Art Dictionary

Impressionism

Paul Cézanne,

Paul Cézanne, "Bathers", c. 1895/96, detail
Langmatt Museum

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An exhibition in Paris in 1874 gave birth to what was probably, at the time, the most exciting and newest style in nineteenth-century art: Impressionism.

"Monet is nothing but an eye, but what an eye." (Paul Cézanne)

"The motif is unimportant to me. What I want to depict is what exists between me and the motif." (Claude Monet)

A haystack in the early morning, in the bright sunshine, at dusk. A similar sequence devoted to the façade of the Cathedral of Rouen - flickering blurs of color and light. What prompted painters like Claude Monet to paint such series during the latter half of the 19th century? And to choose such subjects? The answer is brief: the mood, the moment, the light. Light was the real subject of the paintings created by the artists who belonged to the movement known as Impressionism.

The art of Claude Monet (1840-1926) exemplifies Impressionist painting like that of no other painter. His series and his poetic images of water lilies are among the most popular and beloved works of art in the world. But that was not always so. The birth of Impressionism in the 1860s was tantamount to a revolution, and it was greeted accordingly with horror in the art world. Here was a group of young Parisian painters who abandoned practically every rule of traditional academic painting. They put up their easels in the outdoors and painted objects or scenes as they appeared at given moments. Employing a style referred to as open-air painting, they ignored the principles of painstakingly conceived composition in favor of random frames of view and a central perspective, dissolving all matter into a fabulous display of light and color. This explains why the Impressionists were not concerned primarily with motifs themselves. The subject was important only as a medium for light, color and atmosphere - for an impression, an entirely personal response, which they sought to capture on the canvas: poplars along a road, an empty village street in the winter, or a simple haystack.

The desire to fix the unique quality of a fleeting moment in a painting was also reflected in the Impressionists' painting technique. Their brushstrokes are hasty and animated, often giving a painting the look of a quickly drawn sketch. All of these painters eliminated the color black from their palettes. Everything is color, everything is light. Thus viewers are always advised to move back a few steps when looking at an Impressionist painting, to allow a figure, an object or a landscape to emerge from the abstract conglomeration of spots and dabs of paint. The emancipation of color from the pictorial object is characteristic of the shift from classical to modern painting.

Among the indirect vanguards of Impressionism were such artists as the English landscape painters John Constable (1776-1837) and William Turner (1775-1851) and their French colleagues Jean-Baptiste Corot (1796-1875) and Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), whose rendition of atmosphere and the dispersive effects of light made a lasting impression on Monet and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), in particular. An understanding of the history of Impressionism cannot be complete without knowledge of a phenomenon that played an outstanding, indeed existential role in the Paris art scene: the Salon. The annual Salon de Paris was an exhibition, a marketplace for contacts and a springboard to many a career - state-subsidized event presided over by a jury. Artists who were privileged to exhibit at the Salon were more or less assured a measure of commercial success. Those who were rejected were compelled to seek try their luck at alternative salons.

Paris was the center of the art world in those years. A horde of like-minded artists gathered there during the 1860s, among them a number of painters whose works had been rejected by the Salon jury - Monet und Pissarro, Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Berthe Morisot (1841-1895). Angered by this lack of acceptance, they exhibited together under the name of the Société anonyme des artistes-peintres in 1874. The first Impressionist exhibition attracted more scorn than success. With reference to a painting exhibited by Monet entitled Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise, 1873), critic Louis Joseph Leroy derisively dubbed the group "peintres impressionistes," and thus coined the term that described the stylistic concept of the new movement in art. Although Impressionism was born in France and is still viewed largely in that context today, it was by no means a purely French phenomenon. German artists such as Max Liebermann, Lovis Corinth, Wilhelm Leibl, Max Slevogt and Carl Schuch were also noteworthy Impressionists.

Monet, Pissarro and Sisley were probably the most typical and consistent representatives of the Impressionist movement, although each achieved different degrees of success. Other painters associated with Impressionism experimented with the style but eventually developed their own forms of expression. Edouard Manet (1832-1883), for example, whose scandalous Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863) and Olympia (1863) made a striking impression on the young Impressionists, was a dedicated studio painter throughout his career. The classical subject of the figure was always an essential component of his works. Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) disassembled his visual landscapes into spherical, conical and cylindrical forms, modelling them with extremely delicate color shadings that even excluded light and shadow. He is regarded as a precursor of Cubism. Renoir also passed through an Impressionist phase, only to re-embrace the virtues of classical painting as he grew older. In his portraits of women, he combined his love of painting with his admiration for the female gender. And Degas was an Impressionist only to the extent that he sought to immortalize the fleeting movements of his famous ballerinas - figures with clearly painted contours - in his paintings.

We find it almost impossible to believe that Monet, like so many other artists, sold some his paintings for ridiculously low prices. Impressionism has gone down in history as the cradle of Modernism - and of changes as profound and far-reaching as those set in motion by Renaissance art. Numerous "isms" followed in its wake: Expressionism, Cubism, Fauvism and Surrealism, to name only a few. Monet, who had the rare privilege of living long enough to enjoy his own success, and Cézanne are regarded as the forefathers of modern painting. It is only a relatively small step that separates Monet's late Water Lilies, his vibrating spectacle of color for color's sake, and the abstract Action Painting of a Jackson Pollock in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

19.11.2002 Dorothee Fauth

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