Post-Impressionism is an art movement that has had a major influence on modern art. The Post-Impressionists rejected the conventional approach of 19th century academic painting and sought to create more expressive, emotional works of art. It emerged in France during the late 19th century as a reaction against traditional academic painting styles, combining elements of both Realism and Impressionism. The movement is considered an extension of Impressionism, but can be classified an art movement within its own right.
Timeline and History
The Post-Impressionist movement began in the late 1880s, with Paul Cézanne as its most notable early influence. Cézanne wanted to create paintings that were beyond the realistic style of traditional art, by creating more expressive works that focused on structure and colour. Other artists such as Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Vincent van Gogh followed in Cézanne’s footsteps.
The movement began to gain traction in the early 1890s with a series of exhibitions held in Paris. The first exhibition was organised by art critic Roger Fry and featured works from artists such as Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, and van Gogh.
Background and Influences
The Post-Impressionist movement was heavily influenced by the political and social changes that were occurring in Europe during this period. The Industrial Revolution had resulted in widespread poverty and inequality, while new technologies such as photography began to change the way people saw and interpreted art.
The movement also drew influence from avant-garde intellectuals like Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre. These philosophers argued that art should be used to challenge the status quo and push people to question traditional ideas and beliefs. This ideology heavily influenced the works of Post-Impressionists, who sought to use their art in order to express their own personal views on life.
Breaking Free from Academic Conventions
Impressionism, paving the way for Post-Impressionism, can be considered a pathbreaker in the realm of art. Prior to the emergence of Impressionism, the French art world was governed by the dictates of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, an organisation that set the standards for ‘high art’ in France. The Académie revered historical subjects, religious themes, and portraits, all executed with polished brush strokes and sombre colours.
The Impressionists, however, strayed from the conventions of Academic art. They were drawn to contemporary life as their subject matter and sought to capture the fleeting impressions of the world around them. Rejecting the constraints of the studio, they preferred to paint ‘en plein air’, emphasising the transient effects of light and colour.
The establishment’s response to these progressive artists was far from welcoming. The Paris Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie, routinely rejected works that did not comply with its strict standards. This led to the infamous ‘Salon des Refusés’ (‘Exhibition of The Refused’) in 1863, where works rejected by the Salon were exhibited. Among these ‘refused’ artists were future Impressionists Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, and Camille Pissarro.
The Salon des Refusés is often noted as a turning point in the history of art; it was a public declaration of dissent against the Académie’s rigid standards and a celebration of artistic diversity and innovation. This act of defiance signified the Impressionists’ break from academic art conventions, ultimately laying the groundwork for subsequent art movements, including Post-Impressionism.
Post-Impressionism: Place in Art History
Prior to the eruption of Post-Impressionism, the art world was dominated by the Impressionist movement. This movement, which originated in Paris in 1874, was characterised by its focus on capturing light, colour, and atmospheric effects, often in the landscape or scenes of daily life. Impressionist artists such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro were prominent figures in this movement. They painted outdoors, ‘en plein air’, to capture the subtle nuances of natural light and colour in their works.
Impressionism provided the foundation from which Post-Impressionism was launched. The artists involved in the Post-Impressionist movement, however, were not satisfied with merely representing light and colour; they sought to imbue their works with a greater sense of structure, symbolism, and emotional depth. In 1886, the final Impressionist Exhibition took place, marking a pivotal moment in the art world. A group of young, energetic artists, inspired by the impressionist movement, sought to carry the torch forward. These were the artists who would later be known as the Post-Impressionists. Their aim was not to abandon Impressionism completely, but to extend its principles and explore new territory.
They were also influenced by a range of other artistic movements, including the Realism movement of the mid-19th century, which eschewed romanticism in favour of portraying everyday subjects and scenes as they appeared in real life. This fusion of influence and desire for progress paved the way for the emergence of Post-Impressionism.
Influences on Subsequent Art Movements
Post-Impressionism had a profound influence on subsequent art movements in the early 20th century. It particularly shaped the emergence of Expressionism, an artistic style marked by an attempt to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it for emotional effect with an aim to evoke moods or ideas.
Expressionism, with its roots in Germany around the early 20th century, took the emotional intensity of Post-Impressionism and pushed it further, focusing on representing raw, emotional reactions. Where Post-Impressionists used colour and form to convey their responses to the world around them, Expressionists intensified this, often using violent colour and distorted forms to reflect their feelings.
Artists such as Edvard Munch and Wassily Kandinsky were noted Expressionists, with Munch’s famous painting ‘The Scream’ embodying the emotional intensity that typifies the movement. In this way, Post-Impressionism laid the groundwork for Expressionism and other significant 20th-century art movements, playing a key role in the evolution of modern art.
Characteristics and Styles of Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionists sought to push the boundaries of traditional art by creating more expressive and emotionally charged works. They used thick brushstrokes, vivid colours, and distorted perspectives to create their art. In addition, many Post-Impressionists embraced symbolism and abstract ideas in order to convey their message.
The Post-Impressionists were also inspired by the works of other artists such as Edouard Manet and Claude Monet. They drew inspiration from these artists, but sought to create something more expressive and emotional in their own works.
Texture and Brushwork
Artists such as Vincent van Gogh used the impasto technique, whereby thick oil paint is applied to the canvas in textured brush strokes. This technique was used to create a sense of depth in the paintings. If you look closely at van Gogh’s ‘The Mulberry Tree’, you can see swirls of texture on the canvas. Other Post-Impressionists such as Paul Cézanne and Georges Seurat embraced pointillism, a painting technique that involved using small dots of paint to create an image. Both techniques were used to emphasise the use of the medium. They wanted their paintings to appear loose and painterly, rather than overly representational.
Influence of Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints
The Post-Impressionists, particularly Vincent van Gogh, were profoundly influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. This vibrant art form, with its bold colours, flat areas of colour without shadow, and unusual compositions, caught the attention of the Western art world during the second half of the 19th century.
Emanating an expressive simplicity and a sharp observation of the everyday, ukiyo-e prints depicted scenes from the ‘floating world’; from kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers, to landscapes and flora. They offered a fresh perspective and an escape into an exotic culture.
Van Gogh was particularly taken with these prints. He admired their vibrant colours, clear lines and spaces devoid of shadow. He felt that Japanese artists lived in harmony with nature, and this deeply resonated with him. His fascination found expression in several of his works. For instance, his painting “The Courtesan (after Eisen)” was directly inspired by a print by Keisai Eisen. He also incorporated elements of Japanese art, such as the bold outlines, unconventional viewpoints, and bright colours, into his own style, as seen in works like “Almond Blossom” and “Sunflowers”.
Synthetism, another significant aspect of Post-Impressionism, emerged in the late 19th century as a reaction against the naturalistic depictions of light and colour in Impressionism, and the emotional intensity that characterised Expressionism. This movement was spearheaded by artists such as Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard, who sought to create works that were more focused on symbolic representation.
The name ‘Synthetism’ itself implies a combination or synthesis of elements to create a whole. In the context of art, it refers to synthesis of two different elements: the outer visual experience of the world, and the inner emotional experience of the artist. This synthesis was realised through the use of simplified forms, flat planes of colour, and an emphasis on the symbolic function of colour and form, rather than their descriptive or representative functions.
Gauguin’s works, such as “The Yellow Christ” and “Vision After the Sermon”, are classic examples of Synthetism. They embody a spiritual and symbolic approach, using daring colours and distorted forms to express profound emotions and ideas. Bernard’s works, such as “Breton Women with Parasols”, similarly employ brilliant colours and simplified forms to evoke a spiritual and emotional response.
Synthetism was a significant influence on the broader Post-Impressionist movement, contributing to its focus on symbolism, abstraction, and the expressive potential of colour and form. It underlined the idea that art could go beyond merely representing the world as it appears, and could instead express a deeper, more personal vision of reality.
Pointillism, pioneered by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, was another key feature of the Post-Impressionist movement. The technique involved the application of small, distinct dots of pure colour, which would blend in the viewer’s eye to form an image. Seurat’s work “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” is probably the most famous painting that came from the pointillism movement.
The theory behind pointillism was derived from scientific principles of colour and light. The technique aimed to maximise the vibrancy of colours. When viewed from a distance, the tiny dots of different colours would optically blend to produce a more radiant, luminous effect than could be achieved with the conventional method of mixing pigments. It was a meticulous and time-consuming process, requiring patience and precision.
Pointillism was influential in pushing the boundaries of colour theory in art. The impact of this technique is seen not just in the works of Seurat and Signac, but also in the art of later artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne, who incorporated elements of pointillism into their own distinctive styles. Through pointillism, Post-Impressionist artists demonstrated their commitment to experimentation and innovation, and their desire to continually seek new ways of visual expression.
Colour in Post-Impressionist Art
Unlike their Impressionist predecessors, who utilised colour primarily to represent natural light and atmospheres, Post-Impressionists liberated colour from its descriptive function, employing it instead to convey emotions and symbolic meanings. The artists were less concerned with replicating the hue of a subject as seen in nature, and more interested in using colour as a tool for expression.
For instance, Vincent van Gogh’s works are renowned for their dramatic, emotional renditions of colour. In his “Starry Night”, the swirling, vibrant blues and yellows are not an accurate representation of the night sky, but the complementary colour scheme has been used to create contrast in the composition.
Famous Post-Impressionist Artists
The most famous Post-Impressionists include Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard and many more.
Paul Cézanne is perhaps the most important figure of the Post-Impressionist movement. He was the first artist to develop a new style that combined elements of both Impressionism and Realism. His use of colour, perspective, and brushstrokes heavily influenced other artists such as van Gogh, Picasso, and Matisse.
Vincent van Gogh is also one of the most famous Post-Impressionists. He was a passionate artist who sought to express his emotions through vibrant colours and expressive brushwork. His works, such as “The Starry Night” and “Sunflowers”, are some of the most famous paintings in the world.
Cézanne is often referred to as the ‘father of Post-Impressionism’. His work laid the foundations for the transition from the late 19th-century Impressionism to the early 20th-century’s new line of artistic enquiry, Cubism. Cézanne’s approach to painting, with his emphasis on geometric forms in nature, demonstrated his quest for order and structure in art. His most notable works include ‘Mont Sainte-Victoire’ and ‘The Card Players’.
Vincent van Gogh
Known for his emotional intensity and use of bold colours, Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch painter whose works powerfully influenced the path of 20th-century art. His post-impressionistic style, with vibrant colours and dramatic, impulsive, and expressive brushwork, contributed to the foundations of modern art. Vincent van Gogh’s most famous works, such as ‘Starry Night’ and ‘Sunflowers’, remain some of the most popular and expensive works of art in the world. His troubled life, punctuated by bouts of depression, gave an added depth to his vibrant and emotional artworks.
Seurat was a French artist known for devising the painting techniques known as chromoluminarism, and pointillism. Seurat’s artistic personality was compounded of qualities which are usually supposed to be opposed and incompatible. On the one hand, his extreme and delicate sensibility, on the other a passion for logical abstraction and an almost mathematical precision of mind. His large-scale work ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’ remains his most famous and influential piece.
Gauguin was a leading Post-Impressionist painter, famous for his bold use of colour and synthetist style. Gauguin is also known for his extensive travels and time spent in Tahiti and French Polynesia. These travels heavily influenced his art, as seen in paintings like ‘Two Tahitian Women’ and ‘The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch’. Gauguin’s work was influential to the French avant-garde and many modern artists, including Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
A French painter, printmaker, draughtsman, caricaturist, and illustrator, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s immersion in the colourful and theatrical life of Paris in the late 19th century allowed him to produce a collection of enticing, elegant, and provocative images of the modern, sometimes decadent, affairs of those times. Toulouse-Lautrec is known along with Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin as one of the greatest painters of the Post-Impressionist period. His most famous works include ‘At the Moulin Rouge’ and ‘The Bed’.
Impressionism vs Post-Impressionism
Although both movements feature similar elements such as bright colours and expressive brushwork, there are several key differences between them.
The Impressionists focused on capturing the fleeting effects of light and atmosphere in their works, while the Post-Impressionists sought to create more emotionally charged works.
Additionally, the works of the Impressionists were often naturalistic; they focused on painting everyday scenes and landscapes. The Post-Impressionists however, were more concerned with conveying a deeper meaning or emotion through their work.
Finally, the Impressionists tended to use a more traditional approach to composition and perspective, while the Post-Impressionists embraced distortion, symbolism and abstract ideas in their works.
Post-Impressionism has had a major impact on art in the 20th century and beyond. It introduced new perspectives on painting that have been adopted by many modern artists. Its influence can be seen in a wide range of styles, from abstract expressionism to Pop art and beyond.
By breaking away from traditional painting methods and embracing a more expressive approach, the Post-Impressionists have left an indelible mark on the history of art. They have helped shape our understanding of what art can be—emotional, transformative and powerful.
Post-Impressionism has inspired generations of artists to explore the depths of their emotions and express them through art. It’s a legacy that will continue to shape and influence the world of art for generations to come.