Post Impressionism

House with Red Roof - Paul Cezanne 1885

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Sunday on the Grande Jatte - Paul Seurat
Vision after the Sermon - Paul Gauguin 1888


How the Art Movement came into Being

The term Post Impressionism was first used by Roger Fry, the English art critic. In 1910, he held an exhibition in London of the work of Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. These painters started life as Impressionists, but they eventually abandoned the style to create their own individual styles. Impressionist painting was essentially based on the objective recording of nature in terms of the effects of colour and light. Claude Monet was the supreme master of the style.

What is Post Impressionism?

The Post Impressionists rejected, what they saw as a limited approach in favour of more ambitious ideas. They used the pure, brilliant colours of Impressionism and the freedom it had pioneered in the break from traditional subject matter. The Impressionist technique of defining form (objects and structures) with short brushstrokes of broken colour was developed it in many different directions. Post-Impressionist ideas would form the basis of many of the developments in painting that took place in the early part of the 20th century.

Paul Cézanne was the first artist to make the break from Impressionism. He withdrew from the movement in 1878. He wished “to make of Impressionism something solid and durable like the art of the museums.” The idea of ‘capturing the moment’ with special emphasis on the effect of light was rejected. Instead he set about trying to capture the structure and permanence of both landscape and still life. Cézanne was obsessed with the underlying structures of natural forms and the problem depicting them on a flat surface. His solution was to reduce structures to simple shapes. By combining that with an analysis of how colours interacted, he gave a solidity to objects that Impressionism, by its very nature, could not. His painting became a major inspiration for Cubism, which would also concern itself with visualising the structure of objects.

Not a Tight Group of Painters

The Post-Impressionist artists often exhibited together but, unlike the Impressionists they were not a close-knit group. They tended to work alone and probably would not have recognised Post Impressionism as a movement, as we often call it today. Cézanne, for example, painted in isolation at Aix-en-Provence in southern France. Paul Gauguin painted in Brittany for a while but eventually in 1891, went to live in Tahiti. However, he did work with Van Gogh for a short time in the south of France in the late 1880’s.

Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh

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, because he believed imagination and ideas were the primary inspiration. The representation of nature was merely the vehicle for that expression. He was also fascinated with the pure, flat colour, heavy outline, and decorative qualities of medieval stained glass and manuscript illumination. These elements often found their way into his painting. He loved to use the expressive potential of pure colour and line, combining that with sensuous colour harmonies. This can be seen in his paintings of the Tahitians with whom he spent the last years of his life..

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. This proved to be the ideal vehicle with which 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 an insecure and unstable man.

Post Impressionism is an important milestone in artistic development. It led the way from a naturalistic approach to painting towards one which, through the use of colour and form, expressed feeling and emotion. Post Impressionism contributed massively towards the formation of the movements, Cubism and Fauvism in the early 1900’s.