Known for their diverse yet distinctive styles and their subjective perceptions of the world around them, the Post-Impressionists pioneered a new approach to painting at the turn of the century. Unlike the Impressionists that preceded them and the Fauvists that followed, Post-Impressionist artists were not unified by a single aesthetic approach. Rather, what brought them together was a shared interest in openly exploring the mind of the artist.
Given the assortment of styles, techniques, and even subject matter evident in Post-Impressionist paintings, defining the movement can be difficult. However, by tracing its history, identifying its artists, and pinpointing its distinguishing characteristics, one can began to understand the historic and symbolic significance of the movement.
What is Post-Impressionism?
Post-Impressionism is an art movement that developed in the 1890s. It is characterized by a subjective approach to painting, as artists opted to evoke emotion rather than realism in their work. While their styles, therefore, wildly varied, paintings completed in the Post-Impressionist manner share some similar qualities. These include symbolic motifs, unnatural color, and painterly brushstrokes.
In the 1870s and 1880s, Impressionism dominated avant-garde art in France. Many up-and-coming artists, however, found fault in the Impressionists’ focus on style rather than subject matter. Aiming to shake up the contemporary art world, this group of stylistically dissimilar artists—including Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and Henri Rousseau—formed the Post-Impressionists.
Like the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists shared their work with the public through independent exhibitions across Paris. In 1910, noted art critic, historian, and curator Roger Fry coined the term “Post-Impressionism” with his show, Manet and the Post-Impressionists. Much like the Post-Impressionists themselves, Fry believed that the beauty of art is inherently rooted in perception. “Art is an expression and stimulus to the imaginative life rather than a copy of actual life,” Fry explains in An Essay in Aesthetics. “Art appreciates emotion in and for itself. The artist, is the most constantly observant of his surroundings and the least affected by their intrinsic aesthetic value. As he contemplates a particular field of vision the aesthetically chaotic and accidental conjunction of forms and colours begin to crystallize into a harmony.” Today, these ideas help us to understand the common thread between these artists.
As Fry explained, Post-Impressionists believed that a work of art should not revolve around style, process, or aesthetic approach. Instead, it should place emphasis on symbolism, communicating messages from the artist’s own subconscious. Rather than employ subject matter as a visual tool or means to an end, Post-Impressionists perceived it as a way to convey feelings. According to Paul Cézanne, “a work of art which did not begin in emotion is not a work of art.”
“Color! What a deep and mysterious language, the language of dreams.” -Paul Gauguin
Unlike the Impressionists who strived to capture natural light’s affect on tonality, Post-Impressionists purposely employed an artificial color palette as a way to portray their emotion-drive perceptions of the world around them. Saturated hues, multicolored shadows, and rich ranges of color are evident in most Post-Impressionist paintings, proving the artists’ innovative and imaginative approach to representation.
Like works completed in the Impressionist style, most Post-Impressionist pieces feature discernible, broad brushstrokes. In addition to adding texture and a sense of depth to a work of art, these marks also point to the painterly qualities of the piece, making it clear that it is not intended to be a realistic representation of its subject.