Editorial Feature

What Is Post-Impressionist Art?

Discover the artists who developed this divisive movement  

Post-Impressionism is a predominantly French art movement that developed roughly between 1886 and 1905, which was from the last Impressionist exhibition up to the birth of Fauvism. The movement emerged as a reaction against Impressionism and its concern for the naturalistic depiction of light and color.

Post-Impressionists both extended Impressionism while rejecting its limitations: the artists continued using vivid colors, a thick application of paint and real-life subject matter, but were more inclined to emphasize geometric forms, distort forms for an expressive effect and use unnatural and seemingly random colors.

Due to this broad emphasis on more abstract qualities and symbolic meaning, Post-Impressionism can encompass sub-movements such as Neo-Impressionism, Symbolism, Cloisonnism, and Synthetism. The term Post-Impressionism was first used by English artist and critic Roger Fry in 1906 and then again in 1910 when he organized the exhibition, Manet and the Post-Impressionists, which defined it as the development of French art since Manet, a key figure in Impressionist painting.

To understand what how the movement manifested itself in the art world, here we explore the artists and artworks that defined Post-Impressionism.

Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry, Paul Cézanne, 1897
The Balitmore Museum of Art, USA

French painter Paul Cézanne is said to be the father of Post-Impressionism. With his work he set out to restore a sense of order and structure to painting, and he achieved this by reducing objects to their most basic shapes while retaining the saturated colors of Impressionism. His repetitive and exploratory brushstrokes were typical of Cézanne’s style and by using planes of color he was able to build complex fields and detailed studies of his subjects.

In this painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire, we see the artist’s bold use of color and sporadic brushstrokes come together to create a landscape full of depth and energy. In his lifetime, Cezanne’s work was often ridiculed by critics who continually compared it to Impressionist works, yet his fellow artists saw him as a creative master. His explorations of color and shape inspired other artists like Pablo Picasso, and his peers Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse spoke highly of his creative “genius”.


Mont Satine-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry by Paul Cézanne (From the collection of The Baltimore Museum of Art)

The Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889
The Museum of Modern Art, USA

Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh is still one of the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. The artist strove to be a painter of rural life and nature, and he believed a power existed behind the natural and sought to capture a sense of that magic in his art. This led to aspects of Symbolism being present in his paintings, but the artist was careful to stay within what he called the “guise of reality” and didn’t like overly stylized works.

The Starry Night, one of the artist’s most known works, sits within an oeuvre of work van Gogh was creating between 1885 and 1890. The paintings created during these years reflect his personal vision and, like other Post-Impressionists, rely on a vibrant color palette, inventive perspectives, interesting compositions and purposeful brushstrokes.

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (From the collection of MoMA)

Arearea, Paul Gauguin, 1892
Musee d’Orsay, Paris

French artist Paul Gauguin remained unappreciated until after his death, but is now celebrated for his experimental use of color and Synthetist style that became a feature of some Post-Impressionist works. Synthetist artists aimed to “synthesize” (or combine) three aspects in their works: the outward appearance of natural forms, the artist’s feelings about their subject and the purity of the aesthetic considerations of line, color and form.

His works combined flat planes of color surrounded by clearly defined lines and he had a penchant for creating works where dreams and reality coexisted. Towards the end of his life he spent ten years in French Polynesia, specifically Tahiti, and this painting Arearea was painted during that time. The work depicts two seated women taking center stage as a dog stands beside them. When it was first exhibited it was met with sarcasm, although Gauguin regarded it as one of his finest artworks.

Arearea by Paul Gauguin (From the collection of Musée d'Orsay)

A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte, George Seurat, 1884-1886
The Art Institute of Chicago, USA

Georges-Pierre Seurat was a French painter and draftsman. He is most known for his innovative use of drawing media and for devising the techniques known as chromoluminarism – a style of painting which involved the separation of colors into individual dots or patches which interacted optically, and pointilism – a technique in which small, distinct dots of color are applied in patterns to form an image.

His large scale work, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is Seurat’s most known piece and it initiated Neo-Impressionism. Like in Post-Impressionism, Neo-Impressionists strove to refine the impulsive and intuitive artistic mannerisms of Impressionism but adopted a rather more scientific approach to capturing light and color. Instead a disciplined network of dots and blocks of color were painted to convey a sense of organization and permanence to natural landscapes and city scenes.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat (From the collection of The Art Institute Chicago)

The Dream, Henri Rousseau, 1910
The Museum of Modern Art, USA

In a bid to discover more vivid styles and symbolic content, many Post-Impressionists were drawn to Primitivism. Primitivism is an aesthetic idealization that emulates or aspires to recreate "primitive" experience. In Western art, primitivism typically has borrowed from non-Western or prehistoric people perceived to be "primitive", and it’s been important in the development of modern art. The meaning has been interpreted in various ways by artists, but it has come under criticism many times for perpetuating racial stereotypes and exoticizing the East in the works produced.

For artist Henri Rousseau, Primitivism referred to the “naive”, self-taught style and it’s an aesthetic he became famous for. Rousseau once claimed he had "no teacher other than nature" and as such his paintings often depicted vivid jungle scenes, though he never left his native France. In this painting The Dream, the artist relies on his subconscious rather than the surrounding world to compose this lush scene. Flat blocks of color are lifted by details and patterns and his representations of dream-like scenes went on to influence Fauvism (which came after Post-Impressionism), Cubism and Surrealism.

The Dream by Henri Rousseau (From the collection of MoMA)

The Bonaventure Pine, Paul Signac, 1893
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, USA

Paul Signac worked with Georges Seurat to help develop the pointillist style. When Seurat died in 1891, Signac took over the development of Neo-Impressionism and focused primarily on creating landscape paintings and seascapes in vivid bright colors. Like Seurat, he used color to illicit an emotional reaction from the viewer, a key feature of Neo-Impressionist works. The artist experimented with various media including oil, watercolor, etchings and lithographs.

In this image, The Bonaventure Pine, Signac uses the pointilist style to create depth and light within the leaves of the tree and the rolling hills behind. It’s not just the tree Signac portrays but a light breeze is almost felt by the viewer through the artist's clever use of shading, color palette and delicate brushstrokes.

The Bonaventure Pine, Paul Signac (From the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)
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