The magazine was launched in England in 1987 by the art critic Peter Fuller, who was editor until his death in a car accident in 1990. It was at first a quarterly; the first issue appeared in Spring 1988. Fuller's associate editor, Karen Wright, acquired the title from its original backers, who included Bernard Jacobson of Bernard Jacobson Gallery and David Landau, founder and then editor of the scholarly journal, Print Quarterly. Wright was retained for a short period in a consultancy capacity when the magazine was purchased by LTB Media in 2004 and its publishing operation was brought to New York City in June 2004. The first editor-in-chief under new ownership was Roger Tatley.
Modern Painters is owned by Louise Blouin Media. In March 2016 Scott Indrisek was named editor-in-chief of the magazine, replacing Daniel Kunitz in the post.. Indrisek was terminated early in 2017 for budget reasons, and later in the year the remainder of full-time staff was also liquidated, with some given offers to stay on as independent contractors without benefits.