The Opening of Japan

American Matthew Perry gained entrance to Japanese ports in 1853. Japan had been closed to the West for over 250 years. That changed with the Treaties of Kanagawa (1854) and Harris (1858). Japan modernized on western lines while maintaining sovereignty and culture by confining access to select treaty ports.

In the visual arts, ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints, became increasingly popular as the technique of polychrome or multi-color was developed. The process of creation was a collective effort. An iconic artist in this medium is Katshushika Hokusai (1760–1849), whose work the Great Wave is widely recognized as a masterpiece of world art. Many woodblock prints celebrated the ephemeral activities of daily life and, in contrast, images like Mount Fuji, which represented Japan and the permanence of nature.

Africa and Empire

In an attempt to secure scare resources and strategic trade routes, European nations implemented a policy of Imperialism throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas. This policy is evidenced by Britain’s declaration of Queen Victoria as the Empress of India in 1858. These practices were also fueled by nationalist competition between nations, a belief in European and white superiority, and a desire to “improve the lot of” indigenous populations. During the 19th century, the European powers vied with each other over the control of Africa’s vast natural resources. Britain protected its interests in the Suez Canal by controlling Egypt and the Sudan, later adding Zimbabwe and Zambia. The French had initially gained a footing in Algeria to curb Mediterranean piracy. They add to this colony:  Tunisia, much of West Africa ,the Congo, and Madagascar. Germany acquired Namibia, Togoland, the Cameroons, and Tanzania. Not to be outdone, Belgium, Italy, and Portugal also seized African territories.

Darwinian Evolution and the Theoretical Justification for Imperialism

Science of the nineteenth century also followed the realist emphasis on direct observation and reporting. He kept a daily diary on a voyage to South America, in which he recorded carefully all that he saw. He was astonished by the Galapagos, where he found distinct variations of more universal species. He soon concluded that similar flora and fauna, isolated in similar habitats, soon develop unique species. In Origin of Species he hypothesizes that natural selection can refine certain specific traits and allow stronger individuals to survive by being better able to live in a particular environment, through adaptation.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was misapplied, by some, to racial analysis. Some declared their faith in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race and the possibility of its global domination over all other cultures and races. Darwin had never intended that his theory be given such an interpretation, and in 1871 he published the Descent of Man in which he argued that altruism was selected for its survival value. Those who cooperate with one another are more likely to survive and thus pass on their genes. Not all thinkers followed Darwin’s views on this matter, however. Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) saw evolution as operating at the social level while the more pessimistic thinker Francis Galton (1822–1911) advocated eugenics, an intervention into the process of evolution to insure that the “best” sorts of people produced the most children. These views would later influence the genocidal policies of the Nazis.

The Rise of Modernism

This is a period of invention. Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor create the assembly line in 1908, the Lumiere brothers the cinematography, and the Wright brothers the airplane. Dramatic discoveries are also occurring in the sciences, particularly in physics. Between 1897 and 1899 J.J. Thompson discovers the electron in Cambridge, England. Max Planck and Niels Bohr develop Quantum Mechanics, and Albert Einstein publishes his General Theory of Relativity in 1915. In the arts, the Spanish Painter Pablo Picasso emerges as the dominant influence in his move towards abstraction.

Post-Impressionism Painting

Georges Seurat (1859–1891) was one of the most sophisticated of the Post-Impressionists. He employed color theories to form his technique of Pointillism. Essentially, mixing pigments is a subtractive process. Seurat positioned tiny dots of color next to each other so that the viewer would mix the colors for themselves. The effect was not always successful, but on the whole, Seurat departed from the spontaneity of impressionism to form a deliberate and fascinating new style of painting. His most famous work is A Sunday on La Grand Jatte (1884, fig. 14.5), which depicts sightseers on an island in the Seine.

Seurat would influence a number of Post-Impressionists. One notable example is the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890). He departed from the style of the impressionists, who sought to record color as it actually appeared to them. Instead, van Gogh used color as symbolic of his emotional state. He employed an impasto technique, building up thick swatches of paint on the canvas. After moving to the south of France, he enjoyed an incredibly productive – if emotionally – unstable period. He was later hospitalized in a sanitarium at Saint-Remy. A notable work is his  Portrait of Patience Escalier (1889, fig. 14.6). He committed suicide in 1890.

Another important Post-Impressionist is Paul Cezanne (1839–1904). Cezanne was the only Post-Impressionist who continued the Impressionist tradition of painting plein-air. His work explores the way color structures space. He departs from the spatial codes of the Renaissance in favor of a technique that would convey the uncertainty of vision. His use of color appears flat. Items in the foreground, middle ground and background are painted with the same colors, intensity and brush stroke size. A notable example of these techniques is seen in Mont Sainte Victoire (1902–1904, fig. 14.8). His use of color is equally experimental and influential on the history of art.

Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), a friend of van Gogh’s, also had a predilection for the emotional use of color. A frustrated businessman, he abandoned career and family to move to Tahiti to paint the local inhabitants and experience the primitif, the primal element of life. He briefly returned to France penniless to market his art and his fictionalized account of life in Tahiti, Noa Noa. He returned to Tahiti in 1895 and moved to the remote island of Hivaoa, where he died in 1903.


key features and themes of post-impressionism.
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