Tom Higgins

About Me

Tom Higgins

I retired as Principal of Breaffy National School, Castlebar, Co. Mayo in 1998. This project arises from my experience of teaching art and art appreciation in the Primary School, now known as looking and responding to art.

Prev Next

Post - Impressionism

After a decade or so, Impressionism had run its course, leaving the way open for new artists who didn’t agree with its purely descriptive aims of capturing the fleeting moment. They said it was too ephemeral, lacking in solidity, and in the view of some of them, not allowing artists to express any real depth of emotion. These artists were known as Post- Impressionists.


One branch of Post-Impressionism was a movement known as Pointillism. Two artists to note are George Seurat and Paul Signac. They painted the same subjects as the Impressionists while using purer and brighter colours. Instead of the short Impressionist brushstrokes, they employed a technique of small dots spread closely together over the whole picture surface. They developed pointillism as a means of mixing colour by applying dots of red and blue, for instance, side by side so that the viewer mixes them visually to appear as purple. They would certainly have observed a nascent form of pointillism in some Impressionist works, in The Red Boats, Argenteuil, for example, where Monet employs broken touches and small flecks of paint all over the picture surface. It was only a short step from this to a more formal arrangement of smaller dots. Like the Impressionists, they reduced contrasts of tone to a minimum, relying on colour contrasts, and tonal modelling was explored through gradations of pure colour. Their art, although atmospheric to a degree, tended to revert to clarity of line, solidity of form and the more structured composition of classical art.


Sunday Afternoon at the Island of La Grand Jatte, 1884-6. Chicago Art Institute, is a classic example of this painting technique. Seurat spent two years working on this large painting, as against the fleetingly painted pictures of the Impressionists.

He made small outdoor coloured sketches and painted the finished picture in the studio. He worked in a monumental scale, as if emulating the Classicists. His subjects are people in the landscape bathing in the river Seine or out for a sunny afternoon, and to that extent they are typically impressionistic. But there is a complete absence of any hint of spontaneity or rapid execution. To his way of thinking, the Impressionists had been too casual and too careless with their fleeting impressions. His paintings have a still, reflective quality. Unlike the Impressionists, where the figures are obviously interacting with each other, Seurat’s people seem lost in their own thoughts, as if in deep contemplation. There are a number of ways of looking at Seurat’s paintings. Is he rejecting the casual, aimless, pleasure-filled world of the Impressionists and asking us to take time out to pause and reflect, or is he representing a frozen solemnity which may be an ironic criticism of the formal, ritualistic quality of the middle class Parisian life of the day? In other words, a quality of mock solemnity. This painting is open to a variety of interpretations, beguiling us by its sense of mystery. Standing before it, you cannot fail to pause to reflect and contemplate.

Whatever the interpretation, his work is thought provoking in a way that Impressionism is not. For discussion purposes, compare this painting with a figure painting by Renoir.

Another of Seurat’s paintings in the National Gallery, London, is The Bathers, Asniers (1883-84). This picture was painted before the one above at a time when his pointillist theory was not fully formed. The picture has something of the effects of light of the Impressionists, especially evident in the background where objects are dissolved in the light but here again there is the same reflective stillness – of a world almost frozen in time. This is a very large painting (3m x 2m).

Georges Seurat died at the age of thirty-two but his effect on modern art has been considerable.


Another Pointillist was Paul Signac. If his formal frozen-like, The Dining Room, (1886) has echoes of Seurat, his later landscapes in the south of France seem to revert to the Impressionist pleasure principle, as in Saint-Tropez, The Custom House Pathway in which he uses hot, rainbow colours to describe the bright light of the Mediterranean. His technique differed from the Impressionists in that he moved away from their naturalistic colour representation, so that for the first time in art we are beginning to see the arbitrary use of colour.

He developed a freer style than Seurat, using larger dots of colour more spread apart on the canvas.

In order to give children an appreciation of pointillist technique, a worthwhile exercise would be to paint a picture in the manner of Paul Signac. A paper mosaic technique might also be useful as an experiment.


Another offshoot of Impressionism was a movement known as Fauvism. Fauve artists were dissatisfied with the purely descriptive character of Impressionism. Uninhibited by rules and conventions, they said that colour should be used more expressively and not necessarily related to objects. Their drawing on the other hand was traditional, and the perspective and subject matter of Impressionism was maintained. The Fauves looked, felt and painted. They were much influenced by the late paintings of Van Gough which we will be looking at later. Fauves, meaning wild beasts, was a term of derision used by an art critic at the first exhibition of their paintings.


Maurice de Vlaminck, 1876-1958, was one of a number of Fauve artists. He was born in Paris in 1876 and became a self-taught artist. He was greatly influenced by Van Gough whom he said he loved better than his own father. He painted mostly landscapes, with little regard for naturalistic colour. He said that the artist should be the master of nature, not her slave. His few portraits show none of Van Gough’s love of humanity and the latter’s empathy with ordinary people.

In his later career, Vlaminck dropped the bright Fauve colours in favour of a darker palette, which gives his landscapes, with their broad slashing strokes, a foreboding appearance.

In Winter Landscape, Maurice de Vlaminck, Boston Fine Arts Museum, the emphasis is on tones rather than colour. The composition is traditional – the large wind-swept tree on the left balancing the low houses and the smaller trees on the right, diagonal lines, indicating rapid movement leading in to the large house at the centre of interest. This house also attracts the eye because of the suggestion of brighter colours and its tones contrasting with the sky. His paint is thick and partly laid on with a knife whose marks are obvious. His break with tradition is in the indelicate handling.

For discussion purposes, Winter landscape could be compared with one of Carot’s tranquil landscapes.

Winter landscape would easily lend itself to a response in creative writing. Simply ask the class to do a piece of writing entitled Winter Evening. A little further prior discussion could take the form of asking the class to suggest phrases describing the sky, the trees and their branches, the road and houses?

ANDRE DERAIN, 1880-1954

Andre Derain was another Fauve artist. He worked with a fellow-artist, Henri Matisse in the south of France in the summer of 1905. The principal characteristics of Portrait of Matisse 1905, (Tate Gallery), London are heightened patches of colour, the depiction of shadows through colour, and rapid execution in large loaded brushstrokes. The light colours are warm orange pinks, the darks are in cool greens and blues. This modelling through colour has come a long way from the pre- Impressionists who relied solely on tonal modelling. There are echoes of Van Gough’s brushwork in Matisse’s beard, with whose work Derain was familiar. This painting could be compared with Man with a Pipe by Vlaminck.

Matisse appears intensely introspective in this portrait. Children could paint a variety of portraits ‘in the manner of’’ Derain’ or Vlaminck.

PAUL CEZANNE, 1839-1906

Other Post-Impressionist artists, like Paul Cezanne held that Impressionism was too ephemeral and chaotic and that art should capture the world objectively, as it is, in its unchanging state, ignoring light and atmosphere and concentrating on colour and composition to produce a balanced, structured design, as in the Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings.

is early work was impressionistic, but he later rejected the atmospherics of Impressionism because of what he considered its failure to represent nature objectively. He tried to peer beyond the surface appearances of atmosphere to what he considered as the underlying and unchanging architecture and structure of the landscape. For this reason, line is just as important in his work as colour. His patches of colour had to be descriptive, structural and decorative at the same time. His quest, like that of the Classicists, was for permanent values, but in his use of colour, his debt was to the Impressionists. Cezanne’s motto was ‘paint what you know to be there, not strictly what you see’. Because of the absence of linear and aerial perspective in most of his work, it could be said that he was the originator of the so called flat canvas so characteristic of modern art.

More than any other artist, he was to have an influence on Pablo Picasso in the latter’s cubist phase, setting the tone for the development of 20th century abstract art. Because of the cerebral character of his work, his art is not immediately accessible to children. Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire above the Road to Tholonet, 1904. Cleveland Museum of Art, is a good illustration of his later work, which tended towards abstraction. In it he retains the pure colours and shifting daubs of paint of the Impressionists but none of their atmospherics. There are contrasts of orange and blue, of red and green. Note the well-defined line on the trees and mountain. There are no light effects, no shadows. Cezanne would say that colour is light. The emphasis is on design and structure. The trees have been flattened and look less like real trees. The mountain comes forward. Because Cezanne would hold that linear and aerial perspective are mere illusions (not objective realities) and so not true to nature, and for this reason he tended to eliminate them from his art. In the above painting, perspective is flattened, the mountain appearing to come forward in the picture: ‘paint what you know to be there’.

Compare this painting with an Impressionist landscape.

PABLO PICASSO, 1881-1973

It is difficult to categorise Picasso. In the course of a long career he experimented successfully with every known style and approach to art, and invented many more. A characteristic of his genius was his ability to marry invention to well established tradition. As an old man studying an exhibition of children's drawings he remarked, 'When I was their age I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like them.' A lesson there for teachers of art!

Like every aspiring artist, Picasso made his way to Paris in 1900. There followed a period of extreme poverty, cold and despair. During this time, known as his blue period, he developed his first really independent style. Poor and destitute himself, he used social outcasts as his subjects in order to paint the themes of poverty, blindness, alienation and despair in cold tones of blue. Good for a response in creative writing.

The Tragedy. National Gallery of Art, Washington, is one of the paintings from his blue period. The suicide of one of his friends some time before this had a profound effect on his outlook and feelings. Although the paintings are not explicitly about death, they are at the same time concerned about loneliness and the absence of love.

The Tragedy illustrates this point. It shows a family without any intimacy, people without life, frozen like statues. There is nothing in their environment to give them any hope in their isolation from one other. The two adults, heads bowed, obviously feeling the cold, try to wrap themselves up in their scanty garments. Seemingly ignoring the child, they are totally preoccupied with themselves. Only the child is making some kind of a gesture as if a cry for help. Standing trapped at the edge of some sea, they have reached the end of the line. Their bleak surroundings are a reminder of their spiritual deprivation. The dominant blue of the painting symbolizes their sadness and destitution.

Guernica. Pablo Picasso, Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain.

An obsession running through much of Picasso’s work is the violence done by people to other people. In 1936, civil war broke out in his native Spain, and Picasso, always on the side of the people, supported the Republican Government against the military uprising of the Fascists. In April 1937, Nazi planes in the pay of Franco bombed the Basque town of Guernica, killing and wounding thousands of people. As an angry reaction to this, Picasso painted the 25ft x 11ft Guernica in one month.

For a period, Picasso had experimented with collage. This painting, while not a collage, gives the appearance of cut out pieces of newspaper stuck on to canvas - probably alluding to the newsworthy character of the work.

This picture demonstrates that forms in art (perspective, modelling, colour,) need not be descriptive but can still be expressive of strong feelings. Violent things are happening but it is the terrible jaggedness and criss-crossing of lines that create the mood of fear and confusion. The picture is part bullfight and part 'Massacre of the Innocents'.

Apart from its mock allusion to medieval altar pieces, the painting is almost a total break with tradition. Picasso dispenses with realism in his rejection of perspective, modelling and colour. But his message is very clear in his distortion of line and form. Everything has a sharp, cutting, edge - the rays of light from the electric bulb, flames of fire like spears. The distorted shape and lines in the hand in the bottom left hand corner suggest savage suffering. The woman on the left holding a dead child is stricken with grief.

The woman on the right is full of fear and despair as she tumbles from the window of a burning building and into a flaming fire. The presence of the gored, screaming horse and the brooding bull increases the feeling of bestiality - the bull a symbol of aggression, the horse as the helpless victim. The figure rushing in through the door – a bearer of some horrible news - shows distress, his head distorted in the inrushing movement. The dismembered fragments of a warrior lie on the ground, his hand grasping a broken sword. Picasso seems to be saying that violence turns humans into monsters. The human form is torn apart and reconstructed with sinister significance. Eyes, ears, nose and mouth have moved into new positions. There is exaggeration and distortion in order to express agony, hate, fear. Tones of black and grey are used to symbolise death. Good for a response in creative writing.

See also Picasso’s The Mother, 1901, City Art Museum of St. Louis, USA.

A Note on Cubism

Cubism was a method of painting invented by Pablo Picasso and George Braque around 1909. It was a reaction against Impressionism and Fauvism. The early forms of Cubism emphasised volume and structure as against colour, line and atmosphere. Pictures were built up of ‘cubes’ to produce images of real objects in a semi-abstract manner. Objects were seen and painted from more than one point of view. “I paint what I know to be there, not what I see”: Picasso. In this, they were taking their cue from the work of Cezanne, while further developing his ideas.

In a later development of Cubism, perspective was eliminated and curved lines and bright colours were introduced, as was collage.

Cubism was not abstract art but influenced the development of later abstract art.