Realism to Post-Impressionism

First Things First...

In the Western world, the nineteenth century was an age of revolutions–revolutions that can be traced to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Enlightenment concepts including an increased emphasis on secularism, the advent of mechanization through industrialization and mass culture, the rise of the bourgeoisie, an emphasis on the public sphere, and a new awareness of these changes captured through both literary and visual means (particularly the differences between the social classes) contributed to cultural and social shifts. A formal and contextual comparison between a John Constable and a J.M.W. Turner can demonstrate how these changes were embraced or rejected from the early to the mid-nineteenth century, as well as serve as a quick review of Romanticism.

  • Constable, The White Horse, 1818
  • Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed, 1844

In addition, given the rise of the individual in the Enlightenment, some artists wanted their art to be about themselves and their own perceptions on contemporary life. This altered previous state-sponsored art practices and paved the way for new subjects and exhibition strategies.

Backround Readings

Jean-François Millet, The Sower, 1850.

Instructor resources:

Suggested student discussion/readings for this lecture:

An assignment that I have found to be very effective in engaging the students with the material [and one which I borrowed from Beth Harris at (Smarthistory)] is to ask the students to think about Walter Benjamin’s description of a changing Paris during the nineteenth century and then, reflect upon their own city (or town). You can also ask them to read excerpts from Charles Baudelaire’s “The Painter of Modern Life” for discussion points on Gustave Courbet’s Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine, Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe and Olympia, and Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines, among others.

Content Suggestions

This lecture follows nineteenth century European art from Realism through Post-Impressionism. Key questions for the lecture:

  • How did the subject matter change from the Realist period through the Post-Impressionists?
  • What contributed to those changes?
  • How did the formal approaches differ?
  • How did the exhibition strategies differ?
  • How did the art from this period pave the way to modernism of the early twentieth century?

In two one-and-a-half-hour lectures you should be able to cover the following:

  • Honoré Daumier, Gargantua, 1831
  • Horace Vernet, The Barricade, 1848
  • Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, Memory of Civil War or Barricade in the Rue de la Mortellaire, June 1848, 1848
  • Honoré Daumier, The Barricades, 1848
  • Gustave Courbet, The Stone Breakers, 1849
  • Jean-François Millet, The Sower, 1850
  • Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners, 1857
  • Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair, 1853–5
  • Honoré Daumier, The Burden, 1855–6
  • Honoré Daumier, Third Class Carriage, 1855–6
  • Gustave Courbet, Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer), 1856
  • Édouard Manet, Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass), 1863
  • Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863
  • Claude Monet, Impression: Sunrise, 1873
  • Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, 1873
  • Camille Pissarro, Boulevard du Montmartre, 1897
  • Berthe Morisot, Summer’s Day, 1879
  • Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Moulin de la Galette, 1876
  • Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Loge, 1874
  • Mary Cassatt, Woman in a Loge (At the Opera), 1879
  • Mary Cassatt, The Loge, 1880
  • Édouard Manet, The Bar at the Folies Bergere, 1881
  • Georges Seurat, Saturday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte, 1884–6
  • Paul Cézanne, Mont St. Victoire, c. 1887
  • Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night, 1889


During the 1930s and 40s, writers such as Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) and Gustave Flaubert (1821–80) wrote unidealized accounts of the dozens of subgroups that made up French society, focusing on the details of ordinary lives (as noted by Émile Zola). Unlike the Romantics who saw the world through a colored lens, they viewed the world through a clear glass and published these types of social characterizations in daily journals. The Realist painters were inspired by this change in focus. Honoré Daumier (1808–79) in particular illustrated many of these small publications, demonstrating an interest in “modernity,” or what came to be referred to as realism.

Louis-Philippe (1773–1850), the Duc of Orleans, was crowned king in 1830 after the July Revolution, which deposed Charles the X (1757–1836), the last of the Bourbon kings. Louis-Philippe was thought to be a saving grave after the excesses of the Bourbon monarchy. He was referred to as the “citizen-king” and “King of the French” rather than the “King of France” in order to underscore his kinship with the people. But as early as 1831 it was clear that this “citizen-king” was conservative and monarchical. Under his rule, the conditions for the working classes deteriorated even more and the income gap widened, leading to an economic crisis in 1847.

Daumier skewered Louis-Philippe in his caricature Gargantua, presenting the king as a fat bureaucrat funding the government by taxing the poor. In the image,Louis-Philippe consumes monies, enlarging his own outrageous salary, while sitting on a toilet excreting useless government proclamations. (Louis-Philippe allowed himself a “salary” of more than 18 million francs, which was 37 times more than Napoleon Bonaparte or almost 150 times more than the American President, Andrew Jackson, received.) His fat head, shaped like a pear, clearly identifies this Gargantua figure as Louis-Philippe (his pear head was widespread in caricatures printed and circulated in the popular press). For casting the king in such a negative light, Daumier was sentenced to six months in jail.

In February 1848, Louis Philippe was overthrown and an elected government of the Second Republic ruled France. The events in February established the “right to work” principle and the newly elected government created the National Workshops for the unemployed. The Workshops were a success, but were funded by new taxes paid by landowners. The result was the alienation of landowners (particularly the peasants) who resented being forced to support the unemployed’s “right to work.” As a result, the taxes were not paid, crippling the monies allocated to the Workshops, which eventually collapsed resulting in widespread unemployment and poverty.

On June 23, a decree was issued stating that the Workshops would be closed in three days and the unemployed could join the French army or return home. In frustration, the workers staged an insurrection from June 24 to June 26. They built hundreds of barricades from the stones that made up the Parisian streets to block government access. The National Guard was brought in to halt the rioting, which resulted in French citizens killing French citizens. The consequence was a very bloody, but unsuccessful rebellion (over 10,000 people were either injured or killed and 4,000 insurgents were deported to the French colony of Algeria). In December, Louis Napoleon (1808–73), on the promise of reforms and through the support of the peasants, was elected President of the Second Republic.

The February Revolution, the burden on the peasants, and the June insurrection were reflected in the popular press and in the paintings hung at the Salon of 1848. Horace Vernet (1789–1863), known for his depiction of battle scenes for Louis-Philippe, captured the excitement and glory of the insurrection from the perspective of the French army. Daumier sketched the local working classes joining the fray. Another artist, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815–91), also an artillery caption of the National Guard who stormed the barricades, painted a scene that he witnessed firsthand.  Memory of Civil War or Barricade in the Rue de la Mortellaire, June 1848, depicts the ruins of a barricade on a back street in Paris. This is a far cry from Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830), which underscored a triumphant revolt. Meissonier’s work stresses the tragedy and senselessness of Frenchmen killing Frenchmen in June and his sober realism counters Delacroix’s romantic and dramatic image–stressing the naturalism of the period.

After the 1848 Revolution, the worker became the dominant image in Realist art, depicted as a heroic mythical figure of the lower class as well as a concrete example of reality. Gustave Courbet’s unidealized subjects did not contain any of the picturesque of the Romantic artists—even those who approached a contemporary event, such as Theodore Géricault and his Raft of the Medusa (1818–9)—and instead had a grimness of everyday life previous unknown in Salon entries. The fatigue, poverty, and plainness of the proletariat were Courbet’s the primary focus. In The Stone Breakers (1848), Courbet presented two faceless stone breakers, emphasizing the poor materials of their clothing with a dreary color palette. In this laborious misery, it is clear that the young boy’s future is already determined. In addition to breaking Romanticism’s and Neoclassicism’s rules of subject matter, Courbet’s Realist paintings, and to an extent the paintings of Jean-François Millet (1814–75), were executed in a thick impasto using mixed painting techniques, which was against the popular and accepted academic styles of the period.

In keeping with the consequence of the 1848 Revolution, Millet conveyed a dignified and accurate treatment of proletarian life. He painted his subjects without any idealization, but on a scale formerly reserved for history painting. A comparison between The Oath of the Horatii (1784) and the The Sower (1850), which was presented at the Salon of 1850, can illuminate the impact that the new large-scale subjects may have had on Salon visitors. Reception depended upon the political affiliations of the viewer: socialists held the image of the peasant as an ideal, while, as Lorenz Eitner suggests, conservatives viewed images of the peasantry with apprehension, fearing it as a potential source of civil unrest.

Millet tended to paint peasants at work in the fields and his most famous is The Gleaners (1857). Here he, like Courbet, places the figures front and center, monumentalizing them. They are also faceless and what little skin we see is dark and worn, emphasizing a lifetime working in the sun. The contrast of their poverty against the rich, sunlight harvest in the background is hard to miss. The figures were an accurate depiction of rural poverty, but the coarseness that is present in Courbet’s work is not present in Millet’s. So, because of this some critics did perceive Biblical piety in his figures, endlessly repeating their labor. Choosing this everyday subject matter and showcasing it in the public Salon, Millet made the invisible visible.

Rosa Bonheur (1822–99) also focused on the working classes in her work. Because it was very unusual and difficult for a woman to pursue painting as a career, many women in the mid-nineteenth century were amateur artists. Woman were not permitted to attend the art academy until 1897. Bonheur’s family, however, supported her talent and by seventeen she was selling copies she made from paintings in the Louvre. Her father, Raymond Bonheur—a landscape artist and teacher—served as her instructor. Bonheur first exhibited at the Salon of 1841 and by twenty-three she had already exhibited eighteen paintings at the Salon.

The Horse Fair (1851–5) is a large painting (eight by sixteen feet) that dominated the Salon of 1853. The scene shows the horse market in Paris and the primary subjects are the horses themselves. The painting’s perspective is from that of a horse buyer, watching the handlers run the horses around energetically in a circle to show off their value. Rather than the mixed reception that Millet and Courbet received, Bonheur was praised and the Horse Fair became one of the most reproduced images of the period.

In addition to his satirical prints, Daumier painted the working urban poor of Paris, but his paintings were rarely exhibited during his lifetime. He focused, for example, on laundry women who washed clothing in the Seine close to where he lived. This had become something of a cottage industry by the 1840s, particularly among unwed mothers who were unable to find jobs as domestic servants. Daumier saw the laundry women on a daily basis on special washing barges moored along the river, often with children in tow. After washing for hours, as seen in The Burden (1855–6), they dragged the wet laundry home to dry in their small, damp apartments. Much like The Stone Breakers or The Gleaners, Daumier suggests that poverty is inescapable; once one is born into it, one’s life is determined by it. Similarly, in Third Class Carriage (1864–5), he focuses on the physical weariness of the third class in dark and crowded conditions.

The Painter of Modern Life

In the “Painter of Modern Life” (1863), Baudelaire places the artist-dandy at the center of his world, because he alone could reveal the “eternal beauty and amazing harmony of life in the capital cities,” drawn from the transitory and external manifestations of urban life. It is helpful to think of Baudelaire’s writing when looking at Manet’s paintings. Distributing excerpts prior to the lecture or asking students to reflect on some of his observations (posted on a PowerPoint), could aid in class discussion. In one essay on artist Constantin Guys, Baudelaire describes him, and thus other male artists, as an outsider, an “observer, philosopher, flâneur” and as “the painter of the passing moment.”

Baudelaire also devotes pages to the make-up and fashion that enabled women to become the made-up spectacles that populated Paris. For Baudelaire, “[in] Modernism, fashion is the leading indicator” or the “ephemeral, […], the contingent.” Nothing is more changeable than fashion. Fashion also stood for the new consumerism, which provided job opportunities for a new working class—especially women, who moved from the private sphere to shops, cafés, and entertainment spaces. Besides the mixing of genders in the workforce, the availability of the new ready-to-wear fashions created ambiguity between the classes, which can be seen in Guys’s Two Women Wearing Blue Feathers and A Lady Walking (both 1860s), which at first glance appear to be middle class women, but are, instead, lower class women (maybe even street walkers). Courbet’s Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer) (1856) is another example of this visual indistinctness between the social classes. It is only upon close examination that one realizes that these young “ladies” have taken off their dresses and are sleeping in their chemise’s in public. They are also unaccompanied by men, indicating a lower social class as well.

By the end of Baudelaire’s essay, Guys, the “painter of modern life,” has become less important than the social conditions he has observed and recorded. Modern life is defined by constant change: a new and bewildering urban environment, populated by new kinds of people. The role of the artist is capture these fleeting moments of the modern city.

Manet’s Déjeuner sur L’Herbe (1863) exemplifies many aspects of Baudelaire’s call to modern artists. Given the information on his essay already available to the students, the instructor can generate a discussion on how Manet is a “painter of modern life.” Since the painting was rejected by the Salon and displayed only to a jeering public in Napoleon III’s conciliatory Salon des Refuées, students can also use close looking to determine what three issues the critics and the pubic found objectionable:

  • the hastily painted surface, that appears to be unfinished;
  • the lack of a clearly defined three dimensional space;
  • the introduction of nudity into a depiction of daily life rather than the accepted nudity of Classicism; and
  • the nude woman has no allegorical references; she stands only in and for the present moment as an everyday person.

The fact that Déjeuner—inspired by Raimondi’s (after Raphael) Judgment of Paris, c. 1520 and Titian’s Pastoral Concert, c. 1508—and Olympia—inspired by Titian’s Venus of Urbino, 1538—were based upon classical paintings that hung in the Louvre further underscored their shock value to its nineteenth century viewers.

In Olympia, Manet humanized a courtesan in the space of a public exhibition, making visible a part of the social structure of Paris people would prefer to remain hidden. It broke down the barriers of social and class distinction.

One can begin a discussion by asking students to think about the names of the women in Titian’s and Manet’s paintings. Why does Titian refer to his subject as Venus and how is her social position underscored in that she is the Duke of Urbino’s Venus? How does this change in Manet’s painting of Olympia? How does each woman present herself to the viewer? Who is Olympia looking at? Who is she? From the visual clues, what is she doing? What does the painting say about her station in life if she is able to employ a servant? What about the items that surround her? (It might be helpful to explain that courtesans were women who were at the top of the prostitutional hierarchy above street walkers, prostitutes, and madams. They were basically mistresses who were supported by wealthy men. The name Olympia was a popular pseudonym for Parisian prostitutes, so it was unmistakable to those at the salon who she was.) How do they think the reaction of the salon goers differed if they were male or female? Upper or lower class? What does Manet suggest about the possibility of women controlling their own sense of agency in 1863?

  • Olympia’s viewer is primarily her male visitor with whom she is probably familiar. He presents her with a large bouquet of flowers via her servant.
  • One of the striking things about this painting is that the visitor is announced to Olympia by her maid, Laura. The fact that she is able to employ a maid indicates that her income, as a courtesan, is ample enough to hire a maid and underscores her social status. However, the fact that the maid is African-Caribbean and dark skinned also reinforces Olympia’s sexuality. (Formally, the black body placed next to the stark whiteness of Olympia also serves to direct our gaze to Olympia.)
  • The financial means that Olympia enjoys is based upon the use of her own body as a commodity. She lies upon expensive sheets and wears expensive items: a gold bracelet, high-heeled silk slippers, a black ribbon around her neck, and a rare Camilla flower in her hair.
  • Her body is presented here as a commodity within her control, which serves to underscore Manet’s emphasis on the ability of Olympia to manage her own sense of agency—to a degree. She, as a courtesan, is still dependent upon her male visitors’ money.
  • Through her posture, facial expression, and the placement of her hand she is clearly not welcoming his company. (Her flat hand covering herself, prohibits access to her body, while Titian’s Venus’s curled fingers serves as an invitation.) The Olympia appears disdainful, almost bored by the offering of the flowers. But in the detail of her face, a hint of sadness can be detected.
  • By looking at the implied visitor, she is also looking directly at the viewer (us), who stands in the place of that visitor. In a period when it was the male who was able to exert control in looking through his social standing, Olympia upends the social structures of mid-century Paris.

Olympia was critiqued in the popular press. Cham (Charles Amédée de Noé, 1818–79) lampooned Olympia’s unidealized, non-classical body in a cartoon. He emphasizes her perceived ugliness by adding a top hat and black stockings. He moves the figure of the maid, with a now ludicrously outsized bouquet, to the center of the composition, which serves to underscore the overt sexuality of the painting. The cat, a symbol of sexuality, has also been exaggerated. The French pronunciation of cat, le chat, in which the ‘t’ is silent, is transformed by adding the feminine article—la chat, in which the ‘t’ is pronounced. This alteration serves as a slang reference to female genitalia (much as it does in English). The cat, a decidedly fickle animal, takes the place of the faithful dog sleeping at the feet of Titian’s classical Venus. Daumier’s satire underscores the confusion of the salon goers: what was this monstrosity they were faced with?

Like many other artists at the time, Manet was affected by Japanese wood block prints, which were first seen at Paris’s World’s Fair in 1867. They were attracted to its lack of perspective and shadow, flat areas of strong color, and the compositional freedom in placing the subject off-center. Prints from the ukiyo-e school during the late Edo Period in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were particularly influential, which focused on transitory and everyday subjects. This  influence, called Japonisme, inspired the writer Émile Zola, who encouraged his readers to compare Manet’s simplification of forms with Japanese prints. Like the prints, Manet’s paintings lack traditional devices of linear perspective and chiaroscuro and offer an alternative to the conventional Western means of representation. The Impressionist Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), in particular, was inspired by formal aspects Japanese prints in her paintings on women. For example, in Maternal Caress (1891), we can see her interest in the flattening of the color and a dimensionality expressed primarily through the use of line.


In April 1874, thirty artists including Monet, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, and Cézanne organized an exhibition in the studio of the photographer Nadar on the Boulevard des Capucines. Their exhibition was conceived as a gesture of independence from the annual state-sponsored Salon, which controlled patronage and exhibitions. 3, 500 visitors viewed the exhibition compared to the 450,000 that went to the salon.

Many of these artists had already experienced rejection for their Salon entries and so, took back exhibitive control of their work. In addition to artists taking charge of subject matter, noted earlier, they organized their own exhibitions as well—again, a product of modernity. This paved the way for the now familiar commercial gallery system, through which many artists exhibit and sell their work.

Characteristics of Impressionism include visible brushstrokes, ordinary subject matter representative of the modern transformation of Paris (nothing monumental as during the Neoclassical or Romantic period and with little or no political implications as during Realism), and an attempt to capture movement as an indication of the fleeting moment.

Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1873) was exhibited in a gallery independent of the annual state-sponsored Salon. One of the critics, making a joke of the title of Monet’s Sunrise, called the group ‘Impressionists’ in order to describe the unfinished and sloppy look to the paintings. These were not real paintings; they were impressions of paintings. They looked like the sketches that artists made in preparation for finished paintings such as Oath of the Horatii (1784) and The Raft of the Medusa (1818), which were never exhibited as finished works.

Monet’s painting is typical of the subject matter—painted in a quick manner to capture the elusive sunrise. One of the characteristics of Impressionism evident here is the short brushstrokes, which capture the essence of the subject rather than the details. This is quite unlike the smooth surfaces of Neoclassical paintings in which the goal was to erase all evidence of the brushstrokes and process. In addition, the colors are applied next to one another in single, small strokes in order to make the colors more vivid. Monet was concerned with the direct study of nature and produced his work under the open sky—called en plein air (“in the open air,” enabled by mass production of paint in portable paint tubes). This immediate observation excluded as many literary and symbolic references as possible and represented an immediate response to the changing environment.

In 1952, Napoleon III gave Baron Haussmann (1809–91) the task of redesigning the city of Paris. The design improved sanitation and the water supply, the distribution of gas and electricity, and traffic circulation in the city. Shops, theaters, and public parks (captured in Courbet’s Young Ladies) were created. The new Opera House, in particular, encapsulated much of the spectacle that was the new city of Paris. The most visible change was the destruction of side streets in order to widen the boulevards. The seventeen-year project provided thousands of jobs, but also displaced as many families. Charles Marville (1813–79) was commissioned to create a photographic record of the old and new Paris, as well as the process through which the changes were made. The expansive and bustling streets were captured in Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines (1873) and later in Pisarro’s Boulevard du Montmartre (1897). Berthe Morisot painted women in modern Paris engaged in leisure activity in the Haussmann-made public parks and gardens, such as in Summer’s Day (1879). She captures the public activity of two unaccompanied upper middle class women, which is indicative of the changing landscape of Paris in the 1870s.

La Moulin de la Galette (1876) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir provides an excellent summary of the issues that guided the Impressionist painters in both subject matter and formal execution. In the painting, a group is attending an evening fête in a temporary bar and dance hall in one of the Haussmann parks. New gas lamps light the scene. Renoir captures the glittering spectacle of the revelry as the dancers twirl on the dance floor.

As noted in the lecture on European and American Architecture (1750–1900), the Paris Opera’s spectacle begins with its location. It is approachable from the major Avenue de l’Opera and several other streets, terminating in its own Place (a plaza or square). Haussmann’s radiating, large avenues directs attention toward the Opera House and the Louvre, both sumptuous places of display with excessive amounts of ornament. The Opera’s spacious lobbies, wide staircases, and veneered surfaces serve as dramatic platforms and backdrops, an environment designed for people to see and be seen. In fact, the lobby, intended for grand entrances, is the same size as the audience seating space. Mirrors line the interior, providing a means for both covert and overt looking.

Both Mary Cassatt and Renoir depicted the Opera, noting its many vantage points from which the bourgeois could admire one another. In La Loge (1874), Renoir presents the woman as the spectacle, on display for public consumption. She is a passive recipient of the viewer’s gaze, while her male companion actively looks out to the other balconies. Cassatt, on the other hand, gives the woman a dynamic role in looking in her Woman at the Loge (At the Opera) (1879). In the nineteenth century, the observer’s gaze, as epitomized in the male flâneur, was one of privilege, structured by economic status and gender. But in Cassatt’s painting, just as the woman in the loge is caught in the gaze of the man to her right, she too looks across the audience and not down to the performance. The viewer becomes the third part of this triangle. In The Loge (1880), Cassatt was able to accurately capture the awkwardness of young women at the Opera. In their new off-the-shoulder gowns, they invite the scrutiny of others. But they sit stiffly, caught between the pleasure and desire to be looked at and the self-consciousness of being on display.

As the number of cafés, restaurants, bars, and dance halls increased, proprietors learned that female employees increased the sale of drinks. Men often felt free to perceive of the server as “fair game,” but Manet gives the waitresses an aloofness that preserves their detachment. In Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881–2), Manet presents the bartender as both victim and participant of commercialized leisure. He underscores the server as object by linking the shape of her body with the shape of the liquor bottles on the bar. The bright gaslights that flicker in the mirrors creates a theatrical spectacle where both the patrons as well as the performer in the upper left of the painting are on display. Mirrors were, and still are, a feature of many French cafés in order to duplicate this experience of the spectacle from the nineteenth century.


Rather than the impression of the spectacle of the external world, a focus of the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionist artists, such as Vincent van Gogh (1853–90), turned toward the expression of the internal psychology of the individual. Others, such as Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) and Georges Seurat (1859–91) practiced an analytical approach using color to build form. These artists shared an interest in simplified, more independent color and an abstraction of forms.

The British critic, Roger Fry, called the artists that reacted to Impressionism the Post-Impressionists in 1910 and the name has come to refer to a group of innovative artists working in France at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. This diverse group had little in common other than that they came after the Impressionists (although some, such as Cézanne, were working at the same time as the Impressionists). But they all, more or less, wanted to push Impressionism’s experiments further and move beyond the passive rendering of visual experience to express their ideas and emotions.

Early in his career, Georges Seurat became fascinated by theories and principles of color organization, studying the optical color theory of the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul (1786–1889). Examining the affects of colors on one another when placed side-by-side, Chevreul argued that each color will impose its own complementary color on its neighbor. For example, if red is placed next to blue, the red will cast a green tint on the blue, altering it to a greenish blue, while the blue imposes a pale orange on the red. Together with the color experiments of the Impressionists and the classical structures of illusionistic perspective of the Renaissance artists, Seurat used the latest concepts of pictorial space and Chevreul’s discoveries in the perception of color and light.

At first glance, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–6) appears to be an Impressionist painting since he captures upper-middle class leisure time on an island in the center of the Seine. But upon closer inspection, one can see that Seurat avoided lines to define contours and instead, created a complex and painstaking method of color placement. Unlike the more haphazard placement of brilliant brushstrokes of color by the Impressionists, Seurat, using Chevreul’s theories, placed small dots of pure colors next to one another forcing the viewer’s eye to “mix” the colors into a composite hue (Pointillism). The dots vary in size according to what he is trying to represent and are often placed over areas where color has been brushed more broadly.

While Seurat is blending the innovative color, light, and pattern of the Impressionists, he still looks to the traditional means of Renaissance perspective. The painting’s immense size (seven by ten feet) and its one-point perspectival depth gives it the impact of a Renaissance fresco. But within the illusion of the three dimensional space, he still flattens his figures in strict profiles or frontal views in abstract forms. His innovative formal technique and his subject places Seurat squarely within the modernist tradition.

The Impressionists favored capturing the observed world through color and noted that objects in nature are not separated from one another by defined contours. To depict this in painting, they recreated solids and voids as color shapes functioning within a limited depth–an almost flattening of the surface like we saw in Manet’s Déjeuner du l’Herbe. Because Impressionism did not make a clear distinction between mass (objects) and depth (space) they were criticized as making images that were formless and insubstantial.

Paul Cézanne’s belief that the Impressionists ignored the tenets of traditional Western painting prompted his oft-quoted remark that he wanted to “make of the Impressionists something solid like the art of the museums.” He did not mean to imitate the old masters, but rather to invent new methods of painting solid forms without relying on the Renaissance tool of simple one-point perspective. He addressed technical problems of form and color by using gradated tonal variations to create dimension in his objects. The objects in Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses (early 1890s), for example, are rendered without use of light or shadow, but through subtle gradations of color. In other still lifes, he ignores the laws of classical perspective, allowing each object to be independent within the space of a picture. In other words, the relationship of one object to another takes precedence over traditional single-point perspective.

Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire (1890s) countless times to experiment with a system of horizontal planes, which build dimension and draw the viewer into the landscape. He used a series of geometric shapes to give form to the houses in the valley, a technique that influenced the later Cubism of George Braque and Pablo Picasso. In a sense, he was more concerned with depicting how our eyes perceive the world as we walk throughout it, rather than from the fixed perspective of traditional painting.

Vincent van Gogh

A great way to introduce Vincent van Gogh is to ask students what they think he felt when gazing out on the field and into the sky, the inspiration for The Starry Night (1889). What did he depict in the painting to convey those feelings? Van Gogh loved bright, unmodulated color. He chose colors to express how he felt, not to capture fidelity to nature: “Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcibly.” He never abandoned perspective, even when he began to emphasize the linear movement of paint over the canvas in his later years. Many of his paintings focus on some aspect of a landscape with some kind of expressive, emotional significance. We can see this in The Starry Night, which was painted from the window of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, an asylum and clinic for the mentally ill, where van Gogh was given a small studio so he could paint.

At the End of Class...

Édouard Manet, The Bar at the Folies Bergère, 1881.

For a review of the material, you can ask the students to provide additional examples from Millet, Bonheur, any of the Impressionists, Seurat, Cézanne, or van Gogh in order to explain why their chosen work of art is representative for the period in which it was created. This exercise can help them practice both contextual and formal skills. You can also ask them to discuss how some issues of Realism and its emphasis on labor can bleed over into the work of Caillebotte and Degas (neither of whom are noted in this short lecture) or Manet. This illustrates that there is no definitive line drawn between the subjects or formal aspects of one movement and another.

It is also helpful to remind students that the history of Modernism in art goes hand in hand with a growing awareness of and interest in non-western art, which includes Japonisme. Exposure to non-Western art forms demonstrated that it was possible to create art unbound by traditional rules. Non-Western art as well as art outside the “high art” tradition (folk art, children’s art, prints, etc.) provided a fresh alternative to the academic aesthetics rooted in classicism, which had dominated Western art production into the mid-nineteenth century.

Karen Shelby (author) is the co-founder of Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR) and an Assistant Professor of Art History at Baruch College. She specializes in nineteenth-century European art, early twentieth-century European and American art and teaches courses in nineteenth-century art, twentieth-century art, the art market, women and art, and Asian art.

Amy Raffel (editor) is a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has a Master’s degree in Contemporary Art history from the Institute of Fine Arts (NYU) and has taught Introduction to Modern Art as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Lehman College since 2010. Currently, Amy is a genome contributor for Artsy and editor and contributor of Art History Teaching Resources.