The Case for Impressionism

Is this painting you’re looking at right
now good, or is it bad? What about this painting, exhibited the same year? Is it better because
it’s forms and figures are more clearly defined? Because it tells a dramatic story?
Or is this one better because it captures a fleeting moment, recorded just as the artist
witnessed it? Its brushwork more lively, colorful, and expressive. When Impressionist paintings are presented
in museums today and sold for millions at auction, no one questions their legitimacy
as works of art worthy of attention and esteem. But when they were first exhibited in Paris
in 1874, they were regarded as unfinished, slapdash, lowbrow, and renegade. With the way art history has since evolved,
or in the view of some, devolved, how do we understand these pictures whose original power
lay in their ability to shock, especially when to contemporary eyes they look old, and
totally unradical? What remains of their power? Why should we
look and them, and what do we see? This is the case for Impressionism This new style didn’t arrive out of the
clear blue sky, but the paintings were often created under one. A hallmark of the art that
would come to be known as Impressionist was that many were painted outside of the studio and in the world, or as the French say en plein air. Unlike the slow, studio-based approach
that held sway at the annual salons of the French Royal Academy, whereby tonal gradations
were gradually built up with layer upon layer of glazes, Impressionist works were frequently
begun if not completed entirely out of doors. These artists used smaller canvases that were
easy to transport and finish quickly before the light or weather changed. Artists had been painting in the landscape
for some time, like Dutch artists of the 17th Century, and even more recently in England,
where the likes of John Constable won admirers for his pictures of villages and countrysides,
and J. M. W. Turner wowed with his own highly dramatic and abstracted scenes from nature.
In France, where Impressionism was brewing, painting in the landscape was an established
practice, artists escaping Paris and political instability to observe nature and render it
in a relatively lifelike manner. These artists also experimented with style
and technique, trying out looser brushwork and brighter colors. But landscapes were considered
to be genre painting and less important in the eyes of the Academy that, more than nature,
valued the study of ancient Greek and Roman art. Figures were to be strongly defined,
and set amid ordered and harmonious compositions. This was the kind of subject matter favored
by the Academy, pulling from history, mythology, and religion. They didn’t want to see regular
people doing regular stuff. The so-called Reaslists had already challenged the academy’s
values by painting scenes from contemporary life, sometimes admitted to the salon and
sometimes denied. Gustave Courbet built his own pavilion during the 1855 Paris World’s
Fair, circumventing the official juried exhibition, and showing this painting where, it’s worth
noting, the focus is on a landscape painter. In 1863, the state organized a special exhibition
to feature works rejected by the Salon, including challengers to the status quo who wanted to
paint their own way and show the here and now. Like Édouard Manet, who would not go
on to show with the Impressionists, but was close friends with them, endorsed their work,
and shared numerous interests and techniques. The artists who participated in the first
Impressionist exhibition in 1874 had shown their art within the Salon and also grown
tired of having work rejected from it. So they put together their own show in the former
studio of the photographer Nadar, calling themselves the Anonymous Society of Painters,
Sculptors, Printmakers, etc. There was no state involvement, no jury, no
hierarchy of subject matter. They were each exploring their own concerns, not working
toward any shared mission or manifesto. If there had been a manifesto it could have only
read something like: “Not the Salon” or “I want to do my own thing, thanks.” But IN GENERAL we could say this group was
mostly painting from modern life, cityscapes and landscapes, using a brighter palette of
colors, broken brushstrokes, and loosely defined forms, that gave the works an air of spontaneity.
So much so that art critic Louis Leroy commented on the accuracy of the title of one of Claude Monet’s paintings on display, Impression: Sunrise. To Leroy, it was merely an impression, a sloppy
and unfinished sketch, unsuitable for display or sale. He dubbed the show “Exhibition
of the Impressionists” as an insult, but another critic recast the name in a positive
light, saying of the new work: “It’s lively, brisk, light — captivating. What a rapid
grasp of the object and what an amusing facture. It’s summary, agreed, but how spot on the
marks are!” As you know the name stuck, and the artists came around, too.
Impressionist landscapes, unlike those that came before, often betrayed their place in
time, showing city folk in the latest fashions or enjoying leisure activities in the Paris
suburbs. New railway lines had made travel out of the city easier than ever, and the
Impressionists were unafraid to show signs of this new way of life, and also of the increased
industrialization around them. Life was getting faster, and it followed that
art should, too. Paris had changed enormously in the preceding decades, having undergone
wholesale renovation beginning in the 1850s. A crowded, medieval city had been replaced
with one that was much more open, cleaner, and safer, with wide boulevards, public gardens,
and lots and lots of light. And the Impressionists did love their light,
trying again and again to arrest its ephemeral effects. They liked to show it broken by clouds,
dappled and filtering through the trees, oh and especially as it reflects on water. Even
when painting interiors, which they did indeed do, they loved to include a window, often
with sheer drapes through which light could filter. Because they were often capturing
atmospheric effects that would change with the passing minutes, the paintings have the
feel of improvisation, even if they took a while to get just right. Monet often worked
on several canvases at once, shuffling to different works as the light changed, or returning
to the same spot daily to patiently await the return of the desired conditions. New and brighter pigments had recently become
available, which the Impressionists put to good use, juxtaposing vivid colors in ways
that were startling to audiences at the time. Even shadows, it turned out, didn’t have
to be just black or brown or gray. Studies on color that had been published in 1839 by
chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul, had a hand in this experimentation, providing a guide
for how complementary colors could be shown side by side to appear more vibrant and intense. An early review asserted these artists were
painting things, “not just as they are, but just as they appear to be.” And this
was the revelation of Impressionism. To paint trees one need not understand their structure,
that they’re composed of a wooden trunks with branches and leaves extending out. One
need only lay down rough smudges of greenish brown to approximate the visual sensation
the forms give off from a particular distance, as the light hits them in a certain way. You don’t even need to know they are trees.
The artist could be an alien, recently arrived on planet earth, who knows nothing of the
objects before them but makes a record of the visual stimuli they perceive nonetheless.
(Assuming this alien has some sort of eyes, of course.) But not all Impressionists painted like that.
Edgar Degas was a master draftsperson, using strong lines to delineate forms, often human
ones, with clear expertise. His innovation came in his unexpected compositions, showing
subjects off-center, from oblique angles, or closely cropped. The popularity of Japanese
art at the time can be seen in many Impressionist works through their flattening of forms and
use of open space. The arrival of photography had also revealed new ways of framing images,
suggesting the possibility of unbalanced, snapshot-like compositions, long before cameras
would reach snapshot size and speed. Some have theorized that now that photography could
capture reality so well, painting was then freed from the shackles of realism and could
do what paint does best, which is being colorful and tactile, and you know, painty. This new kind of art also involved more women
and represented them in new ways. Berthe Morisot participated in all but one of the Impressionist
exhibitions, and gave us remarkable views into the domestic sphere and lives of well-to-do
women. Mary Cassatt joined the ranks as well, and became known for depicting women and children
as well as her own family. Women of a variety of classes were subjects for the Impressionists,
and not just nude and lying on a bed anymore, but shown doing the things they actually do,
in the home as well as out in the world, enjoying Paris’s nightlife, and also being it. A
population boom following the Franco-Prussian war had brought about a new mixing of genders
and social classes, which we see unfolding in Impressionist depictions of street life,
cafe culture, and various forms of entertainment. The membership of this motley crew of artists
fluctuated with each exhibition, including names you’ve definitely heard of as well
as ones you probably haven’t. By their last exhibition in 1886, few of the artists were
working in style you’d likely identify as “Impressionist.” Core members had evolved
their own styles and were exhibiting independently. And the artists we now consider Neo-Impressionist
had arrived, like Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, who were interested in the more scientific
aspects of color and how our eyes process it. What we call Post-Impressionism had reared
its head as well in the form of the young Paul Gauguin. By 1886, Impressionism had become
a global tendency, with artists around the world exploring similar techniques and styles
and subject matter. That “Impressionism” as a word exists
owes a credit to the concurrent expansion of the popular press, the first art-movement-with-a-name
to be covered widely and with reviews ranging from neutral to complementary to openly hostile.
The art market had recently strengthened as well, bolstered by a stronger French economy. And a new category of collector had emerged,
interested in apartment-scale pictures rather than castle or cathedral-scale ones. Art dealer
Paul Durand-Ruel was a primary force behind selling the Impressionists’ works, both
in Europe and America, where the paintings were snapped up and eventually gifted to the
museums where many are still held today. It was a newly common pratctice among dealers
to encourage their artists to find their own niche in the market, each to peddle their
own singular vision. And it’s that singular, subjective vision
that Impressionism has come to embody. What these artists were able to capture, and what
still enthralls us, is not the world as you see it or as a large crowd might, but the
world as only they see it. It’s why their last names still hold power, evoke strong
associations, sell for millions at auction, and draw crowds. When you look at an Impressionist work, you’re
aware that a person stood before the canvas, applying the paint mark by mark, from their
own particular viewpoint, and in their own distinct manner. In it we can see the beginnings
of the cult of the individual that has since taken hold, inklings of the now widespread
thirst to share our everyday views of the world, each from our own angles and in our
own styles. Impressionism was one of the first of a string
of avant-garde art movements, each rejecting tradition and embracing the modern, promoting
new ideas about what art could be and what it could do. Whether or not you’re familiar
with the succession of “isms” that followed, you already know the narrative: students learn
from their teachers, but then repudiate their lessons and push on to forge their own paths.
Novel methods over time lose their ability to shock, new ideas replace old, and the cycle
continues. And now it’s gotten ever faster. An 1874 review of the first Impressionist
exhibition posed the question, “Is the absence of rules a good thing? Only the future will
enlighten us…” And enlighten us it has, demonstrating the breadth of what the pursuit
of singular vision can bring forth. But the best case for Impressionism is the
art itself. In a museum filled with the dark and dramatic art that preceded it, and the
often confounding art that follows, Impressionism is really… pleasant. It’s not violent or distressing or sentimental
or moralistic. It’s recognizable subject matter rendered in an interesting but not
overtly challenging–by contemporary standards–kind of way. It’s an optical delight, giving
us windows into a fascinating historical moment, created by supremely talented artists who
pushed art in new directions to better represent that moment and their own view of it. And
that is enough. Thanks to all of our patrons for supporting
the Art Assignment, especially our grandmasters of the arts Vincent Apa, John Thomas, and
Ernest Wolfe.

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