Everyone has heard of impressionist art, whether you’re an art lover or not. You may have tackled the style during GCSE Art or heard the terminology been thrown about when referring to paintings that aren’t quite perfect. We take a look at Impressionism Vs Post Impressionism but for most people who haven’t studied art history, the first artist you associate with the ‘Impressionist movement’ is Vincent Van Gogh.
Van Gogh was a Dutch painter most famous for his “Sunflowers” and his world renowned “Starry Night” painting. He is also as notoriously known for cutting off his own ear. Surprisingly, it is only after his suicide in 1890 did his work become famous and he was finally recognised as the quintessential misunderstood artistic genius we have grown to admire.
Successful or not, Van Gogh was a talented and expressive painter, whose works of art have been some of the most expensive paintings to have ever been sold at auction. But what most people would describe as a “perfect example of Impressionism” is not a perfect example of impressionism at all.
The Impressionist Movement was an artistic movement during the 18th century. The artists involved aimed to create works of art that would seem realistic at first glance, or from a distance, but more abstract once viewers got up close. A rebellious move against the popular Realism art that had dominated canvases years before, the paintings were achieved by capturing realistic depictions of light and its movement, without portraying solid and defined forms. Because of the representations of light within the paintings, the artists had to use realistic colour palettes to convey the way that light appeared in the real world.
Due to the fact that Realism had been prevalent for many years, depicting war and battle scenes in incredible details and Romanticism had been popular for many years before that, Impressionism was a shock to the art world and wasn’t as warmly received. Despite the impressive use of realistic colours, the treatment of the paints and brushstrokes in a more fluid and changing form meant that Impressionist artwork was seen as puerile. The non-conventional style meant that many artists had to fight for the right to be seen, including another great artist, Claude Monet. Monet is now credited with having painted one of the most important paintings in history, “Impression of Sunrise” a piece that set a huge precedent in the world of artists making “non-conventional” artwork. When Louis Leroy, a renowned art critic, studied Monet’s sunrise he criticised the painting, describing it as “impressionism” and thus the art movement was born.
Which brings us onto Vincent Van Gogh.
Van Gogh wasn’t always as popular as he is now. In fact, he only actually sold one painting during his life and even though impressionism was so frowned upon, he was less popular than Monet. But then Vincent didn’t paint in an Impressionist style, he was actually part of a movement called ‘Post Impressionism’.
While Impressionists took inspiration from the Realist movement and prided themselves on realistic and meticulous use of colour, they continued the break that the Realists began from the illusionist tradition by emphasizing paint on canvas, flattening the sense of perspective through lack of tonal modelling, and using daring cropped perspectives which were influenced by Japanese prints. Confronting nature and modern city life directly, the Impressionists differed from their antecedents because they painted en plein air (in the open air) and used a palette of pure colours.
Post Impressionists, on the other hand, saw the opportunity to use colour far more expressively and symbolically. Although they continued to use the more painterly brush strokes and techniques that Impressionists had made popular, the Post Impressionists rejected Impressionisms concern with spontaneous and naturalistic rendering of light and colour and instead adopted a colour palette that was bolder and more daring and not as natural as the ones Impressionists had been using previously. They believed that colour could be independent of form and composition and instead used colour to convey a sense of mood and atmosphere more effectively than a realistic or natural one.
Claude Monet, for example, used expressive techniques and realistic colours to create a lifelike impression of what the eyes see in the real world. Vincent Van Gogh on the other hand, used expressive painting techniques, vivid and dramatic colours mixed in with a bit of creative license to create an impression of not what the eyes see, but what the heart feels.
“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”
― Vincent Van Gogh
Both art forms are nonetheless incredibly important in the history of art. With one seeking to capture nature in its original and primitive state and the other seeking to involve their imagination and memory in their works; both exceed the boundaries of what artists can do and what the public in those different time periods considered to be acceptable. The defiance of conventional artistic practises led to a domino effect of rapidly changing artistic movements that have brought us to a modern world filled with many different kinds of artists and artwork, all freely expressing their creative vision through a multitude of styles and practises.
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