Key Dates: 1880-1920
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Post-Impressionism in Western painting, movement in France that represented both an extension of Impressionism and a rejection of that style’s inherent limitations. The term Post-Impressionism was coined by the English art critic Roger Fry for the work of such late 19th-century painters as Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and others. All of these painters except van Gogh were French, and most of them began as Impressionists; each of them abandoned the style, however, to form his own highly personal art. Impressionism was based, in its strictest sense, on the objective recording of nature in terms of the fugitive effects of colour and light. The Post-Impressionists rejected this limited aim in favour of more ambitious expression, admitting their debt, however, to the pure, brilliant colours of Impressionism, its freedom from traditional subject matter, and its technique of defining form with short brushstrokes of broken colour. The work of these painters formed a basis for several contemporary trends and for early 20th-century modernism.
The Post-Impressionists often exhibited together, but, unlike the Impressionists, who began as a close-knit, convivial group, they painted mainly alone. Cézanne painted in isolation at Aix-en-Provence in southern France; his solitude was matched by that of Paul Gauguin, who in 1891 took up residence in Tahiti, and of van Gogh, who painted in the countryside at Arles. Both Gauguin and van Gogh rejected the indifferent objectivity of Impressionism in favour of a more personal, spiritual expression. After exhibiting with the Impressionists in 1886, Gauguin renounced “the abominable error of naturalism.” With the young painter Émile Bernard, Gauguin sought a simpler truth and purer aesthetic in art; turning away from the sophisticated, urban art world of Paris, he instead looked for inspiration in rural communities with more traditional values. Copying the pure, flat colour, heavy outline, and decorative quality of medieval stained glass and manuscript illumination, the two artists explored the expressive potential of pure colour and line, Gauguin especially using exotic and sensuous colour harmonies to create poetic images of the Tahitians among whom he would eventually live. Arriving in Paris in 1886, the Dutch painter van Gogh quickly adapted Impressionist techniques and colour to express his acutely felt emotions. He transformed the contrasting short brushstrokes of Impressionism into curving, vibrant lines of colour, exaggerated even beyond Impressionist brilliance, that convey his emotionally charged and ecstatic responses to the natural landscape.
In general, Post-Impressionism led away from a naturalistic approach and toward the two major movements of early 20th-century art that superseded it: Cubism and Fauvism, which sought to evoke emotion through colour and line.