Post-Impressionist Painting
Development, Characteristics: Symbolism, Cloisonnism, Les Nabis, Les Vingt.

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The Vision after the Sermon (1888)
By Paul Gauguin.

Sunday Afternoon on the Island
of La Grande Jatte (1884-6). By Seurat.

Post-Impressionist Painting (c.1880-1895)
Characteristics and Development


Parisian Art and the French Salon (1880s)
Dissolution of the Impressionist Group
Alternatives to Impressionism
Society and Politics in France (1880s)
French Literary Art
Pictorial Symbolism: Louis Anquetin and Emile Bernard
Paul Gauguin
Artist Colonies in Brittany
Serusier: The Talisman and the Nabis
The 1890s
Les Vingt Artist Group (1883-93)
The Pressures of Innovation
Return to Naturalism
Return to the Classical Ideal
Return to Religion
The 1890s: Paving the Way for the 1900s

Self-Portrait by Pierre Bonnard (1889)
A key member of Les Nabis.
Private Collection.

The best collection of Impressionist
and Post-Impressionist paintings
hangs in the Musee d'Orsay Paris.

For colour pigments used by
Post-Impressionist painters, see:
Nineteenth Century Colour palette.

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.

For a list of the Top 10 painters/
sculptors: Best Artists of All Time.
For the best oils/watercolours,
see: Greatest Paintings Ever.


In 1895, Teodor de Wyzewa, the art critic and Wagnerian enthusiast, looked back over the previous 15 years of French painting and concluded that a clear distinction could be drawn between the anarchy and impetuous innovation of the 1880s and the consolidation and relative order of the succeeding five years. De Wyzewa's analysis of the distinctive characteristics of art before and after 1890 is a useful starting point for a review of Post-Impressionism painting in France during the period 1880 to 1905.

Parisian Art and the French Salon (1880s)

Art in Paris in the 1880s defied simple definition. No one aesthetic theory and no single style was dominant either within or outside the circle of the annual Salon exhibition. So confused was the situation that, when Emile Bernard (1868-1941) joined Cormon's atelier in 1884, he not only applied himself diligently to acquiring the rudiments of an academic training but also, following the example of fellow Post-Impressionist painters, Louis Anquetin (1861-1932) and Toulouse-Lautrec, spent his time copying Old Masters in the Louvre and studying the latest Impressionist paintings in the galleries of the Rue Laffitte. The result was the somewhat contradictory ambition 'to paint with the palette of the Impressionists and draw like the Old Masters'. Bernard's response to the lack of coherence in the artistic scene was typical; neither the official art world of the Paris Salon and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, nor the Impressionists, satisfied the demands of the young artists in this decade for a coherent aesthetic theory.

Within the Salon, the situation was less than encouraging. In 1880 the Marquis de Chennevieres was alarmed by the organization and content of the Salon. He suggested reforming its structure so that the artists could become their own governing body. This was put into practice in 1881 when the Salon was renamed the Societe des Artistes Francais, a change formalized in 1884. Yet this reform did not at once improve the quality of art exhibited. De Chennevieres had cried out in 1880: "What a chaotic collection of useless artists! What a graveyard of mediocrities! What a muddle of insignificant painters! They have been hung everywhere, inside, outside, on the landings, in the hallways, on the stairs, here, there and everywhere! What does one have to have done in order to merit exclusion from such an exhibition?"

It was partly the inadequacies of the Salon which provoked the flood of alternative exhibiting bodies in Paris in the 1880s. Following such precursors as the Impressionists Exhibitions in Paris (which began in 1874) and the transformation of dealers from being mere picture handlers into exhibition organizers, this proliferation of exhibitions developed in three directions. There was a dramatic increase in the number of independent exhibiting bodies such as the Societe des Aquarellistes Francais, the Cercle Artistique et Litteraire Volney, the Cercle Boissy d'Anglas and, in 1884, the Salon des Independants. Second, commerical galleries increased their exhibition activities. For example, in 1882 the dealer Georges Petit established a series of international exhibitions which would be held annually in his spacious, richly hung galleries. These exhibitions were large and cosmopolitan, including at different times French artists such as Gerome, Besnard, Raffaelli, Monet and Renoir, and foreign painters such as Whistler, Watts, Millais, Menzel, Liebermann and Boldini. Finally, exhibition space was provided by the rising number of small literary periodicals which showed a growing interest in the visual arts. Odilon Redon (1840-1916) had his first two important exhibitions of lithographs at the offices of La Vie Moderne (1881) and Le Gaulois (1882).

Similarly, Edouard Dujardin was induced by his friends Anquetin and Toulouse-Lautrec to make available the offices of La Revue Independante, and the first exhibition was held in 1887. This practice was continued in the 1890s by such periodicals as La Revue Blanche and La Plume, the latter's offices housing the Salon des Cent. In 1881 Arthur Baignieres had viewed the growth of the Societe des Aquarellistes Francais as the beginning of the flood which could well topple the monopoly of the official Salon. Jacques-Emile Blanche later felt that it was this very 'flood' which had, by the late 1880s, produced such 'subdivisions within painting styles' as the Pre-Raphaelites, Exoticism, Japonism, Whistlerism, and this Wildism or the cult of art which carries within its very being its own end - all mixed in with Impressionism".



Dissolution of the Impressionist Group

Blanche's reference to Impressionism as one of the many styles within painting in the 1880s is indicative of its lack of a separate identity which could be developed by a younger generation of artists. The dissolution of the Impressionist group was already evident by 1880, when Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) exhibited in the Salon rather than in the fifth Impressionist exhibition. Zola delivered three broadsides at Impressionism in Le Voltaire accusing the Impressionists of unfinished, hasty execution and of failing to find a formula for producing the great Masterpiece of Impressionism: "The struggle of the Impressionists has not yet reached its goal; they remain inferior to what they undertake, they stammer without being able to find the right words." Monet and Renoir responded to challenges such as Zola's; both re-emphasized in different ways the importance of form in their paintings. The crisis which all Impressionist painters went through in this decade was aptly summarized by Felix Feneon in a comment made about Renoir:

Renoir began to have scruples. As a reaction against the exotic drunkenness with colour and against the subordination of figures to atmosphere, he outlined the human form with a forceful contour and, deciding that the aim of the artist consisted expressly, in France, of decorating a rectangular surface, he tried to avoid allowing the atmosphere and its accidents to exercise their former ravages on the composition.

Alternatives to Impressionism

One solution to the crisis within Impressionism lay in the recent evolution of Neo-Impressionism, which made its appearance in an embryonic form at the 1884 Salon des Independants in Seurat's Une Baignade: Asnieres. This new form of Divisionism, with its emphasis upon scientific theories of colour, appeared more soundly based than Impressionism. Yet, symptomatic of the confused artistic climate in Paris in this decade, this new style of painting could simultaneously be interpreted as the ultimate naturalist form of painting, as the visual expression of Anarchism and as the pictorial equivalent of the overtly anti-scientific literary movement, Symbolism. For developments in Italy, see Italian Divisionism (c.1890-1907). For an even more "naturalist" style of Post-Impressionist painting, see Post-Impressionism in Holland (1880-1920), the Glasgow School of Painting (1880-1915) and the Heidelberg School in Australia.

An alternative solution to the pictorial crisis lay in the more nihilistic gesture, exemplified by Anquetin and Bernard's rejection late in 1886 of academic art, as well as both Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism. Following a visit to Signac's studio in the autumn to "obtain the latest word on Pointillism and the chromatic researches of the theoreticians of optics", Bernard concluded that "while the method was good for the vibrant reproduction of light, it spoiled the colour, and I instantly adopted an opposite theory". This theory was a desire to "abandon the Impressionists in order to allow Ideas to dominate the technique of painting". (Note: a description of the Impressionist style, see: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting 1870-1910.)

The implications of Bernard's and Anquetin's decision were to be momentous for the evolution of a new form of painting in the late 1880s - Pictorial Symbolism. The character of their decision is equally significant. It reflects both the anarchic social and political situation in France during this decade and recent developments within literary circles.

Society and Politics in France (1880s)

Within the context of political and social events in France, the 1880s was a decade of extremes. Shaped by rapid industrialization and economic growth, though subject to crises such as the depression of the mid-1880s, French society had also had to come to terms psychologically with its defeat by the Prussians in 1870. Industrialization brought with it a capitalist society with materialism as its hallmark. The prevailing left-wing disgust with the materialism and exploitation of contemporary France took many guises: the bomb-throwing activities subscribed to by writers such as Claudel and Feneon; the retreat into a hermetically sealed world of artificiality as propagated by J. K. Huysmans in his novel A Rebours, published in 1884; the attempt to outrage the art-loving public through revolutionary painting techniques such as Seurat's Neo-Impressionism ; and the desire to abolish all previous forms of literature and art as proposed by Jean Moreas and by Bernard and Anquetin, in order to create art which was totally new.

Note: For analysis of some of the great works of Post-Impressionism, please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).


French Literary Art

French literature in the 1880s, too, lacked a sense of coherence. As early as 1881, Paul Bourget, in his Essais sur la Psychologie Francaise, argued that there was a crisis in contemporary French decadent literature as epitomized, to him, by Zola and the de Goncourt brothers. Dismissing these authors' dependence upon the recording of the sordid details of contemporary life, Bourget advocated the creation of a new literature based upon the Imagination and Feeling. The ensuing debate in French literary circles about the reform of literature took place against a background of growing interest in the belief that Truth, or the Idea, resides only in the Mind, that proof of this Truth can only be intimated through objects which stand as equivalents or symbols of that Truth, and that the human being who is endowed with genius is alone able to interpret this particular set of equivalents.

To confirm his faith in the innovative face of this literature, Moreas issued one year later his manifesto for a new school of literature, Symbolism. This manifesto in its turn unleashed a storm of debate, within which Gustave Kahn issued his own manifesto for Symbolism ten days later. Entitled La Reponse des Symbolistes, and published in the newspaper L'Evenement, Kahn's article gives the most coherent expression of the aims of this new school. On the question of subject matter, Kahn declared that:

We are tired of the everyday, the near-at-hand and the contemporaneous; we wish to be able to place the development of the symbol in any period, even in dreams. We want to substitute for the battle of individuals the battle of feelings and Ideas. The aim of our art is to objectify the subjective [the externalization of the Idea] in place of subjectifying the objective [Nature seen through the temperament].

Pictorial Symbolism: Louis Anquetin, Emile Bernard

It was this resolution of the decadent problem in literature through the introduction of the Idea as subject matter which was also referred to by Anquetin and Bernard when they dismissed Impressionism and wanted to allow "ideas to dominate the technique of painting". This is not mere coincidence. During winter and early spring 1885-6, Anquetin had been preparing a vast painting called Interior at Aristide Bruant's. Destroyed shortly afterwards, this painting apparently showed a view of Aristide Bruant's popular cafe-cabaret on Montmartre, Le Mirliton, with portraits of such regulars as Bernard, Toulouse-Lautrec and Dujardin. However, there was one incongruous figure in the picture, a large female nude described as a "figure symbolique", whose presence was due to Dujardin. Anquetin and Dujardin had been friends since their schooldays in Rouen. They both came to Paris around 1880, where Dujardin quickly became involved with the proto-Symbolist literary circles of Mallarme and Villiers de l'Isle Adam. In 1885 he launched the Revue Wagnerienne and in 1886 he became editor of the Revue Independante, and met such central literary figures as Moreas and Kahn. While Dujardin's contacts with Symbolist writers could have made the Symbolist manifestos available to Anquetin, Bernard was also well aware of innovations in the literature of the day. During his walking tour of Normandy and Brittany in 1886, he recited the poetry of Mallarme, Verlaine and Moreas, as well as composing his own poems.

Armed with the Symbolist program set out by Moreas and Kahn, and encouraged by a small group of articles such as de Wyzewa's Notes sur la peinture wagnerienne et le Salon de 1886 and Kahn's De l'Esthetique du verre polychrome, which called for reconsideration of the balance between form and content in painting, Bernard and Anquetin evolved in winter 1886-7 a style of painting which could adequately express the new subject matter of art, the Idea. They attacked the problem from two sides: subject and technique. For the former, they turned to overtly non-naturalistic or artificial themes such as circuses and cafe-cabaret scenes. That these subjects were considered to be contradictions of naturalism is proved by developments in the 1880s. In the theatre there was a revival of interest in pierrots and mime. This was illustrated by the establishment in 1880 of Paul Marguerite's mime theatre, the Theatre des Valvins; by the number of pierrot plays written by such Symbolist writers as Huysmans and Albert Aurier, and in Mallarme's belief that a relationship existed between the element of surprise, the evocation of dreams, Ideas and mime. The importance of this association between pierrots, mime, Symbolism and non-naturalism is underlined by the fact that when, on 23 March 1888, Antoine, the director of the Theatre Libre, decided to make a break with the naturalism which had dominated his theatre, he chose to stage Marguerite's Pierrot Assassin de Sa Femme. It was also during the 1880s that Pierrot made his migration from the world of mime to that of the circus, where he became the Clown.


For a new technique of painting, Bernard and Anquetin turned to examples of crudely handled, almost gauche painting which they found in Cezanne's Portrait of Achille Emperaire, and in Van Gogh's Potato Eaters. They were also influenced by the bold outlines and flat colour areas of Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints and medieval stained glass windows, and Cezanne's spatially disparate still-lifes of the early 1880s. By late spring 1887, Bernard and Anquetin had fused these pictorial and technical sources into a style of painting which they christened Cloisonnism, after the medieval enamelling technique of cloisonne. Characterized by rigorous outlines surrounding areas of flat colour, and by the absence of logical spatial recession, the new style, as displayed in Anquetin's Street: Five o' clock in the Evening and Bernard's Iron Bridges, was the evocation of the essence of the subject portrayed rather than the accurate record of its physical appearance.

Paul Gauguin

Bearing this new form of painting, Bernard arrived at Pont-Aven in Brittany in mid-August 1888. Here he renewed contact with Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). The result was the execution of two Symbolist paintings, Bernard's Breton Women at a Pardon, followed by Gauguin's Vision After the Sermon. For Gauguin, Bernard's painting provided the solution to problems which he had initially confronted at least three years earlier. In January 1885, Gauguin had expressed the view that feelings rather than intellect create great works of art, that both line and colour possess symbolic properties, that a painting need have no specific literary connotations and that great emotions are best translated into their simplest form through dreaming rather than through direct observation of the external world.

During the intervening three years Gauguin had indeed experimented with such departures from objective naturalism as split compositions, as in The Breton Shepherdess, in the simplification of outline and colour in the decorations applied to ceramic pots in winter 1886-7, and in the decorative colour-planes in Martinique Landscape of 1887. However, it was a release from the last vestiges of Impressionism which Bernard offered to Gauguin in summer 1888 and which the older artist realized in Vision After the Sermon. In this picture, using his own version of Pictorial Symbolism known as Synthetism, Gauguin arrived at a radical form of painting in which dream and memory superseded the objective observation of the external world and in which line, colour and composition directed the spectator's attention away from the recognition of individual objects within the painting to an appreciation of a more general meaning - the creative power of the artist - for which these objects stood merely as symbols. Gauguin and Bernard, in summer 1888, gave pictorial form to the literary manifestos of 1886; the Idea in the work of art had been clothed in sensuous form, the objects portrayed were the mere vehicles for the externalization of that Idea, not the means through which the artist's personal response to the visible world was to be conveyed.

Artist Colonies in Brittany

The simplification of the image achieved by Gauguin and Bernard was assisted, it was suggested in 1903 by Armand Seguin, by the sharply coloured field patterns of the Breton landscape. Brittany had attracted artists and writers for several decades because of its varied landscape, distinctive costumes, and the traditional pattern of life and religion which could be classified as 'picturesque'. Noted as early as 1795 by Jacques Cambry, this interpretation of Brittany was first captured by writers such as Chateaubriand and Balzac. However, from around 1840, painters also began to visit Brittany. Led by Adolphe Leleux, whose first Breton genre paintings were exhibited at the Salon of 1838, and followed by artists such as Dureau, Luminals and Penguilly l'Haridon, enthusiasm for the region led in the 1860s to the establishment of artists' colonies at Pont-Aven, Douarnenez, Cancale, Concarneau and, slightly later, at Camaret.

Irish artists were also regular visitors to Brittany. Their focus, however, was realism, tinged with Impressionism, as in works like Street in Brittany (1881) by Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947), Apple Gathering (1883) by Walter Osborne (1859–1903), The Old Convent Gate, Dinan (1883) by Joseph Malachy Kavanagh (1856-1918). Another important Post-Impressionist Irish painter who frequented Brittany was the francophile Roderic O'Conor (1860–1940).

By 1880 improvements in communications ensured a rapid increase in tourism and the growth of bathing resorts at Dinan, St Malo and the recently established, purpose-built La Baule. The demands of this new public led to a rash of guide-books such as Blackburn's Breton Folk - An Artistic Tour of Brittany (1880), to the establishment of a souvenir crafts industry, and to a vogue for pictures recording local beauty spots and characteristic Breton events such as wrestling matches, the bonfires on St John's Day and the Pardons.

Brittany had other advantages to offer the artist. The cost of living was low, as Gauguin mentioned in a letter to his wife in August 1885: "It is still in Brittany that one lives the cheapest." Moreover, models were apparently readily available and accommodating. In 1880 Blackburn reported that the peasants, especially the women, were only too willing to sit as models for a small fee.

While a cheap life, obliging models and picturesque subjects explain the flood of French artists who regularly arrived in Brittany, one of the distinctive features of the artists' colonies was their international character, with artists from America, Sweden, Norway, England and Holland. This was largely the result of the arrival at the end of the 1860s of a Dutch artist, Hermann Van de Anker, and an American, Robert Wylie, who both settled at Pont-Aven. Wylie had trained at Gerome's atelier, which the majority of American artists in Paris attended, and through him other students of Gerome's went to paint in Brittany. The opening of the Academie Julian in the late 1870s, where students from Gerome's and other ateliers could receive extra tuition, expanded this network of contacts and ensured a constant stream of students of many nationalities in Brittany.

There was a further aspect of Brittany which appealed to some artists. Springing from its geographic remoteness from Paris, its harsh climate and poor soil, and its social and economic backwardness, Brittany was also a region marked by extreme poverty, intense piety, residual paganism and a fatalism brought on by the bitter struggle for survival. Some of these harsher qualities emerge in the work of Salon artists such as Dagnan-Bouveret and Guillou, but it was in the work of Odilon Redon, Cottet, Gauguin, Bernard and the group of Gauguin's followers labelled the School of Pont-Aven that these characteristics were most overtly displayed. When Redon visited the region in 1876, the dour, grey, mist-wrapped landscape led him to conclude that Brittany was a "sorrowful land, weighed down by sombre colours ... one without daydreams".

Gauguin's response to its primitivism and piety was more positive. He sought to capture "the dull, muted, powerful note" of his clogs ringing out on the granite soil, as well as the "rustic superstitious piety" of the Breton peasant which he expressed in Vision After the Sermon and the two Calvary paintings of 1889, The Yellow Christ and Breton Calvary. For Bernard, too, there was an intimate relationship between the primitivism and piety of Brittany and his own rejection of contemporary French industrial society. On his return from Brittany in 1886, he admitted that:

I returned a devout believer. Brittany has made a Catholic of me again, capable of fighting for the Church. I was intoxicated by the incense, the organs, the prayers, the ancient stained glass windows, the hieratic tapestries and I travelled back across the centuries, isolating myself increasingly from my contemporaries whose preoccupations with the modern industrial world inspired in me nothing but disgust. Bit by bit, I became a man of the Middle Ages, I had no love for anything save Brittany.

Serusier: The Talisman and the Nabis

When Paul Serusier (1864-1927) arrived at Pont-Aven in 1888 he was a student at the Academie Julian and the artist of a successful Salon painting, The Breton Weaver, a picturesque interpretation of the region. When he departed from Pont-Aven in early October 1888 he had received a lesson in the principles of Pictorial Symbolism from Gauguin, and had become a convert to the harsher, primitivizing interpretation of the region subscribed to by Gauguin and Bernard. Armed with the product of his lesson, a radically simplified account of the landscape outside Pont-Aven, which became known as The Talisman, Serusier returned to the Academie Julian. Here, The Talisman inspired a group of young artists to throw off their academic training and their tentative experiments with Impressionism and to adopt a style of painting conforming to the canons of Gauguin's Pictorial Symbolism. With Serusier as their leader, the group christened itself the 'Nabis', or 'Prophets', and by spring 1889 its members included Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Edouard Vuillard, Ranson, Ibels, and Ker-Xavier Roussel. Together these artists were to dominate one aspect of painting in Paris in the 1890s.

The 1890s

Although the Nabis' conversion to the cause of Gauguin links the 1880s and 1890s, there are features in the latter decade which distinguish it clearly from the revolutionary, experimental years of the 1880s. Perhaps the most significant events of the 1890s were the deaths or absences from Paris of the leaders of the avant-garde in the 1880s - Vincent Van Gogh committed suicide in July 1890, Georges Seurat died in March 1891, and Gauguin departed on his first voyage to Tahiti in the following month. A vacuum had been created which had to be filled.

One solution to the loss of leadership lay in a realignment between art and literature. Maurice Denis recalled that "Gauguin having gone to Tahiti, what now dominated the preoccupations of the painters was primarily literary symbolism". The impact of this shift can be seen in the character of the Nabis' work during the 1890s. Although each member guarded his own individual style, almost all the Nabis were involved in the design of stage sets, costumes and programs for the two Symbolist theatres founded in this decade, Paul Fort's Theatre d'Art and Lugne-Poe's Theatre de l'Oeuvre. Book illustration also attracted them; Denis, for example, executed designs for Verlaine's Sagesse in 1889-90, and for Gide's Voyage d'Urien, published in 1893. Literature and art met again in the patronage given to the Nabis by avant-garde literary reviews such as the Revue Blanche in the form of original prints to be inserted into monthly editions.

In the 1880s, the new poster art developed initially by Jules Cheret (1836-1932) was attracting a number of designers including Theophile Steinlen (1859-1923) creator of the iconic poster "Cabaret Du Chat Noir", the great Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) designer of numerous masterpieces, as well as Bonnard and Vuillard, and the rest of the Nabis. In the 1890s, boosted by Art Nouveau, a decorative, curvilinear style of poster appeared, attracting a host of artists, including: Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939). For more information, see: History of Poster Art (1860 onwards).

Les Vingt Artist Group (1883-93)

During this vacuum in Paris the Brussels Les Vingt group came to play an influential role in the Parisian avant-garde. Since its inception in 1883, Les Vingt had made it a policy to invite avant-garde artists from abroad to show at its annual exhibitions, and had established itself as the foremost international exhibiting body of avant-garde art by the end of the 1880s. Moreover, located at the cross-roads between the Arts and Crafts Movement in England and the non-naturalist decorative tradition of France, it became the cradle of Art Nouveau and a leading forum for the decorative arts. Les Vingt's advocacy of decorative art had an immediate effect on Paris. From its second exhibition in 1891, the more liberal Salon, the Societe Nationale, devoted an increasing proportion of its exhibition space to the decorative arts, a move which was complemented in the same year by the Revue Encyclopedique's decision to publish extensive articles on this growth area in the arts. Modern artists, too, responded to the rise of the applied arts. While Besnard, Aman-Jean and Henri Martin pursued extensive programs of mural painting, the Nabis turned their attention to furniture, screens and fabrics. Indeed, the suitability of their style to the decorative arts was fully appreciated by Louis Tiffany when in 1894 he commissioned a number of items of stained glass art from these artists. The completed works were given pride of place at the inaugural exhibition of Samuel Bing's Maison de l'Art Nouveau in Paris in December 1895. Pierre Bonnard was the most consistent of the colourist painters: see, for instance, his later 20th century paintings such as the Green Blouse (1919, Metropolitan Museum) and the Terrace at Vernon (1939, Metropolitan Museum).

The Pressures of Innovation

While the Nabis were able to find in literature, and in Les Vingt, alternatives to Gauguin's leadership which could maintain the innovations of Pictorial Symbolism throughout much of the 1890s, other artists, as well as writers, found the demands of innovation established in the previous decade too great to sustain. The importance of innovation in the art of the 1880s can be seen in the program of Symbolism: it had rejected all past traditions in art and literature to create a new, non-descriptive art form, which, by definition, could not be judged by any objective standards. Excellence resided solely in the artist's conviction that he had given an adequate plastic interpretation to the Idea, and so became synonymous with individuality and originality. For many artists, this demand for constant innovation was too onerous and they sought a return to more traditional, recognizable standards. Teodor de Wyzewa summarized the crisis: "We had come quite seriously to believe that the one necessity of an artist was to be original: that is to say, to supply the public with a work of art which is totally different in every way from that which has gone before. The remedy is to return to the traditions of the past, and notably, to the most important of these traditions, the 'imitation' of a valued model."

Return to Naturalism

One aspect of de Wyzewa's recommendations was relevant to Symbolists and Naturalists alike, and came in the form of 'spiritual naturalism'. Given a clear exposition in J. K. Huysmans' novel, La-Bas, published in 1891, this retreat involved applying the precision of Naturalism to the investigation of spiritual movements and the physical human experience. This allowed the Ideal and the Supernatural to be married to descriptions of mundane experience. This form of Naturalism endowed with an Ideal was given pictorial expression in paintings shown at both the Salons in the 1890s. Edouard Rod, for example, pointed out in 1891 that, as in contemporary literature, naturalism had disappeared from the walls of the Salons. A new school, headed by Cazin, Carriere and Besnard, had been established in its place, which applied naturalist techniques to express the full range of human emotions and aspirations. Maignan attempted to achieve this in Carpeaux of 1891 and The Passage of Fortune of 1895, and Besnard believed that he had accomplished it in his environmental portraits such as Portrait of Madame la Comtesse Megrot de Cadignan. Furthermore, it was the blend of specific realism, topicality and philosophical message which won praise from the critics for paintings at the 1899 Salon, such as Chabas' Happy Frolics and Martin's Serenity. For more about the dichotomy between Naturalism and Idealism, see: Post-Impressionism in Germany (c.1880-1910).

Return to the Classical Ideal

An alternative remedy proposed by de Wyzewa to the pressures of innovation was a return to the classical ideal - an idea which gathered momentum as the Classical Revival in modern art (1900-30). Coinciding with Cezanne's wonderful late phase of figure painting - see, for instance, The Boy in the Red Vest (1889-90), Man Smoking a Pipe (1890-2), Woman with a Coffee Pot (1890-5), Lady in Blue (1900) and Young Italian Woman Leaning on her Elbow (1900) - this revival of classicism attracted many leading artists, including Picasso, de Chirico, Carlo Carra and Fernand Leger.

Examples of this 'modernist' classicism include: Seated Woman (Picasso) (1920) and Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922) by Picasso; Three Women (Le Grand Dejeuner) (1921) by Leger; Uncertainty of the Poet (1913) by de Chirico; The Drunken Gentleman (1916) by Carlo Carra.

This 'classical solution' was adopted by the Salon de la Rose + Croix. Established in 1891 by the eccentric, arch-Roman Catholic critic, Josephin Peladan, this exhibiting body held the first of its six annual exhibitions in the smart galleries of Paul Durand-Ruel in March 1892. The aims of the Salon were enshrined in a set of rules issued by Peladan in which history and military painting, landscapes and portraits, domestic scenes and oriental exoticism were banned. Instead the favoured subject matter was to be "first the Catholic Ideal and Mysticism, then Legend, Myth, Allegory, the Dream, the Paraphrase of great poetry. The Order prefers work which has a mural-like character." Peladan was in no doubt as to the importance of transforming the Idea into a concrete Ideal, as he showed in an earlier Salon criticism, when he remarked that "The Ideal is not any Idea; the Ideal is all Ideas made sublime, carried to the furthest point of harmony, of intensity, of sublimity." Alphonse Germain endorsed these sentiments in his comments on the entries to the first Salon de la Rose + Croix of artists such as Vallotton, Toorop, Khnopff and Aman-Jean:

"To idealize aesthetically means to see with the eyes of the spirit and to create works which move towards a synthesis, a unity, to annihilate all detail harmful to the ensemble and useless to the movement of the figure: to correct all ugliness, suppress all triviality, all vulgarity: above all else, to choose beautiful lines and beautiful forms according to the laws of nature, never to copy, always to interpret."

Return to Religion

Peladan's reference to 'the Catholic Ideal' as a recommended subject for artists of the Salon de la Rose + Croix points to his association with a third remedy proposed for the crisis of the 1880s, namely a return to religious art based on Catholicism. The suitability of such a remedy had already been outlined in two books published in 1889, Charles Morice's La Litterature de Toute a l'heure and Georges Vanor's L'Art Symboliste. Morice equated the Idea and God. Vanor pursued this equation further. There was a specific and logical link to be made between Ideas, God, Symbols and Christian Symbolism, and, since France was Roman Catholic, it was to Catholicism that all Art should return. The impact of this program during the 1890s was extensive and profound. Books were published on religious topics, plays about religious subjects proliferated in the theatres of Paris, fringe religions such as Theosophy, Occultism and Satanism were highly popular, conversions of prominent writers and artists to Roman Catholicism multiplied and the walls of the Salons and the avant-garde exhibitions blossomed with religious paintings. While most art critics gave unstinting praise to the religious paintings of Olivier Merson, Dagnan-Bouveret and La Touche, other religious Salon painters were less fortunate. Edouard Rod, for instance, deplored the increase in modern religious subjects epitomized by Beraud's Mary Magdalene in the House of the Pharisee, exhibited in 1891.

The avant-garde was also caught by the rising tide of religiosity in the 1890s. Denis had embarked upon his career as a painter with the intention of becoming a second Fra Angelico; Bernard passed through mysticism to embrace a rigorous form of Roman Catholicism by 1894; and Serusier, under the influence of the recently converted Jan Verkade, adopted a system of mystical numbers devised by the Abbe Lenz to create an Ideal, sacred form of painting.

The 1890s: Paving the Way for the 1900s

Despite the consolidation of the 1890s, the decade should not be seen as a negative one, hovering in the shadow of the seemingly more brilliant, innovative 1880s. Rather, it was a period in which the achievements of the previous decade were modified and sustained to provide an inheritance for the twentieth century. In effect, it paved the way for the new modern art of the 1900s. The interest in colour pursued by Moreau, Besnard, La Touche and the Nabis, as well as by the Neo-Impressionists, together with the Nabis' persistent investigations of the distortion of external nature, laid the foundations for the Fauvism of Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Andre Derain (1880-1954), which in turn influenced the Scottish Colourists and others. The continued veneration and reinterpretation of Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) - notably his masterpiece The Large Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) (1894-1905) - guaranteed the accessibility of his work to future Cubists such as Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963).

For details of two champions of French Post-Impressionism, see: Roger Fry (1866-1934) and the dealer Paul Rosenberg (1881-1959).

It was Maurice Denis who was most conscious of this apparent ambiguity between innovation and consolidation during the period 1880-1905. Using Bernard as a paradigm, he looked back at the generation of the 1880s shortly before his death and concluded: "We undertook a reaction against Impressionism. No sensations, no windows open on to Nature. Our generation had been responsible for the creation of the Idea [La Notion] of a painting, something which others have pushed all the way to abstraction and [we] all the way back to the museums."

Post-Impressionist paintings can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from Mary Anne Stevens' essay published in Post-Impressionism: Cross-Currents in European Painting, the catalogue to the 1979-80 exhibition at the Royal Academy, London.

• For a chronological guide to the evolution of Post-Impressionist painting, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For more about late-19th century painting in France, see: Homepage.

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