Incorrect Impressions

Questioning the Impressionist movement and its origins.

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In the late 19th century, out of the depths of Romanticism and Realism before it, a predominantly French art movement began to emerge. Swaying from the minutiae and monotony of clear, defined, detailed paintings that the public were accustomed to, the Salon des Refusés was founded on the principle of housing, as the name suggests, artwork rejected by the more traditional tastes of the Salon. Gone were the clearly defined figures, gone was the need for an obsession with reality, and gone was the predominance of tonal contrast over colour. Impressionism had been born.

Ripples of Impressionism persisted for the ensuing century and, as ever with a movement so influential, there is a tendency to romanticise and isolate its founding principles. So stylistically revolutionary seem Monet’s jolly, middle-class tableaus that we see Impressionism as a rogue wave, formed independently from the surrounding artistic tide. It is comfortable, cosy, convenient even, to assume that Impressionism was a movement, emerging suddenly in a spirit of iconoclastic individuality. But this would be misguided. Far from thoughtful revolution, Impressionism can be seen as a continuation from realist principles (bear with me on that one; I realise it sounds heretically juxtaposed) rather than a spontaneous movement. Even within itself, the movement is rather blurry, lacking the distinct edges of definition that allow us to say: this is Impressionism.

Though the word Impressionism has grown to have a fairly large scope, the intentions of Monet are easier to define. The movement takes its name from his painting ‘Impression – Sunrise’ (pictured above) and this composition is as good an example as any at clarifying the beginnings of Impressionism. Composed entirely in terms of colour rather than the more realistic tonal contrasts, the blue-greens and yellow-oranges Monet used veil the reality of the painting, as does the absence of outlines. Brush strokes form sensations of colour, vibrations of contrast, forcing colour itself to become the subject, rather than a human figure or architectural object. Had he painted ‘Impression – Sunrise’ a few minutes later, the boats would be gone and the sun slightly higher and less orange. The overwhelming sense of ephemerality in this style of painting is consistent throughout almost all of Monet’s work; his snapshots of middle-class frivolities were mostly painted there and then, providing an impression of what he saw on-the-spot. A hatred for theorising and analysis meant that Monet abandoned the slaving away in a studio, painting rapidly in the open air. In this way, the paintings provide Monet’s self-described “naïve impression”, forcing us to explore and evaluate our own sensory ideas of the scene instead of being presented with an easy reality.

This style, initially seen as challenging to understand by the general public, is in fact an evolution of post-Enlightenment realist tendencies. In the age of positivism and Auguste Comte, empiricism had taken a hold in the philosophical zeitgeist, with intelligentsia increasingly coming round to the view that sense perceptions are the only reliable foundation of knowledge. In this way, Realism (the predecessor to Impressionism) thought it unjust not to represent reality as it was. Monet, and subsequent impressionists, took that a step further: they should invent nothing, painting only what they saw in the moment. Now, you may be thinking: “I don’t see things in blurry lines or blocks of colour” And you may be right, but I’d ask you next time you’re in a busy park or watching boats sailing down a river to really look: how many of the people in the distance are you really seeing? Are the highlights on the leaves just a lighter green, or are there glimpses of yellow reflected sunlight peaking through the branches?

Perhaps then, these subjective principles inevitably lead to such variation as we see in Impressionism. But it is not merely variation in individual style that occurs; rather, it becomes challenging to see Impressionism as a single movement when artists deviate far from its founding principles. Manet, for a start, never actually exhibited artwork with the Impressionists, and his famous ‘A Bar at Folies-Bergère’ shows elements of his traditional training, paying far more attention to human form and portraiture detail in the barmaid than Monet ever did with any subject. Compare Manet’s human detail and Monet’s subtly composed landscapes to the work of Cézanne in both fields and you are almost leagues apart. Degas, also universally considered an Impressionist, is certainly lively in his work, but his canvases are often filled with a gradient of rust-coloured oranges and browns, lacking the colourful potency that helped make Impressionism so distinctive. Perhaps as good an indication as any that the movement is difficult to define is that two of its most famous painters, Cézanne and Seurat, both are artistic stepping stones to subsequent movements, Cezanne being considered a bridge between Impressionism and Cubism, and Seurat the more fluid link between Impressionism and Pointillism. A further interesting point is the abundance of French names in this list, begging the question of if the movement is, or should be considered exclusively French, given the alignment of foreign painters like Sorolla with Impressionist principles, something that is rarely recognised because he is Spanish.

Deviation from principles of an art movement is something to be expected and encouraged. Indeed, Picasso described Cézanne as like “the father of us all”, a quote unlikely to have been uttered if Cezanne was more closely aligned with Monet. It is not a bad thing, or even a criticism, that certain artists within a movement strayed from its tenets, but it highlights an unescapable fluidity of progression, deviation, and evolution that art undergoes. While it is much easier to categorise and compartmentalise artists into groups, the next time you read on an exhibition plaque that so-and-so was part of a singular movement, consider whether that is truly the case.

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