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David B. Vides
Dr. Rodney Nevitt
ARTH 1300
MWF 9:00-10:00

From Impressionism to Post-Impressionism

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Late 1800s Paris was the scene of many social and economic developmental changes triggered
by rapid industrialization. This transformation, a step away from agrarian life and into an urban,
industrial society, left many contemplating the variable, unpredictable, and ever-changing nature
of the world. It was this atmosphere that set the stage for the birth of the Impressionist art
movement, which looked to portray the very ephemeral features of everyday life. Like the
Realists, artists such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Camille Renoir rejected
traditional mythological and religious themes in favor of daily life, but did so with an emphasis
on expressing the elusiveness and impermanence of the subjects they portrayed (Gardner, p.
687). Although Post-Impressionism may not be a very exact term (as many artists that fell into
this category had quite distinct approaches, i.e. Vincent van Gogh vs. Georges Seurat), in
general Post-impressionist artists built on the same principles of Impressionists, but also went
further and used their skills to underscore the power of artistic expression conveyed through each
brushstroke upon a canvas. Camille Pissarros The Goose Girl at Montfoucault, White Frost
(Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) of 1875 and Vincent van Goghs The Rocks (Museum of Fine
Arts, Houston) of 1888 each, respectively, incorporates a number of methods and techniques
characteristic of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists.
The Goose Girl at Montfoucault, White Frost presents the viewer with a tranquil rural
setting where a young lady and her seemingly domesticated geese appear almost secondary to the
bucolic background - reminiscent of Carraccis Flight into Egypt, where the idyllic/pastoral
setting takes precedence over the actual characters or narrative portrayed. Looking at this girl
and her small flock of wildfowl passing through a whitewashed gate in the middle of the
countryside, the viewer also encounters an element apparently trivial but actually emblematic of
the Impressionist movement: distinct from the Carraccis landscape painting, there is a complete
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lack of a narrative or relation of the scene to a historic, religious, or mythological event. Of
course, even the landscape is not precisely depicted; this was not the principle behind
Impressionist art. Critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary noted in 1874, They are Impressionists in the
sense that they render not the landscape, but the sensation produced by the landscape.
In terms of technique perhaps the most notable, or at least most easily distinguished,
features of Impressionism utilized in Pissarros painting are the short, thick strokes of paint;
applied by adding wet paint to wet paint in such a way that the brushstrokes produce softer and
gentler edges. Colors are applied side by side (darker tones yielded by mixing complementary
colors; pure Impressionists avoided black paint), with care taken to avoid mixing in such a
manner as to allow the mixing to occur in the eyes of the viewer. The result is a painting that
very nearly appears unfinished sketch-like in nature. The coarse texture, produced by the use of
visible brushstrokes, generates the illusion of wind blowing through the trees above the girl and
the geese as the light strikes the painting and hits the changing, irregular surface of the canvas.
This manipulation of light through contrasting colors is another important tool employed by
Impressionist artists. In this particular painting Pissarro also makes it a point to use colors that
evoke the idea of a specific season; one look at the red, orange, and gold foliage and one cannot
help but think of autumn.
Most of the qualities mentioned above were initially snubbed at by many of Pissarros
contemporaries (particularly the Acadmie-run Salon de Paris) who viewed these as entirely
unrefined, but become justified by the true intent and purposes of painters like Pissarro when
creating their works. The objective was not to recreate the details of an actual scene he witnessed
but rather depict his impression of the scene and the fleeting, transient nature of these moments.
Vincent van Goghs The Rocks goes one step further, as the former-missionary-turned artist uses
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color and distorted imagery to infuse his own emotion into the painting. The brushstrokes
employed are broader and heavier than those of Pissarros, almost haphazard in appearance at
first glance, and much brighter colors are used. Darker blue streaks outline the rocks, deep green
brushstrokes aimed in all directions suggest the movement of wind through the grass, and thick,
rough, wide sweeps of white portray a cloudy day. The result of these dense, unmixed paint
strokes (in the impasto manner, giving the paintings surface palpable texture to an even greater
extent than Pissarro), vigorously applied blue, greens, and yellows, is a vivid and stimulating
depiction of Montmajours rocky terrain just a few miles north of the city of Arles in southern
France (The Rocks MFAH) that starkly contrasts the calm, placid mood of The Goose Girl at
Montfoucault, White Frost.
Pissarros use of light and dark colors provides a means by which to convey a sense of
depth, where lighter tones are applied to trees far off in the distance and darker hues for those
nearer the foreground. In The Goose Girl at Montfoucault, White Frost the viewer seems to be a
short distance away from the girl and her flock, although possibly at an elevated position relative
to them. Upon inspecting the landscape of van Goghs The Rocks, on the other hand, we run into
some trouble. Apart from the tree at the center of the painting, there is not much else to supply
the viewer with a proper sense of perspective and proportion no other landmark to provide
information about the distance between the observer and the tree. While one could not go so far
as to say that van Goghs painting is spatially flat, initially there is most definitely a greater sense
of the wide expanse of nature and the countryside in Pissarros The Goose Girl. This may be due
to the end goal or objective behind each artists idea for their painting; Pissarro, as an
impressionist, looked to capture particular fleeting moments in their entirety, whereas van Gogh
was less interested in encapsulating a specific moment as much as a specific emotion. Pissarro
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painted a vast, autumnal expanse to allow the viewer a glimpse into the same countryside he saw
in that moment van Gogh painted an image of an isolated, solitary tree to allow the viewer a
glimpse into his own mental and emotional state at that moment. While it is difficult to infer
much more than a sense of looking up at the tree from a lower angle in van Goghs The Rocks, a
viewpoint from this position endows the painting with a certain amount of grandeur that would
otherwise have been lost due to some lack of discernible depth on the canvas. One cannot help
but trace the winding path outlined by the rocks leading up to base of the tree that is either
leaning precariously over the ledge of the cliff or bending against the force of the wind.
Whichever it is, this image of a tree twisted and stooped over the edge of a precipice elicits
feelings of either amazement or apprehension.
Aside from these differences in composition, another point of note is the type of
landscape depicted in each painting. The Impressionist landscape rendered by Pissarro is not
exactly what one would consider a wild or uncultivated environment. Not only is the wilderness
of the natural scene depicted subdued by the presence of the girl and her (assumed) domesticated
geese, even without them the gate by itself signifies the mark of human infringement on the wild.
This portrayal of human encroachment upon the wilderness in this painting could be considered
an analogy of the rapid industrialization occurring in France (particularly Paris) at the time
Pissarro painted it and the intrusion or even domination of industry on/over agriculture and
farming in the late 19
century. The Rocks, on the other hand, shows a small portion of French
land undisturbed by human touch a rocky environment interrupted only by patches of wild
grass. Beyond the tree and cliff depicted by van Gogh, even the sea remains unblemished by any
vestiges of manmade structures; no ships, no boats, no piers, just the blue Mediterranean. The
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effect is profound and leaves the viewer on his/her own to marvel at a landscape free of any trace
of civilization.
Upon analyzing The Goose Girl at Montfoucault, White Frost and The Rocks, we can see
that Camille Pissarro and Vincent van Gogh shared similar methods and techniques. Both
utilized distinctive, unblended brushstrokes, painted impasto, applying thick layers of paint onto
their works, and maintained the use of real-life subject matter while stressing the artificiality of
the image. However, the similarities end there as Post-Impressionist artists like van Gogh
differed in opinion with a number of Impressionist concepts. They rejected the Impressionists
concern with capturing the impermanence and transience of particular moments: Pissarros
painting depicts a day in the fall season, with long shadows implying either mid-morning or mid-
afternoon, while van Gogh forgoes the use of light from the sun to pinpoint any time of day and
does not emphasize any specific season. Additionally, although neither Impressionists nor Post-
Impressionists focused on the details of their subjects, rather their essence, the latter group
expanded on this idea and went so far as to alter/distort form for augmented expressive effect.
This fact is evident when comparing The Rocks to The Goose Girl at Montfoucault, White Frost,
where Pissarros painting remains more true to a realistic scene and van Gogh took more creative
liberties when recreating the scene that must have been before him as he painted. In conclusion,
these two paintings offer a general view of the technical and aesthetic changes that occurred
during the development of Post-Impressionism from the Impressionism movement, where artists
like Vincent van Gogh both adopted and rejected elements used by artists like Camille Pissarro.