1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Impressionism
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IMPRESSIONISM. The word “Impressionist” has come to have a more general application in England than in France, where it took currency as the nickname of a definite group of painters exhibiting together, and was adopted by themselves during the conflict of opinion which the novelty of their art excited. The word therefore belongs to the class of nicknames or battle-names, like “Romanticist,” “Naturalist,” “Realist,” which preceded it, words into which the acuteness of controversy infuses more of theoretical purport than the work of the artists denoted suggests to later times. The painters included in such a “school” differ so much among themselves, and so little from their predecessors compared with the points of likeness, that we may well see in these recurring effervescences of official and popular distaste rather the shock of individual force in the artist measured against contemporary mediocrity than the disturbance of a new doctrine. The “Olympia” of Manet, hooted at the Salon of 1865 as subversive of all tradition, decency and beauty, strikes the visitor to the Luxembourg rather as the reversion to a theme of Titian by an artist of ruder vision than as the demonstration of a revolutionary in painting. Later developments of the school do appear to us revolutionary. With this warning in a matter still too near us for final judgment, we may give some account of the Impressionists proper, and then turn to the wider significance sometimes given to the name.
The words Impressioniste, Impressionisme, are said to have arisen from a phrase in the preface to Manet's catalogue of his pictures exhibited in 1867 during the Exposition Universelle, from which he was excluded. “It is the effect,” he wrote, “of sincerity to give to a painter's works a character that makes them resemble a protest, whereas the painter has only thought of rendering his impression.” An alternative origin is a catalogue in which Claude Monet entitled a picture of sunrise at sea “Une Impression.” The word was probably much used in the discussions of the group, and was caught up by the critics as characteristic. At the earlier date the only meaning of the word was a claim for individual liberty of subject and treatment. So far as subject went, most, though not all of Manet's pictures were modern and actual of his Paris, for his power lay in the representation of the thing before his eye, and not in fanciful invention. His simplicity in this respect brought him into collision with popular prejudice when, in the “Déjeuner sur l'herbe” (1863), he painted a modern fête champêtre. The actual characters of his painting at this period, so fancifully reproached and praised, may be grouped under two heads. (1) The expression of the object by a few carefully chosen values in flattish patches. Those patches are placed side by side with little attenuation of their sharp collision. This simplification of colour and tone recalls by its broad effects of light and silhouette on the one hand Velasquez, on the other the extreme simplification made by the Japanese for the purposes of colour-printing. Manet, like the other painters of his group, was influenced by these newly-discovered works of art. The image, thus treated, has remarkable hardiness and vigour, and also great decorative breadth. Its vivacity and intensity of aspect is gained by the sacrifice of many minor gradations, and by the judgment with which the leading values have been determined. This matching of values produces, technically, a “solid” painting, without glazing or elaborate transparency in shadows. (2) During this period Manet makes constant progress towards a fair, clear colour. In his early work the patches of blond colour are relieved against black shadows; later these shadows clear up, and in place of an indeterminate brown sauce we find shadows that are colours. A typical picture of this period is the “Musique aux Tuileries,” refused by the Salon of 1863. In this we have an actual out-of-doors scene rendered with a frankness and sharp taste of contemporary life surprising to contemporaries, with an elision of detail in the treatment of a crowd and a seizing on the chief colour note and patch that characterize each figure equally surprising, an effort finally to render the total high-pitched gaiety of the spectacle as a banquet of sunlight and colour rather than a collection of separate dramatic groups.
For life of Édouard Manet (1832-1883) see Edmond Bazire, Manet (Paris, 1884). An idea of the state of popular feeling may be gained by reading Zola's eloquent defence in Mon Salon, which appeared in L'Événement (1866) and Édouard Manet (1867), both reprinted in Mes Haines (Paris, 1880). The same author has embodied many of the impressionist ideals in Claude Lantier, the fictitious hero of L'Œuvre. Other writers belonging to Manet's group are Théodore Duret, author of Les Peintres français en 1867 and Critique d'avant-garde, articles and catalogue-prefaces reprinted 1885. See also, for Manet and others, J. K. Huysman's L'Art moderne (1883) and Certains. Summaries of the literature of the whole period will be found in R. Muther, The History of Modern Painting (tr. London, 1896), not always trustworthy in detail, and Miss R. G. Kingsley, A History of French Art (1899). For an interesting critical account see W. C. Brownell, French Art (1892).
The second period, to which the name is sometimes limited, is complicated by the emergence of new figures, and it is difficult as yet, and perhaps will always remain difficult, to say how much of originality belongs to each artist in the group. The main features are an intenser study of illumination, a greater variety of illuminations, and a revolution in facture with a view to pressing closer to a high pitch of light. Manet plays his part in this development, but we shall not be wrong probably in giving to Claude Monet (b. 1840) the chief role as the instinctive artist of the period, and to Camille Pissarro (b. 1830) a very large part as a painter, curious in theory and experiment. Monet at the early date of 1866 had painted a picture as daring in its naïve brutality of out-of-door illumination as the “Déjeuner sur l'herbe.” But this picture has the breadth of patch, solidity and suavity of paste of Manet's practice. During the siege of Paris (1870-71) Monet and Pissarro were in London, and there the study of Turner's pictures enlarged their ideas of the pitch in lighting and range of effect possible in painting, and also suggested a new handling of colour, by small broken touches in place of the large flowing touches characteristic of Manet. This method of painting occupied much of the discussion of the group that centred round Manet at the Café Guerbois, in the Batignolles quarter (hence called L'École de Batignolles). The ideas were: (1) Abolition of conventional brown tonality. But all browns, in the fervour of this revolt, went the way of conventional brown, and all ready-made mixtures like the umbers, ochres, siennas were banished from the palette. Black itself was condemned. (2) The idea of the spectrum, as exhibiting the series of “primary” or “pure” colours, directed the reformed palette. Six colours, besides white, were admitted to represent the chief hues of the spectrum. (3) These colours were laid on the canvas with as little previous mixture on the palette as possible to maintain a maximum of luminosity, and were fused by touch on the canvas as little as possible, for the same reason. Hence the “broken” character of the touch in this painting, and the subordination of delicacies of form and suave continuity of texture to the one aim of glittering light-and-colour notation. Justification of these procedures was sought in occasional features of the practice of E. Delacroix, of Watteau, of J. B. Chardin, in the hatchings of pastel, the stipple of water-colour. With the ferment of theory went a parti pris for translating all effects into the upper registers of tone (cf. Ruskin's chapter on Turner's practice in Modern Painters), and for emphasizing the colour of shadows at the expense of their tone. The characteristic work of this period is landscape, as the subject of illumination strictly observed and followed through the round of the day and of the seasons. Other pictorial motives were subordinated to this research of effect, and Monet, with a haystack, group of poplars, or church front, has demonstrated the variety of lighting that the day and the season bring to a single scene. Besides Pissarro, Alfred Sisley (1840-1899) is a member of the group, and Manet continues his progress, influenced by the new ideas in pictures like “Le Linge” and “Chez le Père Lathuille.”
Edmond Degas (b. 1834), a severe and learned draughtsman, is associated with this landscape group by his curiosity in the expression of momentary action and the effects of artificial illumination, and by his experiments in broken colour, more particularly in pastel. The novelty of his matter, taken from unexplored corners of modern life, still more the daring and irony of his observation and points of view, and the strangeness of his composition, strongly influenced by Japanese art, enriched the associations now gathering about the word “impressionist.” Another name, that of Auguste Renoir (b. 1841), completes the leading figures of the group. Any “school” programme would be strained to breaking-point to admit this painter, unless on the very general grounds of love of bright colour, sunlit places and independence of vision. He has no science of drawing or of tone, but wins a precarious charm of colour and expression.
The landscape, out-of-doors line, which unites in this period with Manet's line, may be represented by these names: J. B. Corot, J. B. Jongkind, Boudin, Monet. Monet's real teacher was Eugène Boudin (1824-1898). (See Gusjave Cahen's Eugène Boudin, Paris, 1900). They, and others of the group, worked together in a painters' colony at Saint Simeon, near Honfleur. It is usual to date the origin of plein-air painting, i.e. painting out-of-doors, in an out-of-doors key of tone, from a picture Manet painted in the garden of de Nittis, just before the outbreak of war in 1870. This dates only Manet's change to the lighter-key and looser handling. It was Monet who carried the practice to a logical extreme, working on his canvas only during the effect and in its presence. The method of Degas is altogether different, viz., a combination in the studio from innumerable notes and observations. It will be evident from what has been said above that impressionistic painting is an artistic ferment, corresponding to the scientific research into the principles of light and colour, just as earlier movements in painting coincided with the scientific study of perspective and anatomy. Chevreul's famous book, already referred to, De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs (1838), established certain laws of interaction for colours adjacent to one another. He still, however, referred the sensations of colour to the three impossible “primaries” of Brewster red, blue and yellow. The Voung-Helmholtz theory affected the palette of the Impressionists, and the work of Ogden Rood, Colour (Internat. Scientific Series, 1879-1881), published in English, French and German, furnished the theorists with formulae measuring the degradation of pitch suffered by pigments in mixture.
The Impressionist group (with the exception of Manet, who still fought for his place in the Salon) exhibited together for the first time as L'Exposition des Impressionistes at Nadar's, Boulevard des Capucines, in 1874. They were then taken up by the dealer Durand-Ruel, and the succeeding exhibitions in 1876, 1877, 1879, 1880, 1881, 1882 and 1886 were held by him in various galleries. The full history of these exhibitions, with the names of the painters, will be found in two works: Félix-Fénéon, Les Impressionistes en 1886 (Paris, 1886), and G. Geffroy, La Vie artistique (“Histoire de l'impressionisme,” in vol. for 1894). See also G. Lecomte, L'Art impressioniste d'après la collection privée de M. Durand-Ruel (Paris, 1892); Duranty, La Peinture nouvelle (1876). Besides the names already cited, some others may be added: Madame Berthe Morisot, sister-in-law of Manet; Paul Cézanne, belonging to the Manet-Pissarro group; and, later, Gauguin. J. F. Raffaëlli applied a “characteristic” drawing, to use his word, to scenes in the dismal suburbs of Paris; Forain, the satiric draughtsman, was a disciple of Degas, as also Zandomeneghi. Miss Mary Cassatt was his pupil. Caillebotte, who bequeathed the collection of Impressionist paintings now in the Luxembourg, was also an exhibitor; and Boudin, who linked the movement to the earlier schools.
The first exhibitions of the Impressionists in London were in 1882 and 1883, but their fortunes there cannot be pursued in the present article, nor the history of the movement beyond its originators. This excludes notable figures, of which M. Besnard may be chosen as a type.
In Manet's painting, even in the final steps he took towards “la peinture claire,” there is nothing of the “decomposition of tones” that logically followed from the theories of his followers. He recognized the existence in certain illuminations of the violet shadow, and he adopted in open-air work a looser and more broken touch. The nature of his subjects encouraged such a handling, for the painter who attempts to note from nature the colour values of an elusive effect must treat form in a summary fashion, still more so when the material is in constant movement like water. Moreover, in the river-side subjects near Paris there was a great deal that was only pictorially tolerable when its tone was subtracted from the details of its form. Monet's painting carries the shorthand of form and broken colour to extremity; the flowing touch of Manet is chopped up into harsher, smaller notes of tone, and the pitch pushed up till all values approach the iridescent end of the register. It was in 1886 that the doctrinaire ferment came to a head, and what was supposed to be a scientific method of colour was formulated. This was pointillisme, the resolution of the colours of nature back into six bands of the rainbow or spectrum, and their representation on the canvas by dots of unmixed pigment. These dots, at a sufficient distance, combine their hues in the eye with the effect of a mixture of coloured lights, not of pigments, so that the result is an increase instead of a loss of luminosity. There are several fallacies, however, theoretical and practical, in this “spectral palette” and pointillist method. If we depart from the three primaries of the Helmholtz hypothesis, there is no reason why we should stop at six hues instead of six hundred. But pigments follow the spectrum series so imperfectly that the three primaries, even if we could exactly locate them, limit the palette considerably in its upper range. The sacrifice of black is quite illogical, and the lower ranges suffer accordingly. Moreover, it is doubtful whether many painters have followed the laws of mixture of lights in their dotting, e.g. dotting green and red together to produce yellow. It may be added that dotting with oil pigment is in practice too coarse and inaccurate a method. This innovation of pointillisme is generally ascribed to George Seurat (d. 1890), whose picture, “La Grande Jatte,” was exhibited at the Rue Laffitte in 1886. Pissarro experimented in the new method, but abandoned it, and other names among the Pointillistes are Paul Signac, Vincent van Gogh, and van Rysselberghe. The theory opened the way for endless casuistries, and its extravagances died out in the later exhibition of the Independants or were domesticated in the Salon by painters like M. Henri Martin.
The first modern painter to concern himself scientifically with the reactions of complementary colours appears to have been Delacroix (J. Leonardo, it should be remembered, left some notes on the subject). It is claimed for Delacroix that as early as 1825 he observed and made use of these reactions, anticipating the complete exposition of Chevreul. He certainly studied the treatise, and his biographers describe a dial-face he constructed for reference. He had quantities of little wafers of each colour, with which he tried colour effects, a curious anticipation of pointillist technique. The pointillists claim him as their grandfather. See Paul Signac, “D'Eugène Delacroix au Néo-Impressionnisme” (Revue Blanche, 1898). For a fuller discussion of the spectral palette see the Saturday Review, 2nd, 9th and 23rd February and 23rd March 1901.
In England the ideas connected with the word Impressionism have been refracted through the circumstances of the British schools. The questions of pitch of light and iridescent colour had already arisen over the work of Turner, of the Pre-Raphaelites, and also of G. F. Watts, but less isolated and narrowed, because the art of none of these limited itself to the pursuit of light. Pointillisme, after a fashion, existed in British water-colour practice. But the Pre-Raphaelite school had accustomed the English eye to extreme definition in painting and to elaboration of detail, and it happened that the painting of James M‘Neill Whistler (Grosvenor Gallery, 1878) brought the battle-name Impressionism into England and gave it a different colour. Whistler's method of painting was in no way revolutionary, and he preferred to transpose values into a lower key rather than compete with natural pitch, but his vision, like that of Manet under the same influences, Spanish and Japanese, simplified tone and subordinated detail. These characteristics raised the whole question of the science and art of aspect in modern painting, and the field of controversy was extended backwards to Velasquez as the chief master of the moderns. “Impressionism” at first had meant individualism of vision, later the notation of fugitive aspects of light and of movement; now it came to mean breadth in pictorial vision, all the simplifications that arise from the modern analysis of aspect, and especially the effect produced upon the parts of a picture-field by attending to the impression of the whole. Ancient painting analyses aspect into three separate acts as form, tone and colour. All forms are made out with equal clearness by a conventional outline; over this system of outlines a second system of light and shade is passed, and over this again a system of colours. Tone is conceived as a difference of black or white added to the tints, and the colours are the definite local tints of the objects (a blue, a red, a yellow, and so forth). In fully developed modern painting, instead of an object analysed into sharp outlines covered with a uniform colour darkened or lightened in places, we find an object analysed into a number of surfaces or planes set at different angles. On each of these facets the character of the object and of the illumination, with accidents of reflection, produces a patch called by modern painters a “value,” because it is colour of a particular value or tone. (With each difference of tone, “value” implies a difference of hue also, so that when we speak of a different tone of the same colour we are using the word “same” in a loose or approximate sense.) These planes or facets define themselves one against another with greater or less sharpness. Modern technique follows this modern analysis of vision, and in one act instead of three renders by a “touch” of paint the shape and value of these facets, and instead of imposing a uniform ideal outline at all their junctions, allows these patches to define themselves against one another with variable sharpness.
Blurred definition, then, as it exists in our natural view of things, is admitted into painting; a blurring that may arise from distance, from vapour or smoke, from brilliant light, from obscurity, or simply from the nearness in value of adjacent objects. Similarly, much detail that in primitive art is elaborated is absorbed by rendering the aspect instead of the facts known to make up that aspect. Thus hair and fur, the texture of stuffs, the blades of grass at a little distance, become patches of tone showing only their larger constructive markings. But the blurring of definitions and the elimination of detail that we find in modern pictorial art are not all of this ready-made character. We have so far only the scientific analysis of a field of view. If the painter were a scientific reporter he would have to pursue the systems of planes, with their shapes and values, to infinity. Impressionism is the art that surveys the field and determines which of the shapes and tones are of chief importance to the interested eye, enforces these, and sacrifices the rest. Construction, the logic of the object rendered, determines partly this action of the eye, and also decoration, the effects of rhythm in line and harmony in fields of colour. These motives belong to all art, but the specially impressionist motive is the act of attention as it affects the aspect of the field. We are familiar, in the ordinary use of the eye, with two features of its structure that limit clearness of vision. There is, first, the spot of clear vision on the retina, outside of which all falls away into blur; there is, secondly, the action of focus. As the former limits clear definition to one spot in the field extended vertically and laterally, so focus limits clear definition to one plane in the third dimension, viz. depth. If three objects, A, B and C, stand at different depths before the eye, we can at will fix A, whereupon B and C must fall out of focus, or B, whereupon A and C must be blurred, or C, sacrificing the clearness of A and B. All this apparatus makes it impossible to see everything at once with equal clearness, enables us, and forces us for the uses of real life, to frame and limit our picture, according to the immediate interest of the eye, whatever it may be. The painter instinctively uses these means to arrive at the emphasis and neglect that his choice requires. If he is engaged on a face he will now screw his attention to a part and now relax it, distributing the attention over the whole so as to restore the bigger relations of aspect. Sir Joshua Reynolds describes this process as seeing the whole “with the dilated eye”; the commoner precept of the studios is “to look with the eyes half closed”; a third way is to throw the whole voluntarily out of focus. In any case the result is that minor planes are swamped in bigger, that smaller patches of colour are swept up into broader, that markings are blurred. The final result of these tentative reviews records, in what is blurred and what is clear, the attention that has been distributed to different parts, and to parts measured against the whole. The Impressionist painter does not allot so much detail to a face in a full-length portrait as to a head alone, nor to twenty figures on a canvas as to one. Again, he indicates by his treatment of planes and definitions whether the main subject of his picture is in the foreground or the distance. He persuades the eye to slip over hosts of near objects so that, as in life, it may hit a distant target, or concentrate its attack on what is near, while the distance falls away into a dim curtain. All those devices by which attention is directed and distributed, and the importance in space of an object established, affect impressionistic composition.
It is an inevitable misunderstanding of painting which plays the game of art so closely up to the real aspects of nature that its aim is that of mere exact copying. Painting like Manet's, accused of being realistic in this sense, sufficiently disproves the accusation when examined. Never did painting show a parti pris more pronounced, even more violent. The elisions and assertions by which Manet selects what he finds significant and beautiful in the complete natural image are startling to the stupid realist, and the Impressionist may best be described as the painter who out of the completed contents of vision constructs an image moulded upon his own interest in the thing seen and not on that of any imaginary schoolmaster. Accepting the most complex terms of nature with their special emotions, he uses the same freedom of sacrifice as the man who at the other end of the scale expresses his interest in things by a few scratches of outline. The perpetual enemy of both is the eclectic, who works for possible interests not his own.
Some of the points touched on above will be found amplified in articles by the writer in The Albemarle (September 1892), the Fortnightly Review (June 1894), and The Artist (March-July 1896). An admirable exposition of Impressionism in this sense is R. A. M. Stevenson's The Art of Velasquez (1895). Mr Stevenson was trained in the school of Carolus Duran, where impressionist painting was reduced to a system. Mr Sargent's painting is a brilliant example of the system. (D. S. M.)
- Mr H. P. Hain Friswell has pointed out that the word “impression” occurs frequently in Chevreul's book on colour; but it is also current among the critics. See Ruskin's chapter on Turner's composition — “impression on the mind.”