FEATURED: JMW Turner (1770-1854) The Scarlet Sunset (c1830–40). Watercolour and gouache on paper, Support 13.4 x 18.9 cm, Tate Britain
Surely an Impressionist painting, but from about 34 years before the first Impressionist exhibition.
Claude Monet (1850-1920). 1869, La Grenouillère, oil on canvas 99.7 x 74.6 cm Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). 1869, La Grenouillère, Oil on canvas. 66.5 x 81 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.
Two pioneering “iconic” Impressionist paintings.
1/ The essence
- Impressionism, as an art movement, has two aspects.
- The historic French experience
- A generic defintion.
- It was a subset of Realism, aiming to capture transitory scenes, but with a strong aesthetic purpose.
- Thus Impressionism was radical in its painting style but not modern in its content.
- Rather it appealed as a nostalgic Neo-Romantic antidote to then emerging rude Modernity.
- But avoiding the reality of Modernity in favour of Pretty Pictures was nonetheless a valid response? Remind us not to forget the aesthetic.
- The main official Impressionist painters were „Impressionist“ in varying degrees.
- And there were unofficial Impressionists, major painters who painted some Impressionist works.
- From the Impressionist period arguably some of the best paintings were non-Impressionist? Because they said more.
- Some earlier painters – proto-Impressionists – pointed to Impressionism? Like JMW Turner.
- Impressionism spread beyond France. But less than is commonly canvassed. The term is now over-used for marketing purposes.
2/ Preamble – Impressionism the first major modern movement
Following Manet’s one man kick start of Modernism Impressionism led the modern art revolution from the mid 19th C, from late 1860s through c1880, for the protagonists as a conscious radical break from then mainstream art, especially as represented by the official Salons.
Thence Modernism marched on, fanned out in the late 19th C in a variety of reactions to Impressionism, first under the broad banner of Post Impressionism (cf Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh, the term coined 1910 by Roger Fry) in the 1880s, thence Neo-Impressionism (the Pointilism of Seurat et al), the Nabis, Symbolism and Expressionism (cf Munch).
3/ Dissecting the movement
A. Impressionism the historic experience and a defintion.
Impressionism as an art movement, has two aspects.
a/ The historic experience
First it applies to the historic experience, the paintings of a small group of loosely affiliated French artists over a period from the late 1860s to around 1880, but a group diverse in style and subject matter, some of whose art was Impressionist, and who werer united principally by their opposition to the then dominant Salons.
The group of about 9 painters, together with some other artists, exhibited at 7 official exhibitions over 12 years, 1874-1886.
Conventionally the movement concludes around the early 1880s, and was succeeded by Neo-Impressionism, a term coined by critic Felix Feneon after at the 8th Impressionist show in 1886, where Seurat’s famous „Sunday Afternoon etc“ was hung.
Success came slowly, and especially helped by the single-minded commitment of dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922) who held his first Impressionist show in London 1870, 4 years before the official launch. Later he successfully took the brand to New York.
b/ A generic defintion.
Secondly, from the original French experience we can extract a two point generic definition of the movement;
1/ content or subject. Impressionism can be seen as a subset of Realism.
Its essential aim was to depict the ephemeral here and now, the fleeting or transitory moment, especially natural effects outdoora, and especially appealing, stimulating light effects. Hence they mostly favoured outdoors plein air painting.
Their aim in depicting ephemeral scenes was to convey a version of reality, not apply some preconceived interpretation.
The main objective was overarchingly aesthetic, not instructive, not didactic or polemical or narratory. It was art for its own sake.
In a sense the Impressonists can be seen as heirs of the Barbizon Realists, except their main purpose was narrower, being aesthetic, whereas Barbizon painters had a wider mission, instructive, sometimes polemical.
2/ there was clearly an Impressionist painting style.
Pigment application, usually in oils, was 1/ loose, coarse textured, „divisionist“.and 2/ generally more colourful.
B. Impressionism was radical in its style but not modern in its purpose….
The curious implication of points 1/and 2/ is that while the Impressionist movement was radical in its art style, in breaking from convention – was a modern avant-garde movement through its pioneering relaxed colorful painting style which jarred with the then favoured subdued traditional Salon styles – it was not modern in its purpose and content.
Thus it did not deliberately seek to depict Modern Life, let alone engage instructively with it, seek to comment on modern life. They did paint some recogniseable scenes from modern life (eg like Monet (1840-1926) and Gare St Lazare in Paris, like Pissarro (1830-1903) in his later street scenes from Paris, also Rouen), but more for the aesthetic possibilities. Also Pissarro painted his many city images later when coping with reduced mobility.
C. … rather it appealed as a nostalgic antidote to then emerging, burgeoning rude Modernity.
So in broad terms the purpose of its painting was not modern or progressive, but rather the reverse. Its focus on the aesthetic was fundamentally Neo-Romantic.
And one could go further and argue that for some of its leaders (Monet, Pissarro, Sisley) their aesthetic mission was a reactionary, anti-modern gesture, seeking therapeutic escape from, an antidote to, the blunt noisy disruption caused by emering Modernity, the sudden 19th C eruption and spread of industrial and urban life.
After famously struggling for recognition in the early days, championed by lone figures like the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, eventually Monet and his friends were proved right.
Thus Impressionism‘s eventual success was fanned precisely by avoiding the modern world, the travails of modern life, and rather by dishing up mostly fetching atmospheric rural nostalgia.
The Pretty Pictures were entertaining nostalgic pleasurable visual distractions from the unpleasant side effects of burgeoning modern industrial life, easy to swallow, to „understand“,
And the movement remains widely popular today for the same reason, for aesthetic distraction from the pace and intensity of modern life.
For some Impressionists the aesthetic mission persisted, grew more important with time, particularly for Monet, the most famous exemplar. Thus his outdoors landscapes generally became less descriptive and more stylised, pursuing the aesthetic criterion, climaxing at Giverny early in the following century. Pissarro also stayed close to the aesthetic mission.
It’s ironic that one reason for the lush colorful floral vegetation at Asnières-sur-Seine, just north of Paris, evident in Monet’s 1880 painting of his garden at Vétheuil, is the then growing discharge of sewage effluent into the Seine!
D. Avoiding reality, Modernity‘s wider impact, was nonetheless a valid response?
Impressionism’s aesthetic preoccupation basically avoided engaging with Modernity, its obvious disruption to traditional life, the costs as well as benefits.
Was this in a sense irresponsible? Because it avoided ‚reporting the facts“?
But it can be argued this response was valid because firstly it indeed gave the viewers some visual satifaction, relief from the ugliness, and second, it reminded viewers of the importance of having an aesthetic component in a balanced life?
This latter view, the virtue of the aesthetic, was the hallmark of Henri Matisse’s art two generations later.
E. The main Impressionists were „Impressionist“ in varying degrees…..
Looking at the cadre of the original French Impressionist painters the generic definition of Impressionism applied to varying degrees to the main protagonists, more to painters like Monet, Pissarro and Sisley, sometimes to Renoir, but less to Degas.
Thus for each painter not all their works were ‚Impressionist‘.
Among the main Impressionists Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was the most different. By far his favourite subject for the „ephemeral moment“ was not a spring hillside or a weather affected sky but a classical dance studio, or performance theatre. He dismissed plein air painting. He painted many people, in portraits or group interiors.
And he never embraced the colorful divisionist Impressionist style of paint application.
Pierre- Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) painted a number of Impressionist masterworks, some Impressionist works till near his end, but also painted lots more people, even Wagner in 1882.
F. … and there were two major contemporary painters not labelled Impressionists who painted some Impressionist works.
The important contemporary painter, the transposed American JM Whistler (1834-1903), painted some clearly Impressionistic images in his so-called nocturnes, mainly in London, works which above all were trying to capture an atmospheric moment, if not wholly in the Impressionistic „divisionist“ style. But he was in no way an„officially“ part of the Impressionist movement.
The pionering Modernist Edouard Manet (1834-1903), painted some clearly Impressionist works, but rejected approaches to join the official group. He remained his own man and arguably painted better for it, many of his works having a far wider purpose than boats on the sunny Seine.
G. From the Age of Impressionism some of the non-Impressionist works said much more?
Notwithstanding the subsequent popularity of a High Impressionists like Monet, the works of many other contemporary painters – Impressionist and non- Impressionist – were arguably more important and interesting precisely for their non-Impressionist content? Because they said much more.
This includes particularly many paintings by Manet (eg The Railway of 1873), and also by the masterly Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), and Edgar Degas, and also the someime Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte (1848-94).
H. Proto-Impressionists? Some earlier painters pointed to Impressionism?
Some work by some precursors might be called proto-Impressionist, particularly by JMW Turner (1775-1851), but also occasionally by John Constable (1776-1837).
Clearly many of Turner’s later atmospheric „ethereal“ works are Impressionist in their aesthetic intent, their capturing evanescent atmospheric effects, and even in their fragmented painting style.
Impressionism spread beyond France. But less than is commonly promoted.
Impressionism as a movement was very influential. Many painters beyond France picked up the style to a greater or lesser extent.
Thus there is mention of „Impressionism“ in the US, Britain, even Germany, Australia and Scandinavia.
However the term is often applied too loosley, applied to art which does not really fit the generic definition.
Many so called „Impressionist“ works are more naturalistic, in painting style.
This is basically done for marketing reasons, to take advantage of the now pervasive popularity of the French movement, ironic considering its slow beginnings.
I. The original cast…
From the „official“ Impressionist painters, ie who were hung at any of the 7 official exhibitions, the popularly accepted 5 main historic protagonists were Edgar Degas / Claude Monet / Camille Pissarro / Pierre-Auguste Renoir / Alfred Sisley.
And on the periphery were 4 others: Frederic Bazille / Gustave Caillebotte / Alphonse Guillaumin / Berthe Morisot.
However the definitional boundary is grey and beyond the „official“ list other important contemporary artists who also painted Impressionist works were Edouard Manet and Paul Cezanne, and also Dutch landscapist JB Jongkind (1819-91, ie 21 years older than Monet) and JM Whistler (1834-93, 6 years older)
JMW Turner (1775-1851) 1842, Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, oil on canvas, 91 cm × 122 cm, Tate Britain.
A precursor to Impressionism, and abstraction.
Claude Monet (1840-1926), 1872, Impression, Sunrise, oil on canvas, 48 X 63cm, Muséem Marmottan Monet, Paris.
The painting which gave the cause its name.
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). c1871, All Saints’ Church, Upper Norwood (London), gouache on paper 18.2 x 22.8 cm, Private Collection
JM Whistler (1834-1903). c1872-73, Nocturne; Battersea Bridge, pastel on brown paper, 18.1 x 27.94 cm, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Two from London, one by an unofficial Impressionist artist.
Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). 1873-74, A Modern Olympia, 46 x 55.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay.
Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), 1874, Regatta at Molesey, 66 × 91.5cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris..
Cezanne’s image hung in the inaugural 1874 exhibition and is certainly impressionistic. Sisley was a front rank but narrow official Impressionist painter.
Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). Dance in the Moulin de la Galette (Bal du moulin de la Galette), 1876, Oil on canvas, 131 x 175 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Giuseppe De Nittis (1846–1884). 1878. Westminster Bridge. Pinacoteca De Nittis, Barletta, Italy
Renoir liked painting people, and well, far more than some of the others. The Italian painter worked in Paris.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) 1879, Seascape Near Berneval, oil on canvas, 54 x 65.4 cm. Private.
c 1916, Anenomes, oil on canvas, 14 × 31 cm, Museum of John Paul II Collection (Porczyński Gallery).
The prolific Renoir painted some landscapes, and later, when old, a number of Impressionist floral scenes.
Claude Monet 1891 Poplars on the Banks of the Epte, oil on canvas 100 x 65 cm Private
Claude Monet, 1899-1901. Charing Cross Bridge, London, Saint Louis Art Museum.
Later Impressionist works by Monet.
Max Liebermann (1847-1935). 1918. The birch avenue in Wannsee Garden, looking west, 85.5x 106cm, Hannover
Claude Monet, 1920–22, The Japanese Footbridge, 89.5 x 116.3 cm, MOMA
A much later German Impressionist painting, by then nostalgic, by when the avant-garde had raged far ahead, into abstraction and Cubism.
And a very late work by the unrelenting narrowly focussed Giverny-based Monet, now bordering on abstraction.