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Impressionist French Pictures
( Originally Published 1913 )
It was a rosewood panel, broadly painted with a picture of a forest glade-a sous-bois ; two figures, a man and a woman, with something of the French peasant about their costume, were seen in the middle distance; and at the right-hand corner, only just perceptible, a signature, partly obliterated-" N.D . . z," to wit. The picture stood out of doors, leaning against the iron legs of a sewing-machine stand, and I will not say how small was the price the broker asked the collector for it ; at any rate, he was paid a good deal more than he asked.
Barbizon school of painters ; at the sale of the Gabbitas Collection such a panel by Diaz sold for £504- Corot, Millet, Rousseau, Daubigny, Diaz, and others were the founders of the School, settling down at the village of Barbizon in the forest of Fontainebleau, to paint de lightfully. Millet and Corot became the most famous members of the " Barbizon School," and counterfeit " Corots " are now painted and sold by the thousand. But Diaz pictures have not been so much counterfeited yet. I mention the Barbizon School, not because the members of it painted " Impressionist " pictures, but because they pointed the way towards the Impressionism which in French art was soon to supervene. The artistic glory of Barbizon has departed; it is a place for excursionists now. To enjoy it as a place of art memories, you must go there earlier than Easter, as I did this year.
The Sources of Inspiration.-In " The A B C About Collecting " I tell how Claude Monet, being at Zaandam in the sixties of last century, saw a Japanese colourprint for the first time, and how the pictorial art of Japan came thereby to affect the art of modern France. But that was not the only source of inspiration, by any means; the Barbizon School and the Impressionists learned much from English landscape pictures. Constable was really the art-father of the Barbizon painters, but the water-colours by Varley, Robson, Copley Fielding, and, above all, Bonington, which were shown at the Paris Salons of 1822 and 1824 had also a great influence on the men who were to create the Barbizon School. So plain was the connection that in the Paris Salon of 1827 the first picture ever there shown by Corot was hung between one by Constable and one by Bonington. And as for Impressionism, a recent writer in the Gaulois has put the connection in a nutshell. " Benefiting by the researches of a Turner, a Constable, a Bonington, it completed the earnest and noble work of the landscape painters of 1830 (the Barbizon men) by fixing on canvas the subtle and radiant splendours of the atmosphere." Atmosphere ; air surrounding everything ; that is the Impressionist note.
Turner's Influence.-Consider Turner's wonderful picture, " Rain, Steam, and Speed." Almost all of it is atmosphere and motion ; the lights and the shadows are imprecise, quivering, often blurred. The rain blurs the foreground, the steam diffuses, the train rushing along the viaduct seems moving, the hare in front of it is a brown and white blur. No hard and definite lines, no finished details ; it is the arrested view of a moment, it depicts the transient impression of the eye. Two young French painters, Claude Monet and Camille Pissaro, fled from a distracted France in 1870, in London studied the work of Turner, Constable, Crome, and David Cox. Soon after that Pissaro's pictures began to be renowned for their atmosphere and their quivering light. Monet formed the plein air school-that is, he insisted on painting out of doors, on the spot, and he tried to give, as Turner had tried to give, the effect of the light and shade and colour as he saw them about his subject out of doors, not as he remembered them after returning to his studio. "That is why," writes M. Duret, "he was able to fix on the canvas those fleeting appearances which had escaped the older landscape painters who worked indoors. So closely did Monet follow the varying effects and changes which occur in a scene that he could communicate to the picture-gazer's eye the sensation which the scene had evoked at the time. His sunshine seems to warm you, his snow to make you shiver."
Impressionism Born.-Thus was Impressionism in painting born. In 1867 Monet had said that he " only thought of rendering his impression." The word caught on, and " Impressionist " is now " the badge of all their tribe." To get the vague, brief, fleeting effect (as we have seen in Turner's picture), lines, outlines, and details must not be insisted on. Monet went further than that ; the technique of his painting consisted in spots of paint, not strokes and lines and curving brushwork. The spots of paint were laid on side by side in what might seem, when close at hand, an arbitrary and erratic manner; it was dabbing instead of daubing. But, seen from the right distance, these dabs of paint conjoin, blend, fit into each other, give light, show shadow, seem to vibrate, sparkle, glow. In this, again, an English painter had been a pioneer. Redgrave says that " Gainsborough got far from his canvas while painting, and used brushes with very long handles ; by means of the long-handled tools he was able to give the general truth of tint and form without descending into minute details."
The Impressionist Artists.-Here are the names of the principal landscape artists who formed the Impressionist School-Monet, Pissaro, Sisley, and Cezanne. Following their lead into other domains of art than landscape came Renoir, Degas, and Raffaelli. At the Luxembourg Gallery, Paris, in the Caillebotte Room, famous pictures by these artists can be seen by a visitor.
The hungry collector, always on the prowl for gems going cheaply, should study Impressionist and Barbizon pictures. For Barbizon and Impressionist picturesthe Barbizon pictures especially-are worth enormous sums to-day. I wonder how many thousand pairs of eyes had rested a moment on that panel leaning against the iron leg of the sewing-machine !