A Question of Instinct

Started: 1872
Ended: 1892

Impressionism is the first distinctly modern movement in painting. Developing in Paris. It spread throughout Europe and eventually to the USA. Originated by artists who rejected the official, government-sanctioned exhibitions, or salons and were this shunned by powerful academic art institutions. Turning away from fine finish and detailing the Impressionists aimed to capture a moment of sensory effect in a scene. Many impressionist artists moved from the studio to the streets and countryside to paint en plein air to achieve the momentary effect.

The Impressionists loosened their brushwork and lightened their palettes to include pure and intense colours. They abandoned traditional linear perspective and the clarity of form that had previously served to distinguish the key elements of a picture. The critics faulted Impressionist paintings as appearing unfinished and amateurish.

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe by Edouard Manet, 1863

Following the ideas of Gustave Courbet, the Impressionists aimed to be painters of the real and to extend the range of subjects for paintings. It was a move away from the traditional idealized depictions of form and perfect symmetry but concentrated on the world as seen by the artist. Imperfect in a myriad of diverse ways. At the time there were many ideas of what modernity meant. Part of the Impressionist idea was to capture a split second of life, a moment in time on canvas: the impression. Science was beginning to recognize what the eye perceived and what the brain understood were different things. The Impressionists sought to capture the perception of the eye – the effects of light – to convey a passage of time, weather changes, and other atmospheric shifts in their canvases. The result did not always rely on realistic depictions.

The Realist movement confronted the official Parisian art establishment in the middle of the 19th century. Gustave Courbet was an anarchist thought that the art of his time closed its eyes to the realities of life. The French were ruled by an oppressive regime and a substantial proportion of the population was in the throes of poverty and destitution. Instead of depicting the world around them they painted idealized nudes and glorious depictions of nation. Courbet financed an exhibition of his work opposite the Universal Exhibition in Paris of 1855 that led to the emergence of artists who would challenge the status quo.

In a Park by Berthe Morisot, 1874

Several artists were not allowed to participate in the official art salon of 1863 which lead to a public outcry. In response the Salon des Refusés was formed to allow the exhibition of work by artists refused entrance to the official salon. These artists included Cézanne, Whistler and Manet. The exhibition caused a scandal due to the unconventional themes and style of work such as Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe which featured clothed men and naked women enjoying an afternoon picnic.

Manet was among the first and most important innovators to emerge in the public exhibition in Paris. He began to work in a more innovative and looser style with a brighter palette in the early 1860s. His focus shifted to everyday images of life such as streets scenes, cafés and boudoirs. His anti-academic styles and modern subject matter attracted artists on the fringes and influenced a contemporary style of painting that diverged from the official salon. His works encouraged the emerging group of artists giving them ideas to depict that were not considered art worthy previously.

Paris, a Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebot, 1877

Parisian cafés were popular venues for up and coming Impressionists to meet to discuss painting and art. The Café Geurbois in Montmartre was a favourite frequented by Manet, Renoir, Monet, Degas, Pissarro and Cézanne. Bazille and Caillebotte had nearby studios and would often join the gatherings. Writers, critics and photographers were also attracted to the creative group. The variety of personalities, economic circumstances and political views created the interesting dynamics of the group. The diversity of the personalities is seen as one of the contributing factors of the success achieved by both individuals and group efforts.

Though not united by any particular style, the group shared an antipathy towards the overbearing academic standards of fine art. They came together calling themselves Société Anonyme des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, etc. The artists had little success in getting their work accepted in the salon exhibitions in Paris. They held an alternative exhibition in 1874 using the studio of photographer Felix Nadar. It was not until the third such exhibition that the group began to call themselves the Impressionists. The first exhibition received limited public attention and most of the eight exhibitions they held cost more than they earned the later shows attracted vast audiences, with attendance recorded in the thousands. Despite this attention most of the group sold very few works in the years of the exhibitions and some were incredibly poor throughout that time.

Vetheuil in the Fog by Claude Monet, 1879

The Impressionist movement gained its name from a hostile critic, Louis Leroy, who seized of the title of Monet’s painting, Impression, Sunrise at the exhibition of 1874, accusing the artists of the group of painting nothing but impressions. The Impressionists embraced the moniker. Though they also referred to themselves as the Independents. The styles practiced varied considerably, but the group were bound together by the common interest of visual perception, based in fleeting optical impressions, and the focus on ephemeral moments of modern life.

The most celebrated of the Impressionists, Moet, was renowned for his mastery of natural light and painted at various times of day to capture changing conditions. His use of simple impressions or subtle hints of the subject, with soft brushstrokes and unmixed colours to create a natural vibrational effect gave his canvases a natural lifelike quality, he also used wet on wet to produce softer and blurred edges giving the mere suggestion of three dimensions. Monet also practiced painting en plein air, a technique inherited from the landscape painters of the Barbizon School and used widely by the Impressionists such as Monet, Pissarro, Morisot, JS Sargent and Sisley.

Degas and some other Impressionists were less interested in painting outdoors and many rejected the idea that a painting should be a spontaneous act. Degas, a highly skilled draftsman and portraitist, preferred indoor scenes of modern life; people sitting in cafés, ballet dancers rehearsing and musicians in orchestra pits. Similarly artists such as Renoir, Cassatt and Morisot focused on the figure and internal psychology of the individual. Renoir depicted the social pastimes of Parisian society.

The Opera by Mary Cassatt, 1877/78

Where the male Impressionists painted figures mainly in a public setting the female Impressionists such as Morisot, Bracquemond and Gonzales focused on the female figure and the private lives of late-19th-century women in society. Their rich compositions highlighted the internal and personal spheres of feminine society, often emphasizing the maternal bond between mother and child. The American painter, Cassatt, moved to Paris in 1866 and began exhibiting with the Impressionists in 1879 with depictions of the private space of the home but also represented women in the modern city. Her work features several innovations including the reduction of three-dimensional space and the use of bright and garish colours, both of which heralded later developments in modern art.

The Impressionist movement was deeply embedded in Parisian society and greatly influence by Baron Georges- Eugène Haussmann’s renovation of the city in the 1860s. The project sought to modernize the city and centred on the construction of wide boulevards which became the hub of public social activity. This reconstruction gave rise to the flaneur: a lounger who roamed the public spaces of the city to detachedly observe the crowd. In Impressionist paintings the detachment of the flaneur is associated with modernity and estrangement of the individual.

Girl with a Hoop by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1885

These themes of modernity depicted by artists such as Gustave Caillebotte focused on panoramic views of the city and the psychology of its citizens. More realistic in style these paintings depict the artist’s reaction to the changing nature of society. These works emphasize the geometrical arrangement of public space and the rapid tempo of modern life of urban society.

The Impressionists were a diverse group and came together regularly to discuss their work and exhibit. The collaborated on eight exhibitions from 1874 and 1886 while slowly beginning to unravel. Some felt they had mastered their experimental styles that won attention they desired and wanted to move on to explore other directions. Others were concerned about the commercial failure of their work and changed course.

©JG Farmer 2020

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