Post Impressionism

The Post Impressionist movement emerged in France in the 1880’s.  Although it grew out of Impressionism (most of the artists referred to themselves as Impressionists), this younger generation of artists broke away from Impressionism’s emphasis on direct observation, and explored a new, more abstract approach to painting.

Each of the four major Post Impressionists forged a uniquely individual style:  Georges Seurat sought to systemize the Impressionist analysis of color and light by developing a pointillist method of painting with dots of pure color that blend in the eye. Paul Cézanne focused on structure and form, rather than color and light, resulting in dynamic canvases of shifting planes that register multiple viewpoints.  Paul Gauguin developed a “primitive” style of painting consisting of simple flat shapes bounded by thick contours that decisively broke with Renaissance conventions of perspective and modelling, drawing instead on the simple flat forms of medieval art, Japanese prints, and so-called “primitive” art forms.  Vincent Van Gogh used vivid colors and thick, expressive brushstrokes to express intense emotion.

While Impressionism had emphasized a direct transcription of visual sensations (“paint only what you see”), Post Impressionism represented a decisive break with the Renaissance conception of the painting as a “window” (a concept that began with Giotto, who was the first artist to base his art on direct observation of nature). The invention of photography was a major stimulus for this new trend towards abstraction — for here was a “machine” that could accurately reproduce the visible world.  Beginning with Post Impressionism, artists began to redefine the purpose and goal of art as something other than a mere “picture” of visible reality.

George Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand Jatte, 1884-6
Art Institute of Chicago

This painting was exhibited at the last Impressionist Exhibition in 1886.  The large scale marked a departure from the small size of most Impressionist painting, indicating Seurat’s desire to revive the authority of Academic painting.

The picture portrays Parisians relaxing on a Sunday afternoon on the Island of the Grand Jatte, a park on the river Seine.  The figures appear stiff and immobile, resulting in a timeless quality that contrasts with the Impressionist emphasis on the instantaneous moment.  The simplified figures have an abstract quality that removes them from “reality” – they are more like sculptures than people, frozen in a placid moment in time.

The modern life subject was consistent with Impressionism, but the abstract solidity of the figures and Seurat’s new “pointillist” style marked a significant departure from Impressionist techniques.  Rejecting the improvisatory brushstroke of Impressionism, Seurat painted in tiny little dots of color that intensify one another, or mix in the eye when seen from a distance, creating a luminous effect:

“These early paintings were informed by the law of contrast as articulated in the writings of M.-E. Chevreul. A noted 19th-century color theorist, Chevreul observed that just as dark and light oppositions enhance each other, any color is likewise heightened when placed beside its “complement”—located on the opposite side of the color wheel. When the complements red and green are put side by side, for instance, the red will seem redder and the green, greener. Seurat was also aware of how the optical mixture of colors in the eye was different from their mixture on the palette. Juxtaposing related shades of a color on a canvas (yellows and greens for example) will create a more vivid and luminous effect than if the colors had been blended on the palette.”
Art Institute of Chicago

While Impressionism strove to record the transitory effects of color as perceived by the eye, Seurat strove to analyze color by breaking it down into its component parts.  His dots of pure color are like the pixels on a computer screen – bits of data that add up to a “picture.”

“Seurat’s style came to be known as Pointillism (from the French word “point,” or “dot”), but he preferred the term divisionism—the principle of separating color into small touches placed side-by-side and meant to blend in the eye of the viewer. He felt that colors applied in this way—not mixed on a palette or muddied by overlapping—would retain their integrity and produce a more brilliant, harmonious result.”
Study for A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Smarthistory 

Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnières, 1884
National Gallery UK

Seurat painted a companion piece that portrays workers bathing on the opposite bank of the river.  A factory can be seen in the background.  While the Parisians appear stiff and uncomfortable in their bustles and top hats — corseted, as it were, by social conventions — the workers appear natural and relaxed, unfettered by the restrictive demands of class propriety.  Many critics have interpreted Seurat’s painting as a commentary on class segregation, and on the stiff formality and artificiality of Parisian middle class culture.

Seurat’s Bathers at Asniéres, Smarthistory 

Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne had been a member of the Impressionist group, but his work was little understood by his contemporaries, and he spent most of his career on his family estate in Aix en Provence in the South of France.  Dissatisfied with the improvisatory approach of Impressionism, Cézanne proclaimed that he wanted “to make of Impressionism something solid and durable, like the art of the museums.”

While Monet focused on color and light, Cézanne focused on structure and form:

“Cézanne’s aim was not truth in appearance, especially not “photographic” truth, nor was it the “truth” of Impressionism.  Rather, he sought a lasting structure behind the formless and fleeting information that they eye absorbs.” (Gardner, p. 374)

Cézanne once told a student “treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone,” indicating his intention to decipher the underlying structure of visible reality, rather than its transitory appearance.  While Monet’s visual universe was composed of oblongs of pink and splotches of blue (color and light) that flicker and change, Cézanne’s goal was to analyze form into its component parts in order to understand its structure.

Paul Cézanne, The Bay of Marseilles, Seen from L’Estaque, c. 1885
Art Institute of Chicago

In this painting of the Bay of Marseilles, seen from a village near Cézanne’s home in Provence, Cézanne has eliminated all extraneous detail to focus on abstracts shapes and their relationship to one another.  The houses have no windows or doors; they are merely “cubes” built up by planes juxtaposed to one another.  And each plane is rendered discreetly – the front, the side, the roof – as if the building had been disassembled into its component parts, and reassembled on the canvas.  Much like Seurat broke color into its component parts (blue + yellow = green), Cézanne performed a similar analysis of form:  square + diamond + rectangle = cube.

Paul Cézanne, The Basket of Apples, c. 1893
Art Institute of Chicago

Cézanne’s main subjects were landscapes and still lives — subjects that enabled him to focus on the problem of translating perception into paint, without distraction.  He often worked so long on his still lives that the fruit began to rot.  In this painting, the apples have a sense of solidity, in spite of his abandonment of modeling with light and shade.  Instead, Cézanne used juxtapositions of patches of color that recede and advance.  The picture therefore lacks a sense of “photographic” realism (we are hardly tempted to take a bite out of one of his apples), while retaining a convincing solidity of form.  This is the underlying “essence” that Cézanne was striving for – the “truth” that exists beyond surface appearances

Cézanne’s pictures often contain ambiguities in terms of perspective.  In this painting, the table is tilted in a different perspective than the basket or stack of pastries, and the apples seem to “float” rather than rest convincingly on the table.  This is because Cézanne rendered each object from a slightly different viewpoint, which comes closer to how we actually see the world.  Cézanne realized that linear perspective, which is based on a fixed viewing point, is actually an artificial construct, since we see with two eyes rather than one, and our vision tends to be mobile rather than static.  You can try this yourself:  fix your gaze on an object, and then close one eye and then the other.  Notice how the perspective changes just slightly?  Cézanne’s paintings are therefore like a “mosaic” of these slightly changing and shifting viewpoints, resulting in a composition that is dynamic, and more like the experience of a video camera (moving) than a camera (static).

Cézanne’s The Basket of Apples, Smarthistory 

Still Life with Apples, Paul Cézanne (Getty Museum) 

Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte Victoire, 1902-1904
Philadelphia Museum of Art

One of Cézanne’s famous motifs was Mount Sainte-Victoire, an impressive mountain near his home in Provence.  In his later versions of the motif, the shifting planes that described the components of form in his earlier work became increasingly abstract, as the work becomes a mosaic of patches that record the mobility of vision.  The effect is similar to a reflection on the uneven surface of water (or a fractured mirror), and anticipates Cubism in its analysis of form into shifting and fragmented planes.

The following table summarizes the characteristic features of Seurat and Cézanne in comparison to Impressionism:

Vincent Van Gogh
After a failed career as a minister, the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh turned to painting as a means to express his deeply troubled spirit.  Largely self-taught, his influences included François Millet, whose peasant themes he greatly admired, and Eugene Delacroix, whose use of color and brushstroke was a source of inspiration.  To this mix he added the Impressionist technique of plein air painting based on direct observation.  But unlike the Impressionists, Van Gogh did not try to paint literally what his eyes saw.  Instead, he strove to express what he felt.  The different approaches of Monet and Van Gogh can be summarized in their own words:

“When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you — a tree, a house, a field, or whatever.  Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene before you.”
Claude Monet

“And I should not be surprised if the impressionists soon find fault with my way of working . . . .  Because instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily, in order to express myself forcibly.”
Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh is described as an “expressionist” because he uses paint to express what he feels, rather than what he sees.  He did this by purely pictorial means:  expressive color, expressive brushstroke, and exaggeration/distortion of form.

Vincent Van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1887
Metropolitan Museum
Vincent Van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888. National Gallery, London

Van Gogh’s series of sunflowers illustrates his expressionist approach.  In the National Gallery version the artist emphasized the color yellow, which symbolized happiness to the artist.  But in later versions, the mood and feeling of the pictures change, as the colors deepen in color and hue.  While Monet worked in series with his haystacks to register changing effects of color and light, Van Gogh worked in series to register shifts in feeling and emotion.

Click her to learn more about Van Gogh’s Sunflowers:
Van Goghs Sunflowers:  Symbols of Happiness (National Gallery, London) 

The Country and the City:  Van Gogh and Modernity
In 1886 Van Gogh arrived in Paris and enrolled in the studio of Fernand Cormon.  He quickly absorbed the latest developments in artistic theory (for a time he experimented with Seurat’s pointillism), but city life did not suit Van Gogh, and in 1888 he left for Arles, in the South of France, where he could explore the peasant themes he had admired in the work of François Millet.  Van Gogh’s attraction to rural subjects must be understood in the broader context of modernity, for while Impressionism focused upon modern urban life, Van Gogh turned his back on the city. For him the country represented an escape from the impersonality of modernity – providing a place of solace, and a return to a pre-modern paradise.

Vincent van Gogh, The Bedroom, 1889, oil on canvas, 29 x 36-5/8 inches / 73.6 x 92.3 cm (Art Institute of Chicago)
Vincent van Gogh, The Bedroom, 1889, oil on canvas, 29 x 36-5/8 inches / 73.6 x 92.3 cm (Art Institute of Chicago)

Van Gogh envisioned what he called a “studio of the South” in Arles, where he and his fellow artists could work and live in the solace of nature.  He rented the “little yellow house” on the Place Lamartine in Arles, and this painting of his bedroom captures the spirit of comfort, rest, and simplicity that hoped to gain in his new country studio.

Van Gogh’s The Bedroom (Smarthistory)

Gauguin joined Van Gogh in Arles, but after working together for nine weeks the two had a falling out:

“‘My situation here is difficult,” Gauguin confided to a friend on Dec. 22, 1888, by which time his patience with van Gogh had nearly run out. ”In spite of some discord, I cannot hold a grudge against a good-hearted person who is sick and needs me.” But shortly after, van Gogh cut off part of his ear and Gauguin left.”
Michael Kimmelman, “Irritation as Inspiration,” NY Times October 4, 2001

Vincent Van Gogh, The Night Café, 1888
Yale University Art Gallery

The Night Café was completed soon after the falling out with Gauguin. It captures Van Gogh’s troubled spirit in its dark and misanthropic mood. The clock on the wall tells us that the hour is late, though the tables littered with empty glasses and bottles hint at a more festive atmosphere earlier in the evening.  The gas lamps cast an eerie glow upon the scene, amplified by the exaggerated shadow cast by the billiard table.  The lonely inhabitants of the bar – prostitutes and drunks, judging by their demeanor – slouch over their drinks, absorbed in their despair, while the café owner leans casually against a table, his white suit tinged with a sickly glow of green. The exaggerated perspective, glaring colors, and agitated brushstrokes all combine to create a disturbing atmosphere of loneliness and despair.

In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh explained his intentions for the painting:

“In my picture of the ‘Night Cafe’ I have tried to express the idea that the cafe is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime.  So I have tried to express, as it were, the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft Louis XV green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all this in an atmosphere like a devil’s furnace, of pale sulphur.”

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Cypresses, 1889
Metropolitan Museum

For Van Gogh the country was a rejuvenating antidote to the alienation of modern city life.  In this picture of a wheat field, the countryside remains untouched by the encroaching threat of industrialism, commercialism, and city life.  The artist uses a thick impasto and thick, undulating brushstrokes to capture the turbulent energy of the windswept landscape, and to express his emotional response to nature.

Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night, 1888
Museum of Modern Art

This painting was completed while Van Gogh was recuperating from a mental breakdown in an asylum in Saint Remy.  Although the picture is based on the view he had from his hospital room, it is not a literal record of what he saw – instead, it is based on his imagination (which Gauguin encouraged him to do).

The scene depicts a small village nestled against rolling hills that ebb and flow like waves.  The church spire recalls the artist’s native home, while the small houses reflect the influence of Cézanne in the way Van Gogh builds them up through planes.  The night sky is filled with swirling clouds and glowing stars that resemble comets rocketing through the night.  The bright crescent moon in the upper right is balanced by the dark and ominous cypress tree on the left.   Its flame-like movement echoes the turbulent sky, and creates a vertical thrust that is perhaps symbolic of the artist’s yearning.

Van Gogh had contemplated painting a night sky for some time.  He associated the cypress tree with death, and the night sky often inspired him with thought about mortality.  He once wrote:  “Just as we take a train to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star.”


Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin began his career as a successful stockbroker and family man, but in the 1880’s he abandoned his career and family to become an artist.  Denouncing the materialism of bourgeois society, he left Paris to take up residence in Brittany, a provincial town in Northern France that seemed to have escaped “modernization.” Like Van Gogh, Gauguin wanted to escape modernity by returning to “the country,” and to seek a more “natural” way of life.  He wrote:  “I love Brittany:  there I find the wild and the primitive.  When my wooden shoes ring on this stony soil, I hear the muffled, dull, and mighty tone I am looking for in my painting.”

Gauguin rejected many of the principles of Impressionism.  He advocated working from memory and the imagination, rather than from direct observation, and he completed his pictures in the studio rather than in plein air.  To avoid the realism of photography (which he dismissed as a “mechanical” reproduction of nature) he employed un-natural colors (primary colors straight from the tube), and flat un-modeled forms bounded by a thick outline (he once told a student to “beware of modeling”).  This emphasis on flat form and shape resulted in pictures that were more abstract than realistic, and more like the medieval icons and stained glass windows he so greatly admired.  By abandoning the Renaissance conventions of modeling and perspective, Gauguin was in effect rejecting the entire history of European art in order to return to a more “primitive” or “pre-modern” means of expression that he found to be more authentic.

Paul Gauguin, Vision After the Sermon, 1888
National Gallery of Scotland

This painting depicts a group of Breton peasant women (dressed in regional costume) who are experiencing a spiritual vision after hearing a sermon about Jacob wrestling the angel.  Breaking with Impressionism’s candid “slice of life,” the picture is an invented scene, based on imagination rather than anything actually witnessed by the artist.  The priest can be seen on the right edge of the picture, and the women all have their eyes closed, emphasizing the idea that what we see is a product of the imagination, rather than observed reality.

“Gauguin recognized this painting as a significant breakthrough toward a more imaginary style that moved painting away from naturalism. The picture shows a group of Breton women witnessing a scene from Genesis, in which Jacob is locked in violent struggle with an angel. A large tree trunk divides the canvas into two parts: the real world of the women and the visionary, supernatural world of Jacob and the angel, painted against a brilliant red background. As Gauguin explained in a letter to Vincent van Gogh, “For me in this picture the landscape and the struggle exist only in the imagination of the people in prayer inspired by the sermon, which is why there is a contrast between the life-size people, who are natural, and the struggle in its non-natural, disproportionate landscape.”
Gauguin:  Maker of Myth, National Gallery of Art 

The scene takes place against a flat red background, reminiscent of the flat gold background of Medieval icons.  The tree that cuts the canvas in half diagonally reflects the influence of Japanese prints, as does the flat un-modeled forms bound by a thick contour line.  Rejecting Renaissance conventions of perspective and modeling, Gauguin drew his inspiration from pre-Renaissance and non-Western sources.

Gauguin’s Vision After the Sermon, Smarthistory

Going Native
Gauguin became disenchanted with Brittany when he realized that this idyllic village had hardly escaped the effects of modernization.  Brittany had, in fact, become a tourist attraction, and the quaint costumes and rituals performed by the locals were staged affairs to entertain visitors.  So in the 1890s he set sail for the South Seas where he hoped to immerse himself  “in virgin nature, see no one but savages, live their life, with no other thoughts in mind but to render the way a child would . . . and to do this with nothing but the primitive means of art, the only means that are good and true.”

Gauguin was amongst the first of many modern artists who turned to the “primitive” a rejuvenating source of inspiration:

“Gauguin continued the Western tradition of yearning for both the Paradise of biblical literature and the Arcadia of classical antiquity. He believed that the way forward in art was by looking back at more primitive societies, which he dreamed of as places of light-filled warmth, abundance, love, and sexual freedom — a dream designed in direct counterpoint to what he perceived as the overly commercial, decadent, modern Europe. A five-month stay in Martinique in 1887 provided Gauguin his first opportunity to paint in the tropics. In Paris two years later, he was enthralled by the exhibits of non-Western cultures at the World’s Fair, where pavilions dedicated to Java, Tahiti, Cambodia, and Tonkin (Vietnam) further fueled his desire for another journey. He dreamed of a tropical paradise, writing rapturously to a friend: “…in a winterless sky, on marvelously fertile soil, the Tahitian just has to raise his arms up to gather his food… for them, to live is to sing and love.”

Gauguin:  Maker of Myth, National Gallery of Art

For Gauguin, “going native” was a way to “get back to basics” – a means of escaping the materialism of bourgeois society and rediscovering a more natural and authentic self.

Paul Gauguin, Two Tahitian Women, (Atuona, Hiva Oa), 1903
Metropolitan Museum

A large number of Gauguin’s Tahitian works depict native women in a state of innocence, suggesting a kind of paradise before the Fall:

“In june of 1891, Gauguin finally arrived in Tahiti (then a French colony) and began producing images of native women, many of which celebrated a healthy, unrestrained sensuality, free from notions of shame and guilt. Scenes of physical labor and contemporary colonial culture are generally absent from Gauguin’s oeuvre, promoting a timeless world of quiet languor.”
Gauguin:  Maker of Myth, National Gallery

But the images were complete fantasy!  As Mary Morton, the curator of the National Gallery’s exhibition “Gauguin:  Maker of Myth” explains:

“Tahiti was a French colony . . . It had been thoroughly Christianized and colonized. The women were not walking around half-naked. … They tended to be wearing … Christian missionary gowns.”
Gauguin’s Tahitian Nudes Give the Wrong Impression (NPR)

Paul Gauguin, Te Nave Nave Fenua (The Delightful Land), 1892
Ohara Museum of Art, Okayama

Given Gauguin’s quest for paradise, it is not surprising that the theme of Eve was a frequent topic.  But Gauguin used this theme to challenge western notions of beauty:

“Over the centuries, hundreds of artists had rendered images of Eve. But their work reflected Western ideals of beauty — “white, small waist, small little feet, polished skin, no body hair”  . . . Gauguin’s Tahitian Eve, however, was different: “Broad shoulders, strong legs, pubic hair,” Morton describes the image. “And then the most extraordinary thing about her — is her feet.” Tahitian Eve has enormous feet — with seven toes on the left foot. That’s how primitive she is, Gauguin seems to be saying.

It was all too much — the bizarre figures and the sunset oranges and fuchsias — for European tastes. When Gauguin brought 44 canvases back to a Paris gallery, only four of them sold.”
Gauguin’s Nude Tahitians Give the Wrong Impression (NPR) 

Paradise Lost
Gauguin had hoped to witness a tribal ritual that would be the basis for a Tahitian version of his Vision After the Sermon, but since the native religion had long been replaced by Christianity, he had use his imagination:

“Immediately upon his arrival in the Tahitian capital of Papeete, Gauguin was confronted with the reality of a culture dramatically changed by colonialism. His paintings and writings expressed his sense of loss for the mythical paradise that he did not find. The ancient culture that he had dreamed of had been, by his account, hopelessly diluted, corrupted and erased by Christian missionaries and Western colonization. “The Tahitian soil,” he wrote, “is becoming completely French and little by little the old order will disappear.”
Gauguin:  Maker of Myth, National Gallery

Paul Gauguin, Day of the God (Mahana No Atua, 1894
Art Institute of Chicago

A Tahitian version of the Vision After the Sermon, this painting depicts an imagined tribal ritual.  The idol in the background is Hina, and is based on pictures of primitive gods he saw in books:

“Gauguin frequently depicted the Polynesian deity, Hina, goddess of the moon. Because he did not find any Tahitian representations of her, he looked elsewhere for inspiration, finding it in the writings of a Belgian ethnographer who had traveled to Tahiti and photographs of figures from the Javanese temple complex at Borobudur. Her haunting form, therefore, is a sort of composite deity culled from various sources and Gauguin’s imagination. ”
Gauguin:  Maker of Myth, National Gallery 

Surrounding the goddess idol are Tahitian women on a beach, the three figures in the foreground symbolizing the cycle of life and death:

“At the edge of the pool are three young women posing as the three ‘Ages of Man” — birth, life, and death. Significantly, the central figure, representing life, has placed both feet in the pool of colorful reflections; the figure at the left, representing birth, touches the water only with her toes; and the figure at the right, symbolizing death, turns away from the pool completely. Ultimately, Gauguin’s intent in this painting is unclear; he deliberately veiled his purpose, preferring to be mysterious rather than clear and avoiding simple pictorial representations in favor of complex, multivalent symbols.”
Art Institute of Chicago

Paul Gauguin, Where do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Painted on the scale of a mural, this last painting by the artist is a symbolic representation of the cycle of life that he likened to the gospels.

“The artist called it his “testament,” for he planned to take his own life when the painting was finished. He worked feverishly, painting “on sackcloth full of knots and wrinkles,” but found the finished work more than acceptable, writing, “I believe that this canvas not only surpasses all my preceding ones, but that I shall never do any-thing better, or even like it.””
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

On the right, a newborn baby symbolizes birth, while the young girl picking fruit symbolizes life.  The elderly woman on the left, crouched in a fetal position, was based on a Peruvian mummy the artist had seen in an ethnographic museum.

Like Van Gogh, Gauguin believed that European art, with its reliance on “appearances” had lost its capacity to console the spirit in the way that religious art of the past once had.  Gauguin went so far as to liken this picture to the gospels:

Significantly, both he and Van Gogh produced works late in life that contemplate the meaning of life and death, much in the way that Last Judgment scenes had done in the middle ages.  Searching for spiritual meaning in a world where religious faith had been supplanted by science, Van Gogh and Gauguin both believed that art could take the place of religion to provide spiritual consolation to the soul.

Click here to see the National Gallery’s video:  Gauguin:  Maker of Myth:

You can also watch a fairly comprehensive biopic at the Tate:

The following table summarizes the characteristics of Van Gogh and Gauguin compared to Monet:


Web resources:

Georges Seurat and the Making of  La Grande Jatte (AIC) 

Post Impressionism, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History 

Post Impressionsim @ 

Post Impressionism, National Gallery of Art 

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