The Art Institute of Chicago

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May 14–Sep 4, 2023

Van Gogh and the Avant-Garde: The Modern Landscape

How the bringing together of extremes—the countryside as a whole and the bustle here [in the city]—gives me new ideas.
Vincent van Gogh, letter dated around January 2, 1886

Between 1882 and 1890, five artists—Vincent van Gogh, along with Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Emile Bernard, and Charles Angrand—flocked to villages on the fringes of Paris. Unlike the earlier Impressionists, who in the previous decade had spent significant time in suburban locations further from the city, this next generation of ambitious artists preferred the northwestern suburbs around Asnières. This area along the Seine River had long been a popular spot for recreation and relaxation but was becoming increasingly populated with coal, gas, and manufacturing facilities in the last decades of the 19th century. And while its industrial development was an unappealing aspect to many, these artists found in the changing physical and social landscape a fresh and rich source of creativity, as Van Gogh’s letter indicates.

The area’s visual vocabulary—its bridges, embankments, factories, parks, and villages—along with its sunlight, water, and brilliant natural color prompted intense experimentation. Each artist explored the use of discrete brushstrokes and strong colors in innovative ways, and in turn developed novel styles of painting. Seurat and Signac began applying contrasting colors in unblended strokes (Divisionism). They then pioneered the use of small dots of complementary colors (Pointillism) to achieve an optical mixture in the viewer’s eye. Bernard, having reached the limits of these two styles, experimented with laying out large swathes of bold color defined by dark contours (Cloisonnism) in the last years of the decade. Van Gogh and Angrand followed the developments of Seurat and Signac, absorbing many of these approaches into their later painting styles.