The Modern Collection consists mainly of works on paper, with the dominant imagery being that of place - landscapes, cities and other urban environments. The collection begins in 1876 with Camille Pissarro's oil painting The Quai du Ponthuis at Pontoise after Rain and continues with good examples of other late nineteenth and early twentieth century Continental artists, including Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse. The further development of the modern movement is represented through works by Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
A large proportion of the collection is made up of work by British artists of the early to mid-twentieth century who were responding to the challenges of the modern movement in art - examples being, Walter Sickert, David Bomberg, Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. It contains a small group works by British Surrealist artists, such as Edward Wadsworth, Roland Penrose, Eileen Agar, John Banting, Edward Burra and Conroy Maddox.
Related to British Surrealism, the Neo-Romanticism of the 1940s was a significant influence on British art and is represented through the work of, amongst others, John Minton, Graham Sutherland, John Piper and Ceri Richards. The social and artistic changes of the late 1950s and 1960s were mirrored by a period of active collecting, during which works by Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney and Bridget Riley were acquired. The Gallery further developed the Modern Collection with works by Anna Maria Pacheco, Hughie O'Donoghue and Michael Porter.
The Whitworth continues to add to the collection, acquiring work by artists who live and work in Britain. Recent additions have included works by Gordon Cheung, Tacita Dean, Jacqueline Donachie, Michael Landy, Toby Paterson, Yara El Sherbini, Rachel Whiteread and Jane and Louise Wilson.