THE impressionists claim as their common ancestors Claude Lorraine, Watteau, Turner, Monticelli. Watteau, Latour, Largillière, Fragonard, Saint-Aubin, Moreau, and Eisen are their sponsors in the matters of design, subject, realism, study of life, new conceptions of beauty and portraiture. Mythology, allegory, historic themes, the neo-Greek and the academic are under the ban above all, the so-called “grand style.” Impressionism has actually elevated genre painting to the position occupied by those vast, empty, pompous, frigid, smoky, classic pieces of the early nineteenth century. However, it must not be forgotten that modem impressionism is only a new technique, a new method of execution we say new, though that is not exactly the case. The home of impressionism is in the East; it may be found in the vivid patterns woven in Persia or in old Japan. In its latest avatar it is the expression of contemporaneous reality. Therein lies its true power. The artist who turns his face only to the pasthis work will never be anything but an echo. To depict the faces and things and pen the manners of the present is the task of great painters and novelists. Actualists alone count in the future. The mills of the antique grind swiftly like the rich, they will be always with us but they only grind out imitations; and from pseudo-classic marbles and pseudo-” beautiful” pictures may Beelzebub, the Lord of Flies, deliver us.
That able and sympathetic writer D. S. MacColl has tersely summed up in his Vision of the Century the difference between the old and new manner of seeing things. “The old vision had beaten out three separate acts the determination of the edges and limits of things, the shadings and the modellings of the spaces in between with black and white, and the tintings of those spaces with their local colour. The new vision that had been growing up among the landscape painters simplifies as well as complicates the old. For purposes of analysis it sees the world as a mosaic of patches of colour, such and such a hue, such and such a tone, such and such a shape. The new analysis looked first for colour and for a different colour in each patch of shade or light. The old painting followed the old vision by its three processes of drawing the contours, modelling the chiaroscura in dead colour, and finally in colouring this black-and-white preparation. The new analysis left the contours to be determined by the junction, more or less fused, of the colour patches, instead of rigidly defining them as they are known to be defined when seen near at hand of felt… `Local colour’ in light or shade becomes different not only in tone but in hue.”
To the layman who asked, “What is impressionism?” Mauclair has given the most succinct answer in his book L’Impressionisme: “In nature,” he declares, “no colour exists by itself. The colouring of the object is pure illusion; the only creative source of colour is the sunlight, which envelops all things and reveals them, according to the hours, with infinite modifications. The idea of distance, of perspective, of volume is given us by darker or lighter colours; this is the sense of values; a value is the degree of light or dark intensity which permits our eyes to comprehend that one object is further or nearer than another. And as painting is not and cannot be the imitation of nature, but merely her artificial interpretation, since it has only at its disposal two out of three dimensions, the values are the only means that remain for expressing depth on a flat surface. Colour is therefore the procreatrix of design.
Colours vary with the intensity of light… Local colour is an error; a leaf is not green, a tree trunk is not brown. . . . According to the time of day, i. e., according to the greater or smaller inclination of the rays (scientifically called the angle of incidence), the green of the leaf and the brown of the tree are modified. The composition of the atmosphere is the real subject of the picture. Shadow is not absence of light, but light of a different quality and of a different value. Shadow is not part of the landscape where light ceases, but where it is subordinated to a light which appears to us more intense. In the shadow the rays of the spectrum vibrate with a different speed. Painting should therefore try to discover here, as in the light parts, the play of the atoms of solar light, instead of representing shadows with ready-made tones composed of bitumen and black. . In a picture representing an interior the source of light [windows] may not be indicated; the light circulating, circling around the picture, will then be composed of the reflections of rays whose source is invisible, and all the objects, acting as mirrors for these reflections, will consequently influence each other. Their colours will affect each other even if the surfaces be dull. A red vase placed upon a blue carpet will lead to a very subtle but mathematically exact exchange between this blue and this red; and this exchange of luminous waves will create between the two colours a tone of reflections composed of both. These composite reflections will form a scale of tones complementary of the two principal colours.
“The painter will have to paint with only the seven colours of the solar spectrum and discard all the others; . . . he will, furthermore, instead of composing mixtures on his palette, place upon his canvas touches of none but the seven colours juxtaposed [Claude Monet has added black and white] and leave the individual rays of each of these colours to blend at a certain distance, so as to act like sunlight upon the eye of the beholder.” This is called dissociation of tones; and here is a new convention; why banish all save the spectrum? We paint nature, not the solar spectrum.
Claude Monet has been thus far the most successful practitioner of impressionism; this by reason of his extraordinary analytical power of vision and native genius rather than the researches of Helmholtz, Chevreul, and Rood. They gave him his scientific formulas after he had worked out the problems. He studied Turner in London, 1870; then his manner changed. He had been a devoted pupil of Eugène Boudin and could paint the discreet, pearly gray seascapes of his master. But Turner and Watteau and Monticelli modified his style, changed his way of envisaging the landscape. Not Edouard Manet but Claude Monet was the initiator of the impressionistic movement in France, and after witnessing the rout and con-fusion that followed in its wake one is tempted to misquote Nietzsche (who said that the first and only Christian died on the cross) and boldly assert that there has been but one impressionist; his name, Monet. “He has arrived at painting by means of the infinitely varied juxtaposition of a quantity of colour spots which dissociate the tones of the spectrum and draw the forms of objects through the arabesque of their vibrations.” How his landscapes shimmer with the heat of a summer day! Truly, you can say of these pictures that “the dawn comes up like thunder.” How his fogs, wet and clinging, seem to be the first real fogs that ever made misty a canvas! What hot July nights, with few large stars, has Monet not painted! His series of hayricks, cathedrals, the Thames are precious notations of contemporary life; they state facts in terms of exquisite artistic value; they resume an epoch. It is therefore no surprise to learn that in 1874 Monet gave the name (so variously abused) to the entire movement when he exhibited a water piece on the Boulevard des Capucines entitled Impression: Soleil Levant. That title became a catchword usually employed in a derisive manner. Manet earlier had resented the intrusion of a man with a name so like his, but succumbed to the influence of Monet. One thing can no longer be controverted Claude Monet is the greatest landscape and marine painter of the second half of the last century. Perhaps time may alter this limit clause.
What Turgenieff most condemned in his great contemporary, Dostoievsky if the gentle Russian giant ever condemned any one was Feodor Mikhailovitch’s taste for “psychological mole runs”; an inveterate burrowing into the dark places of humanity’s soul. Now, if there is a dark spot in a highly lighted subject it is the question, Who was the first impressionist? According to Charles de Kay, Whistler once told him that he, James the Butterfly, began the movement; which is a capital and characteristic anecdote, especially if one recalls Whistler’s boast made to a young etcher as to the initiative of Corot. Whistler practically said: “Before Corot was, I am!” And he adduced certain canvases painted with the misty-edged trees long before but why continue? Whistler didn’t start Corot apart from the chronological difficulties in the way any more than Courbet and Manet started Whistler; yet both these painters played important rôles in the American master’s art. So let us accept Mauclair’s dictum as to Claude Monet’s priority in the field of impressionism. Certainly he attained his marked style before he met Manet. Later he modified his own paint to show his sympathy with the new school. Monet went to Watteau, Con-stable, Monticelli for his ideas, and in London, about 187o, he studied Turner with an interest that finally bordered on worship. And why not? In Turner, at the National Gallery, you may find the principles of impressionism carried to extravagant lengths, and years before Monet. Consider Rain, Steam and Speed the Great Western Railway, that vision of a locomotive dashing across a bridge in chromatic chaos. Or the Sea Piece in the James Orrock collection a welter of cross-hatchings in variegated hues wherein any school of impressionism from Watteau’s Embarkment to Monet’s Iatest manner or the pointillisme of Signac and Seurat may be recognised. And there is a water-colour of Turner’s in the National Gallery called Honfleur, which has anticipated many traits of Boudin and the Manet we know when he had not forgotten Eugène Boudin’s influence.
Let us enjoy our Monet without too many “mole runs.” As De Kay pointed out, it was not necessary for Monet to go to London to see Constables. In the Louvre he could gaze upon them at leisure, also upon Bonington, not to mention the Venetians and such a Dutchman as Vermeer. It is therefore doubly interesting to study the Monets at Durand-Ruel’s. There are twenty-seven, and they range as far back as 1872, Promenade à Trouville, and come down to the Charing Cross Bridge, 1904, and the two Waterloo Bridge effects, 1903. It is a wide range in sentiment and technique. The Mills in Holland of 1874 is as cool and composed as Boudin. Sincerity and beauty are in the picture for we do not agree with those who see in Monet only an unemotional recorder of variations in light and tone. He can compose a background as well as any of his con-temporaries, and an important fact is overlooked when Monet is jumbled indiscriminately with a lot of inferior men. Monet knew how to draw before he handled pigment. Some lansdcape painters do not, many impressionists trust to God and their palette-knife; so the big men are sufferers. Monet, it may be noted, essayed many keys; his compositions are not nearly so monotonous as has been asserted. What does often exhaust the optic nerve is the violent impinging thereon of his lights. He has an eagle eye, we have not. Wagner had the faculty of attention developed to such an extraordinary pitch that with our more normal and weaker nerves he soon exhausts us in his flights. Too much Monet is like too much Wagner or too much sunshine.
The breezy effect with the poplars painted flat Manet is a classic. His genuine power – technically speaking lies in the broad, sabre like strokes of his brush and not in the niggling taches of the impressionists of which the reductum ad absurdum is pointillisme. He lays on his pigments in sweeping slashes and his divisions are large. His significance for us does not alone reside in his consummate mastery of form and colour, but in his forthright expression of the life that hummed about him. He is as actual as Hals. Study that Boy With the Sword at the Metropolitan Museum – is there anything superficial about it? It is Spanish, the Spain of Velasquez, in its beautiful thin, clear, flat painting, its sober handling of values. The truth is that Manet dearly loved a fight, and being chef d’école, he naturally drifted to the impressionists’ camp. And it is significant that Duret did not give this virile spirit a place in his new volume, confining the estimate of his genius to the preface. Mauclair, on the contrary, includes Manet’s name in his more comprehensive and more scientific study, as he also includes the name of Edgar Degas Degas, who is a latter-day Ingres, plus colour and a new psychology.
The title of impressionism has been a misleading one. If Degas is an impressionist, pray what then is Monet ? Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne are impressionists, and in America there is no impropriety in attaching this handle to the works of Twachtmann, J. Alden Weir, W. L. Metcalf, Childe Hassam, Robert Henri, Robert Reid, Ernest Lawson, Paul Cornoyer, Colin Campbell Cooper, Prendergast, Luks, and Glackens. But Manet, Degas! It would have been a happier invention to have called the 1877 group independents; independent they were, each man pursuing his own rainbow. We may note an identical con-fusion in the mind of the public regarding the Barbizon school. Never was a group composed of such dissimilar spirits. Yet people talk about Millet and Breton, Corot and Daubigny, Rousseau and Dupré. They still say Goethe and Schiller, Beethoven and Mozart, Byron and Shelley. It is the result of mental inertia, this coupling of such widely disparate temperaments.
Nevertheless, divided tones and “screaming” palette do not always a picture make; mediocrity loves to mask itself behind artistic innovations. For the world at large impressionism spells improvisation an easy-going, slatternly, down-at-the-heel process, facile as well as factitious. Albert Wolff must have thought these things when he sat for his portrait to Manet. His surprise was great when the artist demanded as many sittings as would have done the painstaking Bonnat. Whistler shocked Ruskin when he confessed to having painted a nocturne in two days, but with a lifetime experience in each stroke of the brush. Whistler was a swift worker, and while he claimed the honour of being the originator of impressionism didn’t he originate” Velasquez? — he really belongs to the preceding generation. He was impressionistic, if you will, yet not an impressionist. He was Japanese and Spanish, never. Watteau, Monticelli, Turner, or Monet.
MacColl has pointed out the weakness of the scientific side of impressionism. Its values are strictly aesthetic; attempts to paint on a purely scientific basis have proved both monotonous and ludicrous. The experiments of the neo-impressionists (the 1885 group), of Signac, Seurat, were not very convincing. Van Rhysselberge, one of the few painters to-day who practise pointillisme, or the system of dots, is a gifted artist; so is Anquetin. The feminine group is headed by the name of Berthe Morisot (the wife of Eugène Manet, a brother of Edouard and the great granddaughter of Fragonard), a pupil of Manet, the most individual woman painter that ever lived; and Mary Cassatt, a pupil of Degas, though more closely allied to the open-air school in her methods. Miss Cassatt possesses a distinguished talent. As a school impressionism has run down to a thin rill in a waste of sand. It is more technical than personal, and while it was lucky to have such an exponent as Claude Monet, there is every reason to believe that Monet’s impressionism is largely the result of a peculiar penetrating vision. He has been imitated, and Maufra and Moret are carrying on his tradition yet there is but one Monet.
We know that the spectral palette is a mild delusion and sometimes a dangerous snare, that impressionism is in the remotest analysis but a new convention supplanting an old. Painters will never go back to the muddy palette of the past. The trick has been turned. The egg, of Columbus has been once more stood on end. Claude Monet has taught us the ” innocence of the eye,” has shown us how to paint air that circulates, water that sparkles. The sun was the centre of the impressionistic attack, the “splendid, silent sun.” A higher pitch in key colour has been attained, shadows have been endowed with vital hues. (And Leonardo da Vinci, wonderful landscapist, centuries ago wrote learnedly of coloured shadows, every new discovery is only a rediscovery.) The “dim, religious light” of the studio has been banished; the average palette is lighter, is more brilliant. And Rembrandt is still worshipped; Raphaelis still on his pedestal, and the millionaire on the street continues to buy Bouguereau. The amateur who honestly wishes to purge his vision of encrusted painted prejudices we warn not to go too close to an impressionistic canvas – any more than he would go near a red-hot stove or a keg of gunpowder. And let him forget those tooth-some critical terms, decomposition, recomposition. His eyes, if permitted, will act for themselves; there is no denying that the principles of impressionism soundly applied, especially to landscape, catch the fleeting, many-hued charm of nature. It is a system of coloured stenography in the hands of a master. Woe betide the fumbler!
Claude Monet (1840-1926)Claude Monet – The Regatta At ArgenteuilThe ImpressionistsThe ImpressionistsRealistic Painting – Manet And MonetMonet @ WebMuseumClaude Moent @ Wikipedia