Autobiographical Elements of Post-Impressionist Art

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  • 0:01 Post-Impressionist…
  • 1:10 Experiences of the Artist
  • 2:36 Psychology of the Artist
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the lives and attitudes of Post-Impressionist artists as captured in their paintings. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Post-Impressionist Autobiographies

11:15 - Set to work on Post-Impressionist lesson. Changed the world of education forever.

Oh, hi there! I'm just working on my autobiography. I think it's important to capture my thoughts and actions now, so historians can understand them in the future. Autobiographies are a great way to get to know somebody when the person is no longer around to explain what they were thinking or doing. But autobiographies can come in several forms.

We expect autobiographies to look like this:

book labelled as an autobiography

But sometimes they look like this:

example of post-impressionist painting

Painters often include hints about their lives, emotions, and beliefs in their artwork, but this became especially true in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It all began with the Realists and Impressionists, artists in the mid-19th century who focused on painting only that which they could personally see and experience. This gave their art a very personal quality.

Following the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886 and until the rise of the movement Fauvism in 1905, a group of movements maintained that focus on the personal experience of the artist. Collectively, we call these movements Post-Impressionism, and if you want to get to know an artist, there's no better place to look.

Experiences of the Artist

Painting by Paul Gauguin

The Post-Impressionists maintained a strong focus on capturing their personal experiences through their art, and this can reveal a lot about their lives. For example, let's take a look at some paintings by Paul Gauguin. Notice anything particular about them? How about the predominant Polynesian themes? In 1891, Gauguin traveled to Tahiti, then a colony of France, returning several times and eventually moving to Polynesia permanently.

Painting of a village scene by Gauguin
Painting of village scene by Gauguin

Not only did the local art and traditions of Tahiti have a tremendous role on Gauguin's art, Polynesian culture greatly influenced his perceptions of the world. Within his paintings, we see a warm world that reflects a sense of belonging which Gauguin never felt in Paris. To him, French society was cold and isolating but in Tahiti, he was inspired, welcomed, and supported by an affectionate community. After moving to Tahiti permanently, Guaguin's paintings changed to accommodate French colonial and Tahitian tastes, including more religious symbols, indicating that he was moving further away from Parisian culture. This sense of belonging is also reflected in the titles of his paintings, which were in Tahitian, not French. So, Gauguin's paintings show one way that Post-Impressionist artists put their own experiences into their artwork.

Psychology of the Artist

Landscape painting by Cezanne

Another way, perhaps even more telling, was by using their art to display their emotions, fears, or mental states. Here's a quick example. This is a painting completed by Paul Cézanne around 1887. And this is one of Cézanne's later paintings from around 1901, after his health and finances turned worse and the end of his life drew near. The painting is not meant to be a historical or symbolic subject, but a way for him to deal with the inevitability of death.

Painting of skulls by Cezanne

Cézanne was far from the only Post-Impressionist to do this. This is The Scream by Edvard Munch. Theories of the subject range from insanity to the destruction of the natural environment, but we can clearly get a sense of Munch's mind here.

The painter Odilon Redon described his paintings as an exploration of his personal psyche. This one must have been painted on a good day.

The Scream, by Munch

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