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Friday, January 14, 2011

The First Impressionists

Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Claude Monet
 "...The common concept which united them as a group and gives them a collective strength in the midst of our disaggregate epoch is the determination not to search for a smooth execution, but to be satisfied with a certain general aspect.  Once the impression is captured they declare their role terminated...  If one wants to characterize them with a single word that explains their efforts, one would have to create the new term Impressionists.  They are impressionists in the sense that they render not a landscape but the sensation produced by a landscape."  With these words, the art critic, Jules Castagnary, in 1874, gave a name, shape, and form to something that had heretofore lacked all three.     
The occasion was a review of the disastrous group exhibition staged by a renegade group of disillusioned and disenfranchised artist as a direct affront to the hated Salon with whom they had grown tired of battling for admission.  They were about 35 in number, some now household names, some unheard of then and now.  (Eduoard Manet was conspicuous by his absence.)  They presented 163 works ranging from a few fairly academic pieces to three little outrages by Paul Cezanne that guards feared might be ripped apart by the crowd.  They might have been, except for the fact there was no crowd.  A few sympathetic critics praised the show, a few more clobbered it, and perhaps fortunately, most of them simply chose to ignore it.  In large part, so did the public.   

A Modern Olympia, 1873-74, Paul Cezanne,
one of his "little outrages."
Crowds for the show were abysmal.  There were 175 on the opening day and that dwindled to about 54 on the last day of the month-long exhibition.  The show was unique in that it was open during the evenings, but attendance was seldom more than 10 to 20 during these hours, and sometimes as low as 2.  Altogether, some 3,500 people paid one Franc to see the show.  Meanwhile, across town at the Salon, some 400,000 paid ten Francs to see over 4,000 works.  Manet might as well have exhibited with the newly dubbed Impressionists in that, despite his best efforts, critics linked his name with the group and labeled his two Salon-accepted works as "intruders" appearing doubly ridiculous compared to those hung next to his.  Even though Castagnary's words regarding the First Impressionist Exhibition were written in derision, his review was at least somewhat sympathetic and thoughtful, compared to many others ridiculing it.  His words served to unite this group into a movement with a new name and a single direction, something they had lacked before.

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