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When we hear the word “art”, there may be several images that come to mind: an optically masterful painting made entirely of dots, an abstract piece with splashes of color, or even such masterpieces as the Mona Lisa. But how did all these styles come to exist and be equally appreciated? In the history of art, two of the most notable art periods have been Impressionism and Post-impressionism. As modern developments for their time, both of these movements display a break from traditional motifs and a desire to portray emotion. However, there are some key differences between the styles of the two, despite their relation to each other.
In 1874, a group of artists rebelled against the Neoclassical art standards of the time, punctuating the start of the Impressionistic era with an exhibition of their new style. This group, headed by such artists as Edgar Degas and Claude Monet, shocked the world with their bright, light-filled paintings. Widely considered vulgar, these Impressionistic paintings featured short, broken brush strokes and vibrant, unblended colors. Even shadows and highlights, traditionally created using black or white, were rendered in color (Samu). This movement’s emphasis on bright colors and the effects of light was partially facilitated by the recent development of synthetic pigments (Samu), a technology that gave artists access to truer, brighter colors.
A possible response to the emergence of photography, Impressionism broke out of the stuffy, posed, and somber-colored traditions of Neoclassical art. With the technology of photographs, realistic paintings became obsolete, giving the artist the freedom and necessity to explore new styles. Instead of the staged studio paintings of Neoclassicism, Impressionism focused on transient subjects and modern life outside of the studio. This style, called “en plein air” (meaning out-of-doors) (“Impressionism”), was characterized by the capture of a passing moment. Paintings often portrayed landscapes and scenes of leisure, with the bright, glittering colors of the outside world. Impressionism’s naturalistic style and rejection of traditional idealism earned it its classification as modern, and would influence the movement that arose in response to it.
The term “Post-impressionism,” which has been applied to Impressionism’s successor, came much later than the actual movement. It was coined by English critic Roger Fry in 1910, long after the participating artists’ deaths (“Postimpressionism”). The movement began in the late 1880s, and featured a dramatic break from the naturalistic style of its predecessor. Leaning towards the abstract, Post-impressionism was centered on the expression of emotion, with simplified colors and definitive forms (Voorhies) – most unlike the suggested forms and complex colors of Impressionism. Rather than the optical focus and impressions of its forerunner, Post-impressionism strived to express themes of deeper meaning, applying symbolism to every color and brush stroke.
Though shaped by Impressionism, Post-impressionism is perhaps best described by its lack of stylistic structure or commonality between artists’ work. With no single style or approach, the movement was even less collective than Impressionism (Voorhies). Indeed, the only cohesion Post-impressionism can be recognized by is its lack of cohesion. Between artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, and Georges Seurat, the expressive characteristics of Post-impressionistic paintings ranged from emotional to cerebral (“Postimpressionism”), taking Impressionism’s break from traditional sameness even further.
Impressionism and Post-impressionism are some of the best examples of the growth of art throughout history. Each was developed as a response to the artistic movement before it, with a radical shift away from the styles before it. Though the acceptance and celebration of different styles is commonplace now, this break from the established idea of art made both of these movements modern in their own right, and played an important role in the great diversity of artworks that we enjoy today.
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