French Art – Impressionism, Degas

IN fine, the impressionist has his own conventions no school can escape them, from the very nature of the case and the definition of the term. The conventions of the impressionists, indeed, are particularly salient. Can anyone doubt it who sees an exhibition of their works? In the same number of classic, or romantic, or merely realistic pictures, is there anything quite equalling the monotony that strikes one in a display of canvasses by Claude Monet and his fellows and followers ? But the defect of impressionism is not mainly its technical conventionality. It is, as I think everyone except its thick-and-thin advocates must feel, that pursued a outrance it lacks a seriousness commensurate with its claims—that it exhibits indeed a kind of under-tone of frivolity that is all the nearer to the absolutely comic for the earnestness, so to speak, of its unconsciousness. The reason is, partly no doubt, to be ascribed to its débonnaire self-satisfaction, its disposition to “lightly run amuck at an august thing,” the traditions of centuries namely, to its bumptiousness, in a word. But chiefly, I think, the reason is to be found in its lack of anything properly to be called a philosophy. This is surely a fatal flaw in any system, because it involves a contradiction in terms ; and to say that to have no philosophy is the philosophy of the impressionists, is merely a word-juggling bit of question-begging. A theory of technic is not a philosophy, however systematic it may be. It is a mechanical, not an intellectual, point of view. It is not a way of looking at things, but of rendering them. It expresses no idea and sees no relations ; its claims on one’s interest are exhausted when once its right to its method is admitted. The remark once made of a typically literal person—that he cared so much for facts that he disliked to think they had any relations—is intimately applicable to the whole impressionist school. Technically, of course, the impressionist’s relations are extremely just—not exquisite, but exquisitely just. But merely to get just values is not to occupy one’s self with values ideally, emotionally, personally. It is merely to record facts. Certainly any impressionist rendering of the light and shade and color relations of objects seems eloquent beside any traditional and conventional rendering of them ; but it is because each object is so carefully observed, so truly painted, that its relation to every other is spontaneously satisfactory ; and this is a very different thing from the result of truly pictorial rendering with its constructive appeal, its sense of ensemble, its presentation of an idea by means of the convergence and interdependence of objects focussed to a common and central effect. To this impressionism is absolutely insensitive. It is the acme of detachment, of indifference.

Turgenieff, according to Mr. George Moore, complained of Zola’s Gervaise Coupeau, that Zola explained how she felt, never what she thought. ” Qu’est que ça me fait si elle suait sous les bras, ou au milieu du dos ? ” he asked, with most pertinent penetration. He is quite right. Really we only care for facts when they explain truths. The desultory agglomeration of never so definitely rendered de-tails necessarily leaves the civilized appreciation cold. What distinguishes the civilized from the savage appreciation is the passion for order. The tendency to order, said Sénancour, should form ” an essential part of our inclinations, of our instinct, like the tendencies to self-preservation and to re-production.” The two latter tendencies the savage possesses as completely as the civilized man, but he does not share the civilized man’s instinct for correlation. And in this sense, I think, a certain savagery is justly to be ascribed to the impressionist.

His productions have many attractions and many merits—merits and attractions that the traditional painting has not. But they are really only by a kind of automatic inadvertence, pictures. They, are not truly pictorial.

And a picture should be something more than even pictorial. To be permanently attaching it should give at least a hint of the painter’s philosophy—his point of view, his attitude toward his material. In the great pictures you can not only discover this attitude, but the attitude of the painter toward life and the world in general. Everyone has as distinct an idea of the philosophy of Raphael as of the qualities of his designs. The impressionist not only does not show you what he thinks, he does not even show you how he feels, except by betraying a fondness for violets and diffused light, and by exhibiting the temper of the radical and the rioter. The order of a blithe, idyllic landscape by Corot, of one of Delacroix’s pieces of concentric coloration, of an example of Ingres’s purity of out-line, shows not only temperament, but the position of the painter in regard to the whole intellectual world so far as he touches it at all. What does a canvas of Claude Monet show in this respect? It is more truthful but not less impersonal than a photograph.

Degas is the only other painter usually classed with the impressionists, of whom this may not be said. But Degas is hardly an impressionist at all. He is one of the most personal painters, if not the most personal painter, of the day. He is as original as Puvis de Chavannes. What allies him with the impressionists is his fondness for fleeting aspects, his caring for nothing beyond aspect—for the look of things and their transitory look. He is an enthusiastic admirer of Ingres—who, one would say, is the antithesis of impressionism. He never paints from nature. His studies are made with the utmost care, but they are arranged, composed, combined by his own sense of what is pictorial—by, at any rate, his own idea of the effects he wishes to create. He cares absolutely nothing for what ordinarily we understand by the real, the actual, so far as its reality is concerned ; he sees nothing else, to be sure, and is probably very sceptical about anything but colors and shapes and their decorative arrangement ; but he sees what he likes in reality and follows this out with an inerrancy so scrupulous, and even affectionate, as to convey the idea that in his result he himself counts for almost nothing. This at least may be said of him, that he shows what, given genius, can be got out of the impressionist method artistically and practically employed to the end of illustrating a personal point of view. A mere amateur can hardly distinguish between a Caillebotte and a Sisley, for example, but everyone identifies a Degas as immediately and as certainly as he does a Whistler. His work is perfectly sincere and admirably intelligent. It has neither the pose nor the irresponsibility of the impressionists. His artistic apotheosis of the ballet-girl is merely the result of his happy discovery of something delightfully, and in a very true sense naturally, decorative in material that is in the highest degree artificial. His impulse is as genuine and spontaneous as if the substance upon which it is exercised were not the acme of the exotic, and already arranged with the most elaborate conventionality. Nothing indeed could be more opposed to the elementary crudity of impressionism than his distinction and refinement, which may be said to be carried to a really fin de siècle degree. Degas (1834-1917)Degas – The StarArtist – DegasArtist – DegasDegas @ WebMuseumThe ImpressionistHistory Of French Art – The Impressionists

( Originally Published 1892 )

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