Art Movements in Art History - Postimpressionism
Art Movements > Postimpressionism > Postimpressionism in France
Postimpressionism in France*
Four important artists have come to be regarded as the most significant of the
Postimpressionist painters. They are:
Paul Cezanne 1839-1906
Vincent van Gogh 1853-1890
Paul Gauguin 1848-1903
Georges Seurat 1859-1891
Whether these artists have anything more in common than the fact that they made their
major artistic contributions after Impressionism had lost its cohesion as a movement is an
important issue to consider.
Firstly, it must be noted that both Cezanne and Gauguin exhibited vvith the
Impressionists; Cezanne in 1874 and 1877, and Gauguin in 1879, 1880, 1881, 1882 and 1886.
Van Gogh arrived in Paris in 1886, the year of the last Impressionist show. He quickly
absorbed the objectives of Impressionism and, like Gauguin and Cezanne, had an Impressionist
period in his oeuvre.
Seurat, who was 20 years younger than Cezanne, had a rather different background to
the other three artists. They all had little formal tuition and learnt from the masters in
museums, from their friends, and from the experience of painting in situ. Seurat studied at
the Ecole des Beaux Arts where he was exposed to the full programme of academic study of
antique art, Raphael, Poussin and Ingres. And whereas Seurat decided in his youth to make
art his career and was able to embark on its study, Cezanne first attempted to gratify his
father's wish that he become a banker. He only won reluctant permission to turn his
attention to art when he failed to show any promise as a financier. Van Gogh failed as an art
dealer, teacher and missionary before devoting himself totally to art. Gauguin was a
successful stockbroker who took up painting as a hobby and then renounced his career and
bourgeois life style to immerse himself in art.
This disparate group of artists knew of one another but were never close associates,
with the exception of Gauguin and Van Gogh. The four did not even work in Paris at the same
time. Gauguin moved between Paris, Britanny and Tahiti; Van Gogh went from Holland to
Belgium to France, lived in Paris, and then settled in Arles before ending his days in Auvers;
Cezanne became a recluse in Aix-en-Provence and rarely ventured to Paris; and Seurat lived
and worked in the French capital. It does seem as if the four artists had little in common in
their environmental stimuli or life style.
Furthermore, once we begin to study the art of these four painters in order to determine
whether the term "Postimpressionism" serves any useful stylistic function, we again
encounter dissimilarities rather than shared characteristics, and diversity in their methods,
theories and objectives. In order to establish any relevance in the Postimpressionist label,
therefore, we must examine Impressionism and determine to what extent these later artists
rejected, accepted, modified or developed Impressionist ideas. Herein may lie responses and
convictions shared by Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat.
The following are some of the important differences between Impressionism and
(1) The Impressionists were concerned with retinal experience, empirical data and with
depicting what they saw. The Postimpressionists used perceptual experience as source
material for transformation by memory, imagination and intellect.
(2) The Impressionists rendered their percepts as objectively as possible. The Postimpres-
sionists translated their objective visual experience of the exterior world into subjective
statements about a personalised and interiorised world.
(3) The Impressionists were concerned with fleeting moments of specific time and their
methods of rendering the ephemeral were fairly similar. The Postimpressionists were
not interested in the temporality of the real world. Both their visual expressions of time
and their attitudes to universal and enduring phenomena were personal.
(4) The Impressionists worked within the conventions of spatial illusionism which had been
developed during the Renaissance (linear and aerial perspective), although the painted
surface gained increasing autonomy. The Postimpressionists rejected the conventions of
illusionism and sought a pictorial logic which was not defined by the spectator's
physical existence at one point in time and space. The particular anti-illusionistic
devices adopted by each Postimpressionist differed.
(5) The Impressionists produced pictures which were "slices of life". The Postimpressio-
nists produced paintings which were autonomous objects and proclaimed their identity
as vertical surfaces covered with coloured pigment. The formal elements which define
the identity of painting were acknowledged and manipulated, and these added
complexity to the pictorial content.
These very broad generalisations do not cover all. the issues that could be investigated
and should be regarded only as guidelines for an initial consideration of the nature of
Postimpressionism. They depend on the assumption that Impressionism can be defined as a
cohesive movement with theoretical unity and shared principles -- and this is, of course, a
matter of contention.
What is undoubtedly true is that Impressionism provided the impetus for Postimpres-
sionism. Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat capitalised on the achievements of the
earlier movement: its contemporaneity, concern with the modern world, iconoclasm and technical audacity. The Postimpressionists rejected some Impressionist tenets and
developed others; they drew upon conventions of earlier historical periods and from other
cultures; but they were also influenced greatly by their own society with its complex and
ever-growing body of philosophical and scientific knowledge.
Some stylistic similarities between the four major Postimpressionists do exist --
depending on how one defines style. But it is the attitude of late 19th century painters to
creation and the functions of art which is probably the most fruitful area in which to seek
correspondences and connections between these artists.
Any attempt to come to terms with the nature of Postimpressionism requires some
consideration of the critical responses of the period. In the second half of the 19th century
there were a number of perceptive critics who became theorists and apologists for avant
garde painters. Zola and Baudelaire, inter alia, helped to promote Impressionst art, while
Felix Feneon, G-Albert Aurier and Maurice Denis helped to explain the ideas and motivations
of the Postimpressionists. Some of these critical writings may seem obscure and clumsily
expressed when read today; with the passing of time, issues become clearer. But the courage
of writers who were prepared to respond intelligently to the art of their epoch should not be
* Drawn from notes compiled by M. Arnold for the University of South Africa