Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)

Born in the Netherlands, Vincent van Gogh tried many occupations before he decided to become an artist at the age of 27. He worked in several family-owned art galleries located in different cities, so he was familiar with many artists and their styles. He settled in Brussels, taking art lessons and practicing drawing. He created paintings and drawings of the peasants and landscapes around him. In 1885, his younger brother, Theo, was living in Paris and told Vincent about the Impressionist’s use of lighter, brighter colors. He began to study color and moved to Paris to see how Impressionists used color. He saw Japanese prints and silk paintings and became interested in Japanese techniques.
Soon, his paintings evolved with his use of broad, swirling strokes of paint and bold, vivid colors. His unique style is still admired, copied, and sought after today. In 1888, with the thought of creating an artist community, he moved to Arles, France. He invited the artist Paul Gauguin to join him, but the roommates fought constantly. After one argument, van Gogh cut off the lobe of one of his own ears. There are many stories surrounding this incident, from van Gogh’s anger that Gauguin had dated one of his girlfriends to a history of self-mutilation. Recently, there is a theory that he may have had epilepsy, a kind that causes tremendous headaches and deafening ringing in the ears.
While at Arles, van Gogh painted his bedroom, Artists Room at Arles. Forms are simplified, and colors are bright. You can see dark outlines, an influence from Japanese artwork. Each line created by the brushstroke is visible. He contrasted cool colors (blue and green) against warm colors (yellow and orange). The lines in the floor and on the sides of furniture lead to a vanishing point.
VanGogh_BedroomInArlesVincent ended up in a mental hospital. When he was thinking clearly, he would continue his painting. During the last four years of his life, van Gogh created a tremendous number of paintings and drawings. His use of line, dots, and dashes became more swirling, and colors became more vivid. Skies did not have to be blue and trees green. He created landscapes, still lifes, and portraits. While under the care of Dr. Gachet, a subject for one of his portrait paintings, van Gogh shot himself and died two days later, his brother Theo by his side.


The Impressionist style was taken a step further by Post-Impressionists. Forms became flatter, and colors and lines became more expressive. The focus for artists’ works changed from representing what they saw to what they thought. Artists experimented with different techniques in using drawing and painting media. Each Post-Impressionist artist developed his own distinct style. The following are some characteristics of Post-Impressionism:

  • Fewer colors used; a more simple color scheme
  • Colors used for expressive purposes rather than naturalism
  • Thick paint that created texture
  • Dark, expressive lines
  • Simplified forms
  • Further experimentation in applying the media to a surface
  • Symbolism in subject matter

Auguste Rodin (1840–1917)

Painting was not the only art process affected by the Impressionist style. Sculpture also saw a change. Auguste Rodin’s extraordinary skill dominated sculpture during this time. His sculptural technique was similar to Impressionist painting techniques. He pushed, pulled, and jabbed the clay or wax to create forms just as painters applied dots and dashes to their paintings. Rodin created the same spontaneous feeling, the capturing of a fleeting moment in his sculptures. His figures are not idealized like classical statues but are of ordinary men and women in special moments. His statues show strong emotions—happiness, sadness, love, and pain. He altered traditional poses to create original, highly emotional sculptures.

The Burghers of Calais
The Burghers of Calais

Rodin was born in Paris to a poor family, hated school, and dropped out at the age of 13. He went to a trade school and learned to create decorative sculptures, mostly ornamental ironwork for buildings. After working in decorative art studios, he would work on his own sculptures. He was inspired by Michaelangelo’s sculptures, which he saw on a trip to Italy. He gained acceptance by art critics with a life-size figure sculpture and received a commission for a set of sculptural doors for a decorative arts museum. The museum was never built, but Rodin worked on The Gates of Hell for 40 years. In the meantime, he received more commissions. One of his most famous commissions was The Burghers of Calais. It commemorated an event that took place in the town of Calais. The sculpture memorializes the six men who gave their lives in exchange for the town’s protection by the invading English army during the Hundred Years’ War. It was unlike any public memorial ever created before. The group of figures are not symmetrically balanced, and the figures are of ordinary men. The surface of this sculpture is uneven with rough textures, which creates dramatic shadows.

While continuing to work on The Gates of Hell, based on Dante’s Inferno, Rodin was inspired to create his most famous sculpture, The Thinker. The sculpture was meant to be part of the The Gates of Hell, a man contemplating the vision of hell below. The figure is modeled in an Impressionist style, lacking the fine details of classical sculptures. More important is the man’s emotional state as he thinks about the visions of hell. Although seated, his body has a twist to it. His right arm propped on his left knee with the hand curled into a fist beneath his chin. The uneven textures on the surface create a play between light and shadow. We can make out the musculature of the man, but the figure is not idealized like classical sculptures. This man could be anyone.
Rodin created several versions of The Thinker, altering their size from the initial 28 inches high to an even smaller version at only 14 3/4 inches, then to a monumental size of 79 inches. Rodin used the sculptural process of casting. A mold was created from a wax model. Hot metal was poured into the mold, melting the wax. When cool, the mold was opened to reveal the finished sculpture. Multiple castings can be made from the same image. One such casting is here in Louisville at the University of Louisville (U of L) Law building.

Mary Cassatt (1844–1926)

Another Impressionist artist was an American woman, Mary Cassatt. She was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but spent most of her life in Europe. She began her studies in art (much to the dismay of her father) by studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, one of only a few art schools in the United States at the time. She furthered her studies in Paris by taking private lessons (women were not allowed in Paris art schools). She also traveled through Europe to study the works of the masters. Mary Cassatt worked primarily in oil and pastels and created prints.
Cassatt became friends with Impressionist artists and upheld their ideas. She exhibited her work with the first Impressionist exhibition in 1879 and received good reviews. She became a lifelong friend of the artist Edgar Degas. He showed her Japanese prints, which she greatly admired and used many of the techniques in her own prints. Women, children, and the bond between mother and child became the subjects of her developing style. Much of her artwork captures the tender moments of mother and child in everyday situations.
In her 1876 painting Young Mother Sewing, Cassatt used Impressionist brushstrokes to capture the effect of light streaming through the windows onto the mother and child. We see a tender moment as the child leans on her mother’s lap. The painting is very light and bright, typical of Impressionist paintings. Cassatt balances the cool colors in the foreground and background with warm colors in the middle ground. Lines in the folds and patterns of clothing move the eye around the composition to the mother’s hands, which are busy sewing; this focal point is emphasized by the use of a bright white light. This ordinary scene seems as if we are observing a special moment. The painting creates an overall feeling of softness and comfort. Although never able to have a child of her own, Cassatt’s understanding of the love between mother and child is evident in her work.
Mary Cassatt helped bring European art to America by providing assistance to visiting Americans who wanted to purchase art to take home. Many of the artworks she helped select have ended up in American museums. During the later part of her life, Mary Cassatt developed cataracts (a clouding of the lens of the eye) and began losing her eyesight. She eventually had to quit painting.

Claude Monet (1840–1926)

Impression: Sunrise
Impression: Sunrise

Artists had new and often brighter colors to work with. In 1874, Monet displayed a painting titled Impression: Sunrise in an exhibition with a fellow group of artists. Critics were outraged at this new style that looked unfinished and quickly termed it “Impressionism,” after the title of Monet’s painting.
Born in Paris, Monet grew up as a wild, undisciplined boy in Le Havre, a French city on the coast, where his family moved when Monet was 5. He was a constant source of trouble for his parents and teachers. In school he became known for drawing caricatures but eventually was able to sell some of them for much-needed cash. Monet had quite an ego and saw himself as a great artist. At 18, he decided to seriously pursue an art career, but his family could not afford to send him to an art school in Paris. He was drafted into the army at 20 but became ill 11 months later. He returned to Paris, where he studied art in an artist’s studio. Monet was in constant financial trouble throughout the majority of his life, spending what little money he received from allowances, the sale of artwork, and his first wife’s dowry on unnecessary things. He was constantly begging and borrowing money from family and friends. His first wife died after giving birth to their second child. Later, his two sons were taken in by Alice, the wife of an art collector. Monet and the art collector’s wife eventually married when her husband died.

Alice took over the finances with money saved from her job as a dressmaker. They moved to Giverny, where they spent the rest of their lives.
Water Lilies
Water Lilies

It was while in Giverny that Monet found success. His works began to sell well in the United States. He began painting a series of haystacks in Giverny. Each painting shows the effect of different times of day and seasons on the same subject. This series was a success in Paris. The majority of the rest of his paintings are also series (e.g., poplar trees, the Rouen Cathedral, his garden). His last painting was of the water lily pond at his home. His eyesight had been failing for some time, and his painting style seemed to reflect his failing vision. The work is more abstract with broader, larger brushstrokes.
The Bridge at Argenteuil
The Bridge at Argenteuil

Monet’s The Bridge at Argenteuil (1874) shows his success at capturing the rapidly changing reflections in water. He used short, horizontal brushstrokes to build up layers of different colors. The boats in the foreground help to establish the illusion of depth. Without them, we might lose our sense of space in the huge expanse of water. Monet balances his use of horizontal lines with vertical lines. He repeats lines, shapes, and colors to create a distinct rhythm and sense of movement. His style of brushstrokes helps to unify the entire composition.

Visual Art

The invention of the camera and the process of photography made artists reexamine the purpose of their art. The camera could capture the world exactly as it appeared. Photography forced artists to search for new ways of showing images. With Realism’s goals (capturing the common man) and the invention of the camera, the next generation of artists expanded their artistic vision. Impressionism focused on both the effects of light and atmospheric conditions while capturing a moment in time. Although the camera could not capture color, this art element still became the Impressionists’ trademark. Two artists, Claude Monet and Mary Cassatt, were both leaders in the Impressionistic style.
Later, Post-Impressionism explored the expression of reality in new ways, using color and form. Artists experimented with new techniques of working with media. Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin were two of the artists whose work was characteristic of this art style.
Western Europeans were exposed to art from other cultures. Japanese prints, which first appeared as packing material for shipments of such trade goods as porcelain, became a major source of inspiration for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists. Japan had traditionally been a country of isolation. The government would not permit any other countries to interact with its culture. However, Japan was forced to open its ports because of war, thus the long period of isolation ended. Many Japanese prints and other artworks were now exposed to the Western world. Japanese prints showed that less detail and flatter forms could create interesting and successful artwork. Also notable was the use of diagonal compositions with less importance given to perspective.
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Impressionism developed distinct characteristics:
• Less detail to objects
• Thick paint applied in layers with short brushstrokes
• Pure color, little mixing
• Use of blues and violet instead of black for shading
• Study of the effect of light on objects
• Painting outside using portable easels and tubes of premixed paint
• Blurred, soft edges

Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)

Ravel was a French composer who lived at the same time as Debussy. He used many of the same techniques as his countryman. His music reflects an interest in the exotic, jazz style of Wagner and Russian music. Ravel wrote music that portrayed ideas more than images. His composition “La Valse” (“The Waltz”) represented Ravel’s concern with the decline of European society. He put his thoughts into music by writing a piece that becomes more and more dissonant, louder in volume, and ends with a great crashing chord played by the entire orchestra.
“Le Tombeau de Couperin” (“The Tomb of Couperin”) was written as a response to the loss of friends in WW I. Ravel’s most famous piece is “Bolero.” Composed for a ballet, this piece is basically one melody that repeats over and over with different instruments playing it each time. The 15-minute work gets louder and louder, crescendoing up to the final note.
“Bolero” is a one-movement orchestral piece that premiered in 1928. It was originally composed as a ballet and is considered Ravel’s most famous musical composition. The music is played over an ostinato (a musical phrase that is repeated over and over) rhythm that is played continuously throughout the piece.

Claude Debussy (1862–1918)

The music of Debussy mirrors the visual art of France during his lifetime. Just as French painters were trying to capture the effects of light on subjects, Debussy tried to create music that represented visual images and emotions.
Once again, opera, solo vocal, orchestra, and piano pieces were changed by new ideas and compositional techniques. The titles of pieces were no longer descriptions of their forms (sonata, etude, minuet). Instead, pieces were given descriptive names like “The Snow is Falling” and “The Sea.” The title of the piece would provide a clue about what the music was describing, giving the listener a hint as to what he or she would be hearing.
To create these descriptive pieces, Debussy used new harmonies that were strange compared to those used by previous composers. He used a whole tone scale to create a dreamy quality. There was no longer a clearly identified melody or melodic idea. Debussy wrote music that was meant to represent nature, and it was presented as a constantly developing, moving thread of sound. He would use short, melodic fragments to recall a certain mood, feeling, or idea.
The music of Debussy could represent a story or simply a time, place, event, or emotion. The orchestral piece La Mer (The Sea) demonstrates this new approach to composing music. This piece, written for orchestra, is meant to represent the interplay of the water in the sea with the wind, the sunlight, and the shore. There are times when the instruments try to recreate the sound and feeling of the wind on the surface of the water, or the waves overlapping, or the sun reflecting off of the sea like many diamonds.
“Clair de Lune,” meaning moonlight, is from the third movement of the Suite Bergamasque for piano. It is believed to have been named after Paul Verlaine’s poem “Clair de Lune.” The movement is played mostly pianissimo and in D major. Debussy wrote the suite at age 26 in 1888. The suite was not published until 1903.

Impressionism and Post-Impressionism

Impressionism and Post-Impressionism (1850–1920)

Impressionism was primarily a visual art movement begun by a group of artists in France who started exhibiting their work in the 1860s. The Impressionist style shows the effects of light and atmospheric conditions in artworks that spontaneously capture a moment of time. Music was the only other art form that most emulated the ideas of Impressionism. Post-Impressionism was a movement or style exclusive to visual art. Post-Impressionists used the art elements to express reality in different ways, expanding the ideas of Impressionism while rejecting the limitations. Three Post-Impressionists—Gauguin, van Gogh, and Matisse—have been credited with starting modern art.