Term Paper: Revolutionary Ideas of the Impressionist Movement

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Impressionism: "a theory or practice in painting especially among French painters of about 1870 of depicting the natural appearances of objects by means of dabs or strokes of primary unmixed colors in order to simulate actual reflected light..." Merriam-Webster

The Impressionist movement (Impressionism) originated in France in the late 1800s. The style of the impressionist artists shook the cultural world in France and changed how citizens looked at art. The impressionists were considered radical in this period of time because they had the audacity to break established rules in art. According to Belinda Thompson, with the Department of Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh, the rules set in stone by previous artists were defied by the impressionists were flaunted; "Instead of painting an ideal of beauty" that the artists preceding them had clearly defined, the impressionists "tried to depict what they saw at a given moment" (Thompson, 2007).

They sought to capture a "fresh, original vision" that was very difficult for many people in France at that time to accept. When one has been accustomed an entire adult life to one patented style of painting and art, an entirely new and unfamiliar style is hard to get used to. The impressionists (Edgar Dagas, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley, among others) typically painted scenes out of doors instead of in a studio. The idea of being outdoors for the impressionists was that, nature is far more interesting as a subject or backdrop, and by observing nature "more directly," Thompson explains, they could "set down its most fleeting aspects - especially the changing light of the sun."

The French Academy of Art was not pleased with the impressionists, to say the least. They had rules of composition, theme and style, and the impressionists broke those rules. Instead of producing "carefully constructed, permanent records of events or scenes, the impressionist objective was to capture the fleeting moment" (Thompson 2007). This paper will delve further into the Academy's outright rejection of impressionist work a bit later. For the impressionists, this seemed a far fresher approach to bringing art to the culture and the community, to capture, as in a camera, what one was seeing in light or texture out doors at that precise moment. The impressionists tried to capture "an optical sensation," according to Thompson, which could be produced by any of several influences - such as a chance effect of weather change, clouds shutting off the light for a moment and then light creeping through a crack in the clouds, or movement (trees swaying, people walking, butterflies soaring, birds on high, or other natural movements outside of the studio).

Sometimes the choice of subjects for impressionists - perhaps just a slice of life as seen in nature - was so much the opposite of typical, traditional compositions, it "countered the traditional representation of space in which the eye is led naturally from foreground to distance," according to Thompson's narrative in www.Encarta.msn.com.The work of Degas, Caillebotte, and Cassatt was seen as "remarkably daring" because they used spaces and angles in revolutionary ways. In one of his better-known paintings, Degas painted the view that a spectator was experiencing from high in a theater box, which depicted the dancer far below, taking a bow. The fact that Degas had the dancer's skirt cut off gave the viewer of the painting the impression that this painting was by chance, just "a fleeting moment" and not a picture of the entire traditional theater scene, as had been done in the past. By this time in the 19th Century, photography was beginning to emerge as a technology connected with art and life; so critics now speculate that perhaps some of the impressionist work was due to this new invention, the camera and photography.

Whether the emergence of photography influenced impressionists or not, it is true that they craved a new vision of the culture they were part of and they rejected the protests of those who found their work repulsive and immoral.

Thompson explains that there were several distinct characteristics associated with the impressionist work; in order to reflect spontaneity, the impressions used "broken brushstrokes of bright, often unmixed colors." This resulted in "loose or densely textured surfaces" instead of the more typical style of blended colors and smooth, predictable surfaces that most artists during that period preferred. The impressionist used colors that brought brightness and "luminosity" rather than the earth tones and darks (blacks, dark browns, grays) that had been favored hitherto. In many instances impressionists rejected minute detail in paintings, instead going with more simplified compositions in order to present almost shocking, striking effects.

ROOTS of IMPRESSIONISM: Another look at the impressionists is found in the article "About Impressionism / Radicalism of Impressionism: "Trees are Not Violet; the Sky is Not Butter" from the Web site: http://www.impressionism.org.The year 1874 was a memorable year for art in France; fifty-five artists got their works together and put on the first independent show of impressionist art. Among them were Cezanne, Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, Monet, Manet, and Manet's sister-in-law Berthe Morisot. One observer walked by the exhibit and muttered, "A bunch of lunatics and a woman," according to Teach Impressionism. This exhibit came to pass partly because the Salon, a French state-sponsored exhibition that was the traditional venue and opportunity for artists to show and sell their work, had rejected the impressionist's work.

Never mind," the impressionists told one another, the venue for traditional art is unattractive anyway. Indeed, the Salon featured paintings "stacked three or four high," and were crowded together so closely it was a distraction and was cumbersome as well. But when the impressionists put on their show, presented in a studio that had been used by a photographer, the artists hung their works at eye level, with ample space between the paintings, so people could leisurely and artfully stand and be moved by the view. These artists that are now called impressionists were not called that in 1874. That label was apparently given to this movement by "an outraged critic and journalist, Louis Leroy," who coined the "impressionist' phrase, according to Teach Impressionism. When Leroy studied Monet's work, Impression Sunrise, which was Monet's vision of what the harbor looks like with the scarce yet lovely light of dawn, Leroy snipped, "impression!" After studying Monet's painting, Leroy wrote, "Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished!" And in less than a year, Leroy's "impression" label began to stick.

The impressionists did not stop painting their new style because a journalist didn't like what he saw. Not at all. They seemed to thrive on the controversy. When the impressionists presented their second exhibition, art critic Albert Wolff picked up where Leroy had left off. "Try to make Monsieur Pissarro understand that trees are not violet; that the sky is not the color of fresh butter," he wrote, echoing the view of the Academy that these new paintings were an abomination, and unacceptable. "No sensible human being could countenance such aberrations," Wolff continued. A woman's torso is "not a mass of decomposing flesh with those purplish-green stains," Wolff went on. The impression that the masses of French society had at first with reference to the impressionists was that the work was "vulgar" (Teach Impressionism). The compositions were "strange"; the short, "slapdash brushstrokes made their paintings practically illegible," and they angered the French Academy of Fine Arts.

FRENCH ACADEMY of FINE ARTS and IMPRESSIONISTS: Since 1648 this conservative school had been the most dominant in the field of art, artist training, and cultural taste. If a young man or woman had a desire to become an accomplished artist, his or her parents saw to it that the budding artist was enrolled in the French Academy of fine Arts. It was just how it worked at that time. No other institution had the respect and the reputation, and that was the beginning and the end of how to learn art at that time. The Academy had been the place where not only did a person learn how to paint and what colors and styles to employ, but the Academy was also a place where "moral lessons" were taught, through "historic, mythological, and biblical themes" (Teach Impressionism). The traditions of the Academy included themes and styles from ancient Greek and Roman art, "featured idealized images...symmetrical compositions, hard outlines, and meticulously smooth paint surfaces..."

And in spite of the Academy's power, there had been signs of rebellion, artistic and political unrest well before 1874, when the first impressionist paintings went before the public and stirred the ire of the Academy. Indeed, there was ample political and social instability in France prior to 1874. The background to this restlessness in the French society includes the fact that the population in the city of Paris - between 1830 and 1850 - had doubled. That put a tremendous amount of pressure on all the social institutions in Paris. Also, the Revolution of 1848 brought tens of thousands of socialist… [END OF PREVIEW]

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