Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities

Painting, Poetry, Music

September 27, 2014 - January 11, 2015

Exhibition Images

To establish the Dream of realities…to strive for the pursuit of the Intangible and meditate—in silence—to inscribe the mysterious Meaning.–Henry van de Velde, 1890

The fascination with the imagination, the dream, or the intangible, so eloquently defined by artist Henry van de Velde in 1890 as the goal of Neo-Impressionism, was shared by many of his colleagues. It was nurtured in large part by the interactions between Neo-Impressionist painters and Symbolist writers and composers since the mid-1880s. Paris, capital of the art world at the time, and Brussels, home to the influential avant-garde group Les XX, became two centers that facilitated these exchanges.

Georges Seurat and his friends had presented their new, pointillist manner of painting—baptized Neo-Impressionism by critic Félix Fénéon—for the first time as a group in 1886 in Paris where it drew immediate attention. That same year a group of writers had published a definition of Symbolism in literature that called for a focus on the inner world of the mind rather than external reality. Neo-Impressionist painters and Symbolist poets in Paris and Brussels, where the new style was first exhibited in early 1887, shared friendships and established an ongoing dialogue about the role of the imagination in a work of art rather than the exact representation of the visual world.

Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities presents more than 70 works that reflect the Neo-Impressionist’s preoccupation with the idea, emotion, or the synergy of senses, particularly from 1888 to 1895, when adherence to the group was at its height and relations with Symbolist writers were especially fruitful. Featuring 15 artists—including renowned artists such as Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, and Camille Pissarro alongside their lesser known contemporaries—the exhibition welcomes to the Phillips works that have rarely or never before been exhibited in the United States. From idealized landscapes to expressive portraits and figural compositions that highlight their interest in literature and music, the artists created evocative images that went beyond observed reality.

The exhibition is organized by The Phillips Collection.

Neo-Impressionists and Symbolists

The Neo-Impressionists’ circle extended into other artistic spheres. The shared interests between Neo-Impressionist painters and Symbolist writers and composers as well as their personal friendships led to a variety of collaborations. Theo van Rysselberghe, for example, made illustrations for the books of Symbolist poet Emile Verhaeren, while Maximilien Luce and Paul Signac designed covers for the musical compositions of Symbolist composer Gabriel Fabre. Many of the writers published reviews about the works of their painter friends in journals and newspapers.

One of the major topics of discussion centered on the relationship among the various art forms. Poetry and music were considered especially effective forms of expression, as the spoken or sung word could touch the imagination of the listener more directly than a painting. Inspired by the expressiveness of music, some painters even thought of their paintings in terms of musical movements, as Paul Signac did by including opus numbers in the titles of many of his paintings. Van Rysselberghe’s portraits of Irma Sèthe and Anna Boch also spur the senses of the observer by evoking the sound of music.

The painters frequented popular theaters, the circus, and music halls, experiences that informed their work. Georges Seurat’s depictions of popular entertainment, such as Le Chahut or his café concert scenes invite the viewer to perceive the songs being performed and to envision the lively atmosphere of the music hall. Sketching during stage performances and concerts, and depicting popular dances and sideshows, the artists tried to engage a synergy of senses.

Paul Signac, L’Orgue, Cover design for the composition by Gabriel Fabre on a poem by Charles Cros, c. 1891. Lithograph with watercolor additions, 14 1/4 x 11 in. Gift of John Rewald. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Exhibition Sponsorship

This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

Support provided by Morgan Stanley and the Robert Lehman Foundation 

Brought to you by the Exhibition Committee for Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities: John and Gina Despres, Charlotte Cameron and the Dan Cameron Family Foundation, and Melissa J. Thompson

With support from the Musée d’Orsay

Additional in-kind support provided by