Post-Impressionist Paintings: A Brief Introduction
Post-Impressionism art refers to the shift away from the Impressionist painting of Claude Monet and his followers. Originating around 1886, the Post-Impressionist artists flourished in late nineteenth and early twentieth century France.
In this brief introduction, we explore the origins of the Post-Impressionist art movement, the defining characteristics of Post-Impressionist paintings, and present some of the most famous artists working in the genre.
Why is it called Post-Impressionism?
The term “Post-Impressionism” came from the British art critic and artist Roger Fry in 1906. He famously used it in 1910 to describe an exhibition (held at the Grafton Galleries, London) titled Manet and the Post-Impressionists.
The movement is “post” impressionist because it came after the Impressionist group. This earlier group of artists (led by Pierre Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet, amongst others) focused on “impressions” created from the ever-changing, moving nature of light and shade.
The Post-Impressionists extended the Impressionist approach while casting aside its limitations. Indeed, many Post-Impressionists viewed Impressionist painting styles as overly trivial and decorative. Paul Cézanne once commented how he looked to “restore a sense of order and structure” to painting, aiming to make modern art more “solid and durable.”
What defines Post-Impressionism?
Post-Impressionism art initially referred to the developments pioneered by Paul Cézanne (often known as the father of Post-Impressionism). However, with his series of landscape paintings depicting Mont Sainte-Victoire in Aix en Provence, he transformed ideas about what art was.
Today, however, Paul Cézanne painting doesn’t appear massively revolutionary. Nonetheless, his saturated colors and simplified forms were completely novel. Moreover, he pioneered an approach named “Synthetism,” aiming to combine artists’ observations of nature with their emotions.
Cézanne worked with basic shapes and flattened angular forms (perfectly exemplified in the Mont Sainte-Victoire series), pre-dating later Cubist approaches. As a result, classical devotion to nature and direct representation was gone. In its place were the unique perspectives of individual artists.
What is the difference between Impressionism and Post Impressionism?
Impressionism and Post-Impressionism were highly influential artistic movements beginning in late nineteenth-century France. However, the Impressionists were slightly earlier, holding their first exhibition in 1874.
These early Impressionist artists included figures such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and Mary Cassatt. They mainly painted modern landscapes and everyday life, ignoring traditional mythological subjects and biblical narratives.
Instead, the Impressionists prioritized the fleeting impressions of light and movement. They emphasized the texture of paint on canvas, often flattening perspectives with strongly cropped compositions influenced by Japanese Ukiyo-e artists. The painting took place in “en-Plein air” (outdoors, as opposed to in a studio) with a palette of pure, bright, and light colors.
In terms of Impressionism vs Post-Impressionism, the Post-Impressionists ultimately rejected naturalistic depictions of light and color. Instead, many Post-Impressionists focused on symbolic meanings and unique compositions.
Like the Mannerist rejection of Renaissance ideals, they stressed the “artificiality” of painting. Post-Impressionists celebrated color and shapes in painting for their own sake. Instead of just copying the natural world, color and brushwork communicated emotions and universal truths.
What are the main characteristics of Post-Impressionism?
The defining characteristics of Post-Impressionist paintings are:
- Rejection of natural light and color.
- An emphasis on symbolic or emotional meaning.
- Thick impasto paint appears in a free and expressive manner.
- A focus on “artificial” composition, often using geometric or distorted forms.
- The manipulation of artistic perspective enhances dramatic effects.
If there’s a single painting exemplifying these main characteristics, it has to be Vincent Van Gogh’s The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum. Painted in 1888 (sometimes known as The Night Café), it depicts a café in Arles, saturated with a vivid yellow glow. Unusually, it’s also entirely devoid of the color black for a picture showing the night sky.
When Van Gogh’s mental health deteriorated, painting Starry Night was a form of emotional release for the artist. The highly controlled composition draws the viewer's eye towards the light-filled café, described by Van Gogh as a “pale sulfur, lemon green,” contrasting with the deep-blue and violet tones of the street and sky.
In other symbolic meanings, some scholars argue that the figures seated at the café evoke Da Vinci’s Last Supper painting. Indeed, writing to his brother Theo, Van Gogh spoke of his “terrible need” for religion. In his religious quest, Vincent van Gogh went outside “to paint the stars” and “dream a painting.”
What is the focus of Post-Impressionism?
Post-Impressionist art kept the Impressionist focus on light and color but added extra layers of meaning and theory.
While there were overall characteristics, there was no strict Post-Impressionist manifesto. Instead, each painter pursued their interests and stylistic approach. So, it’s worthwhile exploring the focus of some of the movement’s leading painters in turn:
- Paul Cézanne aimed to transform traditional painting. Famously claiming, “I want to re-do Poussin from nature,” he removed the overly intellectual basis of French academic painting and emphasized feeling, color, and spontaneous emotion.
- George Seurat focused on incorporating the latest scientific theories into his painting. Known as “pointillism” or “divisionism,” his small daubs and dabs of contrasting hues revolutionized color theory.
- Paul Gauguin kept the Impressionist’s use of bright luminescent coloring but rejected approaches based on nature. Instead focused on imagination and feeling.
- Van Gogh did paint from nature but developed an intensely personal use of color. His expressive, dappled brushwork communicated his inner world and described the world around him.
Why was Post Impressionism important?
Post-Impressionist artists took European art into bold and unchartered territory. They were important for two main reasons.
Firstly, Post-Impressionism was important for the sheer amount of creative output the movement inspired. Today, the artworks of Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin are amongst the most famous oil paintings of all time. Prized for their sheer skill, imagination, and painterly brilliance, they’re celebrated worldwide.
Far from a fleeting artistic movement of little long-term significance, images such as Van Gogh Starry Night painting, George Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, and Edvard Munch’s The Scream remain some of the most revered creations in Western art.
Secondly, Post-Impressionism art influenced generations of later artists. Their separation of art from naturalistic representation informed later Cubist, Fauvist, and Expressionist movements. Indeed, artists such as George Braque (a Cubist pioneer) also featured in some of the first Post-Impressionist exhibitions.
Who are the famous Post-Impressionist artists?
While many artists contributed to Post-Impressionism, its most famous exponents are Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, and Vincent Van Gogh.
Because Post-Impressionist artists usually avoided biblical narratives, the religious paintings of Paul Gauguin particularly stand out. With artworks such as The Yellow Christ (1889), he combined western Christian traditions with Primitivist and Symbolist approaches.
Inspired by a crucifix in the village church Pont-Aven, Gauguin created the painting shortly after his disastrous stay with Vincent Van Gogh in Arles. The bold outlines and flat, bright colors represent Gauguin’s interest in primitive art. The painting predates his travels to Tahiti, which began in 1891.
Was Henri Rousseau a Post Impressionist?
In his famed publication “Post-Impressionism: From Van Gogh to Gauguin,” John Rewald included painters such as Odilon Redon and Henri Rousseau amongst Post-Impressionists. In the second volume (From Gauguin to Matisse), he also featured artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso’s early artworks, and the “Les Nabis” group.
Amongst these artists, Henri Rousseau is an outlier. Even for revolutionary Post-Impressionists, he was an outsider. While Rousseau worked with traditional genres (for instance, landscape, allegorical works, and portraits), he transformed painting in odd and unbelievable ways.
Rousseau was open to popular culture (such as magazine illustrations, novels, photographs, and postcards) in a way many artists of the time weren’t. His bold jungle paintings (most notably The Dream) imagined exotic lands reflecting the fears and desires of contemporary Paris.
While Rousseau never found full acceptance amongst Post-Impressionist circles, a younger generation of leading artists championed his art. Painters following Rousseau include Apollinaire, Delaunay, and Pablo Picasso, who all admired Rousseau’s brave artistic freedom.
Post-Impressionism Art: Famous Oil Paintings Reproductions
Explore our extensive collection of fine art reproductions if you adore the colorful energy of Post Impressionist painters.
Whether it’s Paul Gauguin religious paintings, Van Gogh’s stunning Starry Night, or Seurat’s iconic pointillism landscape paintings, discover painting reproductions and famous painting replicas in our online art catalog.