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The Impressionists

At the time the illustrious Manet was shocking and defying the critics and the bourgeois with his daring pictures, Europe was thrilling to the discoveries of science. France, as the newspapers might have expressed it, was becoming "science conscious." Pasteur and his pupil, Metchnikoff, were holding the interest of the public. It was only a few years before Edison was to startle the Paris Exposition with his phonograph, and the whole world with his incandescent lamp. Literature, as we have seen, followed along, led by Zola, Flaubert, the Goncourt brothers, and others less distinguished. Music was experimenting with new combinations and harmonies, the innovations of the German, Wagner, serving to goad young composers to cold laboratory research in sounds. It remained only for painting to enlist under the banner of the scientists.

Courbet, alone among the painters of his time, had foreseen the new trend a generation earlier. Young painters now turned back to his work. There was nothing in it as dazzling as Manet's virtuosity, but its point of view was in keeping with the new objectivity. The question was: Could painters go beyond Courbet in scientific approach? Would they have to examine nature through miscroscopes as Zola was doing in his writings? The musicians indicated a different direction. They dealt with new combinations of notes. Why not new combinations of color? Color was the unexplored field. The Englishman Turner had left the world amazing watercolor sketches of a brilliance and light and intensity unmatched in the history of painting. Who knew what secrets color would yield if approached scientifically? Young painters began a laboratory investigation of color.

They discovered certain truths. For example, shadow or darkness was not the absence of light, outdoors, but only a different colored light. If the sun shone on a dirt road the road appeared yellow. If a house or tree threw a shadow across the road, the shadow was not brown nor an indiscriminate dark, but was just as light as the yellow sunlight; only it was the opposite color, violet.

Again they discovered that there was no such thing as color belonging to an object, or local color. A table was not gray or brown. The light reflected on the table made it appear gray or brown. Optical science taught that the light reflects upon the retina of the eye, the human lens, and causes a particular color to appear, depending upon the number or frequency of vibrations. We see things red, green or yellow not because there are such colors, but because the eye receives certain vibrations. These in turn depend upon the quality of the light which surfaces reflect.

If we walk up to a tree it appears green. If we stand off from the tree and half close our eyes to shut out distracting detail, we see the sunlit foliage yellow and the shadows a brilliant blue. The light reflected by the leaves gives them their color.

Constable revealed the charm and reality of atmosphere. He showed that the condition of the air and the time of day altered the color of objects. The scientific painters seized upon this theory also. So that between reflected light and atmosphere, local color was thrown over as an illusion and deception.

But these are not all of the discoveries. Outline was shown not to exist in nature. It was an artifice that indicated where two masses, each of different color, came together. If the color matched nature accurately, why have outline? And as for the masses of color they only appear red or yellow or green, because they reflect with greater or less frequency, as has been said. In reality all masses of color, except the pure or primary colors, red, yellow and blue, are composed of all the colors in the rainbow; gray consists of spots of every color as does brown. The difference in their appearance is the result only of the proportionate number of color atoms. For example, green appears green because there are more blue and yellow spots apparent in it than any other spots. If all spots were present in an equal proportion we should have the white light of the prism. When we mix our pigments equally, however, we do not attain this white light because the body of the pigment deadens the color, the luminosity. Instead we get brown. Any color except red, yellow, and blue, the Impressionists discovered, is composed of spots of red, yellow and blue and any of their combinations.

The net result of all this scientific investigation was to make painters turn their backs on museums and art schools and devote their talents to catching upon canvas the fugitive accidents of nature. The way in which fleeting light affected the surface color was the object of their studies. Form was forgotten. Composition was reduced to the most simple arrangement. The scientist-painters devoted themselves entirely to watching the changes of nature.

Claude Monet was the leader of these innovators. He was an able artist besides being a hardworking one. He went out into a field and painted a hay-stack at nine o'clock, again at ten-thirty, and still again at twelve, in order to show how the little specks or atoms of color in the hay changed from hour to hour. It mattered little that his subject was a stack of hay. It could just as well have been a bale of spinach.

To the Salon in Paris of 1863, Monet sent a picture of a sunset. In that year the authorities were generous enough to hang in one gallery all the rejected pictures, and the sunset was one of them. The jokers and wags had a pleasurable time in this room at the expense of the unlucky artists. They stopped to examine the new color analysis in Monet's sunset and noted the title: Impression. From that time on, the name Impressionism was given to the work of the scientific colorists who painted all things in spots of pure color, or component elements of a color.

The word Impressionist was really a misnomer. Manet with his dashing portraits and nudes was more an impressionist than any of these colorists. The famous Sargent, who could make one stroke take the place of nine, was certainly so. Whistler's nocturnes were the very essence of impressionism. But none of these painters are today included among the Impressionists. The industrious, meticulous color analyzers attempted to dissect nature by formula and actually permitted themselves no impressions at all. Yet a freak of fortune dubbed them all by that name.

The most astounding thing about the scientist-painters is that they attracted to their cold researches in color the most tender and poetic artists: lyricists and sentimentalists. The lacy sylvan dells of Corot were translated literally into the new color systems. Impressionism gradually swung into a dreamy pursuit of nuances, little changes in harmonies of color; this effeminacy was reflected in the poetry of the period, and even more in the music. We have only to listen to a composition of Debussy to be aware of the whole movement of the Impressionists toward odd little harmonies, exquisitely sweet, but devoid of any classical construction.

The period, however much it tended to decadence, was not fruitless. It contributed to painting that understanding of color and color relationship which we have discussed. And in its principal exponent, Claude Monet, it left the world a great painter and artist.

Let us look at his painting The Staircase. The black and white reproduction is not accurate in values, since the camera makes black whatever is painted orange and red. But the general characteristics of the painting are not entirely lost. We note first of all the airiness or atmosphere that pervades the picture. There are no sharp lines. The roof and walls are bathed in mellow sunlight so there is no possibility of pattern. Severe geometric areas are sacrificed to tonal diffusion.

Yet we cannot say that the picture is disorganized or unorganized. By a well-thought-out distribution of dark accents or spots the canvas is given balance. Each dark complements another. The rectangular areaway on the left is opposed by the decorative lines of the two young trees on the right which follow each other in rhythmic grace. The focal point of the picture, the head of the stairway, is marked by a note of dark in just the right place, not too near the center of the canvas.

The qualities of form and spacial relation, however, are nowhere apparent. The roof does not slant back, the stairs do not run away from us. You cannot walk into the areaway. The foliage is not massive.

There is no pretension to these classical qualities because they are outside the tenets of the Impressionists. Monet preferred to paint foliage shimmering rather than massive, so that "birds can fly through it." There is no denying the gentle charm of this unweighty, unrigid painting. The pliable pigment and delicate brushstroke are made the vehicles of a lyrical feeling for sun and air. In addition to these attributes the scintillating color is of such a quality as to insure the validity of the picture on that score alone. Unfortunately this "scientific" color has inspired countless imitators with no ability whatever beyond a shrewdness for dissecting and aping the method.

The names of two other Impressionists are generally linked with Monet. Camille Pissaro, a Portuguese Jew, was the real theorist of the group. While his own pictures have not the intensity achieved by Monet, his range is wider. He was by nature the true impressionist, in the sense that Manet was. A quick dab of color suggested life and movement to him. By means of variegated spots he was able to catch the illusion of moving crowds, the bustle of a Paris street. The very lack of definition created a literal painting could never attain.

The Englishman Sisley was the third eminent member of the group. His work betrays his racial origin. The lyrical attitude becomes at times cloyingly sweet, but there is no denying the delicacy of nuance and the fascination of his sensitive brushwork. In his landscapes surface prettiness is stressed out of all proportion to the art qualities. To him can be attributed the English and American tendencies in academic landscape painting.

Monet, Pissaro and Sisley remain the distinguished triumvirate of Impressionism. In spite of the fact that the new theories and formulas tended to make painting foolproof-"any child can work it"-these are the only names written in the history of the movement. It is true the Impressionists counted in their number the great master Degas, but Degas was an aloof genius whose personal power was greater than theories.

We shall devote little time to Degas as our interest is chiefly centered upon innovators in painting and not upon practitioners, however great their talent. There are many volumes dealing with Degas' art and his pictures are widely scattered in the museums. The spectator will see in his work all the classical qualities but so subservient will they appear to the artist's sharp observation that his personality or significance will dominate the canvas. When Berenson places him in the company of Rembrandt and Velasquez he exaggerates only slightly. For Degas possessed the power of presenting the salient, visual facts of back-stage life, the race track environment, and the humble gestures and bodies of working women with the realism of Velasquez and the dramatic force of Rembrandt. His portraits rank with the ablest. But since he is not primarily an Impressionist we must leave further eulogy of his talents to others.

We spoke before of the widespread interest in painting brought about by the Impressionist formula. What was this formula? It consisted mainly of two precepts, or more properly, recipes. First, everything was to be painted in pure colors; no browns, nor blacks, nor grays were permissible since these colors were composed of atoms of red, yellow, blue, violet, orange and green. Second, whatever was touched by sunlight was yellow, while shadow was blue or violet. A road was yellow in sunlight and blue in shadow. A tree was also yellow in sunlight and blue in shadow. A spot of red judiciously placed tended to relieve a picture of its monotony. To see the practical application of this formula we have only to visit an artists' colony in the summer and watch the hundreds of amateurs at work. The scene which meets their eye is translated into the terms of their formula. Thus art becomes in their hands a kind of domestic science. An enormous amount of concoctions have been created in the name of Monet since his acceptance by official art circles.

Naturally the dignity of the profession of painting was for a time wiped out by the rush of amateurs who were eager to have a fling at the new formula. Painting became as popular a sport in Paris as cycling. And this popularity was exploited by a new type of artist, the business-artist, or interior decorator. He understood the problem of cheering people up by means of bright colors. The whole democratic movement of the last thirty years towards colors, meaningless, inane, but pretty, comes from Impressionism.

We must see, however, that Impressionism aided the development of modern painting in two ways. First it contributed a scientific understanding of color, and second, it disgusted, with its inanity, those virile artists who required a personal method of expression. These came to be called the Post-Impressionists. They were as hardy a lot of painters as has been seen since the Renaissance.

Further information about Impressionism:
Impressionism @ Wikipedia
History Of French Art - The Impressionists
Modern Painting - The Impressionists And Their Allies
The Post-Impressionists