The Invention of Modern Art

Making a good impression

29 MAY 2017,
Édouard Manet - Music in the Tuileries Gardens
Édouard Manet - Music in the Tuileries Gardens

Without poets, without artists, men would soon weary of nature's monotony

(Guillaume Apollinaire)

Spring in Paris: the square, the bridge over the Seine, the bustle in the street – it’s like a gallery of Impressionist canvases. Considered the prototype for avant-gardism in modern art, the Impressionist movement has achieved this status by being embraced by a group of artists and derided by the establishment, represented by the conservative critics of the time. A term intended initially as an insult came to mark a singularly beautiful chapter in the history of European art.

This most radical breakaway art movement was based on the simple concept of fresh air. Painting en plein air, outside, in front of the subject was the new way of painting a landscape, as opposed to making sketches and finishing the canvas in the studio. Like other art movements, Impressionism was born in France, more precisely in Paris. Throughout the 19th century, nowhere in Europe was painting more sophisticated, more innovative than in Paris. There are art historians who would consider Normandy - Le Havre, where Monet grew up - as the cradle of Impressionism because the picture which gave the name to the movement, Impression: Soleil Levant by Claude Monet was painted at the harbour of Le Havre in the spring of 1872. Quickly executed en plein air, this vivid sketch catches the atmosphere of the moment. With its orange sun seen through the mist, the roughly sketched silhouettes of the boatmen, the painting’s importance is nonetheless more historic than artistic.

The Technique

The paintings of the period are so familiar - from calendars, greeting cards, place mats, etc. - that it is easy to forget just how radical they were at the time of their first exhibition. Painting outdoors meant painting quickly, with rough, rapidly applied brush strokes, visible on the finished work. This new technique resulted in greater awareness of light and colour, their continuously changing nature. Thus, what we see in the picture is not a precise rendering of reality, but a glance, the artist’s perception of it at a given moment. The critics were unimpressed by the lack of “finish” of the paintings, the visible brushwork and the imprecise definition of form.

Impressionists were less interested in detail, but preferred to use bold, pure colours to capture the changing qualities of light and the movement of shapes and colours. Black, the total absence of light, and earth colours were eliminated from Impressionist palettes. Brushwork became very rapid and broken into separate dabs. Seurat took the method a step further: based on Chevreul’s treatise on colour and the diagram he devised, Seurat invited the viewer to participate in creating the right tone. Applied in small dots of primary colours, the dots merged when viewed from a distance into the required colour sensation –more vibrant and expressive than colours mixed on the palette. The method introduced by Signac and used by Seurat and Pissarro was called Divisionism (a division of the mainstream Impressionism) but became known as Pointillism.

The Subject Matter

Everyday modern life – from the growth of industry to the simple leisure activities of ordinary people – was often recorded on these paintings. We see busy Parisian streets and landscapes with railways and factory chimneys. Monet’s interest in the effect of steam in changing the quality of light drew him towards railways stations – particularly the Gare Saint-Lazare. The landscape remains a focus of inspiration: skies and water; trees, painted with vigour and movement; fields, with or without humans. The seasons – the subtlety of colour, the delicacy of brushstroke in spring, the relationship of light and colour in the reds of autumn, the shimmer of summer, the effect of sunlight on the mantle of snow – and the changes they brought continued to fascinate the Impressionists. Upper-middle-class Manet, born and brought up in Paris, captured the changes of the times: the contrast between old and new Paris (which was being transformed by Baron Haussmann), the public’s leisure pursuits, the spread of industry. Perched on a window of his hotel, Pissarro depicted the vivid combination of buildings, people and carriages in the streets and on the bridges over the Seine.

The city’s entertainment, from ballet and theatre to places of popular amusement attracted the attention of the Impressionists like Renoir (La loge) Manet (Music in the Tuileries Gardens), Seurat and Degas. They were mainly interested in rehearsals, audiences and unusual angles of view. In his Ballet Rehearsal on the Stage and Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando, Degas explored the possibilities of novel arrangement in compositions. The asymmetrical design gives the best view of the main character, be it the trapeze artist or the stage itself. Often we found that, while we are looking at the painting the subject is looking back at us. Manet in particular explored this dialogue in Olympia and Le dejeuner sur L’herbe, and most strikingly in A bar at the Folies-Bergere, in which the barmaid is looking at us looking at her, but the reflection in the mirror behind her suggests that she is talking to another customer. In Renoir’s La loge, the woman looks out towards the viewer, while her companion (the model was his brother Edmond Renoir) looks through his glasses, possibly at another woman.

The Wandering Artist

The impressionists were flaneurs; they were inspired by their surroundings, and they often look for new landscapes and a different light. Born in Paris, brought up in Le Havre, Monet did his military service in Algeria. Like Pissarro and Daubigny, he moved to London during the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1). He returned to London twice, fascinated by the effect of fog changing the light on the river Thames, which he depicted in several paintings. Sisley, a British citizen, was born and lived in Paris, but returned to London on a few occasions. There are several canvases by Sisley picturing the Thames, especially around Hampton Court. Pissarro was born on the small Caribbean island of St Thomas. A Danish national, he could not join the army so he also spent the war years in England – painting improbable images of Norwood and Dulwich.

The post –impressionists inherited the love of travel, with the most famous adventurer, Gauguin, going as far as Tahiti (where he was disappointed to find a corrupt society, rather than the paradise he imagined). Apart from a love of colour and travel, the great gift Impressionists have given to modern art was a style of painting against which they were all united: something to turn away from, to even despise. Rebellion never harmed art, au contraire.

Where to see them

In Paris. Apart from the wonderfully rich (but nearly always crowded) Musee d’Orsay, which holds the largest collection of 19th century paintings in the world, Musee Marmottan houses and important collection of Monet, including the Soleil Levant, while the famous water lilies float all around you at l’Orangerie. There is also a good collection of Impressionists at the Louvre. In London, the first call should be at the Courtauld Gallery, followed by the National Gallery. Bon voyage!

Bon voyage!