Post-Impressionism: Between Impressionism & Modernism

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  • 0:01 Reaction to Impressionism
  • 1:31 Post-Impressionism Trends
  • 4:42 Post-Impressionist Artists
  • 6:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

Expert Contributor
Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for six years.

In this lesson, we will explore Post-Impressionism, which was an artistic reaction to the Impressionist movement that swept the art world in the 1870s and 1880s. We will focus on the characteristics and artists of Post-Impressionism.

A Reaction to Impressionism

Impressionism was all the rage in France in the late 1870s and 1880s. This artistic movement focused on capturing the effects of light and fleeting moments in time in vibrant colors and short, quick brushstrokes. Soon, however, some artists grew tired of Impressionist ideas and techniques and began to strike out in new ways, reacting against Impressionism and experimenting with new methods and styles. The result was Post-Impressionism.

Post-Impressionism was never an organized, uniform movement. Independent artists, including Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Vincent van Gogh, simply decided to leave Impressionism behind and follow their own artistic directions. These artists did not consider themselves a group, and in some cases, they actually quite despised each other and each other's artistic innovations. What joined them together was their dissatisfaction with Impressionism and their desire to create something new in the art world.

The term 'Post-Impressionism' was never actually used until 1910 when art critic Roger Fry opened an exhibition at London's Grafton Galleries that featured works from several reactionary artists. He called his exhibit Manet and the Post-Impressionists, and the label stuck.

Post-Impressionism Trends

As we look back from the modern vantage point, we can identify several trends that characterize Post-Impressionism. While Impressionists concentrated on light and color within nature, Post-Impressionists tended to pay more attention to emotional expression, symbolism, geometric structure, and artistic subjectivity. Let's look at a few of the styles that Post-Impressionist artists explored and applied.

First, some Post-Impressionist artists played with pointillism, a technique that involved placing tiny dots of color side by side on a canvas. From a distance, viewers could see these little dots as an optical blend of color, but close up, they were merely little dabs of paint. Pointillism proved to be an interesting and quite successful experiment in optics and colors, and viewers are still amazed at how a bunch of little paint dots can come together to form intricate pictures.

Second, many Post-Impressionists were devoted to symbolism. Instead of merely capturing moments in time like the Impressionists did, Post-Impressionists looked for deep meanings in their subjects and tried to express these meanings in their paintings. In other words, a building in a Post-Impressionist work might not be merely a building but might stand as a symbol of modern progress.

Third, many Post-Impressionists believed that works of art ought to blend three primary elements: the outward appearance of the subject, the artist's emotional reaction to the subject, and artistic choices of color, form, and line. This theory is known as synthetism because artists synthesized, or incorporated, their own emotional expressions into their art.

Fourth, some Post-Impressionists placed even greater emphasis on emotion in art. The artist's feelings took center stage and were vigorously conveyed by intense colors and brushstrokes. Sometimes, the subject's form was even distorted and its natural colors altered to show more vividly the artist's emotional response to the subject.

Fifth, a few Post-Impressionists took emotion one step further and entered into the realms of mysticism and spirituality. Calling themselves 'Les Nabis' (the Hebrew word for prophets), these artists attempted to express their inner spirituality and even mystical experiences in their art through blocks of vibrant color and stylized lines that revealed more of the artist's inner state than the reality of the subject.

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Additional Activities

Post-Impressionism Activities

This lesson introduced you to the nebulous art movement known as post-impressionism. Use the following activities to explore this concept further.

Deep Dive

You have now read a little about several post-impressionist artists including Cezanne, Seurat, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Choose one of these artists and do your own research on his life. What inspired him to create? What were his most famous pieces? What kind of life did he lead? Write a short biography of your chosen artist. You can also do research into post-impressionist artists not listed in this lesson. Think outside the box!

Retroactive Label

As this lesson explained, the term ''post-impressionism'' was applied to a number of artists many years after they produced their works. The same retroactive labeling is true of the metaphysical poets and, to some extent, of existentialist philosophers. Consider why this label was created for the post-impressionists and what impact that has on the artistic canon and our view of history. Write a journal entry explaining your thoughts, with reference to other retroactively labeled groups if you wish.

Create Your Own

One of the best ways to get inside the minds of the post-impressionists is to create your own post-impressionist art. You can try imitating the style of a famous artist, or else employ a technique like pointillism. You can also create a brand new kind of artwork, provided you keep the six main trends of post-impressionism in mind while you work and try to incorporate at least one of them into your art. Consider how the act of artistic creation changes your view of the post-impressionists and what they were aiming to achieve.

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