Just a dozen years after the debut of Impressionism, the art critic Félix Fénéon christened Georges Seurat as the leader of a new group of “Neo-Impressionists.” He did not mean to suggest the revival of a defunct style — Impressionism was still going strong in the mid-1880s — but rather a significant modification of Impressionist techniques that demanded a new label.
Fénéon identified greater scientific rigor as the key difference between Neo-Impressionism and its predecessor. Where the Impressionists were “arbitrary” in their techniques, the Neo-Impressionists had developed a “conscious and scientific” method through a careful study of contemporary color theorists such as Michel Chevreul and Ogden Rood.
Post-Impressionism was born out of crisis, when various painters began to feel that the Impressionist emphasis on light and spontaneity had come at the expense of more traditional formal elements. Pierre-Auguste Renoir expressed this concern when he stated: “I had rung Impressionism dry, and I finally came to the conclusion that I neither knew how to paint nor how to draw. In a word, impressionism was a blind
alley, as far as I was concerned.”
Post-Impressionism places an emphasis on the formalism that Impressionism was perceived to lack, including the expressive qualities of line, pattern, form and color.
Post-Impressionist paintings, especially those by Gauguin and van Gogh, can exhibit a search for the pure and the spiritual, at times moving away from a focus on modernity to more simple, natural and traditional subjects.
Symbolist artists sought to make art a more subjective and emotional experience rather than a realistic experience; in order to achieve this, they focused on subject matter centered upon symbolism, the irrational and the mythological.
Their work is often perceived to capture the angst associated with Modernity and the
end of the 19th century.
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Seurat
This greater scientific rigor is immediately visible if we compare Seurat’s Neo-Impressionist Grande Jatte with Renoir’s Impressionist Moulin de la Galette. The subject matter is similar: an outdoor scene of people at leisure, lounging in a park by a river or dancing and drinking on a café terrace. The overall goal is similar as well. Both artists are trying to capture the effect of dappled light on a sunny afternoon. However, Renoir’s scene appears to have been composed and painted spontaneously, with the figures captured in mid-gesture. Renoir’s loose, painterly technique reinforces this effect, giving the impression that the scene was painted quickly, before the light changed.
By contrast, the figures in La Grande Jatte are preternaturally still, and the brushwork has also been systematized into a painstaking mosaic of tiny dots and dashes, unlike Renoir’s haphazard strokes and smears. Neo-Impressionist painters employed rules and a method, unlike the Impressionists, who tended to rely on “instinct and the inspiration of the moment.”
One of these rules was to use only the “pure” colors of the spectrum: violet, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. These colors could be mixed only with white or with a color adjacent on the color wheel (called “analogous colors”), for example to make lighter, yellower greens or darker, redder violets. Above all, the Neo-Impressionists would not mix colors opposite on the color wheel (“complementary colors”), because doing so results in muddy browns and dull grays.
More subtle color variations were produced by “optical mixture” rather than mixing paint on the palette. For example, examine the grass in the sun. Seurat intersperses the overall field of yellow greens with flecks of warm cream, olive greens, and yellow ochre (actually discolored chrome yellow). Viewed from a distance, these flecks blend together to help lighten and warm the green, as we would expect when grass is struck by the yellow-orange light of the afternoon sun. It was this technique of painting in tiny dots (“points” in French) that gave Neo-Impressionism the popular nickname”Pointillism” although the artists generally avoided that term since it suggested a stylistic gimmick.
For the grass in the shadows, Seurat uses darker greens intermixed with flecks of pure blue and even some orange and maroon. These are very unexpected colors for grass, but when we stand back the colors blend optically, resulting in a cooler, darker, and duller green in the shadows. This green is, however, more vibrant than if Seurat had mixed those colors on the palette and applied them in a uniform swath.
Similarly, look at the number of colors that make up the little girl’s legs! They include not only the expected pinks and oranges of Caucasian flesh, but also creams, blues, maroons, and even greens. Stand back again, though, and “optical mixture” blends them into a convincing and luminous flesh color, modeled in warm light and shaded by her white dress. (For more technical information on this topic, see Neo-Impressionist color theory).
The Neo-Impressionists also applied scientific rigor to composition and design. Seurat’s friend and fellow painter Paul Signac asserted,
The Neo-Impressionist … will not begin a canvas before he has determined the layout … Guided by tradition and science, he will … adopt the lines (directions and angles), the chiaroscuro (tones), [and] the colors (tints) to the expression he wishes to make dominant.
Numerous studies for La Grande Jatte testify to how carefully Seurat decided on each figure’s pose and arranged them to create a rhythmic recession into the background. This practice is very different from the Impressionists, who emphasized momentary views (impressions) by creating intentionally haphazard-seeming compositions, such as Renoir’s Moulin de la Galette.
"Some say they see poetry in my paintings, I see only science." We're in the Art Institute of Chicago, and we're looking at Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat. And that was a quote by Seurat, whose ambition was to bring science to the methods of impressionism. What's interesting is that the science that he was thinking about has been, to some extent, overturned and we were left with the poetry. The science that he was referring to had to do with ways of making the painting seem more luminous, to seem brighter. And I have to say, he has really succeeded.
This is a painting that is brilliantly luminous, and incredibly complex when it comes to colour. So he has taken the earlier traditions of impressionists and he's imposing on them the science of vision. And especially the science of colour, that had been developed by Chevreui and Rood. He was interested in this idea of dividing colour into its components. That is, instead of trying to find the perfect purple, which is really hard to do. You mean, when you mix it on your palette. Well, that's right. And the reason is when you take, say, a blue and a red, and you mix them together, that red is not pure red. It's got lots of other things in it. The blue is not pure, so when you mix them together it gets too muddy. So how do you get a pure purple that you might see in nature? Well, Seurat's solution was to take the red, take the blue and put them next to each other. So that as your eye receives that light, the light waves do the mixing themselves. Right, and this is called the optical mixture. And this is really a change from academic technique of finding that local colour of an object, mixing it on your palette and then applying it. And if you think back to the impressionist project, what the impressionists sought after was to really create a sense of outdoor light. And I think using this divisionist method, this idea of optical mixture, Seurat really did that in the Grande Jatte.
We have a real sense of Parisians outside on a sunny day, and a real strong sense of sunlight streaming through the trees. So clearly there's this bridge back to impressionism, and in fact, the artist uses the term neo-impressionism when he describes the kind of painting that he was doing. And yet, this is also so far away from impressionism. It's got the leisure of the impressionist painting; it's got the outside. But this is not a painting that was painted plein air. This was not done directly before the subjects. He did do small sketches. Actually dozens of drawings, and oil sketches outside, that's right. But then he goes back to the studio, and makes this very composed very carefully structured painting. In fact, he said that he wanted his figures to have a kind of a solemnity that was found in the sculptures of the Friars of the Parthenon.
Right, so he's really wanting to bring a sense of timelessness and classicism to the art of impressionism. And also, as you said, a sense of thoughtfulness, of composing, of not doing something spontaneous. The figures are remarkably structured within this space. And the space itself is also remarkably organized. There's much more of an illusion of space, then we would ever get in an impressionist painting. Well, almost going back to the classical tradition of landscape painting of Claude or of Poussin who have alternating shadow and light which steps us back slowly into space. And we also have a receding diagonal line that creates an illusion of space. And yet at the same time, this is a painting, because of its technique, that really draws our eye to the surface of the canvas. So this is really interesting tension that exists between this depictorial space and the very obvious heavily worked surface. Let's go up really close and take a look.
So I'm looking at the lower left corner of the painting. And I'm looking at the man who is smoking a pipe, leaning on his back. Take a close look at the way that his body is defined. You can see some of the earlier painting. I see blues; I see reds; and I see yellows. All fairly long strokes. But then I also see painted over that little points of colour: of pinks and of blues as well, that Seurat actually added a bit later. And you can see that, especially in the shadows and the highlights, at the top and the bottom where Seurat, in a sense, creates a kind of a volume. And as we are looking at all of these different brush strokes that are layered one on the other. I'm also noticing how the figure has really clear contours, which is something that we don't see in impressionism. So we have sense of line here, and a form defined by line, and even modelling.
So the figure really seems three dimensional. We know that we are in the North West of Paris, in a place that was frequented by the middle and upper classes for leisure. We know that the other side of the river was frequented more by working class figures. And so there's this question of what Seurat is saying about class in Paris in the 19th century. And here, art historians really disagree. And it's in part because there's a lot of ambiguity. The ambiguity of class was an issue of his moment, of his time. Class was enormously important, and had always been in French society absolutely clear, but the city has had a way of now mixing classes and this was a modern phenomenon. There was a way that clothing and fashion now blurred class distinctions that were more clear before. One of the things that Seurat is doing is he's confounding the expectations of a typical viewer in the end of the 19th century. So where someone would expect to see a narrative or a pretty story that was easily readable between the figures, a sense of sentiment or emotion. Seurat is not giving us that.
We have figures who don't talk to each other, don't interact; we don't have a sense of a clear narrative. It just doesn't do what 19th century viewers wanted paintings to do. So this painting was a challenge, not only for that typical viewer that you spoke of, but for the art community as well. When this painting was first exhibited in the 1886 it caused a real stir. Artists divided into camps supporting it or detracting from it. Well, it was so different than anything anyone was doing. I mean, it exploded what the most advanced art of the time was. At that point in 1884,1886 the most advanced art was impressionist technique of open brush work, open contours, paintings painted onsite, outside on plein air with a sense of spontaneity capturing outdoor light. Seurat took all that and turned it on its head and created something really serious, and monumental, and classical, and thoughtful; and everyone had to come to terms with it.
The Neo-Impressionists also attempted to systematize the emotional qualities conveyed by their paintings. Seurat defined three main expressive tools at the painter’s disposal: color (the hues of the spectrum, from warm to cool), tone (the value of those colors, from light to dark), and line (horizontal, vertical, ascending, or descending). Each has a specific emotional effect:
Gaiety of tone is given by the dominance of light; of color, by the dominance of warmth; of line, by lines above the horizontal. Calmness of tone is given by an equivalence of light and dark; of color by an equivalence of warm and cold; and of line, by horizontals. Sadness of tone is given by the dominance of dark; of color, by the dominance of cold colors; and of line, by downward directions.
Questions to Consider
- How does Post-Impressionism (or neo-impressionism) build on impressionist approaches to visual art?
- How is light an important feature in Seurat's work?
The Starry Night, Van Gogh
The curving, swirling lines of hills, mountains, and sky, the brilliantly contrasting blues and yellows, the large, flame-like cypress trees, and the thickly layered brushstrokes of Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night are ingrained in the minds of many as an expression of the artist’s turbulent state-of-mind. Van Gogh’s canvas is indeed an exceptional work of art, not only in terms of its quality but also within the artist’s oeuvre, since in comparison to favored subjects like irises, sunflowers, or wheat fields, night landscapes are rare. Nevertheless, it is surprising that The Starry Night has become so well known. Van Gogh mentioned it briefly in his letters as a simple “study of night” or ”night effect.”
His brother Theo, manager of a Parisian art gallery and a gifted connoisseur of contemporary art, was unimpressed, telling Vincent, “I clearly sense what preoccupies you in the new canvases like the village in the moonlight… but I feel that the search for style takes away the real sentiment of things” (813, 22 October 1889). Although Theo van Gogh felt that the painting ultimately pushed style too far at the expense of true emotive substance, the work has become iconic of individualized expression in modern landscape painting.
We're on the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art looking at probably their most famous painting, Vincent van Gogh's "Starry Night." This is something that van Gogh had been interested in before he painted this particular painting. He did another version of a night sky, which is very different. In the foreground, we see the giant undulating form of a cypress tree. And we don't see the bottom of that cypress tree. It's cut off at the bottom edge of the frame, and so we get the sense that it must be close to us. The sky takes up almost three quarters of the canvas and it reminds me of the great Dutch landscapes of the 17th century, of artists like Ruisdael, who was interested in the movements of clouds through the sky and the play of light there. But of course this is night, the only light is from the moon and from the stars.
And we're looking down past that cypress into a valley where we see some small cottages and a church very prominently centrally placed with a steeple that just breaks the horizon line formed by those mountains. And the village seems very humble but also embraced by the mountains behind it and that cypress in front. There's a band of lighter yellows and blues just above the hills, further protecting that landscape below. It feels protected to me at the same time that there's all this turmoil in the sky that we see in these circular brushstrokes.
The brushwork has tremendous energy. One stroke follows another, linking to create these streams of energy through the sky. And although the paint is somewhat thick in certain areas, we can also see the canvas in certain areas. And so it is not that heavily painted, but nevertheless there was a kind of energy and velocity, a kind of dynamism as those clouds roll through the sky. And I think that dynamism, that energy that's in the brush work in the clouds or forms that swirl through the sky, the way that the moon emits a pulsing light, and even the stars and planets emit that brighter light than they do in reality, that for me, contrasts with the tranquility of the village below that's nestled in that valley. There is a sense of a presence of activity in the sky, which we associate with the heavens and the divine as though those things were alive and somehow protecting the village underneath, at least that's one way that I read this painting sometimes. And some art historians have looked then at the cypress, a tree that symbolizes death, in part because it's often found in cemeteries. This a kind of linking of the earthly and the heavenly with that cypress, that undulates almost like fire. And is mimicked by the steeple of the church in the valley. So that there's this pairing where tree and the steeple are both reaching up to the heaven.
Van Gogh like other artists of the 1870s and '80s is thinking about complimentary colors. He's thinking about blues and yellows and oranges, and how colors can intensify one another, and work together to communicate ideas and feelings. And this is definitely not a landscape that van Gogh saw. This is something constructed from memory and from his imagination. But think about how brave this painting is, to do something with brushwork this visible, this sketchy, this energized. I would say this divorced from what he would have seen. There's an abstraction of form here that the artist is comfortable with which is absolutely radical. And if you think about so much of his work, it is images of what he could see and that he went out specifically to paint. But here this incredible bravery to do something based on his emotions, his memories, his experiences and his imagination.
In 1889, van Gogh was in an asylum in Saint-Remy in Southern France, what had once been a monastery, and van Gogh actually had a view out his window that was relatively close to this, but there is no church there. There is no village there. Van Gogh is in this asylum because he suffered a series of breakdowns. He suffered from mental illness for much of his life, although it got worse after a fight with his fellow painter Gauguin, when he cut his ear. Van Gogh was encouraged to paint at the asylum, and was given a studio space where he had no view at all, and where this was likely painted. So this was not painted en plein air. This was not painted out of doors. What a journey this painting has taken from that room in Saint-Remy to the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art, reproduced around the world recognized by people everywhere. It's a fate that I don't think the artist could have ever imagined.
Van Gogh had had the subject of a blue night sky dotted with yellow stars in mind for many months before he painted The Starry Night in late June or early July of 1889. It presented a few technical challenges he wished to confront—namely the use of contrasting color and the complications of painting en plein air (outdoors) at night—and he referenced it repeatedly in letters to family and friends as a promising if problematic theme. “A starry sky, for example, well – it’s a thing that I’d like to try to do,” Van Gogh confessed to the painter Emile Bernard in the spring of 1888, “but how to arrive at that unless I decide to work at home and from the imagination?” (596, 12 April 1888).
As an artist devoted to working whenever possible from prints and illustrations or outside in front of the landscape he was depicting, the idea of painting an invented scene from imagination troubled Van Gogh. When he did paint a first example of the full night sky in Starry Night over the Rhône (1888, oil on canvas, 72.5 x 92 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), an image of the French city of Arles at night, the work was completed outdoors with the help of gas lamplight, but evidence suggests that his second Starry Night was created largely if not exclusively in the studio.
Questions to Consider
- What features of Van Gogh's work link it to impressionism or post-impressionism?
- How does the journey of this painting, from its production in an asylum to its privileged position amongst art in galleries today, affect the way you interpret its meaning?
Following the dramatic end to his short-lived collaboration with the painter Paul Gauguin in Arles in 1888 and the infamous breakdown during which he mutilated part of his own ear, Van Gogh was ultimately hospitalized at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, an asylum and clinic for the mentally ill near the village of Saint-Rémy. During his convalescence there, Van Gogh was encouraged to paint, though he rarely ventured more than a few hundred yards from the asylum’s walls.
Besides his private room, from which he had a sweeping view of the mountain range of the Alpilles, he was also given a small studio for painting. Since this room did not look out upon the mountains but rather had a view of the asylum’s garden, it is assumed that Van Gogh composed The Starry Night using elements of a few previously completed works still stored in his studio, as well as aspects from imagination and memory. It has even been argued that the church’s spire in the village is somehow more Dutch in character and must have been painted as an amalgamation of several different church spires that van Gogh had depicted years earlier while living in the Netherlands.
Van Gogh also understood the painting to be an exercise in deliberate stylization, telling his brother, “These are exaggerations from the point of view of arrangement, their lines are contorted like those of ancient woodcuts” (805, c. 20 September 1889). Similar to his friends Bernard and Gauguin, van Gogh was experimenting with a style inspired in part by medieval woodcuts, with their thick outlines and simplified forms.
On the other hand, The Starry Night evidences Van Gogh’s extended observation of the night sky. After leaving Paris for more rural areas in southern France, Van Gogh was able to spend hours contemplating the stars without interference from gas or electric city street lights, which were increasingly in use by the late nineteenth century. “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big” 777, c. 31 May – 6 June 1889). As he wrote to his sister Willemien van Gogh from Arles,
It often seems to me that the night is even more richly colored than the day, colored with the most intense violets, blues and greens. If you look carefully, you’ll see that some stars are lemony, others have a pink, green, forget-me-not blue glow. And without laboring the point, it’s clear to paint a starry sky it’s not nearly enough to put white spots on blue-black. (678, 14 September 1888)
Van Gogh followed his own advice, and his canvas demonstrates the wide variety of colors he perceived on clear nights.
Arguably, it is this rich mixture of invention, remembrance, and observation combined with Van Gogh’s use of simplified forms, thick impasto, and boldly contrasting colors that has made the work so compelling to subsequent generations of viewers as well as to other artists. Inspiring and encouraging others is precisely what Van Gogh sought to achieve with his night scenes. When Starry Night over the Rhône was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants, an important and influential venue for vanguard artists in Paris, in 1889, Vincent told Theo he hoped that it “might give others the idea of doing night effects better than I do.” The Starry Night, his own subsequent “night effect,” became a foundational image for Expressionism as well as perhaps the most famous painting in Van Gogh’s oeuvre.
Symbolism is perhaps easiest to recognize in artworks that present known symbols, such as the Christian cross, or overtly symbolic meanings through recognizable themes such as youth, old age, love, death, etc. In addition to Denis’ Climbing to Calvary, many well-known Post-Impressionist works use conventional symbolism in this way, including Gauguin’s Vision after the Sermon. Symbolism was also, however, associated with both a conception of art as subjective expression and the capacity of art to suggest profound meanings indirectly. As a result, many artworks that lack obvious symbols or clear symbolic significance are also associated with Symbolism.
The Scream, Munch
Second only to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Edvard Munch’s The Scream may be the most iconic human figure in the history of Western art. Its androgynous, skull-shaped head, elongated hands, wide eyes, flaring nostrils and ovoid mouth have been engrained in our collective cultural consciousness; the swirling blue landscape and especially the fiery orange and yellow sky have engendered numerous theories regarding the scene that is depicted. Like the Mona Lisa, The Scream has been the target of dramatic thefts and recoveries, and in 2012 a version created with pastel on cardboard sold to a private collector for nearly $120,000,000 making it the second highest price achieved at that time by a painting at auction.
Conceived as part of Munch’s semi-autobiographical cycle “The Frieze of Life,” The Scream’s composition exists in four forms: the first painting, done in oil, tempera, and pastel on cardboard (1893, National Gallery of Art, Oslo), two pastel examples (1893, Munch Museum, Oslo and 1895, private collection), and a final tempera painting (1910, National Gallery of Art, Oslo). Munch also created a lithographic version in 1895. The various renditions show the artist’s creativity and his interest in experimenting with the possibilities to be obtained across an array of media, while the work’s subject matter fits with Munch’s interest at the time in themes of relationships, life, death, and dread.
For all its notoriety, The Scream is in fact a surprisingly simple work, in which the artist utilized a minimum of forms to achieve maximum expressiveness. It consists of three main areas: the bridge, which extends at a steep angle from the middle distance at the left to fill the foreground; a landscape of shoreline, lake or fjord, and hills; and the sky, which is activated with curving lines in tones of orange, yellow, red, and blue-green. Foreground and background blend into one another, and the lyrical lines of the hills ripple through the sky as well. The human figures are starkly separated from this landscape by the bridge. Its strict linearity provides a contrast with the shapes of the landscape and the sky. The two faceless upright figures in the background belong to the geometric precision of the bridge, while the lines of the foreground figure’s body, hands, and head take up the same curving shapes that dominate the background landscape.
The screaming figure is thus linked through these formal means to the natural realm, which was apparently Munch’s intention. A passage in Munch’s diary dated January 22, 1892, and written in Nice, contains the probable inspiration for this scene as the artist remembered it:
I was walking along the road with two friends—the sun went down—I felt a gust of melancholy—suddenly the sky turned a bloody red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, tired to death—as the flaming skies hung like blood and sword over the blue-black fjord and the city—My friends went on—I stood there trembling with anxiety—and I felt a vast infinite scream [tear] through nature.
The figure on the bridge—who may even be symbolic of Munch himself—feels the cry of nature, a sound that is sensed internally rather than heard with the ears. Yet, how can this sensation be conveyed in visual terms?
Munch’s approach to the experience of synesthesia, or the union of senses (for example the belief that one might taste a color or smell a musical note), results in the visual depiction of sound and emotion. As such, The Scream represents a key work for the Symbolist movement as well as an important inspiration for the Expressionist movement of the early twentieth century. Symbolist artists of diverse international backgrounds confronted questions regarding the nature of subjectivity and its visual depiction. As Munch himself put it succinctly in a notebook entry on subjective vision written in 1889, “It is not the chair which is to be painted but what the human being has felt in relation to it.”
Since The Scream’s first appearance, many critics and scholars have attempted to determine the exact scene depicted, as well as inspirations for the screaming figure. For example, it has been asserted that the unnaturally harsh colors of the sky may have been due to volcanic dust from the eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia, which produced spectacular sunsets around the world for months afterwards. This event occurred in 1883, ten years before Munch painted the first version of The Scream. However, as Munch’s journal entry—written in the south of France but recalling an evening by Norway’s fjords also demonstrates—The Scream is a work of remembered sensation rather than perceived reality. Art historians have also noted the figure’s resemblance to a Peruvian mummy that had been exhibited at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889 (an artifact that also inspired the Symbolist painter Paul Gauguin) or to another mummy displayed in Florence. While such events and objects are visually plausible, the work’s effect on the viewer does not depend on one’s familiarity with a precise list of historical, naturalistic, or formal sources. Rather, Munch sought to express internal emotions through external forms and thereby provide a visual image for a universal human experience.