Characteristics of Impressionist Painting
EVOLUTION OF ART
Realism gradually gave rise to Impressionism: for details of this evolution, please see: Realism to Impressionism (1830-1900). In their quest for truth, Impressionist painters aimed at the optical impression of what was luminous and transitory, and as a result form became neglected. Though not understood by the man in the street, Impressionism accorded with the evolution of contemporary ideas. As soon as initial resistance had been overcome, the movement spread irresistibly throughout the world. The success of the new style was so great that it quickly brought a reaction in its trail. The artist's thought was being thwarted in favour of his vision. The reaction took the form of Symbolism, which was to have an even greater effect on 20th-century art than Impressionism, for it released art from its slavery to appearances.
Throughout the centuries, since the painting of Roman times, in the luminous landscapes of the illuminated manuscripts by Jean Fouquet, until the 18th century of Largillierre and Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806), artists had attempted to represent what they saw. They had studied, one by one, the various elements of reality, or the appearances of things. The one which interested them most was light, its source and its effect, but they only arrived at a full understanding of light towards the end of the 19th century, after many hesitations and after having followed many false trails. The problem of linear perspective, which was pushed to absurd lengths, distracted them from, and hid for a time, the other problems of aerial perspective. By using artificial sources of illumination, the fall of light could be directed so that it played a constructive role, revealing form by means of light and shade, reflected light and shadow. (See also chiaroscuro and Tenebrism.) Light, in fact, had been made a stock-in-trade of the artist, to be used within narrow limits.
However, it was bound to happen that one day the painter would see the visual truth of reality, which he had glimpsed from time to time when relating objects to their setting. It had become necessary for painters to look at the true appearance of nature which had become falsified by the scientific visual understanding of the Renaissance. They had to look at nature freshly and forget the techniques they had been taught in the studios.
Impressionism inherited the naturalism of the Barbizon school and the Realist painting of Gustave Courbet (1819-77). The new movement belonged to the positivist outlook of Auguste Comte, and it was formed in the atmosphere created by the research work of Claude Bernard and his Introduction to Experimental Medicine. It became an integral part of the period that followed and contributed as much as the most advanced science to the whole character of the fin de siecle, where physics and physiology were recognised to be of the greatest importance. During the 19th century scientists began by experimenting with matter and arrived at the atomic discoveries of physics. The painters arrived at the same point intuitively. From the centuries-old quest for tactile values (tactile values enable the spectator mentally to ' feel' the form) the Impressionists turned to attempting the impossible to capture that which was fugitive, fluid, impalpable and moving. They turned away from the rocks of Fontainebleau and paid no more attention to the drama of the elements.
They chose instead to paint the rivers and other watery scenes. They preferred moments of transformation, vapour rising in the warm glow of the setting sun, or the freezing of the water in midwinter; and they always enjoyed painting mists. They loved the London fogs which veiled the architecture, and the smoke from trains which made iron and brick buildings seem weightless. The reality of the Impressionists was a solution of liquid and of light in which everything was plunged. Impressionism may be considered as in the line of the great artistic current which, often flowing deeply underground, reappears from time to time and threatens the embankments of orthodox classicism, sometimes overwhelming them, as it did at the time of the Baroque and later the Romantic.
Baroque art with its complex composition, dynamic construction and sweeping diagonal movements also succeeded in expressing the essence of time, inexorably passing and eternal. Baroque artists translated the idea of time into a plastic equivalent, more sensuously than intellectually organised, but nevertheless deliberate. Purist Impressionist painters attempted to reproduce the flight of time by an unreasoning imitation of its effects; this puerile ingenuousness ultimately led to disaster. They thought they were merely trying to capture fleeting moments of light, but instead they were undermining the very basis of painting. They scarcely noticed this aesthetic catastrophe. They were not conscious of the dematerialized pictures they were producing, nor of the general uncertainty they engendered. Instead they continued to sing their joyous hymn to the beauties of nature, painting time and light and neglecting form completely. Thus composition was downplayed, drawing was forgotten: all that mattered was light and colour.
They painted as a bird sings, as Renoir said, and, just as a nightingale is only a silver throat, so the Impressionist painter was only an eye. To the historic and aesthetic opportunities which made the birth of Impressionism possible should be added the qualities of the human eye. Though the Impressionists did not use its power of acute vision as did Jan van Eyck, they nevertheless made use of its exceptional powers of discernment. They summed up a multiplicity of nuances and their complexity of fusion. There arose an absolute tyranny of the optic nerve from the time of Courbet to the time of Claude Monet, of whom Cezanne said: 'He is only an eye, but what an eye!' The Impressionist vision oscillated, as between two poles, between the eye of Manet and that of Monet, between the healthy and the abnormal. The eye of Manet was sane, traditional and French, according to Mallarme, who claimed that Manet's vision descended from the 18th century, having been formed by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), and Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806). Manet inherited their finesse, intuition and enchanting clarity of vision. In contrast Monet's vision seemed abnormal, as though he saw some parts of a scene with hypersensitivity, while others remained blurred.
During the course of the century physics established many of the optical laws relating to light and colour. Impressionist painters arrived at the same laws on the banks of the Seine and the Oise.
They loved to watch light reflecting in water and shafts of light penetrating through mists, and the way in which light becomes broken into the spectrum colours in rainbows and in spray. They noticed that light could alter form and the great difference atmosphere made to everything. Painters gradually made these discoveries by using their eyes, and they arrived at a new view of the world ceaselessly being revealed and changed by daylight. To this idol of light the Impressionists now sacrificed everything. They chose light as the only element and laid aside all the hypocrisies of tenebrism and all the doubtful temptations of chiaroscuro.
Light was the creative principle underlying appearances; light was colour, movement, time and life itself. Light quite naturally found its plastic equivalent in water, which was fluid, dissolving and transparent. Water shared with air the parenthood of Impressionism, which was born on the Channel coast between Rouelles and Frileuse. It was here that one day Eugene Boudin (1824-98) brought the young Monet (then aged 17) to paint. It was on this coast, at Le Havre, Honfleur and Trouville, that Monet developed artistically. The sea was to be one of the favourite subjects of the Impressionists. They liked the constantly changing rhythm of the waves, the inconstancy of its substance, its varied and varying colours, its reflection and absorption of light and its destructive force, slow or sudden, which hollowed out the cliffs of Etretat or eroded the rocks of Brittany. Thus the subject of Impressionist art was not the emotion provoked by the presence or beauty of an object, but the observation of its varied physical behaviour in the environment which hems it in, decomposes or disintegrates it. Forms no longer existed except in so far as their visual exteriors became surfaces for the play of light and colour. Objects were described no longer by lines and contours but by the interpenetration of colours which became fragmented into their component parts. The whole picture was unified by relationships of light and the aim was to establish the light by purely pictorial means. Thus there resulted a double change in the techniques of painting: first, painters used a new palette; and, second, they invented a new method of handling the brush.
St Martin (1870) by Alfred Sisley.
The Impressionists found that the colours used by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) and the other Romantic painters of the early 19th century were too dark for their purposes. They preferred to limit their range more or less to the spectrum colours, and chose yellow, orange, vermilion, crimson, violet, blue and green. These were in line with the scientific studies of Chevreul earlier in the century that had been known to Delacroix, and with the studies of Maxwell, Young and Lambert who had transformed colour chemistry. From a pictorial point of view this change was the most important since Jan van Eyck and Antonello da Messina introduced oil painting in the 15th century. (See also: 19th Century Colour Palette.)
According to Chevreul's theory, colours may be divided into two groups: the primary colours, yellow, red and blue; and the secondary colours, orange formed by mixing red and yellow, green by mixing yellow and blue, and violet by the mixing of red and blue. A secondary colour appears stronger when next to the primary colour not included in its mixture. For example, orange is enhanced when placed next to blue, and the blue is called the complementary of orange; in the same way red is the complementary colour of green, and yellow is the complementary of violet; Chevreul noted that complementary colours destroy one another when mixed in equal proportions, which from the painter's point of view means that they produce a neutral grey. He also noticed that when mixed in unequal proportions two complementary colours give a degraded colour, that is, a neutral colour tending towards brown, grey or olive. From all this there results a series of optical laws which may be stated in quasi-algebraic terms. Pure complementary adjacent to broken complementary = dominance of one, and harmony of the two; pure complementary in a light tint adjacent to pure complementary in a dark shade = difference in intensity, and harmony; two similar colours next to one another, one pure, the other degraded, make a subtle contrast with one another. (See also: Colour Mixing Tips.)
The Impressionists were intuitive in their painting rather than intellectual. They studied nature, and any scientific equations were used to suit their convenience in their striving for luminosity. However, the laws of science gave a moral support to the Impressionist painter. He now dared to do what Delacroix would not have done. The scientist studied light in order to analyse its qualities or to seek artificial means of producing it, but the painter tried to express its poetic quality. The negative mixture of colours on the palette reduced their purity, so the artist tried to achieve the positive mixture received by the eye, in which colours retained their purity and appeared to vibrate. When viewed from a suitable distance the juxtaposed pure colours appeared to mix on the surface of the canvas to give this positive mixture which reproduced the appearance of nature. The Impressionist painting was formed by the juxtaposition of pure colours, arranged according to the optical laws of the complementaries, to give the appearance of nature in a luminous atmosphere. As a result Impressionist paintings, and even more the works of Neo-Impressionism (Seurat's variant of Divisionism), consisted of a conglomeration of coloured particles, points or blobs. At the same time as interpreting light, this method resulted in the fragmentation of all the forms in the picture.
Impressionism never produced a school in the proper sense of the term, even though it was the product of intuition and experiment, and despite its pseudo-scientific analogies. There was no manifesto, no set of rules or code. The Impressionist painters were simply a group (or rather, series of groups) of artists. There were those who grew towards Impressionism as a group, those who exhibited together in a group, those who shared a similar style or outlook and those who worked together or near one another. Impressionism was extremely group-oriented, yet each member lived in fear of compromising his individuality by belonging to the group.
Three groups created Impressionism. Firstly, the one which may be called the St Simon school, in which Boudin, Courbet and Johan-Barthold Jongkind (1819-91) gathered together at Honfleur, and where the destiny of Impressionism was affected by their meeting the young Monet. Two other groups followed, the group from the Academie Suisse, including Cezanne, Pissarro and Armand Guillaumin (1841-1927); and the Group of Four which met at the studio of Charles Gleyre (1806-74), consisting of Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Frederic Bazille (1841-70). The Academie Suisse and the Gleyre group each had a recognisable and distinct character which lasted throughout the great adventure of Impressionism, even though the two groups became so very closely interrelated. The landscape paintings of these two groups were subtly different. They both used the same Impressionist principles, but their poetic attitudes were not the same.
Claude Monet was a painter of water. Artistically he remained faithful to his origins on the Channel coast, though he matured on the banks of the Seine, at Bougival and Argenteuil. By comparison Pissarro painted the land. He was more moderate and less violent. He preferred the hills of the Oise valley, between Pontoise and Auvers, and often deliberately turned his back and looked away from the river. His subject matter and even the district where he worked linked him with Charles Daubigny (1817-78) and Camille Corot (1796-1875). There was a continuous overlapping between the painters who preferred water as their subject and those who preferred the land. Sisley perhaps was to be the most faithful to the general spirit of Impressionism. Chronologically Impressionism tended to the painting of water until 1880, and then to the painting of the land after the fifth exhibition of the Societe Anonyme des Peintres, Sculpteurs et Graveurs, as the Impressionists called themselves.
Even earlier than Pissarro and Monet, Edouard Manet was the leader of the Impressionist movement. Manet's aesthetic and social background was different from that of the other Impressionists; he never became fully integrated with the movement. For him, Impressionism was little more than a passing experience; he felt sincerely enough about it, nevertheless, and it affected the growth of his art. It would be better to describe Manet not as the leader of the Impressionists, but as the leader of the revolutionary painters, those rejected by the Salon and those rejected by society; he was the leader of a mixed group of artists who met at the Cafe Guerbois in the Batignolles. Manet's famous paintings Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (1863) and Olympia (1863) were in the style known as peinture claire, but they were not yet Impressionist. Manet arrived at Impressionism by his own means and step by step: firstly, at Boulogne in some seascapes and beach scenes; secondly and most importantly, while watching the bull-fights in the vibrating glare and blazing colours of Spain; and finally, on the Atlantic coast of Arcachon and Bordeaux. See: The Road-Menders, Rue de Berne (1878) and also his famous A Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1882). Manet was never converted to Impressionism and never exhibited with them; it accentuated his own personal tendencies. He was encouraged by Bertha Morisot, a pupil of Corot, who in Manet's studio was like a breath of contemporary air. Manet pressed the experience to its limit and in 1874 went to the extent of staying at Argenteuil and painting river scenes.
Manet, however, left the direction of Impressionism to Monet, whom he considered to be the high priest of the new style. The aesthetics of Impressionism were formulated from Monet's experimental work. Later, Monet was to leave his friends, because 'the select group had become an uncritical rabble, ready to admit anyone into its ranks'. Monet remained the guardian of the Impressionist ideal, even though he eventually became accepted by the Salon, and even though a few discerning collectors bought his work. His paintings could be seen in certain salons of the Faubourg St Germain hanging with those of Renoir, who was by now a relatively academic painter. It is essential to realise that Monet was the cornerstone of Impressionism, the style which spread through all the arts on an international scale and reflected so accurately the materialistic spirit of the age.
Degas began as a classical realist - see The Bellelli Family (1858-67) - then developed his own style of Impressionist genre painting, focusing on racehorse - see Race Horses in front of the Stands (1866-8) - women at their toilette - see Woman Combing Her Hair - and working women - see Women Ironing (1884).
Paul Cezanne is arguably the most difficult
painter to classify in terms of style. He began as a realist, moved over
to Impressionism due to Pissarro's influence - see, for instance The
House of the Hanged Man (1873) - and later developed his own idiom
of 'abbreviated Impressionism', notably in portraits and genre works such
as: Boy in
the Red Vest (1889-90), Man
Smoking a Pipe (1890-2), Woman
with a Coffee Pot (1890-5), The
Card Players (1892-6),
Scientific discoveries sometimes occur simultaneously in several countries. Somewhat in the same way the thought underlying Impressionism was a phenomenon of the period and it is interesting to notice to what extent it appeared in countries outside France at about the same time. In Italy the Florentine Macchiaioli art movement (1855-80) and the , deriving from the events of 1848 appears to correspond to French Impressionism, though it was not directly related. Nineteenth century Florentine painters had a technique of applying rich and low-keyed colours with an Impressionistic handling. The Macchiaioli, supported by one of their theorists Adriano Cecioni, aimed at rendering the impression of visual truth as seen from a distance. They painted in colour tones distributed in blobs, and it was the tone which gave a feeling of depth. Giovanni Fattori and other Macchiaioli tried a new method for representing form, which no Italian could completely ignore. They made use of both colour and brush work; the brush was used broadly and with directional strokes to suggest volume.
French and Italian artists almost met in their new taste for colour: the French artist used colour for creating pictorial light, the Italian for creating volume, and both used it to give a sense of space. They also used similar brush work. The Caffe Michelangelo, meeting-place of the Macchiaioli, was not entirely different from the Cafe Guerbois and the Nouvelle-Athenes. Serafino De Tivoli (1826-92) travelled widely and introduced foreign ideas into Florentine thought, especially that of the emphasis on light. Vito D'Ancona (1825-84) remained determinedly faithful to constructive volume; Telemaco Signorini (18351901) approached close to the French outlook; and Vicenzo Cabianca (1827-1902) used strong brush work to obtain violent contrasts. Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931) was one of the most audacious of the Macchiaioli. Whilst in Italy he used broken brush work to give an illusion of movement. When he came to France, strange as it may seem, he would have nothing to do with Impressionism. Working in France he produced pedestrian pictures which were as superficial as they were contrived. Similarly the early style of Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-84) was related to the Macchiaioli. He met Degas in Paris and became influenced by Impressionism. His interpretation of this new style remained an entirely personal one: his contours were drawn with precise detail, and to these he added a nice distinction of tonal values. Federigo Zandomeneghi (1841-1917) was probably the most Impressionist of all the Italians, and while still in Florence he distinguished himself among his contemporaries with his study of light. When he came to Paris he met Manet, Degas, Renoir and Pissarro, with whom he exhibited, but his Venetian background was always visible in his work.
In Spain the modern developments of landscape and the treatment of light were discovered by Martin Rico and Aureliano de Beruete. These three were very much influenced by the Barbizon school. Other painters included Pedro Villaalmil who was a Romantic, Carlos de Haes, and Ceferino Araujo y Sanchez. Despite the fierce individuality of Spanish artists they were not unaware of French developments. The Basque painter, Zuloaga, in his early style, made use of the Impressionist technique. The liberation of Spanish painting was, however, largely due to the work of Joaquin Sorolla Y Bastida (1863-1923). In Madrid he led the way towards spontaneous outdoor painting, being followed by Dario de Regoyos, Joaquin Mir, and Herman Anglada-Camarosa, and those who were later to be known as the '1910 generation', in particular Francisco Merenciano, whose work represents the last flicker of Spanish Impressionism.
German artists had the opportunity of seeing paintings by the French Impressionists when an exhibition of their work was held in Munich in 1879. Some artists who had already met the Realism of Courbet and Manet knew what to expect at this exhibition. They were Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900), Mihaly von Munkacsy, and Otto Scholderer, as well as the Viennese painters Carl Schuch and Hans Thoma. Franz von Lenbach (1836-1904) and Anton von Werner, who were academic painters, failed to grasp its significance. In Italy the new aesthetic of light had come up against a tradition of form; in Germany it was to meet the deeply ingrained tradition of draughtsmanship and graphic art. The conflict was between 'colour-space' and analytical line. The German plein air painters remained closer to the Realist-inspired French Impressionists such as Manet and Degas than to Monet and Pissarro. (The same can be said of several later French painters including Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-84), Alfred Roll and Henri Gervex.) In Germany, Impressionism had its strongest influence in Berlin. Max Liebermann (1847-1935) went beyond the plein air work of T.Hagen. He was inspired by the example of Manet and Degas and, with the exhibitors of the Sezession, approached Impressionist colour and movement; but his work always retained a certain coldness. The late works of Lovis Corinth (1858-1925) were painted with a violent and brutal technique. In his work matter itself seemed to vibrate as a result of his complete understanding of light and air. Max Slevogt (1868-1932), the Bavarian Impressionist, could not bring himself to renounce line; but Emil Nolde (1867-1956), in one sweep, leapt the gulf separating Manet and van Gogh.
Impressionism reached Switzerland in the works of A. Baud-Bovy and the symbolist Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901). It came to Austria in the paintings of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and to Hungary in the work of Pal von Szinyei Merse, Karoly Ferenczy, Etienne Csok and Jozef Rippl-Ronai. The Picnic in May by Szinyei Merse derives from Courbet and Manet. Ferenczy was influenced by Bastien-Lepage; Rippl-Ronai was on friendly terms with members of Les Nabis such as Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) and Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947); and Etienne Csok painted pictures in series as had Monet.
Belgium and Holland echoed all the French artistic developments of the century and played their part in the Impressionist movement. In Belgium Emile Claus was influenced by Monet and Pissarro, H.Evenepoel was related artistically to Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), and Albert Baertsoen to Roll. Holland with its damp climate and clouded skies was visited by several Impressionists. Boudin went there and studied the works of Ludolf Bakhuyzen and Willem van de Velde; Monet painted at Zaandam and Amsterdam in 1871, and at Leyden and The Hague in 1886; Albert Lebourg paid a visit there in 1896. Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819-1891) was Dutch and was also one of the earliest of the Impressionists who joined the others in France. Van Gogh, too, was Dutch; his art was created by contact with the Impressionists in France; his Impressionism ended up closer to 1900s German Expressionism than any French idiom.
England, like Holland, made a number of contributions. Pissarro and Monet came here and found inspiration in the mists and fogs and rain of northern Europe; they also discovered the work of Turner, which filled them with enthusiasm. Sisley and Walter Sickert (1860-1942) - leader of the Camden Town Group - were Englishmen; Dieppe especially attracted Sickert, whose art was immensely enriched by the influence of Degas and Whistler.
In Denmark the most important Impressionist was P.S. Kroyer (1851-1909), who has been described as the virtuoso of diffused light. Also important was Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916) the Intimist genre-painter noted for his muted interiors in blues and greys. Swedish painters not only gathered in the country at Grez sur Loing. A group of them looked towards the new Paris of the Batignolles. They included Anders Zorn (1860-1920), whose career was Parisian as much as international; Ernst Josephson, who recognised Manet as his master; Carl Larsson who preferred Sisley; and Bruno Liljefors. In Norway Impressionism took the form of a great interest in the painting of moving waters. Christian Krohg was known as the Norwegian Manet, and there was also Fritz Thaulow. Edvard Munch (1863-1944) and Erik Werenskiold were figure painters. Munch began as a pupil of Bonnat and then was for some time under the influence of Cezanne, Degas and the symbolist Odilon Redon (1840-1916).
Outside France, Impressionism arrived slowly. It frequently became confused with subsequent movements such as Pointillism and Italian Divisionism. There was a general mix-up of French styles, frequently mingled with an indigenous and opportunity-seeking academicism. Impressionism continued to influence countries outside France as late as the First World War. In Poland painting in a high key was introduced by Joseph Pankiewicz, a friend of Renoir, Bonnard, Signac and Vuillard. Pankiewicz continued the Impressionist style until his death in 1940. In Russia, the new style was adopted by groups like World of Art and the Wanderers group of landscape artists. Ilya Repin (1844-1930) was his own man; Isaac Levitan (1860-1900) was inspired by Monet, Valentin Serov (18651911) by Manet, and Maria Bashkirtsev by Bastien-Lepage; the dying embers of Impressionism attracted Pavel Kusnetsov to France, where he died in 1935.
Impressionism was not confined to Europe. It already owed a great debt to the New World, for Pissarro came from the West Indies. He was in fact more a cosmopolitan in that his ancestors were Portuguese, French and Jewish and they had settled on a Danish island. In addition, before North America became enthusiastic about Impressionist painting, it made a contribution of a number of artists - Whistler (18341903), who became very French and was strongly influenced by Courbet, Manet and Henri Fantin-Latour; the Pittsburgh artist Mary Cassatt (1845-1926) a young admirer of Degas; William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) an early exponent of Impressionism in America, known above all as an outstanding art teacher; Theodore Robinson (1852-96) another early Impressionist, friend of Monet, best known for his landscapes and Connecticut boat scenes; John Twachtman (1853-1902) influenced by Whistler and Japanese Ukiyo-e prints; J. Alden Weir (1852-1919) noted for his landscapes, as well as his more conservative still lifes, flower paintings and portraits; Childe Hassam (1859-1935) who studied Impressionism in Paris (1886-9); and of course the great portraitist John Singer Sargent (18561925) - noted for his Impressionist masterpieces The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882) and El Jaleo (1882), who turned down an invitation to exhibit with the Impressionist group.
In Australia, the Impressionist style - exemplified by the Heidelberg School near Melbourne and practiced by Tom Roberts (1856-1931), Arthur Streeton (1867-1943), Charles Conder (1868-1909) and Fred McCubbin (1855-1917) - was much closer to the naturalism of Bastien-Lepage than the ultra-loose brushwork of Monet. For details, see: Australian Impressionism (1886-1900).
NOTE: For more on the impact of Impressionism, see the following articles:
For more about 19th century plein air painting, see: Homepage.
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