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Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Birth of Impressionism

The Beach at Sainte Adresse, 1867, Claude Monet.  I wonder if he ever went for a swim?
Just about every painter in the world today is aware of one of the most "painterly" styles of painting ever conceived--Impressionism. The vast majority of them love it (or at least find it fashionable to profess to). We marvel at its free brushwork, it's luminous color, its almost mystical feeling of light happiness that it imparts when we gaze at an Impressionist painting in awe. We have a tendency to imagine that Impressionism "just happened" one day when Camille kicked her husband out of the house so she could clean his studio, forcing him to set up his easel on the beach near Le Harvre and VIOLE'...instant Impressionism. As amusing and simplistic as it sounds, I wish I could say that's how it happened; but alas...

Edge of the Sea, 1854, Gustave Courbet.
Courbet was painting beach scenes when
Monet was but a lad of fourteen.
Impressionism had its roots in the Realist movement a whole generation before Monet in the work of Corot and Courbet. They painted out-of-doors yet they were not Impressionists, which underlines the common misconception that all "en plein air" painters were or are Impressionists. Incidentally the reverse is also true--all Impressionists were not necessarily "plein air" painters. Impressionism was not just about painting outdoors. It was about how artists painted, and most importantly saw the outdoors. It was about light and color. And even here the color theories employed by the Impressionists had been around since about 1839 when the French chemist, Michel Eugene Chevreul, published a book exploring scientific color theory. Yet strangely, Monet seems not to have been familiar with any scientific basis as to how he handled color.

Luncheon on the Grass (detail), 1863, Edouard Manet.
Behind the grassy picnic and the naked lady, Manet
dabbled and daubed at Impressionism.
And lest we forget, it was not Monet but Manet who painted some of the first works that looked impressionistic. His 1863 Luncheon on the Grass, had not folks been so disturbed about its naked woman and fully clothed men, might well have earned the wrath of critics instead for its painterly, impressionistic background. When he wanted to, Manet could be an Impressionist of the first order. But again we come back to Monet, the first and last French impressionist. And we can talk all we like about where he painted, what colors he used, and who influenced him (or didn't, as the case may be) but perhaps first and foremost we should hear from his own lips, as to how he painted: "When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field, or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naive impression of the scene before you." This is pure right-brained painting--not letting the mind interfere with the eye and hand.

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