Post Impressionism

Enjoy the work of the four great Post-Impressionist painters, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat and Cézanne—in museums around the world.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by SmartHistory, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam: Van Gogh in Arles

Look around and you’ll see the subjects that Van Gogh loved to paint most: portraits, landscape, and still life. 

Self-Portrait with Portrait of Gauguin (1888) by Émile BernardVan Gogh Museum

But unlike the Impressionists, whose work used more realistic colors, Van Gogh and Gauguin were interested in color that could suggest emotions and ideas.

In 1888, Van Gogh left Paris, he wrote to his brother, “It’s my plan to go to the south for a while, as soon as I can, where there’s even more color and even more sun.”

There’s a long tradition of still-life painting (flowers, fruit, etc. on a table). But here, Van Gogh invented a new kind of still life—one where the subject is just as much the harmonies of the colors (here, yellows and golds) as the flowers themselves.

The title means “cradle” or “lullaby.” The woman holds a cord to rock a cradle. Van Gogh used complementary colors (red and green) that intensify one another when placed side-by-side. This is an an ideal of motherhood, not a portrait of a specific person.

Sometimes the objects people own can be a reminder of them. This chair belonged to Van Gogh’s artist friend, Gauguin. The green background, the patterning of the rug and the complementary colors (red and green) are typical of Van Gogh’s style during this period.

Van Gogh at the Musee d’Orsay

The Musee d’Orsay in Paris is a treasure trove of French 19th century art. In this gallery,  we see landscapes, still lifes, portraits and an interior by the Dutch Post-Impressionist  artist, Vincent Van Gogh.

Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin rejected the Impressionist interest in the city. Van Gogh moved to the South of France, and Gauguin eventually moved to Tahiti. They were looking for an alternative to what they saw as the artificiality of the city, for something more authentic.

The simple furnishing of Van Gogh’s bedroom in the south of France reminds us of Van Gogh’s rejection of sophisticated city life. He uses yellows and blues in order to, in his words, “rest the mind, or rather, the imagination.”

Van Gogh painted many self-portraits throughout his career. When you can’t afford to hire a model, you’ve always got a mirror. Harmonies of blue and orange (complementary colors) dominate and the background is animated by curving, almost flame-like shapes and brush strokes.

Paul Gauguin at the Musee d’Orsay

Like Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, one of the great Post-Impressionist painters, left Paris to look for experiences that he felt were more true and authentic than life in the city of Paris.

First he went to rural Brittany, on the north-west coast of France, but then he traveled several times to Tahiti in Polynesia.

After his first trip to Polynesia, Gauguin exhibited the works he painted there, but critics in Paris were not impressed. In this self-portrait, Gauguin appears defiant. Behind him we see one of the most important works he painted there, Spirit of the Dead Watching.

Gauguin often gives us pools of bright colors and a scene he collaged from memories of things he saw and stories he had heard or imagined. In Joyousness, a dog passes before one woman who plays a flute while the other looks at us.

Gauguin and Van Gogh in the Van Gogh Museum

One wall in this gallery is devoted to Van Gogh’s time in the south of France where he lived for a little more than a year. On either side of the painting of the house he lived in, are self-portraits by his artist friends Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard.

They exchanged self-portraits; when he received these, Van Gogh wrote, “So now at last I have a chance to compare my painting with what the comrades are doing.”

In southern France, Van Gogh rented rooms in this house. The quality of the sunlight had a profound effect on him. He wrote to his brother, “under a sulphur sun...these yellow houses in the sunlight and then the incomparable freshness of the blue.”

Gauguin painted this portrait as part of a swap of self-portraits with his friends Van Gogh and Bernard.

Self-portrait with portrait of Bernard, 'Les Misérables' (1888) by Paul GauguinVan Gogh Museum

Gauguin put himself in the left corner of the canvas, in fact his face and left shoulder form a sharp diagonal line against a flat background of yellow wallpaper decorated with small white flowers.

Bernard sent this self-portrait to Van Gogh. Blues and greys (with touches of the complementary color, orange) dominate. The intensity and harmonies of the colors were part of an effort by the Post-Impressionists to use color more expressively.

Looking at Seurat at the Art Institute of Chicago

Seurat’s most well-known canvas, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884 is massive. We are standing in a gallery where we can not only see the finished painting, but also two small studies that the artist made.

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Seurat gives us a view of the island called the Grande Jatte, a favorite destination for Parisians on a warm Sunday afternoon. Look closely—you’ll see thousands of tiny points of color. Seurat’s wanted a painting that captured the effect of outdoor sunlight.

To achieve violet, Seurat might place dots of blue and red next to each other. If he mixed them on his palette, the result would be a muddy color. By letting the colors mix in the eye, he achieved the colors he was after.

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