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Post-Impressionism - History and Concepts

Post-Impressionism Collage

Started: Early 1880s

Ended: 1914

History and Concepts


Impressionism and the Rise of Post-Impressionism

In 1872, Claude Monet radically altered the path of painting, ushering in a revolutionary mode of visual expression in which artists responded to their modern surroundings. This was achieved in the painting Impression, Sunrise (1872), in which Monet used each visible brushstroke to record exactly how the light from the sun fell upon the steamships and water below. The critic Louis Leroy derisively dubbed their style of painting "Impressionist" because of the visible brushstrokes, and unwittingly gave the group their collective identity. Although the core membership consisted of Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas, many other artists associated with the group. Among them was Paul Cézanne, who exhibited with the Impressionists during the 1870s and early 1880s.

By the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886, younger artists and critics demanded a shift in the focus of the representational arts. They felt the Impressionists allowed their preoccupations with technique and the effects of natural light to overshadow the importance of subject matter. Eventually these dissenting artists became known as the Post-Impressionists, a term that grouped together widely varying individual artistic styles. Indeed, many of the movement's foremost figures were rivals in method and approach. Gauguin and Seurat both detested one another and shared a low opinion of each other's styles, and while van Gogh revered the work of the Impressionist Edgar Degas and fellow Post-Impressionist Henri Rousseau, he was skeptical of Cézanne's rigorously ordered style.

While Paris was unquestionably the fount of Post-Impressionism, the emphasis on symbolic and expressive content meant that the life of the city no longer was the dominant subject for artists. Subsequently, many painters developed their individual aesthetic style outside of Paris. Cézanne spent most of his career in Provence; Van Gogh arrived at his mature style in Arles in the south of France; and, in an infamous renunciation of Paris, Gauguin expatriated to Tahiti.

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Seurat and Pointillism

Paul Signac's <i>The Port of Saint Tropez</i>(1906) is a famous and beautiful example of Neo-Impressionism

The earliest herald of the new trend that broke with Impressionism was Georges Seurat. He developed the style of painting known as Pointillism, which refers to the use of a point, or dot, as the basis for the construction of a painting. The larger stylistic movement of Seurat's followers is known as Neo-Impressionism, but the movement is also identified as "chromo-luminarism" or Divisionism. Seurat explored a new, scientific approach to the representation of color and extended the Impressionists' interests in optics. The marks that made up the painting were each executed in a singular color. Those individual marks and colors then visually blended in the eye of the viewer, as dictated by the prevailing tenets of then-current color-theory. In works such as A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86), Seurat applied color in dense fields of tiny dots in order to mimic the vivid and vibrating appearance of natural light, which is also the result of the blending of the various colors of the spectrum. Paul Signac closely followed in Seurat's footsteps in these explorations.

Van Gogh and Japonisme

Katsushika Hokusai <i>Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji: The Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa</i>(1906) was studied by European modernists like Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec

Vincent van Gogh relied upon saturated colors and broad brushstrokes to evoke the inner turmoil of the artist. Along with Gauguin, he experimented with new approaches to painting and rejected academic representation, fine finish, and the Impressionists' fixation on opticality. He was influenced by a variety of sources, not the least of which was his love of the stylized representations of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints. In the late-19th century, an influx of Japanese goods and art into the European market initiated Japonism - the European interpretation of Japanese artistic styles in Western art objects. Similar influences are also evident in the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Toulouse-Lautrec was an observer of the cabaret world with a unique perspective; he was born into the French nobility, but was physically disabled, and thus embodied the perspective of both an insider and an outsider. His unique view of Parisian nightlife resulted in paintings and lithographs of dance halls and cabarets that relied upon the strong outlines and flat planes of color of the ukiyo-e.

Gauguin and Synthetism

Paul Gauguin's <i>Mountains In Tahiti</i>(1897) expresses the artists vision with vibrant colors

In the fall of 1888, Van Gogh and Gauguin shared a small apartment and studio space in Arles, in the south of France. During those months, the two artists forged a rocky, but mutually beneficial relationship. While they both shared an interest in symbolic content and images that were abstracted from their natural appearances, Gauguin developed these ideas further in his theory of "Synthetism." According to its tenets, the final, visual form is determined by a synthesis of the outward appearance of the natural form, the artist's feelings about the subject matter, and the aesthetic considerations of color, line, and form. In his work, Gauguin frequently discarded shading, modeling, and single-point perspective, and instead used pure color, strong lines, and flat two-dimensionality to elicit a visceral emotional impact. These works were also oftentimes derived "de tête" - from memory or imagination - and expressed a strong connection with the subject matter that inspired the work, whether that subject derived from religion, literature, or mythology.

Cézanne and the Structure of Pictorial Form

Cézanne's series <i>Montagne Sainte-Victoire</i> broke down the structure of a painting into geometrical shapes

In his painting, Paul Cézanne focused on an exploration of the underlying formal structure of still lifes, portraits, and landscapes. Rather than describe the overall impression of a scene, Cézanne sought to articulate its underlying organization and suggested that the landscape was built up from the simplest geometric components. As he once famously wrote in a letter to the Symbolist painter Emile Bernard, "Treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone." By using planes of color to create these shapes, he partially merged parts of figures in the foreground with elements of the background, joining surface and depth. Perhaps the most influential of the Post-Impressionists, Cézanne forged a link between Impressionism and Cubism. His innovations were tremendously influential for the masters of modernity, like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Picasso even went so far as to call Cézanne "the father of us all."

Rousseau and Primitivism

Rousseau's self-taught, <i>simplistic</i> style offered new directions of depictions to modernists

Many Post-Impressionists were drawn to Primitivism in their search for more vivid styles and symbolic content. In this instance, Primitivism refers to the "naive," self-taught style exemplified by Henri Rousseau who was championed as a pioneer, but it can also refer to the borrowing of non-Western art forms by artists like Picasso and Gauguin. Rousseau circuitously came to art through sketching to occupy himself at his job with the Parisian toll service operating the gates to the city. By 1884, he avidly copied the works in the Louvre's collection and arrived at a style that dominated his entire oeuvre. While Rousseau's paintings at first glance appear to present conventional subject matter, the simplified, abstracted forms and surface patterns that merge within the painted images derived solely from his imagination. Although he lacked any academic training, his evocative landscapes and jungle scenes, such as The Sleeping Gypsy (1897) and The Dream (1910), relied upon his interpretations of his subconscious, rather than the surrounding world. His representation of the realm of dreams in a uniquely intuitive style proved highly influential for the Fauves, Cubists, and Surrealists.

Les Nabis

<i>Les muses au bois sacré</i>(1893) by the Les Nabi and Symbolist Maurice Denis

Influenced by Japonisme, Symbolist painting, and the English Pre-Raphaelites, the group of artists known as Les Nabis firmly adhered to idea that the artist must synthesize nature and personal expression within the work of art. The name, "Les Nabis," derived from the Hebrew word for "prophet," and heralded the group's core ideology - a blend of mysticism and the inner spirituality of the artist. Paul Sérusier founded the group and refined the style that came to dominate their production. Influenced by Gauguin, they used paint right from the tube in broad, unmodulated areas of color, with patterned designs and stylized contours that reflected the subjective vision of the artist. Painter and theorist Maurice Denis published the essay Definition of Neo-Traditionism in 1890, in which he stated, "remember that a picture - before being a war-horse or a nude or a genre scene - is primarily a flat surface covered with colors arranged in a certain order." Les Nabis exhibited together from 1892 through 1899, and embraced a variety of media including painting, prints, stained glass, and stage sets. The core membership of the group consisted of Paul Sérusier and Maurice Denis, as well as Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard. Several other artists exhibited and worked with the group at varying times, among them Aristide Maillol and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

International Post-Impressionism

Although Post-Impressionism was centered in France, the artistic styles and theories that emerged from the movement quickly spread to other countries. The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch expanded upon the ideas of Symbolism to create his own personal and highly expressive artistic style. Through abstracted renderings and the use of bold color and sinewy lines, he sought to connote the internal strife of the artist as well as the burgeoning anxiety of modern man. Others, such as the Belgian painter and printmaker James Ensor, implemented vibrant hues and flattened perspective in an anti-realist manner in order to convey the widespread tension and angst of the spirit of the "fin de siecle." Ensor's subject matter oftentimes derived from the annals of legend and allegory, however, he frequently portrayed the grotesque as a rebellion against the classically beautiful themes of academic art.

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Later Developments

Although name of the Post-Impressionist movement is widely known today, English artist and critic Roger Fry only coined the term in 1910 for an exhibition he organized at London's Grafton Galleries, Manet and the Post-Impressionists. In the catalogue, he acknowledged that the imprecision of the label "Post-Impressionism" highlighted the disparity in the different styles and interests of the artists it encompassed. Despite the variations of styles, the overall guiding logic behind the show traced the progression away from Impressionism. Fry felt this began with Manet, but the exhibition focused on the work of Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin.

By 1910, movements like Fauvism, Expressionism, and Cubism already dominated the European avant-garde. Each new development in these major movements was built upon the symbolism and structure advocated by the different Post-Impressionist styles.

Key Artists

Paul CézannePaul Cézanne
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Vincent van GoghVincent van Gogh
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Paul GauguinPaul Gauguin
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Georges SeuratGeorges Seurat
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Édouard VuillardÉdouard Vuillard
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Pierre BonnardPierre Bonnard
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Henri RousseauHenri Rousseau
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Henri de Toulouse-LautrecHenri de Toulouse-Lautrec
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Most Important Art


"Nature is not only all that is visible to the eye...It also includes the inner pictures of the soul."
Edvard Munch Signature
"I shut my eyes in order to see."
Paul Gauguin Signature
"I dream of painting and then I paint my dream."
Vincent van Gogh Signature
"A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art."
Paul Cézanne Signature
"Who speaks of art speaks of poetry...There is not art without a poetic aim...There is a species of emotion particular to painting. There is an effect that results from a certain arrangement of colors, of lights, of shadows. It is this that one calls the music of painting."
Édouard Vuillard Signature

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