The term is derived from the French verb synthétiser (to synthesise). In essence Gauguin, Emile Bernard and their Pont-Aven group proposed that art should be a synthesis of three considerations – the starting point was the representation of natural forms but overlaid with the artist’s feelings about the subject and also his aesthetic, perhaps non-realistic, considerations and interpretations regarding colour and form.
Synthetism can be seen as a current within Symbolism specific to Gauguin and his circle. The term was used in 1889 when Gauguin and others organised an exhibition at the Café Volpini entitled ‘L’Exposition de peintures du Groupe impressioniste et synthétiste‘. The title of the exhibition expressed their debt to Impressionism but also made clear their aim to move in a new direction.
A very famous quote from Maurice Denis who in fact preferred to use Symbolism to describe the style, is often used when considering Synthetism: ‘It is well to remember that a picture, before it is a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.’ One of the founding definitions of the modern movement.
Gauguin, Bernard and their friends would restrict their palette to a limited range of colour and also emphasise distinct forms with the use of strong outlines (called cloissonism). All this tended to inhibit the sense of depth within the composition and strengthened the importance of colour. There was an emphasis on limiting detail and simplifying the composition. The gradual move towards the production of abstract space within the composition opened the way for later artists to move towards abstraction.