To my personal taste, the history of painting seems to have achieved its peak with the end of the 19th century in France. In Paris at that time a very vibrant artistic environment developed which attracted many painters, from across Europe and beyond, who influenced each other and paved the way for a multitude of artistic movement to blossom and develop in so many different directions. It all seemed to start with the artistic revolution triggered by the impressionists and their new approach to nature and colour.
Impressionism was a style of painting that emerged in the 1870s as a reaction to the realism of the time, which often depicted academic pretty scenes but without any emotion. There were two different groups of impressionist painters, those from Italy and those from France. In France, the group was called Impressionists, whereas in Italy, the group of painters inspired by similar principles was called the Macchiaioli. They were both influenced by the Barbizon school of landscape painting and their goal was to capture the changes in light and colour, as well as motion, in their paintings.
The French Impressionists first emerged in 1874 with their first exhibition in 1877 at the Paris Salon, an art show that took place annually and showcased new art trends. The Italian Macchiaioli painters first emerged years before the French Impressionist movement, in 1859 with their first exhibition in 1860 at the Florentine Academy. Hence, it may be disputed that the movement actually originated in France, as it emerged in Italy decades before and flourished in Italy as well with artists like Giuseppe De Nittis, Giovanni Boldini and Federico Zandomeneghi, who also spent some of their artistic life in Paris, along with their French colleagues.
Impressionism in Britain
The magnetic attraction of Paris and its buzzing artistic life felt its influence also on painters across the Channel, who quickly adopted the revolutionary approaches of their French colleagues. Amongst them, Alfred Sisley, who was born to affluent British parents in Paris in 1839, who embraced totally the artistic influence of the Impressionist movement and dedicated most of his art to landscape painting. He lived most of his life in France although he kept his British citizenship and spent some periods in England. Because of his very strong connections with the Impressionist school and his upbringing, he is often considered a French artist. The soft tones of his landscapes are his signature trait and he coherently adopted the Impressionist principle of painting en plein air. He sparked vivid interest amongst British artists and was followed in his footsteps by many painters who developed a sentive eye for similar landscape painting, among them Henry Scott Tuke and Laura Knight.
The term post-Impressionism was used much later than the times when painters started diverging from the approaches used by impressionist painters. Paul Cézanne, recognised as the father of post-Impressionism, was among the first to react to the progressive loss of defined shapes and the representation of nature of the impressionists, giving more emphasis to geometric forms and the usage of unnatural or arbitrary colours.
Van Gogh and his unique sense of colour and brushstrokes brought painting even further away from the delicate rendition of nature and light of the impressionists, Paul Gauguin’s personal journey with painting went from an impressionist beginning to more resolute divisionism and ended with a phase where aggressive colours and shapes where inspired by more primordial inspiration. Seurat inaugurated a very different painting technique based on the division of colours into small points, to form new optical effects on the human eye.
Just after the end of WW2 Victor Vasarely started establishing a new artistic movement inspired by his influences stemming from the Abstract Expressionism and the Bauhaus style. The vibrant artistic environment in Paris at the time was the perfect background for the development of new creative outbursts. The main idea was the generation of a fluctuating and dynamic effect on a painting through the juxstaposition of contrasting colours and geometrical patterns. His vision for painting was followed by many other artists who expressed their inspiration through rendering on canvas optical illusions rendered on canvas, among them Bridget Riley and Jean-Pierre Yvaral.
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