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Impressionism: An In-Depth Analysis
Posted by Kenny on 11/2/2009 6:46:19 PM (ET)
Filed Under: General
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The term Impressionism, as used in painting, is misleading. It was coined in 1872, to describe the work of certain painters who professed to record the impression which they had received from the object studied. But in this sense no painter who undertakes to paint what he sees can help being an Impressionist. He can only paint the thing as it impresses his individual eyesight.

Later, the term was used to denote a certain method of painting; particularly the one practiced by Claude Monet and his followers, which will be explained presently. It is sufficient here to say that it did not represent the object with that exact and finished imitation to which people had become accustomed. At close range the picture appeared confused and unintelligible; it was necessary to stand some distance away from it in order to discover "what it was all about." So people came to apply to this class of pictures the term Impressionistic. It so happens that they were, but not because they were painted in this way, for there are other Impressionistic pictures in which the paint is laid on differently.

Impressionism, really, is a matter of point of view; of the way in which a painter sets out to see his subject. He will tell you that his motive is a more natural kind of Naturalistic one.

There are two ways of using the sight: one analytical, the other synthetic. You may look at an object to study it in detail; or you may look at it to gain the general effect of its appearance and character. The latter is the more usual way of seeing an object. We unconsciously employ it, for example, every time we take a walk, either in a town or in the country. The scene is continually shifting; innumerable pictures pass before the eyes. They come, they go; and the brain registers an impression, more or less complete, of each. That tangle of wild flowers, for instance, clustering at the foot of a hedge - we take in its beauty at a glance. A painter will do the same thing and paint it as the glance records it to him. On the other hand, he may pick a bunch of flowers, and take them home and study them singly and exhaustively, and then paint the result of his detailed and prolonged examination. In either case, the painter is a Naturalist; but if he works with the former purpose in mind, we distinguish him as an Impressionist. The latter, then, is one who paints an object as he actually sees it and not as he knows it to be, either from previous or present study of it. Further, he becomes more and more interested in the momentary and fleeting appearances of things. As he walks the street, the figures and buildings present a series of kaleidoscopic pictures; they do not remain long enough to be studied in detail; moreover, it is the very change that fascinates because it is a feature of life. These moving pictures are living pictures. So, too, in the country - it is not so much the fixed position of the hills and trees and so on that fascinates one, as the changing expressions on the face of the landscape, due to the effects of light and atmosphere and movement. It is these momentary and fleeting aspects of nature that the Impressionist loves to record. This becomes the motive of his pictures; just how he will lay the paint depends upon how he feels he can best interpret the impression which he has received.

So the stages of Impressionism in painting are threefold. It began by recording the impression that the eye naturally and immediately receives; then it occupied itself more and more with the surprises of sight; and, in doing so, learned quickly the part played in them by light, atmosphere, and movement. The leader in this way of seeing the subject and of recording what the eye sees was Edouard Manet. He was biased towards the Naturalistic motive; but at first did not look at nature through his own eyes, but those of the old masters. By degrees he came under the spell of Velasquez; recognized the truth of his records of nature, and studied his vital and characterful method of painting and his reserved but beautiful color schemes. The result was a number of pictures—one of them is the " Boy with the Sword," of the Metropolitan Museum - in which he reproduced Velasquez's style. They belong to what may be called his "black and grey period." Then, during a visit to the country house of the painter De Nittis, Manet was one day attracted by the picture which his friend's wife and children presented as they sat on the lawn in the sunlight beside a flowerbed. He painted the picture in the open air. This picture was the beginning of "plein-air" painting; at least in modern times, for it is clear that some of the early Italians practiced it. Henceforth Manet's work was distinguished by a wide range of color and a greater variety and luminosity of light and atmosphere. Its example was immediately followed by many other painters, and the exhibitions began to be enlivened with these glowing pictures.

A Bar at the Folies Bergere - Edouard Manet

A Bar at the Folies Bergere
Edouard Manet

The public and many artists declared that they were untrue to nature; the fact being that up to this point, people had not been accustomed to look at nature directly, but were in the habit of accepting it as it was represented in pictures. For example, painters had rendered shadows black or brown or red, without reference to the local color; but now, when artists studied nature at first hand, they found that the hue of shadows varied with the local color, and with the quantity and quality of the light. They found, for instance, that the shadows upon snow might be blue or violet. Most of us to-day know that this is so; because through the influence of the pictures, painted by the open-air Impressionists, we have learned to look at nature with our own eyes.

One thing more had to be learned by these Impressionists. This they derived from the study of Japanese prints, which began to reach Paris in increasing numbers during the early sixties. These exhibited a new principle of composition, which the Japanese themselves call "notan" or the "spotting of dark and light." Instead of the formal building up of the composition with studied proportions and balance, this arrangement has the appearance of being natural and spontaneous. It had an elasticity and quality of unexpectedness that exactly suited the expression of movement and life, and the momentary and fleeting aspects of nature. It was adopted by Occidental artists, and is still the principle of composition employed by most Naturalistic and Impressionistic painters and draughtsmen, as the pictures in magazines testify.

One of the first to employ the principle of "notan" was Hilaire Germain Degas, who is best known by his pictures of the race-course and of the opera, both in front of and behind the curtain. In the foreground may appear the head and shoulders of a bass-player in the orchestra, while beyond spreads the stage, spotted with figures; or we may be shown a room in which the dancers are training. It is as if we had come upon the scene without the knowledge of the people engaged in it. Everything appears to be unpremeditated, an instantaneous impression; differing from that of a camera, since action is not suspended, but retains the elastic rhythm of moving life. Degas is a great draughtsman, and in this respect has been influenced by Ingres, whom he has always greatly admired, despite the difference between his own impressionistic motive and the other's classical one. Degas has carried the cult of "the ugly" farther than most painters. His ballet-dancers have no beauty of face or grace of figure in the ordinary sense. The charm of his pictures is abstract, consisting in their rhythm of color, light and shade, and movement.

Four Dancers - Edgar Degas

Four Dancers
Edgar Degas

Another famous member of the early group of Impressionists is Pierre Auguste Renoir. His early work reflects the influence of Courbet, Manet, and Velasquez. It is characterized by sumptuously grand harmonies of black, grey, pearly white, and subtle rose, and blue. Then he followed Manet's development towards a fuller palette and more luminous color. In doing so, he carried forward the art of Fragonard, which, as we have seen, was a heritage from Rubens. Renoir may be said, in fact, to have translated the Flemish artist into terms of modern Impressionism. Hence Renoir is the most distinguished colorist of the Impressionistic group. His nudes and pictures of young women and children, as well as his landscapes, are symphonies of the rhythms and harmonies of luminous color.

Young Girls at the Piano - Pierre Auguste Renoir

Young Girls at the Piano
Pierre Auguste Renoir

It remains to mention the group of landscapists of which Claude Monet is popularly regarded as the leader. The other chief names are those of Georges Seurat (1859-1891), Johann Barthold Jongkind (1819-1891), Camille Pissarro (1831-1903), Renoir, already mentioned, and Alfred Sisley (1830-1899). Monet and Pissarro, during a visit to London, were impressed by the purity of color of Turner's pictures. When they returned to France, they found that Jongkind had adopted a style of painting which was very successful in rendering the effects of movement and the play of fugitive light. It consisted in building up the picture by means of a number of little brush strokes. Gradually Pissarro, Monet, and Renoir combined the lessons of Turner and Jongkind. They began to abandon the dark colors and to use yellow, orange, vermilion, lake, red, violet, blue, and intense greens. These they laid upon the canvas in separate touches. Instead of mixing the colors on the palette, they set them in their purity side by side on the canvas, and depended upon the eye to effect the mingling of them; by this means increasing their brilliance and luminosity. This is the principle known as that of "divided color" or "division of color"

In raising the key of their landscapes, so as to approximate more nearly to the effects of natural light, Monet and the other exponents of this method have made the rendering of light and atmosphere their special aim, to which the forms of the landscape have been, as some are beginning to think, unduly sacrificed. Thus Monet painted a number of pictures in which the same haystacks reappear under different effects of colored light. He also produced a series of the west front of Rouen Cathedral, in which the solidity, form, and enrichments of the architecture play no part; the sole purpose being to render the shimmer of light and color and atmosphere on the surface of the building. These facts are mentioned, not as a criticism of Monet's intentions or achievements, but because they indicate the general tendency of this branch of Impressionism.

It is convenient here to allude to a group which has grown out of the one we have been discussing. It has been self-named, very misleadingly, Impressionist; because its members wished to put on record the fact that they were only carrying further and more scientifically what the Impressionists had already done in the use of "divided colors" But they are even more strict than their predecessors in avoiding the mixing of the pigments on the palette, and they juxtapose the pure tints on the canvas according to the laws, derived from the spectrum, which govern color and regulate its harmonies. Their method, in fact, substitutes for the feeling of what will look well, a precise and scientific knowledge. Some lay the tints side by side in square "touches," like a mosaic; others adopt other shapes for the "touches," regulating their size to the size and character of the composition. It is the use of the "touch," and not the particular kind of "touch," that distinguishes them as a group. From the fact that their great aim is luminosity of color and their chief means the scientific application of color, they would be better styled "ChromoLuminarists." The group has included Georges Scunit, Henri Edouard Cross, Albert Uubois-Pillet, Maximilien Luce, Hippolyte Petit jean, Theo van Rysselberghe, Henry van de Vclde, and Paul Signac, who has set forth in writing the aims of himself and his colleagues.

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