Impressionism: More Than Meets the Eye
In all the history of art, perhaps no style of painting has so captured the public’s imagination, nor has had such enduring influence as Impressionism. At the same time, there’s probably no period in art history more widely misunderstood. The problem is, defining who and what were the Impressionists.
There is, in fact, no clear answer, even though most people with at least a rudimentary knowledge of art history will find no problem rattling off a half-dozen names associated with the style, and can readily describe what they think an impressionist painting looks like.
While not entirely incorrect, the answers are misleading.
It’s a mistake to think that the Impressionists banded together for a singular aesthetic purpose, or indeed, that there was a guiding artistic principle that gave them a common bond. Nor did they perceive themselves as revolutionaries with the goal of upsetting the old order and replacing it with something radically different. If anything, what came to be called Impressionism was a natural consequence of confluent forces, social, technological, and economic, as well as aesthetic.
Rigid Standards of the Art Establishment
More than any other factor, Impressionism took root as a reaction against the government sanctioned academic painting that dominated French art in the first half of the 19th century. It grew from the interaction of artists who were angered by the establishment. In 19th Century France The Academie des Beaux Arts with its annual juried exhibit, the salon, established the standard for artists. It was more than simply a badge of honor to be accepted, it was required for anyone wishing to pursue a serious career in art.
The accepted academic style was neo-classicism, as exemplified by the work of Jean Jacques David and exemplified in “The Death of Marat.”1 But it was content that was most rigidly regulated. Subject matter was to be based primarily on historical events, mythology, and religion. Man was to be presented as an ideal, nature was to be celebrated and romanticized. It was realistic, but not realism as we see it and experience in our everyday lives. Rather it was realism as imagined through the prism of a quest for classical perfection.
A New Art Emerges
In the beginning, the Impressionists’ connections with each other were mostly social. They gathered along with other painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, and performers in the cafes that had begun to spring up like wild mushrooms in the Paris of the 1850’s and 60’s, the period after Napoleon III declared himself emperor. If there was any one quality they shared it was the passion to paint and the desire to succeed as artists. Most of them had repeatedly been rejected by the salon, and were struggling for recognition.
Change was inevitable. Whenever art becomes institutionalized and rigid in terms of what is and isn’t permissible, artists are going to seek new solutions to old challenges. The history of art is a continual response to changing social conventions, political events, and cultural influences, and the second half of the 19th century in Europe was especially volatile.
It’s easy to think of photography vs. painting in terms of reality vs. a transformed version of reality, but that’s deceptive. For the Impressionist painters photography could tell them what something looked like, but not how one saw it. Early black and white photographs were a record of what was at the moment the photo was taken, but it couldn’t come close to replicating the experience of seeing.
The Impressionists, each in his own way, were challenged by the problem of capturing the fleeting moment of seeing, of bringing painting into the present tense from the past tense where it had dwelled from earliest times.
There was another critical technological advance as well. The invention in 1840 of oil paints in metal tubes allowed artists to work outdoors, en plein air. Previously artists drew, sketched, or did watercolor studies from nature with the idea of laboriously completing finished paintings in their studios. For the first time paintings could be completed quickly, often in a single session, on location, allowing the artists to focus their attention on their immediate experience rather than reproducing experience after the fact.
The distinguishing qualities that we’ve come to associate with Impressionism were already abundantly evident in the decades that preceded its inception. They simply had not been combined in the ways they came to be, nor were they presented in quite such a dramatic and aggressive way.
Loose brush strokes, applied rapidly was nothing new or unusual. Artists as for back as Goya, El Greco, and Velasquez understood that what looks like arbitrary splashes of color when seen up close “read” as detail when seen from a distance. Turner, whose explosion of emotion in “Rain, Speed, and Steam”3 not only led directly to Impressionism, but also foreshadowed abstract expressionism a hundred years later.
The First Impressionist Exhibition
The most significant departure from the dictates of the Academy was content, which in turn affected style. The Impressionists looked at the world around them for their subject matter, at peasants, working class people, individuals engaged in everyday activities. They painted landscape as they actually saw it, rather than romanticizing it. And they sought out ways to bring their scenes to life with a freshness and spontaneity they felt was lacking in academic work.
The wide range of styles and content were evident when they banded together as a loose cooperative for the purpose of mounting their first group exhibition in 1874. Again, they had no intention of revolutionizing art history or creating a movement. They were the equivalent of indie filmmakers today struggling against the studio system. As most of them had been rejected by the salon, it was their only real way to get their work seen and, hopefully, sold.
Ironically, Manet, widely considered to be the “King of the Impressionists,” chose not to participate, and never thought of himself as one of them. Indeed, a look at his work reveals little obvious evidence of what we think of as Impressionism, and on several occasions his work was accepted in the salon.
There were 165 works shown, with 30 artists participating. A look at representative paintings from some of these artists gives a sense of how they were each trying to solve problems of perception, content, and technique in their own way. There was Edgar Degas, whose “Portraits in a New Orleans Cotton Office”4 painted in 1873 is a far cry from “The Tub”5 painted in 1885-86, or the gracefully beautiful ballet dancers he would become known for. And it was hardly an indication of the paths Impressionism would take. “The Absinthe Drinker”6 was harshly criticized, not because of its style, but because of its subject, a young woman sitting alone in a café, drinking.
Also represented was Paul Cezanne, whose “Dahlias”7 was almost conventional compared to his explosively beautiful studio experiments with light and color done toward the end of his life in watercolor. Boudin’s “Return of The Terre Nuevier”8 painted in 1875 owes a lot to the seascapes of Turner, who would have been known to him. The sun-drenched “In the Grass,” by Berthe Morisot,9 the only woman of the group, foreshadowed the delicate mother and child paintings of Mary Cassatt.10
Paul Gaugin surprises us with “The Seine in Paris between the Pont d'Lena and the Pont de Grenelle”11 painted in 1875, only barely hinting at his greatest work, “Where did we come From? Why are we here? Where are we going?”12 his meditation on the fundamental question of humanity and art, painted when he was living in Tahiti.
Of all the artists represented, Claude Monet came the closest to what we think of when we speak of Impressionism, with “Impression: Sunrise,”13 which inadvertently gave the movement its name. Critic Louis LeRoy used the word “Impressionists” in his article’s title. Other critics picked up on it, notably Jules Castagnary, who summed it up by writing, accurately but not intending praise, “They are Impressionists in the sense that they render not the landscape, but the sensation produced by the landscapes.”
None of this, however, comes close to the real significance of the Impressionists, and the importance of their contribution. To answer this, we need to examine just what art is, and what purpose it serves.
Paul Johnson, in his fascinating book “Art: A New History,” suggests that art, from the earliest prehistoric drawings to the present, is the way human beings attempt to bring order to an otherwise chaotic world. I would add that through art and its metaphors we seek to share our experience of existence with others. Art is the most accurate record we have of life as others knew it, going all the way back to the scratchings on cave walls that allow us brief glimpses of earliest man’s world.
For most of history, artists portrayed the images that best represented their culture and society, by embracing accepted iconography, canon, and symbols. It was not the artist’s job to depict what he himself felt or saw, but rather what his fellow man wanted and expected to see. Only gradually over time did styles and subject matter change, reflecting changes in the society.
By the 19th century human beings had begun to realize themselves as individuals rather than as part of the natural order of things, insignificant elements in God’s grand design or, as with the nobility, incarnate surrogates of the Supreme Being. Artists, reflecting this new perception, had begun to ask “Why am I here? instead of “Why are we here?”
To be sure, there were throughout history artists whose towering vision helped reshape what was accepted in radically new ways. Giotto comes to mind, also Caravaggio, Rubens, Van Dyke, Velasquez, Goya, Rembrandt. But each in his own way only nudged the history of art forward.
Impressionism exploded on the world as the graphic crystallization and embodiment of this new sense of self. Artists had begun to question how they as individuals perceived the world around them, how their unique experience was different from anyone else’s, and how they felt about the world as opposed to how everyone else felt. To reflect and express their feelings, they had to seek out new stylistic and aesthetic approaches.
One can draw a direct line from the Impressionists, through the Post-Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists, to the Fauves, the Cubists, the Symbolists, and ultimately to Abstract Expressionists. Today every “ism” we can think of is another manifestation of the phenomenon begun by the Impressionists, the phenomenon of individual expression.
Impressionism has long since outgrown its infancy and youth, struggled through its middle years, and settled into everlasting old age, now respected, admired, and successful, but utterly devoid of the spirit of adventure, experiment, discovery, and controversy that changed the course of art history for all time.
Where Impressionism once was a struggle to come to terms with a rapidly changing world, it’s become a virtual cliché. Worse, too often nowadays it masks lack of drawing skills, paucity of imagination, and shaky color sense. It’s become a way to churn out pretty pictures relatively quickly, without ever mastering technical skills or exploring through art the rich world of original ideas and daring technical solutions.