning in the late 1700s. Romanticism incorporated many visual styles, though all were unified through themes of self expression, intense, and often uplifting emotions, and a deep love of nature.
Unlike previous generations of artists, they depicted man as being fundamentally good and it was society that caused him to lose his way. Throughout Romanticism's popularity, it maintained a tradition of social commentary.
Romantic artists worked with all themes including landscapes, still life, and of course the nude and eroticism.
An interesting Romantic erotic painting from this era was actually a pair. La Maja Desnuda and La Maja Vestida by Spanish artist Goya. The paintings depict the same woman in an identical pose reclining on a bed of pillows. In one of the paintings the model is fully clothed and in the other she is fully nude. Presumably, the clothed Maja was to hang over the nude Maja to hide it from polite company. Its controversy began soon after its creation with the Spanish Inquisition in the 1800s, and though it seems to be a fairly tame erotic work by today's standards, when the Spanish released a series of stamps in 1930 commemorating Goya and featuring La Maja Desnuda, the Americans banned it and returned any mail with the offending stamp on back to Spain!
During the 1800s, the world was going through dramatic change. France had lost its monarchy to the French Revolution and technology was progressing in leaps and bounds bring with it the Industrial Revolution. It was a serious time as thinkers and scientists began rationalizing the world, and turning their noses up at superstition and the intangible realities of emotion that the Romantics embraced.
Realism was very much a style of the time. It took itself very seriously, and like the scientists of the time, sought to depict the world the way it actually was.
Realist artists focused on painting what was in front of them, in contrast to the Romantics, Neoclassicists and history painters who painted idealized scenes that were essentially from the imagination. Initially the style was criticized for being vulgar and vapid, but this was part of what Realism was. Realists didn't embellish their paintings. They depicted only what was there including every imperfection.
French artist Gustave Courbet is credited with coining the term Realism who summed it up as follows :
"Painting is the representation of visible forms. The essence of realism is its negation of the ideal."
The relatively new invention of photography was a strong influence on the realists, and later the impressionists. Although still in its early days, photography was being praised for its practicality and ability to realistically depict a "moment" without discretion and so was becoming popular for portraiture and other areas where an artist would usually be needed. In realism, we find artists mimicking this aspect of photography.
Photographers would often crop their images, which is something else we see Realists mimicking like in Corbet's erotic painting L'Origin du Monde.
Impressionism was a groundbreaking and extremely controversial art style that developed around the late 1860s and is considered to be a development of realism. The term "Impressionism" was coined by an art critic who had originally used it in a derogatory manner, though the artists approved of the description and adopted it.
Impressionism is characterized by the use of short, quick, and obvious brush strokes, close attention to the effects of the light and color of a scene, and using blocks of color as opposed to blending them together on the canvas. The idea was to quickly capture the whole scene and not be distracted by the occupants of a scene. To quote Monet :
“When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives you your own naïve impression of the scene before you.”
Like the Realists, Impressionists would often mimic photography in that their paintings would often be lacking a fixed focal point and would take in the entire scene, much like a snap shot. Though unlike the realists who sought to accurately depict a scene objectively, the Impressionists sought to depict their own impression of a scene in a subjective reality, thus adding an artistic element lacking in both photography and Realism.