Following the fall of Napoleon in 1815, Continental Europe was dominated by rapid industrialisation and the growth of the middle class. Romantic and nationalistic art movements, such as the Nazarenes in Germany and Austria, were influential across Europe. From the middle of the nineteenth century Paris became the centre of the art world. Following in the footsteps of Constable and Turner, the Barbizon group rediscovered the rural landscape, Courbet led the Realist movement and the Impressionists adopted open air painting, brighter colours and contemporary urban subjects, paving the way for modernism. There were also revivals of historical genres and sentimental naturalist paintings of ordinary life, which were favoured by the conservative middle class.

The turn of the century saw reactions to establishment artistic practices with the formation of new artist-led exhibition societies and, in the early twentieth century, modernist movements such as the German Expressionists, the Italian Futurists, the Surrealists in France and the Dutch De Stijl group. All had a lasting influence on the development of twentieth-century art worldwide. The two contrasting and conflicting impulses of the expression of personal emotion and of a controlled and formal aesthetic continue to dominate European and world painting.