Impressionism and Technique

HOW THE IMPRESSIONISTS PAINTED

The concept of the “impression” is central to Impressionist practice. As early as 1742, the British philosopher, David Hume, distinguished between “impressions” and “ideas:” “..lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love or hate, desire or will…impressions distinguished from ideas, which are less lively perceptions of which we are conscious, when we reflect on any of these sensations or movements above mentioned.” The tradition of recording an immediate mental impression with a rough sketch, made on the spot, was isolated by the young artists from its subordinate academic position and elevated into a specific art form. Impressionism combined a late Romantic taste for the personal and subjective with Positivist philosophy. The primordial fact of the senses was united with the impression that could belong only to the perceiving individual. The term “sensation” was used interchangeably with “impression,” which “to feel,” but the Impressionists changed the meaning to “to perceive.”

What did the Impressionists do as painters that made their work distinctive? “They are Impressionists in the sense that they render not the landscape, but the sensation produced by the landscape,” stated the critic Jules Castagnary in 1874. And Paul Cézanne concurred, “To paint after nature is not a matter of copying the objective world, it’s giving shape to your sensations.” As Claude Monet explained, “..the first real look at the motif was the truest and most unprejudiced, and…that the first painting should cover as much of the canvas as possible, no matter how roughly, so as to determine at the outset the tonality of the whole…”

The result of such a seeing was the painting of patches of light and color, rather than objects. To paint without knowing objects was to paint as the English critic, John Ruskin, recommended, with an “innocent eye.” “I see in stains,” said Cézanne, who attempted to emulate the regained vision of the blind and to record the new sensations as color patterns, without informational or cultural content. Impressionism can be contrasted with the artists supported by Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites of the 1840s and 50s. What the Pre-Raphaelites and the Impressionists had in common was their use of the white ground, their study of nature in the full light of day, and their use of bright colors.

The Pre-Raphaelites painted on white canvases in bright colors but their subject matter was historical, moralizing, and didactic. The Brotherhood rendered carefully and precisely, like scientists meticulously recording nature in all its glorious God-given detail. Days would pass before a PRB artist completed a section of canvas as big as a large coin, while the Impressionists painted in patches of hastily applied color. With narrative and literary topics, the Pre-Raphaelites sought to teach a lesson to the Victorian audience, while the Impressionists sought to passively render spots of colored light flickering across the surfaces of the landscape.

Although the French had greatly admired the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, by the time the Impressionists founded their organization, the PRB was already almost twenty years old. Claude Monet spent the Franco-Prussian War in London and discovered Joseph Turner and his freely painted landscapes. Monet responded to Turner because he and his friend, Pierre Renoir had already established their distinctive styles of broken brushwork, painting out of doors at La Grenouillère (The Frog Pond) in 1869. For the young artists, Realism had evolved into its late manifestation, Naturalism, and, during the Second Empire, neutral content was advised to avoid censorship. Even when the Empire fell and the Third Republic was established, the Impressionists showed little interest in confronting the bourgeoisie as their enemy. As was discussed in “Impressionism and the Art Market,” (Art History Unstuffed), the Impressionists wanted to sell art, so they painted scenes that would be familiar and appealing to their audiences. With the Barbizon painters as their mentors and predecessors, the landscape artists, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cézanne, and Sisley, sought out attractive landscapes.

Just as the Impressionists extended Naturalism, they also took the ideas of the Barbizon School artists a step further. They would sketch, not objects but the light that composed them, not color but the fact that light and color are one. Although the subject matter of Impressionism is discussed in “Impressionism and Content,” it should be said here briefly that their chosen motifs were not as neutral or as non-committal as some art historians insisted. However, what is of interest here is the sketchy techniques of the Impressionists. The painters were painting, not a landscape, but colored light. The problem was that light moves and changes, so the act of seeing and capturing an impression speeded up enormously. With their habit of painting in the open air, on small, prepared canvases primed with white ground and using portable paint in tubes, these radical artists changed the artistic game. The traditional quarrel in the Nineteenth Century had been over subject matter, but the Impressionists deemphasized the “what” of subject matter and concentrated on the “how” of the subject: how the subject was perceived and recorded. It was necessary to paint fast and to cover the canvas as quickly as possible before the light changed.

Once the light changed and the colors were altered, the picture was gone and the painting was finished. “Finished,” for the Impressionists meant that the artist could do no more with the painting. In the past, the artist had used the quick sketch, the impression, to capture a fleeting effect, but the study would be taken to the studio and translated into a more generalized version of the site. These old practices stemmed from the historical unimportance of the landscape, which had played the role of a backdrop for something else, a story in the foreground. Once the story disappeared, the landscape became the sole content. For the Impressionist, the landscape was a patchwork of ever-changing colors, devoid of artificial studio inventions such as lines and blacks. Another artificial convention that disappeared was the structure or composition, for the Impressionists painted only color and out of the colors, forms emerged. The demands of plein air painting brought about an identifiable style of free and broken brushwork that dissolved under close scrutiny but coalesced into recognizable images at a distance. Later, Cézanne criticized the Impressionists for passively painting only what the eye perceived, the mere surface of an object, and demanded a return to the classical composition which was the conceptual underpinning of traditional art.

Impressionism had evolved gradually and the artists developed a style and a manner of painting that was founded upon a number of predecessors. However, the long gestation from Romantic sketch to the new concept of “finish” did not prepare the art public for accepting these avant-garde artists. While the public laughed at the artists’ “impressions,” other artists were taking notice of he loosened brushwork and the brightened colors and it is through conservative Salon artists, that Impressionism breached the Academic bastion breached of style. Regardless of whether they painted indoors or outside, the Impressionists artists established as their signature look the loose, causal quick notational stroke. Conceptually the practice of painting quickly was how the ever-changing “modern” was captured. Slick and solid painting, smoothly and painstakingly finished was too slow and exacting for modernité. Impressionism as a “style” entered into public acceptance through the watered down version Salon Impressionism. The pretty pictures in pretty colors with slightly freer brushwork enabled the more radical Impressionists to achieve fame and fortune—forty years later. Nevertheless, the idea of one style, such as Neoclassicism, and one technique, such as Ingres’s “licked surface,” as being the only way to paint was no longer tenable.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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