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GEK 1025

Reading Visual Images

2009/2010 Semester 1


6. Post-Impressionism

The term Post-Impressionism appears somewhat awkward. It was coined to signal shifts away from

Impressionist pictorial aims or interests. What do you understand by Post-Impressionism? Who are

among artists gathered under this term?

From a study of four (4) pictures by any one (1) of these artists, discuss their content and composition.

In your discussion, show how these pictures mark departures from the content and composition in

Impressionist pictures, and how they consolidate new and fresh artistic ideals.

Azmi Suhaimi

© 2010 by Azmi Suhaimi Page 1


Post-Impressionism: An Overview

“Post-Impressionism” is the catch-all term, coined in 1910 by English critic Roger Fry, for an exhibition

of diverse continental art, for which he found difficulty to categorize. (Wood, 2000) These artists, who

depicted new ways of presenting pictorial images away from the cul-de-sac of naturalism, had a similar

characteristic though, in their individuality in which Fry noted:

“In no school does individual temperament count for more. It’s the methods that enable the individuality

of the artist to find completer self expression in his work than is possible to those who have committed

themselves to representing objects more literally.. The Post- Impressionists consider themselves

(Impressionists) too naturalistic”. (Bowness, Introduction, 1980)

The rejection of Impressionist focus on fleeting effects of light was replaced with an emphasis more on

expression, structure and form by this group of artists. (Kleiner, 2009) However, it is pertinent to note

that the idea of calling the style “Post-Impressionism” was born only after its principal protagonists had

passed away: Gauguin, Seurat, Van Gogh, Cézanne et al. Ipso facto, it cannot be said to be a consciously

unified style, but can be regarded as a response to critics, who derided the Impressionists for lack of

organized form and serious content in paintings.

In response to the critical reception which plaged the Impressionists, after their study of fleeting effects of

light was gradually flickering off, the solution then was for the artists to paint “the idea”, rather than

literal depictions of the the visible world (House & Stevens, 1980). Writer Alan Bowness states it most

aptly when he described it as being a shift from “appearance to experience as a justification of art”

(emphasis added) (Bowness, Introduction, 1980). Thus, the artists have an important factor in common: in

which they seek to let the viewer have a more active role, immersing him/her to the experience of the

painter in his attempts to depict art, rather than he/she being a mere spectator to the artists’ conversation
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with nature. (House & Stevens, 1980). Scholars have a varied timeline regarding the specific years of the

era under “Post-Impressionism”: Belinda Thomson gives the rough timeline of 1880-1900 as a rule of

thumb (Thomson, 1983), whereas John Rewald defines Post-Impressionism in a strictly historical

timeline between 1886 to 1914, the onset of the First World War. (Rewald, 1956)

Main Patterns of Development

Despite the smorgasbord of different types of painting put to the table in the period, three main patterns of

development can be seen in the artists’ attempts to develop the form and meaning of their work. One, by

looking at pictorial unity; secondly, by emphasizing expressive value of subjects; and thirdly, in looking

for “abstraction”. (House & Stevens, 1980) Paul Cézanne was the main proponent of the first pattern, in

which he subordinates narrative to form. He continued to use natural landscapes, but placed his personal

importance to the internal organization of the painting in its forms, colours and brushwork. He felt unity

to be inherent in all natural scenes, and attempted to depict form and space through the linkage of colour

planes on the surface of the canvas, to give the viewer the feeling of a continuous linkage of pattern and

colour throughout the picture. (Ibid.) Vincent van Gogh was the main proponent for emphasizing the

expressive value of subjects, in which he used an accentuated technique to elucidate the meanings of

nature, which he felt to be in patterns and cycles. Paul Gauguin, on the other hand, rejected painting from

sitting down before nature; he valued the importance of artistic imagination and “abstraction” of thought.

(Ibid.) Another brand of Post-Impressionism, headed by Georges Seurat and called “Pointilism”, tried to

depict a pseudo-scientific response, in which forms are painstakingly and systematically built up through

the use of dots grouped according to their colour. This technique combined Cézanne’s use of volume with

Impressionist stance on subject matter, and also utilized theories of colour to intensify hues. (Adams,


I will now attempt to leave the a priori discussion of Post-Impressionism in general, and now to adopt a

micro view of the unique style befitting one of chief proponents of Post-Impressionism: Paul Gauguin,

(1848-1903). Four paintings would be discussed, presented in chronological flow, to show the distinct

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development in his philosophies and style, and show the differences in marked departure from

Impressionist thought.

Gauguin- Symbolic Painter

Gauguin’s contributions had a profound effect towards the development and shift in challenging the

dominant doctrine of “art imitating nature”. Gauguin himself had little formal training and started

painting at the age of 25 (formerly a broker), and his untrained nature, coupled with his temperament,

could arguably prove to be contributing factors in him being fiercely independent and steadfast in his

style. He perhaps felt that he had much to prove as contemporaries who were established prior, like

Monet and Renoir, had little respect for him as a new recruit to the Salon in 1879, with the former

mentioning to a newspaper that the exhibition of 1886 had become “a banal school which opens its doors

to the first dauber who comes along” (Thomson, 1983).

Fig 1. The Vision after the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel , 1888. Oil on canvas,

73 × 92cm, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

“Art is an abstraction, derive this abstraction from nature while dreaming before it.”

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(Paul Gauguin, August 1888)

From his initial Impressionist start with the Salon, to the experiments with “Pointilist” techniques in 1885

(Still Life with Horse’s Head), Gauguin was gradually beginning to show primacy to the “sensation,

power of inner response” (Becker, 1998) which was echoed in his works post-1885. In Fig 1, this

painting, “The Vision after the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” was Gauguin’s “first radical

challenge to convention” (Ives, Stein, Hale, & Shelley, 2002) in which he defied Impressionist

conventions of painting from nature, or even subject for that matter. The subjects are a group of Breton (a

location in Brittany, Northwest of France) peasant women deep in prayer after a sermon. The kneeling

figures on the left look down, eyes closed and hands clasped into prayer. The central figure looks up and

across a diagonal tree to where an imagined “vision” of Jacob wrestling with the Angel is projected.

(Lewis, 2007) The story of Jacob comes from the Book of Genesis where Jacob (later known as King

Israel) wrestled with the angel for a whole night, and had been illustrated by Eugene Delacroix in a mural

in 1861 in Saint-Sulpice. (see Appendix Fig 1.1 for painting) (Brettell, Cachin, Freches-Thory, &

Stuckey, 1988) Other than appearance of subject, Gauguin had placed differences in formal properties of

brushwork, colour and composition which were different from Impressionism. (Lewis, 2007) Gauguin

used a smooth brush which glides across the unbroken canvas, where there is no second layer. The

expanse of red, which Gauguin describes as a “dream landscape of non natural pure vermilion” is not

moulded but level, and done through a special paint mix to give it a wax instead of varnish finish. (Ibid.)

These exemplify his ambition to “weaken materiality’s hold on consciousness” and to invert reality and

the supernatural. (Ibid.)

In terms of colour, Gauguin’s used the brightest colour, “chrome yellow number 1” for the Angel’s

wings, reserving the highest point to the realm of non-reality. (Brettell, Cachin, Freches-Thory, &

Stuckey, 1988) In this, Gauguin moves away from natural optical laws of Impressionism and Chevreul’s

colour model of interaction of light and created his own colour “chromatic” key to further accentuate the

supernatural feel. (Lewis, 2007) The edge of tree trunk on the side facing Jacob and the Angel is glowing

in orange and contrasted with the black outline of the tree towards the Breton women side, coupled with
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and red of the surround, gives the impression of the Angel giving out light and heat. Furthermore, the

foliage of green firmly on Jacob’s side signals a division of colour among “natural” and “non-natural”.

Black and white are demarcated as “natural” colours (as seen in the Breton women’s wear) and

multicoloured used for the latter. (Brettell, Cachin, Freches-Thory, & Stuckey, 1988)

In terms of composition, Gauguin goes against normal convention by having two overlapping zones of

pictorial space, without a middle ground, and if compared with Delacroix’s version, it shows a large shift

away from traditional perspective. Gauguin also uses obstruction of space, in which the painting’s two

zones of reality and imagination are bisected in the middle of the tree, which acts like a hurdle and not

passageway for the two differing realms. (Cachin, 1988). Most significantly, unlike Delacroix’s version

where the figures in the distance diminish properly, Gauguin’s has a disproportionate scale: The three

women in the foreground are rendered in large proportions, but the Angel and Jacob do not diminish

proportionally. Furthermore, upon a closer look, there is a small cow at the top right hand corner of the

painting. It is nearer to the women in space, but is somehow smaller in scale than Jacob and Angel when

it should be at least the same size. (Lewis, 2007) The use of the cow, connotes to the working lives of the

Breton women, who live in the west of France and are near Flemish-speaking areas where their main

occupation involves milking cows.

Such was Gauguin’s literary conceptualization that he was soon praised by critic Albert Aurier, who

hailed him as the pioneer of Symbolist painting, par excellence. (Cachin, 1988) To Gauguin, he regarded

this painting as just a start of those which questioned reality and imagination, and focusing on the

“mysterious center of thought” instead of “efforts around the eye”. (Ives, Stein, Hale, & Shelley, 2002)

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Fig. 2 Christ in the Garden of Olives- Self Portrait ,1889. Oil on canvas,

73cm × 92cm, West Palm Beach, Norton Gallery of Art.

This painting is regarded as unique and incorporates fresh artistic ideals, and is worth discussing due to

the circumstances behind it. In the picture, we see a figure in the foreground who looks like Gauguin but

appears as Christ, and in the background, his disciples (in black) are fleeing quietly. (Jirat-Wasiutynski,

1978). The figures are set in a dark bluish-green landscape and the figure of Christ-Gauguin is given a

supernatural glow in his use of orange for hair colour. (Ibid.) His pose is hunched, with a long face and

drooping hands. Biblically, the scene depicts that of a scene after the Last Supper and Judas’ departure

and subsequent betrayal.

Gauguin had written to Vincent van Gogh about this particular painting, telling him that “This year I have

made unheard-of efforts in work and reflection.. This canvas is fated to be misunderstood, so I shall keep

it for a long time.” (Brettell, Cachin, Freches-Thory, & Stuckey, 1988). Van Gogh was not convinced

about the merits of the picture and felt that Gauguin was going too far away from reality, (Bowness,

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1991) and which the real reason was finally revealed to a journalist, Jules Huret, of it being “My own

portrait”. (Sweetman, 1995) Behind it lay the personal story over a series of events, first the quarrel

between Gauguin and van Gogh over a Volpini exhibition, in which latter decided not to attend, and had

been excarcabated prior in their ill-fated collaboration in Arles. Then, Theo had negatively criticized one

of Gauguin’s paintings, which the latter thought to be part of a scheme by another painter, Degas. (Jirat-

Wasiutynski, 1978) Thus, the deep feeling of hurt and desertion motivated Gauguin to go against normal

conventions of subject matter in Impressionism, and instead involving his own symbolic meaning to the

painting. Gauguin seems to identify with Christ on a very personal level but it seems to be even more

deeply rooted psychologically than represented by Romantic artists, as he was not interested in

movements, but individual abstraction, and thought. (Ibid) However, if seen through an aggregation of

Gauguin’s religious works of 1889, there seems to be evidence to suggest that he was trying to participate

in the theological discussions which was at the forefront of late 19th century, of whom one of the most

influential seen in Ernest Renan’s “The Life of Jesus” (Sweetman, 1995), and which Gauguin’s use of

Christ’s iconography was also influenced by Albert Aurier’s “L’Oeuvre Maudit”, of artists being “of the

tribe of Christ/knowing what is to be spat upon/knowing cruxifixion” . (Brettell, Cachin, Freches-Thory,

& Stuckey, 1988) Thus, Gauguin’s approach self-portraits produced something symbolic rather than

literal in his images, with a deeper literary meaning rather than the image as itself, and which is regarded

as a fresh artistic ideal never seen in the Impressionists.

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Fig. 3 Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch),1892. Oil on canvas,

73cm × 92cm, Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Gauguin had left Europe for Tahiti in 1891, disenchanted with the decline of European civilization. Upon

reaching there, he realized that it was not the untouched idyll that he had imagined, and that it had been

colonized to a certain extent by the French. (Bowness,1991) Nevertheless, he absorbed local (native) folk

cultures, and depicted it in his paintings, however synthesizing European themes and subject matter, and

creating something altogether different from what the Impressionists or Realists had even tried to depict.

In “Manao Tupapau”, he transformed the “Olympia” of Manet (Fig 3.1 in Appendix) to a “New World”

Venus, innocent and child-like (Ives, Stein, Hale, & Shelley, 2002), overturning European icons with his

interpretation of exotic ones. Formally, the female figure is shown reclining away from the viewer,

upturning the lady in “Olympia” position. The spatial area is dominated by the reclining female, whose

form is distinguished from the background through the oval area which frames it. (Becker, 1998) She has

a “somewhat frightened” look on her face, and above her head, there is a peacock, the symbol of rebirth,

which is barely identified. Behind the reclining lady sits a woman representing the “Tupapau”, the

Tahitian spirit of the dead. (Jirat-Wasiutynski, 1978)

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A painting can be read through its narrative elements, in its descriptive qualities, but for this certain

period of time, Gauguin was beginning to explore the iconographic elements of painting further, taking

cues from the writer Aurier who pointed in an 1891 article that the: “artist must simplify and deform to

forestall any concrete, illusionistic and naturalistic reading by reminding the viewer that the colours,

shapes and objects are only signs” (Ibid.) Gauguin was aware that his paintings at that time contained

more “literary” imagery than van Gogh, who was largely symbolic, and he outlined his strategies to

reconcile both: through “undulating horizontal lines, harmonies in orange and blue linked by yellows and

violets” which he calls the “musical parts” (symbolic parts) and through the idea of “the spirit of a living

soul united with the spirit of the dead; Day and Night”, which represents the “literary parts”. (Brettell,

Cachin, Freches-Thory, & Stuckey, 1988) The very name chosen too of “Manao Tupapau” has a dual

meaning, in which the ghost can think of the subject and vice versa. (Eisenman, 1997) In a letter to his

wife to explain his need to synthesize both and play down the “literary elements”, he explained:

“I gave her face a somewhat frightened expression. This fright must be pretended, if not explained, and

this in character with the person, a Tahitian. These people by tradition are very much afraid of the spirits

of the dead. I had to explain her fears with a minimum of literary means, unlike the way that was done in

the past. To achieve this, the general harmony is somber, sad, frightening, sounding to the eye like a

death knell: violet, dark blue and orange-yellow.” (Jirat-Wasiutynski, 1978)

To add on to that, he purposefully colours the linen greenish-yellow to suggest a certain simulated light as

he presumed that Tahitian women would never go to bed in total darkness, but yet did not want to give

the picture a lamplight. Furthermore, the yellow is useful as it connects the orange hues with the blue,

giving a colour harmony (or which he calls “musical harmony”). (Ibid.) This is important, as he wanted

the effect of an “aura” around the subject, which glistens with orange highlights and which is juxtaposed

with the “Tupapau” which is in dark blue. This, visual aspect, to him, would affect the viewer by giving a

“tonality” of mood, and thus allowing him/her to deduce the imagery of the painting. (Ibid.) This shows a

concerted effort by Gauguin to underplay the narrative and literary of the painting and instead allow the

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iconic elements to stand out instead, of the visible and invisible, human and divine, and European and

Polynesian, which presents an interesting development of Post-Impressionist painting.

Fig. 4 Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897. Oil on canvas,

141cm × 376cm, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

This is regarded as Gauguin’s manifesto for his Tahitian sojourn, which he regarded as a response of his

imagination due to the confrontation with Death, as he was plagued with illness, poverty and loneliness,

and most painfully due to the recent death of his favourite child, Aline, (Cachin, 1988). It served as a

synthesis of subject matter found in previous works, and to paraphrase Gauguin, a formal description of

vital parts of the picture is depicted: Upper corners are in chrome yellow, and to the right at lower end lies

a sleeping baby and three women who are squatting. There are two figures who are in purple discussing

with one another. Beside them is this disproportionately large figure, raising his arms and stares at the

other two (in astonishment of them thinking of their destiny. The figure in centre is picking fruit. Two

cats are placed in the middle near the child & there is an idol at the left background, arms raised in

rhythm. To the extreme left, there is an old woman in distress and at her feet a white bird, holding a lizard

in its claws, representing the “futility of words”. (Eisenman, 1997)

On a compositional level, Gauguin intentionally chose to do without “stupid precision that chains us to

material reality” (Ibid.) and instead emphasizes the emotion of the depiction. It was largely criticized for

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being “rigid” and of not having sufficient unity, and that the pictures contained abstractions which would

not have been picked up as no allegory signified them. Here, Gauguin provides a philosophical

explanation of rejecting allegory and Western notions of reason, and inverts it upon itself, holding

primitive instinct and feelings to a higher value. (Ibid.)

Gauguin presents something new in this “primitive” representation, as the picture is almost void in

communication amongst the different groups, but which he asks to be read from right to left. (Parsons &

Gale, 1992) However, notions of landscapes are also given conflicting representations. Why is that so?

He offers the philosophy of idealism in the fusion of cultures: between that of European and Polynesia, to

that of an idealized cultural universal. Gauguin points out toward European dress which emphasized sex

differences and “separated his animal and spiritual nature”. This argument was backed up by the figure in

the middle, who has yet to pluck the fruit from the Biblical tree of knowledge, and whose physical

vagueness suggests that it is an androgyny who is pure in spirit. (Eisenman, 1997) This, to Gauguin,

translates to an existential representation of soul through concrete objects. The pictures depict Gauguin’s

feelings: those that he was struggling to say through words, but now made known through painting.

(Sweetman, 1995)

Gauguin also provided a critique of knowledge and reason over feelings and sensuality, questioning what

has the thirst for the former made us; and also drawing links whether it was the spark which made the

“innocent dream” turn to a “lost culture” of what he felt Europe was at that time. (Ibid.) In terms of

painting, it posed a large question towards the future of young European painters. Gauguin, in this

painting, had thrown away conventions and laws of painting styles in the sacrifice of a free-spirited,

primitive, form of artistry based largely on instinct (Cachin, 1988) This raised questions about “Where

does the execution of a painting begin, and where does it end?” (Ibid.)

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A discussion of Post-Impressionism requires an analysis on which aspects of Impressionism resulted in

dissatisfaction amongst it as a lasting style. Important questions of painting just the literal depictions from

Nature, or infusing personal elements and ideas, were asked.

Even within Post-Impressionism iself, there are differences in philosophy, but which the main patterns of

development along vital lines have been underlined.

In this paper, I have endeavoured to introduce four paintings by the Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin to

underline how his use of composition, colour and subject matter shows departure from Impressionist

thought, and also an illustration over his evolving nature and constant introduction of new thought and


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Fig 1.1 Eugene Delacroix, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, 1856-61. Oil and wax on plaster. 300” x 194”.

Church of Saint-Sulpice, Paris

Fig 3.1 Olympia, after Manet. 1890-91. Oil on canvas, 89 x 130cm, Private Collection

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Adams, L. S. (1997). A History of Western Art. Madison: Brown & Benchmark.

Becker, C. (1998). Paul Gauguin: Tahiti. Ostfildern-Ruit : Verlag Gerd Hatje.

Bowness, A. (1991). Gauguin. Hong Kong: Phaidon Press.

Bowness, A. (1980). Introduction. In A. Bowness, Post-Impressionism: Cross-Currents in European and American

Painting (p. 11). Washington: National Gallery of Art.

Brettell, R., Cachin, F., Freches-Thory, C., & Stuckey, C. F. (1988). The Art of Paul Gauguin. Washington: National
Gallery of Art.

Cachin, F. (1988). Gauguin. Paris: Flammarion.

Druick, D.W.,& Zegers, P.K. (2001) Van Gogh & Gauguin: The Studio of the South. Chicago: Thames & Hudson

Eisenman, S. F. (1997). Gauguin's Skirt. London: Thames & Hudson.

House, J., & Stevens, M. (1980). France. In J. House, & M. Stevens, Post-Impressionism: Cross-Currents in European
and American Painting (p. 15). Washington: National Gallery of Art.

Ives, C., Stein, S. A., Hale, C., & Shelley, M. (2002). The Lure of The Exotic: Gauguin In New York Collections. New
York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Jirat-Wasiutynski, V. (1978). Paul Gauguin in the Context of Symbolism. New York: Garland Publishing.

Kleiner, F. S. (2009). Gardner's Art Through The Ages. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth.

Lewis, M. T. (2007). Critical Readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism : An Anthology. Berkeley:

University of California Press.

Pichon, L. Y. (1986). Gauguin: Life. Art. Inspiration. Paris: Times Mirror Books.

Parsons, T., & Gale, I. (1992). Post-Impressionism : The Rise of Modern Art. London: Studio Editions.

Rewald, J. (1956). Gauguin. London: The Hyperion Press

Sweetman, D. (1995). Paul Gauguin: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Thomson, B. (1983). The Post-Impressionists. Oxford: Phaidon.

Wildenstein, D. (2002). Gauguin: A Savage in the Making. Paris: Wildenstein Institute

Wood, J. N. (2000). Impressionism & Post-Impressionism In the Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago: Hudson Hills

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