Nothing in art exists in isolation. Any movement results from and is based on the legacy of the preceding tradition. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism are not exceptions – they flow from one another and often overlap. “Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings are investigations of the visible world as it had never before been “seen”. However, these “investigations” lead to different results. While some of the 19th-century masters perform within the common grounds, worldviews and limits of Impressionism, others tend to go beyond. This paper aims to find how far the “four fathers of modern painting”, namely Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, and Georges Seurat, go in pursuing their revolutionary vision of reality.
The validity of the idea that Post-Impressionism had a double nature of both an extension of Impressionism and a rejection of its inherent limitations can be tested in two planes, theoretical and practical. Thus, the literature on the topic can provide a theoretical insight on the issue while particular artworks will illustrate the facts and assumptions. It would be reasonable to start with the definitions. Below is the definition of Impressionism retrieved from Mary Tompkins Lewis’s book Critical Readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism:
For much of the twentieth century French Impressionism was broadly defined as an art of objective, visual truth. Its painters were seen as having worked without past or passion, and without aesthetic consideration or concern for the motifs they captured spontaneously on the canvas. Their painting seemed to be given over to the rapid recording of transient, fleeting nature.
Respectively, the definition of Post-Impressionism is as follows: “Post-Impressionism encompasses a wide range of distinct artistic styles that all share the common motivation of responding to the opticality of the Impressionist movement […] …painting transcended its traditional role as a window onto the world and instead became a window into the artist’s mind and soul”.
In theory, the difference between the movements seems apparent. However, in practice, everything is not that simple. According to Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Impressionism and Post-Impressionism are more complex and more blurred as movements than is generally believed”. Indeed, it is extremely difficult to draw a distinct line that would separate Impressionists from Postimpressionists. In fact, the line appears to be so vague that it transforms into a wavy, smeared line, much to resemblance with the Impressionist’s brushstrokes. Perhaps the best version of the “truth” about the four Post-Impressionists under analysis can be found in the words of Robert Goldwater:
The will to create, to invent a method to match a vision, the concentration on the artistic goal to be achieved against all obstacles, was paramount [for them]. Seurat showed it in his relentless day by day production, the very opposite of the inspirational flash; Cézanne in his willingness […] to come one step closer to that ideal union of the permanent and the fleeting which he carried in his mind’s eye; Van Gogh in the intensity of creation […]. And Gauguin demonstrated it […] in the iron-willed pertinacity […] to paint.
Let us start with Georges Seurat. Similar to Impressionists, Seurat created his works in the open air. However, his style already bore the slight evidence of the deviation from the “norm” and showed Postimpressionistic inclinations. Seurat “…developed his own working methods to pursue their [Impressionists’] goal of reproducing the appearance of colors in daylight. His lively, hatched brushwork clearly derives from the loose facture introduced by Monet and Renoir to suggest dappled lighting effect”. However, a little further through the text, the author makes a remark, “By Impressionist standards, Seurat’s studies lack spontaneity”. In other words, although Georges Seurat created his works within the framework of the earlier Impressionist tradition, his manner inevitably and evidently introduced variations that ran counter to this tradition. Indeed, Seurat’s paintings, such as “The Gardener”, lack the rogue, untamed, careless brushstrokes that accounted for the immediate and somewhat hasty rendition of what the eyes saw onto a canvas, as in Monet’s masterpieces. Monet’s touch of color is reckless and seemingly untidy though still being extremely eloquent, while Seurat’s strokes are fairly adjusted and too ideal to be utterly natural or spontaneous, i.e. to be Impressionist-like.
Georges Seurat saw color as a technical means and developed a respective approach to its utilization in art. Seurat’s colors resulted foremost from the artist’s understanding of Chevreul’s and Rood’s technical treatises. In particular, George Seurat actively implemented the optical mixture technique under which two separate tones formed a unity of a single hue if observed from a distance. Seurat weighted the color relationships with extreme precision and careful calculations. His dot-like strokes, accurate in their form and aim, were closer to the objects of geometry than to art, especially impressionism. In fact, some of Seurat’s paintings, such as “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” or “Invitation to the Sideshow”, look like a mosaic of color strokes, as if assembled from the roundish bits of the broken color palettes. Thus, Seurat’s interspersed and overly careful brushstrokes both bear the features of the Impressionism tradition and alienate from it through bringing precision to the realm once dominated by pure emotion and impromptu.
Another instance of crossroads of the Impressionist legacy and the Post-Impressionist novelties is exemplified by the persona of Paul Cezanne. Cezanne shared Renoir’s (thus, Impressionist) passion for nudity that, in turn, originated from the depths of the classical tradition and Renaissance. Interestingly, Cezanne did not feel comfortable working with female models and, moreover, had a “procrastinate” painting style, which is why his artworks featured either imaginary, to a great extent idealized and mythologized images of women, or those borrowed from other artists. Thus, for Cezanne, the impression resulted either from his fantasies or other artworks that are, per se, artistic visions of reality. In other words, a female image as an impression was to a great extent elusive for Cezanne, thus, detached from reality.
Like the brushwork of Impressionists, that of Cezanne was relatively careless and carefree. However, much like the strokes of Seurat, Cezanne’s were subdued by the laws and principles of geometry. In fact, the diagonal parallel brushstrokes can be labeled as the artist’s calling card that he bore throughout his entire life and career. They are evident in “Near the Pool at the Jas de Bouffan”, “Madame Cezanne in the Conservatory”, and others. In terms of color, Cezanne favored blue and green that can be called the color leitmotifs of his artistic style. In many ways, an inclination towards particular color can be [arguably] considered as a deviation from the general impressionist rule of the color multitude that appropriated every particular artwork and varied from painting to painting, from scene to scene.
Though the aforementioned argument can be reasonably doubted, Cezanne’s other preference is a proved deviation from the Impressionist rules. “Still Life” demonstrates how Cezanne tended to manipulate the scene he portrayed for the artistic sake. The V-shape, persistent through the draping flexure and wallpaper design, creates “a pervasive geometric pattern” that “evokes a delicate pictorial harmony”. Thus, unlike Impressionists who captured the spontaneous moment, feeling or emotion, Cezanne modeled his environment in order to create a perfect, in his vision, scene that could arouse the right aesthetic feeling. Hence, Cezanne’s “impression” was pre-modeled, artificial, thus, unnatural. Even when the modeling was impossible, Cezanne kept manipulating the scene the way he wanted and was able to. For example, while Monet focused on “recording transient effects of light”, Cezanne was primarily interested and engaged in shifting his vantage point and perspective in order to acquire a perfect view of the scene he intended to portray. In many ways, such or similar adjustments ruin the atmosphere of the momentary and transitory. It disregards the devotion to the randomness that prevails in Impressionism and a passive part of which an artist becomes while living in that fleeting instant of “impression”. Perhaps, the transience and virginity of the moment are limitations which Impressionists worshipped and which Post-Impressionist artists like Cezanne intentionally overcame by taking control of the scene.
Cezanne’s example shows that a crucial though at times subtle difference between the Impressionist and the Post-Impressionist tradition lies in the heart of the world perception and rendition. While Impressionists tried to catch “the impression” of the moment, nature, light or any other object of interest, Post-Impressionists seemed to focus primarily on the feelings, emotions and associations that the visions arouse in them. In other words, Post-Impressionist artists saw the object that gave them “impression” and instead of directly rendering it while it is still alive and vivid, they let it pass through their mind and soul filling it with personal and highly symbolic meaning. Only then could they extrapolate the altered impression on canvas. Among the brightest and, perhaps, most enigmatic examples of the process are Van Gogh’s works.
Unlike with Seurat and his color theory, the relationships between Van Gogh and color were those of passion. For him, colors were the words in the visual poetry. The artist endued colors and their combinations with sacral, symbolic meanings and formal values. He wrote, “I am always in the hope of making a discovery there, to express the love of the two lovers by a wedding of complementary colors, their mingling and their opposition, the mysterious vibrations of kindred tones”. As one may see, Van Gogh treated colors as living beings capable of the same relations, communication, contacts and alliances as people. Being an artist, he felt empowered and blessed to manipulate colors for the sake of discovering or creating beautiful combinations where colors acquired a new meaning, emphasized or complemented one another, etc. In his works, each color has a personality, and when put into the context of other colors (or, for that matter, a background color) it behaves like an individual in a wider context of society. There, individual colors assimilated, related and established bonds to form a holistic unity of a picture. Thus, one may call any of Van Gogh’s works a society of colors.
Moreover, Van Gogh tended to correlate the notions of color and symbol making them one and saw his own works as associations. In regard to his painting “Cypresses”, he wrote, “It is as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk”. Evidently, the association arose from the objects portrayed, i.e. cypresses. Interestingly though, Van Gogh’s associations went far beyond parallels that any ordinary observer could make. The artist saw associations where no ordinary human being could see them. For Van Gogh, sunflowers symbolized gratitude and also associated with cypresses somehow. In Van Gogh’s words, “When I had done the sunflowers, I looked for the contrast and yet the equivalent, and I said – It is the cypresses”. Not to mention that Van Gogh artistically interprets cypresses via curved and not straight brushstrokes (which is per se odd), he also sees the links between the trees and the flowers that are far from evident or at all present. In these associations, the Post-Impressionist genius of Van Gogh is manifested.
Even when Van Gogh dared to reproduce the works of other artists, such as Millet and his “First Steps”, he justified the process and said that his versions were an act of interpretation rather than making an exact valid copy. For Van Gogh, the reproduction of Millet’s artworks was a process comparable to drawing from scratch or from nature. Van Gogh was impressed by Millet’s drawings and woodcuts as if they were any other object of the real, natural, material world, and rendered them in his own vision. Here is how Van Gogh defined what he did, “…it is not purely and simply copying. Rather it is translating – into another language – that of color – the impressions of light and shade in black and white”. Thus, Van Gogh saw other artworks as potential objects for his paintings. Moreover, he envisioned the process of their rendition in color as a means of artistic translation from the language of the original into the language of his own. Perhaps, one may label this particular act of Van Gogh’s as an act of reimaging and reimagining.
Another intriguing instance of reimaging and reimagining, but with a religious subtext, can be found in one of the works by Paul Gauguin. Like Van Gogh, he inserted extra meaning into the artworks and was driven by associations. However, Gauguin seemed to go even further down the trek that departed from the Impressionist core. In fact, he went as far in filling his painting with a deep associative meaning that it started to show on the artwork, itself. The contrast between a work of art that is utmost Impressionist and the one that is altered by something extraneous to Impressionism can be found in “Two Tahitian Women” and “Ia Orana Maria”, respectively. Both are Gauguin’s creations, but the former, indeed, catches and renders the moment and emotion, in their raw, pristine form, whereas the latter contains a few chimerical elements untypical of Impressionism. Thus, while Van Gogh’s associations are unveiled only or primarily through the artist’s own words (in his letters, commentaries, etc.) and remain otherwise confined within his mind, Gauguin’s vision is evident to all the viewers of his paintings, as it was meant to be.
Within the aforementioned theoretical argument, it would be sound to further analyze Gauguin’s “Ia Orana Maria”. Here, the half-Impressionist depiction of a scene from the Tahitian life is intertwined with the seemingly alien subtheme of Christianity. With their heads rimmed by iconographic nimbuses, the Tahitian woman with a child immediately and undoubtedly become the artistic impersonation of Madonna with baby Jesus. The angel veiled behind what seems like an exotic bird’s wings emphasizes and further explicates the idea. Finally, nature bears a resemblance – this time not evident – to Eden. Thus, Gauguin’s “Ia Orana Maria” renders not a pure impression but rather a symbolic and deeply religious association – a fantasy – that relates the painting to the artist’s personal experience. Obviously, no Impressionist dared to transform a painting into a defiant, nudity-marked icon performed in a seemingly Impressionist style with Impressionist means, such as simplified forms and colors. What Gauguin did was by no means bad – what he did was Post-Impressionist. He once said what no true Impressionist would ever say, “I shut my eyes in order to see”.
In more than one way, the paper shows that the abovecited words of Robert Goldwater are true. As a concluding thought, the words of one of the discussed artists may come to one’s mind. Van Gogh once said, “I think that what is alive in art, and eternally alive, is in the first place the painter and in the second place the picture”. This single quotation explicates the utmost important truth not only about Van Gogh’s attitude towards his paintings but also the truth about the correlation of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Impressionism denies the artist all his rights (including the right to contribute anything to a vision of reality that is not already there) and puts the “impression” forward in its purest, virgin, translucent and transient form. In contrast, the new Post-Impressionist ideology – with its daring associative meaning, symbolism and approach to colors – gave the art of Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, and Georges Seurat a right to exist. Their art transcended the limits.