modernist art

late impressionism through surrealism

cézanne and van gogh


people, terms, and concepts: expressive color, realism, formalism

additional reading: selections from Van Gogh’s letters

Van Gogh generally fits with the Symbolist branch of Post-Impressionism, but there are some significant differences between Van Gogh and other Symbolists such as Gauguin that are instructive: (1) unlike Gauguin, who painted pictures of other people having religious visions, Van Gogh paints from his own vision and religious feelings; (2) where Gauguin, and indeed most of the Symbolists, used direct supernatural and religious subjects, Van Gogh rarely if ever did, relying on expressive form (and especially color) to lend significance and expression to ordinary, viewed reality.  Be able to discuss what his letters say about his aims and how he tries to use color to invest deeper, expressive, moral meaning in ordinary, non-supernatural scenes such as the café and night sky scenes below.

Cézanne does not belong to any particular movement.  After a couple of years exhibiting with the Impressionists, he isolated himself in the south of France, where he began painting the same things over and over again.  Exactly what it was that he was trying to get right is not easy to say, but everyone from the Symbolists through the Fauvists and Cubists saw him as a role model.  Here are a couple of key quotes attributed to him that begin to explain his goals:

“I am trying to make of Impressionism something solid and lasting like the art of the museums”

“I am trying to re-do Poussin over again after nature.”

Both quotes talk about an attempt to balance truth to art (formalism) and truth to nature (realism), although Cézanne saw art and nature as having somewhat contradictory qualities:  nature is disorderly and art is orderly; nature is three-dimensional and art (that is, painting) is inherently two-dimensional.  Cézanne seems to have tried to be true to both at the same time, with considerable difficulty.  How does he try to make nature (and Impressionism, which he saw as just a direct copy of nature) more orderly?  How did he try to make his works an accurate reflection of the three-dimensionality of nature and the two-dimensionality of painting at the same time?  Be able to analyze either the works below in some detail along these lines.

Van Gogh, The Night Café, 1888

Van Gogh, Starry Night, 1889

Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1885-87

Cézanne, Still-Life with Plaster Cupid, 1895