Breaking free of the naturalism of Impressionism in the late 1880s, a group of young painters sought independent artistic styles for expressing emotions rather than simply optical impressions, concentrating on themes of deeper symbolism. Through the use of simplified colors and definitive forms, their art was characterized by a renewed aesthetic sense as well as abstract tendencies. Among the nascent generation of artists responding to Impressionism, Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), Georges Seurat (1859–1891), Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), and the eldest of the group, Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), followed diverse stylistic paths in search of authentic intellectual and artistic achievements. These artists, often working independently, are today called Post-Impressionists. Although they did not view themselves as part of a collective movement at the time, Roger Fry (1866–1934), critic and artist, broadly categorized them as “Post-Impressionists,” a term that he coined in his seminal exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists installed at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1910.
In the 1880s, Georges Seurat was at the forefront of the challenges to Impressionism with his unique analyses based on then-current notions of optical and color theories. Seurat believed that by placing tiny dabs of pure colors adjacent to one another, a viewer’s eye compensated for the visual disparity between the two by “mixing” the primaries to model a composite hue. The Study for “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” (51.112.6) embodies Seurat’s experimental style, which was dubbed Neo-Impressionism. This painting, the last sketch for the final picture that debuted in 1886 at the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition (today in the Art Institute of Chicago), depicts a landscape scene peopled with figures at leisure, a familiar subject of the Impressionists. But Seurat’s updated style invigorates the otherwise conventional subject with a virtuoso application of color and pigment. In Circus Sideshow (61.101.17), he uses this technique to paint a rare nighttime scene illuminated by artificial light. The young circle of Neo-Impressionists around Seurat included Paul Signac (1863–1935), Maximilien Luce (1858–1941), and Henri-Edmond Cross (Henri-Edmond Delacroix) (1856–1910).
The art of Paul Gauguin developed out of similar Impressionist foundations, but he too dispensed with Impressionistic handling of pigment and imagery in exchange for an approach characterized by solid patches of color and clearly defined forms, which he used to depict exotic themes and images of private and religious symbolism. Gauguin’s peripatetic disposition took him to Brittany, Provence, Martinique, and Panama, finally settling him in remote Polynesia, at first Tahiti then the Marquesas Islands. Hoping to escape the aggravations of the industrialized European world and constantly searching for an untouched land of simplicity and beauty, Gauguin looked toward remote destinations where he could live easily and paint the purity of the country and its inhabitants. In Tahiti, he made some of the most insightful and expressive pictures of his career. Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary) (51.112.2) resonates with striking imagery and Polynesian iconography, used unconventionally with several well-known Christian themes, including the Adoration of the Magi and the Annunciation. He described this picture in a letter to a dealer friend in Paris: “An angel with yellow wings points out Mary and Jesus, both Tahitians, to two Tahitian women, nudes wrapped in pareus, a sort of cotton cloth printed with flowers that can be draped as one likes from the waist” (letter to Daniel de Monfreid, March 11, 1892).
In Two Tahitian Women (49.58.1) and Still Life with Teapot and Fruit (1997.391.2), Gauguin employs simplified colors and solid forms as he builds flat objects that lack traditional notions of perspective, particularly apparent in the still-life arrangement atop a white tablecloth pushed directly into the foreground of the picture plane.
Striving toward comparable emotional intensities as Gauguin, and even working briefly with him in Arles in the south of France in 1888, Vincent van Gogh searched with equal determination to create personal expression in his art. Van Gogh’s early pictures are coarsely rendered images of Dutch peasant life depicted with rugged brushstrokes and dark, earthy tones. Peasant Woman Cooking by a Fireplace (1984.393) shows his fascination with the working class, portrayed here in a crude style of thickly applied dark pigments. Similarly, the Road in Etten (1975.1.774) takes the theme outdoors, with laborers working in the Dutch landscape. Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat (67.187.70a) is reminiscent of the rapidly applied divisionist strokes of the Neo-Impressionists, particularly Signac, with whom Van Gogh became friends in Paris, while the image on its reverse, The Potato Peeler (67.187.70b), recalls his dark style of the early 1880s. This unique object encapsulates the artist’s stylistic experimentations.
Working in Arles, Van Gogh completed a series of paintings that exemplify the artistic independence and proto-Expressionist technique that he developed by the late 1880s, which would later strongly influence Henri Matisse (1869–1954) and his circle of Fauvist painters, as well as the German Expressionists. L’Arlésienne (51.112.3) and La Berceuse (1996.435) feature Van Gogh’s style of rapidly applied, thick, bright colors with dark, definitive outlines. After his voluntary commitment to an asylum in Saint-Rémy in 1889, he painted several pictures with extraordinarily poignant undertones, agitated lines, brilliant colors, and distorted perspective, which include, among others, A Corridor in the Asylum (48.190.2). Paying homage to Jean-François Millet, whom Van Gogh had long admired as evident in his very early pictures of peasants, he celebrates the Barbizon artist’s legacy with First Steps, after Millet (64.165.2).
Through their radically independent styles and dedication to pursuing unique means of artistic expression, the Post-Impressionists dramatically influenced generations of artists, including the Nabis, especially Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) and Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940), the German Expressionists, the Fauvists, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque (1882–1963), and American modernists such as Marsden Hartley (1877–1943) and John Marin (1870–1953).
Voorhies, James. “Post-Impressionism.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/poim/hd_poim.htm (October 2004)