1870 – 1900
How to identify Impressionist art?
1. Look for paintings with thick dabs and blobs of paint; the choppy brushwork will make you wonder if the artist finished the painting in a hurry.
2. Get too close to an Impressionist painting, and it will seem like a big, incomprehensible mess, take a few steps back, and your eyes will have to adjust to its blurriness.
3. There’s no clear outlines or many details. The very loose brush strokes suggest rather than delineate the subject, blending one color into the next with almost no boundary between them.
4. Artists were fascinated with capturing nature’s fleeting moments, and the interplay between mist, fog, sunlight, clouds and water reflection. These themes, painted in feathery splashes of typically bright colors give the paintings a shimmering effect.
5. Most paintings are outdoor scenes that depict rivers, railroads, factories, cityscapes, seascapes and landscapes. You’ll notice there’s a particular emphasis on urbanite social life in activities such as relaxing on the beach or boating.
6. If the painting is uncharacteristically indoors, it would still portray middle class members — the haves of society, not the have-nots — drinking, dining and dancing. The paintings show them in settings that include bars, cafés, opera houses and ballet classes.
How Impressionist art got its name?
The word “impressionism” owes its origin to a title that Monet gave to one of his paintings. It happened in a whimisical decision that took no more than a moment – a perfect naming ceremony for an art style that focuses on capturing fleeting moments. This is how Claude Monet recounted the story: “they asked me for a title” for a painting of the French harbour of Le Havre. His tentative response was: “Put Impression.” He picked that term in acknowledgement that his painting was not more than a mere impression of the real Le Havre. The painting would later acquire the full title Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant) before it went on display (view painting above). A conservative art critic, Louis Leroy, coined the word “impressionism” as an insult to Monet’s unconventional work in a satiric review. As in contemporary language where “geek” or “gay” are reclaimed by those the words are meant to abuse, Monet and similar artists embraced the label and became “Impressionists.”
What gave rise to Impressionism? And where?
In the mid-nineteenth century, industrialization of Western Europe introduced set working hours. That meant the expanding middle class could start having, as we do today, planned vacations. In France, going to the beach or vacationing in a country house was fashionable for urbanites seeking to escape their filthy cities, crowded factories and workshops. Many of those urbanites were nouveau riche and unaccustomed to the modern lifestyle of steady income and spare time – no wonder some of them are absurdly overdressed for the beach (view painting above), even by the standards of their own time. (Who goes to relax on the beach in a three-piece suit?!) The regular income created a commercial opportunity for artists to document the activities of domestic tourists, interested in paintings as souvenirs. Parisians of that period sought relevant scenes from their own contemporary lives, rather than “high art” with Graeco-Roman or biblical themes destined for museums and art academies.
Thanks to the invention of paint tubes, a revolutionary change had been quietly transforming the painting process since the 1840s: en plein air paining (“in the open air”). No longer artists had to sketch outdoors and finish the paintings in their studios. One of the early adopters of outdoor painting was Eugène Boudin. He was a major influence on young Claude Monet when they met in 1858. Years later, Monet would become the leader and founder of Impressionism. He accompanied Boudin to the seashore where he learnt painting directly from nature. Monet’s experimental style aimed at colorfully recording the light at certain moments. Ultimately, it would be the Impressionists who’d popularize outdoor painting and bring it to a mass audience.
Monet was originally joined by three other artists: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille. In 1874, Impressionist artists displayed their paintings for the first time in a private exhibition.
1. Paint tubes: painting goes portable
Pierre-Auguste Renoir once said “without tubes of paint, there would have been no Impressionism.” The new invention provided easy transport and long-term storage of paint. Probably, the last thing your mind could associate with great pre-Impressionist European paintings is, uhm, pig bladders. But that’s what the small pouches were made of to store paint. The industrial revolution didn’t only transform the world around artists, but also the very tools they used. With easily portable paint tubes, the Impressionists were not hindered from experimenting with outdoor painting at different times of the day, and under various light and weather conditions.
You might think the Impressionists found their work easy enough since they no longer needed to worry about the inconvenience of transporting paint in pig bladders or even be confined to their own studios, but that was still far from enough! They created a new painting technique which was incredibly genius (lazy, according to their critics). Instead of “slaving away” at mixing colours on a palette, as artists had always done, they applied the colours directly from the tubes onto the canvas. Let the eye of the observer do all the necessary colour mixing! The art critic, Louis Leroy’s sarcastic response was “what ease of workmanship. Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.”
2. Photographs versus paintings
Impressionist art was born at a time when photography, after decades of refining, was becoming increasingly sought after. A deep look into Impressionism will find the spirit of photography within it, and simultaneously a reaction against it. In one of the earliest and best examples of machines replacing humans, artists no longer received commissions for portrait paintings. A camera could produce a more accurate job, albeit in black and white, at a significantly faster speed. That deprived artists from a much needed source of income, which was as old as the Renaissance – Da Vinci himself was a portrait painter. Seeing that photography was also about to step in for recording historic moments and important ceremonies, many declared “painting is dead.” Painters realized their works could not compete with photographs in their documenation of reality. Artists found themselves facing questions such as, why replicate visible reality anymore? could paintings compete with an industrial machine in producing fine details? The answer was obviously negative and that led them into the innovative path of experimenting with light and color. Realistic representational art, which had been dominant in visual Western art, going back to the Greek and Roman eras, seemed to hit a deadend. That led the artist to prefer to dive into one’s own psyche in order to channel a personal perception onto the canvas, producing something that photographs lacked.
Rather than have models pose rigidly for them, Impressionists captured on canvas moments in the lives of ordinary people in a sense of spontaneity that was inspired by photography. The Star – Dancer on Stage (“L’Etoile – La Danseuse sur la Scene“) is painted like a photograph (view painting above).
Rebels of a New Generation
“Would someone kindly explain to M. Renoir that a woman’s torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh with green and purplish blotches that indicate a state of complete putrefaction in a corpse…” That was a review by Albert Wolff in Le Figaro on Renoir’s Nude in the Sunlight, 1876 (view below). In another critique of the same Impressionist painting, Louis Enault writes,”[i]t is depressing to look at this large study of a nude woman; her purplish flesh is the color of game that has been hung for too long, and someone really should have made her put on a dress.”
Impressionist artists turned their backs on the Romantic fixation with emotions. To them, stirring a visual reaction in the eyes of viewers was paramount to stirring their emotions. Also, they shunned clear outlines and forms of Neoclassical paintings. The Impressionist emphasis was on colour, rather than emotions or form. At the time when Impressionism was conceived, artists were expected to conceal their brushwork. Conventionally, paintings – the kind that aspires to belong to high art – tended to look like they were not “painted.” Thick blobs of paint, found in Impressionist works, were considered crude. It was the antithesis of art to leave visible traces of the brushwork on the canvas.
Hostility towards Impressionism culminated in one of the most famous court cases of the 19th century. At the center of the trial was a painting, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875), by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (view above). The modern motto of “art for art’s sake” was exemplified in Whistler’s painting. His painting did not just foretell of the coming abstraction in art, but also its name “nocturne” (a musical arrangement) was a clear and unprecedented emphasis on the artist’s own experience. On the other side of the court was the leading and respected critic of the Victorian age, John Ruskin, known for his conservative views on art. The libel trial was instigated by Ruskin’s review of Whistler’s painting: “[I] never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Ouch! Ruskin would have been outraged if he knew that one day that kind of paintings would be worth well over 100 million dollars.
Whistler won the case, but the court humiliated him by awarding him only one farthing in damages and he was forced to pay for the court fees. The pyrrhic victory brought him financial ruin. The court and the public, from the outset, were not in favor of him or his modern style.
It’s hard to imagine the Impressionist style, admired around the world today, being mocked by critics and the public as ugly and sketchy. The familiarity of the masterpieces makes it even harder for us to comprehend the rationale behind the negative public outcry of its own era.
Impressionist artworks were rejected several times by the Paris Salon of the French Academy –notorious for its conservative taste. Hence, Monet and fellow Impressionists had to show their paintings in independent exhibitions which lasted from 1874 to 1886. Their few exhibitions (only eight of them) were earth-shattering to the world of art. The aftershocks would eventually take the form of other ‘modern’ art movements such as Post-Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Fauvism and abstract art.
WHAT IS MODERN ART?
Although Impressionism is a realistic style, since it shows what painters experience and encounter, it bears very little resemblance to the French Realist movement (1840-1870) that preceded it. What they painted might seem based on reality, but their artworks were never replicas of what they were painting. Visual modern art is non-figurative representation of objects, be it imaginary like a unicorn or a Greek goddess, or real, like a family on a train. Objects and also objectivity were no concerns for the emerging modern artist. What mattered most was subjectivity – the artist’s feelings and own perception of reality.
The Impressionist fascination with light and reflection at the expense of clear outlines often manifested in a haze of color – “close up, it’s a big ol’ mess” as a character in the movie Clueless puts it. But there’s more here than just a “mess”: art had just started slowly marching towards abstraction. A few decades later, a painting wouldn’t contain more than just a black square. That lack of clear representation of objects is one of the defining features of visual modern art. Hence, impressionism is considered the turning point that marks the breakaway from the traditional representational art of four centuries. Also, modern art arrived with new methods of painting, new materials and media, and overturned even the conventional notions of things like beauty (you won’t find nude sirens and nymphs in Impressionist paintings).