This module begins with photography and progresses to the end of the nineteenth century, culminating with the styles of Post-Impressionism. The Industrial Revolution and the invention of photography demonstrate a large impact on the directions of visual thinking as evidenced in the works form this time. As you read through this module, continue to make comparisons between the concepts of photography and its relation to traditional fine arts.
The photographic print was invented somewhere before the middle of the 19th century. In 1826, Joseph Niépce successfully made permanent pictures of a cityscape from his window using a camera obscura and a light-sensitive metal plate. Shortly thereafter, in 1839, Louis JM Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot announced the first photographic processes. The photographic process captured light, the very physical element that relates to our visual senses, and chemically replicated the image produced onto a surface. These methods of photographic production progressed rapidly as one photographer after another filed patents to copyright their processes.
A debate grew within the artistic world, especially the world of portraiture, as to the implications of these processes in relation to art. Could photographs be used for sketch references? What was the worth of a painting of life when a camera could simply capture the image? Artists throughout the nineteenth century, and even to today, debated the position of photography in art and what "real" meant in relation to art.
Eugène Durieu and Eugène Delacroix Draped Model, 1854
Eugène Durieu and Eugène Delacroix's partnership demonstrates the classicism of early photography and the relationship between painters and photographers at the time. The lighting on the model creates a mood and the way the cloth is draped reminds the viewer of classical art. As photographs required the shutter to be open for long periods of time, models were required to hold still just as they would when posing for a painter, limiting the applications of early photographs.
Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre Still Life in Studio, 1837
Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre patented the Daguerreotype process, which was one of the two first processes for photographic printing, the other being the Calotype. The Daguerrotype requires latent development, bringing out the image through a chemical process and fixing the image to a surface. Still Life in Studio was one of the first successful images from Daguerre's process. Given the process, Daguerre would have needed the objects to rest in place for a long period of time so that the image would be fixed to the plate. But the still life is also a typical fine art subject matter; its appearance in early photography further evidences the fact that from its first development, photography was conceived in relation to art, and not simply as a new technology.
Josiah Johnson Hawes and Albert Sands Southworth Early Operation Under Ether, 1847
Southworth and Hawes were an American photographic crew. They ran a daguerreotype studio in Boston that specialized in portraiture. They also took the camera to places of interest in order to record. Early Operation under Ether continues the tradition of documenting the medical practices of the day. The photograph recalls earlier portraits by Rembrandt. The image blurs are apparent from slight motion due to long exposures.
William Henry Fox Talbot The Pencil of Nature, 1844
In 1839, William Henry Fox Talbot presented his “photogenic drawings” to the Royal Institution of London. He was the first photographer to make negative images by using sensitized paper. With a second sheet, he would create the positive images by exposing through the first sheet, allowing for multiple positive prints to be produced from a single photographic negative. His work then influenced the Calotype, but, due to the expense from the heavy patents placed on the media, most other photographers elected to stick with Daguerrotypes for many years.
Henri Daumier Nadar Raising Photography to the Height of Art, 1862
Nadar Raising Photography to the Height of Art is an engraving by Daumier prompted by a court decision that acknowledged that photography was indeed an art and entitled to legal protection under copyright. The image also shows Nadar’s personal passion for ballooning, which often influenced his compositional perspectives and distinguished his work from that of his contemporaries. Nadar changed his name for his career, taking on a full artistic persona.
Nadar Eugène Delacroix, 1855
Nadar made many portraits trying to catch the essence of the individual. His portrait of Eugène Delacroix shows the presence of the artist. His photography further demonstrates an incredible range of tones by using glass negatives and an Albumen printing paper.
Julia Margaret Cameron Ophelia Study no 2, 1867
Julia Margaret Cameron became one of the most famous portrait photographers of Victorian England. She produced portraits of many famous people and also many women. Ophelia Study no 2 creates a theme much like painting. The blurred focus adds to the dream-like quality. As she sometimes sought to photographically produce fictional characters, she tried to keep a visual distance from the idea of exact reality.
Timothy O'Sullivan and Alexander Gardner A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1863
Timothy O'Sullivan and Alexander Gardner documented the American Civil War. A Harvest of Death demonstrates the documentary effect of photography as it creates a narrative regarding the high price of the war in casualties. Though these photographs claim a documentary theme, the bodies were composed for most dramatic impact. Photographers and newspapers quickly found that photography was a more effective medium than the newsprint engravings used at the time.
The nineteenth century was filled with industrialism and increased economic and political interaction worldwide. This produced an increased faith in science. There was also an acute sense of Western cultures’ lack of fixity or permanence due to the rapid expansion, faster modes of transportation, and increased social mobility. Also during this time, Charles Darwin put forth his ideas on evolution and Karl Marx emphasized the nature of the continuing sequence of conflicts and resolutions forming a shifting reality.
The artistic direction referred to as modernism soon developed out of this changing world. Modernism refers to the many stylistic movements in art from the middle nineteenth century until the beginnings of the postmodern movement in the later twentieth century. Modernism in art thus coincides with the advent of what we call modernity, which is associated with the understanding of the impermanence of the world. Artists in period were aware of the relationship between their art and those of previous generations. Art was produced to call attention to art, the flat surface of canvas, the shape of the support, the properties of the media. Modern artists accepted their precedents, but rebelled against the Academies that focused on the tradition of art based on previous generations rather than creating new and unique visions. Many modern artists thus took ownership of the term avant-garde, a French military term referring to the front line in battle. Such artists thus associated themselves with those who push forward, taking risks and breaking new ground.
The first modern stylistic turn was Realism, developed in the mid-19th century by Gustave Courbet. Realism is not a defined concept, but deals with the defining of the world around the artist. Realists argued that only the things of one’s own time, what people can see for themselves, are “real.” Through realism, subjects that were once not regarded as important enough to be painted became the focus of attention. Realists focused on experiences and sights of everyday contemporary life and disapproved of historical and fictional subjects on the grounds that they were not real and visible. They also called attention to the painted surface, the real nature of the medium, the fact that a painting is a painting.
To be able to translate the customs, ideas, and appearances of my time as I see them – in a word, to create a living art – this has been my aim… The art of painting can consist only in the representation of objects visible and tangible to the painter… who must apply his personal faculties to the ideas and the things of the period in which he lives… I hold also that the painting is essentially concrete art, and can consist only of the representation of things both real and existing… an abstract object, invisible or non existent does not belong in the domain of painting… show me an angel, and I’ll paint one. ~Gustave Courbet (Kleiner ?)
The Stone Breakers, 1849
Courbet's The Stone Breakers is a straight forward painting demonstrating the backbreaking labor of the rural working class. The two figures are depicted in all their banal reality: clothes worn and tearing, bodies supporting the tools and materials of their job. The painting also held a symbolic association to the workers who rebelled against the bourgeois leaders of the newly formed second republic.
Courbet was rejected from the Exposition Universelle of 1855 Salon after submitting fourteen paintings, including the monumental Burial at Ornans. He rebelled by setting up his own exhibition, the Pavilion of Realism, just outside the grounds, where he showed his art on his terms. Burial at Ornans depicts a funeral in a bleak landscape. It contains many of the conventions of historical painting, but depicts the common people of his rural hometown of Ornans. The painting also assumes the monumental scale of traditional history painting as it measures ten feet by twenty-two feet. Courbet's depiction of a lowly rural community partaking in what was at the time a bourgeois rite was shocking to the Parisian audience for this picture, and reflected Courbet's lifelong practice of prodding at social tensions.
Millet was a painter of the Barbizon School, which focused on pictures of the forest and the countryside. Unlike most Barbizon painters, however, Millet took as his subjects everyday people in their workaday world. The Gleaners depicts the lowest members of the peasant society. Gleaners were people allowed on the fields to take the leftovers after harvesting the grains. Like Courbet, Millet describes monumental characters against an empty field and broad sky, elevating the figures thematically. The painting however is quiet and sentimental unlike Courbet’s work. Millet seems to speak to the ideas of social equality and political expression that was not approved of by many viewers.
With the many revolutions, too bold a statement in the press, literature or art could imprison a person. Honoré Daumier emerged as a defender of the urban working classes and confronted authority with social criticism. He produced many prints which could be reproduced and distributed. He also did many satirical lithographs for a liberal readership.
Honoré Daumier Rue Transonain, 1834
Daumier's lithograph Rue Transonian is a narrative of an atrocity. On a street in Lyon, an unknown sniper had killed a civil guard member during a demonstration. The government responded by going into the building from which they believed the shot had been fired and massacred all the inhabitants. Daumier's print depicts the aftermath with factualness rather than drama, similar to that of a photograph and also similar to the previous works by Goya.
Honoré Daumier The Third-Class Carriage, 1862
Third Class Carriage is another work by Daumier. Though unfinished, the theme is of a grimy carriage. It depicts a glimpse into the reality of the lower class going about ordinary life. The painting is highly influenced by photography in its means of capturing reality.
Marie-Rosalie (Rosa) Bonheur was one of the most celebrated women artists of the 19th century. She was considered a naturalist with a passion for accuracy in painting. She resisted depicting the problematic social and political situations and turned to the animal world, spending long hours studying anatomy from carcasses in slaughterhouses.
Marie-Rosalie Bonheur The Horse Fair, 1853-55
The Horse Fair is a panoramic composition demonstrating her power of observation from life and the power of the horses being depicted. Pulling from preceding styles, there is dramatic lighting and a flowing sky. The painting is still somewhat heroic, but depicts a scene that is really quite ordinary.
Winslow Homer The Veteran in a New Field, 1865
Winslow Homer was an American who worked as an artist-reporter for Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War. The Veteran in a New Field is a commentary on the aftermath of the Civil War. The uniform and canteen are carelessly thrown on the ground as he assumes his duties. His duties have shifted, however, from harvesting men to harvesting wheat. This demonstrates the transition from war to peace. It is meant to reinforce the perception of the country’s greatness in the fact that they could make such transitions. The reaper is further extended as a symbol of death as he uses a single bladed scythe rather than the cradled scythes that were typically used.
Thomas Eakins was dedicated to showing the realities of human experience. He studied medical anatomy and it strongly influenced his work and teaching at the Philadelphia Academy of Art. He painted things as he saw them rather than in any ideal or emotional way, often leaving his portraits with a lifeless or bored feeling.
Thomas Eakins The Gross Clinic, 1875
The Gross Clinic was rejected from a show where they were looking for more ideal works in honor of the centennial of American Independence. Much like Rembrandt’s painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, Doctor Gross lectures about the operation he is doing on the man's leg. The patient’s mother covers her face and looks away from the scene as the only emotive quality in the work. Eakins said of this work, “It is a picture that even strong men find difficult to look at long, if they can look at it at all (Kleiner ?).”
Eakins believed that knowledge was a prerequisite to art. He thus created his images with observations of anatomy, and perspective. He also worked with Eadweard Muybridge in his studies on motion.
Eadweard Muybridge Horse Galloping, 1878
Eadweard Muybridge formed an international reputation for his studies of motion. Horse Galloping became a part of a legendary story that started this career. Two gentlemen were debating over the motion of a horse galloping and Muybridge was employed to prove the theory. He invented a system of cameras to capture the horse in motion, allowing them to see how the horse's legs move as it gallops.
Muybridge's studies formed the beginnings of the motion picture. His photographs of the galloping horse were thrown into a loop through a Xoopraxiscope, where a series of images are placed on a wheel that, when spun, creates a sense of motion based on persistence of vision. Muybridge thus earned his place in both science and art with such studies.
John Singer Sargent The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882
In contrast to the bored looking portraits of Eakins, John Singer Sargent's portraits demonstrate compositional authority and emotive impact with a looser, more dashing realist style. His paintings give the illusion of quickness and have a liveliness much in the vain of Velasquez. In his painting, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, the girls all appear in the hall. The painting seems to be an informal narrative depicting the reality of what daily life would have been like, with a sense of spontaneity. The girls demonstrate their young innocence and the self consciousness of girls of that age.
Edouard Manet demonstrated a strong commitment to realist ideas but draws on the past for his themes. In Luncheon on the Grass, Manet depicts two nude women and two clothed men enjoying a picnic. The scene seems odd as the real people posing are based on living people and the nude model looks to the viewer unabashed. The reality of the scene seems to merely represent promiscuousness at a public park. Viewers took the painting too literally because of the way in which it was depicted seemed too realistic and Manet anticipated criticism but had a goal to reassess the range of art.
The painting makes references to history painting, portraiture, pastoral scenes, religious allegory, etc. Specifically the scene alludes to Titian's Pastoral Symphony. The manner of rendering with a looser strokes also caught criticism as he emphasized the media. Manet's work thus takes a modernist turn as he comments on history while emphasizing the nature of painting, the function of paint to capture light, and the flatness of the painting surface.
Olympia was considered scandalous. The title refers to a typical "professional" name of prostitutes. The nude also meets the viewers eyes with indifference while a black maid presents flowers from a client. Viewers were taken aback by the shamelessness and look of defiance. The rough brush strokes and abrupt shifts of tone were drastically different from the academic work which was widely accepted at the time, though the painting alludes to a long tradition of the female nude in painting and sculpture. The painting compositionally and thematically steals directly from another of Titian's paintings, Venus of Urbino.
Where the Realists were focused on pursuits of science and rational thought, another camp of artists continued to rebel against the wholly rational in favor of the poetic and emotional. Looking back to the past, The Pre-Raphaelites looked to poetry and authors such as Shakespeare to influence their realistic illustrative paintings. Similarly, John Ruskin and William Morris began the Arts and Crafts Movement. This movement was dedicated to bringing back craft, aesthetic sensibilities, and emotion back into a world where industrialization had sucked much of these qualities from the products that it produced. Their main focus was that in paying attion to such qualities in objects, value is thus added. They similarly looked to the Medieval eras and artifacts such as manuscript illumination as their inspiration.
John Everett Millais founded a group of artists named The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. These artists refused to be limited to the contemporary scenes that Realists portrayed. They instead focused on fictional, historical and fanciful subjects with a significant degree of convincing illusion. They are thus considered visual poets of meticulous detail.
Ophelia by Millais is considered one of the greatest of the Pre-Raphaelites. It was exhibited in the Exhibition Universelle in 1855 where Courbet was rejected and set up his Pavilion of Realism. The theme is a subject from Shakespeare's Hamlet, and Shakespeare's works were often used as themes for these artists. Millais painting displays the quote,
Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaidlike awhile they bore her up-
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress.
The painting is thus visual reality in a poetic scene.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti Beata Beatrix, 1863
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was known as both a painter and a poet. His numerous portraits of women portrayed an image of ethereal beauty and melded Victorian prettiness with sensual allure.Beata Beatrix is a portrait of a literary figure from Dante’s Vita Nuova. The figure overlooks Florence in a trance after being mystically transported from earth to heaven. She hadserved as a memorial to his wife who had died shortly before he painted this of an opium overdose. The red dove is thus messenger of love and death as it deposits a poppy into her hands. The painting is thus symbolic and poetic.
Gertrude Kasebier Blessed Art Thou among Women, 1899
Photography could be manipulated by skilled photographers to be used to produce romantic effects and gave rise to a concept described as Pictorialism. Gertrude Kasebier was an American female who worked as a portrait painter and became famous for symbolic themes in photography. The title of Blessed Art Thou Among Women refers to a phrase the angel Gabriel used in the New Testament to announce to the Virgin Mary that she will be the mother of Jesus. It thus depicts a parallel between biblical and modern mother in the image as she must both protect and send forth their young. There is also a staged presence of light versus dark and a combination of an out of focus background with a sharp or almost sharp foreground. Kasebier thus invests a scene from everyday life with a sense of spiritual and the divine.
Impressionism is an artistic product of an industrialized, urbanized Paris. The stylistic movement deals with the realist concerns of timeliness, the changes in the world, the idea of the transitory, the moving light. The title of the movement was applied by a hostile critic in response to Claude Monet's Impression: Sunrise in 1872. Impression is a term commonly applied to sketches. The Impressionists thus used the abbreviation of sketches, and plein air painting to show speed and spontaneity, often with a lack of clarity. The speed is in direct comparison to the concepts of cameras in using paint as a medium to capture light as they saw it rather than in the studio.
Claude Monet Impression: Sunrise, 1874
The first Impressionist show was in 1874 from which the Impressionists took their name. By the 3rd show, Impressionists used the term Impressionism to describe their work. In Claude Monet's Impression: Sunrise, the brush strokes are clearly evident. The painting, however is not a sketch but of a sketchy quality. Monet's painting further demonstrates an interaction between the responses of what is seen and what is felt, both subjective and descriptive.
Saint-Lazare Train Staton shows the effects of urban development. The train station becomes main part of Parisian life. The painting demonstrates logs of energy and the application of paint attests to the energy of the moment, much like Turner.
Monet spent a couple of seasons in a studio across from the Rouen Cathedral in 1894 where he produced a series of paintings of the façade. The paintings further demonstrate experiences of light and color as he studies of light and not so much the form or the façade. The local color is usually modified by the qualities of light in which it is seen. The shadows have color as well modified by reflections or other conditions. In these paintings, Monet learned of the use of complementary colors to emphasize and intensify each other. As smaller quantities of color complements mixed together, they would form neutral tones which were many times avoided by impressionists.
The Rouen canvases seemed blurry at close distances because of the lack of mixed pigments and choppy stroke giving more vibrant color. The critics claimed that they fired paint at their canvases with pistols. In them, however, the main idea was to forget the object in front of them and it’s structures and paint what they are seeing. Some 40 views of this church façade were painted from nearly the same viewpoint at different times of the day or under different weather conditions. He used light and color to reach a greater understanding of the appearance of form.
There was a redesigning of Paris that was begun in 1852 as the population rose to about 1.5 million. The streets became wider to accommodate the flow or traffic. In Gustave Caillebotte'sParis: A Rainy Day the image is not dissolved as with the other Impressionists that he showed with, but the informality of the composition and the cropping becomes important. The painting is seemingly random in placement of figures, but there is a staged studio quality and structured composition again unlike the other Impressionists. For this reason, he was questioned by critics for the reasons he was showing with the others given that he could seemingly "draw." The painting however captures and artist’s “impression” of the urban city and still not a specific narrative or allegory as the academic painters were doing at the time.
Camille Pissaro La Place Du Theatre Francais, 1898
Camille Pissarro in La Place Du Theatre Francais depicts a city street similar to Caillebotte, but here records a panorama of dark against light from his window. He too provides the sensation of a crowded Parisian square and painting it from an view from several stories above. The presence of time is important as it seemingly captures a random snapshot much like a camera. Pissarro demonstrates a deliberate casualness of the arrangement of figures. He often was noted for using photography to supplement work directly from a model.
Hippolyte Jouvin, The Pont Neuf, Paris, 1860-1865
The photograph above of Hippolyte Jouvin, The Pont Neuf, Paris is similar to many photos that were taken at the time for tourist amusement. Pissarro probably did not use this particular image but it shows much similarity. The image portrayed is an early example of an insert for stereoscopic glasses to give an effect of 3D.
Industrialization led to regimented schedules and many people found time for leisurely activities. Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Le Moulin de la Galette depicts a popular Parisian dance hall. The painting shows a lively atmosphere dappled with sunlight and shade. The effects of the fleeting light is important to the concepts of the Impressionists. There is also a continuity of space spreading from the picture frame as suggested by the cropping of figures. This is a new compositional concept stressed by the camera and its cropping of the natural world in the capturing of its image. Where the classical is timeless, impressionism is momentary.
Edouard Manet produced and showed along with the Impressionists as well. A Bar at the Folies-Bergere displays a café with music-hall performances. Manet provides the viewer with a seemingly disinterested barmaid, but calls attention to the surface as he bends perspective and space. He forces the viewer to scrutinize the work and make sense of the scene. The mirror behind the barmaid creates confusion, are we seeing a woman in the back of the barmaid or a reflection? Manet here shows a radical break from the traditions of the pictorial space and his implications are that the artist has in his ability to altar such space as meets demand further stressing the function of painting and art.
Edgar Degas Ballet Rehearsal, 1874
Edgar Degas uses compositional devices to bring the viewer into the pictorial space. The frame cuts off the composition in interesting places. Figures are not centered, and diagonals drive the viewer around the composition between the positive and negative spaces. The floor plane is also tilted up slightly emphasizing these diagonals influenced by "Japonisme," or the fascination with Japanese artifacts influencing western art. Degas paintings of ballet rehearsals also describe his interest in single moments in time with a fascination with photography with the asymmetrical cropping of space.
Edgar Degas The Tub, 1886
Degas demonstrates his mastery of line and form as seen in drawings such as The Tub. His pastel drawings focused on figures in rapid and informal situations. The drawings give an impression of arrested motion. The drawings also show an exploration of the premises of painting and 2D surface and the angles of the composition. The table also sets off an interesting cropped angle.
Edgar Degas The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, 1879-80
Multi-talented, Degas also worked in sculpture, often wax given the speed of such production. Many of these have been turned to bronze for collectors, but The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer was originally displayed in its wax form, with flesh-like coloring adding to it's realism. Smaller than a real girl, but still insinuating reality, the sculpture stood in stark realistic contrast to the heroic bronzes and marble sculptures displayed at the time. Critics abhorred the work for its realism, chiding it as "ugly" but the sculpture stands as a testament to the pursuit of realism that these "impressionists" were after.
Berthe Morisot Villa at the Seaside, 1874
The impressionists also welcomed several female artists into their circle. The female artists escaped criticism and were said to have “sensibility, grace, and delicacy” associated with their femininity. Berthe Morisot painted many outdoor leisure activities and especially the seaside that had become a popular destination due to the availability by train. Her subjects and style deal with impressionist concerns with splashes of color. Her paintings also demonstrate the plein air, or outdoor painting, and the lighting is typical of impressionist works as they looked to light as regulatory of form.
Another of the women working within the Impressionist movement, Mary Cassatt was greatly influenced greatly by Degas. She exhibited regularly with the Impressionists, but her subjects were limited due to personal restrictions of family. She principally depicted women and children. Her compositions also often incorporated flattened patterning and compositional devices recall Japanese art.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec became a popular artists for his poster designs. He produced a satirical edge based on his self-exiled nature because of his affliction due to pollio and his still aristocratic name. His aristocratic name allowed him to travel in high circles, rubbing elbows with the social elite. He had a fond interest in the night world of Paris.
At the Moulin Rouge shows influences of Degas, the Japanese print, and photography. He stresses diagonals and odd colors as he exaggerated elements to add emphasis to the mask-like faces. Unlike Renoir's image of day-time dances, there is an off putting nature to these night-club scenes. Toulouse-Lautrec's design sense seen in this painting and his graphic designs demonstrate bold color and line that had a large impact on future generations and the Art Noveau style at the turn of the century. Toulouse-Lautrec also places himself in his scenes, the tiny man with a derby hat.
James Abbot McNeill Whistler was an American artist who provided a mixture of some of the Impressionist concerns as well as his own artistic concepts. His painting were often subjects of contemporary life and sensations of color. He had an interest in creating harmonies paralleling music. He states, “nature contains the elements, in color and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful – as the musician gathers his notes and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony (Kleiner ?).” In a move toward emphasizing the painting and composition to be read in such an abstract, scientific way, he began calling his paintings “arrangements” or “nocturnes.”
James Abbot McNiell Whistler Nocturne in Black and Gold (The Falling Rocket), 1875
Whistler was interested more in the atmospheric affects than the details of an actual scene in his painting, Nocturne in Black and Gold. The painting angered viewers and critic John Ruskin accused Whistler of “Flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler sues Ruskin for libel and states during the trial:
It is a night piece and represents the fireworks at Cermorne
“Not a view of Cremorne?”
“If it were a view of Cremorne, it would certainly bring about nothing but disappointment on the part of the beholders. It is an artistic arrangement… it is as impossible for me to explain to you the beauty of that picture as it would be for a musician to explain to you the beauty of a harmony in a particular piece of music if you have no ear for music.
Whistler won the case, but was awarded only one farthing in damages and was required to pay the court costs which bankrupted him. The case, however, was a major accomplishment in terms of debating publicly aesthetic theory and the meaning of art.
By 1886 Impressionists were considered serious artists. Many younger artists were concerned that impressionism was neglecting too many traditional elements of the picture: line, pattern, form and color. A group of artists, now termed post-impressionists, explored the expressive capabilities of formal elements or orientation.
Probably the best known of the post impressionists, Vincent Van Gogh used color and distorted forms to express his emotions. He was the son of a Protestant pastor and his brother, Theo, was a major art collector and dealer, dealing in many of the impressionists artwork. Van Gogh's story has become one of legend as his professional and personal failures brought him to despair. He had suffered from epileptic seizures and turned to painting which gave him a power to create was his reason for living. He himself wrote much about his artwork and process stating, “instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily so as to express myself forcibly.” Much of his concepts of artistic creation has led to modern day art therapy.
Van Gogh's expressive painting contains a signature brush stroke and thick, tactile property that is a counterpart to his expressive color schemes. He seemingly attacks his canvases with his slap-dash mark, producing his paintings at speed given that he produced hundreds of works within his last few years of life, often on top of paintings or the backs of canvases due to a limitation of materials.
Vincent Van Gogh Night Café, 1888
Night Café was meant to convey an oppressive atmosphere, “a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime.” Van Gogh writes
I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. The room is blood read and dark yellow with a green billiard table in the middle; there are four citron-yellow lamps with a glow of orange and green. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most disparate reds and greens in the figures of the little sleeping hooligans, in the empty, dreary room, in violet and blue. The blood-red and the yellow-green of the billiard table, for instance, contrast with the soft, tender Louis XV green of the counter, on which there is a pink nosegay. The white coat of the landlord, awake in a corner of that furnace, turns citron-yellow or pale luminous green (Kleiner ?).
The painting's tilted perspective, often employed by Van Gogh, places the viewer in an odd place in the painting. This is influenced highly by Japonisme, while his bold colors set Van Gogh apart from his contemporaries.
Vincent Van Gogh Starry Night, 1889
Starry Night has become an iconic image. It was a painting done from the asylum which he committed himself, painted the year before his death. All visual objects in the painting are removed of form and expressed in a unique vision. The dark blue and turbulent brush strokes suggest his depression. He writes about this painting, "Perhaps death is no the hardest thing in a painter’s life… Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shinning dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Trascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star (Kleiner ?)." He is thus contemplating death and transcendence, much in contrast to how viewers often relate to the painting.
Paul Gaugin, an associate of Van Gogh rejected objective representation in favor of subjective expression. He broke with impressionistic studies of closely contrasted hues because he believed color should be expressive and the artist’s power to determine colors in a painting was a seminal element of creativity. Professionally, he resigned from a brokerage business and left his family in 1883 to devote his time entirely to painting. He soon moved to Pont-Aven to escape into emotion and painted work that rejected realism and impressionism.
Attracted to Brittany’s unspoiled culture and the medieval catholic piety of the area, Gaugin immersed himself in their culture creating paintings such as Vision after the Sermon, or Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. He ignored the drastic changes that transformed the area during that time to a profitable market economy. In the painting, Breton women wearing their Sunday caps and black dresses are visualizing a sermon they had just heard at church on Jacob’s encounter with the Holy Spirit. They seemingly pray devoutly before the apparition. The painting demonstrates no sense of optical realism and instead focuses on color and a twisted perspective to separate the spaces of real and imaginary. Wrestling matches were a typical form of entertainment after high mass and this comments on that as well.
Gaugin briefly lived with van Gogh and then looked for an economic place to live. He later settles in Tahiti in the South Pacific because it was a life far removed from materialistic Europe and allowed him to reconnect with nature. His paintings turn to an association with native motifs as well as form and color.
Paul Gaugin Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?, 1897
Gaugin's artwork was not well received and was worn down. In 1897 he attempts to kill himself only to live to 1903. Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? can be read as a summary of his artistic methods with its flat shape and pure color. The painting shows a tropical landscape with an ambiguous message. Gaugin states,
Where are we going? Near to death and old woman… What are we? Day to day existence… Where do we come from? Source. Child. Life begins… Behind a tree two sinister figures cloaked in garments of sombre color, introduce, near the tree of knowledge, their note of anguish caused by that very knowledge in contrast to some simple beings in a virgin nature, which might be paradise as conceived by humanity, who give themselves up to the happiness of living (Kleiner ?).
The image is pessimistic of the life cycle’s inevitability, but demonstrates Gaugin's commitment to color.
Georges Seurat's paintings speak to science more than art. He produced a stylistic process he called "divisionism." The process required observing color and breaking it apart into pure component colors, much like pixels or the modern print process. Seurat shows an interest on recreational themes and light. His paintings are often rigid and remote as the systematic way of color had to be carefully composed. The paintings thus become fairly abstract as he simplifies figures to shape forms.
The industrial revolution and the invention of photography freed artists to think more abstractly about the nature of art and the purpose of painting moving forward. Many artistic movements begin to comment on their predecessors under modernist goals and an avante guarde sense of exploration. Moving into the twentieth century, the pace accelerates as the world becomes smaller through technology, trade, and exploration. More cultures become influential on the aesthetic sensibilities of the western world and the concepts of progress entitle artists to comment on the world around them.
This module was produced by Professor Josh Yavelberg utilizing a mixture of open educational resources and notes from:
Kleiner, Fred. Gardner's Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective,|. Vol. 2. Cengage Learning, 2013.