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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."