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The Post-Impressionists

[Courbet, Whistler, And Manet]  [Leonardo, Raphael, And Michelangelo]  [Renaissance In Venice]  [The French Tradition]  [El Greco And Rubens]  [The Impressionists]  [Fauves And Cubists]  [The Post-Impressionists]  [Renaissance In Florence]  [The Expressionists]  [Art Before Giotto]  [Giotto And Fra Angelico]  [The Eclectics] 

The post-impressionists were not organized. They met casually in cafes and there exchanged theories. They were divided into little cliques, each with its champion, and each planning to overthrow Impressionism in its own different way. All were agreed, however, that mechanical color analysis had obscured the meaning of art. And all were heartily tired of the artificiality and prissiness of Parisian painting. "Be elemental, naked, primitive," they said. At the same time they intended to restore the traditions of the museum which the Impressionists had cast off. Paul Gauguin was the leader of one of these factions. The story of his independent nature and romantic, primitive existence in the South Sea Islands has been told countless times. He was a banker who preferred to be an artist. He exchanged a life of comfort for the poverty and spiritual adventure of the determined seeker of truth. At Pont Avon in Brittany, in the cafes of Paris, wherever he chose to preach his doctrine, he was surrounded by faithful cohorts. He exercised his influence upon Van Gogh at Arles. But it was only in Tahiti that he found an existence suitable to his iconoclastic temperament.

His work is distinguished by its combination of classical qualities and primitive attitude of mind and heart. From the Florentines he learned the art of composition. His pictures recall Raphael's grouping of figures. The pattern is varied, fluid, harmonious. In the picture here reproduced, the flowers are placed with such sureness that it is difficult to imagine them moved the least bit. His color, too, deep, rich, luminous, is reminiscent of the Italians. Like them Gauguin believed that the thorough artist must be a versatile craftsman. He worked for a time carving statuettes in marble; then he became a ceramist. The experience in this art is partly responsible for his luminous color. The glazing of the potter is not very different from the system of glazing employed by Renaissance painters.

His experience in carving is reflected in the simple sculpturesque form of his nudes. His Polynesian girls are modeled with the simplicity of a figure by Giotto. And in other respects too, he shows his heritage of Renaissance art. The languid, sad poses of his Tahitian people are not unlike those of Perugino's wistful worshipers. Finally in his use of decorative line, abstract, flowing, beautiful without being a part of a beautiful person, he reveals another debt to Botticelli.

Yet in spite of Gauguin's appropriation of Florentine methods, he wishes to be simple and primitive. He inculcates into his figures a savage mysticism. He copies their odd proportions and gestures. He records the pristine state of their society. He is somber, poetic, faithful to his adopted countrymen. If he fails in achieving completely the primitive's emotional attitude, it is because he can not shake off the vestiges of Paris and his early training. His suavity of line and richness of color betray his superior knowledge and sensual refinement. The point of view is primitive but the spectacles are those of a sophisticated man of the world.

Nevertheless the unswerving ideals of the painter speak from his canvases. Coming in the fading hours of anaemic Impressionism his truthfulness is not only refreshing, it falls like a bomb among the painters of pretty spots. He may not be the true primitive, but he is civilized enough to be aware of the true primitive's superior mode of living. "Sound art," he seems to be always repeating, "can derive only from a people whose hearts are fresh and unsullied." How unlike the duplicity of the knavish yet kindly Perugino.

The Dutch painter Van Gogh was as colorful a character as the picturesque Gauguin. An extremely sensitive, neurotic man, he was overwhelmed by the difficulties of living and eventually went mad. His art was the product of his spontaneous reactions, not of theories. Yet few painters have exerted their influence upon a younger generation as has this unbalanced Dutchman. While Cezanne is accredited with the innovation which gave the greatest impulse technically to modern painting, it was Van Gogh who effected the change in the point of view esthetically. That is to say, he opened the eyes of painters, as well as of the public, to the beauty of homely and hitherto-considered-ugly things.

We have seen how humble was his quest for the beauty in simple things. A chair was worthy of a portrait, as was an old pair of shoes or a brown deserted battlefield. His nervous, sketchy, fervid haste detracts nothing from the force of the message he wishes to convey. On the contrary, his pictures seem the result of sudden discoveries and impetuous effort to fix them upon canvas. Something about a scene or object or person swiftly revealed itself to him and inspired him to paint. The swirling brushwork betrays his impatience to record the character of his object.

As a portraitist he descends from Rembrandt. His quest is for the character of his sitter. The nuances of flesh tones and the cleverness of the brushwork do not entice him. This is clear when we compare his work to that of the smart practitioner. Our late Sargent painted all heads in much the same accomplished manner. If he pictured a peasant he had only to put a white collar about the sunburnt neck to metamorphose the rustic into a statesman or business executive. When Van Gogh painted a peasant it was not only the whole race of peasantry that he caught on his canvas, but the idiosyncrasies of the individual. His man could be no other. This is apparent in his portrait of the Man With the Red Hair. The honesty and discernment of the painter startle us. He shows that he is not befuddled by civilized notions of how a man should look.

His landscapes, however, reveal more of his mental and emotional states than do his interiors, portraits and still-life studies. Confronted with nature, a slushy street, old houses, a barren field, hospital grounds, he attains a kind of wild lyricism which takes us out of ourselves. There is a religious fanaticism in his painting of a tree or sky. He is no longer the keen eye searching to record the salient facts of a man's character. He is no longer objective. All his pent up emotional mysticism escapes him. When he paints his swirling sunsets, he is praying to his God. He is another Fra Angelico.

Just as Gauguin's life in Tahiti explains the man's art, so do the facts of Van Gogh's brief and stormy existence throw some light upon his painting. That his father was a Calvinist minister is itself important. The early religious environment deeply affected the boy, whether or not he inherited the temperament of a shepherd of humanity. At sixteen he was working in the shop of his uncle, a picture dealer. The love of art was here instilled in him. He devoted himself to drawing and painting with such seriousness that we find him at the youthful age of twenty-three an art teacher in Ramsgate, England. Then suddenly the urge to minister to the spiritual needs of his fellow men comes upon him. Freud might find in this urge to preach the same fundamental causes as in the urge to paint-a moral and emotional, perhaps sexual conflict. Whatever the reason, he returned to Amsterdam to study theology. He became imbued with ideas of Christian communism, a sort of nostalgia for the life of the Catacombs. He went to live with a company of coal miners. But he did not preach to them for long. His own salvation seemed possible only in the realm of art. Painting lured him away from his mission. With his brother Theo he went to Paris. Theo found employment in the galleries of the famous Goupil and was soon able to introduce Vincent to painters of the first rank. The erstwhile missionary became a convert to their doctrines. He reveled in the brilliant color of the Impressionists and the later theorists. Seurat's method of painting with spots of pure pigment intrigued him. It was Gauguin, however, who captivated his romantic nature. The young Dutchman discarded the browns and blacks of his countrymen and experimented with color-luminous, pure, intense color. Then Paris palled on him.

He settled at Arles, in Provence, in February, 1888. He found the soft sunshine and the open country an Arcadia after the cafe life of drizzly Paris. Yet he missed his friends. He urged Gauguin to join him. The older painter came and together they established a menage. Once his companion was with him, however, life was not smooth. The irritable, touchy nature of the neurotic Dutchman provoked many quarrels. On one occasion he threatened Gauguin with a knife and then, overcome with repentance, did what is his most celebrated act, cut off his own ear. He was taken to a hospital. When he returned his mind was definitely shaken. He was soon back in the infirmary, this time never to leave. The remainder of his short life was spent under the shadow of insanity. But he continued to paint. Painting calmed him. He expended his emotion with the act of putting paint on canvas. The masterpieces of this period sing with his spiritual excitement. Yet painting was not release enough. On July 29, 1890, at the age of thirty-seven, he shot himself dead.

The progress of Van Gogh's art as well as his mental and nervous disintegration is marked by his technique or brushwork, the handwriting of the painter. In his early Paris period the strokes are calm, studied, regular, not particularly arresting. Later they are stylized into the vertical and the horizontal. But after a short time at Arles his manner changes. He becomes nervous, impatient, the result, as some historians say, of overwork and sunstroke. His emotional unrest is reflected in a less laborious, rapid, sometimes furious technique. The mental disturbance is accompanied by a swirling, ecstatic brushwork.

His painting may be divided into the Gauguin period, in which his pattern and color are the most interesting qualities, and into the period of the full attainment of his own powers. Again it may be separated into the product of his objective state of mind in which he presents us the curious facts of nature's most humble objects, and into that of his subjective state of mind in which he painted paeans of praise to God. In either state he is a master. But in the first he contributes something for others to follow; in the second he stands alone, a spiritual, hysterical poet and prophet of the Lord.

In contrast to Van Gogh, Cezanne's contributions to painting lie not so much in his spiritual force or outlook as in his command of the qualities of the art itself. He taught form through the use of planes of contrasting color. And by the same means he attained a remarkable sense of space or spatial relation, as we have already seen in the landscape in Chapter 3. If we compare this landscape with the painting by Perugino, we get an idea of the different methods employed by the two foremost masters of space composition. The Cezanne loses much of its power when reduced to black and white since it is largely from the warm and cool hues that the effect is obtained. But even so, it is readily apparent that Perugino's space is accomplished by treating his figures as masses placed in a particular atmosphere which fades lighter and lighter as it goes back, while Cezanne's space is the result of planes of color. This color leads us across one flat stretch or area and starts us again on the one beyond. In Perugino's pictures we travel smoothly and continuously into the distance. In Cezanne's we negotiate one section at a time.

Cezanne was a less inspired but steadier worker than Van Gogh. His painting was extremely long in evolving. While the influences of many painters had served others, Manet for instance, by developing their skill, virtuosity and versatility, Cezanne's progress was retarded by his too eager admiration for popular artists. His personality was therefore slow in developing. For a time his ambition was to have his pictures hung in the same gallery with the work of Bougereau, a miscast photographer who thrilled the literal-minded by his uninspired renditions of nature's details. It required a lifetime of effort for Cezanne to work out his own artistic salvation. And just as his taste was late in maturing, so was his command of the medium laboriously accomplished. To his old age he retained crudities of brushwork. Van Gogh, writing to a friend of the old man's difficulties in technique, very charitably attributed them to Cezanne's shaky easel. He wrote:

"Let us drop the word clumsy, since it is possible he painted these outdoor studies while the wind was blowing. Having had the same difficulty often myself, I find this the explanation for his brushstrokes being sometimes very sure and at other times seemingly clumsy. It's his easel which shakes in the wind."

Fortunately for Cezanne and the world at large, economic security enabled him to take his time in maturing. The modest income which he inherited permitted him to leave distracting Paris and withdraw to his native Provence, not far from Arles where Van Gogh painted. Oblivious to critics, fads, and popular demands, he worked away zealously. Painting was a passion to him in spite of his difficulties in expressing himself. And if he repainted a canvas forty times before he was satisfied with its beginning, in his mind he knew what he wished to achieve. A hundred years before him Watteau had hit upon the principle of color contrasts. Cezanne devoted his life to the pursuit of a similar color formula to aid him in expressing form and space. In spirit, then, he is completely removed from Gauguin and Van Gogh; and in spite of his quest for the most desirable of all painting qualities, form, he is temperamentally close to the first Impressionists, the scientists with paint. He himself expressed his ambitions most clearly when he said: "I want to make of Impressionism something as durable as the art of the museums."

If Van Gogh is inimitable because of the spirit and personality which dominate his pictures, Cezanne is the very opposite. It is obvious that every formula presupposes imitation. The Cezanne formula is taught in art schools as the Impressionist formula was taught ten years ago. Cezannism is degenerating like Impressionism. The technique of the master is copied but the problem which inspired him is being forgotten. This is inevitable where a formula promises fool-proof art.

The artists who really profited by Cezanne's experiments were not his imitators but those who were alive to the importance of his principles. The Cubists, as we shall see, detached the various planes and forms and lines from the objects to which they belonged and rearranged them in arbitrary compositions. We can attribute to Cezanne the germ of this Modernist movement in painting.

It was not from Cezanne alone, however, that the Cubists learned of the possibilities of geometric forms. Seurat was a painter of greater intellect than the master of Aix-enProvence. His pictures are mathematical, devoid of the sensuous quality present in Cezanne's work. The forms of his figures are reduced to geometric patterns. There is an attempt at form, very subtle, but in most cases successful. The color is that of the Impressionists broken into spots like Monet's and applied to the canvas in rigid little dots; so that any suggestion of freedom, even in the brushwork, is absent. Seurat knew the values of color as a lexicographer knows the values of words.

In the picture reproduced, The Circus, we see how every intricate form has been reduced to the most simple conventional pattern. This intellectual, formal kind of painting is often referred to, or spoken of, as the art of the museum, something that Impressionism with its lack of design and form was not. The Cubists appropriated Seurat's geometry and combined it with Cezanne's planes, as we shall see.

Renoir had no theories. He was a genius in the art of imbuing his figures, particularly his nudes, with a lifelike vitality absent in Seurat as well as in the Impressionists.

While his paintings are the most normally satisfying of this period of innovation and revolt, his point of view is the same old-fashioned one which Titian and Rubens possessed some three and a half centuries before. He does, in fact, show the influences of these masters in many ways. His color, for example, is warm and rich like theirs. But not even they can match him in the painting of scintillant flesh. Early training as a ceramist taught him facts about color as it had taught Gauguin. Where other able painters thought of the canvas as a support or background for the paint, Renoir used its whiteness as a base; so that by keeping his color thin and fairly transparent he attained the ceramist's luminosity.

Volume or form was, however, his own special preoccupation. None of the inflated nudes of Rubens is as convincingly real as are Renoir's. We have seen in the nude in Chapter 3 with what subtlety, yet with what conviction he was able to create the illusion of round forms.

It is evident that Renoir loved to paint nudes, as Van Gogh loved to paint a field or tree. One was a sensualist, the other a passionate mystic. One calm, a gourmet enjoying the refractions of light upon pink flesh and the perfect modeling of a young girl's body, the other looking at nature with a wild, chaotic appreciation of her mystic beauty. Renoir may have loved women as much as Casanova loved them but what he has put down on canvas was the charm of light falling upon woman's skin, and the volume or form over her skeleton. When he painted a nude, in other words, he was mainly painter, somewhat poet-but not just man.  '

He had no intellectual theories to offer the young students who thrilled to his pictures. It is told of him that he could not tolerate art writers, critics, and the painting phrases which they carelessly flung about. Once when entering a tobacco shop he was at a loss to know what brand of cigar to choose. He read the names on the boxes: "Colorado," "Claro." "There," he said, "is the whole science of painting, colorado and claro."

If Renoir formulated no new systems his influence was none the less marked. He could not tell one how to paint, he could not bring science into his service as Monet had; nor apply Seurat's geometry to painting, nor explain the psychological reasons for Cezanne's astounding theories; but he could indicate a road to travel, a point of view to take. His pictures restored the art of nude-painting to its proper position and inspired a productivity in that branch which has resulted in its becoming a principal subject for modern painters. The Autumn Salon in Paris and the Independents show hundreds of nudes each year, many of them painted from the objective point of view of Renoir. The vogue of fat, "repulsive" women can be attributed to him more than to any other painter, since artists learned from his pictures that beauty depends upon the ability to record the form and light, not upon the pulchritude of the model.

In contrast to the aims of Renoir were the ideals and motives of Odilon Redon. This little known painter is of tremendous importance historically. Born in the same year as Renoir, 1841, he remained aloof from Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and their various doctrines. He was not properly a painter. He was a poet who invaded the field of the painter, carrying to it the poetic currents of the day, Symbolism and Mysticism. The influence of Poe, Verlaine and Baudelaire marks his every conception. Baudelaire may have helped shape his destiny when he wrote as early as 1859, "From day to day art is losing respect for itself and is prostrating itself before exterior reality. The artist is more and more inclined to paint, not what he dreams, but what he sees.... Whatever is created by the spirit is more vital than matter."

This essence of the spirit Redon attempted to express with paint. Critics looked with suspicion upon his efforts. Are not symbols for ideas and emotions hieroglyphics rather than the painter's art? they asked. They ignored his work and so failed to see the inception of a point of view which has steadily invaded all Europe. For Redon's painted dreams not only inspired the tender symbolism of Gauguin but opened the way for a later generation of Expressionists and Surrealists. Nearly every subjective painter of today in some way owes a debt to this lone explorer of an uncharted sea.

Further information about Impressionism:
Impressionism @ Wikipedia
The Impressionist
Modern Painting - The Impressionists And Their Allies
Landscape Painting - The True Impressionism