1880 – 1920
How to identify Post-Impressionist art?
NOTE: Post-Impressionism, unlike other art movements, is not coherent. Artists painted in different styles which makes it tricky to pinpoint common characteristics. However, within Post-Impressionism, there’s one remarkably unique style that you could identify at first sight, which is explained below.
1. The main common characteristic among all the various Post-Impressionist styles is heavy outlines. Artists ditched the fuzziness of Impressionist art and brought back strong emphasis on form. The subject matter did not differ from that found in Impressionist paintings. Artists continued to depict the leisurely life of the urbanite middle class. Many of the scenes were outdoors: beaches and landscapes.
2. Look for canvases covered with an incredible number of tiny dots of colour. This is a subcategory of Post-Impressionism called Pointillism, a term used interchangeably with Divisionism, Chromoluminarism and Neo-Impressionism.
3. Divisionism is sometimes used to refer only to the technique of the small brush strokes distinguishing it from the Pointillist technique of colourful dots.
How Post-Impressionist art got its name?
Post-Impressionism is a lame name (Could you perhaps find a better one?). But before we blame the British art critic and historian, Roger Fry, who coined it in 1910, we have to understand the challenge he faced. He needed a name for his London exhibition through which he was to introduce to the public a new group of very distinct artists (Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin) among original Impressionist artists (e.g. Manet). He settled on “Manet and the Post-Impressionists.” The diversity of their styles and techniques made it hard to give them but a generic term that categorises them as those who arrived after the Impressionist generation.
What gave rise to Post-Impressionism? And where?
Ironically the Impressionist movement that opened the gates to modern art was too limited to a certain group of painters. They were frustrated with its lack of form or clear structure. Most of them were French, like Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin. Even the notable exception, Vincent van Gogh who was Dutch lived (and died) in France.
Although they shared a dissatisfaction with Impressionism, especially with its formlessness, they never agreed on the way forward. If you compare paintings by Cézanne, Seurat and Van Gogh, you’ll notice that they all look different in style. Their reaction to Impressionism seemed to agree on an immediate return to form that was lost in Impressionism, but little else. Cézanne brought back black outlines, Seurat painted in tiny dots of colour, while Van Gogh’s paintings used thick swabs of paint. As such, Post-Impressionism was never to become a unified movement.
Post-Impressionist painters developed styles that varied not only in technique but also level of difficulty. Pointillism, for example, was extremely laborious, where a painting was composed of a ridiculously large number of dots. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte is made up of millions of perfectly placed dots, taking two years of work by Georges Seurat. The same theories of optics and colour that inspired Impressionist artists before, also played a role in the development of the Pointillist branch of Post-Impressionism. The mosaic-like brush marks rely on colours blending in the eyes of the viewers as long as they’re not too close to the canvas. This technique and its innate understanding of how the human eye operated was much ahead of its time: Your computer screen and its pixels work on the same premise found in Seurat’s paintings composed of millions of dots.
Note that in some contexts, Divisionism refers to the overall style and theory where paintings are composed of either fine dots or swabs of paint (view examples above). In that context Pointillism is just a name for the technique that uses dots.
Rebels of a New Generation
Some considered this movement to be somehow a continuation or an extension, or perhaps a final phase to the Impressionist movement (hence the term “Neo-Impressionism” used in some references). After all, some of the key elements were never abandoned such as the portrayal of urban leisure as a subject matter.
However, in truth, the Post-Impressionists differed in many ways from their predecessors and that applies to even the subject matter. Most Impressionist paintings didn’t have room for “important content” with deep meaning while they experimented with colour, light and shadow. The result was blurred form and dematerialization of content. The Post-Impressionist artist rejected these obsessions, placed more emphasis on the subject matter, and embraced clear, defined lines.
Outdoor painting and the necessary tools had been available for several decades. It became popular with Impressionism and introduced unheard of portability to artists who, for generations, long sought after it. Post-Impressionists brought it all back indoors (people are never really satisfied!). Their slow painting method, years-long in the case of Pointillist paintings, could only be done inside a studio. The outcome was that art critics had to change their tune: they derided the blurry Impressionist paintings since they seemed like they were completed in a rush but no such accusation could be hurled at Seurat or Gauguin.
Compare the spontaneous snapshots of Impressionist paintings (a woman on a stroll on a windy day, or a ballerina showing off her moves) to the rigid poses of Post-Impressionism and you’ll find that motion was replaced with stasis. Artists were either no longer interested in spontaneity or their new techniques were just incapable – painted dots are not ideal for showing motion.
The London exhibition mentioned above was not well received. Post-Impressionism with its modern outlook was a shock to the conservative English public who were accustomed to Pre-Raphaelite art, a style which looked backwards to a medieval/Renaissance era that preceded, as the name implies, the Great Raphael. Art critics were just as harsh. In fact, the word “Pointillism” was originally coined by them to ridicule that particular style.