Impressionist Practice And Purpose
Impressionism transformed the Western conception of landscape painting from timeless and nostalgic idealizations of distant places to accurate and brilliantly colored representations of existing, often familiar sites seen at specific moments. Responding to calls for modernity and naturalism—to reflect the environments of contemporary (French) humanity—the Impressionists recorded their peers at both work and play. Although today we take for granted the practice of painting on the spot directly from observation, in the nineteenth century that commitment was controversial. It was inseparable from debates over the role of modern subjects in art (as opposed to classical ones), accompanied by pejorative comparisons to photography, which was considered mechanical, hence noncreative. Impressionist practices were also fraught with political connotations, conditioned by the new prosperity and related democratic aspirations. With their views of specifically contemporary activities, whether in Parisian cafés, on beaches or in flowery fields, or of the economic life on waterways, railways, and boulevards, the Impressionists made their paintings sensitive and inclusive reflections of modernity.
The name Impressionism was coined, following the first Impressionist exhibition, by a satirical critic named Louis Leroy. He made fun of Monet's Impression: Sunrise (1873, Musée Marmottan, Paris) a sketch-like view of the harbor of the painter's native Le Havre: "Impression: I was sure of it. I was telling myself, since I'm so impressed, there must be an impression in it. And what freedom, what ease in handling! A sketch for wallpaper is more finished than that there seascape!" Another name, Intransigents, though eventually abandoned, referred to a broader revolutionary significance. Following the Paris Commune (1871) by just a few years, the Impressionists elicited memories of radical politics because of their independent movement and their free and broken brushwork, which challenged the official art salons' monopoly on public exhibitions and defied the traditional craft of academic art, which taught careful draftsmanship and polished finishing.
Although there are wide variations in Impressionist style, especially when comparing the relatively traditional handling of Degas (A Carriage at the Races, 1869, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) to the fragmented brushstrokes of color that Monet and Renoir (La Grenouillère, 1869, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm) developed side by side on the banks of the river Seine, the artists shared a commitment to the representation of modern life based on exacting observation of their own world. For those like Monet, Pissarro (Red Roofs, 1877, National Gallery, London), and Sisley (The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne, 1872, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), who painted primarily landscapes, working out of doors or en plein air, was an important step away from the artifices of the studio. Their more urban colleagues Manet (A Bar at the Folies Bergère, 1883, Courtauld Institute, London) and Degas surveyed the dance halls and the Opéra, as well as shops and boulevards for scenes of pleasure and material consumption, while the female Impressionists, Morisot (The Cradle, 1872, Musée d'Orsay, Paris) and Cassatt (Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), given the limitations of their access to the primarily male public world, developed a flair for domestic scenes.
For many, modernity was exemplified by countryside locations and sporting activities (Caillebotte, Rowers on the Yerre River, 1877, private collection). But Monet, Guillaumin (Bridge over the Marne at Nogent, 1871, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Pissarro, and Cézanne (in his early years) included as a counterpart to leisure scenes evidence of the productivity, infrastructure, and technologies that underlay French progress in the new industrial age. Indeed, the poet Charles Baudelaire, while lamenting the loss of taste occasioned by the rise of the bourgeoisie, urged modern artists to somehow capture the essence of their world, which for him was one of constant change, including the flow of crowded commercial avenues and socializing at sidewalk cafés. In addition, the productive processes and speed associated with factories and train travel were as much a part of the landscape of modern vision as were ladies on beaches and promenades among poppy fields. The liberal art critic Jules Castagnary actually called for a modern landscape that would reflect contemporary progress built on democratic change.