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Art Movements in Art History - A Definition of Impressionism

Art Movements > Impressionism > A Definition of Impressionism

A Definition of Impressionism *

Barbara Ehrlich White notes that "Impressionism was the style practised by Monet, Renoir,
Pissarro and others during the twenty years of so from about 1866 to 1886". As a working
definition this comment is sufficiently noncommittal to be just a useful statement of fact.
However, White herself realises that one is in deep waters when trying to identify the precise characteristics of what she deems an Impressionist style. She comments, "To write about the Impressionist style is not easy since there is such diversity between the individual artists' works, between images of different themes, and between paintings of different years".

We have, therefore, a paradox: a phenomenon which is acknowledged to exist at a
certain period and yet which cannot be defined succinctly. If we accept that a hallmark of
Modernism is individual expression, then any definitions of group style are inevitably
difficult to formulate, because group style must in the nature of things be characterised by
diversity.

It would not be possible to posit the existence of a style at all if the visual, pictorial
evidence did not indicate the prevalence of certain tendencies which recur with sufficient
frequency to be deemed characteristics of a movement. In the work of the group of painters
who associated with one another in Paris and the French countryside in the 1860s we can
detect certain shared attitudes to perception, and to rendering those perceptions, and
certain methods and techniques which enabled these painters to translate their vision of the
world into paint on canvas.

Initially, these young artists shared a distaste for official cultural attitudes and
anachronistic, academic subject matter. They believed in modernity as a theme and
naturalism as a style. They wished to be of their time and to paint what they saw around
them. They were aware of the pulse of the 1860s, of urban life and its social repercussions
on different classes; and they were familiar with industrial, scientific and technological
advances such as the camera. The Impressionists issued no manifestoes, promoted no one
particular ideology, made no radical statements; they were not a particularly intellectual
group of artists.

The popular press made a cause celebre of the whole thing by claiming that the
Impressionists' work was a calculated gesture to offend people of traditional taste. This is
ironic because the artists made every effort to use the traditional channels for exhibiting.
Year after year they submitted their work hopefully to the Salon. Sometimes they were
accepted, but more often they were rejected. Manet continued to court the Salon throughout
his career and never exhibited with his young friends, although the public identified him
with the Impressionists. To avoid being dubbed radicals and malcontents, the Impres-
sionists included artists with academic credentials in their exhibitions:2 Impressionist
exhibitions contained many naturalistic, narrative genre scenes.

Renato Poggioli poses a useful criterion for determining why the Impressionists were
regarded as a threat to the art Establishment. He suggests that a school is linked to tradition
and authority, and is relatively static and conservative in nature, but a movement is dynamic and romantic, and is concerned with the present and with immediately attainable ends. From this stance, Impressionism can be seen as a movement., but when Poggioli identifies activism and antagonism as attributes of movements, Impressionism does not readily accommodate his ideas. The Impressionists were opposed to rigid adherence to traditional precepts for art - but were certainly not very revolutionary, very vocal, nor antisocial in their behaviour. We can accept that the impressionist group constituted a movement, but in a nonhistrionic and nonideological way.

Like all young, professional artists, the Impressionists had to sell their art, and when
they were rejected by the Salon this avenue for sales was blocked. The formation of the
Societe anonyme in 1873 was, in part, a venture into marketing: the group decided to appeal
directly to the public by making their work accessible on public exhibitions. But by moving
outside of the established marketing system, in which work gained in prestige through jury
selection by artists and professors of academic repute, the group actually courted public
disapproval. In a bourgeois, capitalist society, the disregard for established economic
procedure is taken as an additional taunt.

When sales from the Impressionist exhibitions and auctions proved disappointing,
individual artists acted as private entrepreneurs and approached potential clients direct.
The small scale of paintings done after 1870 was partly because of the practicalities of
painting in situ, but also because relatively small-scale work was more readily saleable.
Parisians living in urban apartments with interleading rooms could accommodate
Impressionist paintings on the wall space available.

Once we have determined that there was a middle-class clientele for Impressionist
paintings (and this did develop during the 1870s and 1880s) we can trace a relationship
between the potential buyer of Impressionist art and the iconography of the canvases. The
bourgeois lawyer, merchant and civil servant (like the Dutch burger in the Holland of an
earlier age) wanted to possess images of his own environment. Hence the cafe, theatre,
boulevard and racetrack, or the landscape of suburb or countryside, reflecting the manners
and tastes of modern, middle-class, urban society.

The choice of subject matter by both purchasers and artists was similar, for different
but interrelated reasons. Different priorities were assigned to subject matter by purchaser
and Impressionist painters. The former wanted popular iconography rendered naturalisti
cally; the latter wished to use everyday scenes as a vehicle for investigations into
phenomena of light and colour in specific temporal situations. As Isaacson has
noted of the Impressionists, "they came saliently to the attention of the public, as they have
to history by attempting to combine a popular iconography with a truly experimental style".

It is fair to say that the Impressionists were opposed to the standards and tastes of the
Academy, and were alienated from contemporary, fashionable genre painters by form and
method. We therefore need to consider both the appearance and technique of Impressionist
painting and its iconography.

For the Realists and the Impressionists, modern life was the raw material of art. The
demi-mondaine, prostitute, bourgeois and dandy peopled the boulevards, theatres, cafes
and dance halls of Paris and attracted the eyes of artists who believed they should portray
their own world. Just as the allegories and illustrations of myth tell us of the ideologies and
philosophy of Renaissance society, so do scenes of la vie moderne inform us of the social
conventions of the second half of the 19th century.

The subjects of Impressionism were many and varied. Some general histories of' art
seem to indicate that Impressionist artists were preoccupied exclusively with the fall of
natural light upon landscape. This is true of some of the painters. But equally important was
the artificial light of interiors, for the electricity of modern technology transformed vision in
the 19th century. This point is made by Camille Mauclair. Ross states:

" According to Mauclair, the coming of electricity transformed theatre from an
architecturally structured exercise in rhetoric into a phantasmagoric dance of light.
He reasons that the Impressionists became Impressionists and were attracted to such
subjects as the circus and the theatre in part because they recognized that electric light
had created a new visual experience in which pure optical sensation was paramount.
Electric light is prismatic, it heightens the brilliance of colour, it magnifies the pace of movement. One becomes more sensitive to the fugitive, ephemeral lustre of the material
world in such light."

In the quest for modernity, what subjects and which people seemed to artists to be
"modern"? For Baudelaire, much as he admired Courbet's defiant recording of real people,
peasants were not sufficiently contemporary; it was city life that was concerned with the
present, and this was given visual form by fashion. Fashion distinguished a class, a
profession, a character type, and it was ever-changing.

For Baudelaire and Manet, it was the dandy who was the essence of male modernity.
The progenitor of dandyism in France had been the Englishman Beau Brummel, who, in the
first decade of the 19th century, had created a style of behaviour and dress designed to set
the superior individual apart from the vulgar mob. Dandyism reached France after Waterloo,
when the French aristocracy returned to Paris. Gradually the concept came to imply that it
was possible to be a self-made aristocrat, and the role was appropriated by artists and
intellectuals. The dandy idled his way through life, aloof, looking at the world, at ease in all
levels of society, frequenting cafes and boulevards in the company of fashionable women.

The Parisian woman was irrevocably part of her generation and her city. Ross points out
that Parisian women were ubiquitous in Impressionist painting and were a principal theme
in Manet's art. She writes:

" The modern Parisian woman appeared prominently in Manet's imagery as early as 1862
with the large-scale portrait of The Street Singer (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). The
model for this painting, Victorine Meurent, was to assume other guises of la Parisienne
in his work, most notably that of the courtesan Olympia (1863, Louvre, Paris). In the
1870s the subject of the Parisian woman claimed ever greater priority as laundresses,
milliners, cafe singers, waitresses, happy mothers, demi-mondaines, and elegant
women of fashion. Similar subjects appeared often in the canvases of Degas, Monet,
Renoir, Cassatt, and Morisot."

Whoever she was, la Parisienne was modern. There were many different strata of
Parisian women. The grisette was a young, unmarried working-class woman. She was not a
fille publique, a prostitute, but was stereotyped as a fun-loving flirt. The lorette aspired to
the status of grand courtesan. She had the reputation of being charming company, and had
the intelligence often to invent a mysterious and romantic ancestry.

In the days of the Second Empire, the woman of the Paris demi-monde was known as a
demi-mondaine. She was the Second Empire equivalent of the grand courtesan of the
ancien regime, a refined, spirited and educated woman who shrewdly traded sexual favours
for power and wealth. She often held a salon and made an intellectual contribution to culture
and politics. She defied bourgeois morality.

Not all bourgeois women were content to fulfil their social roles unquestioningly. Some
of them, such as Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzales, demanded the right to develop their
artistic talents. They were, nevertheless, carefully chaperoned and adhered to the
conventions of sexual propriety even if they posed for Monet.

The men and women of Paris haunt Impressionist paintings. They are found at the
racetrack, the opera, the music halls, in brothels, cafes and at boating parties. They parade
in their fashionable clothes, giving a contemporary flavour to urban subjects and revealing
the preoccupations and activities of the day.

<< Previous: The History of Impressionism

 

* Drawn from notes compiled by M. Arnold for the University of South Africa

 




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