Summary of Neo-Impressionism
In the latter part of the 19th century, Neo-Impressionism foregrounded the science of optics and color to forge a new and methodical technique of painting that eschewed the spontaneity and romanticism that many Impressionists celebrated. Relying on the viewer's capacity to optically blend the dots of color on the canvas, the Neo-Impressionists strove to create more luminous paintings that depicted modern life. With urban centers growing and technology advancing, the artists sought to capture people's changing relationship with the city and countryside. Many artists in the following years adopted the Neo-Impressionist technique of Pointillism, the application of tiny dots of pigment, which opened the door to further explorations of color and eventually abstract art.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- In order to more fully capture the luminosity seen in nature, the Neo-Impressionists turned to science in finding their painting technique of juxtaposing various colors and tones to create a shimmering, illuminated surface. By systematically placing contrasting colors, as well as black, white, and grey, next to each other on the canvas, the painters hoped to heighten the visual sensation of the image.
- Neo-Impressionists aimed to produce correspondences between emotional states and the forms, lines, and colors presented on the canvas that spoke to the modernity of urban life in the age of industrialization.
- Two terms closely associated with Neo-Impressionism - Divisionism and Pointillism - are practically interchangeable. Most broadly, Divisionism is a color theory that advocates placing small patches of pure pigment separately on the canvas in order that the viewer's eye will optically blend the colors. Divisionism became widely applied to any artist dividing or separating color while using small brushstrokes. Pointillism relied on the same theory of optical blending but specifically applied tiny separate "points," or dots, of pigment.
- Most of the Neo-Impressionists held anarchist beliefs. Their depictions of the working class and peasants called attention to the social struggles taking place as the rise of industrial capitalism gained speed, and their search for harmony in art paralleled their vision of a utopian society. The freedom they sought in scientific study furthered their abilities to overthrow bourgeois norms and conventions that hampered their individual autonomy.
Overview of Neo-Impressionism
By the mid-1880s, feeling that Impressionism's emphasis on the play of light was too narrow, a new generation of artists, including Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vincent van Gogh, who would later be referred to more generally as Post-Impressionists, began developing new approaches to line, color, and form. In 1879 after leaving the École des Beaux-Arts where he'd studied for a year, Seurat said he wanted "to find something new, my own way of painting." He particularly valued color intensity in painting, and took extensive notes on the use of color by the painter Eugène Delacroix. He began studying color theory and the science of optics and embarked on a path that would lead him to develop a new style he called Chromoluminarism.
Important Art and Artists of Neo-Impressionism
This most famous and influential Neo-Impressionist work depicts a cross section of Paris society enjoying a Sunday afternoon in the park on an island in the Seine River just at the gates of Paris. Sunday was the time that middle-class Parisians escaped the city to enjoy the outdoors. The people primarily gather in small groups of two or three or sit alone in proximity to others. It is the relationship between these people that creates a sense of modernity, with its distance and disconnection, and nervous tension that lends the work an air of mystery.
Using a grid system and applying small dots of paint, Seurat took two years to complete this large-scale painting. He went to the park often, observing and making over 60 preliminary studies, including 15 in oil. Invoking Greek classical art, Seurat explained, "The Panathenaeans of Phidias formed a procession. I want to make modern people, in their essential traits, move about as they do on those friezes, and place them on canvases organized by harmonies of color." Seurat hoped to capture the permanence, or essential forms, behind the fleeting moments. Everyone here is caught in a still pose, except for the child in the orange dress skipping off into the trees, the man on the far left playing a trombone, and the furious little dog at the lower right. However, it seems a stillness that might burst into movement at any moment, just as the upper half of the painting moves into sunlight and the boats in the distance cut across the river. While Seurat invoked classical and Egyptian figures, some have interpreted the overall static effect of the composition and the stiffness of the poses as a critique of the artificiality of modern society and the boredom of middle-class life.
This portrait of an unidentified woman was the first Neo-Impressionist portrait. As many of the group concentrated on depicting color in its greatest luminosity, their subject matter tended toward landscapes and cityscapes, but a few artists went beyond such subjects. The MAMC in Saint-Étienne, France has dubbed her "Madame P," but, at the time of the work's inception, Félix Fénéon called her Mademoiselle B. Seated in an upholstered chair, placed before a background wallpapered with floral arabesques, the woman dressed in white, a blue flower on her breast, looks with an indifferent gaze past the viewer.
Albert Dubois-Pillet was a career military officer and self-trained artist whose artistic endeavors were often discouraged by the military establishment. He met Signac and Seurat in 1884 and joined them in founding the Société des Artistes Indépendants. He began experimenting with Neo-Impressionism and by 1885 had adopted the Pointillist technique, becoming one of the first artists to do so. The shimmering effect of the subtle gold arabesques in the wall paper, the blue flower, and the touches of color in her white dress convey a sense of wealth and elegance, yet she seems static, as if her presence were meant to be the decorative element of the room.
This painting depicts a hay harvesting scene in the countryside near Éragny, where the artist lived with his family from 1884 until his death in 1903. In the center of the canvas, a woman uses a hayfork while behind her others do similar work in a brightly lit field punctuated by hay stacks.
Pissarro adopted the Pointillist technique in 1886, saying that "Neo-Impressionism was the next phase in the logical march of Impressionism." What set his work apart from the other Neo-Impressionists was his emphasis upon rural life and labor. Pissarro's depiction of peasant life along with his own scientific explorations of color speak to the anarchist theories he adopted in the latter half of the 1870s.
Pissarro felt that his scientific studies freed him from the Academy's strictures of how to see and depict reality. He also evoked the utopian visions of peasant societies he read about in the writings of anarchists Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Peter Kropotkin. Pissarro wanted "to educate the public," by portraying the common man, but he also wanted to avoid idealizing and sentimentalizing his subjects. In this work, he depicts the effort of hay harvesting, both in the man at the left arching his back to toss the hay up, and in the woman at the center, the strength palpable in her back and shoulders.
Useful Resources on Neo-Impressionism
- Georges Seurat: The Art of VisionBy Michelle Foa
- The Neo-Impressionist Portrait, 1886-1904By Jane Block and Ellen Wardwell Lee
- Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities: Painting, Poetry, MusicOur PickBy Cornelia Homburg
- Neo-Impressionism and the Search for Solid Ground: Art, Science, and Anarchism in Fin-de-Siecle FranceBy John C. Hutton
- Maximilien Luce: Neo-Impressionist: RetrospectiveBy Vanessa Lecomte, Aline Dardel, Marina Bocquillon, et al.
- Pissarro, Neo-Impressionism, and the Spaces of the Avant-GardeBy Martha Ward and Camille Pissarro
- Divisionism/Neo-Impressionism: Arcadia & AnarchyBy Vivien Green, Giovanna Ginex, Dominique Lobstein, et al.
- Neo-Impressionism and Anarchism in Fin-de-Siècle France: Painting, Politics and LandscapeBy Robyn Roslak
- Signac, 1863-1935By Marina Ferretti-Bocquillon, Anne Distel, John Leighton, et al.
- "Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities" at the Phillips Collection, ReviewedBy Jeffry Cudlin / Washington City Paper / October 3, 2014
- The Pointillist 'Contagion' in ItalyOur PickBy Roberta Smith / New York Times / April 27, 2007
- Radiance: The Neo-ImpressionistsReviewed by David R. Marshall / Melbourne Art Network / November 20, 2012
- Seurat: The Realm of LightBy François Aubry
- Seurat, Signac, Van Gogh | Composition & ColourBy Albertina Museum
- Signac's Stunning View of St. TropezBy Sotheby's
- Seurat, Signac, Van Gogh | Ways of PointillismBy Albertina Museum
- Paul Signac, 'Clipper,' 1887By Sotheby's
- Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities: Painting, Poetry, MusicBy The Phillips Collection
- Science, Technology and Art | Neo-ImpressionismIndianapolis Museum of Art
- From Divisionism To Futurism. The Dawn of Modern Art in ItalyFundación MAPFRE