Responding to Impressionism: Structure and Form

Impressionism shook up the late nineteenth century Parisian art world and inspired artists to further explore color and brushstroke in ways that departed from visual description or illusion. Responding to the criticism that Impressionism was too fleeting, Georges Seurat (1859-1891) and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), methodically explored the formal structure of their painting in order to make Impressionism, in Cézanne’s words “”something solid and durable, like the art of museums.”

Smarthistory: Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte

Smarthistory: Cézanne, The Basket of Apples

Smarthistory: Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire

How do these two artists push color and form in their compositions? What problems are they trying to solve and how does their take on traditional subjects (genre, still life, and landscape) depart from tradition?

Responding to Impressionism: Feeling and Emotion

Another response to Impressionism was the desire to infuse the loose brushwork and vibrant brushstrokes of Impressionism’s scenes of leisure with emotional or psychological weight. Taking a cue from Impressionism’s liberation of color from illusion or description, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) made vibrant paintings with color that is used expressively.

Smarthistory: Gauguin, Vision after the Sermon (or Jacob Wrestling the Angel)

Smarthistory: Gauguin, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Smarthistory: Van Gogh, Starry Night

Yale: Van Gogh, Night Cafe

How are these paintings expressive? What subject matter are these artists dealing with and how does that connect to their use of color?

Vincent Van Gogh, perhaps one of the most famous of the Post-Impressionists today, lived a rather tragic life that ended far too soon.  The psychological complexity of his paintings is conveyed not only through their intense color and thick impasto, but also through some primary sources. Van Gogh was an avid letter writer, and many of his letters–especially to his brother Theo–have been preserved, offering us a unique glimpse into the artist’s mind and emotional state as he was creating work and trying to make it as an artist.

Primary Source: Van Gogh’s letter to Theo (Night Cafe)

Primary Source: Van Gogh’s letter to Theo (Night Cafe) *updated, corrected link (we will look at a close sample in class)

Primary Source: Van Gogh’s letter to Theo (Starry Night) [READ LAST FEW PARAGRAPHS, starting with “Painters — to speak only of them…”]

Bring these letters to class to discuss. What unique things about each painting do you learn from them? What insight do these letters give you into what it was like to be an artist in the 19th century?

Outline for Class Notes