THE SUBJECT MATTER OF THE IMPRESSIONISTS
Redefining Landscape Painting
The term “landscape” comes from the Dutch term “landskip,” and today when one thinks of landscape painting, an Impressionist work immediately comes to mind: soft and lovely colors, gently brushed surfaces, sites where the always-shining sunlight is captured in shards of broken brush strokes. Like the English artist, John Constable, the Impressionists painted objectively, as observers with a scientific frame of mind. But in contrast to their predecessors, they sought to capture a fleeting moment out in the open air. Today, Impressionism is often still thought of, incorrectly, as an art of landscape, just as it is thought of as only an art of broken brush-work, also incorrectly. There was no single Impressionist subject matter and no single style. There was also no single coherent group of Impressionists, only a group of painters who chose to exhibit independently together as a group. Some of the artists were highly trained, such as Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, and Mary Cassatt. Others, Claude Monet and Pierre Renoir, were outsider artists. The artist of interior scenes, Frederic Bazille, died young, while Pierre Renoir, a figure painter, lived well into the Twentieth century. The wealthy artist, Gustave Caillebotte was, until recently, respected more as a collector than as a painter was largely an artist of the upscale cityscape. Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, and Edgar Degas were well-to-do, while Pierre Renoir was terribly poor. Those three did fewer landscapes than Monet, for example, possibly due to gender and class constraints and preferences.
Edgar Degas despised the outdoors, but Claude Monet was a painter of the urban landscapes, until he retreated to the peace of suburban town, Giverney. Alfred Sisley was a weaker artist, producing pleasant suburban landscapes of lesser distinction compared to the thoughtful examinations of a changing physical and social landscapes produced by Camille Pissarro, the political radical. Pissarro, himself, lived in Pontoise, located on the river Oise, which was already lined with factories. He was a kind of mentor to Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin and together in the “School of Pontoise,” the three of them painted the hilly suburban villages. Of three, only Pissarro was willing to paint the contemporary city, and his late paintings were from high atop Parisian buildings. By then, Cézanne had retreated to Aix and lived beyond the reach of industrialism, Gauguin had sought the exotic in the South Pacific where he died. Cézanne continued to paint the hot dry landscape of Provence until he died, but Gauguin had long since devoted himself to scenes of the South Pacific.
Impressionist painting is usually defined in terms of the style used by Claude Monet and Pierre Renoir for their landscape paintings, but, however convenient, this identification is too reductive. As was pointed out, not all Impressionists adopted the style of the “pure” landscape painters and even those artists, later in their careers, began to work on the landscapes in the studio. During their ten-year exhibition period, the Impressionists were divided into two camps: the “pure” Impressionists and the Independents, gathering around Monet and Degas, respectively. This is an aesthetic divide only, however, and the Impressionists were united in their iconography of urban life and with their equation of artistic experimentation with modernity. As a group they created a new language and a new understanding of painting technique, treatment of space and composition. These new pictorial structures can be called a “New Painting.”
The new painters have tried to render the walk, movement and hustle and bustle of passersby, just as they have tried to render the trembling of leaves, the shimmer of water, and the vibration of sun-drenched air—just as they have managed to capture the hazy atmosphere of a gray day along with the iridescent play of sunshine….
At last the subject matter of art includes the simple intimacies of everyday life in its repertoire, in addition, to its generally less common interests…
From The New Painting: Concerning the Group of Artists Exhibiting at the Durand Ruel Galleries, by Louis Emile Edmound Duranty, 1876
The New Suburban Landscapes
However “common” and “everyday,” according to the critic Duranty, the subject matter of the first decade of Impressionism is deceptively radical, often submerged under the novelty of the swift execution of the paintings and the change to a sketchy technique. While the landscapes of Impressionism were direct descendents of the Barbizon School, their sites were very different. The Barbizon landscapes were poetic and romantic, and turned away from the urbanization all around the Forest. The Impressionists were possibly the first generation of French artists who grew up with urban living and industrial landscapes and they accepted the modernism and the changes it had brought to the traditional scenery. When Monet and Renoir set up their canvases at La Grenouillère, they were accepting the modern suburban life of leisure, depicting very modern people engaged in activities that were entirely new. Men and women came to a public place of play, bathing and boating, mixing class and gender in a somewhat scandalous fashion. In 1869, the two artists were far from the nostalgic longing of the Barbizon as they swiftly constructed the scene with quick choppy brushstrokes.
The Impressionists painted the lower classes but as newly aspiring members of an urban society, upwardly mobile proletarians enjoying themselves. Impressionist subject matter was quite novel in its ordinariness and newness, not a narrative, but simply a presentational record of the Third Republic. This presentation of subject was quite different from Edouard Manet, who tended to display his subjects like products in a store window and to confront and confuse the viewer. There is something curiously and frankly voyeuristic about Manet’s oeuvre. He is often somewhere where he shouldn’t be; doing something he shouldn’t be doing, at least according to the dictates of decorum. But the Impressionists reject provocation in favor of painting the new Paris and its suburbs. Renoir always preferred the figure and often used the landscape as a backdrop for his fashionable young men and women enjoying themselves in the open air, such as La Promenade (1870). Perhaps more than anyone, Renoir exemplified the “social landscape” of Impressionism. An early work, La Promenade predicts his later works, which redefine landscape as a social site, places which people have altered and transformed for their own uses. Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1881 pushed the very definition of landscape. Here the owners and customers of a restaurant in Chatou, along with Renoir’s friend Caillebotte and his mistress Aline, enjoy a lunch on a balcony, which overlooks the river Seine. The outdoors occupies only a tiny sliver at the top of the painting, glimpsed under the striped awning, but what makes this painting a landscape is the fact that it is flooded with light. When viewed in person the canvas seems to emanate the sun, warming the room.
The New Urban Landscapes
During the formative years of Impressionism, Renoir and Monet painted the city as it was recovering from the Franco-Prussian War, treating the urban vistas as landscapes. The open boulevards created by Haussmann fascinated the artists, who were in search of new subject matter. The uniform height of the rows of townhouses gave the artist the opportunity to work from a high vantage point and record the busy streets teeming with people and carriages below. Renoir’s Pont des arts (1868) painted at the high point of the Second Empire makes the new Paris seem very chic and very fashionable. His perspective of the spectacle, the parade is that of the flâneur, watching the world go by. Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines, 1875) painted at the corner of rue Dallnou was criticized for the “licorice” like strokes of paint, signifying Parisians moving down the street. The soft yellow-orange leaves of the trees nearly obscure the buildings that line the streets and due to the reduction of people to marks, the painting becomes a landscape.
It is often forgotten how much of Impressionist landscape was involved with the modern, for it is not until the 1880s when the group had dispersed that Monet began his series of motifs, haystacks and water lilies, located in the countryside. Although Degas despised the open air, he contributed to the extension of the expected definition of “landscape.” The Place de la Concorde of 1875 continued the Impressionist interest in the interaction between humans and their human made territories. There is nothing green in this now-lost painting, only the buff pavement rising behind the Vicomte Lepic and his daughter and his elegant dog. The three compose a triangle in gray in the center of an open city square. As the figures start to move in three different directions they indicate both the flâneur fascination with the city and the alienation of modernity. Nature has been vanquished completely. None of the friendship and sense of ease seen in The Luncheon of the Boating Party remains, only the hard lines and high walls of an entirely artificial setting, the kind so prized by Degas.
The New Technological Landscape
This new kind of landscape created by modernity can also be found in the series of paintings Camille Pissarro did of his hometown, Pontoise, already altered by the intrusion of factories. Although Pissarro carefully edited the buildings along the riverbanks, he deliberately left in the factory at St. Ouen-L’Aumône and accepted the modernity of what had once been pristine. In contrast to the Barbizon artists who wanted to recreate an Arcadia, the Impressionists both continued and refuted one of the imperatives of “pure” landscape: that the landscape must exist independently of the viewer. Pissarro’s series at Pontoise dates from the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war, and from 1872 he accepted the inevitability of progress. But the factory is not necessarily a detriment, for, like the bridge painted by Monet at Argenteuil, it is a sign of recovery and even of celebration of French freedom from the Prussian occupation. Pissarro’s The Banks of the Oise, Pontoise, 1872 is unspoiled nature at the bottom third of the canvas, a country lane on the left and a river bank on the right. In the center is the shining expanse of the slow river, but it leads to the center of the canvas; and here, at the heart, is the factory. The smoke stack, puffing gray clouds towards the blue sky, rises above the suburban dwellings in a confluence of nature and technology.
The presence of artists in these new territories beyond Paris was due to the growth and development of railroads, which bound the nation together. The coming of the railroads changed a fragmented country divided by culture and language into one society, increasingly homogenized and modernized. At the very moment of coming together, the old France was put a risk by an increasingly mobile urban population. Quaint villages and remote regions became tourist destinations and artistic sites.
The periodic mass exodus into the countryside made possible by the train and other inexpensive forms of transportation such as the tram not only allowed the urban dweller to reaffirm his humanity away from the hubbub of the city; the countryside and its inhabitants were also affected by increased building and commercial development.
Scott Schaefer in A Day in the Country, 1984
Monet’s Train in the Countryside of 1870-1 showed the train cutting across green and verdant landscape. Partially hidden by a bank of trees, the open passenger cars can be seen, trailing behind the locomotive, indicated by the index of puffing smoke, rising above the tree tops. Half the canvas is taken up by a stretch of grass, a picnic ground, where the city dwellers can come and enjoy their day in the country. This painting demonstrates the sudden changes that are altering the landscape and how “landscape” was defined. The classical landscape that made Joseph Turner famous was a dead artifact of the past; the desperate effort of the Barbizon artists to keep progress at bay proved to be futile. By the beginning of the 1870s, Impressionism had redefined landscape.
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