Roger Fry and the Origins of "Post-Impressionism"

Gauguin, Cézanne, van Gogh, Matisse, Seurat—these names call to mind the definitive artistic representatives of “Post-Impressionism.” These artists took the inspiration of the French Impressionists, Claude Monet and Edward Degas’s records of visual sensations and the fleeting spectacle of new urban Paris, and gave such innovations mass or scientific precision. Under Paul Cézanne’s thumb, a painted apple or a pear, while composed of thick, quick strokes of color, betrays not only the visual experience of overlapping color tonalities, but also the perception of each fruit’s mass and volume. Monet’s haystacks, dashes and dots of pigment conveying changes in time and season, become Georges Seurat’s regimented and sterile scientific explorations of color juxtapositions, one dot at a time creating an overall impression of form. Yet, while in life these artists may have associated with one another, they were never officially a unified group. Such a collective spirit only appeared retroactively, when prominent British art critic, historian, and curator Roger Fry mounted the 1910 exhibition “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” and inaugurated the label, “Post-Impressionism.”

In 1910, Fry was already an established art historian, having published several articles on Renaissance and Proto-Renaissance artists like Giotto, and having returned to England from a position as curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Fry is typically associated with the circle of artists and intellectuals around the British “Bloomsbury Group,” composed of the economist John Maynard Keynes, author Virginia Woolf, art critic Clive Bell, artist Vanessa Bell, and artist Duncan Grant, among others. The “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” show came about by chance, as Fry took advantage of an open exhibition slot at London’s Grafton Galleries. Fry had recently been exposed to “Modern Art,” as he viewed it, having previously focused his energies on the Old Masters of the past. Cézanne in particular became Fry, and later Bell’s, touchstone of artistic quality and innovation. Yet, in 1910, Cézanne and the artists Fry counted as the most “modern” were, at the time, slightly passé. Major retrospectives of Cézanne’s work had already taken place in Paris, with one of the most influential exhibitions Cézanne’s posthumous show at the 1907 Salon d’Automne. In addition, as critics of “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” pointed out, Cézanne was actually a relative contemporary of the Impressionists. However, in England, the 1910 exhibition was the first time many of the British public had had the opportunity to come into contact with Cézanne and such “modern” artistic innovations. Fry invented the term “Post-Impressionism” to alleviate the daunting strangeness of such “new” works, historically grounding this art within a lineage, and establishing a link to the previous Impressionist movement. “Post-Impressionism” merely meant “after” Impressionism—those artists who were indebted to the previous generation, but determined to advance beyond their predecessors. Fry organized the exhibition itself with a similar goal in mind: British viewers began with Manet, and slowly and sequentially worked their way through the exhibition to arrive at the most challenging “Post” Impressionist pieces towards the end. One critic memorably described the progression from Manet to Matisse as a shock “administered by degrees.”

However, despite Fry’s valiant attempts, the “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” show met with an uproar. Critics claimed that the exhibition was part of a “widespread plot to destroy the whole fabric of European painting.” The public decried the “bad taste” of the show, and the works Fry praised; Virginia Woolf declared that it sent the public into “paroxysms of rage and laughter.” Yet, despite such outrage, the exhibition garnered much public attention, and represented a crucial cross-channel exposure to recent painterly innovations. And thus “Post-Impressionism” was born—a designation created by a British critic to unite a group of French artists, many posthumously, within a comprehensible rubric ultimately well-suited to the needs and demands of an art historical trajectory of influence.