Exploring the Post-Impressionist display with Sir John Leighton

We asked Sir John Leighton, Director-General of the National Galleries of Scotland, to pick three artworks from the Post-Impressionist display at the Scottish National Gallery. In this blog, John focuses on three Post-Impressionists’ daring and innovative methods, and the influence of Impressionism on their artistic explorations. 

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Impressionist artists like Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro, developed radical new approaches to painting. They painted modern subjects, using energetic brushstrokes, bright colours and striking compositions. These new techniques became the starting point for other artists’ own explorations in a wide range of styles that we tend to label as “Post-Impressionism”.

Paul Cézanne Montagne Sainte-Victoire About 1890/95

The Montagne Sainte-Victoire in Provence was one of Paul Cézanne’s favourite subjects. Cézanne's art developed in close association with Impressionism, yet his art seems quite different from the fleeting, transient effects of Monet and Impressionists. It is more concrete and timeless. In this painting you get a sense of the geology of the great limestone mountain that’s been weathered by the ages. In a now famous quote, Cézanne talked about making Impressionism something solid and durable – like the art of the museums.

Vincent van Gogh Olive Trees 1889

Another artist who adapted Impressionism for his own ends was Vincent Van Gogh. When he first saw Impressionist paintings in Paris in 1886, it was a complete revelation. He almost instantly changed his approach; adapting brighter colours, and depicting modern subjects.

Olive Trees was painted during a slightly later and very difficult period in his career when he was confined in an asylum at Saint-Remy in the south of France. After enduring various restrictions, this painting was one of the first that he made when he was allowed out into the grounds to paint in the open air. You can sense that newfound freedom. The energetic, swirling brushstrokes, the exaggerated colour – all of it conveys his passion for nature, fresh air, and the outdoors. He thought the olive trees were characteristic of the south of France, but also they evoke something of a biblical association with the Garden of Olives. This is a deeply subjective and expressionist approach to nature, which is quite different from the more objective and analytical approach of Impressionist artists.

Paul Gauguin Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) 1888

We tend to associate Impressionism with painting outdoors, with landscapes, and with fleeting effects of nature, but Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) by Paul Gauguin is again very different. It was painted in Brittany in the summer of 1888. Gauguin depicts local Breton women in traditional costume who have just come out of church on a Sunday, having listened to a sermon given by the priest whom we glimpse on the right-hand side of the painting. While the women are depicted in a realistic manner in the foreground, Gauguin evokes what they are imagining in the background of the painting – the story told in the sermon of Jacob wrestling with an angel. Combining the real and the imagined in one composition was an extraordinarily daring thing to do. Gauguin takes some of the methods of Impressionism and adapts it to convey an inner world; a world of feeling, faith and imagination.

7 June 2021