“Post Impressionism” was a term coined after the historical fact by the English art critic, Roger Fry, in 1910 on the occasion of an exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London entitled “Manet and the Post-Impressionists.” Although the art critic extended “post-Impressionism” to include Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, Fry focused on three principle artists, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Cézanne, who the critic understood as those who followed Manet out of the cul-de-sac of naturalism. Later Fry realized that he was wrong to exclude Georges Seurat and today art history tends to list him along with the four main Post-Impressionist artists. An art expert on Italian art, Fry put on a second exhibition of Post-Impressionists in 1912, again expanding his concept of “post.” In this show he included, not just the French, but also Russian and British artists who were impacted by the Post-Impressionists. Movements such as Fauvism and Cubism owed a great deal to those four artists, and Fry’s exhibitions were precient. However, the British audience reacted to his artists with the same shock that would greet the Armory Show in New York City in 1913. Writing in Vision and Design in 1920, Fry stated, “Nothing I could say would induce people to look carefully at these pictures to see how closely they followed tradition.”
For the mainstream audience who saw these artists, the art was anything but traditional. Instead it was “anarchist and degenerate,” typical charges hurled at any kind of art that challenged the status quo. Not only did the Post-Impressionists follow the Impressionists with their high-key color and complex and individualized brushwork, the artists also exhibited independently. In addition to putting on their own shows, artists now had the Société des artistes indépendants, which launched in 1884. The transition out of and away from Impressionism included the older Impressionists themselves who found themselves at creative and formal dead ends by the 1880s. By the end of the decade, Naturalism had peaked and there was a general shift in the avant-garde circles towards idealism and spirituality and personal expression. That said, the shift was formally based upon innovations of the Impressionists, such as the idea of a composition as an abstract design and the elimination of perspective.
The same can be said of other artists of the fin-de-siècle era, but art history has selected Seurat, Gauguin, van Gogh, and Cézanne as being the most important to later artists. This emphasis on those four artists led to the later neglect of interesting and important artists, such as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Emile Bernard and Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. Art historian, Richard Shone, argued that Toulouse-Lautrec was essentially a poster artist and that Bonnard and Vuillard were more like the Impressionists than the Post-impressionists. Most contemporary art historians would agree with Shone. “Post-Impressionism” was not a movement but a concept, that was developed after most of the artists were dead. Although these artists matured and developed their art during the 1880s and the 1890s, public awareness of their accomplishments lagged behind the execution of the actual works. What made Fry’s exhibition so groundbreaking was that he attempted to create a history of a series of movements that were still neither understood nor known to the art audiences.
The general public and the mainstream art critics and the forces of the Academy still had to take Impressionism into account and assimilate its implications. The artistic Establishment refused to accept Impressionism, although the movement had been assimilated and softened in the Salons. The Impressionists, on their part, continued to be viable and increasingly prominent painters for a growing number of discerning collectors. By the turn of the century, they had been warily accepted by the old avant-garde segment of the art public and were considered to the prevailing artistic hegemony to be challenged by avant-garde artists. The Post-Impressionists, in their own time, were virtually unknown to the art public and, by the time of Cubism, were still being explained by the critics. The artists, as Fry pointed out, came “after” or were “post” the Impressionists and were strongly influenced by these avant-garde masters.
The Post-Impressionists tried to follow the Impressionists in the art market but with less success. To a public unwilling to accept Impressionism, Post-Impressionism would have been unacceptable. The Post-Impressionists would have had what Pierre Bourdieu called “an audience of producers,” in other words, they painted only for each other. Modern times may have called for a “modern art,” but the new audience–the bourgeoisie–wanted familiar art. Academic artists gave the public what it seemed to want: stories illustrated in a narrative form and representations through the accepted conventions of traditional realism. In contrast to these artists who respected this public need for verisimilitude, the avant-garde artists attempted to create a new language, a new sign system, suitable to and reflective of the new subjects demanded by the new era.
The theoretical and critical writings of the period were strident, and they had to be–to set the new movements definitely and defiantly apart from their predecessors. Much to the distress of the artist, Albert Aurier wrote the first article on van Gogh in the artist’s lifetime and discussed Vincent in Symbolist terms. However, these artists and these writers and these movements all have precedents, and these precedents are those very same objects of ridicule: Realism and Impressionism, which were firmly based upon nature and reality. The quarrel between the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists was not whether or not to depict or respond to nature but how this subject matter is treated—passively or actively. The famous quarrel between Gauguin and van Gogh was over the role of imagination (Gauguin) versus the role of observation of nature (van Gogh). Gauguin insisted that the artist should take liberties with the observed object and interpret what he saw. Van Gogh retorted that the artist should respond to nature and express his feelings. Both are insisting on a personal and subjective response, which is part of a general cultural shift away from the materialism of the previous decades and a return to the idealism of the past century.
Vincent van Gogh extended and exaggerated Impressionist broken brush strokes and absorbed the impact Japanese prints. Paul Gauguin rejected Impressionist passivity and objectivity and obedience to nature and developed an allegorical and symbolic art. Georges Seurat, like van Gogh, expanded Impressionist, but went in the direction of science, bringing the Impressionist study of color to its logical extreme. Paul Cézanne simply turned his back on his former colleagues and returned to the obscurity of his hometown of Aix, in Provence, where he would meditate upon the nature of vision and its role in painting.
Because these new artists, van Gogh, Seurat, Gauguin and Cézanne, were so close in time to the Twentieth century, it is tempting to view their works with Twentieth century eyes and to read into Post-Impressionism anachronistic Twentieth century motivations—the artists were on the road towards abstraction. The stylistic changes made by these artists seem very significant and can be over-determined. For the most part, the subject matter remains the same—modern life—while the use of line, color and forms becomes formalized and decorative and expressionistic. And because the Post-Impressionists were attempting to go beyond or to get away from Impressionism, it is equally tempting to conclude that these artists rejected nature and reality along with objectivity. This assumption of a lack of interest in actual nature is bolstered by the dramatic stylistic changes and by the theoretical writings that accompanied them.
The Nineteenth century artists do not turn away from nature and end up in the mental world of abstraction. That was the task of Twentieth century artists who reject representation as the goal of art. Nineteenth Century artists considered representation of reality as a response to nature, to be the purpose of art. They differed only in the means, dark outlines? Flat colors? Points of color?. Post-Impressionism admitted or allowed greater subjectivity and thus brought up the question of the nature of reality and the proper artistic response to a conceptual definition of reality. If it is accepted that the basic idea that reality has an objective basis, which is modified by a subjective response, then the art of the Post-Impressionist era is bound to produce varying and individualistic attempts to interpret, not illustrate, to express, not to copy, nature.
These artists were equally concerned with the source of subjects for the fin-de-siècle artist. Emile Bernard followed Paul Gauguin in his pursuit of the “primitive” in the French countryside, an obvious objection of Impressionist suburbia. The artists who followed Impressionism most closely preferred the city of Paris and the private lives of its inhabitants as their subjects. The Paris of the Third Republic was just as involved in risqué entertainment—the balls, the cabarets, the cafés and the houses of prostitution—still catering to the haut bourgeois gentleman. Toulouse-Lautrec, a student of popular culture, could be termed the inventor of the modern poster, elevating a form of low art to a type of high art, pasted on the walls. His posters, which advertised sites of the infamous “can-can” were quickly torn down by his many admirers who considered them works of art. Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard continued the tradition of depicting the “intimate” space of private middle class lives, pioneered by Gustave Caillebot and Edgar Degas.
In contrast to the naturalism of some of the Post-Impressionists, there was a growing interest in all that was spiritual. In the wake of the Pont-Aven School, the Nabis were formed due to the initiative of Paul Sérusier. Drawn to Catholicism and to Theosophy, the some of the Nabis admired their leader’s famous painting, Le Talisman, and courted the mental image–that is the imagination–slavishly producing a mere resemblance to the real world. The term “nabi” means “prophet,” indicating the exalted state of mind sought by artists such as Maurice Denis and Paul Ranson. Denis was a Catholic painter who retired from public life to be a member of the third order of the Franciscans. He is best remembered, however, for his formalist statements on the role of art, written in Art et critique in 1890:
“Remember that before it is a war-horse, a naked woman or a trumpery anecdote, a painting is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”
These words became the watchword of the age and were obeyed by generations of artists to come.
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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.