The Neo-Impressionists debuted as an entity in a gallery of the Eighth (and last) Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1886, led by Georges Seurat. That same year, Félix Fénéon, an art critic and champion of these artists, coined the term “Neo-Impresionism” in a review. When Seurat died at an early age, Paul Signac took his place as the leader and theorist of the movement. The principal Neo-Impressionists—Henri-Edmond Cross, Maximilien Luce, Seurat, and Signac—were joined for a number of years by the former Impressionist Camille Pissarro as well as other like-minded artists, such as Belgian painter Théo van Rysselberghe, from nearby countries.
These vanguard painters looked to theories of color and perception to create visual effects in Pointillist canvases, among these the optical and chromatic methods developed by scientists— particularly in publications by French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul and by American physicist Ogden Rood. This modern, revolutionary painting technique was characterized by the juxtaposition of individual strokes of pigment to evince the appearance of an intense single hue. By thus orchestrating complementary colors and employing mellifluous forms, the Neo-Impressionists rendered formally unified compositions. The representation of light as it impacted color when refracted across water, or filtered through atmospheric conditions, or rippled across a field, was a dominant concern in their works.
Most of the Neo-Impressionists shared left-wing politics, evident, for example, in Pissarro’s and Luce’s depictions of the working classes. The idealized visions of anarcho-socialism or anarcho-communism were also manifest in the utopian scenes that the Neo-Impressionists frequently represented in their works, which often married ideological content and technical theory. But even when not guided by political objectives, the Neo-Impressionists’ shimmering interpretations of city, suburb, seaside, or countryside reflected places of harmony.
Symbolism began as a literary movement in the 1880s, codified in 1886 when poet Jean Moréas published the "Symbolist Manifesto" in the French newspaper Le Figaro. But the idealist philosophies and highly stylized formal qualities of the idiom quickly infiltrated the visual arts. The term Symbolism is applied to a variety of artists who shared anti-naturalistic goals. Sometimes even Neo-Impressionist or Nabis works were identified with Symbolism because of their peculiar forms and allusive subject matter, such as those by the Nabi Maurice Denis, who looked to religion and allegory and used sinuous line and flattened zones of color or all-over patterning. Indeed, artists associated with Symbolism did not always define themselves as such, among them Odilon Redon. Yet his eerie "noirs" of floating, disembodied heads and creeping spiders, and his later incandescent pastels and paintings, unmoored from reality, their meaning enigmatic and locked in hermeticism, are closely associated with the style.
Most of the artists connected to Symbolism were averse to materialism and had lost faith in science, which had failed to alleviate the ills of modern society. They chose instead to probe spiritualism and interior states of mind in suggestive and evocative images, and decorative idioms, nourished by Art Nouveau’s organic motifs and arabesque forms, permeated their work. Symbolist art embraced mythic narratives, religious thematics, and the macabre world of nightmares, abandoning the factual for the fantastic, the exterior world for the drama of psychological landscapes, the material for the spiritual, and the concrete for the ethereal. Although deeply rooted in narrative, Symbolism sought to elicit abstracted sensations and, through the subjective imagery depicted, to convey universal experience. These impulses responded to a yearning engendered by the dark side of modernity—the search for the transcendent.
The Nabis and Print Culture in the 1890s
On the heels on the 1890 exhibition of Japanese prints at the École des Beaux-Arts, printmaking experienced a renaissance in France, both in lithography and woodcut. Among those who launched this revival were the Nabis, along with artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The Nabis (from the Hebrew word meaning "prophets") were a loosely connected brotherhood whose art was influenced by the flat planes of color and pattern of Paul Gauguin’s Synthetism and by the abrupt cropping and twodimensional compositions of Japanese prints. Renouncing easel painting, the Nabis’ work crossed media to prints, posters, and illustrations for journals such as La Revue blanche, co-owned by their patron Thadée Natanson. As a "low" art exempt from the academic rules that governed painting, printmaking offered an artistic freedom that many found attractive.
During the 1890s artists experimented with the possibilities of the stark contrasts of the woodcut, as Félix Vallotton did with his inventive use of black-and-white in scathing commentaries on Parisian society. Other Nabis, like Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard, were enthralled with color lithography, testing the limits of the medium in myriad ways, even exerting manipulations during the printing process, by working closely with master printer Auguste Clot. They produced posters and print portfolios commissioned by dealers, perhaps most importantly gallerist Ambroise Vollard, which depicted contemporary life in highly reductive, yet incisive scenes of Paris. Toulouse-Lautrec turned his energies to the art of the poster. These large-scale, eye-catching, and brilliant creations were short-lived advertisements, pasted around Paris. Passers-by (potential consumers) were seduced by exciting caricature-like portrayals of bohemian venues—the café-concerts of Montmartre or the famed performers who headlined there, including La Goulue (the glutton), and Jane Avril. The prints in this gallery celebrate the lively existence that has come to define fin de siècle Paris.