The beginnings of Synthetism through Bernard to Gauguin

Peter Bright

Exeter College Of Art And Design

First Year Degree Essay May 1977

‘The beginnings of Synthetism through Bernard to Gauguin’

The Vision after the Problem

The younger generation of artists in the 1880’s were anxious to adopt new ideas which would enable them to strive towards a new vision of art. Maurice Denis[1] wrote that there were several students working in the studio’s of Cormon and Julian all in favour of attacking all that was old, to replace it with something that was completely new. Delacroix and Baudelaire had already stated that art was being impoverished by the predominance of positivistic naturalism.

There were many artists who were trying to claim freedom from nature, to allow themselves the pleasures of more self expression but who were held back by the simple fact that man himself was tied down with his links to nature. A break from naturalism was not to materialise until some twenty years later with the birth pangs of abstract art. The steps these artists of the 1880’s were looking for was a break from observed representation. Paris was a hotbed of ideas within the young educated (or being educated) middle class. Symbolism and its search for new the boundaries of creativity within literature and poetry began to point the way for these young men, their almost post modernist approach to their art looked to steal ideas from every form of intellectual discipline. These painters were a clique and were accused by their contemporaries of being too intellectual to be serious painters.

Emile Bernard and a few of his friends came to the same conclusion that the existing classical, academic forms of expression and the ‘epidermal’ aesthetics of the Impressionists were no longer adequate. Bernard, Aquetin, and Toulouse-Latrec became obsessed with the novel idea of ‘syntheses’, a process which combines two or more pre-existing elements and results in something new. The object and the imagination (expression and symbolism) the color and the emotion. Their difficulty was to translate their concepts into a tangible physical reality.

These three attended lessons at Cormon’s in the mornings, spending the evenings trying to paint ‘differently’ at Toulouse-Lautrec’s apartment, he being the only one fortunate to have his own studio.  In their quest to find a process to bring their ideas into reality they consulted not only other painters like George Seurat and Paul Signac, who had studied the decomposition of the solar spectrum but chemists and scientists.

Aquetin carried out an experiment studying the light passing through the colored panes of glass in his veranda. Bernard wrote and commented on this experiment, ‘Aquetin observed the light streaming through the coloured panes of a glazed door and noticed that yellow produced an impression of sunlight; green of dawn; blue of night; red of twilight.’ Bernard painted ‘The Reaper’ in the key of yellow (often repeated later by Van Gough) and in the key of blue, ‘The Avenue de Clichy at Evening’. These paintings were exhibited at the Revue Independante, at the Salon des Independants and at the headquarters of Les Vingt in Brussells. Out of these experiments came a partial solution to their problem – suggestive colour.


[1] Maurice Denis (November 25, 1870 – November 1943) was a French painter and writer, and a member of the Symbolist and Les Nabis movements. His theories contributed to the foundations of cubism, fauvism, and abstract art.

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