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Art in Motion: Neo-Impressionism

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| October 5, 2021

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Towards the tail end of the 19th century, a new art movement was beginning to take form in France. Building upon the techniques and inspirations of the Impressionists who had emerged the decade prior, a new group of artists led by Georges Seurat sought to discover the next step in the evolution of painting, and they believed the answers to lie in science.

True to their name, the Impressionists sought to capture an impression of the moment and its fleeting energy. Rather than crystallize every detail, they focused on aspects like lighting and movement to elicit an emotional response. To this end, they rejected the stale formalities of historical academic painting in favor of lived experiences, swapping stuffy posed portraits for lively street gatherings and opting to leave the studio and paint outdoors.

Of all the changes the Impressionists experimented with, the one most interesting to the Neo-Impressionists was their painting technique. The Impressionists had attempted to realistically portray light through intuitive and energetic use of colors, allowing them to mix on the canvas often through proximity alone to create the desired color only when viewed at a distance.

Baigneurs a Asnieres, Georges Seurat, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This notion of perception and the interactive nature of a painting with the viewer would be the common thread that united the two movements. Whereas Impressionism had been inspired by fleeting moments and movement, Neo-Impressionists sought to imbue their paintings with science and a machine-like methodology.

Inspired by the latest scientific writings of the time, Georges Seurat and the Neo-Impressionists turned their focus to color and light. In pursuit of the maximum luminosity scientifically possible, Seurat developed a new means of organizing color in which pure pigments were placed in close proximity to one another, without mixing, instead allowing the mixing to take place within the eye of the viewer. He believed this to create more optically pure, luminant colors and capture light conditions more realistically than mixed pigments were capable of.

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The Pine Tree at Saint Tropez, Paul Signac, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He referred to this use of color as Chromoluminarism, though it has since come to be known as Divisionism. Another prominent technique to emerge from this movement was Pointillism. Whereas the Impressionists used the length of their brushstrokes to communicate a sense of movement, the Neo-Impressionists opted for a more static treatment, instead using patches of color uniform in size that give the image a subtle sort of vibration.

Pointillism refers to works created using just the point of the brush, resulting in the smallest applications of paint possible. The most notable example of this and perhaps the movement as a whole is Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the debut of which marked the birth of the movement.

Femme à l’ombrelle, Paul Signac, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, despite the Impressionists having drawn negative criticism upon turning convention on its head the decade prior, their impulsive, emotional style of painting had proven to be endearing. The public had largely come to accept their style of painting and its expressive creativity. As a result, when A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte first debuted, its scientific approach to color and mechanical precision stood in stark contrast to the fluid, emotional works the public had grown accustomed to. Seurat’s work was met with strong disapproval from critics and the public alike. However, a recent relaxation in press laws had led to the founding of new independent newspapers and a more diverse set of art critics as a result. The support of these newly founded papers played an important role in the movement’s rapid establishment and spread through Europe.

While Divisionism and Pointillism had become hallmarks of the style, the umbrella of Neo-Impressionism grew increasingly wide as the years went on and the movement’s practitioners became more experimental. As the Neo-Impressionist’s ideas and methods spread throughout Europe, their influence upon the international art world became noticeable. Though their Divisionism would draw the attention of many of the renowned painters of the time, perhaps one of the most interesting interpretations of this style can be observed in the work of Van Gogh, whose works featured a similar energy but with greater liberty taken with the degree of abstraction in his color selection.

Seurat, the founder of Neo-Impressionism, had a strong sense of the movement’s direction and his protectiveness over his style would serve to distance himself from other practitioners of the movement, leading to a lessened sense of unity as a whole. Upon his death, however, painters like Signac began to take more creative liberties and push the movement forward.

Le Chahut, Paul Signac, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Falling under the umbrella of what is collectively known as Post-Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism alongside several other movements made bold claims for what they believed the next stage in the evolution of painting to be. Though initially met with shock and awe, The Neo-Impressionists would later lose the ability to elicit such reactions from the public, who had grown used to their techniques. Though viewed by some as a short-lived novelty, Neo-Impressionism inspired some of the most recognizable paintings in history.


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