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Text b. What is Impressionism?

Nowadays almost everybody knows that Impressionist paintings are brilliantly colourful and filled with life and atmosphere. The fact is so obvious that it hardly seems worth writing it down. Yet many of the people who first saw these paintings in the 1860s and 1870s were either outraged by them or moved to extravagant mirth. To a leading critic an Impressionist exhibition was ‘a museum of horrors’, while one of his colleagues dismissed a delicious sunlit nude by Renoir as a monstrosity resembling nothing so much as a decomposing mass of flesh. The cartoonists made merry and the general public followed suit. Nor was this response a mere whim of fashion. On the contrary, it represented a fixed attitude that took years to wear down. In effect, Impressionism was the first of the great modern movements in art, and because it was the first its struggle was the most protracted and severe.

In 1874 French art critic Louis Leroy coined the term impressionist in a satirical review of a private exhibition of paintings by a group called The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc. Leroy was prompted to use this term in part by a modest and sketchy harbor scene called Impression, Sunrise (1873) by Monet. The term impressionist struck Leroy as an appropriate description of the loose, inexact manner of painting of Monet and several other painters in the exhibition, namely Pissarro, Morisot, and Sisley. Leroy argued that as soon as these artists had suggested an impression of a subject by means of a few abrupt, shorthand brushstrokes, they were satisfied and stopped work. He did not apply the term to Degas, Renoir, or Paul Cézanne, who also took part in the exhibition and are now classified as Impressionists. Even at this early stage it was clear that the name fit the styles of some artists less neatly than others.

Let us try to imagine what Impressionism really means and how it can be characterized. If we look at the bottles in A Bar at the Folies-Bergere by Manet, we shall notice that the treatment of detail here is totally different from the treatment of detail by the painters of the Academy who looked at each leaf, flower and branch separately and set them down separately on canvas like a sum in addition. But all the bottles in Manet's picture are seen simultaneously in relation to each other: it is a synthesis, not an addition. Impressionism then, in the first place, is the result of simultaneous vision that sees a scene as a whole, as opposed to consecutive vision that sees nature piece by piece. Let us suppose, for a moment, that we are staying at a house on the banks of the Seine opposite the church at Vernon. Let us suppose that, having arrived there in darkness the previous evening, we jump out of bed in the morning, open the window, and put out our head to see the view. Monet's picture The Church at Vernon shows us what we should see at the first glance; the glance, that is to say, when we see the scene as a whole, before any detail in it has riveted our attention and caused us unconsciously to alter the focus of our eye in order to see that detail more sharply. Another way of putting the matter is to say that in an Impressionist picture there is only one focus throughout, while in an academic picture there is a different focus for every detail. These two methods of painting represent different ways of looking at the world, and neither way is wrong, only whereas the academician look particularly at a series of objects, the Impressionist looks generally at the whole.

The Science of Colour

This way of viewing a scene broadly, however, is only a part of Impressionism. It was not a new invention, for Velasquez saw and painted figures and groups in a similar way, therefore Impressionists like Whistler and Manet (in his earlier works) were in this respect developing an existing tradition rather than inventing a new one. But a later development of Impressionism, which was a complete innovation, was the new palette they adopted. From the time of Daubigny, who said,«We never paint light enough», the more progressive painters had striven to make the colours in their pictures closer to the actual hues of nature. Delacroix was оnе of the pioneers in the analysis of colour. When he was in Morocco he wrote in his journal about the shadows he had seen on the faces of two peasant boys, remarking that while the sallow, yellow-faced boy had violet shadows, the red-faced boy had green shadows. Again, in the streets of Paris Delacroix noticed a black and yellow cab, and observed that, beside the greenish-yellow, the black took on a tinge of the complementary colour, violet. Every colour has its complementary, that is to say, an opposing colour is evoked by the action of the human eye after we have been gazing at the said colour; consequently all colours act and react on one another. Delacroix discovered that to obtain the full brilliance of any given hue it should be flanked and supported by its complementary colour. He did not attain to full knowledge; it was left for a later generation to make nicer distinctions and to recognise that if violet is the right complementary for a greenish-yellow, an orange-yellow requires a turquoise blue, and so on.

The Impressionists emerged as heirs to the realist traditions and enriched painting with their fresh, joyful colours, their representation of light and exquisite rendering of atmosphere. They drew only from life capturing the spontaneity and naturalness of the first visual impression. In conveying the wealth of colour in the real world around them the Impressionists attempted to catch and to record its face, forever changing under the play of light. What brought about this ‘revolution of the colour patch’? Edouard Manet himself surely did not reason it out beforehand. It is tempting to think that he was impelled to create the new style by the challenge of photography. The ‘pencil of nature’, then known for a quarter century, had vindicated the objective truth of Renaissance perspective, but it established a standard of representational accuracy that no handmade image could hope to rival. Painting needed to be rescued from competition with the camera. This Manet accomplished by insisting that a painted canvas is, above all, a material surface covered with pigments, that we must look at it, not through it. The canvas for him is no longer a ‘window’ – tradition of the Renaissance – but a screen made up of flat patches of colour.

The nineteenth was a scientific century during which great additions were made to our knowledge of optics. The French scientist Chevreuil wrote a learned book on colour, which was studied with avidity by the younger painters. It became clear to them that colour was not a simple but a very complex matter. For example, we say that grass is green, and green is the local colour of grass, that is to say, the colour of grass at close range, when we look down on it at our feet. But grass-covered hills seen at a great distance do not appear green, but blue. The green of their local colour is affected by the veil of atmosphere through which we view it in the distance, and the blue we see is an example of atmospheric colour. Again, the local colour of snow is white, but everybody who has been to Switzerland is familiar with the ‘Alpine glow’ when the snow-clad peaks of the mountains appear a bright copper colour owing to the rays of the setting sun. This ‘Alpine glow’ is an example of illumination colour, and since the colour of sunlight is changing throughout the day, everything in nature is affected by the colour of the light which falls upon it.

The landscape painter, then, who wishes to reproduce the actual hues of nature, has to consider not only ‘local colour’, but also ‘atmospheric colour’ and ‘illumination colour’, and further take into consideration ‘complementary colours’. One of the most important discoveries made by the later Impressionist painters was that in the shadows there always appears the complementary colour of the light. We should ponder on all these things if we wish to realise the full significance of Monet's saying, «The principal person in a picture is light».

The Impressionist Palette

This new intensive study of colour brought about a new palette and a new technique. For centuries all painting had been based on three primary colours: red, blue and yellow, but science now taught the painters that though these might be primary colours in pigment, they were not primary colours in light. The spectroscope and the new science of spectrum-analysis made them familiar with the fact that white light is composed of all the colours of the rainbow, which is the spectrum of sunlight. They learnt that the primary colours of light were green, orange-red, blue-violet, and that yellow – though a primary in paint – was a secondary in light, because a yellow light can be produced by blending a green light with an orange-red light. On the other hand green, a secondary in paint because it can be produced by mixing yellow with blue pigment, is a primary in light. These discoveries revolutionised their ideas about colour, and the Impressionist painters concluded they could only hope to paint the true colour of sunlight by employing pigments which matched the colours of which sunlight was composed, that is to say, the tints of the rainbow. They discarded black altogether, for, modified by atmosphere and light, they held that a true black did not exist in nature; the darkest colours were indigo, dark green, or a deep violet. They would not use a brown, but set their palette with indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, and violet, the nearest colours they could obtain to the seven of the solar spectrum.

The Impressionist Technique

In seeking to capture the luminous effects of sunlight, the Impressionists used light colors and applied them onto a light or white ground (the canvas's initial coat) rather than the darker ground that was then conventional. The impressionists worked quickly to preserve a feeling of spontaneity and directness. They often painted one color on top of another that was still wet, a practice that tends to blur contours and soften forms.

Scientific advances helped the Impressionists. The new availability of oil paint in metal tubes made painting out of doors much easier, and new paints based on artificial pigments provided brighter colors, particularly blues, yellows, and greens.

Although each Impressionist had his or her individual way of applying paint, they all tended to prefer impasto (thick, textural dabs of paint) to more traditional glazes (thin, transparent layers of paint).

Further, they used the colours with as little mixing as possible. Every amateur in water-colour knows that the more he mixes his paints, the more they lose in brilliancy. The same is true of oil paints. By being juxtaposed rather than blended, the colours achieved a scintillating fresh range of tones – the high-keyed radiance of daylight rather than the calculated chiaroscuro of the studio. And the transmission of light from the canvas is greatly increased. The Impressionists refrained, therefore, as much as possible from mixing colours on their palettes, and applied them pure in minute touches to the canvas. If they wanted to render secondary or tertiary colours, instead of mixing two or three pigments on the palette, they would secure the desired effect by juxtaposed touches of pure colours which, at a certain distance, fused in the eye of the beholder and produced the effect of the tint desired. This device is known as optical mixture, because the mixing is done in the spectator's eye. Thus, whereas red and green pigment mixed on a palette will give a dull grey, the Impressionists produced a brilliant luminous grey by speckling a sky, say, with little points of yellow and mauve which at a distance gave the effect of a pearly grey. Similarly the effect of a brilliant brown was given by the juxtaposition of a series of minute touches of green, red, and yellow; and this association of minute touches of three pure colours set up a quivering vibration which had greater luminosity than any streak of brown pigment. It was an endeavour to use paints as if they were coloured light.

Various names have been given to this technique. It has been called Divisionism, because by it the tones of secondary and tertiary colours were divided into their constituent elements. It has been called Pointillism, because the colour was applied to the canvas in points instead of in sweeping brush strokes. It has been called Luminism, because the aim of the process is primarily to express the colour of light with all its sparkle and vibration. This last is the best name of all, because it serves to emphasise the new outlook of the new painters. The tendency before the Impressionists was to regard colour from the standpoint of black and white. Thus, in considering a grey, it would have been asked: is it a dark grey or a light grey, does it approach black or white? The Impressionists took quite a different attitude and asked whether it was a bluish grey or a greenish grey or a purplish grey, or a reddish grey: in a word, not whether it was light or dark, but which colour in the solar spectrum it came closest to.

To the Impressionists shadow was not an absence of light, but light of a different quality and of different value. In their exhaustive research into the true colours of shadows in nature, they conquered the last unknown territory in the domain of Realist Painting.

To sum up, then, it may be said that Impressionist Painting is based on two great principles:

  • The substitution of a Simultaneous Vision that sees a scene as a whole in place of Consecutive Vision that sees nature piece by piece.

  • The substitution of a Chiaroscuro based on the colours of the solar spectrum for a Chiaroscuro based on Black and White.

This new technique, with all the research and experiment which it implies, was not the invention of one man but the outcome of the life studies of a whole group of men. Most prominent among those who brought Impressionist painting to perfection in theory and practice were Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Auguste Renoir.