Art of the Impressionists and Beyond

The late 1800s saw old notions of beauty challenged by revolutionary artists. We enjoy pioneering Impressionist works — Monet's lilies, Renoir's ladies, Degas' snapshots and Rodin's statues — that capture the joie de vivre of the age. We trace the tempestuous travels of Van Gogh through his incomparable art. And we finish in Spain, with wild and crazy buildings that herald the dawn of a new century.


[1C] Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time, rather than a particular place, we're going thematic and traveling wherever that theme takes us. In this episode, it's the Impressionists and those who followed from Monet to Van Gogh to Alaine. Thanks for joining us!

[3] Europe, in the late 1800s, experienced the biggest revolution in art since the Renaissance. The Impressionists — with their passion for capturing shimmering light on canvas — turned the art world on its head. With the next generation — the Post-Impressionists — the art world just kept changing, as these rebels explored new frontiers in artistic expression.

[4 Montage] We'll meet a rat pack of nonconformists armed with easels and brushes and determined to change the world of art. Monet and his fellow Impressionists; Rodin — who sculpted impressionism into bronze and stone; and the Post-Impressionists taking art in a tangle of innovative directions from Mucha with his sinuous Art Nouveau, to Seurat with his dots…Cézanne with his slabs…Gauguin with his exotic primitivism…and Van Gogh — who with his swirling brushstrokes invigorated all he painted.

[5, Orsay Gallery, Paris] In the late-19th century, the art world was dominated by the prestigious French art school called the "Academy." But some independent artists struggled to be free from its stuffy dictates. The result: a period with both conservative and revolutionary art at the same time.

[6] Mainstream 19th-century artists painted idealized beauty. While with plenty of nudes, this was conservative art…popular throughout the 1800s because it was simply beautiful. Cabanel's Birth of Venus was the quintessence of beauty. This love queen reclines seductively just born from the foam of a wave. At the time, sex was considered dirty and could be exalted only in a more pure and divine form.

[6a, The Birth of Venus, 1863, Cabanel, Orsay Museum, Paris] Such idealized beauty sold well. It was made-to-order for well-off customers who were afraid of change.

[7, A Bar at the Folies-Bergére, Manet; Whistler's Mother, Whistler; The Spinner, Millet; The Gleaners, 1867, Millet; all Orsay Museum, Paris] But outside the conservative Academy, a new breed of artists was painting the real life of real people. Called the "Realists," they captured honest snapshots of everyday life: from no-nonsense portraits, to peasant spinners of yarn, to gleaners bending low to scavenge what they can from an already harvested field.

[8, The Painter's Studio, 1855, Courbet, Orsay Museum, Paris] This unvarnished Realism proved shocking. Instead of painting more dreamy goddesses, Gustave Courbet gave a gritty behind-the-scenes look at his studio. His model — not a goddess but a real woman — takes a break to watch Courbet at work. And the little boy admires the brave artist for bucking conformity.

[9, Edouard Manet, 1832–1883; Olympia, 1863, Manet, Orsay Museum, Paris] Edouard Manet took Realism to another level. He posed this prostitute like a classic goddess, but instead of golden skin and a radiant face, he made her shockingly ordinary. Her hand is a clamp. Her stare…calculating. Ignoring the flowers her servant brings from her last customer, she looks out as if to say, "Next."

[10, Luncheon on the Grass, 1863, Manet, Orsay Museum, Paris] Manet innovated — he placed this woman alongside men in business suits — brazenly accentuating her nudity. Rather than the polished brushwork of the Academy, he experimented with thick paint, sharp outlines, and odd perspective — further perplexing the critics.

[11, A Studio at Les Batignolles, 1870, Fantin-Latour, Orsay Gallery, Paris] When Manet had his work rejected in 1867, he put on his own show — thumbing his nose at the establishment. Manet's boldness attracted a younger generation of artists. They admired him for his everyday subjects, experimental techniques, and his artistic integrity. Soon, they'd strike out on their own. Let the Impressionist revolution begin.

[12, Tuileries Garden, Paris] These artists were known as the Impressionists — freed from the stifling constraints of the Academy and inspired by the Realists, they took their easels outdoors. Their philosophy: like a declaration of independence, it was "Out of the studio and into nature."

[13] The Impressionists painted the French countryside, but the true subject wasn't so much the farms, rivers, and forests. It was all about the light. They even studied which pigments would reproduce reflected light most accurately. And when the light was just right, they painted furiously…to catch the scene before it was gone…the way the light reflected off the passing clouds…the waving grass…the billowing dress.

[14, Claude Monet, 1840–1926; Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Monet, Musée Marmottan, Paris] The father of Impressionism was Claude Monet. The son of a grocer with little formal education, he dedicated his life to discovering new ways of seeing things. With this quick impression of a harbor at sunrise, Monet helped give the movement its name. The real subject: the impression of the light reflected on the water, rendered in a few squiggly lines or broad strokes of paint.

[15, Boating on the Seine, 1880, Renoir, National Gallery, London] Impressionists used an innovative technique: They applied bright colors in thick dabs, side-by-side on the canvas, and let them mix as they traveled to your eye. Up close it's a mess. But move back…and voilà! Since the colors never completely resolve, they continue to vibrate in the mind, giving Impressionist paintings their shimmering vitality.

[16] With Impressionism, the physical object in the painting was now just the rack upon which the light, shadow, and color would hang. And that's what the artist worked to capture.

[17, The Cathedral of Rouen, 1894, Monet, Orsay Museum, Paris] Monet would paint the same subject at different times of day, and in different weather to capture the different light: a cathedral for example, in morning sun…full sun…and grey weather…the same building becomes a montage of subjects as it dissolves into pure light and color.

[18, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1841–1919; Dance at the Moulin de la Galette, 1876, Renoir, Orsay Museum, Paris] Monet's friend, Renoir, also pioneered the Impressionist style. With his working-class background, Renoir loved to paint everyday Parisians dressed in their Sunday best, gathering at outdoor cafés to eat, drink, and dance. Renoir's bright colors caught the glowing afternoon sunlight, filtering through the leaves, dappling the dancers with darts of light like a 19th-century disco ball. As if snapping a photo with a slow shutter speed, he created a waltzing blur of joy.

[19] With soft focus and broad brushstrokes, Renoir painted easygoing scenes of everyday people…especially women. His nudes were voluptuous…and he caught the innocent joy of middle-class life. As Renoir himself said of his always-happy paintings: "There are enough ugly things in life."

[20] Each of the Impressionists developed their own distinctive style: Pissarro with his grainy earthiness…Sisley with his cloudy landscapes.

[21, Edgar Degas, 1834–1917] And Edgar Degas, with his ballerinas. With his knack for catching subjects at an unguarded moment, Degas showed dancers rehearsing — hot, tired, and bored. But when the lights came on, Degas captured all the onstage glitter…the joie de vivre of France's "Beautiful Age" — the Belle Époque.

[22, Auguste Rodin, 1840–1917] From his mansion in Paris, Auguste Rodin brought Impressionism to sculpting. His rough surfaces—rippling with frosting-like texture—were like thick brushstrokes on a canvas, capturing the effect of reflected light on stone or bronze.

[23, The Kiss, Rodin] Rodin made ordinary people seem noble…and their nudity makes them universal. Like a modern Michelangelo, he sculpted human figures with powerful insight, revealing through the body their deepest emotions. Rodin's historic mansion, now a museum, shows off the full range of the artist's work. His early pieces reflected the Belle Époque style of the late 19th century: noble busts of bourgeois citizens and pretty portraits of their daughters.

[24] But with his working-class roots, Rodin forged a more down-to-earth, raw, and individual style that shocked the art establishment. Look at the intensity of this symbol of France as she screams, "Liberté, égalité, fraternité." With his groundbreaking bronze man, Rodin came into his own and was recognized as an artistic force. From this point on, he left convention behind and blazed his own artistic trail.

[25] Here, his Hand of God shapes Adam and Eve from the mud of the earth…to which they will return.

[25] Unlike Michelangelo, who selected a piece of marble and then carved a single work of art, Rodin created models which could then be reproduced and sold as authorized versions.

[26] In The Kiss, a woman twines around her solid man, seemingly lost in a forever embrace. While the story's from a legend and their lips never quite meet, the statue was controversial. That's because Rodin portrayed the woman as being equally passionate as the man in the lovemaking. Though provocative, the statue proved to be a big hit with the public.

[27] Rodin's garden was a leafy Impressionist scene come to life. Even today, visitors find it a place for peaceful meditation a century after the artist last planted a statue here.

[28] Rodin's most famous legacy is his Thinker. Leaning forward, tense and compact, every muscle working toward producing that one great thought — it captured the intensity of Rodin's own creative process. Said Rodin: "It is a statue of myself."

[29, Monet's garden at Giverny, outside Paris] Impressionism reached its culmination with the same man who started it — Claude Monet. Late in life, Monet moved to this garden estate. The colorful gardens were like his brushstrokes — a bit slapdash but part of a carefully composed mosaic. Monet made a pond and filled it with water lilies.

[30, Water Lilies, Monet, Orangerie] He painted the water lilies in this ensemble of canvases — all focusing on the ever-changing light…from the predawn darkness…to clear morning light…to afternoon lavender…to golden sunset. He'd start by laying down thick, big brushstrokes of a single color, horizontal and vertical to create a dense mesh of foliage…then add more color for the dramatic highlights, until he got a dense paste of piled-up paint. Up close, it's messy—but back up, and the colors resolve into a luminous scene…just pure reflected color.

[31] The true subject is not really the lilies, but the changing reflections on the pond…where lilies mingle with the clouds and trees. Monet cropped his scenes ever closer, until there was no shoreline, no horizon, no sense of what's up or down…until you're completely immersed. In his final paintings, the great Impressionist dissolved the physical subject more and more into purely abstract patterns of colorful paint…anticipating the future of art.

[32] The Impressionists were like a tribe. They spoke the same artistic language. But, after that, more than ever, artists went in different directions…creating art that was uniquely their own. And those artists were the Post-Impressionists.

[33, Georges Seurat, 1859–1891; The Beach, Seurat, The Circus, Seurat] Georges Seurat took the Impressionist technique to its logical conclusion, reducing the brush stroke to a brush dot. This was Pointillism. All the dots would blend in the eye like a shimmering mosaic of reflected light.

[34 Paul Cézanne, 1839–1906] Paul Cézanne built his scenes not with dots but with thick slabs. His subjects were simple and familiar…objects reduced to their basic geometrical forms: spherical apples…rectangular houses…and people posed in triangles. By simplifying reality into fundamental shapes, Cézanne inspired future artists to see ordinary things in a new way.

[35, Paul Gauguin, 1848–1903; Arearea, 1892, Gauguin, Orsay Museum, Paris] Paul Gauguin sailed to exotic Tahiti, where he painted the native people. What may seem primitive and simple is actually intentional: flat scenes with no shading…black outlines filled in with bright colors. The space stacks up rather than recedes when he uses the same colors in the foreground and the background. His women — so different from the establishment Venuses of the Academy back in Paris — lounge innocently, giving uptight Europeans a glimpse of a Pacific Garden of Eden.

[36, Vincent van Gogh, 1853–1890; The Potato Eaters, 1885, Van Gogh, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam] And among the boldest of these Post-Impressionists was Vincent Van Gogh. For Van Gogh, his life and art were intertwined. A humble pastor's son from a small Dutch town, he spent time helping poor coal miners…in search of his calling. He gave farm laborers the same dignity usually afforded aristocrats. Through his art he portrayed a vibrant world he felt so intensely.

[37, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam] He moved to Paris, and the City of Light opened up a whole new world of color. Vincent hobnobbed with the Impressionists. He studied their bright colors, rough brushwork, and everyday scenes.

[38] He painted shimmering reflections like Monet…café snapshots like Degas…still-lifes like Cézanne…and self-portraits like nobody else. He set out for the south of France. Energized by the sun-drenched colors and the breathtaking vistas, in just two years Vincent produced an explosion of canvases. Sunshine!…Rolling hills!…the patchwork farms. Working in the open air, he feverishly painted the landscape, the simple workers, and the starry, starry nights.

[39] His unique style — thicker paint, brighter colors, and swirling brushwork — made everything he painted pulse with life.

[40] Vincent's ecstasy alternated with dark times. He painted the loneliness of his own room. He drank too much and suffered bouts of depression.

[41] He was admitted to a local hospital where he found peace painting calm scenes of nature. But it seems he also wrestled with his inner demons, capturing spiritual scenes with surreal colors, twisted forms, and dark outlines.

[42, Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Van Gogh, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam] In one of his last works, the canvas is a wall of thick paint, with roads leading nowhere, and ominous crows taking flight. Overwhelmed with life, Vincent walked into a field like this one…and shot himself.

[43] With his paintings, Van Gogh — though unappreciated in his own time — inspired his fellow artists to seek a new kind of beauty.

[44] The year before Van Gogh died, in 1889, Paris erected its Eiffel Tower. The centerpiece of a world's fair, it was a symbol of Europe's progress…celebrating how technology could merge with art to be both functional and beautiful.

[45] The mighty tower proclaimed the can-do spirit of the Industrial Age. Its no-nonsense iron beams were not plastered over with older styles, like Neo-Gothic or Neoclassical, but proudly displayed. With its graceful curves and unabashed embrace of technology, the Tower helped inspire a new style of art: Art Nouveau.

[46, Art Nouveau, 1890–1910; Republic House, Prague; various Gaudí works in Barcelona; Paris Métro station] This "New Art" turned modern technology — iron, glass, ceramic tiles — into beauty. Inspired by the curves of plants, artists made columns and ribs feel like a forest. They decorated humdrum Metro entrances with artistic ironwork…employed a playful blend of organic swoops and vertical lines…façades are colorful…and interiors glow with stained glass.

[47, Republic House, Prague] Art Nouveau was an ethic of beauty. It celebrated creativity, and the notion that art, design, fine living — it all flowed together.

[48, jewelry by Rene Lalique] In their homes, the wealthy decorated with leafy designs. They added curves and beautiful inlays to furniture and even added a graceful touch to the latest home technology, turning even the most practical everyday objects into works of art. The sumptuous beauty of Art Nouveau was wearable as well.

[49, Alphonse Mucha, 1860–1939] In Paris, a struggling Czech immigrant named Alphonse Mucha created a theatrical poster, with a uniquely sinuous touch. It was an overnight sensation, and Mucha had set a template for Art Nouveau: willowy maidens with elegant gowns and flowing hair…immersed in a background of flowery pastel designs….visions of the good life and pure beauty.

[50, Galleries Lafayette Department Store, Paris; Secession Building, Vienna] The flowery style blossomed all over Europe. While in France, it was called Art Nouveau, in Germany and Austria, it was Jugendstil—"young style."

[51, Park Güell, Gaudí, Barcelona] And, in Barcelona it was Modernisme. Upscale neighborhoods shimmered with colorful, leafy, and organic shapes.

[52, Block of Discord, Barcelona, various architects] On this street, several mansions jostled to outdo each other in creativity: Galloping gables…molded concrete…colorful ceramic tiles and shards of glass.

[53, Casa Milà, 1905, Gaudí, Barcelona] Perhaps the most innovative mansion of all — with its roller-coaster curves and melting ice cream eaves — was by hometown boy Antoni Gaudí.

[54] With his Casa Milà, the organic sensibilities of Modernista architecture flowed into practical everyday living. This apartment for a wealthy businessman shows how the affluence of the Industrial Age was enjoyed on a personal level…at least by the upper class. Now an apartment could be a small palace.

[55] Barcelona's Parc Güell shows a more playful side of Gaudí's architectural genius. While today the grand stairway and its welcoming lizard feels like a park for fun seekers, Gaudí intended this 30-acre garden to be a housing development for 60 residents…a kind of gated community. Fanciful viaducts complement the natural landscape. As a high-end housing development, the project flopped. But a century later, as a park, it's a huge success. As you wander, imagine that the community succeeded, and you were one of its lucky residents.

[56] Here at the Hall of the Hundred Columns, the intended produce market, you'd enjoy the fanciful columns and decor while you did a little shopping. Heading home, you'd stroll through what feels like the barrel of a cresting wave, another nature-inspired Gaudí fantasy. And on such a beautiful day you'd sit a spell on Gaudí's organic benches to enjoy a grand view of this grand city.

[57, Sagrada Família, Gaudí, Barcelona] Gaudí's grandest work is his Church of the Sagrada Família or Holy Family. He worked on this mega-structure for over 40 years and left it to later architects to finish. With its soaring honeycomb towers, it radiates like a spiritual lighthouse.

[58] The stone ripples and the surface crawls with life: animals, birds, trees, and people. Gaudí combined Christian symbolism, images from nature, and the playful flair of Modernisme. Like a concrete forest, the church seems to grow organically, reaching to Heaven.

[59] The soaring nave features columns that blossom with life. Wandering here, you can almost feel the futuristic spirit of the entire late-19th-century age: the dappled light so beloved by the Impressionists…the bold creativity of the Post-Impressionists…the sinuous curves of Art Nouveau…all of which Gaudí captured and set in stone on an epic scale.

[60] Europe offers a lifetime of artistic treasures. And the more you understand its art, the more you'll appreciate the society that created it. I hope you've enjoyed our look at the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists who primed the world for what would follow: the wild and crazy art of the 20th century. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'!