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Postimpressionism
We look across rolling, bright green pastures and honey-brown farmland to a cluster of buildings nestled beyond a copse of trees, along the horizon in this horizontal, stylized landscape painting. The scene is painted with mostly flat areas of color. Closest to us, low, vibrant green pastures are bisected by a narrow, gingerbread-brown path. The path meanders from the lower left corner of the composition to a metal gate, near the right edge of the painting. A short distance from us to our left, a man wearing navy-blue pants, shirt, and hat walks along the top of a hill, hands in pockets. Two black and white cows and one brown and white cow graze nearby. In the distance, the copse of trees is painted with pockets of pumpkin orange, lavender purple, sky blue, and spring and muted sage green. Beyond the trees, a white, square, two-story house with a spruce-blue roof sits within the grouping of buildings. Another white building with a blue roof stands a bit to our right. Wisps of white clouds dot a vivid blue sky, which is tinted with pale pink and lilac purple near the horizon. The artist signed and dated the work in harvest yellow against a mound of dark brown rocks in the lower right corner: “P. Gauguin 90.”

Overview

 

The label "postimpressionist" was unknown to most of the artists to whom we apply it today. When the term was coined by English critic Roger Fry in 1910, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, and Cézanne were all dead. It does not describe a single style or even one approach. The bold, intense colors of Gauguin and Van Gogh are highly expressive—even emotional—while Seurat's systematic color dots and Cézanne's concern with structure seem more cerebral. In a sense, postimpressionist describes only what these artists were not: no longer satisfied to transcribe primarily visual effects. Like many artists in the 1880s they looked for ways to express meaning beyond surface appearances, to paint with the emotions and the intellect as well as the eye. The term postimpressionist does, however, acknowledge that impressionism had shaped these artists.

Paul Gauguin, French, 1848 - 1903, Landscape at Le Pouldu, 1890, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.20

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We look down onto a plaza with a sliver of a tall building rising along the left edge of the painting, a row of verdant, green trees to our right, and a row of buildings enclosing the space in the distance in this nearly square landscape painting. The peanut-brown building to our left nearly reaches the top edge of the canvas. It has three oversized, tall stories under a high, sloping roof with a slender chimney. A promenade with carriages runs in front of the tall building. In the plaza closer to us but tiny in scale, people gather in small and large groups, along the bottom edge of the composition. They are painted with dabs and short strokes of cobalt blue, butter and golden yellow, brick red, black, and white. The trees create a diagonal line running from the lower right corner into the scene, along the edge of the plaza to our right. Beyond the plaza and trees, the corners of a formal garden with sand-white walking paths stretch back to the row of buildings in the distance, which come halfway up the painting. That long line of buildings is painted with tones of light brown with rows of tall, narrow windows. The roofs are slate gray, and several cupolas and towers are spaced along its length. The buildings span the width of the painting and disappear behind the tall building to our left. Loosely painted, white, puffy clouds float across the ice-blue sky above. The artist signed and dated the work with brown paint in the lower left corner: “C. Pissarro. 1900.”

Better known for rural subjects, Pissarro came to paint urban scenes only late in his career after eye problems prevented him from working outdoors. He rented rooms that afforded him views into the streets of Rouen, Paris, and other cities. Probably influenced by Monet’s series paintings, he set up a number of easels to work simultaneously on different canvases as light and weather conditions changed. This is one of twenty–eight views he painted of the Tuileries Gardens from a hotel room in the rue de Rivoli. The buildings depicted are part of the Louvre.

With this sidelong view, dappled with shade and interrupted on all sides of the picture frame, Pissarro's composition captures the restless activity of the busy city. His quick brushwork seems to mimic the action it depicts. Notice the wheels of the carriages and buggies, where scoured circles of paint trace motion. With the movement of his brush, Pissarro does not simply paint but reenacts the wheels' rolling progress. This painting, done more than a quarter century after the first impressionist exhibition, still has the same fresh energy of those early impressionist works.

Camille Pissarro, French, 1830 - 1903, Place du Carrousel, Paris, 1900, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, 1970.17.55

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A white path and gray stone wall wind through ochre and harvest-yellow fields beneath a brilliant, turquoise sky in this stylized, horizontal landscape painting. The scene is created with long, visible brushstrokes of vivid color. Closest to us, the field is painted with vertical strokes of golden yellow and pea green. Touches of cardinal red and slashes of pine green create flowers around the end of the stone wall, which curves toward us from the background, at the center of this painting. The wall is painted with horizontal dashes of lilac and lavender purple, salmon pink, and periwinkle blue. A person wearing peach-colored trousers, a peacock-blue shirt, and a dark hat walks away from us, into the field, to our left of the wall. The white road enters the scene from the right, and meets the stone wall and a second wall on the far side of the road at a gate. Two columns rise from the walls to mark the spot of the gate, which opens into a property with three tall haystacks and a house. To our left, the house is painted with areas of warm yellow for the walls, honey brown for the roof, which is outlined in navy blue, and turquoise for the doors and windows. A few green trees, made of dots of bottle and forest green, are scattered near the house and haystacks. One sapphire-blue tree grows near the house. A band of azure blue along the horizon, which comes about two-thirds of the way up the painting, suggests a mountain range in the distance. Swirls of white suggest clouds in the turquoise sky. The paint is visibly textured throughout.

Van Gogh arrived in Arles in February 1888, the landscape covered with snow. But it was sun that he sought in Provence—a brilliant light that would wash out detail and simplify forms, reducing the world around him to the kinds of flat patterns he admired in Japanese woodblock prints. Arles, he said, was "the Japan of the South." Van Gogh's time in Arles was amazingly productive. In about 15 months—just 444 days—he produced more than 200 paintings, about 100 drawings, and wrote more than 200 letters.

He described a series of seven studies of wheat fields: "landscapes, yellow—old gold—done quickly, quickly, quickly, and in a hurry just like the harvester who is silent under the blazing sun, intent only on the reaping." Yet he was also at pains to point out that these works should not be "criticized as hasty" since this "quick succession of canvases [was] quickly executed but calculated long beforehand."

Pairs of complementary colors—the red and green of the plants, the woven highlights of oranges and blue in the fence, even the pink clouds that enliven the turquoise sky—shimmer and seem almost to vibrate against each other. The impressionists used this technique to enhance the luminosity of their pictures. Pissarro, who helped introduce Van Gogh to these concepts, noted, "if I didn't know how colors behaved from the researches of . . . scientists, we [the impressionists] would not have been able to pursue our study of light with so much confidence."

Vincent van Gogh, Dutch, 1853 - 1890, Farmhouse in Provence, 1888, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, 1970.17.34

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Shown from about the knees up, a young woman sits in a chair angled to our right but she turns her face to look at us in this loosely painted, vertical portrait. Her chair has a rounded back and arms made from what looks like bent, woody vines, and the background is a solid field of pale aqua. Her dark hair is parted in the middle and tied at the nape of her neck with a red ribbon. Dark eyebrows curve over brown eyes, and she has a rounded nose, and her petal-pink lips are slightly parted. Her pale peach skin is tinged with green on her face and hands. Her right arm, on our left, rests along the arm of the chair. In her other hand, which rests in her lap, she holds a sprig of blooming oleander, with light pink flowers and green leaves. The bodice of her high-necked dress is striped with brick red and royal blue, and is lined with a row of round gold buttons down the front. The sleeves come down to her forearms and the cuffs and collar at her neck are white. Her full skirt is royal blue with pumpkin-orange dots. The brushwork is loose throughout and individual brushstrokes are visible, especially in the stripes of her bodice and the patchy peach tones that make up her skin.

The sensational aspects of Van Gogh's life and suicide often cloud the intention and deliberation behind his highly charged and expressive style. In a letter to his brother Theo he described how this painting consumed his attention: "It took me a whole week...but I had to reserve my mental energy to do the mousmé well." This name, he explained, came from a character in a popular novel set in Japan. "A mousmé is a Japanese girl—Provençal in this case—twelve to fourteen years old."

The girl's costume is a contrast of patterns and complementary shades of blue and orange. The paint in these bold stripes and irregular dots stands out against the pale green lattice of vertical and horizontal brushstrokes in the background. The vigorous patterns express Van Gogh's sympathetic response to his young sitter, whose face is carefully modeled and finished to a greater degree than other parts of his picture. Compare her hands, for example, which are more sketchily painted.

La Mousmé
is one of a series of portraits that Van Gogh painted while living in Arles. They were, he wrote, "the only thing in painting that excites me to the depths of my soul, and which made me feel the infinite more than anything else." The flowering branch the girl holds is probably related to Van Gogh's pantheistic faith in the power of nature's cycles of life and renewal.

Vincent van Gogh, Dutch, 1853 - 1890, La Mousmé, 1888, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.151

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Three women stand on or next to a ladder picking olives in an orchard in this horizontal landscape painting. The women, trees, ground, and sky are all painted with long, parallel brushstrokes that curve and swirl over the canvas. The palette is dominated by sage and laurel green, tan and chocolate brown, spruce blue, and eggshell white. The women are outlined with dark brown lines. All three wear long skirts and long-sleeved shirts, and all reach for olives on the trees or into baskets. One woman, to our left, stands on the ladder and faces us; the second woman leans or sits against the right side of the ladder and faces away, her hair covered in a cloth; and the third woman stands at the foot of the ladder to our right, turning away from us. The tan and pale green of their clothing is echoed in trees around them. Short, distinct brushstrokes in pine and light green, with a few touches of silvery blue, create leaves on trees whose gnarled trunks are outlined with dark brown. The horizon line comes about a third of the way up the composition, and the sky above is painted with distinct strokes of ivory, pale mint green, and a few touches of shell pink. The ground around the women and trees is painted with sage and celery green, slate blue, and brown. The brushstrokes are spaced far enough apart in places that bare canvas is visible underneath, especially in the ground.

During the last six or seven months of 1889, Van Gogh did at least fifteen paintings of olive trees—a subject he found both demanding and compelling. He wrote to his brother Theo that he was "struggling to catch [the olive trees]. They are old silver, sometimes with more blue in them, sometimes greenish, bronzed, fading white above a soil which is yellow, pink, violet tinted orange...very difficult." He found that the "rustle of the olive grove has something very secret in it, and immensely old. It is too beautiful for us to dare to paint it or to be able to imagine it."

In the olive trees—in the expressive power of their ancient and gnarled forms—Van Gogh found a manifestation of the spiritual force he believed resided in all of nature. His brushstrokes make the soil and even the sky seem alive with the same rustling motion as the leaves, stirred to a shimmer by the Mediterranean wind. These strong individual dashes do not seem painted so much as drawn onto the canvas with a heavily loaded brush. The energy in their continuous rhythm communicates to us, in an almost physical way, the living force that Van Gogh found within the trees themselves, the very spiritual force that he believed had shaped them.

Vincent van Gogh, Dutch, 1853 - 1890, The Olive Orchard, 1889, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.152

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We look across a placid pond at sandstone-white buildings with brown and terracotta-red roofs nestled within a grove of green trees and plants in this vertical landscape painting. To our left, the brown roofs cover extensions to the main building, which has the terracotta roof. Between us and the buildings, the remains of a slate-gray wall are partially hidden by a vine or tree. The plants in front of the buildings are created with short daubs of yellow and green with touches of blue. The pond or other small body of water close to us spans the lower width of the canvas. The plants are reflected in the water's smooth surface. The trees to our right and behind the house have olive-green trunks stretching beyond the top edge of the composition. Their leaves blend together to fill the space next to and behind the house with a patchwork of shades of emerald, pine, and celery green. These greens are layered with short, angled strokes over smoother patches, and they fill the upper third of the composition. Patches of orange and a slice of azure-blue sky are visible among the leaves on the left side over the brown roofs. The artist has signed and dated the painting in the lower left corner, “P. Cezanne 73.”

To brighten Cézanne's dark palette knife, his friend Camille Pissarro told him, "Never paint except with the three primary colors. . . . " The bright hues and quickly worked brushstrokes reveal here the effect of Pissarro's influence. Greens and yellows contrast in the foreground, and multihued vertical drags of the brush re–create watery reflections. Cool shadows contrast with the orange of a tiled roof. Light emphasizes the blond planes of the building, which is shaded with blues, greens, and mauves, and where broad strokes and heavier paint convey texture.

The elaborate signature and date are unusual in Cézanne's work. Perhaps he intended it for a patron or a public exhibition—at the urging of Pissarro, three of his works were included in the first impressionist show. In 1873 Cézanne moved to the village of Auvers, near Paris, where he painted this landscape. It was near Pissarro's home, and the two of them often painted side by side during 1873 and 1874. Auvers was also home to Dr. Gachet, a collector who would later care for the despairing Van Gogh. Cézanne may have hoped Gachet would purchase his work, which was ignored by the public. In the 1880s Cézanne returned to Provence in the south of France, and after inheriting his father's large estate in 1886, largely abandoned efforts to promote his work. He did not gain commercial success until he was in his 50s.

Paul Cézanne, French, 1839 - 1906, House of Père Lacroix, 1873, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.102

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Impressionism not only encouraged Cézanne to adopt a brighter palette, but also gave him a way of expressing form. Rather than model three-dimensional shapes by gradually blending shades from dark to light, Cézanne, like the impressionists, gave them form by juxtaposing colors. “There is neither line nor modeling,” he said, “there is only contrast.”

The tipped plate is molded by individual arcs of peachy ivory and cooler blue tones. The shadow that falls below it does not deepen continuously but is a patchwork of blues and complementary rust-colored browns. Rounded fruits, like the flat surfaces of the table, are built up of what Cézanne called “little planes” of color, applied in brushstrokes that echo the faceted sides of the pitcher.

Cézanne painted this same pitcher and table in other canvases. His constant rearranging of these and other props was a way to understand and create structure. The very selection of objects, combining, for example, the roundness of fruits and bowls and the angles of furniture, reflects careful decisions about order and composition. This analytical way of seeing the world, whether the countryside of Provence or the man-made landscape of a still life, had great impact on the next generation of artists. For Picasso, Cézanne was a “mother;” for Matisse, “father to us all.” Yet Cézanne himself stressed that he painted as Pissarro and the impressionists had taught him, from nature and according to his sensations.

Paul Cézanne, French, 1839 - 1906, Still Life with Milk Jug and Fruit, c. 1900, oil on canvas, Gift of the W. Averell Harriman Foundation in memory of Marie N. Harriman, 1972.9.5

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Painted entirely with small dots of pure color mostly in slate and azure blue, olive green, and cream white, this scene shows a sandy beach stretching to a lighthouse at the center and a four-story building to our right in this horizontal seascape. The tall, slender lighthouse standing on the water’s edge a short distance from us is painted with specks of azure and sky blue, ivory, and peach. In the distance to our left, a pier stretches into the sea along the horizon, which comes about two-thirds of the way up this composition. A sailboat floats just off the pier, near the left edge of the painting. To our right of the lighthouse and extending off the right edge of the canvas, the building has three levels of windows and a row of dormers along the tall, peaked roof. The building is painted with touches of dove gray, sapphire blue, and pale pink. In front of the building and to our right, a denim-blue shed has a tangerine-orange roof. A wooden rowboat outlined in cornflower blue with flecks of dandelion yellow rests on the sand next to the shed. In front of us, dots of moss green blend into the blond tones of the sand, creating an impression of grass on the beach. Sunlight shimmers on the sea to our left, which is painted with short dashes of mint and seafoam green, baby blue, cream, and shell pink, beneath a clear, ice-blue sky.

In an effort to systematize what he considered the randomness of impressionism, Seurat developed a technique he called "divisionism" or "neoimpressionism," based on thencurrent theories about the optical characteristics of color and light. He juxtaposed tiny, discrete touches of pure color that were meant to merge in the viewer's eye, producing a range of shades more luminous than intermediary colors blended on an artist's palette. His paintings attempt to mimic not what the eye sees, but what the eye does. In practice, the small touches are too large to achieve this at a normal viewing distance. Instead, they impart a shimmering, almost vibrating effect.

Seurat's aesthetic theories extended beyond appearance to encompass mood as well. The mood of a work, he held, was determined by three factors: tone, tint, and line. As he described to a friend, "Calm of tone is the equality of dark and light; of tint, equality of warm and cold; calm of line is given by the horizontal." In The Lighthouse at Honfleur, interlaced sweeps of blond colors are balanced with cooler blues and dots of bright red. Shadows and light counterpose, and a jetty reinforces the interrupted horizon. They give Seurat's seascapes what a contemporary reviewer called "calm immensity."

Georges Seurat, French, 1859 - 1891, The Lighthouse at Honfleur, 1886, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.33

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