When art historians and critics speak of modern paintings, they're typically referring to 'modernist' works belonging to western art movements from the 1860s until around the 1970s i.e., the time when 'postmodernism' began to take hold.
Contemporary art, in contrast, is typically used to describe artworks from the end of WWII to the present day.
Many consider Edouard Manet to be the first modern painter for his controversial subjects and style. His works "Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe" (1862-1863) and "Olympia" (1863) prominently featured nude women and riffed on previous paintings, combining elements of works by masters like Raphael and Tizian with traditional portrait, still life, and landscape styles.
In his famous modern paintings like "The Basket of Apples" (1893), Paul Cezanne painted with wide, flat strokes to create an almost vertiginous composition with varying planes and flattened perspective.
Pablo Picasso also played with multiple perspectives and fragmented visual space in "Les Demoiselles d' Avignon" (1907). Picasso merged low and high cultures in true modernist fashion, focusing on a group of prostitutes in a brothel in this masterpiece.
Famous modern abstract paintings include Wassily Kandinsky's "Composition VII" (1913), Joan Miro's "The Birth of the World" (1925), Jackson Pollock's "Number 1A, 1948" (1948), and Piet Mondrian’s series of mostly white, black, red, blue, and yellow grids.
Other famous modern painters include Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Mary Cassatt, Gustave Caillebotte, Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Robert Delaunay, Salvador Dali, Paul Klee, Georgia O'Keeffe, Diego Rivera, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko.
Modern art emerged as a response to the drastic changes in the quality of social, economic, and cultural life in Europe accompanying the rise of industry during the late 1800s. Artists sought to criticize traditional modes of representation, mainly government commissioned religious and allegorical works, by blending elements of high and low culture and incorporating parts of newly modernized quotidien life in their works. Modern art paintings, in particular, shifted from traditional subjects and styles like portraiture, still lifes, and realism toward an existence as art for art's sake, without necessarily referring to objects in the real world. Art critic Clement Greenberg theorized that modernism aimed to showcase the unique elements specific to each artistic medium.
Modern painting, then, emphasized the flatness that only pigment on a support can have. Different artistic movements related to modern painting, such as Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism, each sought to further achieve this goal of creating a purely optical world that exists only on a flat canvas.
Modern art paintings fall into several movements spanning the years roughly between the late 1800s to the 1950s. The Impressionists rejected traditional painting practices of outlining planned compositions and working in a studio in favor of painting en plein air and layering on thick, wet paint to capture a fleeting moment. These painters also focused more on the street life accompanying the rise in industry; wandering flaneurs and isolated people in crowded city scenes were popular subjects in their modern art oil paintings.
Fauvists like Henri Matisse used arbitrary yet vibrant colors in their compositions, while Cubist painters like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque emphasized form over content, creating the illusion of space with flat, abstract planes.
Surrealist painters similarly pulled away from the outside world by focusing on the subconscious and dream-like scenes, albeit with realistic precision.
Abstract expressionists are often associated with the end of modernism and, according to Clement Greenberg's theory of modernism, achieved the purest form of modern painting. Their splatters did not create a recognizable subject but instead embodied all the unique qualities of painting (pigment on a flat support).
Artists like Jackson Pollock also embodied the modern practice of bridging low and high forms of culture; he is known for mixing objects like sand, broken glass, and nails onto the surfaces of his drip paintings. Other movements associated with modern painting include Futurism, Expressionism, Orphism, Suprematism, and Precisionism.