Camille Pissarro and Vincent Van Gogh: When did Impressionism become Post-Impressionism?

Corcoran Gallery
Washington, DC
February 24th, 2010

When did Post-Impressionism begin?

In theory, Post-Impressionism (coming right after Impressionism) should have begun when Impressionism ended. Since impressionism ended in 1886, Post-Impressionism ought to have started right there and then.

It is not so simple: if you were a Parisian or an American traveling in France in 1886, or in fact throughout the 1890s, and if you had asked a well-informed person of the art world where you could see any work by the Post-Impressionists, nobody could have given you an answer — the reason for this is very simple: event though the artists we know today as Post-Impressionists were getting very famous, the very term “Post-Impressionism” did not exist yet.

This is one of the oddest characteristics in the notion of Post-Impressionism: it was born when all the post-impressionists were dead.

None of Cézanne, Gauguin or Van Gogh ever knew that one day they would be commonly referred to as “Post-Impressionists”. Another irony, of course, is that when this term was created in 1910 three of the old Impressionists were still alive: Renoir, Degas, and Monet.

I would like to dwell on the genesis of this term since it became eventually difficult to conceive of Van Gogh’s work outside a reference to Post-Impressionism. After looking at the genesis of Post-Impressionism, I will turn to Van Gogh himself, through his letters, and briefly question the validity of this art historical category in light of what Van Gogh wrote. Finally, I will look more specifically at the relationship that tied Van Gogh to Pissarro, or Post-Impressionism to Impressionism, and examine what Van Gogh decided to take, or not to take, from Impressionism, and especially from Pissarro’s Impressionism.