Category: Landscape Painting
Impressionism in painting, late-19th-century French school that was generally characterized by the attempt to depict transitory visual impressions, often painted directly from nature, and by the use of pure, broken color to achieve brilliance and luminosity. It was loosely structured in that many painters were associated with the movement for only brief periods in their careers. Their association often came about more for the purpose of exhibiting their works than from an approach to painting held in common.
The Birth of Impressionism
The movement began with the friendship of four students of the academic painter Marc Gleyre: Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Bazille. These four met regularly at the Café Guerbois in Paris with Cézanne, Pissarro, and Morisot, and later with Degas, Manet, the critics Duret and Rivière, and the art dealer Durand-Ruel. The painters repudiated academic standards and reacted against the romantics’ emphasis on emotion as subject matter.
They forsook literary and anecdotal subjects and, indeed, rejected the role of imagination in the creation of works of art. Instead they observed nature closely, with a scientific interest in visual phenomena. Although they painted everyday subjects, they avoided the vulgar and ugly, seeking visual realism by extraordinary stylistic means.
The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War ( July 18, 1870) found Claude Monet at Le Havre, where he remained as that fateful summer wore on. On September 2 came the German breakthrough at Sedan; Napoleon III capitulated and on September 4 the Third Republic was proclaimed. Leaving Camille and little Jean in Normandy, Monet sailed for England in September. Bazille volunteered for the Zouaves and joined a line regiment in August (he was killed in action at Beaune-la-Rolande on November 28).
Manet, as a confirmed republican, waited for the Empire to collapse and then enlisted (as did Degas) in an artillery unit of the National Guard. Pissarro, living at Louveciennes, found himself in the path of the advancing Germans and fled to England, leaving behind hundreds of his pictures together with many that Monet had stored with him. Torn from their frames and used as floor-mats and aprons by the Prussian soldiery, who turned his house into the regimental butchershop, all were destroyed — an irreparable loss, depriving us of by far the greater part of Pissarro’s pre-1870 output and a substantial part of Monet’s. To these losses, in the case of Monet, must be added the many canvases which he himself ripped to shreds in fits of despair or to prevent their being seized by his creditors.
Things went no better for him in London than in France. The English public showed complete indifference to his work. He submitted some pictures to an exhibition at the Royal Academy, but they were rejected. He had the good luck, however, to run into Daubigny, who introduced him to his own dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, also a refugee in London, who had opened a gallery at 158 Bond Street. This meeting was providential not only for Monet but also for Pissarro, who met Durand-Ruel at the same time. “Without him we’d have starved to death in London,” he wrote later. But in spite of his enthusiasm for their work and his persistence in bringing it to public notice, Durand-Ruel failed to sell a single one of their pictures in England. He nevertheless went on buying canvases from Monet and Pissarro, and thus enabled them to keep afloat.
Monet made several views of the Thames in addition to some studies in Hyde Park in which the figures are very roughly silhouetted against a simplified landscape composed of broad, flat planes of color. Pissarro tells of their visits to the museums and how much they were impressed by the English landscape painters, by Constable and Turner in particular. Monet later denied that he had been influenced by Turner at that time, and indeed it is only in the much later series of fog effects on the Thames ( 1904) that Turner’s influence becomes apparent.
In the summer of 1871 Monet left England for Holland, where he painted some landscapes in which the mighty forms of windmills, outlined against the immensity of the sky above the canals in the foreground, are treated in a free, sparkling style very much like that of his Trouville seascapes of 1870.
Life had gone back to normal in Paris now and artists were returning to their old haunts. The group that had formed around Manet in the late sixties now formed again, but this time it centered on Monet. Even before his military service, as early as 1859, Monet had met Pissarro at the Académie Suisse; after his discharge from the army, at Gleyre’s studio in 1862, he had met Renoir, Bazille and Sisley. Monet thus formed the link between the group at Gleyre’s and the group at the Académie Suisse, where Pissarro had been joined by Cézanne and Guillaumin.
In December 1871 Monet settled at Argenteuil, on the western outskirts of Paris. After a visit to Le Havre in the spring of 1872, he left for Holland, eager to rework a vein that had proved so fruitful in the previous year. It is difficult to distinguish between the pictures made during these two stays in Holland, few of them being dated. Assignable to 1872, however, are those which foreshadow the fully developed technique of his Argenteuil period, those, in other words, in which we find a breaking-up of color into a patchwork of small brushstrokes and a new emphasis on atmospheric vibration.
In the autumn of 1872 Monet returned to Argenteuil where he lived for the next six years, with occasional expeditions to Paris, as is proved by two views of the Boulevard des Capucines in winter. He saw much of Renoir and they often worked together on the Seine banks. Monet’s first river scenes, in 1872-1873, were still built up in separate, unblended strokes and patches of color. A good example is Pleasure Boats which, enclosed in a triple frame with a Sisley and a Pissarro, forms a triptych bequeathed to the Louvre by Monsieur May.
As soon as they appeared, the Water Lilies of Claude Monet old age, those hymns to light, plant life and water, incurred the displeasure of both the well-wishers and the detractors of Impressionism. The first were baffled by Monet’s new manner; the second were blind to the new depth of vision these works revealed. Misunderstood and neglected for over thirty years, the Water Lilies are at last receiving the recognition they deserve.
Having had the privilege, from childhood up, of seeing and familiarizing myself with them in the setting at Giverny in which they were created (the only setting, let me add, that can do justice to them), it reflects no particular credit on me to say that personally I have never shared that incomprehension. To see the Water Lilies in the garden studio especially built to house them was to see them in natural, harmonious conjunction with radiant summer days spent in the garden at Giverny beside the pond which inspired them. It was a delight which those who experienced it will never forget.
I cannot deny that, for me at least, the spell is irremediably broken in the Musée de l’Orangerie, in that bleak back room which, designed especially for the Water Lilies in 1925, nevertheless baldly reduces them to a mural decoration — and they are ever so much more than that. The way in which they are encased there, in a long horizontal belt around the concave wall, restricts them to the narrow, perfectly extraneous function of emphasizing the ellipsoidal line of the architecture.
Monet himself contributed to this over-modest setting by approving the whole project at the time and by doing his utmost to adapt his panels to it. To break and diversify the even horizontal flow of the paintings around the room, he sprinkled the foreground with willow fronds suggestive of the decorative style of art nouveau, fashionable around 1900. At the same time they introduce a third dimension which strikes an uncalled-for contrast with the sheer vertical plane of the water surface; the latter, with its rich play of light effects, was theme enough in itself.
The setting, then, in which the Water Lilies have been exhibited to the public in part explains both the eclipse they underwent for over a quarter of a century and the keen revival of interest in them caused by the recent revelation of further Water Lilies hitherto hidden from view in the studio at Giverny. The evolution of taste and ideas in the course of the past halfcentury explains the rest.
This evolution, as far as painting is concerned, began with the dissensions that led to the break-up of the impressionist movement in the eighties. While Monet went on, singlemindedly pursuing the subtlest, most elusive effects and variations of light and atmosphere, Pissarro, Renoir, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin each branched out in different directions. The Neo-Impressionism of Seurat, with which Pissarro threw in his lot in 1886, was both a logical development of Impressionism and a reaction against it. The systematic, scientific application of the principles which Monet discovered and applied by trial and error signified in effect a tacit condemnation of the intuitive, empirical nature of his art.
As for Renoir, after an uneasy interlude in which he toyed with a harshly linear, Ingresque style, he finally reconciled his concern for form with his love of light, fusing both in an inimitable glorification of volume saturated with color. Cézanne, however, always deferring to his “sensations,” gradually exacted from them not an atmospheric so much as a geological revelation of the visible world. After a fling at Neo-Impressionism, whose narrow harness failed to hold him long in check, Van Gogh hit his stride at Arles, throwing off every constraint in a jubilant, preexpressionist exaltation of color and line. But it was the symbolism of Gauguin which worked the most radical transformation of Impressionism. Gauguin sacrificed the visual aspect of things to the expression, in terms of line and color, of the “idea” they engendered in the mind. He rejected outright the whole battery of naturalistic effects calculated to suggest space and light, and adopted flat colors and heavy contour lines.
The upshot of these powerfully diverging currents was Fauvism, which abandoned every semblance of fidelity to outward appearances in favor of a rapturous glorification of color — but color handled more plastically than it was by the slightly later followers of Van Gogh, with their bias toward expressionist distortion. In spite of this reaction, however, Fauvism and Expressionism remained, like Impressionism, essentially dependent on the sensation induced by the object.
This was no longer true of Cubism, which rejected the outer world as it appears to our senses and built up another one out of a select assortment of elements artificially reassembled in the mind. This essentially cerebral art stood at the opposite pole from the essentially sensuous art of Impressionism. No wonder then that the meat of the one was the poison of the other. The rise of Cubism and the era that followed, during which its influence spread and was assimilated, set up a reaction against Impressionism, whose achievement was belittled and whose most characteristic representative, Claude Monet, was disregarded by a whole generation of artists.
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In the series of Regattas, painted from his boat, slight stylistic differences are discernible from picture to picture. These reveal a rather subtle line of evolution, but a significant one.
Sailboat at Argenteuil ( Bravington Collection), tacking with all sails set across the Seine, represents the next step after Pleasure Boats (May Collection). It is handled like the latter, with the paint swept on broadly in thin coats, but the strokes of the brush are no longer quite so separate and distinct as they are in Pleasure Boats; instead of being juxtaposed and contrasting with each other, planes tend to fuse and intermingle. Regatta in Fine Weather ( Caillebotte Collection, Louvre) marks a further stage.
Reflections on the water are no longer rendered in molten dabs of color, but in straight, horizontal, distinctly separate brushstrokes. These strokes, however, are larger than those in Regatta in Gray Weather (Camondo Collection, Louvre). Here, in order to render choppy water ruffled by the wind, Monet dabbed on his paints in small, flickering touches that convey an effect of movement and agitation, and though motivated by circumstances (i.e. the state of the weather) they nevertheless mark a further step in his increasing concern with effects of atmospheric vibration.
In each of these pictures he never failed to adapt his technique to the nature of the scene before him. Sky, water, trees, sails, houses, no two of these things are treated in the same way. The brushstroke is adjusted in every case to the visual impression, which in turn depends not only on light conditions but on the form and texture of the object or element in question.
During the summer Monet was so completely engrossed in nautical subjects that he apparently found time for only one rural landscape: Springtime ( Berlin), a masterpiece of sunny airiness, painted with the utmost simplicity in flat colors. At the approach of winter his thoughts turned again to the open country and he made some snowscapes, mostly handled in thin coats of modulated color (for example, Train in the Snow, Musée Marmottan, Paris, dated 1875), sometimes in a thick impasto, but always smoothly brushed on, without any division of color.
As a result of the severe winters of the early seventies (borne out by his snowscapes), Monet felt the pinch more than ever and, to make things worse, there seemed to be no prospect of better times ahead, for the “incomprehensible” novelty of his painting only widened the breach between him and the public. With his stout physique Monet could bear the hardships of cold and hunger, but his wife’s frail health was permanently injured. His painter friends were Monet’s only resource, but the whole group was faring badly.
Though born in Paris, Claude Oscar Monet — his parents called him Oscar — had passed his youth in Le Havre, where his father owned a grocery store together with a brother-in-law, Lecadre. Monet’s youth had been essentially that of a vagabond, as he himself later remarked; it had been spent more on the cliffs and in the water than in the classroom. He was undisciplined by nature, and school always seemed to him a prison. He diverted himself by decorating the blue paper of his copybook and using it for sketches of his teachers, done in a very irreverent manner.
He soon acquired a great deal of skill at this game. At fifteen he was known all over Le Havre as a caricaturist. His reputation was so well established that he was sought after to make caricature-portraits. The abundance of these orders, and the insufficiency of subsidies derived from maternal generosity, inspired him with a bold resolve that scandalized his family: he took money for the portraits… 20 francs.
Having gained a certain reputation by these means, Monet was soon “an important personage in the town.” In the shop window of the sole frame maker his caricatures were arrogantly displayed, five or six in a row, and when he saw the loungers crowding in admiration and heard them exclaiming: “That is so and so!” he “nearly choked with vanity and self-satisfaction.” Still, there was a shadow in all this glory. Often in the same shop window, hung above his own productions, he beheld marines, which he, like most of his fellow citizens, thought “disgusting.”
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Claude Monet was born in Paris on November 14, 1840. He took drawing lessons in school and began making and selling caricatures at age seventeen. Artist Eugene Boudin introduced him to painting en plein air or out of doors. The invention of oil paints in portable tubes enabled artists to paint en plein air. The palette also changed with the introduction of paints made with chemical dyes, making a wider range of colors available.
In Paris, Monet met painters like Gustave Courbet and Pierre August Renoir. In 1874 he exhibited with the Société anonyme, where his painting Impression: Sunrise earned the group the title, “Impressionists,” as critics thought their paintings were unfinished impressions.
In 1883, Monet moved to Giverny. There, he began his paintings of the French countryside, and many of his paintings depict his property at Giverny. In many of these paintings, one subject was painted several times, so that different effects of light and atmosphere were shown. Champ d’Avoine is one painting in a series of three. Although in his earlier career, he focused on industrialization, people and popular leisure spots, he eventually focused on the landscape, emphasizing the beauty of light and the lushness of nature.
Light and its effects on color and the innovation of photography, with its ability to capture the fleeting moment, fascinated the Impressionist painters. Inspired by that freeze-frame in time, they realized the potential for painting these effects in color. Working out of doors (en plein air), their hues became more vivid with their renderings of sunlight and its interplay with nature.
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Impressionism and Claude Monet
Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) pioneered Impressionism, profoundly influencing landscape painting. From Paris, Monet met the nucleus of his Impressionist group while attending the studio of Glenyre. Making a break from established painting techniques, Monet captured the fleeting effects of time of day, atmosphere and season upon color and light.
Like a prism, his artwork broke color into individual elements, and completely lacked black and gray tones. Monet often painted the exact same view numerous times to depict changing light and weather conditions. Refining the portrayal of natural light’s transient effects, his work broke ground for 20th century modernism.