Study Notes: Impressionism
Subject: Art Theory / Design Culture
Claude Monet 1840 - 1926
Frederic Bazille 1841 - 1870
Pierre August Renoir 1841 - 1919
Mary Cassatt 1845 - 1926
Camille Pissarro 1830 - 1903
Armand Guillaumin 1841 - 1927
Alfred Sisley 1839 - 1899
Edouard Manet 1832 - 1883
Berthe Morisot 1841 - 1895
Edgar Degas 1834 - 1917
Theodore Fantin Latour 1836 - 1904
Eugene Chevreul 1786 - 1889 Chemist
Nadar (Felix Tournachon)1820 - 1910 Photographer
Charles Baudelaire 1821 - 1867 Writer & Critic
Emile Zola 1840 - 1902 Writer
The term Impressionism came into general use after Louis Leroy used it to describe the work of Monet and others in a critical review in the May 1874 edition of the humorous journal Charivari. The review was written in response to the first group show of the artists now known as the Impressionists held at the studios of the photographer Nadar.
The term does not describe a school because the artists worked in a variety of styles. But, it does indicate a shared approach to a new way of representing nature and of our relationship to it. Impressionism can be seen as the culmination of the more intensified observation of nature. This process was begun by the Dutch landscape painters of the C17th and was the initial inspiration of the English school of landscape firstly with Richard Wilson (1714 - 1782) and later developed by the Norwich School, J.M.W.Turner and John Constable; it can also be seen as a development of the work of the French painters of the Barbizon School and the Realism of Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet. The use of colour and strong brushwork of Delacroix also had a strong influence.
The effect of these painters together with the influence of photography and the newly discovered art of the Japanese print prepared the ground from which the final stage of Impressionism emerged. The essential characteristics which united and identified the Impressionists as a group was their study of the effect of light (heavily influenced by the theories of the chemist Chevreul) and their resultant use of the 'spectrum palette' which included only the primary colours - red, yellow, and blue - the secondaries - orange, green and violet - and their derivatives by intermixing or by modification with white. The use of black, ochre and browns was reduced to a minimum or banned.
The work of Delacroix and Chevreul led to the artists in the group developing a surface of paint which was broken into small areas of intense colour on a white ground which from a distance recreated the effects of light by a process of optical mixing - the colours mixing in the eye not on the palette. To render the effects of light the Impressionists worked directly in the open air (en plein air) a practice inherited from the Barbizon school and also Eugene Boudin (1824 - 1898), Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819 - 1891) and Charles Daubigny (1817 - 1878) who Monet had met as a young student in Le Havre.
These practices had a profound effect on the representation of objects. We see objects by the light that is reflected from them. When daylight light falls on an object it is composed of all of the colours of the spectrum. These colours are absorbed or reflected in varying degrees - a red object reflects red light but absorbs all of the other colours. The appearance is also complicated by reflections from other adjacent objects and also by the effect that colours have on each other. Chevreul published work on the effects of colours on each other in his 'Laws of Simultaneous Contrast of Colours'. The retinas of our eyes are sensitive to the different wavelengths of the visible spectrum and when the light from objects enters our eye we see an image, but the image is in our eye not 'out there' on the object. It is this 'retinal image that the Impressionists wanted most faithfully to record. To do so would mean forgetting what one knew about an object and recording simply what one saw. As Cezanne said on Monet " he is only an eye, but my God what an eye". The traditional way of representing the identity of objects through outline and modelling through tonal value was lost to the recording of the light sensations reflected from them and this new aesthetic caused derision from the public at the time.
When the public were looking to art for a stable system of values, the Impressionists presented an image of the unstable, fugitive and temporal. Impressionism recorded a new awareness of time by concentrating on the 'fleeting moment' - at times Monet changed his canvases every fifteen minutes. In this respect their work was influenced by photography and the issues of composition and framing and the power relationships between the viewed and the viewer that it raised.
Monet - Quotations:
‘Colour is my day long obsession, joy and torment. To such an extent indeed that one day, finding myself at the death-bed of a woman who had been and still was very dear to me, I caught myself in the act of focusing on her temples and automatically analysing the succession of appropriately graded colours which death was imposing on her motionless face. There were blue, yellow, grey tones - tones I cannot describe. That was the point which I had reached. Nothing is more natural than the urge to record one last image of a person departing this life. But even before I had though of recording the features of this human being to whom I was profoundly attached, my organism was automatically reacting to the colour sensations and in spite of myself, I was involved by my reflexes in an unconscious process in which I was taking up the normal course of my daily life ?.’
‘When you go out top paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, heres is a little square of pink, here a streak of yellow and paint it just as it looks to you. The exact colour and shape, until it gives you your own naïve impression of the scene before you.’
‘For me the subject is insignificant. What I wish to reproduce is what is between the subject and myself.’