Although creating a dynamic effect of the

Although
nature was one of the defining features of impressionism and impressionist
painters, it is worth noting the other spheres of 19th century life
that were depicted during this time. Such as figurative pieces by Degas and
Renoir, the female form by Morisot and her contemporaries and the cityscapes
that were reflecting the vast social and industrial advances of the epoch. In
this essay, I will argue that although nature was important stylistically to
impressionist painters, the other forms of impressionism, namely cityscapes and
the documentation of Haussmann’s renovation of Paris were just as significant
in the development of the impressionist movement in the second half of the 19th
century.

 

Nature and impressionism work conjointly in both subject
matter and stylistic qualities in order to create a perfect motif for
impressionists. ‘Between
1852 and 1870, under Napoleon III’s Second Empire, landscape painting was
widely regarded by art critics as the strongest and most vital element in
French art.’1 Vibrancy is a
critical aspect of the impressionist canvas and artists ensured dynamism
through the use of dominant colours laid close together, unblended with the use
of natural light at its core foundation. A celebrated example of this is
Monet’s Impression: Soleil, Levant fig.1
due to his impeccable juxtaposition between contrasting orange and blue,
creating a dynamic effect of the sunlight on the port of Le Havre. ‘There are no lines in nature, only areas of colour, one against another’,
said Manet. This was a technique used by Monet’s contemporaries,
as stated in E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of
Art: ‘Manet’s first
paintings in which he abandoned the traditional method of mellow shading in
favour of strong and harsh contrasts’2.

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As already seen in Monet’s Impression: Soleil, Levant fig.1, Monet depicts his light
faithfully in his Femme à l’ombrelle
tournée vers la gauche’ fig.2. In this work, Monet captures his wife,
Camille, in an outdoor setting, where the bright sunlight touches the top of her
parasol and the flowers beneath her feet tinge the front of her dress. The
sheer life of the painting, the sense of open space and warmth of sunlight all
combine to create a real-life scene for the viewer. All of this without the
artist really finalising characteristics of the subject matter, namely her face.
This painting is also known to be one of Monet’s en plein air, meaning, outside, amongst the subject matter. Nature
and impressionist artwork met each other within the act of painting en plein air in that the movement of
nature was appealing to the impressionists, with short brushstrokes ‘lack of finish, apparently
slapdash approach’3. This
was ‘an exercise in the new manner advocated by Monet. For Monet’s idea that
all painting of nature must actually be finished ‘on the spot’ not only
demanded a change of habits and a disregard of comfort, it was bound to result
in new technical methods. ‘Nature’ or the ‘motif’ changes from minute to minute
as a cloud passes over the sun or the wind breaks the reflection in the water.’4
This quote highlights the importance of nature to impressionists such as Monet.
They oversaw the importance of comfort or accessibility to the subject matter
and painted whilst present. This quite simple step by the impressionists,
changed the way that artists in the future were to approach art. Not just as a
reciprocal relationship between artist and muse, but an all-encompassing
experience whereby the artist carries whatever atmosphere or aesthetic that he
may feel en plein air communicated
onto canvas. Edmond About highlighted the importance of nature within the newly
established impressionist movement in 1868: ‘Forests, rocks, shorelines,
valleys, flocks, palaces, ruins, cottages, costumes, types, these were the
materials from which one composed a landscape… When by chance one encountered a
combination of beautiful things well grouped in nature, one said: ‘That’s a picturesque
sight’, that is to say a site worthy of being painted, comparable to those that
true artists represent.’5
The impressionists favouring nature in the 1870s was not so much as a result of
the subject matter, but a ‘a true motif may be found in nature itself, through
the artist’s choice of site and viewpoint, without an elaborate process of
selection and arrangement.’6
Thompson gives an example of this in Framing
France, of Courbet’s The Stormy Sea fig.3.

 

In
addition to nature, the city and urban landscape were undoubtedly significant
in being portrayed within the impressionist movement. ‘They also challenged
conventional notions of the motif in another way, by choosing subjects that
were overtly contemporary – scenes from the surroundings of Paris, marked by
industrialisation and by the growth of the city.’7 This
came as a direct result of the impressionist movement in Paris at the time, and
their collaboration with notable French literary figures of the time. Looking
at the depiction of the landscape in French novels from 1874-1914 there are
undeniable parallels between the two medias, not just in the form of an action
and response, but also as a result if ‘interdisciplinary osmosis’8.
Writer, Émile Zola had a ‘close friendship not just with Cézanne during the
formative years of adolescence but also subsequently with Manet, Monet,
Pissaro, Guillemet and Renoir’9.
He later wrote ‘Je ne suis entouré que des peintres – (My circle of friends
consists entirely of painters)’10.

 

Although
the impressionist painters of the epoch and their other creative contemporaries
sought great pleasure in depicting the new vision of Paris, even the
impressionists struggled to be critically acclaimed by the French art
establishment for their illustration of a new, modern France. ‘One theme was
visibly absent from the state’s purchases, and rare in the canvases exhibited
in the Salon: images of explicitly contemporary themes – of themes that
reflected the very visible changes that industrialisation, urban development
and the growth of the railway system were bringing to the French landscape’11.
From an art historical perspective, the depiction of the changing landscape of
Paris is particularly interesting. Technological advances such as railways in
Monet’s La Gare Saint Lazare fig.4
were illustrated well by the impressionists. ‘Here is a real impression of a
scene of everyday life. Monet is not interested in the railway station as a
place… he is fascinated by the effect of light streaming through the glass roof
on to the clouds of steam, and by the forms of engines and carriages emerging
from the confusion.’12 The
work portrays a classically urban scene in a natural format, using blue and
grey hues to give a naturalistic depth to the painting. It is believed that his
shift to more urban landscapes was as a result of his stay in London. ‘Turner’s
‘steamer in a snowstorm’, was as new in subject as it was in manner. Claude
Monet knew Turner’s works. He had seen them in London… and they confirmed him
in his convention that the magic effects of light and air counted for more than
the subject of a painting.’13 Writing
in L’Impressioniste in 1877, Renoir’s
friend Georges Rivière stated: ‘We hear the shouts of the workers, the sharp
whistles of the engines blasting their cry of alarm, their incessant noise of
scrap-iron, and the formidable panting of the steam.’14
This statement focuses on the importance of French impressionist painters, and
their use of brushwork en plein air
in order to capture a particular atmosphere via a seemingly slap-dashed
approach.

 

Other
than landscapes and cityscapes, other impressionists such as Renoir and Dégas
were painting figures in French society. During Renoir’s early career, he had a
passion for portraiture which he kept with him as his style grew more
impressionistic. Renoir’s Bal du moulin
de la Galette fig.5 showed his ability to communicate to the viewer
joyful and vicarious environment playing with colours and subtle lighting
techniques. The critics at the time were not happy with the work at all, though
it is deemed one of the best impressionist masterpieces of all time. ‘Only the
heads of some figures in the foreground are shown with a certain amount of
detail, but even they are painted in the most unconventional and daring
manner.’15 What
has been realised during art historical inquiry is that ‘without difficulty
that the apparent sketchiness has nothing whatever to do with carelessness but
is the outcome of great artistic wisdom.’16
Renoir’s use of the dappled shade creates a depth and movement to the painting
whilst the lack of detailed brushstrokes in fact adds dynamism and character to
the painting in a way that the Salon had never witnessed previously. Figures
were also considered within works by Dégas, notably of ballet dancers. ‘He
liked to take his subjects from the ballet rather than out-door scenes.
Watching rehearsals, Degas had an opportunity of seeing bodies from all sides
in the most varied attitudes. Looking down on to the stage from above, he would
see the girls dancing or resting.’17

 

‘One
can say that landscape translates a thousand emotions that belong to the
spiritual domain: sorrow, joy, the most opposed passions, and the most gentile
as well as the most violent. In its own way and on its own level, it fulfils
the fine definition of art proposed by the English philosopher: art, said
Bacon, is man adding himself to nature: homo additus naturae.’ 18 The
landscape was undoubtedly the most important motif for impressionist movement.
Not only was it the most popular, but it was Manet’s Le Déjuner sur l’herbe fig.6 which revolutionised the way we
looked at art. This piece, rejected by the French Salon in 1863 was then the
catalyst to the debut of the Salon des Refusés. ‘Le Déjuner sur l’herbe managed to call into question all of the
assumptions that underpinned the enjoyment of art by its Parisian public in
1863’19
and securing nature as the cornerstone of impressionist subject matter of the
19th century.