Post Impressionism

House with Red Roof - Paul Cezanne 1885
Sunday on the Grande Jatte - Paul Seurat
Vision after the Sermon - Paul Gauguin 1888


Early Influences

The term Post Impressionism was first coined by the English art critic Roger Fry in 1910. He had organised an exhibition of the work of Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and others in London. The exhibition’s title became the name of the art movement. These painters began as Impressionists, but each eventually abandoned the style to explore different avenues. Impressionism was based, in its strictest sense, on painting nature in terms of the perceived effects of colour and light. The Post Impressionists rejected this limited aim in favour of a more ambitious approach.

The Post Impressionist artists exploited the pure, brilliant colours of Impressionism and its freedom from traditional subject matter such as historical subjects, still life. But they also developed the idea of painting with short brushstrokes of broken colour in a less formal way. The ideas developed by these painters formed the basis of many of the radical developments in painting that took place in the early part of the 20th century. Unlike the Impressionists, the Post Impressionist artists were not a defined group with set aims. Rather, they were a number of individuals influenced by Impressionism, but reacting to it in vastly different ways.

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 the emphasis on light. He set about trying to capture the structure and permanence of both landscape and still life. Cézanne became obsessed with the underlying structures of natural forms such as trees and mountains. He also sought solutions to the problem of unifying surface patterns with spatial depth – making a flat surface (the canvas) look 3D. He did this by reducing structures such as mountains, to simple shapes. Plus, by analysing the colour relationships he saw, he managed to give a solidity to objects that Impressionism could not. His work became a major inspiration for Picasso’s development of Cubism. Cubism would develop further the issue of how to depict three dimensional objects in 2 D space (on a flat surface).

Post Impressionist Ideas

The Post Impressionist artists often exhibited together. But, unlike the Impressionist artist who were a close-knit convivial group, they were individuals. Cézanne painted in isolation at Aix-en-Provence in southern France. Gauguin worked with Van Gogh for a short time in the late 1880’s before taking up residence in Tahiti in 1891.

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 wanted a return to the aesthetic of primitive art, for which he believed imagination and ideas were the primary inspiration. To him the representation of nature was merely a vehicle for that expression. Influenced by the pure, flat colour, heavy outline, and decorative qualities of medieval stained glass and manuscript illumination, Gauguin’s work developed. Eventually, his painting would combine the expressive potential of pure colour and line and sensuous colour harmonies to paint Tahitians almost poetically.

After arriving in Paris in 1886 Vincent van Gogh’s painting was also transformed by Impressionist techniques and colour. To start with he used the contrasting short brushstrokes of Impressionism. Later, he enhanced them 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 just 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. One which expressed feeling and emotion through the use of colour and form. The art movement would eventually inspire artists to develop Cubism and Fauvism in the early 1900’s.

Paul Priestley – Artist in School