The term Post Impressionism was first coined by the English art critic Roger Fry for an exhibition of the work of Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and others held in 1910 in London. All these painters began as Impressionists, but each of them eventually abandoned the style to create their own highly personal art. Impressionism was based, in its strictest sense, on the objective recording of nature in terms of the perceived effects of colour and light. The Post Impressionists rejected this limited aim in favour of more ambitious expression. They exploited the pure, brilliant colours of Impressionism, its freedom from traditional subject matter – historical subjects, still life etc., and its technique of defining form and structure with short brushstrokes of broken colour and developed it in many different directions. The ideas of many of these painters would form the basis of much of the developments in painting that took place in the early part of the 20th century.
Paul Cézanne was the first to make the break from Impressionism when he withdrew from exhibiting with the movement in 1878. He wished “to make of Impressionism something solid and durable like the art of the museums.” He rejected the idea of ‘capturing the moment’ with special emphasis on the effect of light and set about trying to capture the structure and permanence of both landscape and still life. He became obsessed with the underlying structures of natural forms – trees, mountains – and the problem of unifying surface patterns with spatial depth – making a flat surface (the canvas) look 3D. By reducing structures, mountains etc., to simple shapes and analysing the colour relationships, he managed to give a solidity to the object that Impressionism, by its very nature, could not. His art became a major inspiration for Cubism, which would also concern itself with depicting the structure of objects.
The Post Impressionists often exhibited together but, unlike the Impressionists who were a close-knit, convivial group, they mainly worked alone. Cézanne painted in isolation at Aix-en-Provence in southern France and Gauguin, took up residence in Tahiti in 1891, although he did work with Van Gogh for a short time in the late 1880’s.
Both Gauguin and Van Gogh developed their own, more spiritual, response to Impressionism, in fact Gauguin announced in 1886 that Impressionism had become too involved with “the abominable error of naturalism.” He advocated a return to the aesthetic of primitive art, for which he believed imagination and ideas were the primary inspiration and the representation of nature merely a vehicle for that expression. Copying the pure, flat colour, heavy outline, and decorative qualities of medieval stained glass and manuscript illumination, he explored the expressive potential of pure colour and line, using exotic and sensuous colour harmonies to poetically depict the Tahitians he would eventually live amongst.
After arriving in Paris in 1886 Vincent van Gogh’s painting was transformed by Impressionist techniques and colour. He changed the contrasting short brushstrokes of Impressionism into curving, vibrant lines of colour which gave him the means to express his emotions and inner torment. When we look at a Van Gogh painting, especially the later ones, we are not looking at a painting of objects we are looking at the soul of a insecure and unstable man.
Post Impressionism led the way from a naturalistic approach to painting towards one which evoked feeling and emotion through the use of colour and form. It would eventually form the basis of the movements, Cubism and Fauvism in the early 1900’s.