Who Were the Most Significant Post-Impressionists?

These four artists almost always come up as the top four most prominent and influential French Post-Impressionists.

Apr 18, 2024By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

most significant post impressionists cezanne seurat van gogh gauguin


In contrast with French Impressionism, which was defined by a closely-knit group of artists with shared ideals, Post-Impressionism was far more fractured and diverse, a motley crew of artists who each responded to the optical experimentation of Impressionism in their own highly individual ways. The term first came into use by the art critic Roger Fry, when he organized an exhibition in Paris in 1910 titled Manet and the Post-Impressionists. Fry noted a number of off-shoot variations on the Impressionist oeuvre emerging throughout France, and the exhibition was an attempt to consolidate these variations into a unified group. 


From Vincent van Gogh’s spirited, yet tortured expressionist approach to Paul Gauguin’s vibrant, symbolist spiritualism, these are the four key players who are now most commonly associated with Post-Impressionism, although there were also many others on the periphery of this core group. 


Paul Cezanne

montagne saint victoire paul cezanne
Montagne Saint-Victoire with a Large Pine by Paul Cézanne, 1887. Source: The Courtauld Institute of Art, London


Without a doubt French painter Paul Cezanne was a pioneering leader, spearheading a move away from the fleeting airiness of Impressionism towards a more structured, ordered and sculptural approach. Having already toyed with Impressionism throughout his early to mid-career Cezanne arrived at his mature, Post-Impressionist approach later in life. He reimagined the dappled, flickering brushstrokes of Impressionism as faceted planes describing form, volume and space, and toyed with multiple perspective within a single image, exploring the true, unpredictable nature of human perception, thus paving the way for the Analytical Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.


Georges Seurat

georges seurat bathers at asnières painting
Bathers at Asnières, Georges Seurat, 1884. Source: The National Gallery


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French artist Georges Seurat is also known as a Neo-Impressionist, Divisionist, or Pointillist – nonetheless, he fits under the umbrella with other Post-Impressionists for having taken the notion of Impressionist optical effects in daring new directions. Much like the Impressionists, Seurat was particularly fascinated by light and color, and these became the starting point for his novel new approach to painting. He drew on the latest developments in color theory, particularly by Michel-Eugene Chevreul, to produce paintings made up of tiny, speckled dots in complimentary colors placed side-by-side, which would ‘blend’ in the human eye when seen from a distance.


Seurat thereby created his famous ‘heat-haze’ effects, where observed objects, people, and places have indistinct edges and appear to emerge out of hazy, ambiguous showers of light. In doing so, Seurat paved the way for Op Art in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly Bridget Riley’s shimmering abstract patterns.


Vincent van Gogh

van gogh self portrait painting
Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat, Vincent van Gogh, 1887. The Van Gogh Museum


Much like Cezanne and Seurat, Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh was deeply moved by the Impressionists, and he sought to capture the same fleeting effects of light in nature and observed social scenes. But Like Cezanne, Van Gogh’s approach to making art became far more robust over time, with thick, impasto passages of paint applied in unapologetically bold streaks, smears and swirls. These often came to express his unpredictable states of mind as he became plagued with mental health struggles. 


Van Gogh was also drawn to the expressive, spiritual properties of symbolist art, and these came to play a key role in helping him form his own highly individual, expressionistic approach to painting, particularly with color, an approach that earned him a place alongside the other Post-Impressionists. Rather than painting observed colors as the Impressionists once had, Van Gogh deliberately heightened his color schemes, moving from real-world observations to the highly subjective and imaginative. As with his expressive brush marks, colors became indicators of the artist’s mood at the time the painting was made, thus paving the way for the raw and crude Expressionism of Edvard Munch, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and many more to follow. 


Paul Gauguin

gauguin where do we come from
Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Paul Gauguin, 1897. Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


French painter Paul Gauguin was fascinated by the Impressionists as a young artist, and he sought to emulate their approach to painting within his own practice as a young man. But over time he became increasingly frustrated with the movement’s dogged emphasis on depicting the real world as observed through the human eye. Instead, he was, like his friend Van Gogh, fascinated by the symbolist emphasis on the ambient and spiritual properties of color. He began embellishing observed, everyday scenes with imaginative, dream-like additions, such as dramatically heightened colors and spiritual apparitions.


Increasingly appalled by industrialization, Gauguin found a refuge in Martinique during the latter part of his career, finding artistic fulfilment in the lush, tropical landscapes surrounding him.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.