Post-Impressionism is the term coined by the British artist and art critic Roger Fry in 1910 to describe the development of French art since Manet. The exhibition that opened on 8 of November 1910 was called “Manet and Post-Impressionists”. In a way it was an explicitly anti-Impressionist manifesto. Fry took Manet as the starting-point. Then there was massive representation of Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cezanne. Seurat, Serusier, Denis, Vallotton and Redon were also represented but not so wide. Admittedly the Post-Impressionism net has been spread rather wider than before in the exhibition, but all of the great Post-Impressionist masters has been felt by associated with the exhibition and with its catalogue.
The Post-Impressionism is born out of reaction against Impressionism that occurred in 1880s. It started developing with Seurat, Cross and Signac. The emphasis was firmly on Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, artists who were “interested in the discoveries of the impressionism only so far as these discoveries helped them to express emotions which the objects themselves evoked”. The Post-Impressionists were dissatisfied with the triviality of subject matter and the loss of structure in Impressionist paintings, though they did not agree on the way forward. Georges Seurat and his followers concerned themselves with Pointillism, the systematic use of tiny dots of colour. Paul Cézanne set out to restore a sense of order and structure to painting, to "make of Impressionism something solid and durable, like the art of the museums". He achieved this by reducing objects to their basic shapes while retaining the bright fresh colours of Impressionism. The Impressionist Camille Pissarro experimented with Neo-Impressionist ideas between the mid 1880s and the early 1890s. Discontented with what he referred to as romantic Impressionism, he investigated Pointillism which he called scientific Impressionism before returning to a purer Impressionism in the last decade of his life. Vincent van Gogh used colour and vibrant swirling brush strokes to convey his feelings and his state of mind. Although they often exhibited together, Post-Impressionist artists were not in agreement concerning a cohesive movement. Younger painters during the 1890s and early 20th century worked in geographically disparate regions and in various stylistic categories, such as Fauvism and Cubism.
The term Post-Impressionists was first used by the English writer Roger Fry when he organised an exhibition in London called ‘Manet an the Post-Impressionists’ in 1910. For the first time, it introduced a wide range of modern French painting to bewildered British public. The painters most fully represented were Cezanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh, all of whom were dead but still comparatively unknown. Among younger painters shown were Matisse, Rouault, Picasso, Derain and Vlaminck. A second exhibition in 1912 showed pictures by French , English and Russian painters variously influenced by the older Post-Impressionists. By that date Fauvism was virtually over and Cubism several years old: non-representational painting was already underway in the work , for example, of Wasily Kandinsky and Franz Kupka. Such developments owed much to the impact of Post-Impressionism, with its reviewed concern for the formal possibilities of painting, emphasis on the autonomy of the picture, invariably heightened colour detached from mere description, and expression of unfamiliar or previously unexplored emotions. Within an exceptionally fertile period in the arts the leading Post-Impressionists were outstanding, and their influence on their immediate contemporaries was no less invigorating that on their great successors. Definition of Post-Impressionism primarily usually includes those painters which reacted against the Impressionism of the 1870s and early 1880s in France, the main figures being Seurat, Gauguin, van Gogh and Cezanne. All had their followers giving rise to various movements within Post-Impressionism. Early on Seurat attracted Signac, Cross and Luce who later on became prominent Pointillists (pointillism method of painting suggested by Surat – the methodical application of paint in dots or small dabs of colour clearly evident to the eye) . Usually it is common to use term Neo-Impressionism to define the style they work in. Gauguin and his followers in Brittany constituted another group intent on reforming Impressionism and introducing a wider variety of subject-matter through use of colour and emphatic line; their movement was given the loose generic name – Synthetism. Van Gogh was familiar with Neo-Impressionism (through Seurat and Signac) and even had a few works imitating the style. He also was a close friend with Gauguin (however the relationships weren’t without some complications) therefore aware of the Synthetism promoted by him and his followers (Anquetin, Bernard). Cezanne, on the other hand, developed in a more isolate position, uninfluenced by either movements, yet sharing some of their more general characteristics. In the last decade of the century the Nabi painters, a further group, absorbed various influences, particularly that of Gauguin, but now seen closer to the Impressionist generation. It is important to remember that there were other forms of painting evolving simultaneously with Post-Impressionism, most notably the Symbolist movement with Moreau, Redon, Levy-Dhurmer and Jean Delville. It also worth mentioning Toulouse-Lautrec who can’t be defined merely by one of the art movements mentioned above. Much of his art was derived from older painters such as Daumier and Guys, Manet and Degas. He did not share to the same degree any of the characteristics of Post-Impressions although the evident humanity of his portrayal of contemporary men and women gives him a place beside van Gogh. The debate between official art represented by the Salon and unofficial art represented by the Impressionists artists came to a head with the Post-Impressionists. The one-men exhibition or the group show at dealers’ galleries or in hired rooms was a relatively new departure in artistic life. In 1884 the Societe des Artistes Independants eventually came into being more notable for its exhibition that year of Seurat’ Une Baignade, Asnieres, which had earlier been refused by the Salon. The independent group and societies which sprang up from then onwards in Paris were symptomatic of the artists’ increasing isolation within the art world and their separation from the general public. It gave rise to a comparatively new breed – that of supposedly cultured a person devoted to the arts , but who could not stand the painting of the day. The Post-Impressionists began painting under the influence of the Impressionists; the aesthetic and personal relations between the two groups were as diverse as those found within each group itself, the younger men took over quite naturally the Impressionist’ new discoveries in composition, their subjects (urban life) and their use of unadulterated colour in which neutral tints were abandoned in favour of close-woven textures of primary colours and their complementaries. Between about 1880 and 1885 several of the Impressionists recognised some of the shortcomings of their vision and manner. All began to pursue different methods, going back to much earlier phases and themes in their own work or to the study of older painters (such as Ingres in Renoir’s case) or younger ones (such as Seurat in Pissarro’s). During this difficult time for the older generation younger painters became sure that Impressionism was no longer the style best suited to their vision of the world . It was too materialistic, rooted in everyday life, there were no other subjects. It was the superficiality whish the Post-Impressionists wished to avoid and rectify; it became not simply a matter of imposing new concepts upon Impressionists methods but of evolving a radically new approach of their own. However, no matter how different their actual work appears, the Post-Impressionists retained an immense admiration for the achievements of the older painters, looked at them for support and were sustained by their example in their own struggles. But the very nature of their reaction against Impressionism, their drive to extend the boundaries of art towards greater freedom made their isolation from society more acute and the public’s hostility more ferocious. We must think of the Post-Impressionist not just as newcomers in the field of painting, but as men who extended our knowledge and which consciously or unconsciously , reflected increasingly complex ways of thinking. Through their investigation of the properties of painting and the expression of emotions new to art such painters as Seurat and Gauguin in their rigorous audacity yare forebears of some simplicity of their imagery. They suggest profoundly exciting emotions through subjects which would have previously been thought too flimsy or even banal to carry such a way of feeling. Yet the often simple imagery of the Post-Impressionists is deceptive it veils levels of experience and feeling expressed through highly calculated procedures. In their greatest works there seems to be a sense of tragedy. It is this which marks a return to one of the fundamental preoccupations of European painting.
The Artists of the Group
Seurat came from a wealthy background and was a highly intelligent, methodical man. He started to paint in about 1881 and exhibited at the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886. He took Impressionism a step further when he developed pointillism, or as he called it, divisionism. For the most part, he applied pure colours to the canvas. Due to an optical process perceived by the viewer, these “pixels” melt together into mixed colours, provided he stands far enough away from the canvas. This painstaking technique is recognised when observing shadows; frim close up, the viewer can see that an aquamarine tint results not from a mixture of blue and green on the palette , but from blue pints positioned over and next to green points. Whereas the Impressionists tried to capture transitory images of ever–changing interactions between light and atmosphere with ephemeral brushstrokes, Seurat’s pictures represent the logical conclusion of a formal process in which everything that is coincidental is reworked, and all correlations are carefully balanced. Like the Impressionists, he made outdoor studies of scenery , light and colour, but he finished his larger canvases in the studio.
Van Gogh discovered his artistic vocation in 1880, having worked previously as an art dealer and a lay preacher. Vincent lived and painted in the Netherlands until 1886, producing dark images of peasants that emphasised their hardship. In 1886, he moved to Paris and his palette became brighter and more intense. In 1888 Van Gogh settled in Arles in the south of France, but the years 1888-90 were tumultuous for him. He was driven by a dream of founding an artists’ colony in Arles with Paul Gauguin. During this period, van Gogh created landscape paintings in which his expressive, turbulently brushed representations of nature (having replaced the fleeting moment of Impressionism) reflected his personal feelings. The colour combination of blue and yellow , its primal manifestation appearing as the sun in the sky, was crucial for van Gog’s palette, and is everywhere to be seen in his paintings from this period. As if overcome by powerful surges of emotions ,Van Gogh’s passionate brushwork swirls through the spectrum in massive rings and eddies. However, at the end of the Arles period his mental health became unstable, he quarrelled with Paul Gauguin, and cut off his own ear. Subsequently he spent time in an asylum at St Remy before moving to Auvers in 1890 to be near to his brother , Theo, who supported him financially all his life. On 29 July 1890 he committed suicide. He left over 800 paintings and drawings; his wok had an enormous influence on Expressionism, Fauvism and Abstract art.
Gauguin, the son of a French father and Creole mother, began painting in the early 1870s while working as a stockbroker. In 1883 he became a full-time artist. He was a friend of Pissarro and exhibited in the last four Impressionist exhibitions, but his painting did not bring financial success. In 1886 he left his family and moved to Pont Aven in Brittany. There he assembled a group of followers called the “Pont-Aven School.” In 1888, the shared a studio with van Gogh until their friendship came to a bloody end. Gauguin moved to Tahiti in 1891, where he believed he became one with nature, a feeling reflected in his later works, which is influenced by the art of primitive peoples. When he first sailed to Tahiti , he had put more than just a large geographic distance between himself and France. Since 1880s, when he first exhibited with the Impressionists, he had undertaken a step-by-step reworking of his opinions about light, colour and form. He reacted to the increasingly scientific theories of the Impressionists and their followers (especially the pointillists) with an emphatic turn to the “primitive”. He achieved this by abandoning perspective , sculptural modelling and conventional colouring. On the island of Tahiti, discovered 125 years previously, hardly anything of the indigenous culture and way of life had survived French colonial domination. Many of the pictures executed be Gauguin in the South Pacific hearken back to a lost harmony between man and nature. Gauguin could only realise his dream of a primitive life with the help of an artistic device: the lining up of figures with few overlaps, the juxtaposition of frontal and profile views, the immobile faces and “talking” hands of the women all recollect Egyptian and Javanese art. By superimposing the forms of a seemingly foreign and mysterious culture on the sober and mundane reality of the island, he was able to give expression to his exotic, primitive vision. He created for the viewer (and for himself) a simulated world full of mystery and wonder.
Cezanne grew up in Aix-Provence and trained as a lawyer. In 1861 he began to study painting at the Academie Suisse in Paris. Between 1862 and 1865, he met and became good friends with several Impressionist painters. Until about 1870 his work varied in style and motif. In some works he used thick impasto and a palette knife, while for others he used more traditional brushwork, his palette was always dark. Despite these differences in style and content, although his work reveals an early interest in the relationships between different planes and the balance between form and colour. During this period he painted still lifes, portraits, and semi-historical an erotic subjects, all infused with an internal violence. Under the influence of his mentor Pissarro, Cezanne painted in the Impressionist style between 1870-79. From 1880, however, he developed a new style. Cezanne’s later works , most of which he painted in Aix-en-Provence, are dominated by figure compositions, landscapes and still lifes. In these paintings he attempted not to imitate nature, but rather to construct a harmony parallel to nature. Naturalistic modelling of the human body as taught at the academies, utilizing light and dark tones to represent brightness and shadow, represented for him a dead end. He developed his own colour theory, which he descried with the musical term “modulation.” According to this system, colours follow one another based on the hue and luminance of similar but clearly distinct tones. Patches of colour can therefore be arranged in a structure based on the modulation and repetition of tones. With this system, Cezanne turned against the momentary nature of Impressionism. He also broke down classical perspective, which creates the illusion of space by interweaving all the motifs of a composition –such as the mountain in the background or the twigs in the foreground- with equal emphasis. At the same time, the objects’ boundaries are indicated such that the zones of transition can still be identified. In this way, the canvas starts to take on a practically autonomous structural significance, and abandons illusion.
Toulouse-Lautrec came from an aristocratic family. In his teens he broke both his legs and sadly the ceased to grow while his torso continued to mature. He began to paint in the studio of Leon Bonnat in 1882 and had his own studio in Montmartre at the age of 21. His early influence was the Impressionists – particularly Degas, who shared his interest in theatre performers and his fascination with prints by Japanese artists Hokusai and Hiroshige, popular in Paris at the time. Likewise, Lautrec also painted brothels, living in one in 1894, and racecourses. Van Gogh, whom he met in 1886, was another influence, notably for his use of cross-hatching. Gauguin’s use of broad , flat colour and graphic outline also influenced the posters and lithographs that Lautrec began to produce from the 1890s, and whish brought him instant recognition. Lautrec became an alcoholic and died young, either from the effects of alcoholism or the syphilis he contracted in his twenties.
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Paul Gauguin, Woman Holding a Fruit (Where Are You Going / Eu haere ia oe),1893
P. Cézanne, Les Grandes Baigneuses, 1898-1905
Paul Signac, Portrait of Félix Fénéon,1890
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, June 1889
Georges-Pierre Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884 – 1886
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance, 1890