Impressionism: colourful, coarse-brushed aesthetic distraction from modern life

 

 

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.

 

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Claude Monet (1850-1920). 1869, La Grenouillère, oil on canvas 99.7 x 74.6 cm Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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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)

 

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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.

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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.

 

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Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). c1871, All Saints’ Church, Upper Norwood (London), gouache on paper 18.2 x 22.8 cm, Private Collection

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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.

 

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Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). 1873-74, A Modern Olympia, 46 x 55.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay.

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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.

 

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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

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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.

 

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) 1879, Seascape Near Berneval, oil on canvas, 54 x 65.4 cm. Private.

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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.

 

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Claude Monet 1891 Poplars on the Banks of the Epte, oil on canvas 100 x 65 cm Private

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Claude Monet, 1899-1901. Charing Cross Bridge, London, Saint Louis Art Museum.

Later Impressionist works by Monet.

 

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Max Liebermann (1847-1935). 1918. The birch avenue in Wannsee Garden, looking west, 85.5x 106cm, Hannover

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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.

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Camille Pissarro (and friends) – if you could only invite one to tea?

 

The Impressionists‘ engaging aesthetic „special effects“ man.

(Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro, July 1830- November 1903, 73)

 

FEATURED IMAGE:   1874 Bad Weather, Pontoise, Snow Effect, oil on canvas, 50.5 x 61.6 cm, Private Collection.   COMMENT: textbook Pissarro, from the year Impressionism was formally launched at the first (of 8) official Salon challenging group exhibition in Paris. Thus through bare trees we see some “structure”, and the coarse brushwork captures snow flurried by wind.

If we can choose only two paintings …. .

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1877, The Côte des Bœufs at L’Hermitage (Pontoise) Oil on canvas, 114.9 x 87.6 cm, National Gallery London. COMMENT: this is a relatively large painting, and the reproduction does not do justice to the dense fine impasto texture visible up close. Many paintings he composed around trees. And concealed, camouflaged in the shrubs are two women, near his then home.

1889 Shepherd in a Downpour, tempera on canvas, 60 x 73.3 cm, private Collection. COMMENT: more trademark Pisssaro, after the effect of rain beating a lone shepherd and flock, but through a pared simple zig-zag composition he sometimes used later, after meeting Georges Seurat, .

 

SUMMARY

The gregarious multi-cultural outsider Camille Pissarro (Danish-French, of Portuguese-Sephardic Jewish descent) was important early, played a leading role in formally launching the Impressionists group in 1874, and then showed at all 8 of the group exhibitions to 1886.

Unlike some peers he relaxed creatively so apart from one interesting detour his painting style more or less trod water across 30 prolific years, as variations on Impressionism.

But he left us many „beautiful“ paintings, evident especially in the flesh. And many there were, mostly engaging aesthetic distractions from modern life.

For despite his „anarchist“ proto-socialist political sympathies Pissarro was in practice – like Monet (1840-1926) – a true Impressionist, basically a neo-romantic aesthete, preoccupied with aesthetic purpose.

Even his many cityscapes (especially the various series, painted later when ill health compelled him to paint only from indoors) are more aesthetic than realistic.

He preferred the country, lived near all his life there, and landscapes predominated, often chasing natural outdoors atmospheric “effects”, like snow or fog or frost, but usually built on some manner of compositional structure, especially trees.

But as a sociable person, known for empathetic relations with other artists, he also painted many people, in small or larger groups, particularly later:  family, friends (cf Cezanne), rural workers, and also himself.

Ironically his late 1880s„detour“ to Neo-impresionism produced some of his most „modern“ images.

 

ART

Pissarro’s art

Pissarro, as the oldest in the official group (43 in 1874), and the only one then to show at all 8 exhibitions, is noted for his important role in helping launch Impressionism, especially with Monet, his friend since 1859, and both not long back from London. They, with Degas and Renoir, played a leading role in organising the seminal April 1874 Impressionist show.

The painter credited with first floating the idea of them forming a group, the engaging, generous Frederic Bazille, a close friend of Monet, sadly was killed 1870 in the pointless Franco-Prussian War so never reached the starting line. Pissarro (with Paul Cezanne (1939-1906)) knew Bazille from 1863.

But having become a committed Impressionist painter, Pissarro more or less remained there stylistically for rest of his life, about another 30 years. He toyed with Neo-Impressionist Pointillism in the late 1880s, but only for a year or so, and ignored the Post-impressionists like Van Gogh and Gauguin, then the 1890s Symbolists.

However in later years there was generally more variety in his style and subject. He painted more people (like La Ronde (1884) and the many market scenes), he painted coarse colorful works (View of the Village of Bazincourt (1889), Sunset, Bazincourt Steeple (1890), Flood, White Effect, Eragny (1893), and The Dunes at Knokke (1894)), and he painted subtle subdued works (Valhermeil near Oise – Rain Effect (1881), Shepherd in a Downpour (1889), Rouen, Fog Effect (1898)).

Pissarro liked to build his paintings around some manner of “structure”, using trees in particular, also roads and buildings, and shadows, and sometimes rivers and bridges.

Ironically, his brief detour into Neo-impressionism (Pointillism) after meeting Georges Seurat 1885 produced paintings which are arguably his most „modern“ in terms of painting style and stylised composition, if not modern in subject, like Flock of sheep, Eragny sur Epte (1888). Ile Lacruix, Rouen: Effect of Fog (1888), and Old Chelsea Bridge, London (1890). Some of these works also reflect his interest in Japanese prints.

 

Pissarro was prolific, and landscapes predominated, as for his more famous friend and associate Monet, but his subject span was wider than Monet‘s, more interesting for it. Thus he painted far more people, especially later, after c1880, including himself (leaving four notable self portraits), his family, and many outdoors genre scenes showing working people, mainly women, in villages, markets, the countryside.

Monet’s Rouen cathedral series inspired him to also paint a number of “series”, ie repeated images from the same vantage point, starting 1896 with 16 paintings of Rouen. About then his failing health forced him to work inside, so the “series”made a virtue of necessity. Other series followed, like Dieppe, and in urban Paris, especially of Boulevarde Montmartre, also from his window over Pont Neuf.

 

Pissarro responded to modern life, painted far more views of modern life than Monet, like factories and changing urban Paris. About the 1896 Rouen series he famously wrote (to his son): “what particularly interests me is the motif off the iron bridge in wet weather with all the vehicles, pedestrians, workers on the embankment, boats, smoke, haze in the distance; it’s so spirited, so alive.”

And in Paris, working on his famous Boulevarde Montmartre series, he wrote 15th Dec.1897 to Lucien: “It may not be very aesthetic, but I’m delighted to be able to have a go at Paris streets, which are said to be ugly, but are [in fact] so silvery, so bright, so vibrant with life […] they’re so totally modern!

But nonetheless (and notwithstanding his “it may not be very aesthetic”!) this interest in the “modern” is primarily aesthetic rather than „realistic“ or clinical.

Pissarro’s reaction to „modern“ life contrasts with Fernand Leger’s (1881-1955) for example. The neo-romantic Pissarro was more interested in the aesthetic effects of the „modern“, and the countryside, while Leger on the other hand embraced the modern industrial age, seemed to think modern life was a good idea, despite even after serving at the front in World War 1.

 

Pissarro ultimately may have been less radical than say Monet, more conservative, but in relentlessly pursuing his aesthetic mission he did paint many “beautiful” pictures, particularly among his many landscapes and cityscapes. As often the case this is more evident when seeing some of these paintings in the flesh, when the detail can be better appreciated, as for many other artists (like Jackson Pollock).

 

Monet

Monet, also prolific, was more narrow than Pissarro in his subject matter – painted relatively few people pictures, especially later, and painted very few „modern“ subjects –  but he is now understandably more famous for pushing his aesthetic obsession with landscapes, through the famous „series“ of the 1890s (haystacks, the Rouen cathedral facade, river bank trees, on the Epte) to the legion of later radical large quasi-abstract images from his base at Giverny, many watery, like his early days by the Channel.

 

How hard was it! Monet letter 10 March 1879 to Georges De Bellio:

„..I am absolutely sickened with and demoralised by this life I’ve been leading for so long. When you reach my age [39!] there is nothing more to look forward to. Unhappy we are, unhappy we will continue to be.

Each day brings its tribulations and each day difficulties arise from which we can never free ourselves. So I am giving up the struggle once and for all, abandoning all hope of success……

(Richard  Kendall, Monet by Himself, (Macdonald & Co 1989, updated  Time Warner Books, 2004)

 

Influences

Pissarro’s relentless pursuit of the aesthetic is odd in some ways first because he was apparently a “socialist” (see below) and, second, because he was influenced early by the various pioneering French social realists in Paris, particularly the older Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796 – 1875), who tutored him, encouraged him to paint plein-air. He cited Corot as his teacher in the catalogues to the 1864 and 1865 Paris Salons.

The bolder realist Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877) was important too, also Charles-François Daubigny (1817-78) and Jean-François Millet (1814 – 1875) from the Barbizon school.

So early on he also developed a keen appetite for landscape, which never left. Here he was influenced too by recent older British painters RP Bonington (1802-28) and John Constable (1776-1837). Constable’s work influenced the French Realists, especially after it was shown at the 1824 Salon.  Pissarro was aware too of the then ageing Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), like his use of color.

 

Like many colleagues from the late 1860s he also became fashionably keen on Japonism, eg through Japanese prints, though this is less obvious in his art than for others?

 

1869-71: Louveciennes and London, forming the Impressionist painting style

Pissarro’s Impressionist painting style clearly emerged when he was based at Louveciennes (about 18km west of Paris, on the road to Versailles) for about a year, from May 1869 through July 1870 when the war with Prussia broke out. Pissarro moved to Louveciennes from Pontoise, was joined in the area by Monet (based at Bougival) and Renoir, then Sisley, also Guillaumin.

During the early 1870s Pissarro, Monet and Sisley [and Renoir?] developed a communal style and collective artistic identity..” (“Camille Pissarro”, catalogue, Art Gallery NSW, 2006).

This area, the Seine below Louveciennes, became an important nursery for developing Impressionism, epitomised by Monet and Renoir famously painting side by side at popular riverside café la Grenouillère (The Frogpond) in summer of 1869, on the island of Croissy, just up the river by Bougival. Their paintings were milestones in the birth of Impressionism.

Oddly for an “Impressionist” Renoir painted a heap of portraits, and not many landscapes.

Pissarro also painted a view of la Grenouillère in 1869 but the style of his image is behind Monet and arguably it was soon after this, painting with Monet at Louveciennes winter 1869-70 (especially scenes of the road to Versailles), that Pissarro’s Impressionist style developed.

The same local scenes were painted repeatedly, in varying conditions, the same scene by the same artist (like the road at Louveciennes by Pissarro), and the same scene by different artists (like Louveciennes by Pissarro and Monet).

One popular feature was the aqueduct for Louis XIV’s Versailles water displays, fed by la Machine de Marly.

Then Franco-Prussian War, erupting July 1870, upended the productive Louveciennes association.

 

Impressionism – making sense of a definition: aesthetic realism

From its problematic formal beginnings in the mid-1870s Impressionism is now one of the most popularly appreciated art movements, though this popularity was hard won.

But it is also a term bringing some confusion?

 

The style is best described as  aesthetic realism“.

It was radical then first because of its unidealistic, frank, informal, everyday realism, striving to paint everyday, mundane landscapes in particular – and sometimes people – „realistically“, as they really appeared.

Some logically extended this approach and painted the same scenes at different times, in different weathers, and they savoured rich visual effects like snowy fields or fog or sunny treescapes or sunsets. Though Renoir did tell dealer Ambroise Vollard “But then, even if you can stand the cold, why paint snow? It is a blight on the face of Nature.”!

The radical nature of their subject matter is quickly evident when compared with typical paintings favoured by the official Salon, mostly still preoccupied with improbable obscure otherworldly history topics, like Gérôme’s The sword Dance (1868), or idealised landscapes.

Second, it was radical in its pioneering coarse, colorful, broad brush, „unfinished‘ painting method.

 

Impressionism’s aesthetic realism“, sometimes then called „naturalism“, stood in contrast to the by then well established and pioneering French school of „social realism“, which dated back to Théodore Géricault’s (1791-1824) Raft of the Medusa (1819), thence through Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796 – 1875), the Barbizon School (Jean-François Millet (1814 – 1875)), then especially Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877).

The long unappreciated and less well known Barbizon “cattle painter” Constant Troyon (1810-65), who met Barbizon leader Theodore Rousseau in 1843, impressed Monet at the 1859 Salon (with 6 works), and it’s easy to see why, the light and atmosphere, the color and the brushwork (cf The Return). We also see Pissarro in Troyon (cf Road in the woods, mid 1840s, Met NY)

Encouraged by freer thinking after the 1848 political unrest, the Barbizon school painted nature and rural life, including peasants, for its own sake, rather than as a back drop to dramatic events, historic, mythological or otherwise. And they painted the scenes directly, realistically. Thus the Barbizon artists were early advocates of en plein air (EPA) painting, from about the 1840s, ie working outdoors, a method facilitated by 1/ the arrival paint pigments in tubes (versus traditional method of mixing pigment with linsed oil in a studio), and 2/ the portable French box easel, with built in paint box and palette.

Impressionism’s „realism“ by contrast – its artistic mission – was overwhelmingly aesthetic rather having any polemical or moralistic motive.

So it was, above all, essentially a neo-romantic movement, mostly preoccupied with „pretty pictures“, if anything seeking aesthetic distraction from the disruptive turmoil of modern life rather than to comment or reflect on it.

Striking it is that even the „political“ Pissarro, socialist /anarchist, was nothing of the sort in his art (with one isolated exception, below).

Eventually, after a long and arduous battle for popular acceptance, Impressionism succeeded, and then emphatically, because of the demand for “don’t worry, be happy” paintings.

By contrast, for example, the long lived English painter George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), whose work span covered the whole back half of the 19th C, including the birth and slow spread of Impressionism, was hugely popular then for his purposeful painting – visionary, moralising, exhortatory – but is now quite forgotten.

 

Impressionismemergence

From 1862 Monet, Renoir and Sisley, then Bazille from 1863, painted together at Gleyre’s atelier in Paris. Monet had learned much from marine painter Eugène Boudin (1824-98) c1859 at his then seaside home town of Le Havre, then from summer 1862 from Dutchman JB Jongkind (1819-91), another seaside painter.

1863 is famous for the birth of Salon des Refusés, ordered by Louis-Napoleon after wide protest against the intolerant conservative Salon that year. Pissarro and Cezanne showed at Refusés but Manet’s (1832-1883) famous Déjeuner sur l’Herbe caused the real sensation, a candidate for the first important “modern” painting, for its subject depiction not its painting style.

After Gleyre’s studio closed 1864 the quartet painted a time in the Fontainebleau woods, outside Paris, near the Barbizon painters.

As we saw above 1869-70 found a number of the key painters working in the Bougival area west of Paris, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley.

In Paris during the 1860s the Café Guerbois on Rue des Batignolles (north of centre, west of Montmartre) became an important socialising venue for some of the group, fostering a semblance of commonality. It was dominated by the quarrelsome Manet, where Degas, Monet and Bazille contributed, also the critics Louis Edmond Duranty and Emile Zola, and Renoir and Sisley perhaps less so. Pissarro and Cezanne appeared only occasionally.

Two group portraits from 1870 celebrated the group’s presence: A studio in the Batignolles quarter by Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) includes Manet, Renoir, Zola (an important supporting art critic, and writer), Bazille, and Monet; and, poignantly, Bazille’s Artists’s studio (Rue de la Condamine) which includes Bazille (“Manet painted me in“), Manet, Edmond Maître, and possibly Monet and Renoir. Bazille added a number of Impressionist paintings on the walls to stress the point.

Then the Franco-Prussian War intervened, claiming Bazille’s life, but persuading both Monet and Pissarro (with Danish citizenship) to decamp, independently, to London by late 1870.

London proved providential for Monet and Pissarro. Fellow refugee French painter, and friend, Charles-François Daubigny, introduced Monet January 1871 to art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922), also sitting out the war, and then setting up a gallery in New Bond St. Durand-Ruel revealed Pissarro’s presence in London to Monet, and he started to buy their paintings, becoming in due course a major supporter of Monet (who before the war was financially struggling) and many other Impressionists.

Pissarro was by then staying in suburban southeast London at Norwood where “I [Pissarro] .. studied the effects of fog, snow and springtime..”. He painted 12 oil paintings in London and, importantly, with Monet viewed the proto-Impressionist art of JMW Turner and John Constable in the museums.

Back in France 1871 Pissarro returned to Pontoise by August 1872 after finding Louveciennes (and many of his works left there) had been trashed in the war. Cezanne joined him a time at Pontoise, then stayed nearby at Auvers.

Monet next settled at Argenteuil (on NW outskirts of Paris, on the north bank of the Seine), till 1878, but he struggled some time for money.

 

Impressionismlaunch.

Monet was the main man in the emergence, launch and progression of Impressionism? And arguably he stayed with the style the whole of his long career, through to the final vast colourful quasi-abstract floral visial meditations at Giverny, beyond WW1.

But oddly it was his close friend Frederic Bazille (1841-1870) who deserves recognition for apparently first thinking out loud about the Impressionists forming a formal group, the articulate, confident and generous young (25) painter who in 1867, after more rejections by the Salon, wrote his mother “So we have resolved to rent a large studio each year where we will exhibit as many of our works as we please. We’ll invite the painters we like to send their paintings….. With these people and Monet, who is stronger than all of them put together, we’re sure to succeed. You’ll see that people will talk about us.” Well known to others in the group, and emerging as a painter of clear distinction (if not by then a full Impressionist) he was – a week off age 29 – sadly killed (28 November 1870) in the futile Franco-Prussian War, triggered by France.

Conditions after the Franco-Prussian War seemed propitious for a time but then 1873 brought a tough financial downturn, which dragged on for 5 years or so, hurting painting sales. And the official Salon remained hostile. Neither Monet nor Pissarro showed at the 1872 and 1873 Salons, and Courbet was excluded from the 1872 official Salon. Then 1873 brought yet another hostile Salon, triggering another Salon des Refuses.

So now Monet revived Bazille’s 1867 thoughts for the loose like-minded group to mount their own exhibition (refer Phoebe Pool’s Impressionism, 1967, Thames and Hudson).

Critic Duret was hostile but Degas keenly supported the idea, despite some clear differences with others in the group. However Corot as an older „social realist“ also resisted, which discouraged the group approaching other „social realists“ like Courbet. Pissarro quickly joined the cause, as a quasi-ringmaster for the disparate group, mashalling the „nucleus of painters“.

Disillusioned with the Salon system the core group (Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir and Degas) began planning a formal launch, then on 27 December 1873 formed the Joint Stock Company of Artists etc (Societe Anonyme Cooperative a Capital Variable des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs etc.) using a charter Pissarro derived from that of the Pontoise bakers. Though Renoir then „successfully opposed this in favour of“ a simpler agreement.

The Society’s  inaugural show (165 works by 39 artists), known as the Realist Salon, opened 15 April 1874, about two weeks before the official Salon. The show’s title was the clumsy Societe Anonyme Cooperative a Capital Variable, not La Capucine (The Nasturtium) as Degas suggested. Pissarro hung 5 paintings and would show at all 8 Impressionist exhibitions, the only one to do so.

Beyond Pissarro the group included Monet, Renoir, the keen Degas, Sisley, Cezanne and the able congenial lady Berthe Morisot (1841-92).

But, notably, it did not include Manet, partly because, despite his travails, his heart still lay with the Salon, and perhaps too because of his distaste for Cezanne, his work and his rough rural dress and manner.

Pissarro, now actively encouraging Cezanne’s work, had to argue hard for Cezanne’s inclusion. Cezanne’s early oeuvre had a dark side, diverse and disquieting. Beyond landscapes, still lives and portraits he added some disturbing dark Expressionist works on religious and life subjects, like The abduction (1867) and The murder (1868), then (1873-74) a riotous sensual take (A Modern Olympia) on Manet’s Olympia: The New Olympia, which as one of 3 paintings he showed at the 1st Impressionist exhibition, surely one of the oddest „Impressionist“ paintings, in a similar vein to the later (1875) Afternoon in Naples. The two others shown 1874 were landscapes from Auvers, one The House of the Hanged Man.

The well connected Morisot more than held her own, studied with Corot from 1960 and by 1864 had two paintings accepted by the Salon. She knew Manet well (married his brother) who urged her not to join the group. She would show all 8 exhibitions except the 4th.

Seven other shows followed, 1876-1877, 1879-1882, and 1886, all in spring.

It was only at the third show (1877) that adopted the title Impressionist, lifted from critic Louis Leroy’s scornful review of the first show, suggesting wallpaper was „more finished“ than Monet’s Impression, Sunrise.

 

Impressionism – reception?

Critic Theodore Duret warned Pissarro (eg in a letter Dec.1873) not to run with Societe Anonyme, “not to think of Monet and Sisley”, advised staying with the Salon.

And so it was that critical reception was harsh, and Pissarro was cited by some critics as one of the “ringleaders”, along with Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Sisley etc. “The scandal.. proved a catastrophic setback for sales.. Pissarro was now seen as part of a nihilist, hooligan fringe…” (op. cit AG NSW), which hurt him financially.

But history since has voted differently.

Back in Paris in 1871, after the war with Prussia, Durand-Ruel continued to support the wave of new art, despire battling criticism of the Impressionist style for years. But he persisted. He bought 23 paintings by Manet for 35,000F. Then 1885 his major breakthrough came in discovering what would become the enthusiastc and lucrative US market. Later, in 1895 back in London he mounted one of the largest ever Impressionist shows (c315 paintings).

As the National Gallery London (cf Inventing Impressionism, 2015 exhibition), “Despite rejection from the art establishment, the visionary Durand-Ruel was the single most powerful driving force making Impressionism the household name worldwide it is today and one of painting’s best-loved movements.” In the 89 year old dealer said in 1920, “At last the Impressionist masters triumphed … My madness had been wisdom. To think that, had I passed away at sixty [1891], I would have died debt-ridden and bankrupt, surrounded by a wealth of underrated treasures…”

 

Pissarro the person

By comparison with other founding „French“ Impressionists Pissarro was somewhat of an outsider, Jewish, hailing from the Caribbean Danish Antilles, and then keeping his Danish citizenship despite (for the most part) residing in France.

Also while he served time in the cultural cauldron of Paris he was not a city person, preferred the countryside, and that’s where he lived most of his last 36 years. He was also a keen family man.

However the sociable Pissarro was well known for engaging with other artists, “Pere Pissarro”, working with them (like organising the Impressionist shows), and helping them. And they were a diverse group.

He was closer to the irascible Cezanne than most, met him early (1861) at art school, knew him in Paris in the 1860s, then painted with him, eg after the Franco-Prussian War, 1872-74, at Pontoise, then 1881 when Cezanne stays near Pontoise. Both were „outsiders“.

Monet he obviously knew well, painted with. Degas he met and worked with later too. American Mary Cassatt (ie another non-French citizen) (1844-1926) he was close to over a long period commencing 1870s. She was also close to Degas but later preferred the easier going Dane. Later he mentored Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), and he worked with Seurat a time in mid 1880s.

Both Cezanne and Gauguin later recalled Pissarro with feeling. In a June 1902 catalogue Cezanne called himself „a student of Pissarro.”

 

The ‘political’ Pissarro?

A member of a diasporic Sephardic Jewish family“, Pissarro is billed as a lifelong, engaged „socialist“ /„anarchist“, keen on „the writings of the French proto-anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and of the Russian émigré prince and anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin“, so his political views seemed important to him. “A committed supporter of anarchism, he was friendly with the leading representatives of the movement in France, such as Jean Grave and Élisée Reclus, and was well-versed in anarchist literature. His concern…  illustrated in…lithographs.. for Grave’s anarchist journal Les temps nouveaux, and, more privately, in Turpitudes sociales, a series of drawings he made for his nieces to educate them in the horrors of modern capitalist society.…” (Richard R. Brettell, 2011, catalogue, Pissarro’s People, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute).

But Turpitudes sociales is the rare exception. In broad terms these views do not reflect in his art, which seems overwhelmingly aesthetic in its purpose, not polemical or even realist? And again this is despite the clear early influence of the „social realist“ Barbizon painters.

Yes there are many rural figurative scenes, eg showing working ladies, but mostly conveying the “charm” of rural life not the harsher “reality”, the long hours labouring monotonously in all weathers.

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Impressionist paintings sites

 

LIFE

Early

Pissarro was born 1830 on the island of St Thomas in the Danish West Indies (Danish Antilles), of French and Portuguese Jewish extraction.

He was schooled near Paris 1842-47 (age 12-17), there encouraged in art by the headmaster.

Back home c1850, to work in his parents’ shop, he met a young Danish painter, Fritz Melbye (1826-1869), 4 years older, then travelled with him to Venezuela (Caracas and La Guaira) where they lived and worked two years, painted watercolours.

 

Paris

Pissarro’s father agreed he could return to Paris to train, which he did October 1855, fortuitously during the World Expo (Exposition Universelle). He took classes at École des Beaux-Arts 1856 then 1859 he was finally accepted by Charles Suisse (at Acadamie Suisse) where he met Monet and later Cezanne (1861) and Guillaumin (1862).

Meanwhile his parents arrived Paris 1860. He partnered with their servant, Julie Vellay, and was evicted from home. The couple later married in London, 1871, and would have 8 children, 1863-1884, Lucien being the first, born 1863.

1863 to April 1866, he lived with Julie Vellay and children mostly at La Varenne-St-Hilaire, southeast of Paris, where he painted, and nearby villages like Varenne-Saint-Maure and Chennevières-sur-Marne. He also painted at La Roche-Guyon, on the north bank of the Seine, NW of Paris.

He long struggled financially, not helped then by rearing a large family, but remained determined throughout.

Nov. 1862, after military service 1861-62, Monet returned to Paris, to join Gleyre’s atelier, there met Renoir and Sisley, and (March 1863) Frederic Bazille (“..my friend Monet.. is quite good at landscapes..”).

Pissarro (with friend Cezanne) first met Bazille and Renoir in 1863 when Bazille worked from a studio in Batignolles rented by Renoir.

After having a painting accepted at the 1859 and 1861 Salons Pissarro then showed in the famous inaugural 1863 Salon des Refusés (three landscapes, with Cezanne), then the Salons of 1864, 1865, 1866.

His 1863 work was well received by critics like JA Castagnary, Leroy and Desnoyers.

In the mid 1860s he met Zola, became part of the Café Guerbois set in Paris, when Zola was writing as critic for l’Evenement where in 1866 he praised Pissarro’s Banks of the Marne (1866) for its unfashionable “naturalism”.

 

Outside Paris

In April 1866 he settled at the Hermitage at Pontoise, north-west of Paris, north of the Seine, on the Oise flowing south into the Seine.

1869 he moves before May to Louveciennes, due west of Paris towards Versailles, now south of the Seine.

1870 with outbreak of Franco-Prussian War (July 1870-May 1871) he moved to London by start of December. He would return to London 1890, 1892 and 1897 after his son Lucien moved there in 1883.  They then corresponded frequently.

1871 he married Julie Vellay July in Croydon, London, returned to Louveciennes end of that month, but found many paintings left there had been damaged or destroyed during the war, so moved back to Pontoise in August 1872.

1872-74 he again worked closely with Cezanne, now based near Pontoise at Auvers-sur-Oise.

1874-77 he painted in Brittany.

He met Paul Gauguin (c20 years younger) in 1877, mentored him, painted with him at Pontoise 1879, invited him to hang at the 4th Impressionist show (1879).

Around 1880 he “collaborated” with Degas making prints.

1882 he moved to Osny, near Pontoise.

1883 Durand-Ruel organised a one-man show for Pissarro, also an Impressionist show in London.

1884 he moved to Eragny-sur-Epte, NE of Paris in Normandy, south of Pontoise, near Gisors, and near Monet’s Giverny and where he now stayed. Monet painted trees along the Epte.

In 1885 he met Seurat and Signac (and also Theo van Gogh) and became interested in the Neo-Impressionists’ Pointillist style and ideas, tried them, but reverted back by 1890.

1886 was the final Impressionist show, and he met Vincent van Gogh.

1887 he showed in Brussels with the Group of 20 (Cercle de XX), with Seurat, but Durand-Ruel caused trouble, rejected his Pointillist images.

Late 1889 he developed an eye infection which thereafter stopped him painting outdoors, but encouraged him to paint many urban scenes, from windows, particularly Paris, also Rouen, Le Havre and Dieppe.

  1. 1890. he visited London again, c10 paintings there. And again in 1892 and 1897.

1892 Durand-Ruel gave him a 100 painting retrospective exhibition (and 1893 bought many paintings) which finally brought some financial relief, and critical acclaim, “[1892].. when the tide of critical opinion turned decisively in Pissarro’s favour..” (op. cit AG NSW).

Then 1894reprisals against Anarchists” forced him briefly back to Belgium. But 7 paintings entered the Musee du Luxembourg.

But 1896 “new financial problems”. Series of paintings in Rouen.

But 1898 another Durand-Ruel gallery show was again very well received, “critics and collectors were thrilled…” (op. cit AG NSW)

November 1900 he settled back in central Paris, in an apartment on the west end of Ile de la Cite, looking out on Pont Neuf, and continued painting, now from windows, including many from home.

He died in Paris 13 November 1903.

some works……….

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1870, Châtaignier à Louveciennes, vers 1870, 41 x 54 cm, Musée d’Orsay. COMMENT. Here Pissarro is drawn by the structure of the skeletal bare trees in this one of his earliest Impressionist style paintings.

6c1884, La Ronde, thinned oil on paper mounted on canvas, private Collection

71888, Flock of sheep, Eragny sur Epte, 1888

81889 View of the Village of Bazincourt oil on panel, 15.4 x 23.8 cm, private Collection

91890, Old Chelsea Bridge, London, oil on canvas, Smith College Museum of Arts, 59.69 x 71.12 cm (old Battersea Bridge under construction at high tide).

101889–90.Suicide of an Abandoned Woman,” from Turpitudes sociales, Pen and brown ink over graphite drawings on paper pasted in an album, sheet: 31 x 24 cm, Collection of Jean Bonna, Geneva

111898 Boulevard Montmartre, night oil on canvas 53.3 x 64.8 cm  The National Gallery, London

12901 The fair, Dieppe: sunny afternoon, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Arts, PA

 13 14

1873. Self portrait, oil on canvas, 56 x 47 cm. Musee d’Orsay.

c1898 Self-portrait, oil on canvas 53 x 30.5 cm, Dallas Museum of Art, Texas

15  16

1900, Self portrait. oil on canvas 35x32cm. Private Collection

1903, Self portrait, oil on canvas, 41×33,3 cm, Tate, London

Manierre Dawson: Intriguing pioneering American abstract artist, now mostly forgot because he quit and grew cherries.

Manierre Dawson (Dec. 1887 – Aug. 15, 1969, 81)

Intriguing pioneering American abstract artist, now mostly forgot because he quit and grew cherries.

  • Pioneering young American abstract painter from 1910, clearly one of first in Western art.
  • His Prognostic triptych of early 1910 clearly anticipates work of the later great Kandinsky.
  • But age 27, despite a remarkable busy and productive start, the retiring outsider curiously hung up his brushes after 4 years to farm cherries. Did not stay in, play the game.
  • This seems astonishing given his propitious start, including a visit in 1910 to Paris, of all times and places.
  • Striking too is he came from nowhere, from minimal formal training in art, notwithstanding Europe 1910.
  • Why did he quit despite the promising start? Basically not the fire in the belly?
  • But most oddly, despite his achievement, and being American, he was completely omitted from MOMA’s 2013-14 “comprehensive” Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 exhibition.

 

FEATURED IMAGE:  1910, Prognostic (centre panel). Oil on canvas, triptych, 85.7 × 90.8 cm, Milwaukee Art Museum

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1910. Coordinate Escape, Oil on Composition Board, 48.3 x 36.8cm, Collection of Lynda and Stewart Resnick, Beverly Hills, California

COMMENT: striking abstract paintings from early 1910, from a young (22) untrained artist, without doubt near the earliest abstract paintings in Western art, and clearly derived from his maths training meeting a keen artistic mind.

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1913 Wharf under mountain, 45.72 x 55.88 cm, Norton Museum of Art, Palm Beach, Florida.

COMMENT:  striking is how different from his other work is his abstraction approach, both the imagery and bright bold colors. But is it abstract? Some will say there is clearly a ship there. Maybe sea below, a mountain behind, and green fields above that?

Famously it was his surreptitious entry to the Chicago (March/April 1913) version of the seminal 1913 Armory Show.

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1913, Figure Party-Colored, Oil on board, 44 x 36 inches.

COMMENT:  another quasi-abstract Cubo-Futurist work, but more colourful.

 

SUMMARY

Dawson was a curious pioneering American modernist, an outsider, now largely forgot.

Though in his painting he struck abstraction / non-objective gold early – like from 1910 – he was completely omitted from MOMA’s 2013-14 “comprehensive” Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 show.

This seems astonishing for a number of reasons.

First, not only was he clearly the first US abstract painter he was one of the first abstractionists in “Western” art, alongside the big names of Kandinsky, Kupka, Picabia et al in Europe.

Second, astonishing is that his Prognostic triptych of early 1910 clearly anticipates later work of the lauded Kandinsky. And some of his geometric abstraction motifs might even look ahead further to some Abstract Expressionists?

Third, he then mined this seam busily for about 4 years, fashioning his own take on Cubo-Futurist quasi-abstract modernist figuration.

So while his post 1911 Cubo-Futurist work is indeed derivative, and while his effective active career was only a brief 5 years or so, overall he left a remarkable and distinctive, if truncated, body of work, abstract and quasi-abstract.

Moreover one of his 1913 abstract works was hung in the Chicago showing of the seminal 1913 Armory exhibition.

Striking too is how, compared with peers, he came from nowhere. In 1910 he was young (23), had just finished an engineering degree and was painting part-time, working as a first year employee with an architects firm, had no formal training in art (but for one class in high school), and no exposure by then to the dynamic modern art scene.

 

Born and raised in Chicago, he started painting during his engineering degree (1905-09). Early 1910 he painted his first fully abstract works, then visited Europe for about 5 months in the back half of 1910.

But after painting keenly for about 4 years, after showing at the Armory in 1913, and in two significant exhibitions in 1914 (where he also sold some works), despite this achievement and his apparent passion, at 27 he quit full time art for good, disappeared to rural Michigan, his art with him, to become a full-time cherry farmer, and only an occasional artist.

 

Why did he abruptly abandon ship after such a promising start?

Dawson will remain something of an enigma.

Basically it appears he simply lacked the fire? He was not hungry and determined enough? Thus while he obviously recognised the importance of the 1913 Armory show he was timid in his response. Invited to show by the main organiser he refused, then when pressed by Pach he agreed to show a work in the Chicago viewing (ie his home town) but it went in late (so was omitted from the catalogue) and, at his request, was anonymous.

So he succumbed to short term domestic circumstances. Summer 1914 he met his future wife, from a family near his family’s country farm, the area where he then settled down, marrying July 1915.

Interesting too  is that, despite signs in 1912, he never really persevered with his pioneering bolt-from-the-blue 1910 abstraction approach. He was perhaps too distracted by the Cubo-Futurism he met in Europe 1910.

 

He was not to be “discovered” for about 50 years, until well after WW2, near the end of his life, after the ageing artist contacted a nearby Florida museum.

 

ART

Startling abstraction in Year 0: 1910

Manierre Dawson leaves quite a story.

There is no doubt this man (first name is his mother’s maiden name) from 1910 became a pioneering “Western” abstract painter, working keenly in Chicago for about 4 years, up there with the relevant big names in Europe, like Delaunay, Kandinsky, Kupka, Malevich, Mondrian, and Picabia.

In 1910 appear six fully abstract paintings.

The most striking is Prognostic (1910), a triptych with a big centre panel 86 x 91cm) and two wings about 2/3 as big (62 x 51cm). The abstraction motifs are clearly prescient of Kandinsky, as also is the smaller Differential complex (1910). (“Differential” referring to calculus), but before Kandinsky by some years, even 10 years? Kandinsky’s abstraction is far denser, more intricate and colourful, but anticipate him Dawson clearly does.

The primary inspirational source of his abstraction – the lines and circles – is commonly associated with his engineering education (1905-09), called “geometric”, and that certainly fits his 1910 work, like Xdx, Co-ordinate escape, and Discal Procession (showing a nest of curves). Prognostic is more complex, seems to use both maths and natural landscape references?

Colour was not a preoccupation with Dawson. Most of his works were subdued, monohromatic. All his abstraction is subdued, in monochromatic browns / oranges.

 

Why abstract for him?

Interesting is that his motivation for going abstract, after a brief (2-3 year?) figurative phase, was not spiritual (as the Whitney exhibition text of 1988 claimed) or philosophical (like for Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich) but simply curiosity stemming from his academic engineering training, especially the mathematical content.

This seems entirely valid for mathematics is certainly abstract, yet also profoundly important, “real”, because maths is the universal language used to express the underlying laws of physics which describe, underlie, the visible world, and which apply across our known universe.

 

Dawson on where his art comes from?

Dawson wrote in April 1911: “In trying to answer the questions that are repeatedly thrown at me, “What does it mean?” “What does it represent?” I have to start with a statement that sometimes helps. Art is a human invention.

In nature there was no art except that all creations of the Almighty are part of that Almighty.

“Art” as a word for us to use describes the invention of that part of creation that is man.

All nature is bearing down on us day after day. We cannot avoid it. Every form that we could use is there.

But away from nature and in the seclusion of the mind we can invent arrangements to be found nowhere else. One answer to the question, “What is it?” is to point to the picture and say, “It is that. It exists nowhere else.”

This doesn’t seem to say much?

Yet “we can invent arrangements to be found nowhere else” seems the essence?

 

Outsider?

As an artist he was, like some other pioneers, an outsider. He was largely self-taught, driven by his powerful interest.

Yes he was exposed early to Europe and some of its art, like about 23, and there briefly touched Paris, meeting Gertrude Stein.

And yes back then in the US he engaged with Arthur B Davies et al in New York, which led to his 1913 Armory appearance, but he was never formally trained in art, and after his brief early brush with the industry (including being shown in two exhibitions in 1914) he basically disappeared to fruit farming in Michigan.

He never pursued a full time career in art, cultivating support from dealers and museums.

So he remained little known till well after WW2, only near the end of his life. So “the first real recognition.. [finally came].. 1966 ..a retrospective .. by the Grand Rapids Art Museum [Michigan]..”. Exhibitions followed 1967 in Florida, catching the attention of Robert Schoelkopf who showed his work in New York in April 1969 and March 1981.

 

Why overlooked so long – despite his obvious contribution?

Easy. After striking gold early, for about 4 years, he just disappeared, to work full-time as a farmer.

So the art scene –which end of the day is a business, is about selling products (art works, museum and galley visits) to make money – passed him by for about 50 years, did not re-engage with him till the mid 1960s.

 

But omission from MOMA’s 2013-14 “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25” seems absurd?

There is no doubt Dawson’s omission from MOMA’s 2013-14 Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 exhibition was an egregious oversight, especially as an American who (after first declining an invitation to the NY show) was famously hung in the Chicago chapter of the important 1913 Armory show which showcased leading modernist European painters. His entry of Wharf under a mountain (1913) – the only abstract painting there by any American – hung alongside Duchamp, Picasso, Matisse and Kandinsky etc.

Also, unlike the German Otto Freundlich (1878-1943), another stunning omission from MOMA’s blockbuster, Dawson’s abstract oeuvre, from 1910, was prolific and substantial, creative and diverse, in the pioneering 4 year period to 1914.

Certainly he made it hard for the art scene to notice him, disappearing after only about 4 years. But that’s no excuse. And certainly by 2013 Dawson had been noticed by many in the field.

Thus his omission is even harder to understand given a 334 page catalogue raisonné (Ploog, Bairstow and Boyajian) of Dawson’s work was published 2011 by The Three Graces and Hollis Taggart Galleries.

The curators of Inventing Abstraction seem either careless or lazy, or perhaps possessed of some obscure political resistance to acknowledging this painter.

 

Arthur Dove (1880-1946), 7 years older, and who visited Europe and its art 1907-09 (ie before Dawson) is often cited as the first US abstract painter. He painted abstract early, motivated mainly by Nature, natural forms, and he was important, but he was not the first, clearly beaten by Dawson, in time (just) and also in terms of emphatic output, Dawson executing 6 meaningful such works in 1910.

But both Dawson and Dove were among the first abstractionists in Western art.

Dove is far better remembered simply because art remained his full time job, so he stayed painting, and he evolved. Returning from Europe in 1909 he was keen to stay in art and in this was strongly supported in New York by the keen photographer and pivotal modern art promoter Alfred Steiglitz, and his 291 gallery, where Dove showed 1910, again 1912 in a one man show.

 

Dove was included in MOMA’s Inventing Abstraction, along with Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), another important American modernist who also contributed to abstraction early on, from around 1912.

 

Another important American modernist painter, briefly mentioned in MOMA’s Inventing Abstraction, and who also showed in- made a splash in – the Armory, was Joseph Stella (1877–1946). Also supported by Steiglitz he contributed Futurist abstract images by 1914, but was energetic and imaginative across a wide range of styles.

 

What if?

The outcome invites speculation, like how might his art have evolved had he made it a full-time career – say in Chicago and maybe beyond, like NY – and how might his evolving output have impacted other artists?

Unfortunately we’ll never know, but we know he was industrious, committed and creative when for a short time he was focussed on art.

 

His path:  the first abstract painter in the US and one of first in Western art.

Pre 1910

Dawson started painting c1906, executed a few realist works before 1910, simple figurative outdoor scenes, a vase of flowers, and a modernist Still life (1908).

December 1908 he wrote in his journal, “This winter I am very hard at work . . . on several arbitrarily constructed paintings of arranged figures, blocking things out without rhyme or reason other than to make the picture look right.”.

1910 opened with two distinctive quasi-abstract paintings in monochrome browns, one (Rocky Pool) a landscape .

 

1910: abstraction

Then suddenly in 1910 appear six fully abstract paintings.

 

1911: after Europe, Cubo-Futurism

But still young (23), his 5 month trip to Europe abruptly shifted his art. He discovered Cubism, presumably in Paris and from 1911 he applied his version to interpreting a number of Classical subjects and Old Masters paintings, what Dawson himself referred to as his “museum paintings”.

Some critics have complained Dawson fell so madly for “Cubism” after Europe, “became a follower rather than a leader” (LACMA, Nov.2013), veering away from his distinctive abstraction. “He seems never to have been the same after Paris..” (Roberta Smith, NY Times August 1988). Thus there were no pure abstract works in 1911.

This is perhaps unfair, but is at least unfortunately he did not pursue his pioneering stark geometric abstraction of 1910.

His style did evolve, but mostly never far from variations on Cubo-Futurism?

So he painted a number of quasi-abstract figures, all in a distinctive modernist fractured monochromatic Cubo-Futurist style. And he did return to abstraction, albeit Cubist derived.

His Futurist reminds us of the approaches of some European modernists like Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) in France / US, also the Englishman David Bomberg (1890-1957), cf Island of Joy (c1912).

Madonna (1911) apparently refers to Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. Other Cubo-Futurist figurative works of Classical subjects are Hercules, The Three Graces, Lucrece, and Birth of Venus (1912).

In 1912 he applied the dynamic Cubist style many times, now including three larger paintings, all around 1.5 x 1.2 metres, like The Three Graces, Desdemona.

 

1912: more abstraction

Interestingly 1912 Dawson returned to abstraction, in a number of ways.

Two simple works – the subdued simple glyphic Painted wood relief, and the “geometric” Untitled (Study #30) – do recall his “geometric”1910 approach.

Untitled abstraction is more colourful and is again in the vein of Kandinsky

Blue complex moves on, is busier, denser.

And Personal Presentation is abstract after Cubo-Futurist.

Also in 1912 he suddenly paints a more colourful modernist quasi-abstract landscape, Red mur, but the lines of which clearly relate to his abstract works.

And in 1912 we again see a number of figurative Cubo-Futurist paintings, like Figures in Action (Struggle).

 

1913: more abstraction

1913 is another busy year, sees his style meaningfully evolve, him execute some major works, mostly abstract, now less figuration.

It includes a suddenly different abstract / quasi-abstract work, the colourful Wharf under mountain which was hung in the Armory (Chicago) show, though only after Walter Pach insisted Dawson show it. Dawson wrote 4 April 1913, “Walter said he had no trouble getting the painting hung.” It’s a bolder, darker, more Expressionist painting, lots of royal blue and some green and an intriguing title.

Essay in Brown (1913) clearly advances his abstraction, shows a tumble of jagged “objects” apparently against a rectilinear background.

Afternoon II is again monochromatic but denser, more intricate, seems to blend geometric and Cubist abstraction? And Compages of Classical Figures and Conversation also shift his abstraction.

We see a lot more Cubist abstraction (like Arroyo, Ascension, Figure Party-Colored (more colourful than usual), Meditation, Observation, The gate, and Thirteen).

And we see much less Futurist figuration (eg the larger Hercules I and II, and Trio), still in subdued monochromatic pale orange-brown tones.

Finally, different, we see two small Arthur Dove-like quasi-abstract paintings, Night flower and Beech.

 

1913: Armory (Chicago, Mar. 24-Apr. 15, 1913)

Dec.1912, Arthur B Davies invited him to participate in the International Exhibition of Modern Art (now known as the Armory Show) in New York (Feb. 15-Mar. 15, 1913) but he declined! He said he had nothing handy (recent) worth hanging, and worried that in winter he could not transport paintings in time, from their location at the family farm, ie his earlier 1910 paintings, which even he knew then were more important.

For the Chicago show Walter Pach persuaded Dawson to change his mind. There too he visited the show a number of times, and bought two paintings: Marcel Duchamp’s’s Nu (esquisse) (Nude [study]) now known as Jeune homme triste dans un train (Sad Young Man on a Train) (1911-12?) and Amadéo de Souza Cardoso’s Return from the Chase.  Dawson was impressed by Duchamp’s work, not surprising because it chimes with his own. The painting he bought it now hangs in Guggenheim Venice because he had to sell ir not long after to pay the bills.

Chicago’s offering was a cut down version (634 works) of New York (where approx. 1300 works showed). Much of the American art was gone, most of the radical European art remained.”. The show was championed by a few, condemned by many. But “Scandal and outrage bred interest” and 189,000 visited in 23 days, averaging about 8,200 per day, a higher outcome than NY.

 

Around the time of the Armory in Chicago (April 1913) he left his job, and wrote:

Since I left Holabird and Roche I’ve had a glorious time painting. Hanging over the mantel in the library is the Duchamp. I am having a good look at it. These three paintings I am doing now, Hercules I, II, III, may show D’s influence. I am contemplating more colorful things to come.

Did his viewing the Armory show (eg seeing Duchamp) change his art? Not significantly? Thus his Cubo-Futurist style – evident after Armory in Hercules – was well established by then.

But 1913 was a big year for his art and he did evolve.

 

1914: Dawson bails from full time art, but still evolving.

1914 also sees some variety, and shifts, and a fateful emphatic career move.

Meanwhile his abstraction motifs evolved, like in the more colourful Equation, and like Figure in Pink and Yellow.

Letters and numbers is what it seems, shifts again, has a Stuart Davis feel.

The darker Futurist Night figures again recalls David Bomberg, while geometric derived Untitled (Pictogram II) again recalls Kandinsky, but showing Dawson’s finger prints.

Then there are two similar figurative works, one much larger, both showing Futurist friezes of groups of people, Seven and Configuration.

Then mid 1914 he suddenly quits full time art.

 

After 1915 Dawson, now farming full time, executes far fewer works, paints little, though is still valid, still moving, especially the colourful quasi-abstract Figure by the window.

His Loft (1918) seems another pioneering work, an abstract image carved from laminated wood then painted, again monochromatically.

Then the more colourful quasi-abstract glyphic Untitled(c1920) is different but still Dawsonian.

Later too he began to sculpt, using materials encountered through his work.

He struggled financially and Rauschenberg-style began to make art from whatever was lying around, “cement, scraps of lumber, pieces of plywood”. Sculptures he made from “sheets of composite wood .. laminated together ..”

 

Discovery

Dawson disappeared from the art world for 52 years, 1914 to 1966, when he showed at Grand Rapids Michigan, then 1967 at the John and Mable Ringing Museum in Sarasota, Florida, near his then home. There he was noticed by a NY dealer (Robert Schoelkopf) who showed him there 1969 and 1981.

He was shown in a 1977 retrospective at MCA Chicago, and 1988 at the Whitney.

 

Exhibitions

Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings, Montross Gallery in New York, February 1914; the Detroit Museum of Art, March 1914; Cincinnati Museum of Art, March / April 5, 1914; and the Peabody Institute, Baltimore, April / May 1914.

Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture in ‘The Modern Spirit,’ Milwaukee Art Society, April 16–May 12, 1914.

Manierre Dawson, Milwaukee Art Institute, Jan. 1923.

Retrospective Paintings by Manierre Dawson, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Michigan, April 1966.

Manierre Dawson: Paintings 1909-1913, Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida November 1967, Norton Gallery and School of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida, January / February 1968.

Manierre Dawson, Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, New York, April / May 1969

A Retrospective Exhibition of Painting, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1977. Indiana University Art Museum

Manierre Dawson: Paintings 1910-1914, Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, New York, 1981

Manierre Dawson: American Modernist Painter, Tildon-Foley Gallery, New Orleans, May / June 1988.

Manierrre Dawson Early Abstractionist, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July / September 1988.

Manierre Dawson American Pioneer of Abstract Art, Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York, October 1999.

Manierre Dawson American Pioneer of Abstract Art, Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana, December 2000.

Manierre Dawson: New Revelations, Hollis Taggart Galleries, Chicago, May / June 2003.

Manierre Dawson: A Startling Presence, Illinois State Museum, Springfield, March / August 2006.

Manierre Dawson, Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York, April 2011.

 

LIFE

Manierre Dawson was the 2nd of 4 sons born to George Dawson and Eva (Manierre) Dawson in Chicago, a middle class family, father a lawyer, who supported the arts but as a hobby but not a career.

Dawson’s only formal art training came from classes with Miss Dorothy Dimock at high school in Chicago. Here he met Arthur W. Dow’s instruction manual Composition (1899). Dow favoured “beauty over representation.”, which can be read as “let your mind go.”

Dawson really discovered art during a 4 year civil engineering degree course at the Armour Institute of Technology [he wrote: “All these days of hard study at Armour Tech, where I am taking a course in civil engineering, are brightened by continuing the making of pictures on week-ends.”] so when he graduated 1909 he quickly switched to painting, commencing his first abstract paintings as early as spring of 1910, in this apparently influenced by some of his engineering training (analytic geometry?), while a first-year employee at the Chicago architectural firm.

But granted 6 months leave he departed in mid-June 1910 for his one and only trip abroad, to Europe. He travelled across England to France (Paris), south through Germany, across Switzerland to Italy (in Siena meeting John Singer Sargent), back north for a second stay in Paris, and around northern Germany, leaving for home late-November. On his 2nd visit to Paris he met Gertrude Stein (who reportedly bought a painting), saw paintings by Cézanne (and others?) in Ambrose Vollard’s gallery.

In NY, on the way home, he met painter Arthur B. Davies who introduced him to Albert Pinkham Ryder, another painter.

Inspired by Europe – and meeting Davies? – he painted keenly 1911 through 1914

Dec.1912, Davies invited him to participate in the Armory Show) in New York (Feb. 15-Mar. 15, 1913). He initially declined but did show one work in Chicago.

April 1913 he left his architectural job.

In 1914, Dawson participated in two group exhibitions. One called “Fourteen”, meaning 14 current American artists, was organized by Arthur B Davies and Walter Pach, sponsored by the Montrose Gallery in NY, highlighting abstract painting, and went to Detroit, Cincinnati and Baltimore (Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University).

The other, in Milwaukee, Paintings and Sculptures in “The Modern Spirit”, organized by the forerunner of the Milwaukee Art Museum (by a high school friend there) sold two paintings to collector Arthur Jerome Eddy. “The exhibition was a sort of recap of the Armory Show. It opened in April and included contemporary European and American work from Midwest collections.

Early he spent summers at the family farm in at Ludington, Mason County, Michigan (about 2/3 the way up the east side of L Michigan), where he also painted a lot.

Mid 1914 he quit full time art.

He wrote April 1914, “I know there is work to be done on a farm in winter, yet I have the hope that if the bridge is crossed I can find painting or carving time in that season..

Summer 1914 he met Lilian Boucher, the daughter of a local farmer, then by autumn 1914 had decided, and with help from his father, he moved permanently to lakeside Ludington, and July 1915 married Lilian, thereafter raising three children.

In the mid-1950s he and his wife began wintering in Sarasota, Florida. There, after diagnosed with cancer in 1968, he died August 1969 (25 days after Armstrong walked on the moon).

some works………

 

1910

 
5

1910, Xdx, Oil on paperboard attached to particleboard, 19 1/8 x 14 7/16 in. (48.6 x 36.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum

 

6

1910, Discal Procession, oil on wood 30 1/2 x 24 7/8 in. (77.5 x 63.2 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC

 

7

1910, DIfferential complex, Oil on canvas, 40.6 x 30.cm, Tilden-Foley Gallery, New Orleans

 

 

1913

 

8

1913, Essay in Brown, oil on cardboard, 45.7 x 66.0cm, Illinois State Museum

COMMENT: Illinois State Museum, “Employing a now-familiar palette, Dawson created a group of paintings in 1913 which were completely abstract ….. With Essay in Brown the artist creates visual tension by contrasting a series of rectilinear shapes in the background with a cascade of overlapping forms that tumble from right to left. …… The interlocking and floating elements of this might be compared with Willem De Kooning’s Excavation (Art Institute of Chicago), created 37 years later.”

1914

9

1914, Equation , oil on cardboard, 91.44 x 70.17 cm, Joslyn Art Museum

 

1915

10

1915, Figure by the Window, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 61.0cm, Illinois State Museum

COMMENT: Illinois State Museum,”…  1915 was momentous for .. Manierre Dawson… decide to commit himself completely to farming…. t married Lillian Boucher, a neighboring farm girl ten years his junior….  We see a female looking out a window. …  a classic theme. … Randy Ploog, in his 2003 essay “Metaphor and Autobiography in the Art of Manierre Dawson”, posits that Dawson borrowed major compositional elements of his Figure by the Window from Johannes Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1660-67). Certainly Dawson has shifted the ambience of the picture. Vermeer’s young woman is a picture of calm composure. In Dawson’s treatment, an aura seems to emanate from the woman’s central position outward, like waves of energy affecting everything they encounter. The space folds and refolds until it is almost unrecognizable. Perhaps this is a visual metaphor for the newlyweds’ relationship.’

 

11

 

1920. Desert, oil on canvas. 22 by 28 inches, Illinois State Museum

 

12

 

Manierre Dawson, 1950s?

COMMENT: Still gripped by his trademark lightning bolt Cubo-Futurist motifs