Post Impressionism

Take a trip to museums around the world to discover the work of the four great Post-Impressionist painters, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat and Cézanne.


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. 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.”

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1889

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. 

La Berceuse (portrait of Madame Roulin) (December 1888 - January 1889) by Vincent van Gogh (1853 - 1890)The Kröller-Müller Museum

Van Gogh, La Berceuse (Augustine Roulin), 1889

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.

Vincent van Gogh, Gauguin's Chair, 1888

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 Bedroom (October 1888) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

Van Gogh, The Bedroom, 1888

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, Self-Portrait, 1889

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.

Self-portrait with a hat (1893 - 1894) by Paul GauguinMusée d’Orsay, Paris

Gauguin, Self-Portrait with a Hat, 1893-94

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.

Paul Gauguin, Arearea (Joyousness), 1892

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. 

Cézanne in The Museum of Modern Art

The Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibits many important works of art. From here we see paintings by Seurat, Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh. 

 Let’s look closely at two masterpieces by the Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, one a bather, the other a still life—both subjects that the artist is famous for. 

The Bather (1885) by Paul CézanneMoMA The Museum of Modern Art

Paul Cézanne, The Bather, c. 1885

Look closely, the figure’s right leg and arm are too small and seem further away. Cézanne depicts not just a figure in motion, but also a figure at multiple moments in time, a previous step on his right, and a step ahead on his left.

Cézanne, Still Life with Apples, 1895-98

Here we see a still life (usually fruit and/or flowers on a table) that looks unfinished and badly drawn. The lines of the table don’t match. The pitcher and the raised bowl lean to the left.  Cézanne is depicting these objects from multiple points of view. 

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.” 

Vincent Van Gogh, The Yellow House (The Street), 1888

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.” 

Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait

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

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

Émile Bernard, Self-Portrait with Portrait of Gauguin, 1888

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 smost 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.

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. 

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884-1886) by Georges SeuratThe Art Institute of Chicago

Georges Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884, 1884/86

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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