Articles and Features

Art Movement: Post-Impressionism

Wheatfield with Crows by Vincent van Gogh, one of the major representatives of Post-Impressionism.
Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, 1890. Courtesy Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

By Shira Wolfe

“I want to re-do Poussin from nature.”

Paul Cézanne

In the late 1880s, a group of young painters in France attempted to break free of the naturalistic approach to depicting color and light typical of Impressionism, embarking on a search for independent artistic styles to express emotions and not just visual impressions, focusing more on symbolism. Among these artists were Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Paul Cézanne. This art movement came to be known as Post-Impressionism.

Key dates: 1886 – 1905
Key regions: France
Keywords: Structure, order, optical effects of color, symbolism, memory, emotions, abstract form, patterns, geometry, expressions
Key artists: Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Toulouse Lautrec, Henri Rousseau, Camille Pissarro
Key characteristics: Emerged as a reaction against Impressionism’s opticality; emphasis on abstract qualities or symbolic content.

Example of post-impressionist painting by Paul Gauguin titled 'Vision After the Sermon (Jacob wrestling with the angel)'.
Paul Gauguin, Vision After the Sermon (Jacob wrestling with the angel), 1888. Courtesy National Gallery of Scotland

What is Post-Impressionism? Definition & Characteristics

Post-Impressionism emerged as a reaction against Impressionism and its concern for the objective depiction of light and color. It started emerging around 1886, the year of the last Impressionist group show in Paris, and came to an end around 1905, with the birth of Fauvism. Post-Impressionism expanded some of the approaches of Impressionism such as the use of vivid colors, at times using a thick application of paint termed impasto, and frequently painting from life. Artists started to reject Impressionism’s limitations by inclining towards an emphasis on geometric or distorted forms and opting for more unnatural colors, which they attributed strong emotional meaning to. Post-Impressionists also tended much more towards symbolism and abstraction. The term Post-Impressionism was first used by the art critic Roger Fry in 1906 as a bland term to describe a variety of works departing from Impressionism produced in the last decades of the century.

“It is well to remember that a picture before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.”

Maurice Denis

Post-Impressionist Styles 

Post-Impressionism was never formally defined as a cohesive movement but reflected instead the vision of several artists, predominantly French, united by similar concerns, who often exhibited together, resulting in a rich complexity of different styles and trends. Below is a list of some of the most influential manifestations of Post-Impressionism.

Georges Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte - Example of post-impressionism art.
Georges Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884. Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago


Divisionism, also sometimes called ‘chromoluminarism’, defined itself by the separation of colors into individual dots that interacted optically to create an image. Divisionism developed along with Pointillism, which was also defined by the use of dots but did not necessarily focus on the separation of colors. Georges Seurat founded Divisionism in 1884.

The Yellow Christ by Paul Gauguin: painting displaying the characteristics of Post-Impressionism.
Paul Gauguin, The Yellow Christ (Le Christ jaune), 1889. Courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York


Cloisonnism is a style that is characterized by bold and flat forms separated by dark contours. Édouard Dujardin coined the term in 1888, and Émile Bernard, Louis Anquetin, Paul Gauguin, and Paul Sérusier, among others, started painting in this style soon after. The name is taken from cloisonné, a technique where wires soldered to the body of the piece are filled with powdered glass and are then fired. The Yellow Christ (1889) by Paul Gauguin is often cited as one of the quintessential cloisonnist works. 

The Talisman by Paul Sérusier.
Paul Sérusier, The Talisman, 1888


‘Synthetism’ is a term that was used by artists like Paul Gauguin, Émile Bernard, and Louis Anquetin to set their work apart from Impressionism. The term was derived from the French verb synthétiser (meaning ‘to synthesize’ or ‘to combine’ in order to form a new, complex product). Synthetist artists aimed to “synthesize” three features: the outward appearance of natural forms; the artist’s feelings about their subject; and the purity of the aesthetic considerations of line, color, and form.

Maurice Denis made the following statement about Synthetism: 

“It is well to remember that a picture before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”

Maurice Denis
Painting titled  Breton Women in the Meadow (Le Pardon de Pont-Aven) by Émile Bernard one of the post-impressionism artists.
Émile Bernard, Breton Women in the Meadow (Le Pardon de Pont-Aven), 1888

Pont-Aven School

Artists in the Pont-Aven School produced works of art influenced by the Breton town Pont-Aven and its surroundings. Many of the artists who lived here in the artist colony of Pont-Aven took inspiration from the works of Paul Gauguin, who often spent time in the area. Their artworks are characterized by the use of pure color and Symbolist subject matter.

Impressionism vs Post-Impressionism

Impressionism emerged in the late 19th century in Paris as a reaction to the rapidly changing urban environment and was characterized by the use of vibrant colors, spontaneous brushstrokes, an accurate depiction of the changing quality of light, and subjects inspired by modern urban life. Post-Impressionism emerged as a reaction to Impressionism’s opticality while simultaneously embracing some of its characteristics such as the use of brilliant colors, general freedom from traditional subject matters, and the textured painting technique. Post-Impressionism artists tended much more towards symbolism and abstraction and opted for distorted forms and bolder, more unnatural colors as a means of subjective expression. 

Most famous Post-Impressionist Artists

Post-Impressionist artists found common dissatisfaction in the alleged triviality of everyday subject matter and the general loss of structure in Impressionist paintings. To such discontent, they did not respond with a shared collective solution but with a variety of idiosyncratic styles and techniques instead. Below is a selection of artists whose individual contributions largely affected the development of Post-Impressionism.

Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat came up with the technique known as ‘divisionism’ or ‘chromoluminarism’. He was known for his delicate sensibility on the one hand and his passion for logical abstraction and great precision on the other hand. His painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-1886) is one of the most iconic works of the late 19th century. 

Vincent van Gogh

Perhaps the most famous Post-Impressionist artist of all, Vincent van Gogh became famous posthumously for his bold colors and deeply expressive and impulsive brushwork. Van Gogh moved to Paris at the time of the Impressionists and soon started contributing to the counter-movement of Post-Impressionism. With his incredibly daring works, he helped lay the foundation for modern art. 

Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin was one of the most important artists in the Post-Impressionist movement and first used the term ‘Synthetism’ to set his work apart from Impressionism. He was also an important influence on the Pont-Aven School, and later became hailed as the leader of Symbolism. Gauguin spent the last part of his life living and working in French Polynesia, where he painted the people and landscapes.

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec was another important figure who shaped Post-Impressionism. He was a prominent painter, printmaker, illustrator, and draftsman, taking inspiration from the electrifying, seedy Parisian nightlife. His subjects were often charismatic characters of Parisian bars, clubs, theatres, and dancehalls. 

Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau was a Post-Impressionist artist who painted in the Naïve style. He was almost totally self-taught, and most of his inspiration came from nature and the subconscious. Though he was greatly ridiculed by the public and critics throughout his life, he did attract the attention of the Parisian avant-garde and exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants

Camille Pissarro

Camille Pissarro is the only artist who showed his work at all eight of the Paris Impressionist exhibitions. He acted as a kind of father figure to the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists, and contributed to both art movements. Once Pissarro moved away from the Impressionist movement, it marked the end of the Impressionist period. He then explored working in the Post-Impressionist style for several years, and eventually moved away from that as well, deeming it too artificial. He then more or less returned to his original style, but his forays into Post-Impressionism had definitely left him with more subtlety and a more refined color scheme. 

Relevant sources to learn more

Read more about the definition and origins of Avant-Garde Art.
Read more about the Pont-Aven art colony and other influential art colonies throughout history.

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