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A Revolution in Painting, Yesterday.
Freedom of Art
It is important to understand how today's art world came into existence. Imagine a world in which art is defined by rigid doctrines set forth by a single agency. Consider the monopolizing effect this agency would exert on society, having sole power to exhibit, market and reject all art. In this world, a work which took months to paint could be deemed unsuitable for show or sale. Today we have the opportunty to create works of art, display and market them. There is no entity to declare, "This is not art!" We now live in a world where anything goes and possibilities are endless. But, it wasn't always like this.
It wasn't until the of middle of the 1800's that painters in France first attempted to paint with greater freedom of expression. The state sponsored Ecole des Beaux Arts and the Salon, established in 1667, had been imposing rigid standards of Neoclassicism for more than a century. Artists including, Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), Camille Corot (1796-1875), Edouard Manet (1832-83), Jean Francois Millet (1814-75), Gustave Courbet (1819-98), Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Claude Monet (1840-1926), Alfred Sisley (1839-99), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Berthe Morisot (1841-95), and Mary Cassatt (1845-1926) forged into new frontiers of artistic expression by developing new methods and reasons to paint their rectangular canvas matrices. They experimented in original and self-expressive ways, paving new pathways not only for themselves, but for all artists from that time onward.
Generally, only the works of the elite and well-established artists were accepted for exhibition. Art students knew they would have to study diligently in order to become one of them. Flames of ambition were fanned by prospects of money and fame. They spent years at the French state schools practicing drawing and painting. Exercises included copying teacher-produced engravings of antique plaster casts and statues. Only after developing excellent drawing skills, were they allowed to paint. Exercises in painting included head studies and nude life-model studies. In accordance with the principles of classical art, they painted historical, biblical and/or mythological themes and revealed moral lessons of honor, patriotism and justice. Content revealed magnificence in human life according to classical ideals and events in history. Compositions were constructed according to classic symmetry and balance.
Painting methods included many tedious steps. First, the artist would prime the canvas matrix in a dark color. Second, the artist would establish dark and light areas of the over-all picture. Third, the artist would sketch in charcoal drawings of the details. Then he would paint the ebauche. An ebauche was a reddish brown sauce used to enhance all the dark areas. Then, he would apply thick white paint over the areas intended for highlighting. After completing these steps, he would carefully apply translucent halftones of muted colors and earth tones to produce a gradation of values and shades. Opaque white paint was applied in the same manner to indicate tints and highlights. This careful process of developing highlights and shadows continued until the the over-all painting appeared smooth and polished.
In 1863, facing rejection by the Salon, which would only accept paintings that were smooth, polished and muted in color, Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), submitted, "Arabs Skirmishing in the Mountains". In it, he revealed more range of color and looser brushstrokes than Neoclassicist, Jean-Auguste Ingres, would have used. His style was based on the principles of Romanticism which had been gaining influence. The painting included swirling strokes of color, depicting not only motion, but emotion. Some critics considered Delacroix's style to be unattractive, others thought Ingres style, in comparison, revealed a lack of passion. These painters were inciting a new controversy. Eventually the Romantics won the controversy, paving the way for Joseph Turner (1775-1851) and his atmospheric effects. According to Camille Pissaro, however: "Turner and Constable had no understanding of the analysis of shadow, which in Turner's paintings is a mere absence of light."1 Impressionism officially gave birth when Monet, Renoir, Morisot, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas, and 34 others exhibited at the Salon des Refuses in 1874. The works they displayed showed rough unfinished surfaces which outraged critics. The paintings were different in their individual approaches, but all shared an impulse to reveal naturalism, the effects of light and the beauty of life surrounding them.
The motivations of these artists had many influences. High on the priority list was freeing themselves from the laborious painting procedures which kept them inside a studio. Painting on location was advocated by Corot for the purpose of observing natural light and recording one's first impressions. Before this, one can imagine that artists were tied to their paintings within studio walls for hours, breathing the fumes of the oil paints and turpentine, getting little exercise while taking months in producing a painting. The process was tedious and offered little joy of life as it limited interaction with the environment. Creating pictures by getting out of the studio would include excursions to peaceful parks, woods, or places of amusements and entertainment.
Literary influences, such as Charles Baudelaire, a poet, and Emile Zola, an author, inspired artists to paint for new reasons. Baudelaire advocated painting the lives of the bourgeoisie to reveal the significance and importance of modern life, rather than historical. He declared that modern dress could be as interesting as Roman togas. He requested Edouard Manet to: " Make us see with brush or pencil how great and poetic we look in our cravats and our leather boots."2 His book titled, "The Painter of Modern Life" inspired Degas to paint behind the scenes of operas and ballets, and Monet to paint the billowing steam of the steam engines roaring through the Paris train stations. Other locations became subject matter for the others, with the exception of Mary Cassaat and Berthe Morisot who remained inside their homes to paint, since women would not paint on location. These locations included racetracks, restaurants, parks, cafe concerts and busy streets.
The world around them was improving greatly due to the technological advancements of the industrial revolution and progress being promoted by Napoleon III. The industrial revolution caused the French citizens to have faith in themselves and they developed an attitude that anything was possible. Now, their streets were lit up by streetlights and their shops were stocked with ready made clothing and material, made possible by the power loom. The availability of cast iron and steel enabled the constructing of railroad stations, bridges, parks, boulevards and monuments. Technology also gave artists ready-made tubes of paint allowing them to undertake longer outdoor painting trips. More colors became available to purchase, as well. These changes enabled and inspired them to paint the busy city and the quiet countryside, sometimes in effort to capture it before it too was gobbled up.
In celebration of the individual, it was Delacroix who first painted with more color. His notes revealed new theories concerning the use of color and he influenced others. In 1666, Sir Issaac Newton split white light with a prism and showed that light consists of red orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. He identified the three primary colors, red, blue, yellow, from which the others are made. The writings of Eugene Chevreul also influenced the use of brighter colors. Chevreul's book, "On the law of Simultaneous Contrast of Colors" inspired them to experiment with "taches" of color to manipulate the viewers eye in telling a more vivid story in paint. Complementary colors when placed next to each other, provided a vibrating effect. They discovered that colors did not have to be tediously worked or blended. Instead, they could be optically mixed using stokes of pure color. The use of a dark primer was abandoned in favor of a white primer, allowing the colors to be "lit up" on the lighter background.
Photography influenced the Impressionists in many ways. Many of them owned cameras and found new possibilities for picture making. Photography freed the impressionists from the restrictions in composition allowing informal balance to show action off-center or cropped abruptly. Degas studied animal figures in motion that were projected in motion picture machines which had recently been invented. This study helped him accurately depict the horses he loved to paint and sculpt. Monet discovered that moving figures in slow shutter speed were blurry, and utilized this phenomenon to show movement in his paintings. Flattened perspective, which was revealed in studying panoramic views of landscapes, also gave the Impressionists more choices in painting.
Between struggling to earn a living through producing art and fighting the establishment, some were on the verge of giving up. Cezanne was disappointed he had not been able to produce art worthy of museums. Renoir's Study for Les Grand Baigneuses (1883-1885), shows balanced compositions incorporating female nudes in sharp outline, perhaps to maintain academic acceptance.Thankfully, one art dealer in Paris, Durand-Ruel, since the 1870's, had been determinedly buying, selling and promoting their works in Europe and America. He began sending their paintings overseas to galleries in New York and Pittsburg. Eventually, it was American collectors, intrigued by the independent renegade quality, the lightness and joyfulness of Impressionism, who provided the fastest growing market. Finally in 1897, The Musee de Luxembourg featured 38 Impressionists paintings that had been donated to the French government by Gustave Caillebottte. In1900, the World Exposition included many Impressionists works. After being included in these large and important venues, many Impressionists were suddenly given the status and financial rewards they sought and knew they deserved.
However, according to Pissarro much confusion revolved around the truth of the style, history and mission of their group. He stressed in 1900, the importance of nature in art and denounced the commercial aspects. In letters to his son Lucien, he complained, "... Mr.Dewhurst understands nothing of the Impressionist movement...He says that before going to London in 1870 that Monet and I had no conception of light. The fact is we have studies which prove the contrary. He omits the influence which Claude Lorrain, Corot, the whole eighteenth century and Chardin especially exerted on us."3 In another letter dated 8/8/03, he complained of not selling anything at an exhibition in Berllin: "What do I get for all the trouble of sending my works...It is not worth the trouble and what is most provoking is to see what is actually bought... This does not supprise me; it is not easy to understand how to look at pictures. it will probably be the same in London, if not still worse, for they really don't care for anything in painting except a brilliant brush stroke."4 If only Pissarro knew how much his paintings sell for today... millions of dollars, Mr. Pissarro! But in all reality they are priceless. Perhaps this is why they were not sold on a larger scale while he was alive, for as he explained, "...money is an empty thing; let us earn some since we have to but without departing from our roles!" 5
More than money, the birth of Impressionism brought forth undreamed of possibilities for humanity. By truly understanding the common impulse that unified these artists we can appreciate the art they expressed in their diverse and unique ways. We can help bring about world transformation through art by going to Museums and beholding their pictures. Try to tune into the joy they found within themselves as they focused and painted their surroundings. I believe modern artists who paint with the same spirit as Monet, Pissarro, Marisot and any of the early pioneers of Impressionism, no matter what style or manner they employ, will be assisting with World Transformation Through Art in our own time.
1 Pissarro, Camille. Letters to His Son, Luciene. Boston: MFA Publications, 2002. 356
2 High Museum of Art. Impressionism: Paintings Collected by European Museums/ A Resource Packet for Educators. Atlanta: High Museum of Art, 1999. 9
3 Pissarro, Camille. Letters... 355
4 Pissarro, Camille. Letters... 356
5 Pissarro Camille. Letters... 356
6 Pissarro Camille. Letters,,, 341