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Post-Impressionism

2. Development in France and elsewhere

Source: Oxford University Press

Influenced by the Symbolist movement in literature, the French Post-Impressionists ignored the minutiae of natural scenes in favour of the more intangible areas of aesthetics or symbolic content. Deeper meanings, as well as the personal feelings of the artist, became valid subjects. Cézanne used colour to explore the spatial relationships between objects in nature, while at the same time studying the underlying forms of nature itself. His work shows one of the earliest reactions against Impressionism, as in Zola’s House at Médan (c. 1880; Glasgow, Burrell Col.), where he used carefully brushed, diagonal paint strokes to lend structure to the composition. Van Gogh, on the other hand, allowed his brushstrokes and colour to express his almost pantheistic fascination with the energy that animates natural forms as well as individual people, as in Starry Night (1889; New York, MOMA). Gauguin preferred to use colour and line in order to suggest the spiritual as well as physical environments of the places he painted, especially Brittany and Tahiti, as in Nevermore (1897; U. London, Courtauld Inst. Gals). Seurat, the chief theorist and practitioner of Neo-Impressionism, produced harmonious, static paintings by adopting a meticulous, scientific approach to colour and composition, as in Young Woman Powdering herself (1889–90; U. London, Courtauld Inst. Gals).

In the work of all these artists, the abstract concerns of harmony and the two-dimensional arrangement of forms took precedence over naturalism. Many French artists were soon influenced by these innovations, particularly by those of Gauguin and Seurat. A group of painters, including Paul Sérusier, Emile Bernard and others, gathered around Gauguin at Pont-aven in Brittany, while Seurat’s divisionist technique was taken up by such artists as Henri Edmond Cross, Maximilien Luce and Paul Signac. Some of the original Impressionist artists, including Renoir, themselves moved away from their earlier aesthetic in an attempt to introduce a greater structure to their work, as shown in Renoir’s painting La Roche-Guyon (c. 1885; Aberdeen, A.G.), executed in meticulous brushstrokes like those used by Cézanne. Monet, on the other hand, loosened his compositions and colour schemes in order to become more subjective in his interpretation of nature.

In France the political and cultural anarchy of the 1880s and 1890s encouraged artists to reject the stylistic norms of the past. In other European countries different aesthetics and political environments spawned varying responses to this artistic freedom. In Germany the lack of a strong Impressionist tradition, as well as of any single artistic centre, diluted the impact of Post-Impressionism. The Norwegian Edvard Munch caused a stir in Berlin in 1892 with such starkly expressionistic works as Sick Child (1885–6; Oslo, N.G.) and created a following in avant-garde circles. The predominant artistic style among avant-garde painters nonetheless remained Naturalism, as in the works of such painters as Hans Reinhard von Marées and Lovis Corinth. A few painters, such as the Swiss artists Arnold Böcklin and Ferdinand Hodler, who worked mainly in Germany, moved from Naturalism to Symbolism, as shown by Hodler’s Eurhythmy (1895; Berne, Kstmus.). The critic Julius Meier-Graefe was largely responsible for bringing the works of van Gogh, Gauguin and the other French Post-Impressionists to the attention of the German public. Visits between France and Germany by such artists as Paula Modersohn-Becker, Alexei Jawlenski, Maurice Denis, Jan Verkade and Paul Sérusier further helped to establish an awareness of Post-Impressionist work in the next generation of German painters, the Expressionists.

In 1883, when Octave Maus and 20 disgruntled artists established Les XX in Belgium, they opened their annual exhibition to French Post-Impressionist artists. Redon, Seurat, Signac, Gauguin, Bernard, Denis and van Gogh were among those represented in exhibitions between 1886 and 1893. These close contacts between French and Belgian artists quickly led such painters as Théo Van Rysselberghe, James Ensor and Fernand Khnopff to adopt French ideas: Neo-Impressionism and Symbolism dominated avant-garde Belgian artists from the 1890s until the beginning of the 20th century. The British were less interested in the politics of the French Post-Impressionists but were more open to the intellectual approach to art offered by Cézanne. Impressionism, filtered through the more naturalistic work of Jules Bastien-Lepage, remained the predominant style in Britain until the 1890s. Fascination with the work of Whistler in London led some artists, including Walter Richard Sickert and George Moore, to an interest in the work of Degas. Moreover, the large number of British art students in Paris helped to transmit Post-Impressionist ideas back to London, as did the fact that such artists as Roderic O’Conor and Robert Bevan spent time in Pont-Aven, absorbing the ideas of Gauguin and his circle. However, the greatest influence of Post-Impressionism came in the first two decades of the 20th century in the work of such artists as Grant and Bell and certain members of the Camden Town Group, especially in the wake of Fry’s two exhibitions.

The anarchist or socialist beliefs of many French Neo-Impressionists particularly attracted Dutch and Italian artists to their political as well as artistic causes. In the Netherlands the Impressionist landscape and light of the Hague school set the standard for most Dutch artists in the late 19th century. However, Jan Toorop’s exposure to Neo-Impressionist and Symbolist ideas, when he studied in Brussels (1882–5) and became a founder-member of Les XX, led to his efforts to introduce these new art forms to his native country, as did Johan Thorn Prikker soon afterwards. The proximity of Brussels led many Dutch artists to visit the annual exhibitions of Les XX, so furthering awareness of French Post-Impressionism. These new ideas, however, were often subordinated to the Dutch passion for order and carefully defined spaces, as seen in the early works of Piet Mondrian. In Italy the divisionist techniques of the Neo-Impressionists were influential on the work of many artists in the early years of the 20th century, most notably on the work of those artists who later became Futurists, such as Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà and Gino Severini. In Scandinavia, Russia and North America, Impressionism and Naturalism continued to dominate the art world until well after 1900. In these areas, as in other countries, Post-Impressionism was never considered a ‘movement’ in art. The French Post-Impressionists nevertheless later influenced many artists who were trying in various ways to move beyond the realistic concerns of the Impressionists. Thus the synthetism of Gauguin, the geometry of Cézanne, the expressionism of van Gogh and the divisionism of Seurat found followers throughout the world.

Caroline Boyle-Turner
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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