Manet And Impressionism
( Originally Published 1911 )
MANET was needed to complete Courbet. The latter had brought the motive of painting into touch with the spirit of the age, leading the painter to look for his subjects in the world of actual sight and to treat them solely in accordance with the facts of nature ; but he had not furnished the example of a technique fitted to represent the vision naturally. His own, derived from the old masters, still relied on chiaroscuro for modeling and on tonality to draw the parts into a unity of ensemble. But in nature the colors, so far from presenting a tonal scheme, are apt to be characterized by contrasts and yet the effect is harmonious because the antipathies of color are dissolved in the lighted air which envelopes them. It was not until the painter was able to emulate the unifying effect of light and introduce the illusion of circumambient air into the spaces of his composition that he could represent the natural phenomenon naturally. This was Manet's contribution to the development of modern painting.
Edouard Manet was born in Paris in 1832, in the Rue Bonaparte, opposite the cole des Beaux Arts. After spending nearly six years in Couture's studio he made a progress through the galleries of Germany, Vienna, Florence, Venice and Rome. Thus he emulated the independence of Courbet and, like the latter, began by painting pictures which reflected the influence of various old masters, particularly the Flemish and Caravaggio. Then he discovered Velasquez. Just as some forty years earlier the example of Constable had fertilized the development of French Romanticism and the School of Paysage Intime, so now in 1857 a collection of Velasquez' work in the Manchester International Exhibition was the immediate cause which ultimately resulted in French Impressionism. Sir William Sterling-Maxwell's "Life of Velasquez" was translated into French by G. Brunet, and provided with a catalogue raisonné by W. Bürger ; the Spanish artist began to occupy the pens of Charles Blanc, Théophile Gautier and Paul Lefort, and the name of Velasquez resounded through the studios.
To this new influence Manet was the first to respond. In the early sixties appeared a number of pictures from his brush which proved how thoroughly he had absorbed the principles presented by the examples of Velasquez in the Louvre. Three of these early works by Manet are now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York: The Guitarist, The Boy with the Sword and The Angels at the Tomb of Christ. The most signal example of the period is Olympia of the Louvre; a nude, whose white figure is displayed upon the white sheet that covers the couch, while a negress dressed in red stands in the rear, holding a bouquet of flowers, surrounded by white paper. It now hangs near the Odalisque Bathing by Ingres, thus emphasizing the completeness of the revolt from classicalism involved in Manet's picture. The latter had been preceded two years earlier by The Picnic, in which Manet translated into modern terms a subject often used by the Venetians ; namely, two young men in the dress of the day, seated on the bank of a river beside a nude woman, while another woman, clothed only in a chemise, is splashing in the water. It is not difficult to realize the howl of indignation and derision with which the academic camp and the public, following in its suit, greeted these two pictures. Not with-standing the support of Zola, Charles Ephrussi, Duranty and other critics, Manet had to face a storm similar to that which had assaulted Courbet's Funeral at Ornans and the early works of Delacroix.
What, up to this point, in his following of Velasquez, had Manet accomplished? In the first place he had freed himself from traditionary subservience to "interest of subject," and had asserted the painter's right to be interested, if he chose, solely in the pictorial rendering. He had also cut loose from the splendors of Rubens, the color-wealth of the Romanticists and the frigid beauty of line of the classicalists. His subjects, viewed in a cool, evenly diffused light, presented the sober range of hues in which blacks and whites and silvery grays are interspersed discreetly with blues and choice tones of red. The composition is not disposed upon any geometric plan or made to yield lines of grandeur or grace, but is determined solely by the motive of decorating the canvas. The forms are painted with a big brush in flat broad planes which admit no chiaroscuro and yet suggest plasticity. This results from the accurate discrimination of the values of planes and hues, the exact rendering of the quantity of light contained in and reflected from each. Thus an illusion has been created of the actual action of light and accordingly of atmospheric perspective and of air surrounding the full spaces and filling the empty ones of the composition.
For, in the second place, Manet through the example of Velasquez had discovered a way of looking at his subject which was entirely new in modern painting and precisely suited to the needs of its development. In the words of Meier Graefe, he "naturalized the instincts" of the painter. He taught him to look at nature through his own eyes instead of through the medium of pictures; to paint what he sees rather than what he knows the subject involves : and to paint only so much as his eye embraces in a single vision; in fact, to render the totality of his subject as his eye actually receives it.
This represents the first stage in Manet's development, the period in which he was directly under the influence of Velasquez. The new departure came, when having assimilated the Spaniard's example, he launched forth independently. The Rubicon was passed shortly before 1870, when he was staying at the country home of his friend, the painter, De Nittis. The latter's wife happened to be seated in an easy chair on the lawn, her baby in a cradle beside her, her husband lying on the grass. Manet, seated in the sunshine, painted the group in its environment of sunny greens and brilliant flowers. With The Garden, "plein air" made its début in modern painting. Henceforth the principles of Velasquez were extended to out of door problems and to the endless variety of effects produced by varying quantities and qualities of luminosity.
After the Franco-Prussian War, during which Manet served in the artists' corps and also as a lieutenant in the Garde Nationale with Meissonier as his Colonel, an exhibition was held at Nadar's Gallery, comprising his work and that of the men who were already ranging themselves by his side. Some of the pictures were catalogued as "Impressions" of this or that. Jules Claretie, in summing up the exhibition, spoke of it as a "Salon des Impressionistes." The term proved apposite and caught on. The modern consciousness, becoming aware of impressionism, labeled it and fixed it duly in the cabinet of the arts. Some proceeded to define it; Zola, for example, describing an impressionistic picture as "a corner of life seen through a temperament." For it becomes recognized that if the painter is to render what he sees instead of what he knows, it is but a step to painting it as he feels it, and thence but another step to relying so thoroughly on his feeling, that to accommodate the latter he will not hesitate to color and warp the facts; therefore, that impressionism as a mode is temperamental, with all that this implies of weakness as well as strength.
It is customary to limit the term, impressionists, to a group of painters including besides Manet, who has been called the Father of Modern Impressionism, Whistler, Degas, Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, Gillaumin, Sisley, Jongkind and a few others. There is no harm in thus preserving the identity of the new departure, unless it is allowed to obscure the fact that impressionism as a principle penetrates modern life. It has long since ceased to apply to a particular method of painting. It represents not only the painter's way of observing and rendering the subject, but has become in a large measure the world's way.
It has penetrated other arts. Fiction and even history are being written on the principle of viewing the subject (as Zola again said of impressionism) in its milieu or environment and of relying upon suggestion, with its innumerable shades of allusion, corresponding to what the painters call "values," to create the milieu. Compare, for example, Kipling's method of creating a vivid impression in cooperation with the reader's imagination and that of George Eliot who relies upon the detailed statement. With what consummate use of suggestion-values Maeterlinck in "Les Aveugles" succeeds in setting the affliction of the blind in its milieu of solitary helplessness, so that we feel their desolation. To his "Pelleas and Melisande," Debussy composes music, which as far as possible dispenses with contrapuntal forms and by its reliance on tonal suggestions invests the soul-drama with spiritual atmosphere. Or contrast the more detailed art of a Bernhardt with the highly suggestive method of a Duse ; or Miss Ruth St. Denis's dances with those of Miss Isadora Duncan. While the former depends largely upon elaborate stage effects and fascinates her audience by the structural beauty of her form and the detailed figures of the dance, the other eliminates as far as possible from our consciousness the perception of concrete form and figures, creating around herself an aura of suggestion, so that it is the feeling or spirit of the dance rather than the fact of it which is rendered.
But the principles which underlie impressionism have also spread into the affairs of life. In their efforts to solve the problems of disease, poverty and crime, of education and other sociological questions the scientists are analyzing more keenly than ever the subject in relation to its environment. And on what is Mr. Taylor's system of "Scientific Management" based, if not on the study of the subject in its milieu? In treating certain cases physicians recognize today the value of suggestion as, it is most interesting to note, did Hippocrates, "the Father of Medicine," in the third century before the Christian era. Suggestion also is one of the most effective arrows in the quiver of the modern educator; while one of the most marvelous examples of the study of a subject in its environment and of treating it through suggestion is afforded by the Salvation Army.
Thus, without further multiplying instances, it is clear that the principles upon which impressionism is founded permeate modern life. The painter-impressionist is but one of the reflections of the spirit of his age. His distinguishing characteristic as a painter is not to be discovered so much in his motive as in his technique. The latter has been influenced in two directions : by the example of the Japanese and by hints derived from science. Of the former influence Degas, (1834—) is the most typical, while Claude Monet (1840-), Camille Pissarro (1831–1903) and Auguste Renoir (1841–) are most representative of the scientific influence.
No sooner was impressionism weaned from the direct influence of Velasquez than its lusty growth began to assimilate a characteristic of the age. As stage-coaches were superseded by trains and the speed of the latter increased, the pace of life all round became accelerated. With ability to move quickly came a craze for change. Life must be crowded with sensations and to get them into the ordinary allotted span, they must be brief, the moment charged with piquancy. Reflecting this, the painter became intent on catching the fugitive impression, the fleeting movement of a woman's gesture; the light upon a landscape at such and such an hour; the momentary aspect of a crowded street or café. For this the old principles of composition, based on geometry, were unfitted, Their effect was at once too formal and too stable. The clue to a more spontaneous disposition of the forms and spaces was discovered in the Japanese prints which by the seventies were coming into Paris. These Ukiyoye compositions had the charm of unpremeditation, surprise and fluent actuality, as they fixed on paper the evanescent aspects of the "Passing Show." The principle they involved was in the language of Japan notan; a spotting of dark and light, not systematically arranged but balanced with an artful though apparently artless irregularity. Spotting instead of building-up 'became the characteristic of impressionistic composition. Moreover, the Japanese composition presented a highly decorative arrangement, which from the first it had been the aim of impressionistic painters to achieve. Further, these prints echoed Velasquez's use of black, white, gray, blue and rose, meanwhile extending the gamut of hues and nuancing the tones with infinite subtleness.
While Degas developed these principles more thoroughly than any other of the Impressionists, he is none the less an original genius. His early work was inspired by the example of Ingres for whose art he has always had a high regard. Then he devoted himself to the naturalistic motive, finding his subjects in race-scenes and the femininity of Paris. No artist has so effectively synthetized the restless action of a bunch of racers as they canter to the starting post or wait the signal; the intricacy of angles which their shifting bodies present, the scintillating movement of the many legs and the tense gestures of the jockeys. With corresponding verve he analyzed the characteristic of the Parisian working-women and ladies of society and pitilessly revealed the jaded life of the demi-mondaines. Finally he explored the coulisses and stage of the Opera and Circus and the schools in which the girls of the ballet are trained. It is with these subjects that he is most widely identified. And they represent most characteristically this strangely haughty genius who betrays no taste for the world, holding himself severely aloof from society, allowing himself no intimates and looking out from his solitude upon the passing show with coldest scrutiny and cynical disdain. At least such an attitude of mind one may gather from the tired, ugly faces of his dancing girls and the cruelly grotesque contortions which he gives to their bodies and limbs. Yet these are but the facts of his models and of the conditions under which they are converted into Terpsichorean machines. When he depicts a ballerina, he will endow her with the zest of an artist and render her a miracle of grace.
When, however, one turns from the material to the manner of Degas, it is to discover in this apparently cold and cynical nature an artistic ardor and feeling for abstract beauty, such as few painters of the century have rivaled. He is as great a draftsman as a colorist, and a decorator unsurpassed. The arabesques of his compositions alike in his oil paintings and his inimitable drawings, water colors and pastels, are distinguished by a spotting as broad as it is subtle, which suggests the most unstudied naturalness and at the same time the most aristocratic feeling. High-bred, also is his instinct for color, which again has a strain of fascinating bizarrerie and always an impeccable assurance. Perhaps he is never so wonderful as when he drags a stick of pastel across a drawing, leaving an evanescent suggestion of purple or yellow. Indeed, his use of color defies analysis; it is regulated by the genius of instinct. Degas has the natural gift of the colorist as Madame Melba has that of song.
Degas excepted, the original Impressionists are distinguished by their knowingly scientific use of color, in which they followed Delacroix who had taken his lead from Constable. It is based on the principle of division, that is to say, the placing of tints and tones side by side in separate touches. Delacroix affirmed this principle and its advantages frequently in his writings. He said, for example, "it is good that the touches should not be actually blended. They blend naturally at a given distance, by the law of sympathy which has associated them. Color thus obtains more energy and freshness." He acknowledges his indebtedness to the English painter. "Constable said that the superiority of the green in his meadows was due to the fact that it was composed of a multitude of different greens. The cause of the lack of intensity and life in the verdure of the average landscapist is that he makes it ordinarily of a uniform tint. What Constable says here of the green of the meadows can be applied to all tones." Accordingly Delacroix adopted the practice of covering his local hues with cross hatches of varying tones of the same hue or of its complementary, thus securing intensity and life.
However, it was not at once that the first Impressionists, Manet, Monet and Pissarro, derived this lesson from Delacroix. Originally they drew their inspiration from Courbet and then sat at the feet of Velasquez, emulating his blacks and whites and grays. Mean while, Delacroix had declared that "the enemy of all painting is the gray." But in 1871 Manet and Pissarro paid a visit to England and made the acquaintance of Turner. They returned home to pursue the motive of light : of light which is color and color which is light, luminosity, brilliance. It was then that they began to turn to Delacroix and to his division of color. They were fortified in their new departure by a discovery which their friend, Seurat, had made in a work on color by Professor Rood of Columbia University. The latter recorded an experiment made with a comparison of revolving disks, on one of which two colors were painted in separate sections, while the other was covered with the product of the same two colors, previously mixed on the palette. The revolution of the former disk produced a mingling of the colors far more intense and lively than the hue of the other one. It seemed to establish the superiority, for purposes of brilliance and intensity, of the optical blending to the actual blending on the palette. Seurat took the hint and communicated the results to Monet and Pissarro. Hence-forth their work becomes distinguished by division of touch. They lay the pure colors side by side and depend upon the eye to effect the mingling.
So far they had resumed the experience of Delacroix. Then they passed beyond him, if not in splendor and majesty of coloring, at least in clarity and brilliance and in naturalness. For they contributed their share to the "naturalization of the instinct." They taught themselves and in time the public, to see nature more naturally. Manet had discovered that planes in out-of-door nature appear flat and that discords of color are harmonized by the envelope of light. But there were other natural facts to be learned, particularly those relating to shadow. Analysis proved that in nature there is no arbitrary recipe for shadow. Neither the blacks of Caravaggio and the school of the Darklings, nor the reds of Rubens, nor the grays of Van Dyck, nor the browns of Hobbema and Ruisdael ; but that shadows always retain something of the local hue; and are affected by the near-by hues. Thus, the shadow under a girl's chin, as she sits in the sunshine on a lawn, may be impregnated with green. It was discovered that the shadows on snow are not black, which is the negative of color, but some tone of the coolest color, blue, or its warmer affinities, purple or lavender.
As a result appeared those canvases by Monet which at first outraged the purblind public, which had not as yet accustomed itself to see nature as it is, but relied for its color impressions on the conventions and formulas of indoor painting. To-day we know better, thanks to the Impressionists, and can appreciate at their full value Monet's exquisite landscapes made at Vétheuil on the Seine, on the coast of Belle Isle, along the Thames in London and those miracles of luminosity represented in the series of early morning visions of Rouen Cathedral. Few artists have been gifted with an eye so analytic as Monet's, which led him in pure joy of experiment to multiply the varying aspects of a single haystack, according to the quality of light that played upon it at different times of day, or to find in a single lily pool a source of endless variety of color and light and decorative arabesques.
Moreover, there was a time when it was customary to consider this analytical eye of Monet's as objective as a mirror. We have discovered our mistake and realize now the subjective character of his vision : that it was not satisfied with the external aspects of the scene; that, in fact, it penetrated to its very core and brought to the surface its spiritual inwardness. For example, there is no painter who has revealed more intimately as it affects the spirit, the very essence of impression peculiar to the Seine near Paris, than Monet. Alfred Sisley, on occasions, rivals him but cannot maintain the pace of the physically powerful Monet, whose gait is so measured and yet leads so invariably to a refined interpretation of the spiritual suggestion of the scene.