7. Impressionist Painting Developments

(1) Origins and Influences (2) Early History (3) Impressionist Edouard Manet (4) Impressionist Claude Monet
(5) Impressionists Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne (6) Monet & Pissarro in London
(7) Painting Developments (8) Impressionist Exhibitions (9) Group Splits (10) Legacy of Impressionism

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Road in Louveciennes (1870)
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
By Camille Pissarro.

La Grenouillere (Frog-Pool) (1873)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Bly Claude Monet.

Impressionist Painting Developments
Up to the First Show (1874)

Monet: Towards the 1st Exhibition: Paints "Impression: Soleil Levant"

With peace returning to France, Monet thinks of leaving England. At the suggestion of Charles Daubigny, he decides to return via Holland. He prolongs his stay in that country up to the end of 1871, so great is the attraction for him of the pearly sky and so many subjects to paint: the immense sky, cities receding into the melancholy waters of the canals, the mills with their great red wings. The profusion and delicacy of greys, the imperative cut-out of shapes, the free and calm treatment of these works, linking them with the seascapes painted at Trouville in 1870.

But, as illustrated in "Moulins en Hollande" or more so in "Moulins a Zaandam," Monet's work is the field for a sort of struggle between Impression and organisation. Over fluid and luminous subjects he superimposes a geometrical structure in which the triangle is the dominant figure. Opacity and transparency, density and fluidity are opposed to each other and complement each other like the final terms of a fundamental contradiction being resolved.

Between these different elements he establishes palpable and rational relationships, holding them in balance. The light which envelops his shapes is sometimes quiverish. His treatment, his technique, more and more free, seem contained by the influence of the Dutch Realist masters of this country, or even more by the power of the Dutch countryside.

By 1872 all the Impressionist painters have returned to Paris or its immediate environs.

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Monet, after his return, goes to Argenteuil and stays there for six years. His house, buried in greenery, shrubbery and flowers, becomes the favourite haunt of his friends. The meetings are unrestrained, animated by the charm of young women, companions or friends of the artists. Painting is never forgotten. Its part is great, as proved by the anecdote of the portrait of Camille, Monet painted at the same time by Renoir and Manet. Now Monet ascends rapidly above all the others. If in the years before the war the movement which they led together found its first major fruits in the works of Manet, now it is crystallised around Monet. His engaging personality imposes itself on the other painters; they are struck by the energy he uses to achieve his end despite the handicaps and misfortunes which fate flings in his way. A strange strength, stemming mostly from his own great faith in himself, and a power of persuasion develop in him. His first conquest is Manet. Hesitant up to now and even resisting the persuasion and example of Berthe Morisot, whose charming personality has captivated him, Manet decides to paint in the "plein-air" manner. Almost from the first, as shown by his painting "Claude Monet in his Studio," Manet plunges his forms into scintillation and vibration of light. In avoiding a precise contour he succeeds, with magnificent ease, essentially by colour, in an atmosphere sparkling with light.


Manet, who has come to Gennevilliers to spend his holidays, has only to cross the river to join Monet. He depicts his friend in the picturesque floating studio that Monet uses on the Seine, as Daubigny once did. It was a vast bark on which the painter, in the shade of an awning stretched in front of the cabin under which sometimes his wife and friends would sit, was able to work quietly beside the water. Moving between the banks, under the arches that reflect the shimmer of the water, Monet felt himself really in the heart of this world of fluid forms whose evolution he sought to capture under the turning movement of the sun.

It was undoubtedly at this time that he became acquainted with a young neighbour, keen on boating and painting, Gustave Caillebotte, who, in 1873, had inherited a fortune which enabled him to pursue his taste for the arts. After entering the Fine Arts School in the class of Bonna, he leaves after a short time to work alongside Monet and Renoir, who have become his friends. He begins buying works that he likes and in several years builds up an important collection of Impressionist paintings, with the intention of leaving them to the State for the museums of the future. In his noble and generous character, and the seriousness of his convictions, he recalls to some extent Bazille, whose role of benefactor he assumes.

The processes of Monet's thought are rich and complex, his motivations always conscious. From 1872 to 1874, he uses jagged patches, broadly spread out, as in "Bateaux de Plaisance," or strokes boldly drawn with a free and sensitive hand, such as in "Regates par Temps gris a Argenteuil." In 1872, at Le Havre, he paints "Impression au Soleil Levant", in an extremely spontaneous and fluid treatment. These canvases, premonitory in that they provide the pretext for baptising the movement when the group stages its first exhibition, fix Monet's destiny. In the rapid transcription of sensation Monet takes away all weight from his forms. He concentrates his attention on variations of light which then become the unique reality of things, the ideal means of reproducing the image he sees. Finally, in 1873, once more with Renoir, he paints "Mare aux Canards" (Duck Pond) in the vicinity of Argenteuil. As at La Grenouillere, the two are together again to work on the same subject. Together they study tones and spare no effort to note even the most infinitesimal nuance. In depicting the iridescent foliage and the sparkling water of the pond they adopt a touch in very tiny commas which enables them to note each burst of colour, each change of light, and to spread a luminous resonance over the whole surface. For more on this issue, please see: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting 1870-1910.


These paintings of Renoir and Monet, painted together, show the marks of a desperately hard effort and an extraordinary tension of the mind. As is commonly said in art circles they are "tired". The successive changes of mind, corrections and adjustments in the pigment leave a certain feeling of heaviness. Later Monet is perhaps to recall this when he resumes his famous series of cathedrals in the studio. Sensible of the criticism levelled against him of diluting shape in the light, he succeeds in finding, with a thick, gritty paste, the equivalent of the density of matter. The effects of light glide over it. The object assumes a porous character and becomes something of a screen; and if it does not really succeed in showing its weight, it does assume a physical presence.

During the summer of 1874 the creative processes of Monet are accelerated. His activity reaches almost fever pitch. A brief period, but of great importance to his painting. In a series of canvases blooming with freshness ("The Bridge at Argenteuil," "The Railway Bridge at Argenteuil," "The Seine at Argenteuil" and "Sailing Boats at Argenteuil"), he sets off in search of reflections and rippling in the water, of bursts of light. Varying his technique, with vigorous strokes of the brush, wide or sharp-pointed or in the form or large or small commas, decomposing tones and making local tones burst out, using space to the maximum effect and breaking up masses and surfaces, he observes the phenomenon of light and its multiple facets. But behind the light and graceful effect he produces, there lies a more serious question. Taking the experiment as a whole it shows that it was not so much a matter of Monet capturing the ephemeral, as one likes to say, as his expressing duration, a developed duration, dynamic as is realised by the experience of sensation. Thus, in the apt words of Rene Berger, the Impressionists approach the the world "in process of developing".

See also Impressionism's finest supporter: the art dealer Paul Durand-Durel.

Renoir: Focuses on Figure-Landscapes

This association of Renoir and Monet at two decisive moments shows the part which Renoir played in the elaboration of Impressionist technique. If Monet remains the founding father of the group, the one who drives home the idea to its ultimate conclusion, it is fair to consider in passing, the part which Renoir played on the level of lucid research and also the prospecting for necessary means of communicating sensations to others through the media of painting.

His work is always marked by a search for unity, which dictates his palette, and by systematic use of complementaries. From 1872, when his treatment is already thorough as, for example, in "Pont Neuf" in the Marshall Field Collection in New York, in which small silhouettes have the clarity of enamel, the light gives vibrance to colours and the whole work is bathed in a generally bluish harmony. In his work at Argenteuil, Renoir borrows Monet's elongated stroke which produces a marvellous lapping of water, but for plant forms uses very fine, close brushwork which gives an impression of abundance. Here Monet becomes the pupil. Frothy mixtures of white and light colour lighten and give life to masses of greenery, introducing a sort of floral magic to it. The most extraordinary effects are produced by Monet when he multiplies the red patches of poppies (and a little later the reds of flags in the paved streets of his urban landscapes).

Monet plunges irrevocably into natural spectacles which provide him with a field of action of infinite richness, where people now appear only as rare silhouettes, hardly sketched in, their clothing or umbrellas veritable light traps. Renoir, on the contrary, is still careful about volume and density and passionate about the human form, whether he paints portraits of his friends or whether he paints faces and figures of women dear to him with visible pleasure and wholesome sensual joy. However, one can hardly talk about psychological questions, except the "Portrait of Chocquet," rendered with a technical finesse which undoubtedly translates a very rare spiritual intimacy. Most often, either from respect of the personality of the other person, Renoir does not go below the surface of his model, seeking simply to give a representation which shows sensual appearance and the pleasure he has in contemplating it. A face or a body to him is a whole effect of volumes, an abundance which offers a certain image of well-being. The flesh tints emphasised by dark patches of eyes and eyebrows, the amber-coloured hair assume an almost impersonal charm, already heralding the mythical creatures of the painter's last works.


In his compositions of 1875 and 1876 he comes to use the human figure in a very original fashion, like a subject that is part of a landscape, on which light may play with greater richness and fantasy. At this time Renoir has a vast garden in the rue Cortot in Montmartre, where he paints in the open air. For his models, as Toulouse-Lautrec is to do ten years later in the elder Forest's garden, he takes the flower girls and seamstresses of the neighbourhood, with their comrades and friends. In a sort of bluish half-darkness, the light appears in the form of large round patches, a little pink, placed indifferently on faces and clothing and creating a phantasmagoria of colours, particularly on charming dresses with their bustles ornamented with stripes and ribbons. In this spirit he produces "La Balancoire" (The Swing) and the great composition of "Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette," in which he is the first to show the daytime aspects of this famous dancing place whose nocturnal atmosphere later was to inspire Toulouse-Lautrec so deeply. Renoir had divided up his sketches and then, as he paints the work, does not hesitate to take the whole canvas several times to the scene of what he is painting. This is not verification in the real sense of the word because it is a very complex composition, in imaginative combination of groups observed separately. In the same way the system of light which he has developed creates a sort of illusion of colour; it combines an alternation of merging masses which express light and shade in a broad and ample tachism according to laws governing complementaries. It is one of Renoir's most fortunate works, one of the most rhythmic and animated in the whole history of Impressionism.

Sisley, Pissarro and Cezanne

During these years the role of Pissarro is hardly less than that of Monet. Leaving the latter to reign over the waters, he is the painter of the earth and also of a certain unanimist city life. Having returned to Louveciennes in 1871, Pissarro settles soon afterwards near Pontoise, where he remains until 1884. He resumes the simple rustic life, taking his inspiration from landscapes around him but keeping close contact with his comrades by going to Paris regularly to take part in their gatherings. Those early scenes of Louveciennes and neighbouring villages are still near to those which he painted in 1870. They are roads seen full on in a simple linear perspective which sinks into the horizon, bordered by trees with tall, slim trunks topped with light mixture of foliage and branches.

For some time Sisley, also living at Louveciennes and later at Port-Marly where he remains until 1877, paints in the same spirit. For example we may compare his "Road seen from the Chemin de Sevres" (1873) and Pissarro's "Entry to the Village" (1872). The same thoroughfare of slender trees, the same light foliage and branches, the same light blond harmony, the same speckling of light. Pissarro is more firm and masterly, more assured in his little
silhouettes animated with living colour. Sisley is more poetic, a little lost in front of the immensity of the sky and also attracted by the magic of water.

After this moment of ideal conjuncture (the collector Ernest May was able to mount three contemporary works by Pissarro, Sisley and Monet very pleasantly in a triptique), the approach of the two painters diverges. Sisley goes on to pursue his work with perseverance, but also with a sort of nonchalance that brings a flowery rather than profound effect to his themes. A simple man, modest, shy and gentle, he gives way to the shades of the sky and water. His production remains very even and evolves slowly, embracing vast landscapes in which he has to capture the whole of the detail to create a harmony, a subtle order of precedence of the elements, land, sea and sky, which he marries in a simple and natural way on his canvas. His painting remains essentially skin-deep, with signs of an exquisite charm and sometimes slightly too-insistent pearly accents. It is thus with his landscapes of the banks of the Seine up to the celebrated "Flood at Port-Marly" in which, despite the gravity of the subject, the most dramatic sky and the long lapping of muddy waters, the whole is vibrant in a darkish light relieved by some bright notes: thus his blue roof under a sombre sky.

Pissarro, on the contrary, having acquired complete familiarity with his surrounding landscapes, is able to detach important parts of them and use these for separate themes (Degas followed the same procedure in his interpretations of human characters reduced to their essential gestures). Thus Pissarro gives a firmness and even an epic tone to his lightest impressions, enlarging his register. He confers a sort of majesty on country life, to his settings of gardens, orchards and the characters in them. He is not afraid of accumulating on his canvas a heap of notations which assure him of a somewhat equal amplitude, but he lightens the solidity of his buildings by arranging them in space, beyond curtains of trees or luminous orchards, which also relieves their monotony. His architectures with stately colours assume greater brilliance by appearing behind these light arabesques. His composition is always very dense and filled, with sometimes hardly a corner of sky or no sky at all but with more and more luminous spacing. The paint is grainy, a little dull, and the colours tinted with white.

Pissarro's human role is considerable. He had a sort of genius for teaching. The American Impressionist Mary Cassatt said: "He was such a teacher that he could have taught stones to draw correctly." He believes in those of his comrades who have the most trouble in expressing themselves and of whom the others fight shy, Cezanne and Guillaumin, and does everything to help them surmount their difficulties. He encourages them to find their own proper style: Guillaumin to lengthen his strokes in streams of flamboyant colours, heralding Fauvism; Cezanne to paint in broad built-up levels which he teaches him to light up. His friends were always fully conscious of this. "Pissarro was humble and colossal, something like God."


In rendering this homage to him Cezanne was most likely thinking of the months in 1872 and 1873 when he worked at Pontoise under the direction of his friend, alongside whom he had in a way gone back to school. From this working retreat his art emerges transformed. For a long time Pissarro has recognised the immense gifts of Cezanne. The confidence he shows in him encourages the touchy man from Aix to forget his dramatic, gloomy manner, his allegoric and literary leanings, and to give himself over to pure painting. Very humbly, Cezanne begins by putting a canvas by Pissarro in front of him and making a very close copy of it. This allows him to become familiar with the new technique of colour laid on with small strokes of the brush, in patches, but also to go deeply into the secret of relief. He finds that tension can be expressed without recourse to vehemence. His character, more inclined towards meditation than invention, finds an inexhaustible peace and a starting-point in the contemplation of nature. This long association, which lasted almost two years, was a most rewarding one for the two friends. Each had a profound influence on the other, which both were happy to recognise. In recalling this, several historians are not afraid to use the term "mutation" for the works of the Aix painter. Cezanne, conscious of his debt to Pissarro, even says, "Perhaps we are all products of Pissarro." The latter, for his part, acquires from his companion a sense of the monumental.

Cezanne puts the experience he has gained to good use at Auvers-sur-Oise, where he has come to stay at the end of 1873 with Dr Gachet (later to be immortalized in portraits by Van Gogh). As evidenced by "Maison du Docteur Gachet" and above all the famous "Alaison du Pendu," at Auvers-sur-Oise, the atmosphere of Auvers, which at the time was a small rustic village, the friendliness and courtesy of his host who was also his confidant and his first collector, allowed him to apply himself arduously to his work. Before nature he abandons his live treatment, heavy and often opaque, seeks a scrupulous fidelity in observation and gets down to translation of all shades of colour. His soul is more easy and he finds a more even form of working; his colour is lightened and his brushwork is very definite and spaced out with regularity. However, he often has to go over his work again and his canvases are covered in successive layers. This effort in execution sometimes makes the work a little heavy but never alters the new rhythm of his composition. His paint assumes a gritty look but his palette is definitely lightened. From then onwards he is able to commence his fabulous attempt to reconstruct the world.

Degas: Systematic Study

At this time each of the painters has found his way. Edgar Degas, after a voyage to New Orleans which shows him receptive to the exotic charm of colonial life, becomes definitely taken by the mechanisms of daily life and begins a systematic study of them. It is the world of dancing, observed in the wings of the Opera, that of laundresses or that of the racecourse that attracts all his attention.

In spite of his strange personality, his particularism, Degas must not be separated from his friends as one is often tempted to do. His methods are different; he is wary of the open air and insists on the rights of imagination, but it is to make a better repertoire of the features of the subject and preserve them from all apparent alteration. He is shown in reality as a faithful observer, even a maniac for reality; he gives it only such embellishment as his vision dictates. His eye is sharp and his memory so well exercised that he succeeds in reproducing the subject in its full tension and accompanied by an atmosphere and light prodigiously shaded with colour. Even if he works in the studio from drawings and sketches with very detailed written notes, it is perhaps this which gives better the impression that he has captured life throbbing in most delicate fluidity. He makes use of the violent direct lighting of a stage, but most often in contrast with shadows, demi-tints and indefinite lighting, with the sole object of creating ranges of very diverse intensity.
Painter of the stage, of shows brilliant under the footlights, he prefers exercises, rehearsals, the rooms in which the significance of an art is spelled out in daily work. His figures, never static, are caught in their most mobile aspect, or better still in the preparation for or suspended in a gesture, like the dancer listening for her cue, the horse gathering its strength before the start of the race. Various techniques of setting and layout borrowed from the Far East, the overhead view, the diagonal, give Degas the means of making striking variations of the same subject. But in pursuing magnification, in giving values to curious or interesting detail which in its turn becomes a microcosm, a condensation of feelings, he arrives at a sort of depersonalisation of the subject who gradually is abolished, reduced to his or her basic functions and characteristic attitudes.

His technique is no less remarkable. Colours dissolve into luminous powdery clouds and space between figures assumes an indefinable liveliness. He begins by using pastels which, mixed in gouache and moistened with steam from boiling water and placed and fixed layer after layer, gives him a material of dazzling, pearly richness.

The Goncourts, visiting his studio in 1874, described Degas as sickly and neurotic and saw nothing in his research except the result of troubles which he was beginning to have with his eyes, (in the same way as some tried to explain the deformation of shape practised by El Greco). In reality Degas had an anxious and impassioned mind, never satisfied with the outcome of his work and carrying out well-reasoned and very learned experiments. He worked out a veritable chemistry of colours. A fierce hater of mankind, he applied himself with the detachment of an entymologist to studying the human machine dismantled into its basic or most intimate parts. In one field and another after 1872 his work produced some capital discoveries.

For more, see: Best Impressionist Paintings.

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We gratefully acknowledge the use of an excerpt from Impressionism, by Jacques Lassaigne (1966).

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