Impressionism: The Innovations and Influence
Contemporaries of the first Impressionists used the term “Impressionist” derisively. Why were Impressionists seen as artists who changed accepted concepts on color and light, and why did they challenge later artists to provide even bolder solutions through their work? How, within this framework, did Impressionists develop their own personal manner of depicting their modern world?
Impressionism got its start when several painters began using more natural methods of lighting their work and looking at the world with freshness and immediacy. Their paintings were refused by the official Salon. Because they have certain aims in common, they band together to exhibit, often in a photographer’s Paris studio. The first exhibition, in 1874, featured Claude Monet’s Impression: Sunrise, prompting hostile critics to dismiss them all as
“painters of mere impressions.” The implication is that these artists are incapable of producing a properly composed and finished painting.
An Impressionist paints landscapes and outdoor scenes outside, often working for a very short period of time. Then, as the light changes, the Impressionist stops working, returning on a subsequent day when the light is similar. (See the entry on Monet’s Haystacks.) Although French painters earlier in the century had also confronted a landscape directly, as had the English painter Constable in some of his smaller oil paintings, these artists used more conventional (and therefore acceptable) colors. The Impressionist method of working is made possible by new advances both by the packaging of colors in portable collapsible tubes, and because of the new range of colors available (some less fugitive, and some certainly less poisonous!). While these are important and practical considerations, it is the Impressionist’s vision and method of working that alienates the public.
In order to capture the ever-changing effects of light on the canvas, the artists paint rapidly, analyzing tone and color at the expense of composition and drawing — held sacred by the Academy. The broken brushstrokes, often just “dabs” of paint, and the high key of color, due in part to colored shadows, also provoke criticism. Likewise, they depart from the norm with their uniform “loading” of the paint surface, when it is accepted tradition to paint shadows thinly. They also paint on white, or very lightly tinted gounds, all of which add to brilliance of color and luminosity. Although a few perceptive collectors, sometimes the color merchants who supplied them, are quick to buy their works, many of these artists did suffer financial hardship. Today, this may seem strange, but many collectors at the time stipulated that commissioned paintings be “toned down” (i.e., given a coat of colored varnish in order to fit with older paintings in their collections.) Constable was criticized for using the greens he saw around him in his landscapes.
Although a certain group of painters is commonly referred to as “Impressionists,” their aims were not always congruent. Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and some Neo-Impressionists like Georges Seurat (1859-1891) had academic training that they valued (see entry on Pointillism). Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), after traveling widely — particularly in Italy — reacts against the apparent “formlessness” of Monet. Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), who exhibits with the Impressionists, criticizes their lack of intellectual rigor, or color “order,” as he chooses to structure his landscapes with directional brushstrokes. Moreover, Vincent van Gogh (1822-1885) is shown in museums with the Impressionists, although he is often referred to as a Realist, Expressionist, or Symbolist. But perhaps this mixture of artists is what makes this subject so interesting and challenging.
Well: there are still people who criticize, even perhaps dislike, some of these paintings, today. Imagine that you are visiting one of these exhibitions in the late 1800’s: how were the paintings shown? (Look at contemporary paintings of Art Exhibitions or an Art Collector’s home!)
How should these paintings be put on display today? Be critical!