Impressionism and the Art Market

IMPRESSIONISM AND THE QUESTION OF CAPITALISM

“Great art,” Honoré Balzac wrote, “is impossible without large fortunes, without secure and private means.” Emile Zola also bowed to the power of money, saying, “…money has emancipated the writer; money as created modern letters…One must accept without regret or childishness, one must recognize the dignity, the power and the justice of money….” Although Bohemia is often associated with starving artists, dying in unheated attic garrets, thanks to Henri Murger’s La Bohème, the most successful artists and writers were protected from poverty by money. This fact flies in the face of the myth of the avant-garde, which supposedly insisted on separating art from money. At first the accepting attitude of supposedly avant-garde artists towards money may seem hypocritical, but their stance towards the financing of art making is more nuanced. Money, in fact, makes art free from depending upon the traditional patrons, the church and the state. Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet were eager to sell their art, but both were afforded (pun intended) artistic freedom due to the independent wealth of their families. What the avant-garde artists sought were old-fashioned patrons, such as the enlightened elites of the Renaissance or like those sophisticated aristocrats who vanished with the French Revolution.

Impressionist Exhibitions: Revolution in the Art Market

During the period of Realism, the Salon still dominated and controlled access to success. The inability of this system to accommodate the ever-larger number of candidates can be measured by the growth and development of an independent artist-dealer system. The more money the avant-garde artist possessed, the more this artist could explore alternatives to a Salon jury, dedicated to maintaining the status quo. Both Courbet and Manet attempted one person shows during their careers on the occasion of the two Expositions Universelles in 1855 and 1867. Both artists financed their entrepreneurial ventures privately, but the time wasn’t right for the artist to attempt to show outside of the Salons. Even though the public could not grasp the radical gestures or the radical art, Manet’s followers could. And in 1874 the “Impressionists” held their first group exhibition. Like Courbet and Manet, this younger generation was seeking the open-minded vanguard collector and the dealer who was willing to take a chance on contemporary art and new artists.

Those individuals had already emerged, Louis Martinet’s gallery daringly showed Manet’s radical works for public viewing before the Salon of 1863 and a decade later, Paul Durand-Ruel, made two separate trips to Manet’s studio and purchased a large number of works. It was to this dealer that the Impressionists turned. But the group followed in the footsteps of Courbet and Manet and organized their own exhibitions. But there are significant differences between Manet and his followers. First, Manet never wanted to break free of the Salon. It was there, he contended, that the real battles took place. If he was referring to the argument between the ancients and the moderns in the Salon, Manet was correct. But the Impressionists found that when they attempted to assault this citadel, they were constantly pushed back, rejected by the juries. Unlike Manet and Courbet, the Impressionists could not find an opportunity to get publicity or notoriety—-no Salon of 1849, juried by artists, no Salon des Refusés, only invisibility. The other difference was that the Impressionists were not wealthy. Although Cassatt and Morisot were financially secure, as was Caillebotte, the rest were working class (Renoir) or lower middle class (Monet, Pissarro) or middle class (Sisley) or dependent upon an unwilling parent (Cézanne). Quite simply they needed to make money, and because they had traveled too far from official art to please the art pubic, they had to appeal to the mythical collector who was willing to buy avant-garde art.

Some historians place the beginning of the avant-garde at this point in time with the conscious attempt on the part of the Impressionists to exhibit independently and to enter into the emerging art market under the protection of dealers. The avant-garde artists, from this time on, were considered to be ahead of their time and ahead of the public who were incapable of understanding advanced and experimental art. During the Nineteenth century, these avant-garde French artists challenged several hierarchies. To begin with the Salon’s ruling power was undermined, if only by the appearance of new opportunities of exhibition in the art galleries. The rise of the dealer system meant the end of the power of the Academic jury, for the artist could go elsewhere and appeal directly to the public. The Academy and its supporters were fighting a loosing battle by the end of the end of the century, but this “death” was long in being realized. By the Twentieth century, the traditional academic Salon system had splintered into three separate exhibition entities.

Impressionist Exhibitions: Revolution in Display

It was the Exposition artistique des oeuvres refusées, May 15, 1873, which convinced the Impressionists that they had to find another way to show their art. The alternative to the official salon was due to numerous protests at jury rejections. It was history repeating itself, a decade later and the Impressionists were convinced that the Salon jury would never liberalize. Led by Edgar Degas, an arch trouble-maker, the various and sundry followers of Manet came together thanks to a suggestion by Pissarro, as an independent exhibiting group, a joint stock company of artists. Their founding charter originally named the Impressionists as the Société anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc., as of December 27, 1873. The first attempt to gain public recognition and to capture the attention of adventurous collectors took place on April 15, 1874. Titled the Première exposition de la Société anonymne des artists, peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc., the exhibition included Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas, Morisot, Pissarro, Béliard, Guillaumin, Lepic, Levert, and Rouart. The exhibition opened two weeks before the Salon to avoid association with Salon des Refusés.

The group exhibited in the rooms, which had been recently vacated by the portrait photographer, Nadar, on the Boulevard des Capucines, near the studio of the inventor of the carte-de-visite, Disderi—photography territory. Renoir’s brother painted the walls a dark russet red to replicate the domestic interiors of possible buyers. Degas’ friend, the American artist, James Whistler, had developed a new way of showing paintings—on the eye line, rather than salon style, and the works were arranged in alphabetical order. Working in London, Whistler had revolutionized gallery installation by creating, first, an upscale interior setting, the kind that might be found in the home of an art collector and second, a total work of art. The entire décor was color-coordinated with the paintings on view, from the color of the walls, to the upholstery on the chairs, to the color of the servants’ livery. The artists were, in fact, showing the buyers how to hang their purchases, utilizing the display techniques of the department store: entice and educate.

Another innovation of the exhibition was the refusal of the artists to accept the traditional frames for paintings with their Baroque carving and gaudy gilding. These innovations, which we take for granted today were, in fact, rebukes to the Salon system. First, by showing the paintings on one line, the Impressionists eliminated the hierarchy of judgment where the least favored entries were “skied,” or hung too high to be viewed. Second, the frames were plain, simple and often white, drawing attention to the elements inside the frame and on the canvas itself. In 2006, Leo Carey wrote an interesting article “Frame Game” for the New Yorker Magazine and names Degas and Pissarro as the leaders in frame innovation. Carey pointed out that Pissarro thought the gilt frames “stank of the bourgeois.” According to Carey,

White frames quickly became associated with Impressionism. The Salon, the dominant institution in French art at the time, made conservative stipulations abut how works should be presented and in this context, white frames were a radical departure.

Some Impressionists, searching for an alternative to gold, developed framing styles rooted in the same scientific thinking that inspired their paintings. Many of them were influenced by the notion of “complementary colors” advanced by Michel Eugène Chevreul…Mary Cassatt mounted her pictures in red and green frames, not a single one of which survives…In the third Impressionist exhibition, Pissarro and Degas both put their pictures in plain white frames…although most of the Impressionists used white frames at one time or another, not more than a handful exist today…none of Pissarro’s frames have survived.

Carey described an attempt made at MoMA to replicate one of Pissarro’s frames:

The immediate impression was that of informality. The expanse of wood in the sides of the frame implied something rustic. The bright white strip next to the canvas picked up the color of white-washed houses in the middle distance, and the shallow step in the wooden section drew the eye inward, guiding it through the trees to the roofs beyond.

The Impressionists made no compromises in their art or in the display of their art but did attempt to accommodate the public with the hours the gallery was open, from 10 a. m. to 6 p. m. for those who were free during the day and, for those who were not, from 8 p. m. to 10 p. m. The hours and the availability of the art did little to placate the viewers who were repelled and amused and complained of the lack of “finish.” The artists were rightly perceived to be rebelling against the expected norms, but wrongly accused of being political rebels. The connection between art and politics was to be expected during this period, perhaps explaining why the Impressionists’ content was so carefully apolitical and un-provocative. The artists were aiming for the living room, the drawing room, and the dining room of middle class interiors, as the small to medium sized canvases attest. Despite the openness to the art audience, the Impressionists were not really reaching out to the conservative spectator in search of sensation. Their real audience was the art dealers. The Impressionists continued to exhibit, looking for the art market.

Impressionist Exhibitions: Revolution in Definition of Artist

These exhibitions mark another rupture with the Salon, namely, a concerted attempt to break the power of the Salon as an exhibition venue and to end the importance of the Academy as a place of learning. First, the Impressionists challenged the monopoly of the Salon through the artist-dealer system, then in its infancy. Rather than depend upon Salon juries, the Impressionists depended upon their dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, often begging him for money. When times were good, Durand-Ruel could sell the work; but when times were bad, everyone suffered. Durand-Ruel had little luck with French buyers who remained staunchly opposed to everything avant-garde, but he did quite well with wealthy Americans who wanted to purchase everything “French.” Americans did not distinguish between Bouguereau and Renoir and would feely buy both artists. Although the new system was subject to economic ups and downs of the external market, the idea of the artist being supported by a sympathetic dealer, selling to sensitive and brave collectors would prove to be an attractive one, both to dealers and to artists.

The second bastion to fall was the bastion of education. The Impressionists were, for the most part, untrained. Only Cassatt and Degas possessed the required academic training. Monet studied informally under Eugène Boudin, Renoir spent some time in the atelier of Charles Gleyre. Most of the Impressionists artists had some kind of formal training, but academic rules were of little use to artists who painted colored light or who painted modern life. The Impressionists opened the door for other self-taught artists with their own ideas about how to make art. The rigors and strictures of the academy had limited value and few of the major artists of the 20th century had that kind of training. Matisse, for example, studied in the atelier of a very permissive and experimental master, Gustave Moreau. Picasso studied under his father whom he surpassed when he was still a child. In fact, academic training would not return as a “requirement” to be an artist until the 1950s, almost one hundred years after the Impressionists upended the rulebook.

Impressionist Exhibitions

The Second Exhibition took place in 1876 and by the Third Exhibition of 1877, that artists officially adopted name “Impressionist.” However, this term was pejorative and the Fourth Exhibition of 1879 was called “Independent” on the suggestion of Degas as a more neutral term. Gustave Caillebotte and Mary Cassatt who would be of crucial help to the artists joined the group. Cassatt, who was a wealthy American, knew many others of her kind and she advised her friends to buy the contemporary art of her colleagues. Caillebotte took over from Degas as the prime organizer and also acted as the major funder for subsequent exhibitions.

By the time of the Fifth Exhibition of 1880, Renoir had found patrons and was a successful portraitist and Monet had drifted away. Pissarro’s student, Paul Gauguin, joined Degas and his friends, including Morisot, who showed at every exhibition. But for Sixth Exhibition of 1881, the veterans abstained and many of the exhibitors were newcomers, who were divided from the “pure Impressionists,” such as Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, and Morisot. The Seventh Exhibition of 1882, was noteworthy for the return of the “pure Impressionism,” or pure outdoor painting and color experimentation and broken brush work, in contrast to the Eighth Exhibition of 1886 when Degas and associates returned and were joined by a new generation, Redon, Signac and Seurat. The exhibition of 1886 was to be the last, ending a remarkable run of shows for a group that held together quite well, given that artists’ groups were a new concept.

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

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