The “Primitivism” of the Fauves

The Question of “Primitivism” and the Fauves

Today, “primitivism” is considered a derogatory term, connoting the Twentieth Century Western attitude towards the presumed “inferiority” of non-Western art. “Primitivism” refers to the abiding belief that non-Western cultures and peoples of color were, by definition, “primitive” and uncivilized and in need of the civilizing influences of European powers. “Primitivism” has become equated with imperialism and colonialism and the exploitation of the Other by the West. A more polite term has replaced primitivism: “Tribal Art,” indicating an indigenous art by non-Western people. However, it is important to note two little discussed facts: first, that the so-called “native” art came from colonized peoples and second, this art was often made expressly for the tourist trade and/or had been altered by Western influences. The tribal art so admired by Parisian artists was likely to be both “African” and inauthentic. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, fully eighty-five percent of the world was dominated by a tiny group of European nations.

Art critic, Robert Hughes, called the aesthetic pillaging of non-Western art by Western artists “cultural imperialism”—an apt phrase, given that the artistic looting was paralleled by wholesale colonization of the globe. The artists were riveted by the freedom with which the African artists treated the human body. Instead of an anatomically idealized Classical ideal, the African body was not perceptual but conceptual or symbolic in form. The huge mask like faces, the generalized bodies and the stunted arms and legs suggested anything but beauty and beauty and art had long been co-dependent in Western art. The idea that the body could be stylistically and expressively deformed and that the face could be grotesque and morphologically transformed inspired artists in Paris to re-conceptualize the human form.

The early writings on “primitivism,” such as Primitivism and Modern Art (1938) by Robert Goldwater, equated non-Western art with the art making of “undeveloped” people, such as children. But Goldwater valiantly attempted to point out that this equation was made by the art world of pre-War Paris and that the art of Africans was sophisticated and beautifully crafted. “Primitivism” was, instead, a state of mind or a mindset on the part of certain artists, looking for new ideas. African art was “discovered” in Paris around 1904 by the Fauve artists, notably André Derain, and by Pablo Picasso. The sources and sightings included the Musée de l’Homme and artifacts purchased by travelers. Henri Matisse purchased some examples of African tribal art, and the inspiration of these objects appears in his Green Stripe with his wife’s mask-like face. The interest in tribal art caused these artists to shift their attention from the bright colors of Fauvism to the “darker” aspects of the “primitive.” Derain painted a series of clumsy nudes, Bathers, lumbering through a dark jungle and Matisse painted a subdued Blue Nude by 1907. It is highly unlikely that any of these artists knew or cared about the original (and probably lost) meanings of the tribal works or about how the art might have functioned in tribal societies. Fauve “primitivism” consisted of seizing upon new ideas and absorbing the concepts and adapting the tribal for the avant-garde.

As the book, Primitivism, cubism, abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century, put it,

The appeal of African and Oceanic objects for the Fauves as rooted in those same interests and assumptions, which underpinned the appeal of Gauguin’s work for the group. They signified the exotic or the ‘primitive’ redefined according to a Western avant-garde artistic code. Moreover, the absence of an accessible iconography or history to these objects allowed them to be easily absorbed into a modern artistic culture.

In their own time, the Fauves inherited the Nineteenth Century’s fear of anarchism and political chaos and were called barbarians (or wild beasts), indicating a baleful anti-authoritarian attitude. The Fauves may have been seeking new artistic ideas but they had no intention of overthrowing any governments. To the establishment mind, any feints, no matter how remote, against the prevailing powers, was a threat and had to be countered with cries of childishness, youthfulness, and dangerous waywardness. The possible Dionysian attitudes of the Fauves and their rollicking colors seemed quite possible compared to the regal and serene murals of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, painted in cool cerebral colors. But the Fauves were more interested in stripping modern art of tradition and in finding new ways to draw and new reasons to paint than in importing tribal art into their art world. What drew them to African art was the powerful urge to withdraw from an over industrialized landscape into something more simple, hence “primitive,” and primal: the lost atavistic golden age.

The “Primitivism” of the Fauves could be found in their choice of subjects—the nudes bathing in landscape with a new treatment of the human body. Compared to Emile Bernard’s painting of nudes in a landscape in 1097 in which the artist expressly contrasted the women to nature, the Fauve nude is part of landscape and is co-extensive with nature. The nude and the landscape are drawn and colored and painted without hierarchy, with equality. There is no humanistic center, only a reduction of the painting to a mood. There is no unified action and there is no exterior determinant or reason for the picture to exits other that the figures that fill the frame. The forms are psychologically unrelated to each other and the figures are rendered unimportant by the random cutting of the edges by Derain and Vlaminck. In the fantasy world of Matisse, nudity accepted as being a signifier of harmony between humans and bucolic nature in a pastoral landscape.

The Fauve artists simplified their lines, often leaving them unfinished or forgotten about, as if a child had been distracted by another task. Also child-like (in the sense that Friedrich Schiller meant it) is the use of large areas of pure and undifferentiated color, floating unanchored by perspective. In addition to their appreciation of children’s art and the naïve art of Henri Rousseau, the Fauves were not concerned about the traditional subtleties of drawing and attempted to find simplicity (primitivism). The artists wanted to communicate directly with the spectator by replacing the world of objects with basic human emotions (considered “primitive” by authoritarian regimes). Some of the more immature artists, such as Vlaminck were dependent upon violent effects of color and upon the sensationalism of deliberate dissonance, but Fauvism sought merely a return and renewal of a more direct way of living and of self-expression. The “primitivism” of Fauvism was a means to an end, not the end itself.

In fact, the Fauve turn towards the “primitive” was brief, a mere glitch on the way to the end of the movement. The same was true of Picasso who used “primitivism”—Iberian and African influences—to start but never finish Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) on the way to Cubism. The whole concept of “primitivism” and the influence of tribal art on Modern Art was revived after the two world wars and was reordered as a kind of formal affinity. The last gasp of “affinity” was the 1984 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, “Primitivism” in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” curated by William Rubin. Rubin came under a barrage of criticism by a younger generation of art critics, such as Thomas McEvilley, for equating modernism with the universal and for viewing tribal art as a kind of raw material for Western artists to elevate into transcendence. As McEvilley charged, the curators wanted to present modern art as a creative process, not as an art of appropriation (in the sense of colonialism). More tellingly, in “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief,” McEvilley pointed out that Rubin’s so-called affinity was based upon a morphological resemblance without establishing any connection between selected examples of non-Western art and modern art.

In the end, after a few short eventful years, the imfluence of Fauvism far outweighed its duration. Although the art of Matisse suggested that the logic of form or reality could be created thru color, this liberation of color did not immediately affect Twentieth Century art, due to the monochrome of Cubism. But for the more mainstream art world, lagging behind the avant-garde, there were educational consequences. The bright colors helped painters to leave Impressionism and to come to terms with Post-Impressionism. The late Cézannist period of Fauvism combined a Western structure and geometricism with “primitivism” by 1907.

After Ernst Ludwig Kirchner saw Fauve paintings in Berlin in 1908, Die Brücke in northern Germany took up this route of structured “primitivism,” or sharp edged figures. Although Matisse’s work in Berlin in 1908 was badly reviewed, Die Brücke artists began heightening their palettes and simplifying their forms. Both the Fauves and Die Brücke were impacted by tribal art, with the German artists finding or “discovering” the new forms in the ethnographic museum in Dresdent. Both groups were actively seeking a return to nature and saw “primitivism” as a means to accomplish a more simple way of life. In contrast, the Munich group, Der Blaue Reiter, led by Kandinsky and Jawlensky, saw Fauvism at Salon d’automne in 1905 and were inspired by the formal innovations. By 1908, Kandinsky at Murnau, near Munich, mixed the Fauve technique of high color and flat planes with Post-Impressionist exaggerated broken brushstrokes. Interestd in Bavarian folk art, Jawlensky used high pitched colors, harsh bright outlining, complementary shadows, all borrowed from the Fauves to create a kind of raw modern folk art in the frontal aspect of his painted mask like faces.

Formally speaking, “primitivism” led the Fauves and those influenced by them to find an all-over construction through color. Reductiveness and simplicity, directness of means and a search for the basic elements of art, stripped of conventions—-all were hallmarks of Fauvism. The desire to return and to renew suggested a reliance on instinct, indicated through intense color and free form that indicated a primal wildness. In Fauvism, imagination and feeling ruled, but being French, their formal dislocations were tempered and tamed by a devotion to the decorative. To the art intellectuals, this frankly decorative tendency, especially on the part of Matisse, was an excursion into the exotic, the “primitive,” the alien Other to the civilized European. The “primitivism” of Fauvism, like Fauvism itself, waned. Derain and Vlaminck became virulently conservative, especially after the Great War and Braque became a controlled Cubist and Matisse became a cultural lion, a giant of the Twentieth Century. Fauvism was tamed and the Fauves grew up.

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Defining Fauvism

Characteristics of Fauvism

Although all of the future Fauves were in Paris by 1900, Fauvism, as style, emerged—or was created—at Collioure in the spring of 1905. In a series of paintings by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and André Derain (1880-1954), completed in the small town outside of Paris, there is a new conception of light that separated colors, allowing the white canvas to glow through. Clearly borrowed from Paul Cézanne, the unexpected source of light was combined with a renewal of subjectivity after the “objectivity” of Impressionism and from what Matisse understood to be the “agitation” of Impressionist surfaces. From Impressionism, the Fauve artists borrowed the negation of shadows by substituting intense color for darkness. The resulting luminous shadows, that were non-shadows, eliminated the academic division of tones. Although Edouard Manet had long since done away with demi-teints, the Fauve artists presented a new and purified form of color painting, based on a light created through contrasts of hue, not of tone. Formally speaking, the result was a highly colored assertive surface, organized as a graphic design with strongly contrasting areas of color. The artists established areas and zones of sometime dissonant color which was, suddenly, newly important.

As Derain, who was at Collioure with Matisse stated in a letter to Vlaminck,

We are about to embark on a new phase. Without partaking of the abstraction apparent in van gogh’s canvases, abstraction which I don’t dispute, I believe that lines and colors are intimately related and enjoy a parallel existence from the very start, allowing us to embark on a great independent and unbounded existence…Thus we may find a field, not novel, but more real, and, above all, simpler in its synthesis…

Impressionist harmonies and the uniformity of facture, or the artist’s touch and the texture of the surface, were eliminated in favor of deliberate disharmonies of style and color. Local color was rejected in favor of arbitrary color: tree trunks were red, outlined in dark purple, the sky is yellow and green, and the background heaves upward with undulating shapes. Descriptive line was freed from mimesis and, like the colors, became expressionistic. The emphasis on color and graphic line was a simplification or a preoccupation with fundamentals. Line, which outlined forms were filled in with intense colors. The Fauves introduced a new kind of “free” purity, a reduction of painting to its most basic and most powerful elements, drawing and color. As Matisse said, “This is the starting point of Fauvism, the courage to return to the purity of means.” He also explained,

…that is only the surface: what characterized Fauvism was that we rejected imitative colors, and that with pure colors we obtained stronger reactions—more striking reactions; and there was also the luminosity of our colors.

The emphasis on color, long rejected as untrustworthy and capricious, was almost entirely new in Western art. Although the colors were arbitrary, Fauvism was not an isolated movement but was part of an artistic development that included both Impressionism and Post-impressionism. Especially in the early works of Matisse, such as Luxe, calme, voulpté (1904-05), the Neo-Impressionist broken brushwork, separated into colors, was apparent. Later on, by 1906, the color juxtapositions were replaced with areas of flat color, similar to Gauguin. Authoritarian regimes were perhaps correct to link color to political and social rebellion, for Fauvism could be said to be fully informed by the new spirit of individuality and artistic freedom, developing since the Romantic Movement.

The artist and writer, Maurice Denis, responded to Fauvism,

…It is painting outside every contingency, painting in itself, the act of pure painting…Here is, in fact, a search for the absolute. Yet, strange contradiction, this absolute is limited by one of the things that is most relative! individual emotion..

Aside from Henri Matisse’s Notes of a Painter in 1908, the Fauve artists did not issue individual statements, nor did Fauvism coalesce into a movement that issued manifestos. Although Matisse was the center of Fauvism, the members of the group were concerned with a directness of expression that was a belief in individual and pictorial autonomy. Fauvism was, above all, a balance between the purely visual sensation and a personal and internal emotion, conveyed through mixed technique and formal dislocations. The artists sought to express personal feelings and move away from traditional academic techniques and conventions in painting. That said, Matisse, in particular, rediscovered tradition of high decorative art in Italy and Morocco and fused the classical and the exotic and the avant-garde into a highly personal style. Unlike Vlaminck, who wanted to burn down museums and wore a wooden necktie, Matisse, an older artist, was fundamentally a conservative.

What I dream of, he famously said in Notes of a Painter, is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from Physical fatigue.

The new avant-garde in the Twentieth Century was based not in socially charged subject matter but in the radicalization of formal elements. But Fauvism is interesting despite the apparently traditional content of landscape painting. Certainly there is evidence of the lessons of Impressionism—landscapes appeal to collectors and art audiences alike—but there is a retreat in Fauvism, a nostalgic longing for something more pastoral and nostalgic. Industrialization and urbanization was fully developed and technology and mechanization was beginning to dominate modern life and dictate the future. For André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), escapist landscape had a distinctly vacation, suburban look, as though the environs outside of Paris had become a new Arcadia. But Matisse’s landscapes shifted from the modern pastoral of Luxe, calme, voulpté (1904-05) and its contemporary sailboat to the timelessness of Bonheur de vivre (1906). While the vacation is local and vernacular, the primal drawing of Bonheur de vivre and the later Dance and Music series suggested a return to a kind of “ur” mark making.

Matisse rendered his painting with the direct clarity of a child, re-learning how to draw. He drew his marks, finding the form as if by a physical feel, equating vision with touch, tentatively, hesitantly, re-discovering art for the first time. The “primitivism” of Fauvism is not just the artists’ interest in African tribal art, but with Matisse, the primal urge for an ideal, a golden age, long lost and re-found in the imagination. It is with these ideal landscapes that the impact of the Arcadian murals Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898) entered into the unlikely world of radical avant-garde painting. Matisse took Puvis and propelled the classical fantasy, borrowed from the older artist, of a harmony between humans and nature, dreamed of since Titian’s Fête Campetre, back to mythic origins. The fantasy of Arcadia and a timeless world of beauty and peace would inform Matisse’s luxurious and decorative art long after its beginnings in Fauvism. In ten years, Europe would be plunged into a Great War, and Fauvism ceased to be thought of as a radical style and became one of the last moments in the nostalgic Belle Époque.

See also, Primitivism in Fauvism

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Fauvism in Paris


One could argue about which movement was the “first” movement of the Twentieth Century—Art Nouveau (1895–1905), which led ultimately to the Bauhaus design revolution and even, arguably, to Constructivism of the Russian Avant-Garde or Fauvism (1905–07), a French form of expressionism, which led to Abstract Expressionism? For beginnings, there is no safe answer, only another question: when did the Twentieth Century begin? Virginia Woolf once wrote that the century began in 1910, about the time of Roger Fry’s famous 1911 exhibition on Post-Impressionism in London. If one accepts 1910 instead of 1900, the century began with Cubism; but in the years before the Great War, the art world was exploding with innovation. In addition to the avant-garde art movements of the fine arts, there were important developments in the realm of the decorative arts and, in addition, there were continuing exhibitions by the mainstream and avant-garde Salons in Paris. The result of fin-de-siècle artistic experimentation was a veritable logjam of aesthetic expression, ranging from conservative to radical. That said, art history traditionally has concentrated only upon the extreme edge of the avant-garde.

By the early Twentieth Century, there were four Salons: two that were conservative, Salon des Artistes Français and Salon de la Nationale, and two that were avant-garde, the Salon des Indépendants, which was without a jury and the new Salon d’automne. The art world was fractured, but so too was the art audience. Most of the art public was still suspicious of Impressionism which was accepted only by a select group of collectors, mostly American. With hindsight, it can be seen that Fauvism and Cubism, the “isms” that racked the pre-War art scene, were extensions of Post-Impressionism. But, at the time, for an audience who could still not “see” Impressionism, these movements were incomprehensible. Like Impressionism, Post-Impressionism was being sold to collectors who took the major works out of France, were they were less appreciated, and into remote places, such as Moscow and New York. The artists and critics, however, did not wait for audiences or for collectors to catch up. By the Twentieth Century, the split between the avant-garde artist and the mainstream art audience was complete.

With Fauvism, a new generation, accustomed to shocking the bourgeoisie came of age. Led by HenriMatisse (1869-1954), the Fauves were termed “wild beasts” for their intense and pure use of color and their untamed sinuous line. They had taken the controlled expressionism of Art nouveau and the passion of van Gogh and combined the powers of color and line with the color science of Seurat and the visionary symbolism of Gauguin. Like the Symbolists, they believed that art would speak for itself in its own language and that this visual and poetic language could invoke a response from the viewer. Subject matter and content, in contrast, was very conservative for Fauvism, which favored suburban and bucolic landscapes. Subject matter played a supporting role to formal elements—line, color, and forms.

The social and political content of Courbet and Manet, which had once aroused such passions, was tamed into familiar scenery, without social commentary, and the classical nude, stripped of any associations with prostitution. Public passions were now aroused by the supposedly wild colors used by the “wild beasts”—artists whose later careers were very conventional. Fauvism was a short-lived movement and would soon be displaced by its un-emotional monochromatic structured counter-point, Cubism, which would substitute tone for color and rationality for unbridled feeling.



The artistic foundation for Fauvism was the aesthetic activity in Paris at the fin-de-siècle. Impressionism, the dominant mode, was considered by some to be an on-going productive style. The importance of the lingering of Impressionism for Fauvism was that the art public was being prepared to accept a heightening of color and a lightening of the palette. Artists who had adapted Impressionism for conservative patrons, such as John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), were instrumental in widening the acceptance of loose brushwork and strong hues. The Nabis, Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, toned down and softened Impressionist colors and dealt with brushwork as pattern, and these Neo-Impressionist versions of Impressionism dominated the art world.

The domestic and intimate art of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) and post-Symbolist art of Maurice Denis (1870-1943) hovered somewhere in between Impressionism, which had no structure, and strongly linear graphic design. This balance and stasis with Post-Impressionism, however, was disturbed by a series of exhibitions. In 1899 an exhibition of pastels in high color by Odilon Redon at Durand-Ruel gallery reawakened interest in the expressive power of formal elements. The Cézanne exhibitions at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) in 1895 and 1899 and at Salon des Indépendants in 1901 reintroduced an old master to the young generation. Vollard’s gallery also showed Post-Impressionist painters, Vuillard, Bonnard, Signac, Cross, the Nabis, and other Neo-Impressionists. An exhibition of Vincent van Gogh’s work at Bernheim-Jeune gallery in 1901, along with the other exhibitions signaled both acceptance of Impressionism and introduction of “Post-Impressionism,” a term coined by Roger Fry in 1911. Perhaps the final capitulation of the detractors of Impressionism came with 1907 the exhibition of the (Gustave) Caillebotte Bequest at Luxembourg Museum. Although the artist’s collection had been somewhat diminished by the directors of the Museum, the successful and dignified deal had been negotiated by Pierre Renoir, now a respected elder in the arts community.

Two years after the Vincent van Gogh exhibition, there was the retrospective for Paul Gauguin on the occasion of the founding of the Salon d’automne in 1903 and Henri Matisse entered two paintings. The year 1904 was a particularly important one for the establishment of Fauvism with a show for Henri Matisse at Vollard’s, accompanied by a catalog essay by a prominent art critic, Roger Marx. Matisse brought together the intense color of van Gogh and the curvilinear shapes of Gauguin and came out of his “dark period,” his apprenticeship to Post-Impressionism, with an explosion of color. In 1905, Matisse visited his friends, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck at Chatou in the fall and that summer, Derain joined him in Collioure. It was here that Fauvism was born, notably with The Open Window. That fall, the group that had formed around Matisse debuted the new style in the Salon d’automne of 1905. Maurice de Vlaminck made his debt to the Post-impressionists and his rebellion against the establishment clear,

I wanted to burn down the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with my cobalts and vermilions. I wanted to express my feelings without troubling what painting was like before me…Life and me, me and life—that’s all that matters.” (on seeing the Van Gogh exhibition): “I was so moved I wanted to cry with joy and despair. That day I loved van Gogh more than I loved my father.

Louis Vauxcelles (Louis Mayer, 1870-1943), a conservative art critic, who was appalled by the brilliant colors, named Matisse and his followers the “Fauves,” or “wild beasts.” Seeing the bright paintings of Henri Matisse, André Derain (1880-1954) and Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), grouped in one room at the Salon d’automne, the critic exclaimed, “Donatello au milieu des Fauves.” (“Among the orgy of pure colors; Donatello among the wild beasts.”) Vauxcelles was relieved to see a conservative sculpture, “a Donatello,” among the paintings of the wild beasts, and it is possible he would have been even more relieved to know that the Fauve movement lasted only two years, from 1905 – 1907. The Salon des Indépendants was host to the first Fauve exhibition in the spring of 1905 and last Fauve exhibition in 1907.

The Fauve group began to come together before 1900, and, in the beginning, consisted of Henri Matisse and his fellow students from the atelier of Gustave Moreau and the Academie Carrière or the atelier of Eugene Carrière. These students, Albert Marquet, Henri Manguin, Charles Camoin, Jean Puy, and Georges Rouault, the most famous of these artists. The “School of Chatou,” named after a summer painting site, consisted of André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, who painted with Matisse. Rounding out the rather large group of artists devoted to color were those from Le Havre, Emile Otheon-Freize, Raoul Dufy, who would also become famous, and Georges Braque, the future Cubist artist, and, joining later, Kees van Dongen. But this short-lived movement came to an end due to the increasing impact of the paintings of the recently deceased Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and his darker colors and limited palette and the influence of tribal art from the French African colonies.

By 1907 the Salon d’automne signaled the end with the reappearance of figure in Fauvism. In addition to Matisse’s Blue Nude, Fauve paintings and composition were turning away from suburban landscapes in Paris by Vlaminck and scenes of the city of London by Derain and Matisse’s joyful celebrations of light and color in Bonheur de vivre (1906) to something more calculated and conceptual and classically restrained. Matisse explained,

One does not depict matter, but human emotion, a certain evaluation of spirit which might come from no matter what spectacle.

The return to the calculated and classical owed a great deal to Cézanne and led the younger artists, Derain and Vlaminck, down a conservative path. But Matisse used his period as a Fauve to establish himself as a major avant-garde artist. He acquired important American collectors, Leo and Gertrude Stein and Etta Cone, and the Russian collector, Sergei Shchukin began to buy his works. In 1908 there was a Matisse Retrospective at the Salon d’automne, which was also year in which he wrote his Notes of a Painter. This was the year of Matisse’s final farewell to Fauvism, Harmony in Red, was considered the first major painting in which direct color saturated the canvas and submerged all objects to its substance, rendering any other elements submissive to the will of red.

According to Matisse,

…The artist must feel that he is copying nature—even when he consciously departs from nature…

…I cannot copy nature in a servile way. I must interpret nature and submit it to the spirit of the picture. From the relationship I have found in all the tones, there must result a living harmony of colors, a harmony analogous to that of a musical composition…

After this radical statement on the power of color, Matisse then revived the classical, the timeless monumental art that had always hovered just below the surface of paintings such as Luxe, calme et volupté (1904). After his brief flirtation with tribal art, Matisse returned to his roots, by visiting Italy in the summer of 1907. Here he perused classical and Renaissance art and the new influences were clearly visible in Le Luxe (I) and (II) of 1907-08. Matisse now faced a young and upcoming rival for artistic shock, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), who was experimenting with post-Cézanne, proto-Cubism, which by 1910 was now emerging. The two friends dueled through art: Matisse painted his Blue Nude, purchased by Leo Stein and Picasso answered with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It could be said that together these two paintings ended Fauvism. Originally blue or blue green, Harmony in Red was purchased by Shchukin and carted off to Moscow. That same year, 1908, Georges Braque showed his first Cézanne-esque paintings, first offered to and rejected by the Salon d’automne. Braque’s dark landscapes were characterized by “little cubes,” but despite the critical derision, by 1909, Derain and Braque had already become Picassoistes,” or followers of Picasso. The age of Fauvism was over.

See also, Characteristics of Fauvism

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Expressionism in Europe 1900-1910



What caused the aesthetic crisis in European art at the beginning of the Twentieth Century? Somewhere around the very first years of the century, around 1904 and 1905, artists became aware that an old century was ending and that a new one was beginning. The question became now what? But the artistic crisis was caused by more than a new uncertainty about the beginning of a new and modern era. After more than five decades, the very basis for art making—the materialistic view of nature—was being interrogated. Philosophers were shifting away from positivism and moving toward a new form of idealism. Idealism returned to the Kantian position that the mind made the world, and, if human cognition played an active part in ordering reality, then naturalism was seen as not “realism” but as a false passivity. The artist could take the position that s/he was a mere transcriber, but was that a valid position?

But it would take more than a shift in philosophical perspectives to move the art world in a new direction. Two major issues emerged. The first problem was that of the prevailing artistic styles. Impressionism was the last “great style,” which was based in the reality of the visible world, upon the unquestioned agreement with external world. For the avant-garde artists, Impressionism was a master style, against which one measured oneself. The Post-Impressionists either accepted and expanded Impressionism, such as van Gogh, or rejected and expanded some of its formal innovations, such as Gauguin. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Impressionism was thirty years old and out of date and was ripe to be challenged by new movements led by a new generation. These new movements would confront Impressionism on the grounds of the passivity of empiricism and mere optical response. Romanticism, which had always exulted the subjective over the objective returned in a new form called, “Expressionism.”

The second problem that led to Expressionism was cultural—-the changes of the Twentieth Century that made Impressionism look quaint. Impressionism had been, for the most, part an art of suburban well-being. The city was viewed from a careful distance, as in the bird’s eye paintings of Camille Pissarro. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, urban living had become the new norm, bringing with it profound feelings of alienation from the community and a sense of being alone within the crowd. The backlash against the materialism of realism caused a profound skepticism and questioning of the true relationship between the self and the world. Faith in the reality of visual impressions and sensual perceptions was now challenged. Objectivity was interrogated and subjectivity was reevaluated. Feelings became more important than outer appearance, and in a sort of neo-Romanticism, the gaze of the artists turned inward with the goal of expressing their personal reactions and feelings.

Stemming from Symbolism, this new tendency in the arts had as its goal the redefinition of representation. To represent was not merely to reproduce nature but to react to the visual in a personal and unique fashion. The job of the artist was now to deal with the dialectic between the inner world of the mind and the outer world of nature. The problem was finding a way beyond the scientism of Impressionism and to free the artist from the tyranny of a passive response to reality. The solution was suggested by the critic Émile Zola was that of “nature, as seen through a corner of the temperament,” meaning that the artist’s personality would shape the content. Another solution was suggested by the art of Vincent van Gogh: to use the medium itself to express emotions. The “Nocturnes” of James Whistler were case in point. The artist used thin, almost murky paint, layered wetly onto a canvas. The indistinct quality of foggy London on the banks of the Thames was captured, not in an act of illustration but in an act of painting.

This new cultivation of personal sensibilities had its precedents in the Symbolists and the Aesthetic movement, some artists and writers using drugs, alcohol, religion, or magic as paths to creativity. But most artists were more rational in their quest for new subject matter and new methods of expressing new content. The Fauve movement extended and exaggerated certain Post-Impressionist artists, such as the expressive line of van Gogh and the symbolic color of Gauguin and the color relationships of Seurat to explore the ability of line and color to convey feeling through form. The artists of the Blue Rider movement in Germany discovered the “irrational” and “primitive” art of tribes, popular art of the lower classes, caricature, children’s art. The outsider artist, the dounier, Henri Rousseau, opened the minds of avant-garde artists to other possibilities in art. By the beginning of the new century, realism was effectively defunct and expressionism surged forward to replace it.

By 1910, the formal elements were manipulated beyond the currently accepted aesthetic conventions of the late Nineteenth-century in order for painting to become more personal and more expressive. In a reversal of the Academy hierarchy, there is a new emphasis on color at expense of line. Color was considered to be very suspect and dangerous, possessing the uncanny ability to arouse sexually within the innocent viewer. Women especially were, of course, very susceptible to the blandishments of intense hues. But the artists who began to favor color had other thoughts on their minds. First, they sought a reduction of dependence upon objective reality for the absolute validity of a personal vision. Very quickly, some artists, such as Vasily Kandinsky and Georgia O’Keeffe, would dispense with reality entirely, leading to abstract art. For O’Keeffe, her Blue Lines (1916) are a projection of artist’s inner experience, an aggressive and courageous response to music, her anguished but lyrical revolt against rationalism.

The first movement of the new century after Art Nouveau was Fauvism, named after the “fauves,” meaning wild beasts. The large group of artists was supposedly led by Henri Matisse but was more indicative of shifts to expressiveness through formal means. The name “Fauve” was derived from a critical condemnation uttered by the startled art critic, Louis Vauxcelles. He was horrified by a room full of paintings that were, in his conservative opinion, too brightly colored for the safety of art. The Fauve artists were leading what was an essentially technical revolution involving the liberation of color from description and the direct use of color to express feelings. Accustomed to mimetic realism, the public was shocked by the use of non-local color—the purple tree trunks by André Derain—and the critics offended by the uninhibited use of color to define form and feeling—the heaving and striving colored lines of Maurice de Vlaminck. But regardless of the conservative factions, the new emphasis in the art world had shifted to the inner world and towards the subjective personality of artist.

The Second movement in Expressionism took place in two distinct sites in Germany. Located in the south, the Blue Rider, Der Blaue Reiter, just outside of Munich, and in the northern city of Dresden, the Bridge, Die Brücke, these were two different and distinct parts of the shift towards subjectivity in northern Europe. Germany had a long tradition of art based upon strong feelings, such as the Isenheim Altarpiece (15056-15)by Matthias Grünewald, and a long history of wood carving, equally expressive, dating back to the medieval period. But only Die Brücke, not Der Blaue Reiter, was interested in this indigenous inheritance. Led by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Die Brücke was nationalistic and sought the essence of all that was Germanic, cleaving close to the forests around their home base of Dresden and venturing into “primitive” carved polychromed wood sculptures. Based in the south, closer to France, Der Blaue Reiter was a more internationally inclined group that learned a great deal from French art. The leader of Der Blaue Reiter, a Russian expatriate named Vasily Kandinsky, had, like so many of his generation, out of Art nouveau and the Post-Impressionists of France. From both French movements, Der Blaue Reiter borrowed the curvilinear line, the non-local use of color, and the large forms filled in with bright colors. Under the influence of Theosophy, Kandinsky moved quickly into complete abstraction, but the other members of the group remained representational artists.

The single most important factor in development of the Expressionist movement was the new demand for audience participation. Stemming from Symbolist poetry, the interaction of the reader forced the reader to be active and to creatively “make” the poem. Painting demanded a similar empathy or leap of faith from the viewer. The Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch, freed himself of the task of recording reality in order to express a reality engendered from the artist himself. If the public must be prepared to accept the artist’s subjective vision, then the artist him (or her) self had to be prepared to assert that he/she spoke for his/her audience. The artist no longer showed reality to the public, no longer demonstrated or illustrated; the artist had to go much deeper into the subjective. Exposed, the artist took on the role of a medium through whom the feelings of his (or her) time flowed towards the audience.

The Northern European artists, such as Edvard Munch in Norway and James Ensor in Belgium, and the Germans in Dresden were concerned more with content than form. In other words, form was in the service of content, the artistic elements were tasked with expressing the feelings of the artist for which the content was merely the carrier. The Germans wanted to penetrate behind inert objects to disclose the underlying significance beneath appearances. The German artists emphasized voyages of discovery of the self, as seen in the auto-portraits of Kirchner, who is the leading player in the theater of his own emotions. The artist Emile Nolde, briefly aligned with Die Brücke, was a rarity in the Twentieth-century, carrying on the faded tradition of religious art. He was involved with the spiritual but sought the primal impulse that led to religion. Nolde was uninterested in doctrines or Church teachings and looked to pagan impulses, to mystery “religions,” resulting in paintings alive with psychological tension and ecstatic physical distortion. The Last Supper (1909) is one of the great religious paintings of the new century, far more profound than any work by his Russian counterpart, Marc Chagall.

Expressionism, especially in Die Brücke asserted the innermost self and the right of art to be ugly and grotesque. Ugliness, naked fears and neuroses appear unmasked in the work of Kirchner, especially after the group moved to the modern city of Berlin. Compared to the French, the Germans were comfortable with a more savage, angular, aggressive, nervous and brutal style. For the northern Germans, Expression was their prime aim to evoke pictorial passions whether ecstatic and pleasurable or shimmering with anxiety. French Expression, or Fauvism, was, in contrast, an art of purity of strong colors, decorative balance and sensual repose. The French were escaping the new century while the Germans were meeting modernism head on, probing the troubling undercurrents. For Die Brücke, for instance, personal expression had to fuse with a now activated object, meaning that art was subordinated to experience. For Fauves, the approach to the concern for the object was completely the opposite: there was balance between sentiment and form, between emotion and composition, but the art had to be an experience, with the experience being subordinated to form and its expressive possibilities.

Both Germans and Fauves looked to Gauguin, van Gogh, Seurat, Munch and Toulouse-Lautrec, and the so-called “primitive cultures;” but the two nationalities developed in different directions. The Fauves, including André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, had came together around Matisse around 1903 but by 1907 the group fell under the very different spell of Paul Cézanne. For a time, Matisse’s colors, as seen in The Blue Nude of 1907, became darker, echoing the limited color palette of Cézanne with its dull blues. Derain was attracted to the art of African tribes and fused Cézanne’s dark colors with clumsy nudes, hacked into shapes of sharp angles and hard edges. Georges Braque fell under the spell of Matisse’s great rival, Pablo Picasso, and with his new colleague began a prolonged study of Cézanne, an absorption of the master’s thought process that would lead to Cubism. After a few years, Fauvism was dispersed by the new interest in tribal art and Cézanne, but German expressionism took up where Fauves left off and would continue with the representation of personal points of view until 1933 when a man named Adolph Hitler put an end to “degenerate art.”

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Podcast 37 Painting 3: The Pre-War Avant-Garde

The Avant-Garde Before the Great War

The decades of the fin-de-siècle period in Europe were fruitful ones, years of innovation and experimentation in painting. “Ism” followed “ism:” Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, German Expressionism, ended only by the Great War. New independent Salons and the burgeoning artist-dealer system provided new opportunities for cutting edged artists to show their work. Working experimentally, these artists developed a new language for a new art for a new century.

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This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

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Paul Cézanne

Post-Impressionist Artists: Paul Cézanne (1839 – 1906)

Famous for wanting to reform Impressionism, Paul Cézanne approached nature in quite a fashion that distinguished him from the Impressionists and the other Post-impressionists. Like Paul Gauguin, he understood the need to order nature, like Vincent van Gogh, he responded emotionally to the world around him, and like the avant-garde artists of his generation, he was faced with the problem of representation. For Cézanne, the solution was found by walking a tightrope between his mind and his feelings, between his “optique” and his “logique,” between the past and the future. He returned the classical French tradition, the Grand Manner of Nicholas Poussin, to the avant-garde by restoring the importance of the object, just as surely as the Symbolists restored the significance of the subject. Unlike the Impressionists, Cézanne did not accept the world of chaos and flux but attempted to render its permanent and solid qualities, to find structure and order. Unlike Gauguin, he did not impose abstract patterns upon nature but by swept away incidentals and details in search of an organizing rhythm and unity. Unlike Vincent van Gogh, Cézanne did not seek to animate the object but to contemplate it, to seek its inherent and essential structure, to connect it to its surroundings, to reveal the inner harmony of nature. Art had to reflect this natural harmony. Thus, art, too, must be as seamless and as unified in its materiality.

But Cézanne is not important to art history because he distinguish himself from his predecessors and his colleagues. The painter is considered significant because his art acted as a gateway to the Twentieth-century. Gauguin and van Gogh were both concerned with how to render their feelings, their emotions and reactions in relation to nature. Seurat attempted to see nature through the lens of science, reordering his colors according to the laws optical mixing. Georges Seurat was closer to Cézanne in the sense that both artists were concerned with the process of seeing and with how the artist’s (and the viewer’s) perception coincides with the traditional language of painting. Compared to Gauguin and van Gogh, these other Post-Impressionists were more objective. Reading Cézanne’s letters lead to the conclusion that he literalized what he saw, calling the transference of light to his eyes to his brain, his “sensations.” The problem that Cézanne gave to himself was how to translate what is a physical process into an art that expressed, not a worn-out set of artistic conventions, but a new visual language that explained, not expressed, what was actually seen, not what was known.

The accomplishment of Cézanne was his creation of a new language, a new set of marks, which recorded only what he saw: his “sensations.” We “know” that when we look out over a landscape that there is space between the objects that are close and the objects that are far away, but we don’t “see” these spaces. Renaissance perspective was an abstract diagram, which “mapped out” the space that existed but could not be seen. Over the centuries, as the art historian, Erwin Panofsky, pointed out, those of us in the West have become so accustomed to the invention of Renaissance architects, Alberti and Brunelleschi, that we believe that we actually see in terms of perspective. Cézanne figured out that perspective was a code with a signifying function, based upon knowledge. The diagram or abstract design got in the way of real seeing or the actual process of looking. He also realized that perspective depended upon an ideal and impossible condition: the viewer had one eye, stood in one place, at one point in time. But we have two eyes, we move, and time passes. How can the painter account for this “natural vision?” This question would absorb the artist for thirty years, but the younger generation would be able to build upon his research. The lessons of Cézanne can be summed up in a few sentences. Nature is represented and interpreted artistically and art became parallel to nature. Art can represent nature only through artistic means; art cannot reproduce nature. These are the ideas which led to the new art of the new century. The “Modern” is said to begin in 1880 when Cézanne exiled himself in Aix to solve the great riddle of how to strip knowing from seeing—how to paint perception.

Paris – 1860s


Cézanne’s awareness of the role of color in determining the structure and depth of natural objects and his awareness of the role of brush work on a flat surface, set him apart from his century and catapulted his art into the next century. In many ways, the artist took an artistic journey into self-denial and redemption. His early works were marked by subject matter full of violence and sex, displaying a deep confusion about women and a consequent anger toward their sexuality. The philosopher Merleau-Ponty remarked, “His first pictures up till about 1870 are dreams in paint: a rape, a murder…” In 1991, art historian, Robert Simon, noted the connection between these paintings of violence against women and the popular imagery of the day, “The cheap, quickly made, sensational news bulletins known as canards…a sort of low journalism.” In other words, Cézanne was inspired by a combination of his own psychological dis-ease and was given “permission” to express his anxieties by the equivalent of “The National Enquirer.”

Upon viewing The Murder of 1867 and A Modern Olympia (1872 – 3), boyhood friend, Émile Zola (1840 – 1902) described this disturbing phase of his art:

It was a chaste man’s passion for the flesh of women, a mad love of nudity desired and never possessed, an impossibility of satisfying himself, or creating as much of this flesh as he dreamed to hold in his frantic arms. Those girls whom he chased out of his studio, he adored in his paintings; he caressed or attacked them, in tears of despair at not being able to make them sufficiently beautiful, sufficiently alive.

The writer had grown up with Cézanne in the southern town of Aix and had suggested that the artist come to Paris. Zola defended Manet by ignoring the issue of subject matter and concentrating on the artist’s formal innovations. Beauty, Zola, insisted was not a verifiable or universal phenomenon, but was entirely personal and internal. Cézanne landed in a very sophisticated art world, where artists gathered together and debated theories. Cézanne’s parents had wanted him to become a lawyer, but, like the typical avant-garde artist, he rebelled against family expectations. His family, connected to banking, was solidly middle-class and his father reluctantly supported his son’s ambitions to be an artist. The decade that Cézanne spent in and out of Paris is one of deliberately provocative art hurled at the establishment, guaranteed a rejection in the Salon.

The artist was as deliberately confrontational himself. “All my compatriots are ass holes compare to me.” Elegant and chic, Manet despised the uncouth provincial with the awkward accent. Cézanne in turn was hardly respectful to the revered master by saying that he would not shake hands with Manet because he (Cézanne) had not bathed for a week. Clearly, Cézanne needed someone to temper his misdirected and unguided temperament. That person was the “father” to the younger generation, Camille Pissarro ((1830 – 1903). Cézanne met Pissarro at the Académie Suisse, where he claimed to be “painting with one’s balls.” By the 1870s, his riotous and unruly style was disciplined with heavy black contour lines, suggesting that he needed for Impressionism to become more structured.

Estaque and Pontoise and Melun – 1870 – 1880

This decade was the last era in which the traditional Salon system really mattered. Thanks to the critics, such as Zola, who said, “the Salon of our days is not the work of artists; it is the work of a jury…” and to the Impressionist exhibitions, the old order was a dying one. But Cézanne’s early years in Paris as a follower of Manet and as an “Impressionist” were years of rejection by the Establishment followed by a self-imposed exile in southern France. In between Paris and Aix, he learned a great deal from Pissarro. The older artist removed Cézanne from the futile exercise of trying to force the Salon to change and taught him to not define himself negatively. Pissarro’s contribution to the volatile younger artist was to teach him that each individual had a unique vision or way of seeing, called “sensation.” The artist had only to execute to create: paint what he saw and an individual vision would emerge naturally. Maurice Denis, also a painter, stated, “…each one takes the law unto himself…we love order passionately, but the order that we create, not the order we receive…”

Writing in the 2009 catalogue for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Beyond Cézanne,” art historian, Richard Shiff, quoted a comment made by the artist to Maurice Denis, “Sensation above all else.” Shiff also quoted Charles Morice, an art critic, who in 1907 said, “We hardly dare say that Cézanne lived. He painted.” Shiff then went on to define “sensation,” as “Every sensation that Cézanne felt, no matter what the cause, would be the equivalent f a painting sensation: every physical gesture, a potential paint mark…”

In contrast to today’s assumption that only the “young” artist is capable of making exciting art, artists of this generation took decades to mature. Cézanne was forty before he became “serious.” Working with Pissarro in the small towns along the river Oise, Cézanne began to paint, not what he felt, but what he saw, and he saw, he stated, “ only patches.” Cézanne had learned from the Impressionists to apply paint in patches of color, but they thought in terms of color-as-light. Cézanne began to think of color-as-form or color-as-object.

Whatever Cézanne may have thought of the avant-garde artists in Paris, the Franco-Prussian War ended his time in the city. He had met a docile and submissive women, Hortense Figuet, gotten her pregnant, had a child by her, before he eventually married her. He sent her to Estaque for safety during the Franco-Prussian war. Finished with Paris, he painted in Estaque and put himself under the tutelage of Pissarro in Pontoise and Auvers. It is in Estaque that we see Cézanne absorbing the lessons learned from Manet—using color to eliminate depth. (“View of L’Estaque and the Château d’If,” 1883 – 5) Working against distance, Cézanne pushed the sea away by using deep blue but pulled the distant shore forward with lighter colors (“The Gulf of Marseille Seen from L’Estaque,” 1876 – 79). The compositions of Estaque were broad and simple and clearly showed the basis of his structure: Cézanne’s paintings can almost always be divided down the horizontal middle, as if the two parts, top and bottom, were hinged. (“Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley,” 1882 – 85) The Post-modern painter, Mark Tansey took advantage of Cézanne’s manner of composition as division in his re-visions of “Mount Saint-Victoire” in the 1980s.

Working in situ with the older artist, Cézanne eliminated contours for the moment. The countryside of the Oise valley lay stretched out before the artists, crowded with small red-roofed houses. Edges were defined by placing contour-to-contour, patch-to-patch, form-to-form, leaving blank spaces to complete the definition. Drawing was eliminated and forms were constructed or built by laying on blocks of color, which were built up, the way a bricklayer creates a wall, into a series of “sensations.” (“The Pont de Maincy, 1879) By leaving breathing spaces or blank areas between the patches, the artist was painting in reverse or taking the negative into account. The entire composition was built, constructed, literally through rhythmic strokes of paint that knitted the landscape into an all over unity (“Large Pines and Red Earth,” 1890 – 95).

Although Cézanne exhibited with the Impressionists in 1874, he left Paris and returned to Aix and seemed to find psychic peace in his rigorous study of nature. He took with him the lessons learned from Pissarro–a clarified palette, the knowledge that form could be achieved by color. He began to paint with heavy layers of color in an effort to capture every nuance, like the building of a mosaic. He observed that there were no lines in nature—“Pure drawing is an abstraction.”—and that there were no shadows without color. However, Cézanne was convinced that observation alone was never enough and that thought was essential.

Aix-en-Provence – 1880 – 1906

There are ample indications that Cézanne was a borderline personality. Eccentric to the point where normal relations were difficult, Cézanne spent the rest of his life in a self-imposed exile. He was tormented by the extended infantilism of his financial dependence upon his father. He hid his mistress, keeping her in the shadows for fifteen years. But his reluctance to interact with the Parisian art world resulted in a barrage of letter writing, especially to the young and impressionable Émile Bernard. Cézanne apparently needed only a kind father, Pissarro, and unthreatening admirers, Bernard, and his solitude to thrive. Like the letters of Vincent van Gogh, Cézanne’s letters are his legacy to the art world. His musings constitute a theory of painting. “There are two things in the painter: the eye and the brain. The two must cooperate,” he wrote. Cézanne wished to reform a now waning Impressionism, “to become classic again through nature, that is to say, through sensation…” “…to revive Poussin through contact with nature…” “…one must interpret it…by means of plastic equivalents and color…” he declared.

Isolated in Aix by 1890, Cézanne assumed the task of “making out of Impressionism something solid and durable like the art of museums…” A small measure of success in Paris came to him as the result to an exhibition given of this art in 1895 by Ambroise Vollard but he remained in the south to paint at his home, “Jas de Bouffan,” until it was sold in 1899, after his mother’s death. His last years were spent painting the Bidémus quarry and the Chateau noir. The artist painted selected motifs and the quarry and the mountain, Mont Saint-Victoire became part of his obsessive quest. Later he was to say, “It took me forty years to find out that painting is not sculpture.” Renoir echoed this discovery by saying of the paintings of Cézanne that “Later, his study brought him to see that the work of the painter is so to use color that, even when it is laid on very thinly, it gives the full result.”

Cézanne used the quarry as part of his pattern of construction. Because the quarry had been mined for centuries, human activity had regularized the steep sides, which showed the linear marks of carving out large blocks. The patters left on the walls of the quarry were reflections of his method of painting in patches. By the 1880s, the artist had gained enough confidence to turn Manet’s play with color into his own personal method, called “passage,” by art historians. Cézanne also felt fee to distort the landscape and to force it to submit to the demands of composition and structure. Mont Saint-Victoire was a huge looming triangular shape, dominating the countryside, but Cézanne shrank the mountain to a small triangle hovering above the edge of the quarry. The walls fall straight down, below the center hinge of the canvas. (“Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry,” 1887) The tops of green pine trees project upwards, growing form a ground unseen in the bottom of the quarry. The blue of the sky above the triangle pours onto the sides of the mountain, down the walls of the quarry, spills into the green of the pines. The green and oranges of the trees and stone climb upwards, advancing along the slope of the mountains and into the blue and white sky above.

This method of composing and creating forms and working out the inherited problem of Renaissance perspective placed Cézanne in the position of “fathering” the 20th century. His studies of Mount Sainte-Victorie became increasingly abstract: planes were faceted into geometric shapes, surface was turned into patterns of lines and colors and his techniques drew awareness to the flatness of the two-dimensional picture plane. The flattening of the picture plane was based upon his study of the motif in nature, which was received flat to his eye. His essential aim was to represent what “pure” vision could discover about the visible world. This is a world of everyday things, this is a vision cleansed of allegory, symbolism, emotion and intellect. The viewer, like the artist, must see nature in a state of complete dissociation and disinterestedness–a pure act of perception. In this personal conception of space, Cézanne attempted to show objects linked to each other in such a fashion that perspective developed as the result of the halting of movement. In his 2009 essay, “Lucky Cézanne (Cézanne ‘Tychique’),” Richard Shiff also described the “motif” in terms of movement,

“Appropriately, the term motif connotes movement. Cézanne’s motif could not be Mont Sainte-Victoire regarded solely as a concept or an ideal; it was instead a movement associated with a particular experience of he mountain as his experience played out in an active process of painting…it merely feels like an instant or a moment, that, is, it feel momentary, transient, changing….”

In the decade of the 1880s, contours returned to Cézanne’s art, but the outlines were new. We see the new use of outline clearly in his still lives. Confined to his studio, the artist could study the act of seeing in isolation. If the landscapes were flattened into stillness by the way in which he recorded his “sensations,” then Cézanne’s still lives were put in motion. The artist seemed to understand that the movement of the viewer or the painter had to be incorporated. The time spent in working produced shifts in perspective what also had to be accounted for. He eliminated, as far as he could, any indication of a horizon line or a level place for the eye to rest. Patterned wallpaper stops the backward movement into the room. Cloth backdrops were used to obscure the flat surfaces for the still life objects (“Still Life with Apples,” 1893 -94). The objects are shown from many different perspectives, as though the artist sat down, stood up, leaned to the side, as he examined his set up. Bright patches of color, dappled here and there, indicated where the light source had touched to object. The sheer motion of looking was signaled to the spectator by the uneasy and unsettled contours, which were slightly separated from the edges of the forms. The result is that the forms quiver slightly as though they are unsteadied by innate movement.

Only when we view Cézanne’s paintings of human figures do we realize the other accomplishment of the artist: that of removing the hierarchy from painting. Human beings are treated the same way as inanimate objects. In her stolid stillness, the expressionless artist’s wife, Hortense, resembles the coffee pot next to her (“Woman with Coffeepot,” 1895), the nudes of the “Bathers” series are forced to bend and reshape themselves to conform to Cézanne’s composition. In “The Large Bathers” (1906), the artist grouped the nude women, shaped like the trees that surround them, into a triangular group, located inside a rectangular landscape. As early as the 1870s, the artist began to tone down his palette, eliminating a wide range of colors and damping down the intensity of his hues in favor of a limited selection of tones of blues, greens, and ochre buffs (“Chateau Noir,” 1900 – 1904). On one hand, the artist was painting the bleached out stone ridden landscape of Provence, on the other hand, he had created a new palette that would end Fauvism’s bright colors and the monochrome suggestion would be taken up by the Cubists.

Cézanne in History

The artist remained in exile and, over the years, became a legend as in the late 1890s exhibitions increasingly influenced younger painters. The shop of Père Tanguy was the one place in Paris where his art could be purchased and studied. As Émile Bernard, Cézanne’s faithful correspondent, stated, “One went there as to a museum, to see the few sketches by the unknown artist who lived in Aix…” The critic, Gustave Geffroy, noted, “For a long time, Cézanne has had a curious fate. He might be described as a person at once unknown and famous, having only rare contact with the public yet considered influential by the restless and the seekers in the field of painting…” Yet it was through his correspondence with Bernard that the older artist formulated his theory of art and he advised the former follower of Gauguin “to see in nature the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, putting everything in proper perspective, so that each side of an object or a plane is directed toward a central point.”

The legend of Paul Cézanne grew as his exile lengthened. Had he been truly isolated and out of touch, the artist would have been forgotten. But, in contrary to the legend of the neglected artist who was discovered due to his shining “genius,” Cézanne was very aware of his place in the art world and in history itself. His voluminous correspondence with well-placed individuals and the tantalizing inaccessibility of his paintings added to the myth of the reclusive artist who was changing art. Coupled with the aura surrounding Cézanne and the important exhibitions of his work, late in his life, the only solidified his reputation. For the young generation of artists, he vanquished the lingering influences of Impressionism, swept aside the curves of Art Nouveau, and vanquished Fauvism’s intense, expressive colors. Immediately the color palette of the artists narrowed and dulled, the forms sharpened, and composition returned.

Cézanne’s study of planes and volumes attempted to express a consciousness of structure. Beneath the colored surface presented by nature laid the forms of nature. “The main thing is the modeling; one shouldn’t even say modeling, but modulating.” Cézanne built forms with color and the lines that could have described these forms hovered tentatively around the objects, activating them. Even though his compositions were grid-like in their rigidity, his paint handling kept the surface lively, the trademark hatch marks knitting the surface together, pulling distance to the foreground. To the new artists, his lively surfaces, always active and always in motion, Cézanne’s work suggested shifts in space and time, as shifting forms were distorted and light skimmed surfaces, skipping from place to place. Regardless of Cézanne’s intentions, the young artists saw the end of the Western tradition of perspective. Building on the three decades of Cézanne’s work, their responses were sometimes awkward and tentative, but Picasso and Braque and the other artists persisted and something called “Cubism” began to emerge around 1910.

Cézanne was considered the “great divide” in art. His work was determined by many art historians to be the beginnings of modern 20th century painting because he dismantled the Renaissance conception of intellectualized space. Composition, with Cézanne did not exist prior to its contents and construction depended upon its objects. His last and greatest portrait was of his gardener, Vallier, worked on until his death in October of 1906. “If I succeed with this fellow, it will mean that the theory was correct,” Cézanne said. And Matisse said, “If Cézanne is right, I am right. A year after “the master” died, Picasso would paint “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in1907. The Nineteenth Century was over and the Twentieth Century could begin.

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Podcast 36 Painting 2: Manet to Post-Impressionism

The Painters of Modern Life

Although the Pre-Raphaelite artists initiated the artistic interest in contemporary urban life and the problems of modern people, the Parisian artists are given credit for learning how to express modernité in formal terms. The French painters found the seventeenth century Dutch painters important precursors. Inspired by the depiction of ordinary moments of daily life among the middle class in Holland, the emerging avant-garde artists began to rethink, not just how to handle modern content, but also how to use paint itself so that their art could be “of its own time.” The result of this experimentation was an evolution of painting into the twentieth century.

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Defining Post-Impressionism



“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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