The end of the 19th-century tradition
Until Seurat no painter had expressly founded a style on the intrinsic reactions of colour to colour and a codified vocabulary of expressive forms. The consistent granulation of colour in Seurat's work from 1885 onward was specific to the picture, not to the sensation or the subject. The coherent images of space and light that he made out of this granulation ended with him. Seurat's followers, grouped as Neo-Impressionists under the leadership of Paul Signac, developed his technique rather than his vision. Seurat's influence was nonetheless widespread and fertile; his system in itself supplied a clarity that painters needed. It was Neo-Impressionism that was in the ascendant when the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh arrived in Paris in 1886. The emotional travail evident in van Gogh's early work was marvelously lightened in the new aesthetic climate. But in his hands the dashes of pure colour turned and twisted, trading invisible and unstable lines of force. They werewoven into rhythmical and convulsive patterns reflecting themounting intensity of his own feelings. Such patterns converted the Neo-Impressionist style into something quite different—a forerunner of what was to be known as Expressionism. Other painters were less radical in their approach. Pissarro assimilated the Neo-Impressionist method to the vision of the older generation; Henri-Edmond Cross and Maximilien Luce gave it the characteristic economy of the age that followed. Henri Matisse's repeated experiments with it, culminating in his contact with Signac and Cross in 1904, finally converted the pure colour of Impressionism to the special purposes of 20th-century art.
In the meantime, the older Impressionists were producing the broadly conceived works that crowned their artistic achievement and formed, as it seems in retrospect, the great traditional masterpieces of modern art. Degas's lifelong absorption in the human body as a subject led him to produce a series of bathing scenes and drawings from the nude in which the form expanded to an amplitude that filled the picture. Fullness of form was an effect that Renoir also achieved. Cézanne announced a determination “to do Poussin over again from nature” and was reckoned to have fulfilled that aim with his “Great Bathers” and the series of landscapes of Mont Sainte-Victoire (see ). In the pictures of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the style and standpoint derived from Degas, but his graphic work reflected the aims of the Symbolist generation (see ). The most original contribution of Édouard Vuillard lay in the evocative patterning of the little pictures that he painted before 1900. The art of Pierre Bonnard, on the other hand, developed throughout his life. His subjects and his method remained, on the surface, those of the Impressionist tradition, but they were re-created from memory and imagination; Bonnard's pictures have the quality of a cherished private order of experience.
Developments outside France were not of comparable importance. In Britain in the 1880s, Philip Wilson Steer painted a small group of landscapes with figures that were among the earliest and loveliest examples of the fin de siècle style. The work of Walter Sickert revolved around an idiosyncratic fascination with the actual touch of a brush on canvas. His affinities remained essentially with the tonal Impressionism of the earliest stages of the modern movement rather than with the art of colour that developed from it, though he eventually made the transition in old age. In Germany the artists of the Postimpressionist generation, such as Lovis Corinth and Max Slevogt, working with the peculiar recklessness that is endemic to German painting, laid the technical foundations of Expressionism. Ferdinand Hodler in Switzerland developed a painterly Symbolist style in the 1890s. The Belgian painter James Ensor abandoned Impressionism at the end of the 1880s for a bitter and fantastic style that was a pioneer example of extreme expressive alienation.
The most remarkable painter of the fin de siècle outside France, however, was the Norwegian Edvard Munch. “The Cry” (Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo), the famous picture in which the rhythms of Art Nouveau were given a hysterical expressive force with hardly a vestige of the Impressionist description of nature, was painted in 1893. For many years before a breakdown interrupted his development in 1907, he worked abroad. He was particularly influential in Germany.
In the United States, Maurice Prendergast transformed Impressionism into pattern. In Russia the fin de siècle styles of Léon Bakst and the Mir Iskusstva (“World of Art”) group, aswell as a vivid revival of folk decoration, flourished, later becoming known internationally through their connection with the Russian ballet.