Art Of The Late Ninegteenth Century Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 21 April 2017

Art Of The Late Ninegteenth Century

Speaking about the late nineteenth century art, it is necessary to say that the transition from one century to another is always marked by the feeling of disillusionment as far as conventional themes and methods are concerned. There is an emptiness which prompts artists to search new forms, new means of expression. It is not always easy, however, which leads them to aspiration to escape from the usual reality to exotic countries and ways of life. The cultural phenomenon of fin de ciecle (end of the century) naturally manifested itself in visual arts and lead to emergence of impressionism and post-impressionism.

Partially, impressionism appearance was caused by the fastening of life tempo and industrial revolution. As a result, impressionists aimed to depict the ever-changing reality; they wanted to catch the moment of the life flow, which is never the same. Impressionist painters inherited the romantic naturalist philosophy but chose different devices to reveal nature.  The term “postimpressionism” was coined by the English artist and critic Roger Fry (1866-1934) in 1910 as a name for the various movements that grew out of Impressionism, but moved away from its naturalist tendencies. In the current paper I intend to analyze some of postimpressionists’ paintings to trace the influence of traditional art and innovation.

One of the most prominent painters on the brink of the centuries was Paul Gauguin. When we speak of fascination with primitive and exotic art, we primarily mean this artist’s attempt to move in this direction. Like most postimpressionists he started as impressionism and was devoted to traditional objective rendering of nature with the help of new coloring and light and shadow effects. In the course of time, when he was already a famous painter he realized inherent limitations impressionism had in itself and chose another direction. He did it not only in the figurative sense but he physically moved to Tahiti to investigate new opportunities for art progress. Let’s look closely at some of his canvasses of Tahitian period to discover what novelty they bear and how they correlate with impressionist tradition, on the one hand, and primitive art forms on the other hand.

One of the most illustrative pictures of the series is called Femmes de Tahiti [Sur la plage] (Tahitian Women [On the Beach]) The name itself suggests that the conventional subject matter of impressionism – conveying fleeting states of nature – is put aside.  The painter made people his objects and applied revolutionary technique to depict them. The fist thing the eye catches is the unusual exotic coloring for the sky, the sea and the sand, which has nothing in common with the palette applied for European landscapes.

The colors are rich and warm; it seems they soaked exotic sunlight. At the same time we see that the artist doesn’t aim at showing every subtle hue (if we speak of color) or every subtle bend of human body (if we speak of shape). On the contrary, he wants to make the impression of ultimate simplicity of color and form, which follows the tradition of primitive art. Despite of this primitivism, the women in the painting feel exceptionally real and palpable, not in terms of photographic similarity and anatomic precision but in terms of emotion conveyed. Natural rich colors of Pacific islands and simplicity of form make them a part of surrounding nature. As a result they feel real in a sense that they are devoid of any artificial glossiness, which civilization imposes.

Another famous painting of Gauguin, which was considered to be scandalous and indecent by many of his contemporaries, is called Spirit of the Dead Watching. It depicts a nude young girl lying and mystical world surrounding her. This painting inherits the tradition of primitive art not only in terms of form but also in discovering the mythology of Tahitians. In this case Gauguin managed to do a unique thing – with the help of simple, rough, down-to-earth colors and forms he depicted an ephemeral world of spirits

Edgar Degas is another famous postimpressionist of the late nineteenth century. Unlike Gauguin, he was not much into exotic themes. He inherited much from impressionist tradition, and was greatly influenced by the naturalist philosophy of romanticism. Still, if we look at his landscape paintings, it becomes plain that the emphasis is quite different, as well as the role of nature.

For example, the canvass Aux courses en province (At the Races in the Country) is a perfect illustration to this dual influence. The painting is no way an ode to nature, as it was the case with impressionists and romanticists. It is rather the point, where the two worlds – rural and urban – intersect. The contrast between the picturesque scenery and the people who came to the country to enjoy themselves is really huge. This contrast is not manifested through color but through some specific details, which make the impression that the people are outsiders for the nature.

Thus, a sun parasol a woman wears, her husband’s top hat, the cart among the field, and especially the horses’ eyes covered with blinders – all these details disclose the painters’ idea that people no longer belong to the nature. Degas is said to be the one who was greatly influenced by the revolutionary invention of the late nineteenth century – photography. Thus, his painting Absinthe is illustrative of the new perspective and spacing photography opened to artists. The canvass reminds of the technology of painting black and white photos, which was applied at this period of time.

To sum up, the late nineteenth century was marked by the trend of transformation, transition from Romantic to Postimpressionist art and way of thinking. The painters of these periods were exposed to dual influence- on the one hand, they inherited the technique and tradition of impressionist art and naturalist philosophy, on the other hand the felt like the old principles and themes were exhausted, that’s why they resorted to new sources of inspiration like primitive exotic art and photography.



Broude, Norma. Impressionism: A Feminist Reading: the Gendering of Art, Science, and Nature in the Nineteenth Century. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997.

“Impressionism , in Painting.” The Columbia Encyclopedia . 6th ed. 2004.

Rewald, John. Post-Impressionism: From Van Gogh to Gauguin. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1956.


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