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    The Roots of Modern Art, Part 2: Impressionism

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    • 06/11/2006 http://www.galilean-library.org/site/uploads/

    By /index.php?/user/8-davidm/">David Misialowski (2006)

    All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. — Walter Pater

    In 1863 Edouard Manet scandalized the art world by painting a picture of a picnic. This is it:

    Manet.dejeuner.750pix_small.jpg

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    At the time, France was dominated by the rules of the Academie des beaux-arts, which stipulated that if you were going to paint pictures of women in that way, you'd better put them in some acceptable historical or allegorical context, like this work by the academic painter Adolphe-William Bouguereau:

    printemps_small.jpg

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    The academy also liked somber or subdued colors, smoothed-out paintings (no visible brush strokes) and traditional themes. It was a bulwark of visual conservatism. Manet's risque picture was shocking, and when he tried to display it at an Academy-approved show, he was rebuffed.

    This was the start of something new. Manet's painting, as we shall see, is not an early example of impressionism, (though he later became an impressionist), but nevertheless it was a departure from "the rules". It was one of the opening gambits in a line that would lead to modernism.

    The weird thing about Manet's painting is that it didn't really tell any story. Back then, paintings were supposed to tell stories. The story of the Bouguereau work is found in its title, "Return of Spring". But what's the story of the Manet painting? Women sans clothes didn't generally hang out at picnics with men back then (or even now, alas) and so the whole work seems to be a formal exercise and strangely pointless. But it was an harbinger of the new art: paintings would not have to tell stories, but line, color, brushstroke, composition and other pictorial elements could be expressive in their own right, with recognizable subject matter secondary, arbitrary or even nonexistent. At the time, Emile Zola wrote: "Painters, and especially Edouard Manet, who is an analytic painter, do not share the masses' obsession with the subject: to them, the subject is only a pretext to paint, whereas for the masses only the subject exists."

    Zola's observation was condescending but nevertheless astute, and I shall return to it in future essays. Even then, he cut to the heart of the disconnect that makes so much of modern art unintellilgible to so many people: People are conditioned to look at these paintings in search of a subject, the way they expect a novel to be "about" something. But for the painters, the "subject" lies in the drama of the interplay of the pictorial elements in and of themselves: the analogy to a novel should be replaced by the analogy to music without lyrics.

    The rule-laden art aristocracy of the time made the impressionists outcasts, because they broke the rules. Whereas the rules favored somber and subdued colors, the impressionists wanted to paint the bright colors produced by sunlight. The rules said: show no brushstrokes; the impressionists flaunted theirs. The rules said: paint indoors, in a studio; the impressionists took their rainbow palettes and canvases into the open air and painted from real life. Here is the painting that gave birth to the term "impressionism":

    <IMG src="http://www.galilean-library.org/images/david/780px-Claude_Monet,_Impression,_soleil_levant,_1872_small.jpg"></IMG>

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    The painting, "Impression, Sunrise", is by Claude Monet, from about 1873, and of it a critic sarcastically wrote, "Impression — I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it ... and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape."

    The critic didn't like it, but his derisive emphasis on "impression" stuck, and those who painted in this manner co-opted the term and proudly called themselves the impressionists. The heyday of the impressionists was from the mid 1860s to the mid 1880s, and their legacy survives to the present, when many painters routinely employ impressionist techniques, which are now well understood. What was revolutionary then is old hat now. In fact, the reigning art aristocracy (for there is always an art elite) considers impressionism not avante garde but boring.

    The critic didn't like Monet's sunrise because his idea of what constituted art was, to borrow a phrase we've encountered in a different context on this Web site, theory-laden. If your theory is that art must be "finished", that it must mimic reality as closely as possible and that it must be restricted to a muted color palette, then your conclusion will be that Monet's work was bad. If you fail to share one or more of those presuppositions, then all bets are off.

    To be fair, the critic and others of the time probably supposed that painting "finished" works was harder to do, and required greater craft — and at the time, "craft" was held in much higher esteem in all fields then today, the era of mass production. Again, though, this idea incorporates the presupposition that if a painting is "harder" to make, then it is somehow "better" or of more "value". Apart from the fact that there's no particular reason to think this, one could ask: was the Monet work really "easier" to do than a "finished" version of a sunrise? The answer, surprisingly, probably is no. Anyone who has painted knows that once you learn the techniques of a fixed palette, smoothed-down brush strokes and the like, it's easy to replicate them. After all, there are only so many ways to paint a flesh tone in a studio setting, and how hard is it to smooth down paint to make the brush strokes invisible?

    When the critic wrote, "and what freedom, what ease of workmanship!" he could not know that these things would indeed later become valued properties of much art. He meant this as a criticism but later art critics would use such terms in praise. After all, why shouldn't painted works display freedom and ease of workmanship? Can't such properties denote the effortlessness of virtuosity, which comes only after years of practice? Is there not freedom and ease of workmanship in the work below, so many years before Monet, by Rembrandt?

    <IMG src="http://www.galilean-library.org/images/david/b3-15_small.jpg"></IMG>

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    Granted that this is a drawing and not a painting, but what's the difference? Drawing is painting and painting is drawing. The above is far from "finished" and it is certainly, in the way Monet meant it, an impression. So there really was nothing completely new about impressionism when it came on the scene. Rembrandt, as with so much, had anticipated this particular future.

    So the impressionists went outdoors and their works bloomed like colored flowers in spring. Rejecting the Academy-sponosored shows because those shows rejected them, the impressionist set up their own exhibitions. Below are some works from the 1870s and 1880s, by the pioneers of impressionism, and all of them should be viewed as at large a size as possible:

    Monet, who as we have seen painted the work that prompted the coining of the term impressionism, was famous for his impressionistic water lillies and his haystacks. Examples:

    <IMG src="http://www.galilean-library.org/images/david/monet.wl-clouds_small.jpg"></IMG>

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    <IMG src="http://www.galilean-library.org/images/david/matin_small.jpg"></IMG>

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    <IMG src="http://www.galilean-library.org/images/david/couchant_small.jpg"></IMG>

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    <IMG src="http://www.galilean-library.org/images/david/boston_small.jpg"></IMG>

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    It's hard to imagine making so much out of some haystacks! But Monet did. He was struggling to capture the impression of the stacks under various lighting conditions as the day went by, and one must say he suceeded brilliantly. There is no known academic strategy to achieve similar results, and the academics would have considered it weird, wrong, to paint just haystacks anyway. Also, there isn't much of a "story" in these paintings, haystacks being famously taciturn. The story, if there is one, is about the interplay of light and shadow and color, and nothing more.

    The aforementioned Manet, whose potryal of the picknicking woman roused the wrath of the academics, adopted the impressionistic technique later on, and a prime example of late Manet is below:

    <IMG src="http://www.galilean-library.org/images/david/manet.serveuse-bocks_small.jpg"></IMG>

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    Pierre-Auguste Renoir was a protypical impressionist, as can be seen in the work below. Later, however, he broke with impressionism. Compare the early and late Renoir:

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    <IMG src="http://www.galilean-library.org/images/david/renoir.famille-artiste_small.jpg"></IMG>

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    Camille Pissarro:

    <IMG src="http://www.galilean-library.org/images/david/pissarro.stage-coach_small.jpg"></img>

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    Alfred Sisely (what a lovely work this is!):

    <IMG src="http://www.galilean-library.org/images/david/bridge_small.jpg"></img>Click for Larger Image

    Berthe Morisot (the first woman to undertake impressionism):

    <IMG src="http://www.galilean-library.org/images/david/hideseek_small.jpg"></IMG>

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    There were others, of course, and any number of painters experimented with impressionistic techniques, among them Van Gogh and Cezanne, but the latter developed their own mature styles that wandered far from impressionism, and art historians generally classify them (in the mania for classification) as post-impressionist painters. I'll discuss the work of these two founding fathers of modern art in separate essays.

    What these works all have in common is that they are painted out of doors or in brightly colored settings, in full sunlight (or the rain, as they case might be), and incorporate the poetry of brushstrokes and a fresh conception of color. It's worth examining in more detail what that conception of color is.

    Somber, subdued, "realistic" colors had come to dominate the Western art tradition by the time the impressionists came along, but one should notice that "realistic" colors exist in a certain context. If you paint indoors, in a studio under controlled lighting conditions, then the colors around you will look subudued. But if you paint outdoors under full sunlight, things change. I suggest that the real bias at the time was not so much against strong color, but against painting outdoors, in real life, among the plebes and peasants. The art establishment thought that to do so was to debase oneself. The real, "lofty" themes of art weren't found among the hoi polloi, they thought, but in myth and history and religion. This was, of course, just another bias, but a self-protective one: If you can make people think that you belong to a priesthood of great art "secrets" and traditions to be passed on inviolate, then you are members of such a priesthood, with all the social and financial benefits that this status confers. I'd suggest that the Academy's aversion to the impressionists was not so much about aesthetics as it was about politics.

    The main thing that the impressionists did with color was to "unmix" it. In the priesthood, studio painting had a fixed strategy for producing colors, and it invariably involved the liberal use of black, white and gray to tame color, as if color were some wanton jezebel that presented a threat to public morals. Painters mixed colors into a toned-down sludge and then laid it on canvas in glazes and layers and washes in a carefully contrived way. Such an approach puts a premium on learned method and discourages spontaneity, creativity and the insight garnered from rapid response to quick observation.

    The insight of the impressionists was to banish black and gray from their palettes, and even much white. They argued that these weren't even colors: In what's known as the subtractive or painter's color pallette, if you subtract all colors you get white. If you add all colors you get black. And if you mix black and white together in equal amounts you get gray. So to make color more vivid, they decided to expel, to the greatest extent possible, black, gray and some whites.

    Let's take a brief detour into color theory. Here is the painter's color wheel:

    <img src="http://www.galilean-library.org/images/david/rddcolorwheel_small.jpg</IMG>

    The primary colors are yellow, red and blue. Primary colores are those that are self-sufficient: they contain no trace of any other color. In theory, all colors are built by mixing these three colors, along with some white or black. This can yield millions of different colors, a synonym for color being hue.

    Complementary colors are those that lie on the opposite side of the wheel from the primaries that they complement. The complement of yellow is violet, which in theory is an equal-parts (50:50) mix of the two other primaries, red and blue. The complement of red is greeen, which is a 50:50 mix of the other two primaries, yellow and blue. And the complement of blue is orange, which again is a 50:50 mix of the two remaining primaries, in this case red and yellow.

    Armed with this knowledge one can go on to harmonize a whole set of colors in a systematic way, by mixing and matching. Shade refers to how much colors are tamped down by adding black, and tint refers to how much they are lightened by adding white.

    I'll discuss color theory more in later essays, particularly the one on Van Gogh, but for now the point is that the impressionists had a couple of insights: banish shade (and to a much lesser extent tint) from their palettes, and separate colors into pure tones instead of mixing them together, so that they would be more vivid. The alternative idea, espoused by the Academy, was that colors should be heavily mixed and muted by black. Let’s look at two paintings, one by the previously mentioned academic painter, Bouguereau, and the other by one of the foremost impressionists, Camille Pissarro. In each case the subject matter is the same: a peasant girl. (The Pissaro work should be viewed at a size as large as possible.)

    By Bouguereau:

    <IMG src="http://www.galilean-library.org/images/david/shepherdess_small.jpg"></img>

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    By Pissaro:

    <IMG src="http://www.galilean-library.org/images/david/stick_small.jpg"></IMG>

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    The difference between academic (approved) painting of that time, and the rebel impressionists, is on dramatic display here. For what it is worth (and we must admit that this is a contingent fact), history has not been been kind to Bouguereau or the academics that dominated mid-century France, and has been kind to the impressionists and Pissarro. The rececived wisdom today is that the Pissarro painting is the much superior work.

    Why think that? This evaluation is also theory-laden, weighted with a set of values that themselves can’t be proved to be true, but the idea is that Pissarro's work has more sophistication, individuality, flair and freedom; and also that it makes use, in a way that the Bouguereau piece doesn't (indeed, can't) of the substances and properties of paint qua paint. The Bouguereau piece, and all such academic pieces, it is now thought, crucially lack the presence of the artist. It is argued that the academics followed formula so slavishly that they extinguished their personalities — though, of course, this argument presupposes that personality in art is a good thing. Maybe it's a bad thing. The Islamic art tradition certainly seems to abhor individuality, and it has produced splendid works, as we'll see in a later essay.

    By contrast to Bouguereau, in the Pissarro piece we sense the very tremor of the artist's hand, the movement of his eyes. And, it is a feast of color, a cornocopia for the cones. It is full of broken colors, harmonized complentaries, and the fugitive play of light and shade captured by refusing to smooth down the brush strokes. Put simply, there is just so much more to look at in the Pissarro painting. One's eyes can linger for a long time just on the peasant girl’s lower legs and shoes, so alive and shimmering with color and energy. By contrast, the Bouguereau work is all surface. Everything there is to be seen, is seen at a glance. A different way to say this is that, from the perspective of using paint qua paint, the Bouguereau work is superficial - it presents no real visual challenge.

    To go a little further, Georges Seurat, was classified as a neoimpressionist, attempted to adapt the broken-color techniques of impressionism and scientize the process. He failed, of course, if in fact his goal was to establish a fixed, scientific method of painting, but succeeded in making some brilliant canvases, the most famous of which, probably, is below: Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte.

    <IMG src="http://www.galilean-library.org/images/david/seurat_small.jpg"></IMG>

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    The technique, called pointillism or divsionism, got rid of paint mixing altogether, along with black and gray, and reduced pigment to individual, minuscule points of pure color, yielding a shimmering effect. For example, look at the shadows in the grass and trees. The academic method of reproducing such shadows would have been to mix violet, green and some black into a uniform tone. The Seurat technique, which some have suggested was the logical conclusion of impressionism, was to paint the shadow by individual points of pure green paint and pure violet paint, with no black at all. Likewise, where sun falls on trees, pure points of yellow and green are arranged side by side.

    Pointillism was certainly new (and took so long to execute that virtually no one excpet Seurat ever used the technique), but we should realize that while there is something new with impressionism, it is not altogether new. Long before the academics or the impressionists, Rembrandt, and others, used free, unsuppressed brushstrokes to capture impressions of light and form, and other painters before the impressionists were quite liberal and free in their use of bright color. A ancestor of the impressionists, whose work also influenced Van Gogh and Picasso, was Euguene Delacroix, and here is an example of his art, laden with rich color and free brushstrokes:

    <IMG src="http://www.galilean-library.org/images/david/delacroix_small.jpg"></IMG>

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    In the 20th century, academic painting would suffer the ultimate eclipse of being deemed banal, sentimental kitsch. Whether one agrees with this or not depends on one's conceptual scheme for evaluating art, a philosophical problem that I'll discuss in yet another later essay. In any event, notice again two things going on in the Pissarro work: first is the liberation of color, the suppression of blacks and grays; and second is the distancing of the subject from the means of conveying the subject. The academic work tells a story: peasant girl wearing a determined, purposeful expression, rising above the straitened means of her life. It's an idealization of peasantry, and arguably straightforwardly escapist. The second tells no story per se about the subject, or only vaguely so, but tells the story of color and brushwork themselves. The brushstrokes and color variations are everywhere, and so the whole canvas, and not just the figure, is important. The realization that color and brushwork (and line and volume and shape and other visual tropes) could tell their own story would take art down the path to nonrepresentationalism, to the idea of visual art aspiring to the condition not of literature but of music.


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