As the BBC series ‘The Impressionists: Painting and Revolution’ draws to a close we thought we should take a close look at this art movement that has gone from being shocking and revolutionary to becoming part of the establishment.
When the Impressionist artists started out the Académie des Beaux-Arts ruled painting in France with a virtual stranglehold on training artists and showing their work in the annual Salon de Paris show. They dictated they way paintings were produced and the subject matters you could use. One of the first impressionist paintings Le déjeuner sur l'herbe by Manet was rejected by the Salon for its use of a nude in a contemporary rather than a classical setting.
Many artists in the Impressionist movement had not trained at the Académie des Beaux-Arts and they sought to break this academic system, establishing new venues for artists to display their works. Their first exhibition took place in 1874 in the studio of photographer and journalist Nadar. It was greeted with derision by the art critics and a particularly harsh review of Monet's ‘Impression, Sunrise’ that gave the group its name. Artists in the first exhibition also included Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne.
The Impressionists’ revolution in art was fuelled by wider changes in society and science going on around them. The invention of the tube of oil paint gave the artist freedom to take his paints with him and move out of the studio. The invention of the ferrule that holds the bristles on a brush changed the shape of paint brushes from round to flat and square changing the way paint could be applied to the canvas. Paris was being re-built and new pastimes such as boating, horse racing or getting out into the countryside on the new steam trains were taking hold. Development in the science of how we see also had an influence on their approach to colours and viewpoints as well as the new art of Photography.
With all this new technology behind them the Impressionists went out into the world painting in the outdoors (en plein air) rather than in studios. They chose subjects that reflected the new exciting world around them such as Monet’s paintings at the The Gare St. Lazare or Renoir’s ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party’. Monet also had his own boat that he used the travel up and down the Seine capturing the countryside around him. Gustave Caillebotte even painted the workers re-varnishing the floor of his studio, a very unusual subject at the time. Other artists exploring the affect of light enjoyed painting in the snow because of the unusual effect the white snow has both on the light and the shadows.
Now these cutting edge artists who sought to revolutionise the art establishment and change the way we see the world have become part of the establishment. New younger artists have come along using new techniques and materials to bring about even more changes to the way art is produced and consumed. But we should not forget how ground breaking the impressionist work was in its time, and its lasting legacy on 20th century art.