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Alexander Varias

Artists have occupied a unique position in European civilizations. As conveyors of the perceived truths, ideals, and values of their societies, they stand among the elites yet rarely attain positions of political or economic power. They either hold people in awe with their skill and genius or gain contempt through eccentrically expressed visions conveyed in oral poetry, written script, stone, metal, pigments, or music.


In the ancient and medieval worlds, artistic creation was attached to civic and religious architecture, whether in a temple, an assembly hall, a cathedral, or a stock exchange. Even so prominent a contributor to Italian Renaissance art as Giotto created his greatest works for churches, like the Arena Chapel in Padua or the Church of St. Francis in Assisi. During the medieval era, artists were also customarily regarded as craftspeople in terms of their social status. The situation changed during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, especially in Florence, when artists emerged as individuals uniquely expressing visions of genius and creating works that could stand apart from architectural structures. While medieval artists' names are obscure, the names of Renaissance artists are familiar. To account for this change, Jacob Burckhardt, the prominent nineteenth-century historian who originated the concept of the Italian Renaissance, underscored the central importance of individual fame to Quattrocento and Cinquecento Italy (fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy). Artists perceived themselves as great individuals, and they were encouraged by public adulation to do so. Giorgio Vasari, the originator of art history, went so far as to refer to Michelangelo as "divine" (Goldwater and Treves, 1945, p. 98). A survey of names associated with the Italian Renaissance seems to confirm such a shift in status: Giotto, Masaccio, Sandro Botticelli, Donatello, Leon Battista Alberti, and Leonardo da Vinci to name but a few.

At the same time the perception of aesthetic works and the nature of artistic genius, ambition, and freedom experienced transformations. Artists viewed freedom as a necessary condition for the execution of their greatest works. While Renaissance art broke from medieval traditions in emphasizing bodily bulk, three-dimensionality, and a general sense of realism, particular artists diverged in style. Masaccio emphasized massive bodies and projected shadows in a setting dominated by perspective, as seen in his great frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Andrea Mantegna and Domenico Ghirlandajo followed the rules of perspective while using color and composition in individual, recognizable manners. Filippo Brunelleschi formalized the preconceptions behind the new approach to painting in a scientific theory describing the visual perception of objects placed in varying degrees of distance from an imaginary observer. His theory became the strict rule for three-dimensional realism to which painters had to adhere for at least the next four centuries.

Botticelli and Fra Filippo Lippi gave their works a harder edge in the cruda e seca (dry) style with pronounced lines as described by Vasari. Vasari seemed fonder of Leonardo's use of subtle shadows and toning to create a smoky ambience summed up as chiaroscuro (light-dark).

Yet Renaissance artists participated in a common reverence for antiquity and nature. Erwin Panofsky explained the differences between the Italian Renaissance and earlier, minor "renascences" through the expanded historical consciousness of the fifteenth century, which caused contemporaries to view antiquity as a lost world whose pagan gods were no longer threatening to Christianity. Along with this came a newfound reverence for nature. Leonardo deemed painting "the sole imitator of all the visible works of nature" (Goldwater and Treves, 1945, p. 48), and Vasari, of a similar mentality, believed that "design cannot have a good origin if it has not come from continual practice in copying natural objects" (Goldwater and Treves, 1945, p. 95).

Artists' expanded sense of freedom collided with a counterdependence on wealthy and prestigious individuals who alone could commission their works. It was obvious, after all, that artists needed monetary and other forms of support to create their works. In the process they encountered the enhanced fame and power of great families in Florence like the Medicis, the Strozzis, and others who patronized artists. In fact artistic patronage in Florence, Siena, Rome, Venice, and other centers became a new claim to fame for bankers, merchants, and politicians already pushing themselves onto the public stage of recognition. So much dependence upon powerful patrons could only conflict with artists' growing sense of absolute creative freedom.

The influence and power of patrons was so pronounced that Renaissance artists often had to paint subjects dictated to them by their patrons. In one instance, in 1457 Fra Filippo Lippi painted a work according to the careful instructions of Giovanni di Cosimo de' Medici, who wanted to give the painting to King Alfonso V of Naples (Baxandall, 1988, p. 3). One of the most famous Renaissance works, La Primavera (c. 1478) by Botticelli, concerned a Neoplatonic theme emphasized by the famous thinker Marsilio Ficino and was intended to instruct allegorically and pictorially Lorenzo de' Medici's second cousin in the philosophy and art of humanitas (Gombrich, 1978).

Subjects attached to Christianity, Christian saints, and biblical stories were still as dominant as they had been during the Middle Ages. Yet Renaissance art also included mythological scenes derived from ancient literature, portraits of prominent social figures, historical scenes, and still lifes.

Changes in the physical locations of works of art also underlined contemporary values revolving around artistic purpose. Previously sculpture or painting was attached directly to architectural edifices or common objects like vases. Phidias's great sculptured frieze was part of the Parthenon of Athens. Gislebertus's sculpture depicted Last Judgment scenes on the tympanum over the central entrance of the French Romanesque cathedral in Autun. The stained glass windows of Chartres Cathedral presented scenes from the Old and New Testaments in Gothic form. Such works, designed for public display, were civic and religious in nature and evoked town pride. How different it was for individuals to commission artistic works for display in a Renaissance villa or palazzo, where they could amuse visitors or provide educational lessons to members of the patronizing family. In addition, small objects can be moved, be sold, be purchased, be stolen, be expropriated, or disappear under historical circumstances. While sculptural friezes and remnants of temples have been moved to museums, such as the sculptures from Pergamum that were transferred to Berlin, generally the more miniature the scale of the work, the easier its displacement—a reality conducive to the later creation of museums.


As artists sought to induce a picture-window effect of three-dimensionality during the Renaissance, they concentrated painterly methods on the development of perspective. The technique consisted of utilizing a series of diagonal lines, as part of the side angles of an object or scene, to draw the viewer into an imagined distance. It was as if the observer were seated before a window and looking through it.

Perspective was developed through a series of innovations. Thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italian artists like Giotto, Cimabue, and Duccio concentrated on the side angles of thrones on which the Madonna with child was seated—a scene inherited from Byzantine panels, but now imbued with more three-dimensional realism. Nevertheless, the perspective was limited and so offered a dissonant scale. During the fifteenth century, artists in Florence especially made additional strides in enhancing the sensation of "proper" perspective. Masaccio, Andrea Mantegna, and others clarified vision within the framework of one-point perspective in which people, objects, and landscapes were depicted in a visual space leading to a single vanishing point in the distance. Masaccio's canvases also revealed an understanding that objects closer to the viewer were seen with greater clarity while those in the distance seemed vaguer in outline. Rendering atmospheric effects by means of shadows and other gimmicks thus complemented the effect.

Leon Battista Alberti, the great Renaissance architect, summarized the principles of perspective in his treatise, Della pittura (1436; On painting). The development of modern art during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries involved the dismantling of perspective in favor of more abstract painterly concerns.

Eventually other figures besides heads of powerful commercial and financial families offered patronage. Pope Julius II commissioned key works by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel and Raphael Sanzio in the papal rooms within the Vatican. Artists north of the Alps during the fifteenth century benefited from monarchical patronage. For instance, Jan van Eyck was supported by John of Holland, count of Holland, between 1422 and 1425 and Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, from 1425 to 1441.


Heinrich Wölfflin, in Principles of Art History (1932), viewed the history of the early modern artistic period as corresponding to classical Renaissance art and Baroque art. Wölfflin distinguished the two by the closed style of the former and the open, loose form of the latter. Scholars adopted this schema, which became a traditional heritage that students scrutinized in their professional devotion. Wölfflin neglected the Mannerist movement of Italian painters, who radically rejected Renaissance stability, calm, and studied realism and developed a predilection for eccentric composition, bizarre body positions, and frenzied emotional states. Parmigianino, Bronzino, and Il Rosso were among Mannerist artists whose eccentricity defied the popular taste for standard Renaissance formulas and styles.

During the Counter-Reformation the prominent sculptor Gian Bernini produced Baroque works with dramatic swirling, twisting forms. Attracting the patronage of the papacy, Bernini and his school of sculptors were commissioned to create statues for the interior and the outside colonnade of the new St. Peter's.

The royal and aristocratic figures in France backed works by Leonardo da Vinci and others. Indeed, political leaders established a tie between state and religious power and monumental art. Marie de Médicis continued this trend when she hired Peter Paul Rubens to decorate a prominent room in the palace that eventually became the Louvre museum in Paris. At its most dramatic, art embellished the royal persona of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and his new residence at Versailles, the most famous of Baroque palaces.

The seventeenth-century Baroque Age produced the sculptural and architectural forms in Versailles, the landscape of Le Nôtre gardens at Versailles, and the immense scale of sculptural decoration in St. Peter's, the most grandiose forms of state and church patronage. In this obvious equation between art and power in European society, art was specifically intended to overwhelm observers with the majesty of the patron who made it possible.

Rubens and Bernini were conscious of their dependence upon powerful political figures and were proud of the social status they achieved through connections with the world of the elite. Nevertheless, patronage and commissions did not always work out satisfactorily, as in the case of Caravaggio. The artist's unusual angles, theatrical lighting, and intense naturalism made his patrons uncomfortable, though he intended for his works like The Supper at Emmaus (c. 1598) and Entombment (1603–1604) to support the Catholic Church's positions and dogmas during the turbulent era of the Counter-Reformation. It did not help that Caravaggio also was accused of murder and led a socially scandalous life.

A number of artists of the time carried out their works in less public circumstances, forcibly or voluntarily pursuing independent artistic paths. The context of Protestant culture in Holland made such a disjuncture with the past especially stark, affecting artists' social connections. Among the artists in this situation were Frans Hals, Jan Vermeer, Judith Leyster, Rembrandt, and Jacob van Ruisdael, who continued the technique of capturing light that emanated from a single source. Following Caravaggio's lead, Hals, Vermeer, and Leyster represented the trail of an external light source illuminating an interior. While Hals and Leyster developed a more impressionistic style, Vermeer painted with a detailed, near-photographic quality. In his later works Rembrandt embued his subjects with an aura-like light projecting outward from the body, unlike an external spotlight. Rembrandt's light envelops his subjects mysteriously and mystically. In Dutch genre painting of landscapes, still lifes, and scenes of gathered town burghers, everyday subjects became popular. Historians scrutinize works like Rembrandt's The Nightwatch (1642), Vermeer's Young Woman with Water Jug (c. 1660), and Ruisdael's landscapes with an eye to the cultural and social transformations in historical material life.

These artists' creative efforts did not reap the support and security patrons gave to other artists, but they were at more liberty to portray accurately the Dutch society in which they lived. Leyster's career as a painter reflects how rarely women were able to pursue artistic endeavors in European civilization. A student of Hals, Leyster married another contemporary artist, Jan Miense Moenaer. While she did not paint much in the last several decades of her life, her early still lifes and portraits achieved some renown, and Leyster was considered a precocious outsider to the world of art. With few exceptions, such as Hildegard von Bingen, artistic callings were restricted to men, and women who desired to paint, sculpt, design buildings, compose music, or write faced many obstacles. Leyster and the Renaissance writer Christine de Pisan paved the way for women's eventual aesthetic expression.


During the eighteenth century, transformations in the position and status of artists unfolded in a dual manner. In the Age of Enlightenment artists both sought support from patrons and authorities and assumed a growing role as social critics of the latter. Philosophes revealed how intellectuals could foster important relationships with monarchs and yet be outspoken socially. For example, Voltaire established a close connection with Frederick the Great of Prussia but remained an outcast in France for criticizing the Old Regime on the Continent. That course was also evident among painters, sculptors, poets, and musicians, including Mozart and Antonio Salieri, who both sought support from the Habsburgs of Vienna.

France under Louis XV was highlighted not only by the Enlightenment but by Rococo art, as in the works of Jean-Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. While the Rococo style has been mocked as frivolous and overly ornamental, surpassing the Baroque in swirling designs and fleshiness by exponents of ten, its artists also conveyed many social observations. Boucher's works depict the apparently ultrasexualized atmosphere of Louis XV's inner circle, as in the scandalously erotic images of Mme. de Pompadour and Mlle. Murphy, and a world of hedonistic and epicurean pleasures matching the range of colors in the rainbow. Fragonard's The Swing (c. 1768) is a toned down but still vigorous portrayal of the aristocratic lifestyle of the era. Watteau's works express more elegiac and wistful visions of society with both critical representations of contemporary upper-class mores and reflections of popular life. Watteau's The Embarkation for Cythera (1717) and Gilles, the Jester (c. 1718) in particular provide social perspective through the decorative Rococo lens.

The eighteenth century also witnessed the dominance of Salons as the state-sponsored, official exhibition centers of paintings for the popular audience. Salons were artists' only means of reaching that audience and offered the possibility of bypassing patrons. The philosophe Denis Diderot, who wrote criticisms of works exhibited in eighteenth-century Salons, particularly praised the moralistic works of Jean-Baptiste Greuze and, seemingly sounding an alarming note, vigorously defended artistic independence.

Diderot may have been looking into the future. The last two decades of the eighteenth century were a critical point at which painting and political statement converged, in other words the period when the French Revolution was in the making. Jacques-Louis David's artistic career most reflected this convergence. His work developed from subtle, insinuating critiques of the ancien régime, as in The Oath of the Horatii (1784), to open statements of propaganda extolling the political events of the day. In several instances David resorted to outright heroic idolization of revolutionary figures, as in The Death of Marat (1793). David's works reflect the emergence of Neoclassicism as an artistic, painterly style. Architecturally Neoclassicism updated and synthesized ancient Greek and Roman forms, such as columns, pediments, entablatures, arches, and domes. Perhaps the most famous Neoclassical structures are the Panthéon in Paris and Thomas Jefferson's villa "Monticello," both of which seem to sum up the contemporary belief in reason and clarity.

In painting Neoclassicism rejected both the Baroque and the Rococo and adopted tighter brush strokes and a more formal, often austere style. Ancient life, particularly that of the Romans, was a common subject for Neoclassical artists, who selected key moments of ancient history or mythology as subjects to provide moral commentaries on contemporary mores and authority. Thus David's The Oath of the Horatii extolls Roman republican virtues, while his Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789) praises the assassins of caesars. As an enthusiastic participant in the French Revolution, David viewed

the arts in the light of all those factors by which they should help to spread the progress of the human spirit, and to propagate and transmit to posterity the striking examples of the efforts of a tremendous people who, guided by reason and philosophy, are bringing back to earth the reign of liberty, equality, and law. (Goldwater and Treves, 1945, p. 205)

In the light of Robespierre's Reign of Terror, the commitment of French revolutionary leaders to the rule of law may be questioned. David's career, however, seems an artistic chronicle of the Revolution. He depicted many key events of the upheaval, such as the Tennis Court Oath of 1789, ritual death by guillotine, and the deaths of key revolutionaries like Marat. David's greatest painting presents Marat as a martyr, murdered in his bath by a political foe, Charlotte Corday, a letter from whom remains in Marat's hand. A strong line dividing light from shadow adds a theatrical effect to the scene. Surviving the dictatorships by Robespierre and Napoleon Bonaparte, David proved as adept at transforming his image as Talleyrand and adapted politically from one regime to another. Not surprisingly David depicted Napoleon as an emperor crowned in glory, which contravened his depiction of the heroic, tragic Brutus, who would have placed the achievements of Bonaparte alongside those of Julius Caesar.


During the same era artists used their work openly to attack acts of political oppression. Francisco Goya explicitly and graphically portrayed the acts of murder and injustice committed by Napoleon's troops during the French occupation of Spain. Goya's monumental Third of May captures the gesture of a local villager about to be gunned down by troops. He adopted the Romantic style, rejecting the more calculated and restrained Neoclassical style he considered no longer appropriate to the age. The increased tone of passion and the strong color and brushwork accompanied a marked intensification of the artist's unique individualism. Goya's individualism was especially heightened in macabre works of his "black period," like The Pilgrims and Saturn Devouring His Children (1821–1823), depicting morbid and violent scenes caught in a ghostly atmosphere of fear, mystery, and gloom.

The work of Théodore Géricault exhibits a similar Romantic trend. His Raft of the Medusa (1819) represents survivors of a shipwreck stretched out or standing, desperately adrift on a fragile raft, facing a threatening sea and sky. Several among them wave to a distant ship, the outline of which can barely be made out on the horizon. This scene, based on a historical episode, presents Romantic drama at its highest. Géricault in his short career also created paintings of the insane and in his collective work captured the general Romantic reverence of the awesome, the sublime, and the grotesque. At various levels those characteristics describe paintings of Goya, Caspar Friedrich, and Eugène Delacroix and the music of Beethoven and Hector Berlioz. In another vein J. M. W. Turner used intense color schemes and loosely applied brushstrokes to convey a Romantic reverence for the sea that influenced the Impressionists.

The career of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres seemingly indicates a return to art blessed by the academy. In fact, Ingres's works are filled with eroticism and Romantic expressions of individuality. The tendency for artists to pursue their craft beyond the confines of the Salons and through defiance of conventional expectations was still in motion, as evidenced by Gustave Courbet, who provoked unprecedented outrage and contempt from critics. Alexandre Dumas the younger wrote a notorious diatribe:

From what fabulous crossing of a slug with a peacock, from what genital antitheses, from what sebaceous oozing can have been generated . . . this thing called M. Gustave Courbet? . . . With the help of what manure, as a result of what mixture of wine, beer, corrosive mucus and flatulant oedema can have grown this sonorous and hairy pumpkin, this aesthetic belly, this imbecilic and impotent incarnation of the Self? (Clark, 1973, p. 23)

Courbet's works departed from the subject matter and style of Romanticism. Although his individualism reflected the "Romantic rebellion," he was among the first painters to create in the Realist manner and to focus on subjects considered neither important nor attractive. This inclination had a disruptive effect on the public, and Meyer Schapiro noted (in Modern Art) Courbet's revolutionary role in connecting avant-garde aesthetics with political concerns.


The changes from romanticism to realism to impressionism and on to other movements in modern art involved not only revolutionary styles and subject matter. Enmeshed within the entire processs that originated in France was a stark confrontation between the artists and the art audience. Official exhibition galleries and salons became the center for a clash revolving around visual expecations.

By and large, the audience was made up of the bourgeoisie, which carried to the gallery demands for heroic and official subjects executed through proper finish and idealized and realistic at the same time. Rebellious artists like Gustave Courbet and Édouard Monet and those who came after them insisted on less accepted subjects and styles that did not fit the conventional formula. The response to their work from audiences and critics was often scathingly hostile. Yet they persisted. The ensuing battle of tastes and temperaments reflected their adamancy, and the term "avant-garde" denotes the near military devotion they brought both to their work and to their confrontation with hostile critics.

As painting became abstract and further removed from familiar patterns, the contrast between artisitic trends satisfying to the larger public world and the ambitions of the avant-garde grew ever more pronounced until familiarity and the market transformed the situation by the early twentieth century. Neverthelesss, countless instances of bafflement and anger expressed toward an unusual work or art continue to be found. Frequently, such art is assumed to be "avant-garde"—an interpretation that underlines how much of modern art has assumed the presence of an artistic elite consciously marching to the intrinsic demands of the work of art, which they feel alone in being able to formulate.

Courbet's rustic, peasant manner was at odds with bourgeois ideas of correct behavior. Although he did not rival Gérard de Nerval's eccentric behavior traits, such as walking a pet lobster on a leash, Courbet exhibited an unpolished Rousseau-like manner that widened the divide between new artists and the bourgeois public. This divide was most emphasized by the Bohemians, who cultivated a lifestyle and a manner of expression intended to bewilder the bourgeoisie. The eventual Bohemian slogan, épater les bourgeoisie (scorn the bourgeoisie), inspired followers throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century. In Paris Bohemians congregated in select areas, at first centered around the Latin Quarter and during the last two decades of the century around the newly incorporated district of Montmartre, known also as "La Butte" (the Hill). By the end of the nineteenth century the two centers of Bohemian activity were distinguished as polar opposites. Latin Quarter Bohemians were considered more intellectual, a trait perhaps derived from the presence in that district of the Sorbonne. Montmartre's Bohemians were, in contrast, more outrageous in behavior and were associated with new sexual mores, exotic dance and music, and the supernatural. (See Varias, 1996, pp. 20–40, for further discussion of the contrasting ambience of Parisian Bohemian quarters.) At all times they invited and received contempt from the middle class and prided themselves on their great social distance from official Paris. Ironically, Bohemians tended to be from the middle class or bourgeoisie, and their individualistic revolt perhaps is explained by family conflicts.


Courbet's defiance of academic, historical standards inspired upcoming artists to adopt similar individualistic stands and to paint as they wished. Patricia Mainardi studied the decline of the Salon and in The End of the Salon (1993) connected that reality to other social and economic problems. During the Second Empire of Napoleon III and the first decades of the Third Republic, Édouard Manet and the Impressionists set about obviating the authoritative position of the Salons. They chose subjects from contemporary French society and used the style and colors they deemed most appropriate to that world. Causing as much outrage and offense as did Courbet's The Burial at Ornans (1850), Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863) and Olympia (1863) were considered sexually provocative, banal, and harsh all at the same time. Manet's male subjects frequently were dandies with top hats, black coats, and cravats. The center of Parisian aesthetic life immortalized in the poetry and criticism of Charles Baudelaire, these men frolicked around the streets of Paris as flâneurs (drifters). The ethos of dandies included a deliberate flaunting of the self and an obliviousness to public moral standards. For Baudelaire and other dandies, the use of hashish was part and parcel of a growing rebellion among aesthetes aiming to transcend life's mundane concerns. Eventually a conservative reaction became just as commonplace after the disillusionment of the 1848 Revolution.

While Manet's use of flat forms and colors received critical, caustic rebukes, the casual attitudes toward prostitution and sexuality suggested by Olympia and Le déjeuner sur l'herbe especially conflicted with the posture of moral uprightness assumed by bourgeois men yet belied by their conduct. Manet's later works, such as A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), depict the new cafés and cabarets of the boulevards in the Paris rebuilt by Napoleon III, his planner Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, and their architects. In the new city interaction among the various social classes increased, and moral standards relaxed, which to conservatives suggested decadence or what the sociologist Émile Durkheim later called "anomie" (social instability).

Manet's relation to the Impressionists is ambiguous. He was a fellow artistic rebel and influence but not a coexhibitor. In fact the Impressionists wished to continue and surpass Manet's stylistic revolution. For the most part the Impressionists' work was refused exhibit space at the Salons, so they formed a Salon des Refusés (Exhibition of the refused). Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Mary Cassatt captured the true character of color as affected by light at different times of the day. As they followed what they considered a scientific pursuit, the artists, scornfully called "Impressionists" by hostile critics, applied loose and broad brushstrokes, forcing audiences to decipher a scene by stepping back from the canvas. Impressionist works represent purely natural settings, as in Monet's Impression, Sunrise (1872), from which the artists obtained their name, and Pissarro's View of Pontoise (1868), and scenes of leisure and social life, as in Renoir's Le moulin de la Galette (1876) and Monet's Argenteuil Basin (1872). These canvases center on brightly illuminated scenes and show the reflection and cascade of colors caused by sunlight on fog-enveloped riverbanks or on snow-covered villages. Cassatt's domestic scenes of mothers with infants also employ the Impressionist method. Cassatt's work and that of Berthe Morisot are important examples of women's contributions to artistic movements. In addition, Camille Claudel, the unhappy mistress and student of Auguste Rodin, is counted among the most creative and innovative nineteenth-century sculptors. As they defied the public's taste for familiar "uplifting," "idealized," and "finished" works, these artists created an artistic avant-garde that identified itself by its dedication to "higher" aesthetic standards.

Along with the striking style, the social settings and situations depicted in Impressionist works also stand out. Impressionists delighted in the gaiety and color in gatherings of people at leisure. Broad vistas of street life provided momentary glimpses of crowds. Impressionism focused on transitory views of the fragile natural world, whose never-repeating forms depend on the season, the time, the day, and the weather. Yet the concern for the momentary also centered around views of the social world. During the later part of his career, Pissarro sat behind windows in rooms several floors above street level, viewing the diverse patterns of people meandering through the streets and boulevards of Paris or the marketplace in Rouen. His excitement in painting such a scene was evident in a letter he wrote to his son Lucien from Rouen on 26 February 1896:

I have effects of fog and mist, of rain, of the setting sun and of grey weather, motifs of bridges seen from every angle, quays with boats; but what interests me especially is a motif of the iron bridge in the wet, with much traffic, carriages, pedestrians, workers on the quays, boats, smoke, mist in the distance, the whole scene fraught with animation and life. . . . Just conceive for yourself: the whole of old Rouen seen from above the roofs, with the Cathedral, St. Ouen's Church, and the fantastic roofs, really amazing turrets. . . . It is extraordinary. (Varias, 1996, p. 157)

Pissarro wrote letters to a variety of acquaintances, including his children, fellow artists, and political subversives, in which he expressed his artistic sentiments. The artist was born on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, descended from Jewish Portuguese parents. While at the heart of the Impressionist revolt in painting, he was also deeply involved in the French anarchist movement during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. His commitment derived from early sympathies with the grievances of the downtrodden, whose plight he had witnessed during his first stay in Paris in 1847, the year before the outbreak of a revolution. Pissarro's political and social consciousness grew during the years, especially after the cataclysmic Paris Commune of 1871.


Other political movements had certainly elicited artistic engagement. French revolutionary sentiments strongly attracted David. Goya angrily gave visual expression to his sense of outrage at the injustices inflicted by Napoleon's troops on the Spanish people. Delacroix depicted events during the Greek War of Independence in his devotion to universal justice and ideals. Nationalism and socialism also attracted artists' contributions. Nevertheless, anarchism uniquely enticed artists' enthusiastic involvement in its vocal defense of complete individual freedom. When Mikhail Bakunin and other libertarians broke with Karl Marx at the meeting of the International Workingmen's Association held in London in 1864, they complained about the Marxists' exclusive concern for the industrial proletariat and their addiction to state power. In contrast, anarchists were determined to destroy the state forever. Anarchism appealed to political rebels, who distrusted the state, but it also drew many artists, who vowed to further the Romantic goal of individual creativity and to reject all attempts to confine expression within certain preordained paths.

Anarchism particularly appealed to Pissarro in that, unlike Marxism, it held a positive role for peasants and artisans. Painters such as Pissarro, who depicted rural landscape scenes and admired peasants as a natural part of that charming world, found inspiration in peasants. It was, therefore, natural for Pissarro and other artists to portray scenes deemed proper to anarchist ideology, that is, social injustice, revolt, and rural settings. At times they stressed those subjects on canvas; at other times they gave their services to anarchist journals and newspapers in an attempt to reach a wider audience among the discontented masses.

An idealistic formula for freedom and justice, anarchism was also a movement driven by a variety of goals, including a vague sense of a larger communal purpose in which free individuals played key parts. Anarchist leaders envisioned artistic images as politically useful efforts to communicate the movement's ideas and aims to the people. As such messages were considered more successful when they were simple and direct, the line between free expression and propagandistic dictates grew thin. Pissarro found himself at the center of a conflict pitting politically engaged avant-garde artists dedicated to unhindered art against editors and other leaders desiring certain themes conveyed in particular styles. In the clash between political concerns and aesthetic ends, anarchist leaders viewed art as a major propaganda vehicle on the same footing with pamphlets and meetings.

This struggle was difficult for Pissarro, who seemed equally committed to both art and the anarchistic social ideal. While he wished to contribute to the spread of anarchism, he balked at calls from anarchists like Peter Kropotkin for subjects stressing work, revolt, and social justice. Anarchist leaders generally pushed artists toward a style that was accessible to the masses, generally realistic, and uncomplicated by the standards of the avant-garde. Pissarro believed that artists were in danger of losing their separate status if they were absorbed into the surrounding society and viewed simply as other workers. He wrote, "Let us be artists first" (Varias, 1996, p. 135). Lucien Pissarro wrote, "Every . . . work of art is social . . . because he who has produced it makes fellow men share the most passionate and purest emotion which he has felt before the sights of nature" (Varias, 1996, p. 136). Paul Signac, another anarchist and painter, viewed his own political activism as an expression of his individual character but not a mandate for painting in a particular manner.

By the 1880s Pissarro, Signac, and Georges Seurat created Neoimpressionist or Pointillist works, which continued experiments in color and light but reduced the size of brushstrokes to tiny points of paint. At that time Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh expressed inner states of feeling and psychic sensations using intense colors and unconventional compositions. Paul Cézanne, while maintaining the use of Impressionist color schemes, tightened his brushstrokes to create compact geometric planes. Cézanne achieved an unnatural appearance that seemed to defy the law of gravity and the truths of perspective that had stood behind Western painting since the Renaissance. These artists, although challenging the conventional perceptions of nature, believed that they expressed nature's deepest levels of reality and furthered the avant-garde's alienation from official and popular taste.

During the first years of the twentieth century, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, gaining impetus from Cézanne's canvases, depicted still lifes in the fragmented, multiperspective style known as Cubism. Roger Shattuck in The Banquet Years (1968) related Cubism to the cultural forms of the twentieth century in its emphasis on abrupt juxtaposition. In Cubist works the avant-garde artists followed their own artistic inclinations rather than the seemingly iron laws of nature. Henri Matisse's Fauvist works, which unleashed color and line in even more striking ways, followed suit. A newly invigorated interest in the primitive also was seen both in Picasso's and Matisse's works and the later sculpture of Amadeo Modigliani, who became known more for his colorful, highly stylized erotic paintings of nude women in a long Italian tradition of painterly focus.

Artists felt that their modernistic works were more in keeping with the true character of nature. Nevertheless, any suggestion that they were breaking from the conventional sense of reality and bewildering the art audience would have been met with a shrug of the shoulders. Artists had embarked on their own subjective course and were attempting to reach positions that most people could not comprehend. The public would just have to catch up to them. Other movements took shape, such as Expressionism in Germany and Austria, influenced by the pathbreaking works of van Gogh and the color of Matisse. In Austria jugendstil (young style) attracted the new generation of artists, including Oskar Kokoschka, and a clash of values and tastes was unleashed. By 1912 the new styles crossed the Atlantic and were displayed in the Armory Show in New York City that made Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe American avant-garde personalities. In all cases the aesthetic revolution seemingly was promoted by youth, isolated individuals, an enclosed avant-garde, and Bohemians, who were to some degree or another combined in an unstable unit but who always challenged familiar notions of reality.


Europeans experienced World War I between 1914 and 1918, and a series of revolutionary movements erupted in Russia and eastern and central Europe toward the war's conclusion. As Bolshevism became established in Russia and related Socialist movements nearly succeeded in Germany, the questions asked during the anarchist-artist convergence in fin de siècle (end of the century) France resurfaced, albeit in a different vein. These questions again revolved around the link between art and politics.

In 1917 the outbreak of the revolution in Russia brought initial euphoria, even among anarchists. During the early 1920s a number of artists converged on Russia and attempted to create avant-garde movements rooted in the novel ideals and aspirations of the revolution. While French and German influences abounded, a particularly Russian movement, Constructivism, emerged under the influence of Vladimir Tatlin, whose enormous metallic, abstract tower statue was never completed. Constructivists aspired to merge the abstract principles of the avant-garde with the technology of the machine age. Even such an apparently revolutionary movement proved too much for the Bolshevik elite, which viewed social realist art as more readily able to communicate simple, concrete messages to the masses. By the end of the decade avant-garde artists were exiting the Soviet Union in search of aesthetic freedom in western Europe or the United States. The filmmaker Sergey Eisenstein, himself director of the pro-Bolshevik films Potemkin (1925) and October (1928), found the climate under Joseph Stalin inhospitable.

In other areas of Europe the convergence of artistic goals with political and social goals was equally evident. Before the war and the Fascist takeover of power, the Italian Futurists Umberto Boccioni, Filippo Marinetti, and Giacomo Balla created canvases that positively conveyed the dynamism of cars, airplanes, city streets, and the general excitement of the machine age. The human body itself was portrayed as a machine in motion, as in Boccioni's metallic statue Dynamism of a Soccer Player in Motion (1913). The Futurist style was influenced by Cubism, parallel efforts by Marcel Duchamp, and the bright, vibrant colors of Fauvism and Expressionism. Futurists heightened their revolutionary position by glorifying war, revolution, and even the destruction of museums where traditional works of art were displayed. On the latter point they shared a position with the Dadaists. However, the Dadaists rejected traditional culture out of a hatred for a civilization that had caused such universal destruction during World War I. Duchamp's own Dadaist inclinations led him to offer a urinal as a piece of sculpture and two renderings of the Mona Lisa, one with a mustache called LHOOQ (1919) and the other without a mustache called Rasée. In both instances he relished the chance to mock the public's reverential view of art. While Dadaists tended to be indifferent to politics, Futurists found Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime conveniently willing to employ their aesthetic devices in reshaping Italian society.

Expressionism and other abstract currents circulated throughout Weimar Germany both before and after the war. From the war years on Käthe Kollwitz combined modernism with a needed dose of humanism and compassion in works that depicted the horrors and pathos of war. Her work emphasized a pacifistic message that she continued to convey throughout her life, even as she experienced the trauma of the Second World War.

Weimar artists, notably the painters Ernst Kirchner and Emil Nolde, also used bright colors and simplified forms to suggest emotional states of exhilaration or disturbance. Wassily Kandinsky, reaching the logical conclusion of this development, painted works of complete abstraction, sprawling fields of color entitled as such. In sculpture Ernst Barlach paralleled those simple compositions, although the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi led the progress toward abstraction.

The practical arts were also affected by the desire for change. The German Bauhaus school widened the divide between the avant-garde and public expectations regarding artistic form and visual appearance. In this case, however, the conflict revolved around the question of whether the shapes and materials of the industrial world were appropriate for high artistic status. In his Bauhaus school Walter Gropius envisioned a revolution in architecture, furniture, and interior design that would utilize the lines and materials of industry. As did Futurists, Dadaists, and Surrealists, he advocated the elimination of traditional materials. Influenced by tastes in the United States, Gropius designed buildings from which all ornaments were removed and in which the exterior and interior reflected each other, promoting the birth of the glass skyscraper supported by steel girders. Mies van der Rohe later encapsulated the esteem for streamlined design in art deco, modern architecture, and other areas of design when he said, "Less is more." Functionalist aesthetics conflicted with the popular preference for traditional design, which was considered more cozy and warm, and the Nazis sought to gain political capital by portraying the Bauhaus as "un-German."

After he seized power in Germany, Adolf Hitler, in dealing with the avant-garde, followed Stalin's precedent rather than Mussolini's. While Futurist art was acceptable to Fascist goals, Nazis regarded Expressionism and other modern art movements with suspicion and labeled them "anti-Aryan." Hitler, a frustrated artist, regarded monumental Neoclassicism as the appropriate form for Nazi architecture, sculpture, and painting and decided artists were to use a pseudo-Greek style to convey heroic masculinity. In the process Expressionism was largely suppressed. In the late 1930s Hitler and Joseph Goebbels championed an exhibition of Expressionist art, entitled "degenerate art," as a warning to Germans.

Cinema, however, was both acceptable and convenient to Nazi propaganda aims of mobilizing mass enthusiasm. Posters, radio addresses, and mass rallies using the latest available technology were all important to Nazi ends. Most notably, the films of Leni Riefenstahl successfully linked Nazism with a vision of dynamism and the promised future. In Triumph of the Will (1936) and Olympia (1938), depicting the Nürnberg rally of 1934 and the 1936 Berlin Olympics respectively, Riefenstahl promoted a Nazi modernistic vision similar to that of Italian Futurists but with the benefit of the editing and montage of film. Of course such works reinforced Nazi power and thus war, racism, and extermination. Riefenstahl later claimed that she only worked for Hitler and did not support his goals.

Avant-garde experiments in art continued through the 1930s. Surrealism, already evident in the works of Giorgio De Chirico during the 1920s, evoked paradoxical images defying ordinary explanations but hinting at the underlying symbolic, dreamlike states of the subconscious described contrastingly by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró of Spain and René Magritte of Belgium were in the forefront of Surrealism. Dali particularly lived in the eccentric way that the public had come to expect of Bohemians.

Avant-garde concepts and political concerns connected closely in Picasso's massive mural, Guerníca (1939), which dramatically portrays the bombing of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. The savagery of the war and the sinister nature of the political infighting among forces resisting the invasion of Francisco Franco's troops were also described by George Orwell, among others. Picasso's painting is a graphic, close-up view of air bombardment's effects on life, yet his abstract modern art conveys the anonymous horror of the twentieth century. The style in use, after all, was largely Cubist.

At the end of the Second World War the central artistic scene shifted from Europe to New York, where Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning participated in the movement known as Abstract Expressionism. This current was most famously epitomized by Jackson Pollock's drip paintings that originated in mythological scenes and ended in the complete immersion of the subject in abstraction. The European artistic world thereafter contended with the arrival of American art as California and other areas emerged as centers of creativity. Nevertheless, important European figures, including German artists such as Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer, retained key positions. Kiefer's desolate, barren landscapes are haunting works of art.

In the midst of the war, however, Europeans took the lead in cinema and bypassed Hollywood. In France, Marcel Carné clandestinely created Children of Paradise (1945) during the Nazi occupation. Italian Neorealism originated in a collaboration between Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini. In Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946) they used a semidocumentary format to characterize the desolation and poverty of Italian life during the closing days of the war. As the term "Neorealist" implies, the filmmakers' aim was to capture the ordinary world of people by avoiding the entertainment-oriented methods of Hollywood directors and focusing on nonglamorous subjects. During the next several decades Fellini, a former comic-strip artist, widened the scope of his films by stretching the sense of realism to include psychic states and fantasy. In doing so he invited the criticism of purists, who objected to his departure from strict realism. Nevertheless, he vividly portrayed Italian society as it was transformed from the poverty-laden world of La Strada (The Road) (1954) to the ultramaterialistic jet-set world of Rome's Via Veneto in La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life) (1960), where the scavenging paparazzi reporters roamed in fierce pursuit of vapid celebrities. Neorealism also influenced French directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, who rendered the surrounding world in novel cinematic forms.

Western European art after the Renaissance was created out of the several impulses that shook artists. The desire to represent reality and yet transform it in the process was certainly a central motivation, albeit that the perception of reality could change relative to the time. Both Renaissance and Cubist art were justified in such terms. Additionally, European artists pursued individualism, which encouraged them to take chances, experiment with techniques, and break with rules. Restlessness and change became a part of the development of art, and succeeding artistic movements nearly fit a pattern, although one that could have taken a different direction if circumstances had been altered. Patterns are usually imposed by outside observers. It is tempting to suggest a direct relationship between artistic culture and social change, yet that bond is questionable because many ongoing aesthetic concerns are exclusive to artists. The complexities within art history are vast because the creative personality itself is a myriad of labyrinths evading central definition.

See also other articles in this section.


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