What is Neo-Impressionism?
Neo-impressionism was a movement in painting that appeared in France in the late nineteenth century as a reaction to the spontaneity of Impressionism. It was led by Georges Seurat (1859-1891), the initial theorist of the movement, and Paul Signac (1863-1935), its leading spokesman.
Neo-Impressionists invented a new painting technique known as pointillism (from the French word “point,” or “dot”) based on the color theory of French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul. The pioneer of the method was Georges Seurat, who initiated it in the mid-1880s in France and initially named it “chromo-luminarisme.”
The technique involved using tiny dots of pure colors and placing them closely next to each other on the canvas to form a painting and achieve an optical mixture of colors in the viewer’s eye and brain when viewed from an appropriate distance.
According to the Neo-Impressionist painters, the optical mixture gave greater vibrancy of color and maximum brilliance to painting. They also attempted to restore a sense of structure and order to painting shaken by Impressionists by insisting on the formal construction of compositions.
Notable painters from the neo-impressionist circle include Henri-Edmond Cross (1856-1910), Charles Angrand (1854–1926), Théo Van Rysselberghe (1862-1926), Maximilien Luce (1858-1941), Albert Dubois-Pillet (1846-1890), and others.
Notable Neo-Impressionist Artworks
George Seurat, Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque), 1887-88, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, NY, USA
Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago IL, USA
Georges Seurat, Le Chahut, 1889-90, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands
Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnières, 1884, The National Gallery, London, UK
Paul Signac, Golfe Juan, 1896, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA
Paul Signac, Woman with a Parasol, 1893, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
Paul Signac, In the Time of Harmony; the Golden Age is Not in the Past, it is in the Future, 1893-1895, Montreuil City Hall, Montreuil, France
Henri-Edmond Cross, The Evening Air (L’air du soir), circa 1893, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
Louis Hayet, Banks of the Oise at Dawn, 1887-1888, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Charles Angrand, The Harvesters, 1892, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Houston, Texas, USA
Albert Dubois-Pillet, The Lady in Woman in the White Dress, 1886, The Musée d’art moderne et contemporain, Saint-Étienne, France
Camille Pissarro, La Récolte des Foins, Éragny, 1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
George Lemmen, Plage à Heist, 1891, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
Jean Metzinger, Coucher de soleil no. 1 (Landscape), 1906, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands
The Origins and History of Neo-Impressionism
In late nineteenth-century Paris, a new generation of artists came to age, preoccupied with redefining art and seeking new aesthetic languages. They formed a Société des Artistes Indépendants (Society of Independent Artists) or Salon des Indépendants in 1884 in which Georges Seurat and Paul Signac participated. The two artists soon started working together to create a new conception of painting called pointillism (also known as divisionism) inspired by contemporary writing on the color theory of Michel Eugène Chevreul, Ogden Rood, and Charles Blanc. It involved the use of a highly methodical painting method based on scientific theories of light and color, such as optical mixture, simultaneous contrast, and complementary colors.
The term neo-impressionism was first used by an art critic Félix Fénéon to describe the paintings of Seurat, Signac, and their supporters, which were exhibited at the final Impressionist exhibition in 1886 in Paris. Seurat’s most renowned painting depicting Parisians at leisure on an island in the Seine, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, first made its appearance in this exhibition and is thought to mark the beginning of neo-impressionism.
The Neo-Impressionist Technique
Instead of conventional mixing of colors on the palette, Neo-Impressionists systematically applied individual strokes of pure, unmixed paint to the canvas, leaving it to the observer’s eye to blend the colors optically. The canvases mainly were large, covered with dots of uniform size in a calculated arrangement that defined form without using lines.
The neo-impressionist painting was intended to be viewed from a distance to elicit an optical mixing of colors. The color variations produced by the optical mixture in the viewer’s eye and brain were more subtle and true to nature than those obtained by mixing the pigments on the palette. In the words of Signac, “the separated elements will be reconstituted into brilliantly colored lights.”
This meticulous painting method that focused on separating colors and the optical principle of color mixing came to be known as pointillism. According to the Neo-Impressionist artists, this painting style gave the maximum luminosity scientifically possible. “Some say they see poetry in my paintings,” Seurat wrote. “I see only science.”
Following Seurat’s death in 1891, his colleague Signac developed the pointillist technique further by intensifying color contrasts through separation of color and moving away from the rigid system of systematically applied dots towards a more liberal approach using small patches of colors.
In 1899, he published an influential treatise From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism in which he explained the principles of pointillism within a historical perspective, referring to it as divisionism for the first time. Despite the difference in the brushstrokes’ style, the two terms – pointillism and divisionism – are often used interchangeably. Divisionism became widely used to describe the work of any artist dividing color while using small brushstrokes.
Although the Neo-Impressionists took a coloristic painting approach, the choice of subjects, and art for art’s sake attitude from their impressionist fellow artists, they criticized their spontaneity and depicting fleeting moments quickly “on the spot.”
Neo-Impressionists believed that a work of art meant to last for generations could not be done in a couple of hours. That is why neo-impressionist painters brought the sketch back into the painting process and applied rigor to a composition similar to the classical academic painting.
They built their work in the studio, making countless preliminary drawings and planning every aspect of the artwork for months to achieve the visual harmony of its elements. Numerous studies for A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat testify to this. Before completing this monumental masterpiece which is today in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, he made many preliminary drawings and oil sketches.
The rigor of its design with simplified figures resembling “wooden dolls” and “toy soldiers” has provoked as much comments from art critics as the pointillist technique in which it has been executed since the day it was first exhibited. “The Neo-Impressionist … will not begin a canvas before he has determined the layout ….,” Signac wrote.
In terms of the subject matter, artists from the neo-impressionist movement, for the most part, continued to depict the kinds of topics introduced by Impressionism, such as landscapes, seashores, modern urban scenes, and leisure scenes and entertainments like the circuses and music halls. They also practiced portraiture, one of the major subjects in the Western art history.
The Belgian artists Théo Van Rysselberghe and Georges Lemmen are considered to be the chief portraitists of neo-impressionism. The novelty is the depictions of the working class and the peasants through which the artists expressed their anarchist sympathies. With the introduction of these new subjects, Neo-Impressionists wished to draw attention to the social struggles taking place due to the rise of industrial capitalism during the nineteenth century.
Legacy of Neo-impressionism
Unlike the Impressionists, who tended to rely on “instinct and the inspiration of the moment,” painters working in the neo-impressionist style employed rules and methods in painting, giving Impressionism a scientific basis. Arguably the first modern avant-garde movement in art history, neo-impressionism substantially impacted generations of modern painters before and after 1900 despite being relatively short-lived.
Among the first artists who embraced this new form of scientific Impressionism were Camille Pissarro and the Belgian artist Théo van Rysselberghe. After Signac developed the divisionist technique further, several artists experimented with it, from Vincent van Gogh to Henri Matisse.
The pioneering painting style had a profound impact on Fauvism, an early 20th-century modern art movement that is often seen as an extreme extension of French neo-impressionism and post-impressionism. Finally, neo-impressionism prepared the way for color to become an independent component in the 20th-century modern art, inspiring art movements as diverse as Cubism, Orphism, Futurism, and Abstract Art to unleash color to move freely over the canvas like never before.
List of Notable Neo-impressionist Artists
- Georges Seurat (1859-1891), French
- Paul Signac (1863-1935), French
- Henri-Edmond Cross (1856-1910), French
- Maximilien Luce (1858-1941), French
- Théo Van Rysselberghe (1862-1926), Belgian
- Albert Dubois-Pillet (1846-1890), French
- George Lemmen (1865-1916), Belgian
- Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Danish-French
- Charles Angrand (1854–1926), French
- Louis Hayet (1864-1940), French
- Jean Metzinger (1883 – 1956), French