Artists who saw the light

Inspired by the Industrial Revolution, a small group of artists gathered at a small cafe and changed art forever.

'Haystacks,' Monet, 1890 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
'Haystacks,' Monet, 1890
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
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 more.
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 ideal.
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 Caillebotte.
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.
The 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 brush work.
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 eye.
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.
Though Jean-Baptiste 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 Delacroix.
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 before you.”
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.
In fact, 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 that.
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.
Later in 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.