History, Characteristics of Expressionist Painting at Pont-Aven School.

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Buckwheat Harvesters at Pont-Aven
(1888) Josefowitz Collection,
Switzerland. By Emile Bernard,
one of the leading painters at
the Pont-Aven School of painting,
specializing in expressionist
forms of decorative symbolism.

Cloisonnism (Flourished 1888-1894)


Introduction and History
Characteristics of Cloisonnism
Emile Bernard, Louis Anquetin, The School of Pont-Aven
International Legacy

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Introduction and History

In French painting, the term "cloisonnism" (after the French for "partition") describes a style of expressionism associated, in particular, with Emile Bernard (1868-1941), Louis Anquetin (1861-1932) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). Based on a two-dimensional pattern, featuring large patches of bright colour enclosed within thick black outlines, in the manner of medieval cloisonné enamelling or stained glass, the word Cloisonnism was first coined in 1888 by the art critic Edouard Dujardin. One of the lesser known modern art movements, albeit an influential style of Post-Impressionist painting, the distinctive characteristics of Cloisonnism were its areas of pure colour (devoid of most shading or 3-D modelling effects) which gave it a strong two-dimensional appearance. The style was conceived as a response to the Impressionists' preoccupation with the study and depiction of light, in that - by moving away from a naturalist focus - painters could now combine artistic ideas with subjects, in order to create a more powerful form of modern art. Cloisonnism is associated with the Pont-Aven artist colony in Brittany, whose members included the expressionist painters Jacob Meyer de Haan (1852-95), Charles Laval (1862-94), Charles Filiger (1863-1928), Armand Seguin (1869-1903), and Paul Serusier (1863-1927) whose painting The Talisman (1888, Musee d'Orsay) had a major impact on the aesthetics of the Nabis group. Note: The word "Cloisonnism" is used interchangeably with the term "Synthetism", although Synthetist painters like Gauguin did not use the thick black outlines which are the hallmark of cloisonnist paintings. In all other respects, the two styles are remarkably similar.



Characteristics of Cloisonnism

Cloisonnism was developed by the modern artists Emile Bernard and Louis Anquetin in the late 1880s. In their paintings, forms are simplified, and areas of flat, unnatural colours are separated by heavy outlines reminiscent of Gothic stained glass or cloisonne enamels, emphasizing their decorative qualities. The aim of Cloisonnism is not to illustrate objective reality but to express an inner world of emotion. Anquetin and Bernard acquired a taste for stained glass, and for Japanese woodcuts (known as Ukiyo-e woodblock prints) - especially those by Hokusai (1760-1849) and Hiroshige (1797-1858) - another important influence in the mid-1880s, while they studied in the studio of Fernand Cormon (1845-1924). There they became friends with Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) and Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), artists who would share, in their individual ways, in the experimentation of the time. The most important avant-garde artist to share the ideas of Anquetin and Bernard was Paul Gauguin.


Emile Bernard, Louis Anquetin, The School of Pont-Aven

Gauguin may have seen Anquetin and Bernard's work displayed at the Grand Restaurant-Bouillon towards the end of 1887. Certainly, by the summer of 1888, he was working with them in Pont-Aven in Brittany, and though he never adopted the Cloisonnist practice of separating forms with heavy outlines, his key painting of the period, Vision After the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888, National Gallery, London), clearly shows the Cloisonnist influence in its dramatic juxtapositions of saturated colours.

Bernard and Anquetin's first paintings of 1886 and 1887 had taken urban themes, but in Pont-Aven, sharing ideas with Gauguin, they applied their new technique to genre paintings depicting the simple life of Breton peasants, as well as classical and Biblical images, to produce full-blown Cloisonnist works. These would have a decisive influence on avant-garde art of the 1900s. Indeed, the painters soon acquired a group of disciples, often known as the School of Pont-Aven, and in the same year their style received its formal description when the critic Edouard Dujardin used it to describe Anquetin's contribution to a show held by the Belgian exhibition group Les Vingt.

International Legacy of Cloisonnism

The international influence of Cloisonnism is evident in such exhibitions. Similarly to the Art Nouveau and Jugendstil artists, Bernard believed that painting should be primarily decorative, rather than interpretative, and like those involved in the Arts and Crafts Movement in England he not only produced paintings, but also woodcuts and designs for stained glass and tapestry art. His belief that simplified form and colour would permit more forceful expression was shared by artists in their own experimental styles, many of whom are broadly associated with the Symbolism movement. (See also: Decorative Art.) It is difficult to imagine Gauguin formulating Synthetism without the precedent of the Cloisonnist style, or the Nabis arriving at their own type of expressionist paintings. Bernard's theoretical writings also proved to be influential, and they ensured that the Cloisonnist idiom soon became part of the visual vocabulary of those developing a new theoretical and ideological role for painting.

During the 1890s, Bernard and Anquetin began to move in different directions. Anquetin started painting in a style influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec, then turned to a study of the Old Masters, in particular the florid Baroque, style of Peter Paul Rubens. After the turn of the century, Bernard turned to Italian High Renaissance painting and his influence on the avant-garde waned. However, by then his role as a sponsor of Post-Impressionism was already assured.


Cloisonnist paintings can be found in several of the world's best art museums, such as The Ackland Art Museum, North Carolina; Musee des Beaux-Arts, Quimper; Musee d'Orsay, Paris; National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; National Gallery, London; Norton Museum of Art, Florida; and Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of data from the encyclopedic guide to modern art, entitled Styles, Schools and Movements (Thames & Hudson, 2007), a book we strongly recommend for anyone studying Post-Impressionist or Expressionist painting techniques of the late 19th century.

• For the chronology of expressionism, see: History of Art Timeline.
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