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Friday, February 25, 2011

Impressionism Beyond Landscapes

Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Claude Monet
When we think of French Impressionism, one of the unfortunate tendencies is to think that it began and ended with landscape painting with nothing in between except more landscape painting. And, if we accept the fact that Impressionism, for all intents and purposes, began and ended with Claude Monet then this attitude is not surprising. Monet painted Impression Sunrise from which the term Impressionism was coined, and he was fortunate enough to outlive virtually all the other original Impressionist (he died in 1926) so a pretty good case can, in fact, be made for such a premise. The problem with all this is that what came in the middle was not all landscapes and waterlilies.

Quadrille at the Moulin Rouge,
1892, Toulouse Lautrec

There were florals, there were portraits, there were bathers, there were still-lifes, there were cityscapes, trains stations, children, the list is nearly endless--everything but the gods and goddesses and Sunday School pictures the Academics so loved. However, the one thing so many people fail to recall in thinking of Impressionism is the love these artists had for the Paris social life of their time. Paris was a party town. The cafes and nightclubs are practically legendary, and painters such as Manet, Toulouse Lautrec, Renoir, and Degas painted them endlessly. Add to that the outdoor concerts, dancing in the park, the opera, the ballet, the circus, and horse racing and you have a pictorial reference to what it was like to live, love, an play in the glittering "City on the Seine" in the latter half of the nineteenth century like none in the history of art.

The Absinthe, 1876,
Edgar Degas

The burgeoning bourgeoisie, for the first time in history, was now able to rub shoulders with the rich and famous, dining out, attending the opera and ballet, betting on the horses, and appreciating all the arts to a degree never before seen. The Impressionists recorded it all. But they didn't stop with the glitter that was not all gold. They chronicled too, in paint on canvas, the not uncommon descent of the middle classes into alcoholism, prostitution, poverty, and despondency as well. The same artists who painted dancers at the Moulin Rouge also painted the despair in the eyes of the whores across the street, and the blank stare of the absinthe drinker sitting in a desolate cafe.  Impressionism was not all pretty pastures and pretty pleasures. There was also stark, naked, ugliness as well, just behind the thin curtain of respectability that served as a backdrop for the Paris social life of the times. Painters had never painted any of that before.

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