Art Movements in Art History - Postimpressionism
Art Movements > Postimpressionism > Post-impressionist Artists
Post-impressionist Artists *
Although Seurat is known as a Postimpressionist, he was an exponent of Neoimpressionism,
his own particular attempt to redefine Impressionism. He shared with the Impressionists a
desire to represent perceptual information, but he wished to achieve this in a scientific and
rational manner rather than depend wholly on the sensitivity of the eye to discern
differences in hue and tonality.
The term "Neoimpressionism" was conferred on Seurat and his followers by the critic
Felix Feneon; Seurat himself called his method Divisionism because he divided his colours.
He applied his colours in small dots or pointilles.
Seurat's primary aim was to depict the dazzle of light and shade and intense luminosity.
His efforts were influenced by the prevailing scientific climate and by available publications.
It had been shown that colour was created when light was fractured prismatically. Colour
formed by light - spectral colour - is called additive colour, while colour made by pigment
is termed subtractive colour. Additive colour was the subject of a number of 19th century
Seurat familiarised himself with these treatises on the laws of optics. He believed that
painting, the art of manipulating coloured pigment, could become as scientific as the
enquiries of the physicists. The basis of his objectives was the belief that divided colour
would be reconstituted in the eye of the beholder (retinal mixing) and the divided colour
would achieve a luminosity superior to that obtainable by palette mixing. Like many
complicated theories, a distorted and simplified version reached the public and has been
perpetuated in general books, which should be read extremely critically.
It is important to note that Seurat did NOT use only the three primary and three
secondary colours. As Homer revealed in his study of Seurat's palette, 11 spectral colours
were used by Seurat and were mixed with each other and with white. Furthermore, Seurat's paintings are NOT intensely coloured. Luminosity is not a synonym for brightness of hue.
Only a large area of relatively flat, saturated colour will proclaim itself with intensity (this
was recognised by the Fauve painters).
Seurat's paintings were constituted of colour broken up into small particles. Each
pointille interacts with its neighbour, causing an optical flicker. The spectator is conscious
of vibrating tone, a shimmering lightness and darkness that is the pictorial equivalent of
light and shade in the environment.
A study of Seurat brings one to consider the role played by science in late 19th century
art, whilst a study of Van Gogh and Gauguin introduces the fact that in contemporary
creative circles there was also a resistance to rationalism and empiricism. It was this that
took shape as the Symbolist movement.
Symbolism was a literary movement conceived "officially" in 1886 when Jean Moreas
published the aims of the new poetry in Le Fiqaro. Symbolism is a term which defies neat
definition; like many movements it was born of a reaction to the prevailing political,
economic and cultural scene of the time. The symbolists rejected the aims of naturalism and
The Symbolist movement was, to some extent, a revolt against the fact that from the
Renaissance onwards Western art had enthroned the belief that objective perception was the
most reliable method of knowing the world. Observed experience was equated with truth.
The central figure in literary symbolism was the poet, Stephane Mallarme. He was
fascinated by the mystery of language and wrote in 1864, "I am inventing a language which
must necessarily spring from a highly novel type of poetics which I might define in two
words. Paint, not the thing, but the effect that it produces."
Van Gogh's use of symbols was very personal. His early work makes use of rather
arbitrary symbols, but in 1888 he left Paris and settled in Arles where he developed a
repertoire of symbols which imbued his subject matter with a complex symbolic content.
The symbols functioned as a metaphorical language, differing greatly from that employed by
the Impressionists in response to their environment. His use of symbols places Van Gogh in
the traditions of allegorical and symbolic iconography which had long given Western art a
particular, philosophical flavour.
Symbols attain their resonance through repeated use (which implies that they have
relevance for the user), and through context. A form which is plausible and naturalistic in
the work of one artist, for example the sun in an Impressionist landscape, assumes symbolic
significance in the work of another painter. The sun became an important symbol for Van
Gogh because he used it often, as a yellow form, a circular form, and in conjunction with
other symbols. Eventually, he used the yellow (associated with the sun as symbol)
independently of its initial origins, and introduced other light sources such as candles,
electric lights and stars.
A symbol develops and shifts its meaning; it is not an arbitrary sign. Therefore the
context in which it is used must be examined carefully. The symbolic significance of form is
sometimes consciously manipulated by an artist, and sometimes he is not fully aware of all
its implications. For this reason, the historian who has the facts about the society of an
artist, and the prevailing climate of ideas, and is informed about the artist's life style and
artistic development, is often better equipped to unravel the innuendos of symbolism than
either the artist or the contemporary critic.
Van Gogh found a need to express more than the overt character of everyday objects.
For him it was necessary to fuse the exterior world ofempirical fact with his interior world
of personal experience. In the resulting synthesis he sought to discover a visual form to
express his being-in-the-world - and to communicate this to the spectator.
He used both form and colour symbolism. He chose specific, concrete forms which arerecognisable, but which stand as signs for non-concrete or abstract or spiritual values; they
signify more than is apparent when they are perceived and identified. This colour symbolism
also originates with the external world -- the colour is associated with the real form but is
gradually intensified and exaggerated. In gaining optical strength, the colour, in
juxtaposition with its neighbouring hues, creates physical and emotional responses in the
spectator whose eyes are subjected to an intense visual stimulus. Eventually, the colour may
be used independently of the object which initially suggested its use.
The implications of Van Gogh's sun are considerable and no definitive interpretation is
possible. In the Parisian landscapes, a light-drenched world is depicted. The sun is not
physically present in these naturalistic renderings of space, but is implied by the clear
colour and cloudless skies. In Arles, the landscape, emerging from winter in 1888, dazzled
Van Gogh. The colours were brilliant and rich, a product of light. This light, emanating from
the sun, was - together with the sun - life giving and a life force.
In real terms, the sun is neither round nor yellow. However, since its radiance cannot be
imitated in pigment, the conventions of a circle and of the colour yellow have long been
accepted as signs for a sun. Van Gogh personalised the sign, loading it with significance so
that it became a symbol. It attained this status because the artists used it in many works,
and in conjunction with colour and objects that demanded interpretation and not merely
In works such as The Sower the sun features prominently as a large, yellow,
textured form, strategically placed and juxtaposed with the sower, the life-creating figure.
Each image reinforces the other and augments the positive, life-enhancing premise of the
imagery. Paradoxically, the antithesis is also suggested. One could compare the role of the
sun in The Sower paintings and that which it assumes in The Reaper images .
Life-death symbolism infiltrates many of Van Gogh's paintings and drawings; the exact
emphasis varies according to the context, the scene into which symbolic images are
introduced, their scale in relation to other components of the composition, and their colour
value. Van Gogh wrote extensively about his responses to percepts and ideas, literature and
life. He detailed his intentions, enthusiasms and hopes for his art. A painter's words are a
useful starting point for an understanding of his pictorial initiatives but must always be
approached with caution and evaluated against the visual product.
In 1890, Gauguin, who was already acquainted with symbolist ideas, "found himself
absorbed into the group of symbolist writers gathered around the editors of the Mercure de
France; he assiduously attended their gatherings in various cafes and restaurants" . Here he clarified his ideas on expressive content.
The literary symbolists and Gauguin were suggesting new systems of communication,
based on a rejection of the idea that Positivism and scientific empiricism were the only way
to apprehend the world. Thus they were receptive to a wide range of alternative modes of
knowledge - the arts of nonliterate societies, mysticism, dream, myth and Eastern
religions. Whilst scientists were proposing that "primitive" peoples were incapable of
copying nature because they were of lower mentality than Europeans (one fallacy supported
by another), Gauguin and his friends recognised that mimesis of the world was not an
objective of the art of "primitive" peoples.
The stylised forms of non-Western cultures were based on the premise that the sign or
symbol was a simplification of complex knowledge. It had a visual relationship to the
percept, but was intentionally distorted for expressive purposes and was rich in allusions
for the culture from which it originated: that is, the context of the image was crucial to its
Gauguin's art cannot be interpreted only in a formal way. He was intensely interested in
anthropology and the culture of French Polynesia, and he wished to use these sources for
paintings which were nevertheless founded on Western aesthetic traditions.
From 1891 to 1903, Gauguin drew upon the myths, superstitions and customs of the
Polynesian people, sometimes misunderstanding them because of an imperfect grasp of
language. He was to give Tahitian titles to a number of important works, and in 1893 began
to write Noa Noa in order to facilitate the French public's understanding of his paintings.
Gauguin's information about Tahiti was augmented in 1892 when he acquired Voyage aux
iles du Grand Ocean by the explorer Jacques Antoine Moerenhout. Gauguin, who found the book a useful source of data about cultural traditions of the past, could not know that it was
not wholly accurate.
Tahiti had been introduced to Christianity with the arrival of Europeans in the 18th
century. Gauguin, who had utilised Christian iconography in his Breton paintings, continued
the practice in Tahiti. An early Tahitian work which features the Christian story in a local
setting is Ia Orana Maria.
Gauguin familiarised himself with the role of the supernatural in Tahitian belief and
gave visual expression to the power of extraterrestrial forces in Manao Tupapau, 1892.
There are important differences between the works Gauguin did during his first and
second Tahitian periods. His vision was initially a romantic one, but gradually he became
more of a realist and less of a romantic. He learnt about Tahitian beliefs, and may even be
regarded as a lay anthropologist, but also continued to draw upon the ontologies of other
doctrines. An interest in "primitive" art was to inspire the Fauves, Cubists and German
Expressionists, but unlike these groups Gauguin had direct experience of the people who
created art from an expressive and conceptual standpoint.
* Drawn from notes compiled by M. Arnold for the University of South Africa