Years ago, throngs of people would flock to see works of art in a central
gallery, deciding on winners and offering prizes. Today, numerous art
galleries offer visitors the chance to see scores of paintings, sculptures and
other fine works of art, but many of them are just that and offer no
In 1682, the art world was different. France’s Royal Academy
of Painting and Sculpture was founded as an instrument of national propaganda.
King Louis XIV’s minister of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, believed that a
government is measured by the monuments and artistic works created by it and he
set out to assemble a team of sculptors and painters to realize this
After the French Revolution, the aristocratic clique that, until
then, had been a small group of knowledgeable patrons of art, became a much
larger group of bourgeoisie and, as John Canaday writes in Mainstreams of Modern
Art, “who, in their eagerness for the acquisition of ‘culture’ accepted the
academic stamp of approval as a guarantee of art.”
The Salon became the
central gallery where artists could bring their works of art in the hope of
obtaining a stamp of approval from the academy.
But the academy insisted
on imposing rules on its artists, and while many went along with it out of
desire to attain prestige, fame and honor, there were others who were less
enchanted by the academy’s strict approach to art.
For years, the Salon
exhibited only ostentatious paintings that included a moral lesson of sorts.
Artists felt the need to churn out paintings that would flatter the public and
thus be rewarded with flattery in return. By the middle of the 19th century, the
snobby bourgeoisie dominated the art world in Paris.
It was in the second
half of the 19th century, as the city underwent significant change resulting
from the Industrial Revolution, that Charles Baudelaire, credited with coining
the term “modernity,” complained that modern art was in fact not modern at all
as it did not reflect these changes. Baudelaire called for a new painter –
someone who could capture the essence of modern-day life.
The Salon in
Paris was the only place where aspiring painters could properly exhibit their
work and in 1863, the jury, made up of members of the academy, selected only
1,000 out of 5,000 works to be presented. With so many rejected artists, it
became necessary to find another venue for exhibiting. This led to the creation
of the “Salon des Refusés” (Salon of the Refused).
A few years later, in
1874, a group of painters who frequented the Café Guerbois gathered to exhibit
their own works of art at their own expense.
The principal members of the
movement were Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Alfred
Sisley, Mary Cassatt, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot and Gustave
It is not entirely clear how the movement received its name
but one main theory is that upon seeing Monet’s painting titled Impression:
Soleil Levant (Impression: Sunrise, 1872), art critic Louis Leroy gave the group
of artists the name “Impressionists.”
Though there were Impressionist
painters in England (James Abbott McNeill Whistler) and Italy (the Macchiaioli)
around the same time, it was in Paris that they flourished most.
point of Impressionism is to show a glimpse of life as any viewer would see
it. Its focus is on the transient, fleeting moment and the way it seeks
to convey this is with what looks like spontaneous, rapid and even unfinished
The paint is applied to the canvas in separate strokes of
color in a method that leads to what is called “divisionism,” the true invention
of which can be attributed to Georges Seurat.
Rather than the artist
mixing paints on the palette and then applying it to the canvas, this method
calls for applying colors next to each other on the canvas, which forces the
viewer’s eye and mind to mix the colors together. From up close, scenes and
objects in Impressionist paintings are difficult to discern, but from a short
distance the scene becomes clear.
Unlike in traditional painting, the
subject matter is contemporary rather than historical or mythical. There is no
story to be told, no hero or victim to focus on.
Impressionism focuses on
“neglecting” details and calls on the artist to consciously discard what he or
she knows about the subject and paint only what can be seen by the naked
Impressionism was also a way to study the effects of light on
surfaces and offer the artist a way to translate what he saw directly onto a
canvas. Before this, landscape painters had sketched a scene outside and then
completed the painting indoors in their studios.
Camille Corot and Eugene Boudin painted outside to some extent in the mid-19th
century, it was the Impressionists who truly brought painting outdoors into what
was called “plein air.” While paints had previously been kept in a wooden
box with separate compartments for each color, the invention of metal paint
tubes in 1840 allowed painters to work for longer periods of time outdoors since
they preserved the paints and prevented them from drying out too quickly when
exposed to air and sunlight.
Though the Impressionists broke ground in their approaches both to painting and
displaying their work, they were not entirely original as they inherited many of
their techniques from other great artists including Velásquez, Goya, Courbet and
Monet, one of the greatest Impressionist artists, was very
much inspired and influenced by Boudin, one of the first French landscape
painters to paint outdoors.
Monet once told a student, “When you go out
to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you – a tree, a house, a
field, or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an
oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you,
the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naive impression of the scene
The play of light and color become the subject, rather than
people or objects.
Monet attempted to remove from the scene before him
details of what he “knew” and instead to paint only what he saw.
he once said, “I wish I had been born blind and then suddenly gained my sight so
that I could begin to paint without knowing what the objects were that I could
see before me.”
Monet was also greatly influenced by Japanese art. In
Monet’s Water Lilies, Vivian Russell writes that “The Impressionists’ aesthetic,
and Monet’s most of all, was guided not by laws dictated by the stuffy Salon but
by the art of Japan.”
It may seem odd that Japanese art would influence
French Impressionism but it was all based on circumstance and personal
taste. When Monet was young, France resumed trade relations with Japan
and “japonaiserie” became the rage. Monet liked it and later incorporated it
into some of his compositions. His famous garden in Giverny has been likened to
a Japanese garden.
Eventually, Monet focused on capturing the
ever-changing lighting effects on the landscape and both his Haystacks at
Giverny and Rouen Cathedral series demonstrate his success in capturing exactly
For his Rouen Cathedral series, Monet spent hours at the window of
his second-story room across from the Cathedral, capturing the changes in light
throughout the day from sunrise to sunset. While working on the Haystacks
series, he spent hours sitting in the field while a young family member scurried
back and forth, bringing him extra canvases from the studio.
life Monet began to lose his eyesight due to a cataract condition, and he
struggled to paint Grandes Décorations, his monumental, massive water lilies
panels installed at the Orangerie of Tuileries in Paris.
In an essay
entitled “Painting light with the mind’s eye,” Peter Y. Chou writes,
“Just as the deaf Beethoven summoned his inner ear to compose the sublime Last
String Quartets, the blind Monet was using his inner eye to paint his
magnificent Water Lilies. Despite the darkened world around him, the beauty of
nature remained forever fresh in Monet’s mind’s eye.”
Of all the artists
in his group, it is Monet who has left the greatest lasting impression.