Expressionism emerged simultaneously in various cities across Germany as a response to a widespread anxiety about humanity's increasingly discordant relationship with the world and accompanying lost feelings of authenticity and spirituality. In part a reaction against Impressionism and academic art, Expressionism was inspired most heavily by the Symbolist currents in late-19th-century art. Vincent van GoghEdvard Munch, and James Ensor proved particularly influential to the Expressionists, encouraging the distortion of form and the deployment of strong colors to convey a variety of anxieties and yearnings.

The classic phase of the Expressionist movement lasted from approximately 1905 to 1920 and spread throughout Europe. Its example would later powerfully inform many individuals and groups such as: Abstract ExpressionismNeo-Expressionism, and The School of London.