Friday, January 22, 2016

What, Exactly, Is Impressionism?

Impressionism, as an art movement, is probably pre-eminent through much of the world. Impressionist art is often bright, cheerful, realistic, and easily understood. The viewpoint on the world is one of wide-eyed wonder at the variety of life and light. Surprising that these paintings were initially derided as crude, unfinished, or worse because for a century they've had wide appeal that seems to be steadily increasing.

One indicator of the the pre-eminence of Impressionism is how it's marketed these days. Museums hold exhibitions of Impressionism seemingly at the drop of a hat, comparing one painter of the group to another, or focusing on a location where they painted or lived, or perhaps holding an entire one-person "block buster" show. Incidentally, those shows invariably come with a gift shop selling everything from catalog books to image-laden coffee cups. We love the images. Impressionism is box office; we continue to love the pictures. Another measure of the movement's vitality is how many contemporary representational painters market their work as impressionist. And no mistake, many of them actually do paint like the original masters of the form. The movement is very much alive and well.

The popularity of Impressionism has resulted in confusion on the part of the the public about how representational works made in other traditions fit in. Impressionism is so popular and well-known that other representational art as well much of the avant garde of the same era has been neglected, like the work of Bouguereau, vilified by critics, the way traditional academic painting has been, or simply lumped together with Impressionism. That's been the case for contemporary realism as well, from artists whose specialties are craggy mountains to others who paint city streets, or the ocean or the beach. Even when the works in discussion are clearly of a different school or movement, such as having a more academic (i.e. "finished") look, or employing false colors, some continue to be labelled as impressionist.

My own paintings are sometimes called impressionist. Yet a much of my current work depends on layering--glazing and scumbling--besides direct techniques, commonly using darker colors or underpaintings. Sometimes my images are more finished, but often not as much as other realist works. Glazing and scumbling means working in layers, although as mentioned in a previous post I sometimes work as the impressionists did--alla prima or premier coup. Impressionists painted directly, for the most part, didn't use dark colors much, and discarded black. They were interested in landscape and figures and the effects of light from the sun. They weren't interested making shadowy works like those painted by earlier masters, especially their most immediate predecessors, whose palettes were considerably darker. In my paintings I'm interested in nocturnal but lighted figures, street scenes and rainy days. I like to study how light is refracted and reflected and bounces around in glass containers. I enjoy studying shapes and how they look in slanting light. Some of my work is false-colored, and doesn't show the actuality of the world, even if the paintings themselves are realistic. And none of that is Impressionism at all. For example, a fairly recent painting of mine is "Midtown Food Carts" (below) which has areas of flat, false color, particularly in the background and in large sections of the food carts. It's bright and realistic but it's not Impressionism. It could be called post-impressionist I suppose, but I prefer to call my work contemporary realism. And contemporary realism is not Impressionism.
Gary Hoff, "Midtown Food Carts," 2013

So then what exactly is "Impressionism," and for that matter who were those painters? Impressionism has come to encompass a number of ideas, seems to me. Here they are, so far as I can determine.
  • representation of light in paint, especially outdoor light
  • use of full-bodied paint, laid down in generally visible strokes of various weights and widths
  • direct painting, rather than glazing in layers
  • outdoor ("plein-air") painting to capture fleeting moments of light
  • focus on everyday subjects--landscape and figures--rather than history painting or portraiture
  • elimination of black from the palette
Doubtless someone will make a case for other characteristics of these artists' work, and I certainly make no claim of expertise. Still, there are other features of impressionist work that are often mentioned. One commonly cited concept is the idea of visual color mixing. That is, placing two pure colors--say, a blue and a yellow--side by side to produce a retinal image of a mixture of the two--green in this example. Certainly that was the effect of some of their efforts, but if that was an actual intent of the artists at the beginning of the movement it isn't clear to me. It's true that post-impressionist works relied on that phenomenon, particularly pointillism.  For another example, some have pointed to the new and brighter pigments available to Monet and his colleagues, which made higher key paintings possible. You could say that new pigments were the most important advance leading to Impressionism but that could be argued, given that not all Impressionist paintings are high key. Even the work that led to the name for the movement is mostly a series of beautifully muted (see below) greys. Technology certainly facilitated the process of outdoor painting, though, particularly in the form of metal paint tubes.
Claude Monet, "Impression, Sunrise," 1872
Who were the Impressionists? The paradigmatic member is Claude Monet. He was the leading painter of the movement, so much so that it was his work "Impression, soleil levant" or "Impression, Sunrise,"  that actually provided the movement it's name. He exhibited the painting, a view of  the harbor at Le Havre, his hometown, in the original group exhibition in 1874 that included his work and that of several of his colleagues, most of whom had received scant attention from the art world of the day. That famous show included works by Degas, Renoir, Morisot, Pissarro, Sisley, and a number of others. Because the manner of painting was so different, sketchier, seemingly unfinished at times, it prompted jeering and scathing criticism in the Paris news papers. One journalist whose enormous distaste for the painting made his criticism particularly intense inadvertently provided the name for the movement by his ironic use of the term. Impressionism it was, and so it has remained.. Over the next dozen years or so, with many additions and subtractions, this group of artists exhibited together as the nucleus of the movement.

Surprisingly many artists have been called impressionist, over the decades, although none were truly part of the Impressionist movement. Edouard Manet for example knew Monet and the others--even painted with them--yet he painted in a considerably more finished style and was already well-known before Impressionism. People today call van Gogh an Impressionist, and he was indeed influenced by them, but his style is his own--direct, forceful, graphic, even manic toward the end--but  he's really a Post-impressionist, as is Cezanne, although he was briefly part of the group. Gustave Caillebotte (famous for his huge painting of a rainy street, below) has also been lumped with the Impressionists, but his work, while contemporaneous with theirs is dissimilar in many ways, considerably more urban, angular, and tonal.
Gustave Caillebotte,"Paris Street, Rainy Day," 1877
Georges Seurat, who came along at bit closer to the end of the 19th century and is justly famous, was also influenced by Impressionism, but his work is pointillist (or reductionist) and he again is best called Post-impressionist.
Georges Seurat, "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte," 1884

Alfred Sisley, "The Seine at Bougival," 1872
On the other hand, the purest works of Impressionism--those most similar to Monet's original statement--are probably those of Alfred Sisley, who was actually English but lived in France. His works closely resemble those of Monet, particularly during the 1870s. But in truth, Pissarro, Cassat, Morisot, and Renoir all worked in a clearly similar style to Monet for a long while, although each diverged at various career points. The more I consider it, the more it seems to me that the truth is that Impressionism is in general a synonym for "Monet."

Again, not all representational art is impressionist either in subject or in execution. Here are a few contemporary realists, none impressionists.

The works of Wayne Thiebaud, for example, often feature common objects, and he uses full-bodied strokes, and a lot of color. But in no way can you call them impressionist.

Wayne Thiebaud, "Pies, Pies, Pies," 1961
In some people's book, Thiebaud's work is Pop Art, as suggested by his early "Pies, Pies, Pies," below, as well as others of gumball machines, cakes, and various Pop Art objects. But his oeuvre has gone way past that.

You might think that a realist of the 20th century like Thomas Hart Benton wouldn't be considered Impressionist, either. Although he used a relatively bright palette and painted figures and landscapes among his other motifs, Benton painted in broader areas of color and tended to a style of somewhat exaggerated and repetitive figures and shapes. His "Poker Night," in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, shows how he distorted and simplified shapes, used repetitive angles and forms, as well as rather severe perspective to achieve the effects he wanted. But obviously, again, not Impressionist. (This is actually a painting of the cast of the Tennessee Williams play, "A Streetcar Named Desire." Notice Karl Malden and Marlon Brando, two of the original cast members.)
Thomas Hart Benton, "Poker Night," 1947

The point, of course remains that not all realism is Impressionism. In fact, some art historians have argued that the movement ("Impressionism") was really a short-lived burst of work by about a half-dozen mostly French painters in the 1870s and 1880s. It's true that there were others in other places working in similar ways, though none exactly fits the particularities of Impressionism. Also, by the mid-1890s other ideas and movements had supplanted Impressionism and almost no one in Europe besides Monet continued to paint in that way after 1900. There was of course the later movement of American Impressionists (Childe Hassam, Twachtman) of which another called California or West Coast Impressionism was a minor echo.

In the end, it must be difficult for 21st century realists to have their work called Impressionism. That is, unless that's the effect and image they were aiming for.

Here are a few sites dealing with the subject:
Wikipedia on Impressionism 
Impressionism and Modernity

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