IMPRESSIONISMchanging concepts of painting
impressionism and positivism
Impressionism was an artistic movement that originated in France in the 1860s and 1870s. In 1874 painters including Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas, Armand Guillaumin, and Paul Cézanne participated in the first of eight independent impressionist exhibitions held until 1886. They had been friendly during the previous decade, when they encountered official resistance to their novel way of painting. Their independent exhibitions were their way of gaining exposure and of responding to traditions that had recently excluded them from the government-sponsored annual exhibitions called Salons. The core impressionists were eventually joined by Gustave Caillebotte and the American Mary Cassatt. Closely identified with the impressionists was Edouard Manet, whose controversial and ground-breaking works of the 1860s led the mostly younger painters to consider him their leader, even though he refused to exhibit in their shows. The older realist artist Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) had also inspired them—he became friendly with Monet while painting together on the Normandy beaches—and his challenges to the political and artistic establishment were notorious since the 1850s. Indeed, many critics saw impressionism as the natural consequence of Courbet's realism. Finally, the painter Jean-Frédéric Bazille had been a central figure in the group, but he was killed during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), before he could join in the exhibitions he had helped conceive.
Impressionism transformed the Western conception of landscape painting from timeless and nostalgic idealizations of distant places to brightly colored, seemingly accurate representations of existing, often familiar sites seen at specific moments. Throughout the long history of landscape painting, nature was generally represented as a refuge and a place of freedom from the constraints of ordinary society. During the first half of the nineteenth century in France, the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's concept of a "return to nature" as a return to innocence and authenticity certainly underlay the moody and solitary landscapes of many painters of the Barbizon school, such as Théodore Rousseau, Jean-François Millet, and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. The impressionists learned many lessons from these painters, especially Corot, who mentored both Pissarro and Morisot and who practiced peinture claire, that is, working on a light-colored ground as a way of enhancing luminosity. Yet, responding to calls for modernity and naturalism—to reflect the environments of contemporary (French) humanity—the impressionists were less interested in escape than in recording their peers at both work and play. Whether in landscapes or in paintings focused on the human figure, their settings and situations were always contemporary rather than historical or nostalgic. Thus, their works implied that history was constantly being made out of the ordinary visual facts and culture of everyday life, as well as that the times and places in which they were living were worthy of representation in art.
Although in the twenty-first century the practice of painting on the spot directly from observation is taken for granted, in the nineteenth century that commitment was controversial. It was inseparable from debates over the role of modern subjects in art (as opposed to classical traditions), and was accompanied by pejorative comparisons to photography, which was considered unselective and mechanical, hence noncreative. Impressionist practices were also fraught with political connotations, conditioned by the new prosperity and related democratic aspirations. With their views of specifically contemporary activities, whether in Parisian cafés, on beaches, or in flowery fields, or of the economic life on waterways, railways, and boulevards, the impressionists made their paintings sensitive and inclusive reflections of modernity.
The name impressionism was coined by a satirical critic named Louis Leroy following the first impressionist exhibition. Leroy made fun of Monet's Impression: Sunrise (1872), a sketch-like view of the harbor of the painter's native Le Havre: "Impression: I was sure of it. I was telling myself,
since I'm so impressed, there must be an impression in it. And what freedom, what ease in handling! A sketch for wallpaper is more finished than that there seascape!" The same critic mockingly accused another painting by Monet of representing figures strolling along the Boulevard des Capucines as no better than "black tongue-lickings" and a painting by Pissarro of consisting of filthy "palette scrapings" (quoted in Berson, vol. 1, pp. 25–26). Such statements expressed disgust with a technique considered so shoddy that it failed to produce a realistic effect. Another name for the group, intransigents, although eventually abandoned, referred to a broader revolutionary significance, echoing as it did the name of a group of Spanish revolutionaries from the early 1870s. The impressionist exhibition followed by just a few years the Paris Commune (1871), a civil war that pitted leftists who had taken over the city against the more conservative government forces that controlled the French army. The result for the Communards was a predictable bloodbath, which consolidated the power of a right-wing coalition in a spirit of paranoia toward further challenges to authority. The impressionists elicited memories of radical politics because of their independent movement and their free and broken brushwork. They flouted the official art salons' monopoly on public exhibitions and their style of paint handling defied the traditional craft of academic art, which taught careful draftsmanship and polished finishing. In addition, they were seen as descendants of the realist Courbet, whose activism during the Commune landed him in jail following its defeat and then forced him into exile.
There are wide variations in the look of impressionist pictures, especially when comparing the relatively traditional handling and draftsmanship of Degas to the fragmented brushstrokes of pure color that Monet and Renoir developed side by side at La Grenouillère on the banks of the river Seine. It is sometimes said there were two factions within impressionism. Degas had an academic training that taught him respect for careful drawing and planning; and he hailed art as a carefully thought-through activity rather than a mere spontaneous response to external stimuli. Yet he and those impressionists in sympathy with him took pleasure in visual displays of their deliberate technical processes and decisions as much as Monet and other impressionists, for whom spontaneity and instantaneity were revealed by sketch-like open brushwork and the use of brilliant color.
For the latter, which also included Pissarro, Sisley, and Guillaumin, who painted primarily landscapes, working out of doors, or en plein air, was an important step away from the artifices and recipes of the studio. Their more urban colleagues Manet, Degas, and Caillebotte surveyed the dance halls and the Opéra, as well as shops and boulevards for scenes of pleasure and material consumption. The female impressionists, Morisot and Cassatt, given the limitations of their access to the primarily male public world, developed a flair for domestic scenes, although Morisot also painted some exquisite landscapes viewed from homes at the country or the seashore. Yet as different as all these artists appear or claimed to be, they shared a commitment to the representation of modern life based on direct observation of their own world, displayed through a variety of innovative technical approaches.
For many, modernity was exemplified by countryside locations, leisure, and sporting activities. These are usually the most familiar and highly prized impressionist paintings. But Monet, Guillaumin, Pissarro, and Cézanne (in his early years) included as a counterpart to leisure scenes evidence of the productivity, infrastructure, and technologies that underlay French progress in the new industrial age. Indeed, the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), while lamenting the loss of taste occasioned by the rise of the bourgeoisie and photography, urged modern artists somehow to capture the essence of their world, which for him was one of constant change, including the flow of crowded commercial avenues and socializing at sidewalk cafés. In addition, the productive energies and speed associated with factories and train travel, as in Monet's Saint-Lazare train station series, were as much a part of the landscape of modern vision as were ladies on beaches and promenades among poppy fields. The liberal art critic Jules Castagnary actually called for a modern landscape that would reflect contemporary progress built on democratic change. And both critics urged a technique that would transcend the age-old opposition between line and color, which for centuries had been a staple of the academic discourse on art. They favored a method derived directly from actual experience. Baudelaire extolled the rapid sketching he found in the work of contemporary illustrators, especially Constantin Guys, who was known for watercolors depicting flâneurs strolling through the urban crowd. In his famous essay, The Painter of Modern Life (1863), Baudelaire made Guys's combination of the fleeting glance and analytic sharpness of vision an ideal for the painter of modernity. There is much evidence that Manet took these ideas seriously, and through his example they were echoed in the works of impressionism.
Implicit in the word impression are two ostensibly opposed concepts: that of the rapid look or instinctive judgment and that of the exact imprint, as in a photographic impression. Hence impressionism could appear to some a casual and imperfect practice, whereas to others the intuition that light is the basis of vision, and color its medium in art, was scientifically true and called forth comparisons to photography. Both points of view could result in praise or condemnation. An early impressionist masterpiece by Monet, the Terrace at Sainte-Adresse (1867) exemplifies these characteristics. It is one of those paintings that seems to express a moment in time so perfectly that one could judge the season and the time of day with almost expert accuracy. Yet at the same time as
it produces this effect of objectivity, the painting makes a generous display of pictorial gesture and technical artifice, as in its spots and dabs of red and yellow representing flowers and its squiggles and wavy lines of greens and blues imitating the constant movement of the harbor waters near Le Havre. The peculiar and pleasing stiffness of this composition typifies early impressionism, still under the thrall of Manet's confrontational flatness and broad areas of strong local color. Monet has clearly discarded the academic convention of perspective, which would structure his canvas as a window into deep space, in favor of a rigorous surface-based geometry, held together primarily by the vertical flag poles and strong horizontal fence-line, evoking the aesthetic of Japanese prints, which were popular at the time. Monet painted the picture from the window of the villa belonging to his aunt, whom he showed with his father, cousin, and a suitor enjoying fresh breezes credited in their time, as ours, with healthy effect. Yet even while the painting so easily exemplifies the themes of pleasure and open air associated with impressionist landscape, its background is the industrial shipping on which their booming native city of Le Havre and family business depended, and on which Monet focused in many other pictures devoted to his maritime home, including Impression: Sunrise, especially in the early 1870s when impressionism was emerging as a coherent movement.
Degas's Musicians in the Orchestra (c. 1870, reworked c. 1874–1876) is a representative masterpiece from the more urban and figure orientation within impressionism. The composition is divided boldly into close-up representations of musicians in the lower half with the ballerinas and stage-set above. In fact, the performance has come to an end. Stepping out of their roles as characters and chorus, the dancers are taking their bows; the musicians pause from their playing. Unlike the relatively precisely delineated portrait (though unidentified) heads of the musicians, the stage scenery is so sketchily painted, one could never mistake it for a genuine landscape. The glare of stage projectors on the prima ballerina's curtsy highlights the artifice underlying the performance and the diaphanous fabric of her costume. Whether Degas's compositional strategy has come from the close-range vision of opera glasses, the cropping effects of photography, the eye-grabbing strategies of Japanese prints, or the in-your-face aesthetics of caricature and popular illustrated newspapers does not matter; all such media evoke the modern age. Degas seems as interested in displaying his own performance as an artist as in revealing the strategies underlying the illusions produced by opera and the dance. He never allows the viewer to forget that he himself remains forever the stage manager, metteur-en-scène or choreographer of the realistic effects produced by his work.
Although few impressionists were as self-conscious as Degas, they shared the commitment to develop a style that would embody their modernity as much as their subject matter. Renoir is another example of how impressionism is made up of special individuals sharing this common bond. In 1874 he exhibited The Loge as a kind of advertisement for the promise of his work. The female figure attending a theatrical or operatic performance is clearly a portrait—Renoir's forte and a means to earn his living through commissions. Yet the woman, a paid model, stands both for a general public of potential clients—of course, her male companion is the one likely to be paying—and a display of Renoir's special eye for women. Indeed, with her sumptuous garb and delicate features, she is as much an object of spectacle as is the painting itself. The viewer's erotic attraction to the woman's soft skin and seductive features coincides with materialistic appetite for the luxurious object created through generously applied paint and ravishing colors. The theme of vision and scopic consumption are not only implied by the theatrical setting but emphasized by the presence
of opera glasses in the woman's hand. Moreover, her companion is preoccupied not with close-up viewing of the stage—his angle would be completely wrong—but by a sight we imagine as comparable to that presented by the painting itself. It is no accident to discover that Renoir believed in the inferiority of women except as objects to fulfill his manly and household needs, and whose ubiquity in his painting gave rise to his uniquely persuasive exercise of artistic potency.
Evoking the subtext of gender relations underlying much of Renoir's painting leads to considering other social meanings of impressionism. Pissarro was the most faithful of the impressionists, exhibiting in all eight of their exhibitions and often keeping the group together through persuasion as well as collaboration with members of both factions. Yet politically, Pissarro was the most extreme of the impressionists, accused by Renoir as "that Jew" who had tried to introduce anarchist painters into the group. In Pissarro's artwork, however, it is hard to find explicit political meanings. Rather, his choice of more rural than suburban settings suggested that his ideal world was a nostalgic precapitalist utopia in which community and privacy were in perfect balance, and in which labor was the redeeming virtue. In such primarily agricultural situations, Pissarro generally showed peasants at work, a far cry from the bourgeois pleasure-seekers of most impressionist landscape. He also made his brushwork appear more deliberately methodical and he attenuated his colors compared to most of his cohorts, in order to avoid the superficially pleasing decorative effects and ostentatious spontaneity he later dismissed as "romantic" impressionism.
An excellent example of such work is Côte des Boeufs at L'Hermitage (1877), in which studiously interlaced branches and the assemblage of houses they screen produce a tautly woven structure with the sort of rigor that Pissarro's younger companion at the time, Cézanne, much appreciated. A peasant woman and her son seem unexpectedly to have discovered the artist as they cross through the woods on their daily routine. Pissarro has so integrated them to his vision of rural stability that one hardly notices them at first. It was in such surroundings that Pissarro worked most comfortably, and given his large brood of children, he could not afford more sophisticated locations. Born on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas and a citizen of Denmark, Pissarro was an outsider to the Parisian and bourgeois world of most of his cohorts. Although Pissarro's social ideal of inclusion seems nostalgic for being based on a disappearing world, it was also progressive for its belief in the possibility of a harmonious future. Such motivations lay behind the investment of time and effort he made in the impressionist's collective movement, which embodied inclusive and democratic principles he hoped one day might extend to society as a whole.
One of Mary Cassatt's masterpieces, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878) shows how superb impressionist paintings could be made within the limitations of a bourgeois woman's life. Cassatt came from respectable society in Philadelphia, where she had studied at the famous Philadelphia Academy. A modern woman nonetheless, she came to Paris in order to pursue her artistic career. She knew that a proper lady could not go out without an escort, whether to the countryside or to observe
modern life in cafés, museums, or the theater. Introduced to the impressionist circle by Degas, an artist who did many fascinating pictures of family and friends, Cassatt discovered that modern forms of beauty could be found in her immediate, if restricted, surroundings. A little girl just returned from school flops down on the soft armchair of her family's elegant and well-lit sitting room. Mother is still out shopping or visiting friends in the afternoon. Colorful slipcover patterns play vividly across the canvas in a space whose foreshortening is worthy of compositional strategies used by Cassatt's mentor, Degas. Like Degas and Manet, too, Cassatt makes reference to past art traditions through a device used by no less a master than Rembrandt to suggest an instant when privacy has been interrupted. The girl's pet terrier, probably Cassatt's own Yorkshire or a Griffon, lounges on the armchair next to her. Yet he faces the viewer in a way that acknowledges an outside presence and suggests the dog's readiness to pounce and yelp should there be any unseemly movement. With her petticoats showing, this is an intimate moment and the canine sentry must be equal to its duty. Like so much impressionist work, the picture looks casual and spontaneous—with its ostensibly unposed figure and broad brushwork. Yet the careful planning needed to produce such charming effects is driven by the ambition to make the greatest art from the most ordinary and insignificant circumstances.
Impressionism's commitment to direct observation and surface experience, along with its evocation of progressive change, are certainly associated with the spirit of positivism, a contemporary philosophy developed by Auguste Comte (1798–1857) and applied to art by his disciple and specialist in the psychology of perception, Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine. Comte's quasi-religion of progress based on scientific attitudes was followed by Taine's deterministic theories on the history of art. Their ideas might be stated as the relationship between art and its immediate physical and social environment, expressed through the empirical perceptions of the talented individual. Drawing on both Taine and Baudelaire, the novelist é mile Zola, a childhood friend of Cézanne through whom he met the impressionists, wrote famously that "art is no more nor less than a corner of nature seen through a temperament." This statement reminds us that whatever conception of nature one may have, each individual has a personal way of seeing it. Monet's concentration on the mutable elements of nature—the liquids and gases in water, clouds, and even the industrial vapors of locomotives—implies a concept of nature in which the only constant is its everchanging flux and flow. The impressionists' concentration on the surface of forms evokes a sense that nature is a place unknowable other than by immediate and highly personal sensation, even when it is as ineffable as the interaction of light and form—what Monet at the time of his later paintings called "the envelope."
The association between these ideas and impressionism can be gauged by two developments from impressionism. The first is by the neo-impressionist critique of their achievement. Certain artists of the next generation, especially Georges Seurat (Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1886), according to the critic Félix Fénéon (1861–1944), sought to make impressionism more socially responsible and democratic by developing a collective technique accessible to all. Seurat exhibited his work along with others by him and a few followers in a separate room of the last impressionist exhibition in 1886. Hence, many saw his effort simply as the latest stage of impressionism. Seurat's dot-dash or pointillist method reduced the labor of painting to a repeatable formula, while at the same time creating the sensation of duration over time rather than a spontaneously grasped instant. On both grounds, neo-impressionism claimed greater objectivity, thus challenging the individualist basis of impressionist truth to nature in favor of a shared and more permanent, hence more classical, vision. Through Seurat's eyes, then, impressionism celebrated merely momentary, superficial pleasures and casual, intuitive craft rather than the mental and physical concentration derived from rational calculation and rigorous effort. This moralizing argument fit a political critique of bourgeois society that came to be associated with avant-garde painting of both the Right and the Left after impressionism.
Paul Cézanne also managed to transcend the impressionist sense of moment to produce what he called "a more lasting art, like that of the museums." In ways more fruitful than Seurat and more lasting for modern art, his increasing abstraction led toward future styles of the twentieth century, especially cubism. Yet Cézanne, who was of the same age group as the impressionists, and painted and exhibited with them in the 1870s, deserves to be classified among them because, unlike Seurat, he never abandoned their principle of working directly from the motif en plein air or of conceiving form in color. One of the classic paintings of Cézanne's mature style, La Montagne Sainte-Victoire (1886) was done at the same time as Seurat's Grande Jatte, and like the latter, it displays both a rigorous structure—note how the central tree focuses attention and flattens the composition—and a sense of temporal duration. Yet Cézanne's effects are produced by carefully applied patches of color, whose amazing economy lends an intellectual dignity associated with deep reflection to his labor rather than the impersonal mechanics of Seurat's dots or the spontaneous rapidity of earlier impressionism. Nor do Cézanne's paintings seem like visual fragments or slices of reality, as do many impressionist works. They come across as unified microcosms of both place and time, as exemplified by the absence of figures, the domineering presence of the greatest mountain in Cézanne's native Provence and the viaduct across the Arc River valley, which evokes Roman antiquity even though it was known to his countrymen as a recent railway construction. While incorporating lessons from neo-impressionism, then, Cézanne held fast to his impressionist roots.
In the other arts, impressionism's impact was limited. The sensitive, mobile surfaces of Auguste Rodin's bronze sculptures caught the light in ways associated with impressionism. Claude Debussy's music came to be called impressionist because its flowing, seemingly directionless style challenged past conventions and evoked certain motifs in nature associated with impressionist painting. In the literature of Henry James, the term refers to the literal naturalism of settings described in so much detail that it both overwhelms and yet concentrates one's anticipation of the narrative.
In painting, almost every country had its impressionist school; the British and the American, with their direct ties to Monet's circle, were the strongest. In later art, the abstract expressionism of artists like Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) has been traced to Claude Monet's late Waterlilies, and the contemporary painter Joan Mitchell (1926–1992), who spent much time near Monet's former residence in Giverny, has been called an "abstract impressionist." However, perhaps the greatest legacy of impressionism is that it is the most popular style for so many amateur art colonies and Sunday painters, who celebrate both nature and leisure while working hard to develop their personal techniques.
Berson, Ruth, ed. The New Painting: Impressionism, 1874–1886: Documentation. 2 vols. San Francisco, 1996.
Brettell, Richard. Impression: Painting Quickly in France, 1860–1890. New Haven, Conn., and London, 2001.
Callen, Anthea. Techniques of the Impressionists. London, 1982.
Clark, Timothy J. The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers. Princeton, N.J., 1984.
Herbert, Robert L. Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society. New Haven, Conn., and London, 1988.
Rewald, John. The History of Impressionsim. 4th rev. edition. London and New York, 1973.
Rubin, James H. Impressionism. London, 1999.
James H. Rubin
Impressionism was an artistic movement that originated in France in the 1860s and 1870s. In 1874, painters including Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas, Armand Guillaumin, and Paul Cézanne participated in the first of eight independent Impressionist exhibitions held until 1886. They were eventually joined by Gustave Caillebotte and the American Mary Cassatt. Closely identified with the Impressionists was Edouard Manet, whose controversial works of the 1860s led the mostly younger Impressionists to consider him their leader, even though he refused to exhibit in their shows. The painter Frédéric Bazille was also associated with the group but was killed during the Franco-Prussian War, before he could join in the exhibitions he helped conceive.
Impressionist Practice and Purpose
Impressionism transformed the Western conception of landscape painting from timeless and nostalgic idealizations of distant places to accurate and brilliantly colored representations of existing, often familiar sites seen at specific moments. Responding to calls for modernity and naturalism—to reflect the environments of contemporary (French) humanity—the Impressionists recorded their peers at both work and play. Although today we take for granted the practice of painting on the spot directly from observation, in the nineteenth century that commitment was controversial. It was inseparable from debates over the role of modern subjects in art (as opposed to classical ones), accompanied by pejorative comparisons to photography, which was considered mechanical, hence noncreative. Impressionist practices were also fraught with political connotations, conditioned by the new prosperity and related democratic aspirations. With their views of specifically contemporary activities, whether in Parisian cafés, on beaches or in flowery fields, or of the economic life on waterways, railways, and boulevards, the Impressionists made their paintings sensitive and inclusive reflections of modernity.
The name Impressionism was coined, following the first Impressionist exhibition, by a satirical critic named Louis Leroy. He made fun of Monet's Impression: Sunrise (1873, Musée Marmottan, Paris) a sketch-like view of the harbor of the painter's native Le Havre: "Impression : I was sure of it. I was telling myself, since I'm so impressed, there must be an impression in it. And what freedom, what ease in handling! A sketch for wallpaper is more finished than that there seascape!" Another name, Intransigents, though eventually abandoned, referred to a broader revolutionary significance. Following the Paris Commune (1871) by just a few years, the Impressionists elicited memories of radical politics because of their independent movement and their free and broken brushwork, which challenged the official art salons' monopoly on public exhibitions and defied the traditional craft of academic art, which taught careful draftsmanship and polished finishing.
Although there are wide variations in Impressionist style, especially when comparing the relatively traditional handling of Degas (A Carriage at the Races, 1869, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) to the fragmented brushstrokes of color that Monet and Renoir (La Grenouillère, 1869, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm) developed side by side on the banks of the river Seine, the artists shared a commitment to the representation of modern life based on exacting observation of their own world. For those like Monet, Pissarro (Red Roofs, 1877, National Gallery, London), and Sisley (The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne, 1872, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), who painted primarily landscapes, working out of doors or en plein air, was an important step away from the artifices of the studio. Their more urban colleagues Manet (A Bar at the Folies Bergère, 1883, Courtauld Institute, London) and Degas surveyed the dance halls and the Opéra, as well as shops and boulevards for scenes of pleasure and material consumption, while the female Impressionists, Morisot (The Cradle, 1872, Musée d'Orsay, Paris) and Cassatt (Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), given the limitations of their access to the primarily male public world, developed a flair for domestic scenes.
For many, modernity was exemplified by countryside locations and sporting activities (Caillebotte, Rowers on the Yerre River, 1877, private collection). But Monet, Guillaumin (Bridge over the Marne at Nogent, 1871, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Pissarro, and Cézanne (in his early years) included as a counterpart to leisure scenes evidence of the productivity, infrastructure, and technologies that underlay French progress in the new industrial age. Indeed, the poet Charles Baudelaire, while lamenting the loss of taste occasioned by the rise of the bourgeoisie, urged modern artists to somehow capture the essence of their world, which for him was one of constant change, including the flow of crowded commercial avenues and socializing at sidewalk cafés. In addition, the productive processes and speed associated with factories and train travel were as much a part of the landscape of modern vision as were ladies on beaches and promenades among poppy fields. The liberal art critic Jules Castagnary actually called for a modern landscape that would reflect contemporary progress built on democratic change.
Neo-Impressionism and Beyond
Implicit in the word impression are two ostensibly opposed concepts: that of the rapid glance or instinctive judgment and that of the exact imprint, as in a photographic impression. Hence Impressionism could appear to some, such as Leroy, a shoddy and unskilled practice, whereas to others the intuition that light is the basis of vision, and color its medium in art, was scientifically true. In addition, Impressionism's commitment to direct observation and its evocation of progressive change are generally associated with the spirit of positivism, a contemporary philosophy developed by Auguste Comte and applied to art by his disciple and specialist in the psychology of perception, Hippolyte Taine. Comte's quasireligion of progress based on scientific attitudes was followed by Taine's deterministic theories on the history of art. Their ideas might be stated as the relationship between art and its immediate physical and social environment, expressed through the empirical perceptions of the talented individual. Their follower, the novelist Émile Zola, a childhood friend of Cézanne, through whom he met the Impressionists, wrote famously that "art is no more nor less than a corner of nature seen through a temperament."
The association between these ideas and Impressionism can be gauged by the neo-Impressionist critique of their achievement. Certain artists of the next generation, especially Georges Seurat (Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1886, Art Institute of Chicago), according to the critic Félix Féneon, sought to make Impressionism more socially responsible and democratic by developing a collective technique accessible to all. Seurat's dot-dash or pointillist method reduced the labor of painting to a repeatable formula, while at the same time creating the sensation of duration over time rather than a spontaneously grasped instant. On both grounds, neo-Impressionism claimed greater objectivity, thus challenging the individualist basis of Impressionist naturalism in favor of a shared and more permanent, hence more classical, vision. Through Seurat's eyes, then, Impressionism celebrated merely momentary, superficial pleasures and casual, intuitive craft rather than the mental and physical concentration derived from rational calculation and rigorous effort. This moralizing argument fit a political critique of bourgeois society that came to be associated with avant-garde painting of both the Right and the Left after Impressionism.
By contrast, while adhering always to the Impressionist model of painting directly from the motif with dabs of color, Paul Cézanne also managed to transcend the Impressionist sense of moment to produce what he called "a more lasting art, like that of the museums" (Montagne Sainte-Victoire, c. 1882, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). In ways more fruitful than Seurat, his increasing abstraction led toward future styles of the twentieth century, especially Cubism.
In the other arts, however, Impressionism's impact was limited. The sensitive, mobile surfaces of Auguste Rodin's bronze sculptures caught the light in ways associated with Impressionism. Claude Debussy's music came to be called Impressionist because it challenged past styles and evoked certain motifs in nature associated with Impressionist painting. In the literature of Henry James, the term refers to the literal naturalism of settings described in so much detail that it both overwhelms and yet concentrates our anticipation of the narrative.
In painting, almost every country had its Impressionist school; the British and the American, with their direct ties to Monet's circle, were the strongest. In later art, the abstract expressionism of artists like Jackson Pollock has been traced to Claude Monet's late Water Lilies, and the contemporary painter Joan Mitchell, who spent much time near Monet's former residence in Giverny, has been called an "abstract Impressionist." However, perhaps the greatest legacy of Impressionism is that it is the most popular style for so many amateur art colonies and Sunday painters, who celebrate both nature and leisure while working hard to develop their personal techniques.
After all the memoirs, biographies, and correspondence written by the painters and their contemporaries, Impressionism studies began in earnest with John Rewald, who used such documents to trace the Impressionist painters almost day by day and site by site. Interpretations of their art, however, remained within the legend of revolutionary aesthetic innovation and celebration of its seminal step toward modernist departures from literal representation.
The first writer to take seriously the social dimension to Impressionism's significance was Meyer Schapiro in his lectures at Columbia University and in a few short articles. He was followed by Robert L. Herbert, whose disciples in particular have stressed the relationship between the artists and the history and significance of places they inhabited. At the same time, the social art historian T. J. Clark has focused on Impressionist paintings as documents of the changing physical environment and its social implications. Feminist scholars led by Linda Nochlin have focused on the female Impressionists as well as on the role of women as subjects of the male Impressionist gaze. Finally, a number of younger scholars have explored the relationship between Impressionism and politics.
See also Arts ; Modernism ; Nature ; Visual Culture .
Callen, Anthea. Techniques of the Impressionists. London: Orbis, 1982.
Clark, Timothy J. The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Moffet, Charles S. The New Painting: Impressionism 1874–1886. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1986.
Rewald, John. A History of Impressionism. 4th revised ed. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973.
Rubin, James H. Impressionism. London: Phaidon, 1999.
Tinterow, Gary, and Henri Loyrette. Origins of Impressionism. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994.
James H. Rubin
The impressionist movement began in the visual art world of Paris in the 1860s. The painters who were considered the first "impressionists," including Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), and Claude Monet (1840–1926), among others, were influenced by contemporary advances in the science of optics that dealt with various aspects of light and color, recent philosophical ideas about the nature of time, and the relatively new study of psychology, which posited notions about perception and comprehension. Their work makes use of color, light, and shadow in ways that attempt to convey one's immediate perception of a scene on the canvas. Their primary concern was with expressing the nature of reality through their artistic medium rather than in establishing a "school" of art. The word "impressionism" came to be associated with these ideas rather by accident, when a critic assigned the title of an 1873 Monet painting (Impression, Sunrise) to the group—with derogatory intent.
Impressionist painting techniques were initially a reaction against the traditional techniques of realism espoused by the art schools of Paris in the latter half of the nineteenth century, coupled with new discoveries about the nature of color and how the eye perceives it. Painters experimented with ways of depicting light and color, juxtaposing spots of color, for example, and letting the eye—or the brain—fuse them together in the mind of the perceiver, thus producing more intense hues than could be produced by mixing the colors on the palette.
Many who did not appreciate the works of the early impressionists supposed that the painters were settling for less than they were capable of—exhibiting unfinished sketches as though they were finished pieces, for example. Rather than belabor the minute details of a scene, these painters often worked quickly, frequently supplying minor brush strokes to provide suggestions rather than more fully rendered depictions of objects. The aim of such renderings, however, was not to depict a photographic reality but to capture the essence of a fleeting moment—a glimpse, rather than a long gaze—on the canvas. Such an aim demands suggestion and innuendo rather than infinitesimally exact details because by its very nature a momentary glance can provide little else. These artists believed that reality is frequently less than exact; one's perception of a scene can be blurry or obscured. In addition, they reasoned that because time is ever-moving and our perceptions are ever-changing, the same object appears differently at various times and from various vantage points. This acknowledgment of perceptive diversity prompted some painters to depict in a series of works the same object presented from different angles or at different times of the day.
Impressionism is not confined to the visual arts alone, however. It is also a significant movement in music and literature. The art world of Paris in the 1860s and 1870s was a vibrant community in which painters, musicians, and writers frequently discussed ideas and shared their experiments with each other. Thus, impressionism as a movement developed simultaneously in painting, music, and literature, and the intermingling of artists in various media established new relationships among the art forms as well.
The term "impressionism" was very controversial for the first several decades of its use. In the 1890s it was considered the antithesis of Victorianism. According to the critic Edwin H. Cady, "it stood for the liberation of the artist from the academy and tradition, from formalism and ideality, from narrative, and finally even from realism; for realism demanded responsibility to the common vision and impressionism responsibility only to what the unique eye of the painter saw. It was also a swearword for conservatives of every variety" (p. 132). In terms of literature, however, the word has had more varied connotations. While some have used it with derision, others have applied it much more positively. Cady comments that "it was repeatedly the highest praise of Joseph Conrad and Edward Garnett in England that [Stephen] Crane was an impressionist; it made him triumphantly avant garde" (p. 132).
LITERARY IMPRESSIONISM: AN AESTHETIC
When impressionism is manifested in literature it can be addressed both as an aesthetic and as a collection of specific techniques. As an aesthetic, impressionism assumes that the only way people live and come to any understanding of human life is through sensory experience. The primary purpose of impressionism, then, both in the visual arts and in literature, is to render the sensory nature of life itself. In painting, this means that artists attempt to render what they actually see—the reflections of light on objects or water, the shimmer of a summer day, or the blurry surfaces of a rain-swept street. In literature, the writer's interest becomes making the reader "see" the narrative described. The effect, in the words of the literary critic James Nagel, is "to convey to the reader the basic impressions of life that a single human consciousness could receive in a given place during a restricted duration of time" (p. 21). The early-twentieth-century author and critic Ford Madox Ford (1873–1939) emphasizes the role of immediacy in impressionist description when he claims that
any piece of Impressionism, whether it be prose, or verse, or painting, or sculpture, is the record of the impression of a moment; it is not a sort of rounded, annotated record of a set of circumstances—it is the record of the recollection in your mind of a set of circumstances that happened ten years ago—or ten minutes. It might even be the impression of the moment but it is the impression, not the corrected chronicle. (P. 41)
Thus impressions are immediate and complete; commentary or explanation is not provided. They are presented directly, as a means of producing similar impressions on the reader as they did on the writer and conveying these impressions along with the associated meaning of related sensations. Because the reader is never told how to respond to these details—the details themselves are the conveyors of meaning—meaning itself tends to operate more on an emotional than intellectual level, though both are possible.
Impressionism also involves a philosophical assumption related directly to the nature of reality: it posits that there is a distinction between reality as it is perceived and reality itself. Nagel points out,
the logic of Realism depends on a consistent reliability of both interpretation and perception; the logic of Impressionism suggests that this correspondence is never certain and that the inscrutability and flux of life are its fundamental reality. Impressionistic fiction involves the constant inter-play between experience and comprehension . . . qualified by the constant awareness that any description or presentation of reality is dependent upon the clarity with which it is perceived. (P. 22)
The impressionist aesthetic, focusing on the sensory nature of life, the immediacy of perception, and the subjective interpretation of reality, is conveyed by writers through several techniques or combinations of techniques that involve narrative methods, characterization, figurative devices, and structure and form. The most common form of narration is limited third-person, which limits the narrator's perceptions to the level of a character in the story. Narrators may be objective or subjective, and their perceptions may blur with those of a character at times. Characters, especially protagonists, are often in flux, seeking understanding about their lives or their situations but not always achieving a clear vision of such. They are very much affected by what happens to them in the moment, and their perceptions change as their experiences influence them. Figurative devices are primarily sensory images, often focusing on color and light, whose meaning must be derived from context because the narrator's grasp of the "truth" may be in question. Meaning for the impressionists is arrived at through suggestion rather than concrete presentation. Through the use of reflections, eroded contours and blurred images, impressionists often evoke a mood or sensation rather than deliver a complete physical description. Maria Kronegger, in her study of Literary Impressionism (1973), aptly points out that in the work of the impressionists there is more stress on connotation than denotation (p. 47). As a result, the form or structure of an impressionist work is often fragmented or episodic. Because the sensory images are passed along directly and in a series of fragments whose meaning is contained in the juxtaposition of these images, impressionism requires the reader to be an active participant in the process of making meaning.
The early-twentieth-century critic Harry Hartwick, in The Foreground of American Fiction (1934), clearly puts into perspective the roles of the writer and the reader regarding the handling of sensory imagery within the impressionistic narrative: "Impressionism is a sensory kodaking, a confused mosaic of details, a rivulet of hyphenated photographs, which the reader . . . must fuse into some eventual relationship" (p. 37). Hartwick and others have described it as a "telegraphic style" in terms of the speed and brevity of the presentation. It might also be likened to the telegraph in its form; the procession of images passes along in chunks and then is reconstructed at the other end. Reliance on this flood of images wreaks havoc on the traditional form and structure of the novel as "experience becomes a series of 'intense moments'; plot loses its importance, and from an interest in the larger aspects of [one's] product, the author turns to an interest in 'the bright, particular world'" (p. 37). For the impressionists, "experience . . . should be broken into fragments, each fragment to be respected for its own sake, each passing moment or passion to be welcomed individually and squeezed dry before it can escape us" (p. 41). It is in this way, via the passing on of sensory fragments, that the impressionists seek to convey a representation of reality to the minds of readers where it can be received and understood with directness and immediacy.
STEPHEN CRANE: THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE
The author Joseph Conrad (1857–1924), himself a practitioner of impressionist prose, once admiringly called Stephen Crane (1871–1900) "the foremost impressionist of his time" (p. 126). Although Crane's works have been variously described as realistic, naturalistic, imagistic, symbolistic, and impressionistic—indeed there are elements of all such styles in his canon—the lens of impressionism is perhaps most instructive, especially when considering his masterpiece, The Red Badge of Courage (1895). This story focuses on an especially stressful time in the life of its protagonist Henry Fleming, namely his involvement in a series of engagements during the Civil War. The changes that Henry undergoes ostensibly lead him to a comfortable conclusion at the end of the novel, but the duration of his comfort is not ensured. In fact, the constant vacillations that Henry experiences throughout the novel somewhat undermine his apparent epiphany at the end of the piece because he has had several similar instances in the course of the story in which he has felt convinced that his actions and his emotional responses were most accurate and appropriate, only to change his mind a moment later with a change of circumstances. These continual changes, highlighted by techniques such as limited narrative point of view, emotionally charged description, and irony, help Crane to underscore the instability of the world and the consequent uncertainty and fallibility of human perception, traits that are fundamental to an impressionist worldview. The people who populate this world must constantly confront change as they attempt to understand reality, a challenge that raises more doubt and apprehension than certainty.
KATE CHOPIN: THE AWAKENING
Crane's contemporary Kate Chopin (1851–1904) also uses an impressionistic approach to explore changes that her protagonist, Edna Pontellier, undergoes in The Awakening (1899). However, while Crane focuses on a singular series of events, Chopin is more interested in examining a wide spectrum of experiences and relationships in one woman's life, ultimately developing an enigmatic character who defies easy definitions and interpretations. Although Edna begins to assert herself and make her own decisions, there are always attendant complications that raise questions about how truly liberated she might be; indeed, some see her throughout the novel as a lost soul who lacks a sense of purpose or understanding of her world. The impressionistic techniques that Chopin employs (including limited third-person narration and an unclear distinction between the narrative consciousness and that of the protagonist), Edna's marginalized and solitary nature, a connection between sensory description and emotional response, and the close juxtaposition of reality and dreams all contribute to the confusion in interpreting Edna's character, and, true to an impressionist aesthetic, she remains an enigma to the end.
In The Ambassadors, Henry James uses the techniques of impressionism to emphasize the process of seeing through gradual perception.
He had just made out, in the now full picture, something and somebody else: another impression had been superimposed. A young girl in a white dress and a softly plumed white hat had suddenly come into view, and what was next clear was that her course was toward them. What was clearer still was that the handsome young man at her side was Chad New-some, and what was clearest of all was that she was therefore Mlle. de Vionnet, that she was unmistakably pretty—bright, gentle, shy, happy, wonderful—and that Chad now, with a consummate calculation of effect, was about to present her to his old friend's vision. What was clearest of all indeed was something much more than this, something at the single stroke of which—and wasn't it simply juxtaposition?—all vagueness vanished. It was the click of a spring—he saw the truth. He had by this time also met Chad's look; there was more of it in that; and the truth, accordingly, so far as Bilham's inquiry was concerned, had thrust in the answer. "Oh, Chad!"—it was that rare youth he should have enjoyed being "like." The virtuous attachment would be all there before him; the virtuous attachment would be in the very act of appeal for his blessing; Jeanne de Vionnet, this charming creature, would be—exquisitely, intensely now—the object of it.
Henry James, The Ambassadors (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1930), pp. 151–152.
HENRY JAMES: THE AMBASSADORS
Unlike Crane and Chopin, Henry James (1843–1916) did not embrace an impressionist approach early in his career. In fact, after viewing the Second Exhibition of impressionist artists in Paris (May 1876), he wrote a decidedly negative response to the show. However, as his career progressed his opinion gradually changed, and his novel The Ambassadors (1903), infused with impressionism, becomes the vehicle for examining the protagonist Lambert Strether's ever-changing perception within an ever-changing world. Rather than an enigmatically soul-searching protagonist as Chopin's is, however, James's protagonist instead discovers truths about himself while focusing his concern on others. As a result the novel examines the process by which Strether reverses his initial position about Chad Newsome, his life in Paris and the Woolett business concerns, and consequently his own personal relationship with Mrs. Newsome. The techniques that James uses emphasize the process of seeing through gradual perception, constant questioning, and reinterpretation of what is seen and understood. Using light and shadow, colors and shapes, he underscores the visual subjectivity of impressions, and by tying a character's emotions to a particular scene, he emphasizes the idea of subjective perception. His use of multiple perspectives highlights the relativity of reality and enables him to examine the protagonist not only in the process of changing his mind but ultimately in the process of changing his heart.
A BRIDGE TO MODERNISM
The result of employing impressionism in a work of fiction varies from writer to writer. However, there are some commonalities. By undermining the notion of a single, authoritative reality, the subjectivity and potential inaccuracies of perception are reinforced. In the absence of an authoritative reality, the notion of truth also becomes questionable. The sweep and fluctuation of life is highlighted in a number of ways, through episodically presented events and seemingly kinetic scenic description as well as through characters whose ideas and attitudes are changing constantly. The resulting works recognize that people and their situations are constantly in flux and that holding fast to some notion of reality is often nearly impossible. In contrast to some works of realism, impressionist works can be confusing, providing more questions than answers even for careful readers—and this is a reflection of the impressionist aesthetic, which sees the world and people as confusing and ever-changing, the essence of which impressionist literature seeks to capture in its pages.
These ideas, and the methods by which they are rendered in fiction, constitute a significant effort on the part of several American writers to push the notions of reality and perception beyond those of realism, pointing toward concerns that would come to characterize the twentieth century. The works of Crane, Chopin, and James solidly establish the impressionist aesthetic in American literature. Significant explorations by Harold Frederic, Hamlin Garland, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and others extend its implications and move the essence of literary experimentation forward. In concert, their efforts show that as a literary movement impressionism forms a significant bridge between realism and modernism.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. 1899. Edited by Margaret Culley. New York: Norton, 1976.
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. 1895. Edited by Donald Pizer. 3rd critical ed. New York: Norton, 1994.
James, Henry. The Ambassadors. 1903. Edited by S. P. Rosenbaum. 2nd critical ed. New York: Norton, 1994.
Cady, Edwin H. Stephen Crane. New York: Twayne, 1962.
Conrad, Joseph. "His War Book." In his Last Essays. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1926. Reprinted in Stephen Crane: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Maurice Bassan, pp. 123–127. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.
Ford, Ford Madox. "On Impressionism." 1914. In CriticalWritings of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Frank MacShane, pp. 33–55. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964.
Hartwick, Harry. The Foreground of American Fiction. New York: American Book Company, 1934.
Kronegger, Maria Elisabeth. Literary Impressionism. New Haven, Conn.: College and University Press, 1973.
Matthiessen, F. O. "The Ambassadors." In Henry James: The Major Phase, pp. 19–41. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Nagel, James. Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.
Perosa, Sergio. "Naturalism and Impressionism in Stephen Crane's Fiction." In Stephen Crane: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Maurice Bassan, pp. 80–94. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.
Poole, Phoebe. Impressionism. New York: Praeger, 1967.
Sonja Froiland LynchRobert Lee Lynch Jr.
impressionism (in 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.
Impressionists and Postimpressionists
The subject matter of their painting was as diverse as the various artists' personalities: Manet chose Old Master themes which he treated in a novel and stunningly direct way so that his canvases were the focus of acid controversy and scandal. Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro were the most consistently impressionist in style. Their subject was landscape and the changing effects of light. Degas painted horse races, the ballet, and portraits of ordinary people, all with a photographic sense of "accidental" composition. Renoir, painting his idealized women and children and his lush landscapes, developed divisionism; omitting black for shadows and outlines from his palette in the 1860s, he used pure, bright color to separate forms. Monet painted many series of the same subject at different times of day so that the character of light became his subject and the forms of objects seemed to dissolve, as in the series of Rouen Cathedral.
The interests and attitudes of these painters influenced the postimpressionists Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. Toulouse-Lautrec gained from a study of Degas's paintings; Matisse, Vuillard, and Bonnard all owed a debt to the landscape painters. However, impressionist objectivity was limiting; the severe and total rejection of both the function of imagination and of the enduring aspects of reality began to pall. Gauguin and Van Gogh used color imaginatively and violently for its expressive emotional value. Immediate impressions and flickering light gave way to heavier subjects, solid with "meaning," in the works of the impressionists' successors.
See postimpressionism and articles on individual artists, e.g., Renoir.
The Legacy of Impressionism
Impressionism and postimpressionism ran their course and produced aesthetic revolution from within and without, putting hosts of painters to come greatly in its debt. At first, with a few exceptions, the works of the impressionist and postimpressionist schools were received with hostility from critics and public alike. This situation continued until the 1920s. By the 1930s impressionism had a large cult following, so that in the 1950s even the least works by painters associated with the movement commanded large prices.
Throughout the next three decades, impressionism and postimpressionism became increasingly popular, as evidenced by the major exhibitions of Monet and Van Gogh at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in the 1980s, both of which drew enormous crowds. Record prices to date include two 1990 sales, one at Sotheby's of Renoir's Au Moulin de la Galette for $78.1 million, the other at Christie's of Van Gogh's Portrait du Dr. Gachet for $82.5 million.
See J. Rewald, The History of Impressionism (1980); T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life (1984); W. H. Gerdts, American Impressionism (1984); D. Bomford et al., Impressionism (1990); B. Denvir, Encyclopedia of Impressionism (1990); C. Moffett, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism (1991).
Im·pres·sion·ism / imˈpreshəˌnizəm/ • n. a style or movement in painting originating in France in the 1860s, characterized by a concern with depicting the visual impression of the moment, esp. in terms of the shifting effect of light and color. ∎ a literary or artistic style that seeks to capture a feeling or experience rather than to achieve accurate depiction. ∎ Mus. a style of composition (associated esp. with Debussy) in which clarity of structure and theme is subordinate to harmonic effects, characteristically using the whole-tone scale.
impressionism (in music)
impressionism, in music, a French movement in the late 19th and early 20th cent. It was begun by Debussy in reaction to the dramatic and dynamic emotionalism of romantic music, especially that of Wagner. Reflecting the impressionist schools of French painting and letters, Debussy developed a style in which atmosphere and mood take the place of strong emotion or of the story in program music. He used new chord combinations, whole-tone chords, chromaticism, and exotic rhythms and scales. In place of the usual harmonic progression, he developed a style in which chords are valued for their individual sonorities rather than for their relations to one another, and dissonances are unprepared and unresolved. Although conceived in reaction to romanticism, musical impressionism seems today the culmination of romanticism. Its influence was widespread and is evident in the music of Ravel, Dukas, Respighi, Albéniz, de Falla, Delius, C. T. Griffes, and J. A. Carpenter.
See C. Palmer, Impressionism in Music (1973).