The Post-Impressionism movement was a reaction against the naturalistic portrayal of light and color in the Impressionist movement. Pioneered by artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gaugin and Georges Seurat, Post-Impressionist art focused on abstraction and expression. It can also be characterized by its use of bold colors, thick paint application and distorted forms. Here is a beginner’s guide to Post-Impressionist art and its artists.
Introduction To Post-Impressionist Art
In 1910, the British art critic Roger Fry held an art exhibition in London called ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists.’ The exhibition held a hundred paintings by the likes of Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. To Roger Fry’s surprise, it was ridiculed by viewers and critics alike. The rich, vibrant, emotionally charged canvases of the exhibition did not sit well with the British public. The contemporary writer, Virginia Woolf, would reflect, in a much-quoted line, that ‘on or about December 1910, human character changed.’
What was it that had changed, and what was it that caused such a scandal? We now take for granted the work of the Post-Impressionism movement, but its innovative and experimental style was felt to be offensive to traditional fine art; van Gogh’s personalized, anti-realistic, coloring and Gauguin’s imaginative vibrancy, forced the viewer to reconsider how they perceived the world.
Post-Impressionist art takes its name from its association with, and reaction against, Impressionist art. Impressionism’s subject and style sparked creativity among artists, but for many, it was only a starting point. Georges Seurat wanted to create a scientifically accurate impression of color and light. Paul Cézanne wanted more than a singular impression, but to paint a shifting perspective. The Post-Impressionism movement expanded in a variety of directions from Impressionism to serve as a bridge into the modernist art of the twentieth century.
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Towards The Post-Impressionism Movement
The Impressionists had caused an uproar in 1874 when they chose to independently exhibit their own work. This was because their work seemed unfinished, sketchy, and included unworthy subjects. These comments were in line with a strict notion on how painting should be, as set by the judges of the annual Salon. Impressionism was interested in painting light and color; how light affected an object and how forms appear in a fleeting moment.
There would be a further eight Impressionist exhibitions, demonstrating the cultural adjustment to this new style of art. Paul Cézanne, the so-called father of Post-Impressionist art, took part in the first Impressionist exhibition. He would take part in two exhibitions in the 1880s, and Seurat in the last Impressionist exhibition of 1886.
Impressionist art became a symbol of modern life. It utilized short, visible, brush strokes as though they were done in haste to capture the moment. Their subjects were of modernity in the city of Paris and the leisure activities of the middle-class. Impressionist art paved a way for painting without the help of the Salon, which until then, had been the only way for an artist to gain recognition. However, at the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886, Seurat’s painting ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte’ demonstrated dissatisfaction with the Impressionist aesthetic.
Neo-Impressionism was the name given to Seurat’s new style. We can see it as a facet of the Post-Impressionism movement because it is working to revise certain notions of Impressionism. Seurat, and Signac with him, wanted a painting that produced the effects of color to a degree that was scientifically correct. To do this, Seurat painted in an exacting new style which was opposite to the short brushstrokes of Impressionism.
This style was called Pointillism. This technique emphasized color by painting in small dots of unmixed color on the canvas. Along with the technique of Pointillism, Seurat also adhered to a technique called Divisionism. This refers to the way the dots of color are divided on the canvas to replicate the recent scientific discoveries in color theory.
This facet of the Post-Impressionism movement did not veer away from the subject matter of Impressionism, only the style. It was felt among Seurat and his followers that impressions of light and color should be made explicit and accurate to portray these scenes of modernity. Neo-Impressionism’s concern with color and its embrace of scientific theory was an important stepping stone to a variety of modernist art movements that wished to portray how color reacts and changes in nature, instead of the falsity of academic painting which utilized color for artificial means.
Van Gogh And Gauguin
Paul Gauguin had exhibited with the Impressionists in the 1880s, but he grew increasingly out of touch with the way of modern life. His reaction against Impressionism was both in style and subject. Gauguin remained interested in color and light but wanted to integrate a more imaginative approach to his work. Gauguin wanted to do away with the Western tradition and to paint in a frank, expressive way. This led him to leave Paris to paint on the island of Tahiti.
Gauguin pioneered a form of Post-Impressionist art that was imaginative, seeking to get to an emotional meaning beyond the Impressionist’s fleeting moments. His work is more symbolic in its approach to the subject and his style strikes the viewer as unnatural. Van Gogh is like Gauguin in this way. Van Gogh had been present at the Impressionist exhibitions but never participated, and from the works of Claude Monet or Camille Pissarro, he cultivated Post-Impressionist art which highlighted emotional perception.
Van Gogh had a strong sense of spirituality. He was not interested in painting only what he saw but emphasizing the beauty of what he saw. Due to this emphasis on beauty, his paintings veered away from naturalism and the Impressionist objective of viewing light’s play with color. Van Gogh’s Post-Impressionist art pioneered personal use of color to inspire awe in nature and to realize the rich emotional life which connects one to the world. If the right emotional response was evoked then it did not matter if the color was anti-realistic, or if the painting was not ‘natural.’
Cézanne’s Shifting Gaze
Paul Cézanne had an early spell painting with the Impressionists Pissarro, Renoir, and Monet, and exhibited in two of their exhibitions. He became more interested, not just in the effect of light and color, but in the moment of painting. Cézanne was sensitive to how the moment influences one’s vision and sensation of a scene, two key proponents in forming perspective.
His early explorations in perspective would go on to have a profound influence on twentieth-century artists. Cézanne was aware that an object changed if he was to move to the left or right, and he tried to implement this ‘lived experience’ into his painting.
Unlike the Impressionists, he was not interested in painting contemporary scenes of Paris but needed space in the country to fully realize his ideas. His Post-Impressionist art consisted of repetitive brushstrokes that built complex stretches of color, a meticulous method, painting a single canvas over a long period of time. This was something quite different from the Impressionist style.
Cézanne’s canvases often have a look or feeling, of being incomplete. This is due to his painting style of slowly adding momentary impressions to gain inches closer to the whole scene. In this, Cézanne’s work has a feeling that things are coming into view making his canvas unstable. His Post-Impressionist art was describing an optical experience of a living moment, with all its ambiguities.
Legacy Of Post-Impressionist Art
Post-Impressionist art would boast a large influence on the twentieth-century modernist art movements. Cézanne’s ‘living moment’ would be taken up by Braque and Picasso in the Cubism movement where they tried to show an object shifting in time from multiple perspectives. Members of the German Expressionist movement would hail van Gogh as their founding father with his emphasis on the richness of the individual’s emotional life. Seurat’s experiments in color would find fertile ground with the likes of Matisse and Orphism.
The Post-Impressionism movement opened a creative gateway in which such a diverse array of artists found means to express themselves, and the world around them. They set an example of a new kind of artistic freedom away from collective movements by demonstrating confidence in their own individual exploratory methods. They were integral in taking art away from tradition and giving it back to the artist.
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Post-Impressionists extended the use of vivid colors, thick application of paint, distinctive brush strokes, and real-life subject matter, and were more inclined to emphasize geometric forms, distort forms for expressive effect, and to use unnatural or arbitrary colors in their compositions.