Impressionism Essay, Research Paper
Impressionism is defined as the style of painting characterized by concentration on the immediate visual impression produced by a scene. Impressionistic paintings use unmixed primary colors and small strokes in order to stimulate actual reflected light. This method of painting varied greatly from the previous works of art categorized under “realism.” Comparatively, realism emphasized the portrayal of modern life as it actually was, without idealization or presentation in the abstract form. The transition from realism to impressionism occurred gradually and can in no way be contained in a definite period of time. Yet, for the most part, it is believed to have originated in the nineteenth century; continuing on throughout the twentieth century. When examining and comparing the first “radical” works of impressionists, it is evident that it arose in response to the changing intellectual, social, economic, and cultural character of modern life.
The modern era only came about recently. The principal difference between modern times and the era previous to it, is the basic thought system around which society revolved. In ancient times, ideas such as truth seeking in reason and economics did not exist. The commencement of this great shift of ideas influenced many aspects of society. New ways of life gave way to new ideas in a chain reaction of modernization.
One of the greatest components of culture, that was highly influenced by the dynamic society of modern life, was art. From the time between man’s early cave paintings to the computer graphics of today, art has displayed immense changes. Specifically highlighting impressionistic art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we can find many aspects of this method that originated in correspondence to the modernization of society.
During the nineteenth century, the world was taking its first steps into the Industrial Revolution. This period of time was distinguished by the extensive mechanization of production systems resulting in a shift from home-based hand manufacturing to large-scale factory production. Due to this rapidly changing economy, a fantastic growth of cities commenced. Most of the great historical cities in Europe, were essentially rebuilt and reconfigured. During this time, France also led the world in a shift from high to low birth-rates that social historians have defined as a prime characteristic of modernity.1 The pre-industrial world in which the vast majority of workers were agricultural laborers who lived in the country or in small villages, gave way to the world of urban, and eventually suburban, workers. These workers congregated to secure employment and formed an immense new class, whom Karl Marx called the proletariat.2
Another shift came with the enormous rise in the nineteenth century of the previously small class of urban shopkeepers, professionals, small-business owners, and other non-aristocratic property owners called the bourgeoisie. By the twentieth century, the bourgeoisie became the dominant class, both socially and economically throughout Europe and much of the United States.
This new class flocked to the newly expanding cities to become part of the industrial world. Paris was one of these cities in which the new classes of people came to live. The main focus of Parisian life then, dealt with the arts. To this day it is known as the artistic capital of the Europe and America. Its museums, galleries, art academies, art schools, art shops, and art studios were unparalleled anywhere in the world. For this, artists from every nation flocked there to develop their work. “The sheer instability of the social, economic, and physical reality of the nineteenth century Paris had a profound effect on artists representations of it.”3
The first pieces of art in Paris were established by the standards of the French Academie des Beaux-Arts. The Academie was first instituted when an increasing appreciation of art demanded a formal place to reveal works of art to the people. The Academie would hold an annual salon in the Louvre. It became part of a 200 year old tradition in which over 400 works were exhibited for public eye. In order to display one’s work, it had to follow certain guidelines of the Academie. First of all, all paintings shown at the salon had to be realistic. They only accepted paintings that were created on smooth surface canvas, using precise details. Light and shade had to be used to model objects and the human figure was only accepted when flawless. This polished look was the main form of art at the time; also known as realism. Specific themes were also appointed by the Academie. They rated a painting’s value upon the following: the best were of a historical theme, preferably of the Greeks and Romans, classical myths, or biblical scenes. The next best theme was a portrait, followed by genre, next still lifes, and finally any form of landscape paintings. If a painting did not follow these guidelines, then it was rejected from the salon by the placement of a large red “R” on the back of the canvas.
It was the frustration of those rejected from the salon that brought the group of impressionists together. Impressionists of the time were serious artist who wanted to paint the people and places around them in new ways. When the salon viewed their works, they believed them to appear messy and unfinished. Impressionists were considered “lunatics.” Pregnant women were even warned from looking at impressionistic paintings because they might be bad for their health.4
The impressionists first officially united in 1874. They formed a secret society that they called the Anonymous Society of Artists. The first leading members of this society were Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Degas, Morisot, Caillebotte, Lepic, Cezanne, Gauguin, and Seurat. All of these artists would later become extremely famous and influential in the field of impressionism.
The society first gathered at cafes in Paris to discuss their work and spectate passer- bys for inspiration. Small art studios known as ateliers, were where artists studied Impressionism. A teacher would come by twice a week to instruct the apprentices on the basic nature and numerous methods involved in Impressionism. With time they began holding small exhibitions in wherever space was available. Eventually, the public began to recognize the potential of impressionism and in 1874, a patron named T. F. Nadar, sponsored an official exhibition in his studio. From the point of this first exhibition on, impressionistic paintings gradually became the accepted form of art.5
Another large factor in the advent of impressionistic ideas, was the wars throughout Europe at the time. It was through battle and chauvinism of past decades that a purer love of the country grew. This love was one of the earliest expressions of what is now regarded as commonplace; the interest and joy in ordinary things and people, in short, in the stuff of which the country was made. Men abandoned the attitude which had led to the decline of France, the looking back to past glories and the imagining of future ones. They concentrated on the present. In doing so they found the present to be very pleasant and offered man and artist alike all that he needed for a full enjoyable life.
The present involved the Industrial Revolution, and with this the idea of capital became increasingly important. At no time in previous human history did economic forces have a larger range than those of religion and government in the shaping of civilization. Capital was the story of modernism, and government survived only as far as it could mold itself to the interests of capital. This system was most brilliantly analyzed by Karl Marx and his followers, who not only became obsessed with their study of capital and its ownership or control, but also with the socio-economic classes of people defined in terms of their access to capital. The simplicity of Marxist analysis, with its rigid categories of bourgeois, proletarian, and peasant classes, proved so compelling that Marxist notions affected public policy throughout the Euro-American world for nearly a century. The arts were similarly affected, both in practice and in theory, by Marxist systems stressing fundamentally economic forces that underlie all modern civilization. This influence produced numerous Impressionist images that present or analyze class relations, family structures, and individual anxieties in the midst of social struggles.
In capital, products are continually created and accumulated in new ways. This was true with Impressionist art. Similar to other goods it was marketed. It was at this time that art became a commodity. Like other commodities, art had to transform regularly without losing value to be successful. Its value was determined by the speed of exchange. Yet, art does not completely follow the market formula of other commodities. First, because of the inherently critical nature of art making in modern society, art economics cannot be defined in set rules. Secondly, the idea central to artistic theory is that art can transcend time and can assume increasing financial value with time.
As impressionistic art was circulated in the webs of capitalism, global knowledge of its existence rose. Different forms of art from around the world were also brought to the attention of the impressionists. The most prominent of influential foreign art was Japanese block prints. Block prints were marked for their simplified lines, use of diagonals, margin cut images, surprising viewpoints, and decorative patterning. The impressionists found these techniques fascinating and applied them to their paintings. The famous female impressionist Mary Cassatt was renowned for her work with Japanese block printing. Not only did she make block prints of her own, but many of her paintings show direct relationships to Japanese block prints. A close friend of Cassatt’s, Degas, also followed the methods of block printing in his works.
A crucial part that is involved in the art market, is criticism. Criticism determined the relationship between impressionistic art and the capitalist society. This form of criticism was found in exhibitions rather than sales. This was because impressionistic exhibitions produced the conditions for criticism in the form of published reviews, whereas sales usually produced only bills of sale, shipping documents, and other forms of receipt.
Yet viewers of art were not the only critics. Impressionistic art itself was a critic of the swiftly changing capitalist world. At the time, new factories and buildings were being created in place of older structures. Many artists disapproved of the destruction of the traditional buildings. In a hurry to record the old buildings before their complete destruction, urban photographs would be taken. From the photographs, painting would then be created. These photographs were considered a form of preservation through representation.
Many paintings also displayed urban life genre. The impressionists of these paintings were usually in support of urbanization. The energy of artistic modernism, with its ability to embody the excitement of the modern city, was a major feature of impressionistic art in this period. Paintings of this sort included the shopping scenes of Franz Marc and Kirchner, the urban constructions paintings among futuristic painters; the black-and-white punctuation of Vallotton’s urban prints; the gritty representations of New York by John Sloan, Joseph Stella, and Edward Steichen; Degas’s brothels, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s cafes.6 Each of these impressionistic works reflected the painters positive attitude toward the modernizing world. They stressed notions of balance, order, harmony, and internal unity in reflection of their importance as essential conditions of modern urban life.
The new ways of life were not only based in economic related aspects of culture, but also in scientific advancements. Impressionism’s arrival at the time of new technologies allowed for advancements in the field of art, and specifically impressionism to be great. Firstly, impressionists were the first to paint the out-of-doors while outside. This was made possible by the advent of tubes of paint. Before tubes of paint, the small mixing bowls used for paint would dry up quickly when outside. The famous impressionist, Renoir said, “Without tubes of paint, there would have been no impressionism.”7 Portable easels also allowed impressionists to more easily paint outside. Scientific experiments with chemical pigments brought a greater variety of colors to the art world as well.
Yet, their was a single technology that had a tremendous influence on impressionism. Though present some time before impressionism, the expansion of photography throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries impacted impressionistic works. During the time of realism, photography first began its influence in the art world. Upon inspection of the actual colors that made composed a photographic image, painters learned that various combinations of small dots of primary colors created the wide spectrum of colors. This followed a key characteristic of impressionism where paintings were made of small strokes of the primary colors.
Photography was also praised for its precise accuracy that could then be imitated in realistic paintings. The certain type of photography used at the time by impressionists was called daguerreotype. Daguerreotype was also known as glass-plate photography and it produced absolutely smooth and insistently linear representations of a subject. This emphasis on edges was disliked by impressionists and considered too crude. They did not want to “freeze” the subject with hard outlines. The type of photography mimicked by impressionists was called calotype or the paper-negative process. This kind of photography produced rougher images whose tonal masses defined their subjects in terms of value more than outline. This was admired by the impressionists who appreciated an image for its entire emotional appearance rather than its detailed borders. Impressionists also appreciated photographs because when an object was in motion it appeared blurry. This gave the image a less realistic and more impressionistic form. Photographs were often cropped at the edges as well, sometimes leaving half of an object out of the picture. This was imitated in many impressionistic paintings.
When the world of art transformed to impressionism, these two forms of photography laid the foundation for the two basic divisions of impressionism. The first of these, was Transparent Impressionism. This included painters of mostly landscape or urban views. Transparent impressionistic paintings portrayed what appeared to be the impressions of visual reality. Monet was the known for his practicing this style. In his works, the subject of the painting was the entire visual field in front of the painter rather than clearly separate forms in “illusionistic space.”8 The eye is fetished over the reality.
The other division of impressionism was called Mediated Impressionism. Under this painters constructed images emphasizing the contingent and elliptical aspects of a subject. Impressionists such as Degas and Mary Cassatt were mainly figure painters of Mediated Impressionism. In their works, visual reality was conceived not as a vibrant colorful field, but as a social world in which the figure and its various grounds were analyzed.
It is in these ways that Impressionism was shaped by a changing society. As the economic world made its first steps toward modernization, the art world followed in its path. The subjects, surfaces, imagery, texture, composition, and color of art endured numerous alterations in the span of just two centuries. These changes continued in correspondence with the advancements and modifications of technology, the economy, culture, and the social structure.