Impressionism – A Cautionary Tale
Impressionism is one of the most popular movements of Western Art. It took place between 1870 and 1880, mainly in France, and suffered a lot of resistance at the beginning, since critics, art dealers and the public in general were more used to the academic and "serious" kinds of paintings that would hang from the walls of the official Salón, a very popular government-sponsored art exhibition that took place every year in France.
The typical paintings you would see at the Salón would feature religious, historic or mythological subjects. They would follow the guidelines of realistic art set by the Renaissance and followed by most masters for almost 500 years. The paintings looked subdued in the use of color, valued good draftsmanship and had strict rules of perspective. In addition to that, they were perfectly finished and varnished.
The impressionists started to systematically deconstruct these rules.
The artists. Monet is considered the quintessential Impressionist painter. The one who practically set the rules and followed them to the very end of his long and productive career. Other famous impressionists were Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Morisot, and Pissarro. They had been heavily influenced by pre-impressionists, like Manet and Courbet, whose art was already moving away from the standards of classic realism.
The technique. Today you will hardly come across someone who does not like Impressionism. The main reason is that Impressionist paintings are usually uplifting, colorful and full of light. They are cheerful works that make most people feel good. Composed of short, broken, brush strokes, in unmixed bright colors, Impressionist art works conveyed how reality appears to us under different light conditions. They avoid rigid contours or lines, drawing was secondary to the use of color. Shadows were never black, but painted in darker hues of colors, which varied throughout the day and in accordance to the season of the year. For more traditional eyes, the paintings can sometimes look rather unfinished.
The origin of the name. In a 1874 exhibition, Monet presented a painting called Impression: Sunrise (see image below). All it showed was a couple of solitary boats on the sea in Le Havre under a red sun reflected on the water. It was painted in quick, diffused, brush strokes. The art critic Louis Leroy, from the magazine Charivari, was not happy with what he saw. He fiercely mocked the artists that painted like Monet and used the very title of the painting to criticize their style, claiming they were mere impressionists. His paintings, Leroy said, looked more like sketches than finished works of art. Despite the derogatory use of the word, Monet and his friends boldly appropriated the name and started to use it officially to define their revolutionary new style. Impressionism had been born.
Where the paintings were made. Usually impressionists would paint en plein air, meaning the outdoors. This is where they could best capture the effects of the changing light on trees, flowers, people and water. Some of them would sometimes finish their work indoors, but hardliners, such as Monet, would work outside every day, under different weather conditions, completing their works there.
The subject matter. Impressionists would do landscapes, seascapes , portraits and still life paintings. But they hardly included anything outstanding. Their themes were scenes and items of everyday reality: moments of contemporary Parisian life, flowers, boats, expanses of water, sunsets…The simpler, the better. Their point was to study and convey how color worked under light. You need to step back from an impressionistic painting at a museum to fully appreciate what it’s all about as a whole. The closer you get, the more the image gets fragmented into singular dabs and brush strokes without specific forms or meaning.
Impressionism is at the very beginning of what we call Modern Art. Those painters influenced strongly all the art movements that followed them, such as fauvism, cubism and surrealism. Impressionist paintings sell for millions of dollars today. It’s hard to believe that they were once discriminated against and frowned upon. Monet lived in poverty for great party of his life until he was recognized as a great innovator.
There’s perhaps a cautionary tale there. The value and importance of contemporary art is almost never acknowledged at its inception. So, perhaps we should hold our judgment when confronted with some new form of Art and try to understand what it really means and learn to identify the possible seeds of radical transformation we are witnessing.