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What is Neo-Impressionism?

Updated on April 1, 2012

Neoimpressionism was an artistic movement of the late 19th century, based largely on the work and theories of the French painter Georges Seurat (1859-1891). Following the dictum of Paul Cezanne, who wanted "to make of Impressionism something solid and permanent", Seurat sought to consolidate the spontaneous effects of color and light with a new sense of space, and a more structural, rhythmic design in the classic tradition of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. In this sense it was one phase of the general reaction against the impersonal objectivity of impressionism and toward the more dynamic and psychologically comprehensive styles of the younger European painters (Fauvism, cubism, expressionism).

Recognition of the style as such began with the Eighth Exhibition of Impressionist Painting held in Paris in 1886, which included the work of Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, Armand Guillaumin, Camille Pissarro, Odilon Redan, and Paul Signac. Paul Gauguin and Seurat (whose famous Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is now in the Chicago Art Institute) became the subject of violent controversy in the press.

That same year the critic Félix Fénéon published a pamphlet Les Impressionnistes en 1886 which identified and expounded the neoimpressionist theories.

The neoimpressionists looked to Eugene Delacroix as their immediate precursor, both because of his observations on color phenomena in nature as recorded in his Journal, and his technical interest in the use of contrasting colors to produce an "optical mixture." Thus, while much attention was given to problems of structural design in a painting, the focal point of their investigations was the analysis of color, particularly the achievement of greater luminosity and IrIdescence through the application of small patches of pure color (rather than the mixture of pigment on the canvas) and their fusion in the eye of the spectator according to definite laws of physics and psychology.

Paul Signac did much to elaborate and publicize the interest in strong color. Henri-Edmond Cross stressed their emotional value and hence anticipated Fauvism. Under the influence of Seurat from 1885 to 1890, Camille Pissarro became intrigued with the system and painted a number of canvasses in this manner which he and others frequently called divisionism. Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was attracted by what he derisively called "Ripipoint" the dot-and-carry style, hence the name pointillism which is sometimes identified with neo-impressionism. The pure color, large canvasses, and dot technique impressed Vincent van Gogh when he visited Seurat in 1887, and hence became the point of departure for the color expressionism of his subsequent paintings.


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