French Impressionists

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French Impressionists
France 1860's to 1880's
By Neal McLaughlin
" ARTISTS UPRISING LEADS TO NEW MOVEMENT!" This headline, although
based on true events, is merely a "what could have been" in the mind of this writer.
However, this headline would have been an accurate depiction when a small group
of French Impressionists banded together and started what some critics dubbed as
the second French Revolution.
By the mid-Nineteenth-Century the conventional theories and practice of art had
been tested by the invention of the first camera that had become a popular means of
capturing black and white images of subject matters instantaneously.
Even though many Impressionists owned their own shares of the radical new
invention, they in fact despised the camera and its capabilities and set out to invent
and perfect a technique that would put the black and white photos to shame.
The Impressionists had decided that they would focus on creating paintings by
achieving a subjective or impression of their subject, which was something the
camera, was not able to produce. To further fan the fires of despise, they decided to
use unblended colors and instead of focusing on the light source, were more
interested in the effects that light had on their subjects.
Almost immediately the Impressionists, while searching for their new techniques,
had begun to fracture many of the established academic rules of art and at the same
time created an enemy of both the art critics and patrons alike.
The animosity and wrath that they had created was actually a wall that blocked them
from showing and selling their works. The French Impressionists were actually the
world's first group of starving artists.
Their use of palette knives, thick bristled brushes and paints straight from the newly
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invented metal tubes had violated the strict standards set forth by the Louvres Grand
Salon.
Regardless of the rejection by the Salon's jury, these "Refuses," so named because of
this rejection, organized 8 independent showings between 1874 and 1886. It is
suffice to say that these exhibitions were neither accepted nor attended by the masses
that could have funded their livelihood.
This rebellion, which would later include as many as twenty-four world known
artists, was actually started by the Claude Monet (1840-1926) painting unfortunately
entitled "Impression, Sunrise."
The painting, which was done with out regards to the established rules of that period,
is a beautiful depiction of Monet's perception of the sunrise. The fact that he painted
this in his own style infuriated the art critics so immensely that they used the word
"Impression" in such a way that it took on a negative connotation.
Monet stood steadfast in his convictions that art should capture the personal
moments rather than to be concerned with perfection. He would not be the only artist
of his time to hold these beliefs.
Not long after his showing the "Impression, Sunrise," his new philosophy and style
was picked up by fellow artists Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Pierre-Auguste Renoir
(1841-1919), Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and American artist Mary Cassatt (18441926).
Together, with other artists and sculptors such as Paul Cezanne (1839-1906),
Edouard Manet (1832-1883) and James Tissot (1836-1902) the French
Impressionists would boldly move forward. This was truly a movement that had
regarded starving less important than their freedom to pursue their artistic beliefs.
United, this camp of French Impressionists would reside in the small French village
of Montmarte, alienated as radicals because of their departure from the traditional
European art philosophies and techniques.
Here they would encourage one another to continue to develop their new,
revolutionary ideas and techniques while enduring ridicule and the never-ending
barrage of personal insults.
They would be persistent in maintaining their own ideas and style and would
continue to refuse to adhere to the artistic rules and regulations established by the
state sponsored Academie des Beau-Arts.
In essence, by refusing to play by the "rules" they were actually wielding the knife
with which to slit their own throats. During this period of art history, Paris was
considered to be the hub of the art world. And any artists who had dreamed of
success and recognition were encouraged to abide by the policy in order to be
accepted by the Salon.
Once accepted by the Salon, the largest and most influential art exhibition in Europe,
one was certainly guaranteed future success and recognition. To the artists who
adhered to the often strict guidelines established by the academies the rewards were
often and most impressive.
The fact that the French Impressionists could care less about the "traditional" ideas
so annoyed the Salon that their judges considered the works of the Impressionists to
be " highly unsuitable for the public...the result of mental derangement."
So irate was art critic Louis Leroy he summed up the apparent feelings of critics and
patrons in a neat little package when he cited that the Impressionist's works
are..."hostile to good artistic manner, to devotion to form and respect for the
masters."
Why would the new philosophies and style of a small group of artisans be perceived
so badly that it would create enough hostility that would cause an art critic to nearly
blow a heart valve?
It appears that the biggest thorn in the paws of these critics and patrons resided in the
attitude of the artists themselves. The art critics and patrons could not or would not
accept the Impressionists beliefs that art should be associated with the real world and
a reflection of modern life.
By today's standards this seems to be a logical approach to the art scene.
However, during this period of European art history it was strictly taboo to break
precedent by portraying any scenes that were not in some way connected with the
bible, historical or mythological subjects.
So the fact that Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) and
Frederic Bazille (1841-1870) and the other Impressionists focused more on
entertainment and leisure themes really irked those who remain devoted to the Salon.
Instead of the accepted religious, historical or mythological themes, the French
Impressionists painted seascapes, picnics in the park, regattas and theater activities.
In addition to these "radical" subject matters and their modern philosophies, the
Impressionists were convinced that there had never been a European artist who was
successful in painting light. With this notion they began to experiment with how best
to express the effects of light so that it appeared to be real when done on their
canvas.
By combining the effects that light had on their interpretation of the world as it
existed they felt that they would truly describe their painted subjects. In order to
capture the light and its effects during various parts of the day the Impressionists had
worked outdoors as close to their subject as possible.
This, too, was actually a breach of the traditional habits, as most other artists would
spend just enough time outside to make a thumbnail sketch and then retire to their
studio to complete the actual painting.
Thanks to the invention of the aforementioned metal paint tubes and the portable
easel, the Impressionists were able to spend more time outdoors capturing the
quickly changing effects of light.
This new habit only created more animosity among the critics and peers who
remained loyal to the Salon. The Impressionists not only struggled to overcome the
stigmatism of the spiteful critics, they also had to endure the hostile public, who
most assuredly were affected by the negative publicity of the critics and thus, refused
to purchase their paintings.
Just when it seemed that the French Impressionists were an isolated group doom to
failure they found an advocate to help them in their cause. Paul Durand-Ruel, gallery
owner and art connoisseur, recognized the greatness of the Impressionists and in
1870 he began to buy and sell many of the completed paintings.
Mr. Durand-Ruel's involvement may have indeed been the pivotal role in changing
the views of the French art patrons. During the 1880's and 1890's as American began
to buy the paintings of many Impressionists there was an unforeseen change in the
attitudes of those who had once truly hated Impressionism.
No longer were the Impressionists regarded as deranged or revolutionists. Their
works had become a breath of fresh air and soon these French Impressionists were
experiencing success and recognition that for so long had been way out of their
grasps.
These highly regarded artisans, once considered a bad seed with nothing to offer,
were now attributed with having had a positive impact on the art scene.
Their new ideas and techniques demonstrated the world in a bold, brightly colored
subject that showed the true effects of natural light. So popular was this "freshness"
that many other artists adopted the new theories and it began to be seen throughout
the world.
Through sheer determination, perseverance and dedication to their new philosophies
the original group of starving artists climbed from the pits of nothingness to have an
immense impact on art history forever.
Research Links
WebMuseum: Impressionism
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French Impressionists - Cambridge University Press
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