Impressionism vs. Post-Impressionism

Contrasting Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Georges Seurat

Polina Rosewood
May 4, 2020 · 4 min read

The Intransigents, more commonly referred to as the Impressionists, are arguably the most recognizable group of artists to date. The works of Monet, Degas, Manet, and other Impressionist masters have experienced immortality alongside iconic 20th Century artists such as Warhol in the form of posters, cards, home décor and more. The continued relevance of these artists is largely due to the continued prominence of industrialization in the contemporary world.

Gardener’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History describes Impressionism as “an art of industrialized, urbanized Paris, a reaction to the sometimes brutal and chaotic transformation of French life.” The works of the movement include both industrial and leisurely subjects and explore the impermanence of time through expressive light and color, which is exemplified in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s work La Moulin de la Galette.

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Le Moulin de la Galette,” Oil on canvas, 1876.

Utilizing oil on canvas as his media, Renoir crafted a lively scene of a popular Parisian dance hall using expressive brushwork techniques. The painting depicts a large crowd of people engaging in conversation and dance in an outdoor environment. Every figure, whether sitting or standing, appears to be in action. The painting illustrates a large depth of field. Figures are present in the very foreground of the piece and the crowd extends to the horizon line, emphasizing the size of the venue and the popularity of the dance hall.

Renoir employed optical mixing as a method of visual communication in order to create the effect of implied motion. The figures in the painting were composed using expressive application of color, which creates a blurry effect when the image is viewed close up but illustrates optically cohesive forms when viewed at a farther distance.

Georges Seurat, considered to be a Post-Impressionist, similarly utilized optical mixing as a tool in his work A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Mirroring Renoir, Seurat’s painting is oil on canvas and illustrates expressive brushwork. However, Seurat takes Impressionist expression one step further by using pointillism, or divisionism. The method is characterized by the use of small dots of color applied side by side and mixed by the eye rather than on the canvas, creating a sense of movement.

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Georges Seurat, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” Oil on canvas, 1884–1886.

Seurat’s painting, like Renoir’s depicts several figures participating in leisurely activities in an outdoor setting, a typical Impressionist scene. However, Seurat’s crowd is much more organized than Renoir’s, and relatively motionless in comparison. They are organized into clusters that are spaced fairly evenly apart from one another whereas Renoir’s figures are clustered but crowded much more closely together. Seurat’s figures are both seated and standing, like Renoir’s but appear less engaged than the active figures in La Moulin de le Galette. While Renoir’s figures express liveliness and joy through motion and interaction, Seurat’s people do not interact with each other, conveying a sense of isolation that contrasts with their clustered organization.

The majority of the people depicted are facing the left side of the canvas, as if transfixed by something on the waterfront beyond the frame, most likely a boat. This represents the contemporary fascination with industrialization, which was a new development at the time. The establishment of factories and organized work schedules transformed the working world. This painting represents a both an increasing detachment from traditional forms of work and leisure and an increased attraction to industrial technology.

The figures are much more stiff and linear than Renoir’s but Seurat still manages to create motion in the landscape, illustrated by the leaves on the trees, the ripples in the water, and the curved sails of the boat in the background.

In addition to implied motion, the depiction of light and shadow served as a characteristic imperative to capturing a specific moment in time. Both Renoir and Seurat emphasized contrasts between light and shadow by incorporating color into them. Renoir applied patches of light and shadow to create the effect of sunlight peering through tree branches. The artist mixed yellow and white in the light patches while using a lavender-blue to depict the shadows. Renoir’s decision to record this light reflects the Impressionist aim to record a fleeting moment in time.

Seurat’s shadows, like his figures, are more linear and clearly segregated. Seurat depicted his shadows using predominately dark greens and small amounts of yellow to create slightly lighter green areas; He illustrated light by applying various shades of yellow paint and small amounts of green to create slightly darker areas. The use of color to convey light and shadow gives both works of art dynamism.

Both Renoir and Seurat explored Impressionist themes of recreation and leisure with industrial undertones in their paintings. Renoir’s La Moulin de la Galette epitomizes the Impressionist objective of capturing a “fleeting moment in time.” Seurat’s development and utilization of pointillism stylistically pushed his work beyond typical Impressionism, classifying him as a Post-Impressionist. Both artists’ experimentation with optical color mixing and dynamic light and shadow immortalized their work in the art world.

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