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Nineteen seventy-four marked the centennial celebration of a remarkable exhibition that announced the determined efforts of a group of painters to show their work, free of the traditional constraints imposed by a hierarchic and self-perpetuating art establishment. More than any other movement in the history of art, Impressionism, and the painters associated with it, contained the essential ingredients of popular mythology. Initially misunderstood by the public, reviled by critics, and ignored by all but a few devoted collectors, this small band of dedicated artists nevertheless struggled on to achieve both tangible financial success and, in the judgment of posterity, critical vindication. Within an amazingly brief period, they managed to wrest painting from its theoretical and technical moorings in the past.
The Impressionists firmly rejected the notion that an artistic subject had to have intrinsic literary value, that it had to be noble or instructive in order to be worthy of representation. Their commitment to the present made them uniquely conscious of and responsive to the ever-shifting physical reality of the moment, and stimulated them to develop new techniques for capturing its fleeting essence. Instead of painting what they knew, as artists had done before them, they limited themselves to painting what they saw. Like Elstir, the quintessential Impressionist invented by Marcel Proust in A la recherche du temps perdu, they made a strenuous effort ''to rid [themselves] in the presence of reality, of ...notions of intelligence.'' Their pursuit of reality dictated certain innovations: As they came to realize that only direct contact with the subject in openair would produce the effects they sought, they abandoned their studios, adopted smaller-scale canvases that could be carried about easily, and, most important, altered their palette and brushstroke to simulate the rapidly changing atmosphere that they wished to capture.
One hundred years after their inaugural exhibition, such canvases as Monet's Impression, Sunrise (c. 1872) or Boulevard des capucines (1873)which were singled out as particularly egregious examples of ineptness or incompleteness-no longer shock the public. When a rare Impressionist painting now comes up for auction, museums and maecenases compete furiously to pay an astronomical price for it. While popular interest in Impressionism seems limitless, the critical and historical interest in the movement seems to have peaked in the early 1960s, when its apparent relevance to Abstract Expressionism and color field painting instigated a reassessment of the movement and of the entire historical context from which it emerged. A more balanced perspective of historical Modernism, as well as a clearer picture of the contributions of major and minor artists, is currently emerging from studies of that intersection of tradition and contemporaneity, Japonisme and technology, whose impact was first reflected in the work of the Impressionists.
The Impressionists were among the first artists to be motivated by a sense of common purpose. While the individual painters were separated by background and temperament, they were united in their desire to bring their work before the public. Though many of them were born outside of Paris, it was only in the capital that they felt they could make their mark, for the city was not only the center of an empirethat of the ambitious Napoleon IIIbut also the center of the art world. Napoleon's policies of political expansionism were matched by his vision of Paris as the cultural capital of a French-dominated Europe. One of his major priorities, the physical transformation of Paris from a city of narrow, arbitrarily arranged streets and houses to the very model of a modern metropolis, was accomplished through the genius of the civil engineer Baron Georges Haussmann. His broad, light-filled boulevards literally opened up new vistas and created new subjects for the burgeoning group of young painters.
For most of the Impressionists, the commitment to one's own time presupposed a rejection of the past and all the respectful attitudes associated with tradition and experience, even though there was nothing particularly new in the juxtaposition of past and present, or ancient and modern. Since the seventeenth century, the members of the prestigious Academie royale de peinture, sculpture, etc. had debated the merits of Rubens versus Poussin, color versus drawing. The artists of the Academie were regarded as the only valid practitioners of high art; predictably, their views were not conducive to the development of independent artistic creativity. Early in the nineteenth century, the rigid academic hierarchy was relaxed somewhat to allow students of landscape painting the privilege of competing for a prestigious fellowship to perfect their craft in Rome, but landscape painting continued to be considered a minor pursuit next to historical or mythological themes.
The ascendance of Ingres and of the cultivated and eclectic styles of his academic followers reverberated through the halls of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the walls of the official Salons, where painters' reputations were made. There, numerous examples of correct drawing and impeccable finish proclaimed the superiority of painting that had ideas as its focus. The art of more "liberal'' masters such as Eugène Delacroix, the greatest French exponent of color before the Impressionists, was not exempt from this love affair with history and literature. Although Delacroix was capable of responding to contemporary issues, he limited those issues to appropriately significant and heroic themes inspired by national or international crises; and they were enunciated, for the most part, in the visual language of the past.
It is understandable that Napoleon III, whose political appeal was linked to a nostalgia for the glory of his uncle's empire, should have endorsed a retrospective and eclectic art, and that he should appoint a man of aristocratic tastes, Count Nieuwerkerke, to oversee the academic factories where art products were turned out. The older patrons of this art, if not some branch of the government itself, were the middle and upper middle class. The former, growing steadily in number and influence since the reign of Louis-Philippe (1830-48), took their cue from the Salons and filled their already stuffed townhouses and country châteaux with grandes machines-elaborate pastiches of classical, medieval, or Renaissance themes or the acceptable contemporary exoticism, usually depicted in the guise of some Middle Eastern motif.
The exhibition of the Societe anonyme des artistes, peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc. (the original name chosen by the artists who exhibited in 1874) was the culmination of a revolt against the art establishment that had been initiated almost twenty years before by Gustave Courbet. His decision to mount a one-man show independent of the official exhibition was to inspire a similar tactic by Edouard Manet twelve years later. Courbet championed a ''concrete'' art, dealing exclusively with the experience of its own time-an accountable art of physical facts, with common men rather than heroes as its protagonists. Courbet's approach coincided with and was probably conditioned by the rise of scientific materialism and literary Naturalism. It was as much a rebuke to the idealizing aesthetics of official art as the vulgar and mechanical art of photography, whose terrifying capacity to reflect the truth had prompted a noted painter of the day to proclaim the demise of painting two decades earlier. Indeed, the role played by photography in the evolution of modern vision, particularly that of the Impressionists, was critical to the liberation of painting from traditional formulas and spatial stereotypes.
Just as Impressionism cannot be fully understood without considering the contributions of prominent Realists such as Courbet, the significant achievements of a loosely knit group of landscape painters working in or near Barbizon, a small town on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau, must be acknowledged. Inspired by the seventeenth-century Dutch masters and by the vivid canvases of their near contemporary, the English landscapist John Constable, they sought a close personal identification with nature. In its constant shifting of atmosphere and changing of seasons, they found a perfect mirror for their own moods. Many of the innovations in technique usually associated with the Impressionists, including the practice of working out of doors, were actually anticipated by such members of the group as Daubigny. Outstanding among them-though by no means the most typical exponent of that unadorned and rugged atmospheric quality common to the group as a whole-was Camille Corot, whose example was to fire the imagination of Camille Pissarro and of his younger colleagues Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Frederic Bazille.
The lure of Barbizon and its renowned forest proved as irresistible to this small band of ex-Beaux-Arts students as it had to Corot's generation. In their novel Manette Salomon, the Goncourt brothers described the forest of Fontainebleau as ''full of impecunious bearded young painters carrying easels." But Barbizon was only one of many new locales that attracted the future Impressionists. The wide beaches of Normandy first painted by Eugène Boudin also provided new sensations of light and opened their eyes to the fascinating properties of water and sky.
While innovations in landscape painting provoked either disapproval or indiffer-ence in official circles, the dissatisfaction with the selection process for the Salons, which had largely been a personal affair, achieved the dimensions of a genuine popular protest when more than half of the works submitted to the Salon of 1863 were rejected. The uproar was so great that Napoleon III, ignoring the objections of the Academie, authorized the creation of a separate exhibition in the same building that housed the official Salon. From the first day, the Salon des Refuses overshadowed the prestigious exhibit next door. A mixture of old and new, bad and good, this unprecedented assemblage of paintings alternately amused and offended the curious visitors who streamed in. While some of the exhibitorsPissarro, Henri Fantin-Latour, Paul Cezanne, and the American James McNeill Whistlerwould later achieve prominence within the history of Impressionism or, more generally, of Modernism, it was a work by Edouard Manet, Dejeuner sur l'herbe (1863), that came to symbolize the audacious presumption of the new breed of painters. Henceforth, refuse was synonymous with revolutionary; and in the public's mind, Manet was the arch-revolutionary.
While Manet's unorthodox juxtaposition of the traditional and the contemporary provoked moral outrage, his technical innovations stirred up a critical hornet's nest that buzzed for more than a decade. Younger artists such as Monet and Bazille immediately took up the challenge of placing life-size figures in a landscape, imbuing their canvases with a straightforward modernity in the process. The persistence of the Picnic and Bather themes, which were combined in Manet's epochal work, constitutes one of the most significant chapters in the history of modern painting, culminating in Cezanne's great series, wherein the essential clash of subject and technique, of tradition and innovation first acknowledged in Manet's work was resolved in works that are at once classical and proto-abstract.
Although Manet's work and his decision to organize a one-man show at the Paris World's Fair in 1867 met with the approval of the artists who would later form the nucleus of the Impressionists, he can be considered at best only the godfather of the movement rather than a bona fide member. At the time of Manet's exhibition, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and Sisley were already seriously pursuing landscape. The sense of the fugitive and the momentary that they sought was purely physical, not social or psychological in implication as in the work of Manet. No longer satisfied with motifs provided by the parks or gardens of Paris, the group of young artists moved into rural suburbs or more distant villages. There, in their images of the Seine and the adjacent landscape, they gradually eliminated all human references in order to concentrate on the seemingly inexhaustible variety of atmospheric effects produced by the volatile climate.
While the painting styles of Monet and Renoir, especially, seemed to converge in those years preceding the first Impressionist exhibition, the group was heterogeneous enough to accommodate independents like Edgar Degas, whose interest in interior subjects and portraiture set him apart from the mainstream. For Degas, the tyranny of the momentwhat Monet called the search for instantaneitywas a serious impediment to the realization of pictorial structure. His initial reservations about landscape painting and the technical and compositional changes it had wrought were later to be shared by Renoir and even by Pissarro, generally considered the most loyal Impressionist of them all. Never comfortable with the label ''Impressionist,'' which had been imposed on the group by a hostile critic, Degas nonetheless accommodated the group in its larger mission of exhibiting work that might otherwise have gone unseen. Renoir, on the other hand, broke completely with his former colleagues when he began to realize that their preoccupation with those spontaneous and random elements that emerged from a direct but finite contact with his subject were antithetical to his true interests, the unification of firm design and sensuous color.
Impressionism as a group phenomenon was already beset by dissension when it reached its fifth birthday; and by its tenth, the artists who had once been its heart and soul were dispersed in both location and philosophy. Of the eight exhibitions held between 1874 and 1886, only one artistCamille Pissarrotook part in all; Degas showed in seven; Monet participated in five; Renoir, four; and Cezanne, just two. When the final group exhibition was held, it was not the few remaining older Impressionists who claimed the attention of the critics, but younger artists such as Georges Seurat. His major canvas, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86), seemed to be in the tradition of plein-air painting, but actually proclaimed a highly programmatic and theoretical reform of the direct, intuitive, and largely individualized approach to painting that had evolved in the previous two decades. Ironically, Seurat's contribution of a genuine system to organize the pure color of the Impressionists into a coherent pictorial structure actually resulted in a schematization of art in symbolic and decorative terms, which was as antithetical to the Impressionists' methods and objectives as the art they had initially defied.
The crisis of Impressionism, exemplified in the emergence of a vigorous reforming ''Neoimpressionism,'' was not limited to dissatisfaction with its technique, but also with its unresponsiveness to the mind and soul. The manifesto of Symbolism published in 1886 gave concrete expression to a widespread defection from literary and artistic Naturalism, which some of the Impressionists had in one way or another already acknowledged. Van Gogh, who had never exhibited with the Impressionists, and Gauguin, who had joined them on five occasions, both moved beyond the use of color for the transcription of physical effects to a realization of its emotional, expressive, and ultimately decorative potential. With them and their heirs, the Nabis and the Fauves, color and line were to achieve a final independence from physical stimuli, anticipating the various forms of color abstraction that have been part of the art of this century.
The obsession with time that began to manifest itself in the early years of Impressionism adumbrated the unique development of Monet, who symbolized for many the Impressionist par excellence. From a relatively straightforward concern with capturing the appearance of a sun-filled street or a rainy beach, he moved to a more dramatic awareness of the vitality of time, returning again and again to a subject in order to realize more completely its changing identity. Later, this determination to capture the instant caused him to work on several paintings at a time, switching from one to the other, stopping, resuming in a maddened effort to seize the very essence of time.
Not until the last decade of the century, some five years after the last Impressionist exhibition, did Monet discover the technique that would carry him farther than any of his colleagues in his study of time. The "series" paintings of haystacks, poplars, and cathedral facades made him conscious as never before of the continuum of time and of its distinct expressions. As he worked on the many versions of these themes over hours, days, and months, that objectivity that had once characterized his approach to landscape was transformed into a subjective, even autobiographical record of his reactions to the motif. In the last twenty-five years of his life, with nearly all of his old friends long dead, Monet's world was defined by the physical limitation of the carefully designed gardens of his home at Giverny. Prolonged contemplation of these gardens, especially the lily pond, made him aware of the continuity of physical life and time; the water garden came to represent a synthesis of being and becoming. The timelessness and infinitude that emanate from his Nympheas or Water Lilies transport us beyond the world of simple events to a magical and remote environment, whose full identity only begins to emerge when one sees it unfold through the entire body of eight canvases he executed for two specially constructed oval rooms in the Orangerie.
The year Monet began his first Water Lilies, Paul Cezanne embarked on a canvas that was to occupy him, on and off, for six of his last seven years. Large Bathers (1899-1905) was the most complex version of a theme he had painted since his years as a sometime member of the Impressionist group. Even then, his frustrations with the limits of Impressionist technique had led him to seek a new way of uniting their lighter, pure colors and direct observation of the world with that innate sense of structure that he perceived in nature. Through his brushwork, land, water, and sky were given a palpable and homogeneous identity as the painter realized his dream of making Impressionism ''solid and durable like the art of the museums.'' As with Manet, tradition was to play a paradoxically important role in Cezanne's turning away from Impressionism to a more transcendent and ultimately modern vision of painting. His late Bathers, landscapes, and still-life paintings invite comparison with that sense of architectural form glimpsed in the historical and mythological subjects of Poussin and the still lifes of Chardin.
Yet it is precisely in confrontation with the past that the impact of Cezanne's new approach can be appreciated. More than any other member of the Impressionist group, Cezanne identified the character of early modern painting. Rigorously analytic, lacking totally the lightness and charm associated with the earlier history of the movement, his grave works would have looked odd indeed at either the Salon or the Impressionist shows. But when they were exhibited at a great memorial show in 1907, their irregular, ponderous forms and ambiguous space spoke to Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, the engineers of yet another aesthetic revolution, Cubism, which was to alter the course of Western art.