Emily Porter

Illumination of the Importance that was given to Impressionism in Accounts of Nineteenth Century Art

Emily Porter

Painting by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903)

To explain the importance given to Impressionism in accounts of nineteenth century art, we must understand what Impressionism is. Impressionism can be understood only in its historical context. It did not arrive spontaneously, nor did it die before it had wrought profound changes on a new wave of artists (I mean painters) who as usual were ahead of composers and authors.

The nineteenth century was an age of revolutions and scientific progress. There was a proliferation of new discoveries and inventions, scientific periodicals, industrial and trade exhibitions. There was a wave of interest in optical toys such as the Zoetrope (made after 1860) and the Praxinoscope (patented in 1877) which created the illusion of movement. There were also the Kaleidoscope and Stereoscope which produced respectively multi—coloured patterns, and apparently three-dimensional images.

There were many advanced scientific studies of light and colour. In  particular, there was  the research of the French chemist, Michel Eugène Chevreul, director of the dyeing department of Gobelins tapestry factory in Paris, who carried out research into the apparent deterioration of certain colours in tapestries. His book “The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours and their Application to the Arts” was first published in 1839 “and may even have influenced Delacroix’s understanding of colours”. Chevreul, for the first time, laid down a system of laws relating to the changes observed when certain colours are used in close proximity. This relation and effect can also be extended to all manner of areas where colour is used.

At the same time photography, the new technology, was invented. It had a considerable impact on painting. Some people considered photography to be an art. Others, like Baudelaire, attacked it violently, but it certainly opened up new aspects of life with its original approach and direct spontaneous vision, variation in depth of focus, the fogged appearance caused by a ring of bright light round an object close-up from unusual angles, distortion of detail, and the snapshots that caught light and reflections. All these factors inspired the artists.

However, the artists were stimulated by the new techniques of the photographer and were determined to attain the same kind of results, not mechanically, but by effort and artistic genius. These gifts enabled them to seize the immediacy and actuality of life and vision through the use of brilliant and varied colours and shimmering light effects.

Impressionism is a school of painting which started in France and subsequently spread to other countries. It was a real revolution in painting, a method of painting that consisted of reproducing an impression exactly as it is experienced, and the Impressionist artist aimed at representing objects according to his own impressions without bothering about generally recognised rules.

They mainly painted outdoors, using a technique of separate, fragmented brush strokes and pure prismatic colours. They aimed at rendering changing effects of light and reflection with vivid immediacy and intensity. Impressionists were the artists we could call painters of atmosphere.

It is interesting to notice that the English School of Painting played an important part in the evolution of French painting as it developed towards Impressionism. In 1870 Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro went to London to study the work of the great English Landscape artists Constable, Bonington, and Turner. As Pissarro remarked “Turner’s and Constable’s water colours and paintings certainly influenced our painting”.

The first Impressionist exhibition was held in 1874 (the last of the eight exhibitions was held in 1886). This exhibition of 1874 was held in the studios belonging to Nadar, the photographer. Thirty artists took part, both critics and public reacted violently, and for the first time an obscure journalist used the word “Impressionism” when he wrote an article about this exhibition. It was taken from the title of one of Monet’s pictures shown in the exhibition “Impression Sunrise” representing the harbour at Haver in early morning mist.

Cries of “ugly”, “incompetent”, “immoral”, “decadent” have greeted virtually every revolution in art, but these were certainly louder. However, painting had never appeared so wilful, so self—indulgent, so completely gratuitous as it did, beginning with Manet’s coarse paraphrase of the old masters and continuing with Monet’s bold complexes of colour and brushwork and his landscape scenes with figures arranged in peculiar shapes, shades, and colours.

To many, painting seemed about to disintegrate. Few critics and few members of the art public in general could see any sign of hope. Words of support came from critics like Zola, Duret, and Duranty.

It is impossible to state categorically when Impressionism started. However, we see a pattern in its emergence (Monet, Manet) and we will consider some of the causes and focus on the importance usually given to the Academy of Fine Art and its showplace, the Salon.

The original Académie Française had been abolished by the painter, J L David (1748—1825). David was an arch—Republican who, as a Deputy, voted for the execution of Louis XVI. In post-revolutionary France it had undergone several major changes but essentially maintained the same functions as in the seventeenth century, which was serving primarily as a teaching body and the only organisation allowed to hold public art exhibitions.

After the French Revolution of 1789, the power of the Académie and its intense conservatism led to the term “academic” coming to mean dry, old fashioned, and conventional.

David was the leader of the neoclassical movement in France. This style of art sought subjects from Greek and Roman history and continued unchanged into the nineteenth century, but it came face—to—face with a threat in the form of Romanticism led by Eugène Delacroix (1798—1863). Romanticism was more strongly concerned with subject matter and opposed to neoclassical obsession with minute detail.

Meanwhile, another movement was gaining ground as a reaction against both classicism and romanticism. This was the realism of such artists as J Millet (1814—1875) and G Courbet (1819—1877) whose depictions of harsh peasant life were despised by those who clung to the idea that art should be elevating and seek only noble subjects. Courbet was rejected by the Salon.

The Salon was, according even to some of its proponents, such as Ingres (1780-1867, a pupil of David) who remarked, “The Salon is literally no more than a picture shop”. Artists were driven to adhere to its rigid standards as the only means of obtaining institutional and hence the only worthwhile way of selling work or gaining lucrative official commissions.

In this dull system, almost all the paintings looked as if they had come from the same hand. The clients for these paintings were the new bourgeoisie, who demanded pictures they could understand: pretty flowers, mythological and religious themes, and perhaps the mildly erotic nude. Landscapists were at the bottom of the scale.

It was against this background that the Impressionists were to emerge, and obviously they were rejected by the Salon, but they were all deeply committed to artistic careers, albeit in an environment that offered little freedom of individual choice.

In the absence of a private income, the choice was obvious; paint according to the Académie rules or starve. But what enabled the Impressionists to survive were their social contacts — especially in the popular cafes where a wide range of intellectuals gathered.

Seldom in the history of art was there such a high degree of cross-pollination of ideas and unselfish aid not only in aesthetic and artistic matters but in practical daily life – financial help (Cézanne and Zola,) a powerful bond of friendship which not only fostered their work but in some instances enabled them to survive.

The Impressionist artist placed great emphasis on bright primary colours (red, blue, and yellow) applying them directly to the canvas rather than mixed on the palette, most typically using dashes of paint without any attempt to disguise the brush stroke, or even leaving some spots of the canvas without paint. They never used black, which was traditional, as a shadow. Spontaneity with harmony and exact observation of the relation of one tone to another was the Impressionist style, particularly as demonstrated by Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley.

Seizing on a scene, or an interesting play of light, the Impressionist painter would attempt to create the immediacy of the scene on canvas. Monet, for example, often worked for only 15 minutes on a subject before he abandoned it when the light changed. This led to a charge against them that their work was unfinished.

An Impressionist painter is a painter endowed with unusual visual sensitivity. He forgets all the vast accumulation of pictures he has seen in museums, and all the visual education he has received in art schools about correct perspective and drawing and colour. He sees things naturally and freshly with an innocent eye and paints them simply and unaffectedly just as he sees them.

Here is a note from a visitor to the Impressionism exhibition in late 1890: “The paintings of Pissarro (1830-1903) were comparatively the most comprehensible, though the pictures were out of drawing, had no content, and the colourings were most improbable. The drawing was so indefinite that you were sometimes unable to make out which way an arm or a head was turned, some pictures with figures but no subjects. In the colouring, bright blue and bright green predominated, the whole picture was as it were splashed.”

Meanwhile Leo Tolstoy wrote, “People who grew up admiring Goethe, Schiller, Musset, Dickens, Hugo, Da Vinci, etc. being unable to make head or tail of this new art ‘Impressionism’ simply attribute its production to tasteless insanity, and wish to ignore them. But such attitudes towards this new art is quite unjustifiable because, in the first place, this art is spreading more and more and has already conquered a firm position, and secondly and chiefly, if we do not understand it, then we are still  insufficiently developed to understand the art of Pissarro, Proust, Monet, Wagner, Ibsen, Manet, Strauss and Renoir”.

Impressionist painting, which was so much disparaged and disliked when it first appeared, had so much that one is inclined to think of it as an end itself, when it was merely a revolutionary tendency, but with nothing final about it.

Impressionism was a school of painting, but at the same time it was more a common attitude among artists towards the basic problems of their art, creating a new way of seeing, feeling, a new mode of living. It gave the artists the strength to ignore all the taboos that hindered their progress. It was a concept that quickly spread beyond the borders of its own origin and gave the world of art revelation, liberation, and the healthy influence of this breath of air. This ray of light was soon to be seen in poetry, music, novels of the second half of the nineteenth century, and left the door wide open.


Art and Civilisation – Bernard Mayer
Publisher McGraw-Hill Book Company

The Art of Impressionist-Horst Keller 

The Background of Art  – D. Talbot Rice
Thomas Nelson and Sons

Goddesses, Whores, Wives ad Slaves – Sarah B. Pomeroy

Art History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Volume I and Volume II– Frederick Hart
Harry N Abrams Publishers

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