Podcast 36 Painting 2: Manet to Post-Impressionism

The Painters of Modern Life

Although the Pre-Raphaelite artists initiated the artistic interest in contemporary urban life and the problems of modern people, the Parisian artists are given credit for learning how to express modernité in formal terms.  The French painters found the seventeenth century Dutch painters important precursors.  Inspired by the depiction of ordinary moments of daily life among the middle class in Holland, the emerging avant-garde artists began to rethink, not just how to handle modern content, but also how to use paint itself so that their art could be “of its own time.”  The result of this experimentation was an evolution of painting into the twentieth century.

 

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Vincent van Gogh

Post-Impressionist Artists: Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890)

Writing to his devoted brother, Théo, Vincent van Gogh said, “I have a terrible lucidity sometimes when nature is so beautiful these days and then I do not feel myself anymore and the painting comes to me as if in a dream.”  Vincent van Gogh has long been the subject of myth and legend: the tormented artist, committing suicide in despair and dying in the service of art. Although van Gogh’s works are always representational, they are also intensely personal and expressive. His brief career became legendary after his suicide at Auvers in 1890 at the age of thirty-seven.  He sold only a few paintings in his lifetime, but by 1901, he was the subject of a historic exhibition at the well-known Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, which influenced the future Fauves, Matisse, Derain, and Vlaminck. Like all myths, there is just enough truth to keep the flame burning but the story hides an important question: if the artist was so obscure in his own lifetime, then how did Vincent become so famous?  The answer is, like all the Post-Impressionists, van Gogh had significant art world connections. His uncle, Cent van Gogh was associated with Parisian art dealer, Adolphe Goupil.  If Vincent had not learned his trade working at the art firm of Goupil’s and if his brother Théo had not been an important dealer in avant-garde art, the paintings of the artist would most certainly have never seen the light of day.

Dutch Period (1881 – winter 1886)

Always a difficult child an unruly adolescent, Vincent van  Gogh seemed unsuited to any trade.  He failed at Goupil’s in London (1873) and in Paris (1874).  He disliked having to promote the works of “official artists,” such as Gérôme and Bourguereau, over the artists he preferred such as Millet.  Having literally walked away from his job in the arts in 1876, Vincent decided upon the ministry, the occupation of his father.  Utterly unsuited temperamentally to this vocation, van Gogh was sent to the bleak Borinage coalmining district on the Dutch-Belgium border to minister to the miners and the peasants.  He wrote copious letters to his brother Théo who was now working for Goupil’s, now known as Boussod et Valadon et Cie. in Paris.  These letters were illustrated with tableaux from these impoverished lives.  After many false starts, the would-be minister had found his métier. A passionate idealist, van Gogh turned to art in 1879 only after his career as a preacher faltered.  He studied briefly at Haarlem and worked under his cousin, Anton Mauve, adopting a, shall we say, “highly personal” (using his fingers) style of dark thick painting of humble subjects and Dutch landscapes in Drenthe and Nuenen. The following Dutch period, during which he painted the peasants of his homeland, dates from 1881 to 1885. It is late in this period that he began to collect Japanese prints, which would be important to his later work. “Painting comes easier to me than I imagined. I know for sure that I have an instinct for color and …that painting is in the marrow of my bones…” he wrote to his brother.

The most famous of the paintings from the Dutch period was “The Potato Eaters” (1885), sent to Théo, intended for the new Salon des Indépendants.  Based upon an real life scene glimpsed through an open door, Vincent, the Naturalist and self-described painter of peasants, revered these people who “I have tried to emphasize that these people eating their potatoes in the lamplight, have dug the earth with those very hands they put in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor and how they have honestly earned their food…” The dark brown and green painting, illuminated by a strong central light of deep yellow was bound to the dark tones of the Dutch Masters and of the early French Realists, such as his role model, Jean-François Millet.  In other words, the now famous work, done in a three-day marathon, was completely out of date.  Nevertheless, Vincent thought, “…to record the peasant at work is essentially the modern objective, the heart of modern art itself, something that neither the Greeks nor the Renaissance nor the Dutch School never did….”

While his friend, Paul Gauguin, had been trained by Camille Pissarro, Vincent had his roots in Seventeenth-century Dutch realism, and arrived in Paris equipped with only a rather provincial art school training. “Just now my palette is thawing, the barrenness of the early time is over…” In 1886, Vincent joined his younger brother, Théo. Over the time the artist painted, he filled his brother’s apartment with hundreds of works of art.  Living with a manic-depressive alcoholic must have been difficult on the tidy Théo.  Van Gogh thought that they should both get married, because, as he put it, “In intercourse with women, one especially learns so much about art.”  After a few transitional paintings of Montmartre, his new home with Théo (“The Hills of Montmartre with Stone Quarry,” 1886), Vincent abandoned his dark manner and adopted the strong light colors of Impressionism, a movement he had ignored his first stay in Paris, a decade before.  “The best pictures, seen from near by, are but patches of color, side by side, and only make an effect at a certain distance…” (“The Seine with the Point de al Grande Jatte,” 1887)

Paris (March 1886 – January 1888)

 

His two-year stay in Paris introduced him to the Impressionists being handled by Theo’s gallery and the gallery next door, that of Paul Durand-Ruel. The Impressionist Camille Pissarro acted as van Gogh’s mentor and said later that “Vincent would either go mad or leave all of us far behind.  But I did not know he would do both.” Vincent met the Neo-Divisionist painter, Paul Signac, at the legendary shop of Père Tanguy (“Père Tanguy,” 1887-8), who presided over a shop (“a tiny chapel of art”) of art supplies and had an instinctive ability to recognize artists of promise.  It was here in this little shop, where the owner refused to sell black paint, that artists could come and see the works of an obscure artist like Vincent or a reclusive artist like Paul Cézanne. While his work and his working methods had been ill tolerated in Holland and Belgium, in Paris, Vincent was admired for his independence and eccentricities.  His early training in academic structure gave his paintings in Paris an anti-Impressionist organization combined with luminous high key color (“The Harvest,” 1888), a combination of science and expression  (“Factories at Asnières, Seen from the Quai de Clichy”).

Vincent educated himself further in Paris through his associations with avant-garde artists and his study of a diverse group of earlier painters, from Rosa Bonheur to Eugène Delacroix to Ernst Meissonier to Henri Fantin-Latour. He became part of the atelier of an “official artist,” Fernand Cormon, and met the very young and rebellious Emile Bernard and the very sophisticated Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (a bad companion for the alcoholic Dutchman).  Tempted by women and alcohol in Paris, the artist was worn down during the bitterly cold winter of 1887 – 88 as these vices began to harm his health.  When not sipping absinthe with the count, he busily organized exhibitions, such as at the Restaurant de Châlet, and lightened his palette and dreamed of an artists’ colony somewhere in the south of France, a part of the nation he imagined to be like Japan. He experimented with Japanese prints (“The Courtesan,” 1887), neo-Divisionism (“A Park in Spring,” 1887) and its color theories, and Impressionism before he finally developed his own post-Impressionist brushwork, which he brought to fruition in Arles.

Arles (February 1888 – May 1889)

 

Yearning for the “primitive,” Vincent went to Arles, an ancient Roman town, still dominated by its arena. On his way to the Provencal city, he and Théo had stopped by the studio of Georges Seurat.   Of his journey to Arles, Vincent said, “Wishing to se a different light; thinking that looking at nature under a bright sky might give us a better idea of the Japanese way of feeling and drawing.  Wishing also to see this stronger sun….” Here, Vincent absorbed all the information and influences of Paris and reinvented himself in the “limpidity of atmosphere” from “a day spent in the full sun.”  “…a light that for want of a better word I can only call yellow, pale sulphur yellow, pale golden citron!  How lovely yellow is! And how much better I shall see the North!” He also asserted, “What I learned in Paris is learning me, and I am returning to the ideas I had in the country before I knew the Impressionists.”  (“The Drawbridge,” May 1888)  But the artist had learned to think commercially in Paris and began painting with the potential buyer in mind.  Buyers wanted still lives and landscapes and portraits.  “We must win the public over later on by means of the portrait: in my opinion it is the thing of the future…” He painted forty-six portraits of twenty-three people (“The Zouave,” June and August 1888 and “L’Arlesienne. Madame Ginoux,” November 1888). Van Gogh wanted his art to win “…general acceptance as decoration for middle class houses…” and he began a series of paintings of sunflowers.

Many of the paintings at Arles continued to show the influence of Japanese prints, begun in Paris (“Flowering Plum Garden,” 1887) Vincent evolved from using Japanese prints as background for “Père Tanguy” (1887-8) to a full blown Japanese manner in”Flowering Almond Tree” of 1890, indebted to Hiroshigi and Hokusai.  But he was lonely and needed colonists for his colony that he would, of course, head.  “I kept watching to see if I had already reached Japan.”  During the Fall of 1888, he painted two paintings of a local café, including the famous “The Night Café” of which he said, “I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green…I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin one’s self, run mad or commit a crime…” No wonder the café owner refused to accept the painting as payment for outstanding bills.  Speaking of unpaid bills, meanwhile, Paul Gauguin, a slight acquaintance, returned to Paris from Pont-Aven, leaving behind him a trail of angry creditors.  Théo sent Gauguin to be a companion to his unstable brother in return for paying the Breton debts.  In October of 1888, Gauguin was welcomed the famous Yellow House, “an artists’ house,” by Vincent’s paintings of sunflowers.

For two artistically productive months, until December 23, the two artists lived, worked and quarreled.  While Gauguin worked carefully from preparatory sketches, van Gogh worked directly from nature and the two completed seventeen and twenty-five paintings respectively during the year 1888.  Gauguin’s reliance on memory versus van Gogh’s inspiration from nature was a revival of the old quarrel between line and color, between imagination and observation. Although Vincent was using color arbitrarily, he found himself unable to become as abstract as Gauguin, saying that he felt as if he were hitting “a wall.”  “Personally, I like things that are real, things that are possible….I am terrified of getting away from the possible…” But despite the number of extraordinary works painted by both artists, Vincent became increasingly unstable.  He became a direct threat to Gauguin and a danger to himself.  After the local police found Vincent, passed out in his bed, bleeding from his ear, Gauguin decamped, saying, “After all, I must go back to Paris,” and Théo was forced to put his brother in protective custody for the rest of his life.  Vincent wrote,

Is it not intensity of though that we seek, rather than a calm brush?  And in the conditions of spontaneous work, work done on the scene in the immediate presence of nature, is a calm and well-controlled brush always possible? To me it seems no more possible to be calm at such times than when lunging with a foil…

Saint-Remy (May 1889 – May 1890) and Auvers (May 1890 – July 1890)

 

Vincent’s strong attachment to the environment reasserted itself in Arles during a period of explosive fecundity, matched only by the fertility of the nature he painted.  The land is calm, ordered and stable, natural forces are in a state of upheaval, the objects acquire a monumental transcendental character, the people radiate universality and a uniqueness paralleling the qualities of their region.  Only color and a nervous gesturing line–short and sharp–hint at the difficult times to come.  Color would rev up to a high pitch of excitement–bright, clashing and vivid; but always, like the line, respecting or enhancing reality. Color is arbitrary but only in relation to convention, never in relation to mood, a mood that changed tragically at Saint-Remy and Auvers. Confined to an asylum in Saint-Remy, Vincent used art to recover and a series of paintings record his painful journey out of his room to the courtyard of the institution, culminating in the remarkable and unfinished “Irises” (May 1889).

Vincent van Gogh spent the rest of his days in a mental institution or under the care of a doctor.   When Théo felt that his brother had stabilized enough to be more or less on his own, he arranged for his brother to live in Auvers-sur-Oise, near to Pissarro and to Doctor Gachet (“Doctor Gachet,” 1890).  Vincent lived in a tiny rented attic room and tried to put his life back together. These last landscapes were unstable, convoluted, convulsed, and often ecstatic (“Wheatfields,” 1890). The work of Vincent van Gogh was based in nature, soothing the inner turmoil of his mental disturbances.  His life was chaotic and painful, ruled by his emotional turmoil and yet guided and controlled and ultimately saved by the anchor in reality: the real world and its objects.  Clinging to materiality like a drowning person to a life preserver, van Gogh seized upon nature in an intensely empathetic relationship that involved people and things. In his Dutch period, van Gogh responded feelingly to the people in his care and to their lives (“The Women Miners,” 1882), while at the same time, investing inanimate objects with personas–lives–individualities–sheer being (“A Pair of Shoes,” 1885 and “Still Life with Quinces and Lemons,” 1887).

During the seventy days he spent in Auvers, Vincent painted seventy works and thirty watercolors and drawings, as if in an end-of-life frenzy.  The famous, “Crows in the Wheatfields,” although not his last painting, pointed to the end with the tracks through the fields, disappearing in the horizon and the carrion birds circling the sky.  Shortly before he died, Vincent had been distressed by a review written about his work by Albert Aurier, “Les Isolés” in “Le Moderniste.”  Defending van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at Les XX Exhibition, Aurier was a leading Symbolist writer and re-cast Vincent’s work into a mold rather more mystical than the artist would admit to.  Despite his objections, this important article by an important writer in an important journal did a great deal to future Vincent’s reputation, even before he was sent to Auvers.  Indeed, it could be said, that of all the Post-Impressionists, Vincent was the closest to a successful career.  In the context of near-success, his suicide was puzzling.  It is not quite clear if Vincent meant to kill himself, but the shooting, intended or accidental, was a messy affair.  “I think I can conclude that my body will hold out for a few years more, say six or ten…I do not intend to spare myself…”

“I tried to shoot myself and I missed,” he explained, “What I have done is nobody else’s business.  I am free to do what I like with my body.”  It took him three days to die of an inoperable gunshot wound, in his brother’s arms. A century later, Don Mclean would sing, “You took your life as lovers often do/But I could have told you, Vincent/This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”  The funeral of Vincent van Gogh was attended by Père Tanguy, Doctor Gachet, Lucien Pissarro and Emile Bernard.  “Oh mother, he was so my own, won brother,” Théo wrote to his mother.  “We are still in a terrible mess and don’t know where to put all these things…people must know he was a great artist…” Théo said.

Writing in the 1999 catalogue, “Van Gogh’s Van Gogh’s,” John Leighton described the gathering of the paintings and the preservation of the legacy. After his brother’s death, the art dealer reproached himself “…by permitting these masterpieces to go ignored I would hold myself to blame…” He was determined to “…do everything in my power to try to bring this (exhibition) about…” Less than a year later, Théo also died in 1891, perhaps of the same mysterious illness that plagued the life of his brother. He left behind his brother’s legacy, hundreds of paintings and drawings, and hundreds of letters, dating from 1872. It was the widow of Théo, who acquired unwanted works of art spread out among family and acquaintances, bringing them together along with the many works Vincent had shipped to his art dealer brother.  Vincent conceived of an arrangement wherein his brother supported him, as his dealer, and he painted and sent the paintings to Théo.  The result of this quasi-professional relationship was a large collection, almost complete, of the oeuvre of Vincent van Gogh.

Upon Théo’s death, the task of safeguarding his life and works fell to his widow, Johanna and her two-year-old boy, Vincent Wilhelm.  The collection of paintings was shown in part at a memorial show sponsored by Emile Bernard in 1891, who followed Vincent’s instructions on how to hang paintings, “…to place a color scale of yellow next to a scale of blue, a scale of green next to a red, etc…”  Although Théo’s planned show at Durand-Ruel did not take place, the following year there was an exhibition at Bernheim-Jeune Galleries in 1892, and later a large scale retrospective in 1905 at the Salon des Indépendants.  Leighton points out that Johanna did not want the audience to get the work mixed up with the artist’s tragic life, her mourning for her husband became entangled in the atmosphere of sadness that enveloped Vincent’s paintings.  But until her death in 1925, the widow carefully dispersed the art works to important collections, elevating the artist’s reputation.  But the romantic legend of the doomed artist remained potent.  During the last few weeks of his life, Vincent van Gogh wrote, “I am risking my own life for it and my reason has half-foundered because of it…”

Influence on Later Artists

 

More than any other Post-Impressionist, Vincent van Gogh developed a personal style that set the younger generation free from the late Naturalism of Impressionism.  Without sentimentalizing the artist or committing the “pathetic fallacy,” and using van Gogh’s own words, it can be stated that the artist combined nature and human feeling.  The interjection of the subjective is what made him so attractive to Aurier and the later Expressionists, weary of the pretense of objectivity.  Vincent’s response to observed nature was personalized through formal means, line and color. The powerful color became subdued and subordinate to line, which took over and assumed the role of expressing the turmoil of life that is always growing, always moving and changing.  But nature is never expressive only of Vincent van Gogh; it always expresses itself through an artist immersed in its plays and forces, attuned to all its rhythms (“Cypress, Crescent Moon” (1889).  The combination of formal aspects of painting turned up to a high pitch and an adherence to the real and the visible laid the foundations for Twentieth-century Expressionism in France and Germany.

Nature was a world in motion, animated, almost convulsed, and painted in a state of ecstasy and involvement.  This always-animated nature was perhaps best expressed in his “Starry Night” (1889), which was both an illustration of an actual astronomical event and an expression of the striving of humans to reach upward to the sublime through nature.  Line and color became symbolic or metaphorical, and above all, arbitrary.  Although his colors were based upon actual hues, van Gogh intensified the tones, making them darker, brighter or lighter.  “Color, by itself, expresses something,” van Gogh insisted. In Paris, he had acquired knowledge of alternative techniques of painting and made contact with members of the avant-garde, but beneath the veneer of his version of the pointillist technique laid his innate intense response to nature that overrode color theory in the intense desire to express not himself but organic activity.  Immediately before his death, van Gogh’s paintings were characterized with a new pathos, as his powerful brushstrokes seemed explosive and uncontained as though seeking an anguished release (“Church at Auvers-sur-Oise,” 1890).  The contribution of Vincent van Gogh was to free painting of the Impressionist passivity and to activate the artist and the way in which an artist should paint.  Marks ceased to stand for something material and began to imply an immaterial, even spiritual, element, reaching beyond nature.  The artist wrote, “I see in the whole of nature, for instance in the trees, expression, and, so to speak, soul.”

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Impressionism and the Art Market

IMPRESSIONISM AND THE QUESTION OF CAPITALISM

“Great art,” Honoré Balzac wrote, “is impossible without large fortunes, without secure and private means.”  Emile Zola also bowed to the power of money, saying, “…money has emancipated the writer; money as created modern letters…One must accept without regret or childishness, one must recognize the dignity, the power and the justice of money….”  Although Bohemia is often associated with starving artists, dying in unheated attic garrets, thanks to Henri Murger’s La Bohème, the most successful artists and writers were protected from poverty by money. This fact flies in the face of the myth of the avant-garde, which supposedly insisted on separating art from money.  At first the accepting attitude of supposedly avant-garde artists towards money may seem hypocritical, but their stance towards the financing of art making is more nuanced.  Money, in fact, makes art free from depending upon the traditional patrons, the church and the state.  Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet were eager to sell their art, but both were afforded (pun intended) artistic freedom due to the independent wealth of their families.  What the avant-garde artists sought were old-fashioned patrons, such as the enlightened elites of the Renaissance or like those sophisticated aristocrats who vanished with the French Revolution.

Impressionist Exhibitions: Revolution in the Art Market

During the period of Realism, the Salon still dominated and controlled access to success.  The inability of this system to accommodate the ever-larger number of candidates can be measured by the growth and development of an independent artist-dealer system. The more money the avant-garde artist possessed, the more this artist could explore alternatives to a Salon jury, dedicated to maintaining the status quo.  Both Courbet and Manet attempted one person shows during their careers on the occasion of the two Expositions Universelles in 1855 and 1867. Both artists financed their entrepreneurial ventures privately, but the time wasn’t right for the artist to attempt to show outside of the Salons.  Even though the public could not grasp the radical gestures or the radical art, Manet’s followers could.  And in 1874 the “Impressionists” held their first group exhibition.  Like Courbet and Manet, this younger generation was seeking the open-minded vanguard collector and the dealer who was willing to take a chance on contemporary art and new artists.

Those individuals had already emerged, Louis Martinet’s gallery daringly showed Manet’s radical works for public viewing before the Salon of 1863 and a decade later, Paul Durand-Ruel, made two separate trips to Manet’s studio and purchased a large number of works.  It was to this dealer that the Impressionists turned.  But the group followed in the footsteps of Courbet and Manet and organized their own exhibitions.  But there are significant differences between Manet and his followers.  First, Manet never wanted to break free of the Salon.  It was there, he contended, that the real battles took place.  If he was referring to the argument between the ancients and the moderns in the Salon, Manet was correct.  But the Impressionists found that when they attempted to assault this citadel, they were constantly pushed back, rejected by the juries.  Unlike Manet and Courbet, the Impressionists could not find an opportunity to get publicity or notoriety—-no Salon of 1849, juried by artists, no Salon des Refusés, only invisibility. The other difference was that the Impressionists were not wealthy.  Although Cassatt and Morisot were financially secure, as was Caillebotte, the rest were working class (Renoir) or lower middle class (Monet, Pissarro) or middle class (Sisley) or dependent upon an unwilling parent (Cézanne). Quite simply they needed to make money, and because they had traveled too far from official art to please the art pubic, they had to appeal to the mythical collector who was willing to buy avant-garde art.

Some historians place the beginning of the avant-garde at this point in time with the conscious attempt on the part of the Impressionists to exhibit independently and to enter into the emerging art market under the protection of dealers. The avant-garde artists, from this time on, were considered to be ahead of their time and ahead of the public who were incapable of understanding advanced and experimental art.  During the Nineteenth century, these avant-garde French artists challenged several hierarchies.  To begin with the Salon’s ruling power was undermined, if only by the appearance of new opportunities of exhibition in the art galleries. The rise of the dealer system meant the end of the power of the Academic jury, for the artist could go elsewhere and appeal directly to the public.  The Academy and its supporters were fighting a loosing battle by the end of the end of the century, but this “death” was long in being realized.  By the Twentieth century, the traditional academic Salon system had splintered into three separate exhibition entities.

Impressionist Exhibitions: Revolution in Display

It was the Exposition artistique des oeuvres refusées, May 15, 1873, which convinced the Impressionists that they had to find another way to show their art.  The alternative to the official salon was due to numerous protests at jury rejections.  It was history repeating itself, a decade later and the Impressionists were convinced that the Salon jury would never liberalize.  Led by Edgar Degas, an arch trouble-maker, the various and sundry followers of Manet came together thanks to a suggestion by Pissarro, as an independent exhibiting group, a joint stock company of artists.  Their founding charter originally named the Impressionists as the Société anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc., as of December 27, 1873.   The first attempt to gain public recognition and to capture the attention of adventurous collectors took place on April 15, 1874.  Titled the Première exposition de la Société anonymne des artists, peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc., the exhibition included Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas, Morisot, Pissarro, Béliard, Guillaumin, Lepic, Levert, and Rouart.   The exhibition opened two weeks before the Salon to avoid association with Salon des Refusés.

The group exhibited in the rooms, which had been recently vacated by the portrait photographer, Nadar, on the Boulevard des Capucines, near the studio of the inventor of the carte-de-visite, Disderi—photography territory.  Renoir’s brother painted the walls a dark russet red to replicate the domestic interiors of possible buyers.  Degas’ friend, the American artist, James Whistler, had developed a new way of showing paintings—on the eye line, rather than salon style, and the works were arranged in alphabetical order. Working in London, Whistler had revolutionized gallery installation by creating, first, an upscale interior setting, the kind that might be found in the home of an art collector and second, a total work of art.  The entire décor was color-coordinated with the paintings on view, from the color of the walls, to the upholstery on the chairs, to the color of the servants’ livery.  The artists were, in fact, showing the buyers how to hang their purchases, utilizing the display techniques of the department store: entice and educate.

Another innovation of the exhibition was the refusal of the artists to accept the traditional frames for paintings with their Baroque carving and gaudy gilding.  These innovations, which we take for granted today were, in fact, rebukes to the Salon system.  First, by showing the paintings on one line, the Impressionists eliminated the hierarchy of judgment where the least favored entries were “skied,” or hung too high to be viewed.  Second, the frames were plain, simple and often white, drawing attention to the elements inside the frame and on the canvas itself.  In 2006, Leo Carey wrote an interesting article “Frame Game” for the New Yorker Magazine and names Degas and Pissarro as the leaders in frame innovation. Carey pointed out that Pissarro thought the gilt frames “stank of the bourgeois.” According to Carey,

White frames quickly became associated with Impressionism. The Salon, the dominant institution in French art at the time, made conservative stipulations abut how works should be presented and in this context, white frames were a radical departure.

Some Impressionists, searching for an alternative to gold, developed framing styles rooted in the same scientific thinking that inspired their paintings.  Many of them were influenced by the notion of “complementary colors” advanced by Michel Eugène Chevreul…Mary Cassatt mounted her pictures in red and green frames, not a single one of which survives…In the third Impressionist exhibition, Pissarro and Degas both put their pictures in plain white frames…although most of the Impressionists used white frames at one time or another, not more than a handful exist today…none of Pissarro’s frames have survived.

Carey described an attempt made at MoMA to replicate one of Pissarro’s frames:

The immediate impression was that of informality.  The expanse of wood in the sides of the frame implied something rustic.  The bright white strip next to the canvas picked up the color of white-washed houses in the middle distance, and the shallow step in the wooden section drew the eye inward, guiding it through the trees to the roofs beyond.

The Impressionists made no compromises in their art or in the display of their art but did attempt to accommodate the public with the hours the gallery was open, from 10 a. m. to 6 p. m. for those who were free during the day and, for those who were not, from 8 p. m. to 10 p. m.  The hours and the availability of the art did little to placate the viewers who were repelled and amused and complained of the lack of “finish.” The artists were rightly perceived to be rebelling against the expected norms, but wrongly accused of being political rebels.   The connection between art and politics was to be expected during this period, perhaps explaining why the Impressionists’ content was so carefully apolitical and un-provocative.   The artists were aiming for the living room, the drawing room, and the dining room of middle class interiors, as the small to medium sized canvases attest.   Despite the openness to the art audience, the Impressionists were not really reaching out to the conservative spectator in search of sensation. Their real audience was the art dealers.  The Impressionists continued to exhibit, looking for the art market.

Impressionist Exhibitions: Revolution in Definition of Artist

These exhibitions mark another rupture with the Salon, namely, a concerted attempt to break the power of the Salon as an exhibition venue and to end the importance of the Academy as a place of learning.  First, the Impressionists challenged the monopoly of the Salon through the artist-dealer system, then in its infancy.  Rather than depend upon Salon juries, the Impressionists depended upon their dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, often begging him for money.  When times were good, Durand-Ruel could sell the work; but when times were bad, everyone suffered.  Durand-Ruel had little luck with French buyers who remained staunchly opposed to everything avant-garde, but he did quite well with wealthy Americans who wanted to purchase everything “French.” Americans did not distinguish between Bouguereau and Renoir and would feely buy both artists.  Although the new system was subject to economic ups and downs of the external market, the idea of the artist being supported by a sympathetic dealer, selling to sensitive and brave collectors would prove to be an attractive one, both to dealers and to artists.

The second bastion to fall was the bastion of education. The Impressionists were, for the most part, untrained. Only Cassatt and Degas possessed the required academic training. Monet studied informally under Eugène Boudin, Renoir spent some time in the atelier of Charles Gleyre.  Most of the Impressionists artists had some kind of formal training, but academic rules were of little use to artists who painted colored light or who painted modern life.  The Impressionists opened the door for other self-taught artists with their own ideas about how to make art. The rigors and strictures of the academy had limited value and few of the major artists of the 20th century had that kind of training.  Matisse, for example, studied in the atelier of a very permissive and experimental master, Gustave Moreau.  Picasso studied under his father whom he surpassed when he was still a child.  In fact, academic training would not return as a “requirement” to be an artist until the 1950s, almost one hundred years after the Impressionists upended the rulebook.

Impressionist Exhibitions

The Second Exhibition took place in 1876 and by the Third Exhibition of 1877, that artists officially adopted name “Impressionist.”  However, this term was pejorative and the Fourth Exhibition of 1879 was called “Independent” on the suggestion of Degas as a more neutral term. Gustave Caillebotte and Mary Cassatt who would be of crucial help to the artists joined the group.  Cassatt, who was a wealthy American, knew many others of her kind and she advised her friends to buy the contemporary art of her colleagues.  Caillebotte took over from Degas as the prime organizer and also acted as the major funder for subsequent exhibitions.

By the time of the Fifth Exhibition of 1880, Renoir had found patrons and was a successful portraitist and Monet had drifted away.  Pissarro’s student, Paul Gauguin, joined Degas and his friends, including Morisot, who showed at every exhibition. But for Sixth Exhibition of 1881, the veterans abstained and many of the exhibitors were newcomers, who were divided from the “pure Impressionists,” such as Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, and Morisot.  The Seventh Exhibition of 1882, was noteworthy for the return of the “pure Impressionism,” or pure outdoor painting and color experimentation and broken brush work, in contrast to the Eighth Exhibition of 1886 when Degas and associates returned and were joined by a new generation, Redon, Signac and Seurat.  The exhibition of 1886 was to be the last, ending a remarkable run of shows for a group that held together quite well, given that artists’ groups were a new concept.

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The Barbizon School

THE BARBIZON SCHOOL AND LANDSCAPE PAINTING

On the edge of the Forest of Fountainebleau—once the hunting domain of French kings—lay the tiny village of Barbizon. As Paris grew more and more urbanized, its inhabitants yearned for a taste of the country and the Forest became a popular weekend tourist attraction. By mid-century guides to the forest trails had been published, taking the hikers on a proscribed and safe route through the ancient trees.  Nature no longer existed in the city and had to be visited, not only by weary city-dwellers but also byphotographers, such as, Charles Marville and Gustave Le Gray, and by painters who sought a true and real “nature,” not the rarified nature of Poussin or Lorraine.  As early as 1836, the painter Theodore Rousseau settled in the village in order to paint “pure” landscapes, meaning landscapes without narrative or metaphorical figures.  From the standpoint of the Academy, landscapes were then considered an inferior category of art.  It was no accident that landscape painting emerged as a popular subject in reaction to the encroachment of industry.  The Forest now belonged to the people, who explored the terrain of French kings, democratizing the natural.  This combination of feelings of nostalgia and an ownership of “nature,” there was a growing bourgeois audience for plain, down-to-earth pictures that would look well in a prosperous middle class interior.

The “School”

 

Theodore Rousseau, the first major artist to take up residence, was soon joined by Camille Corot, Jean-François Millet, Narcisse Diaz, Constant Troyon, and Charles Daubigny.  Here, in the rustic landscape, the artists could indulge their longing for solitude and communion with nature.  At the end of Romanticism, the painters shared in the pantheistic admiration for Nature but observed their forest domain with the passion for observation that would become one of the leading tenets of Realism.  The name of the Barbizon School came from a small town in the forest and a popular inn, which was an informal gathering place of artists and their followers, such as a young Pierre Renoir. The landscape paintings without narration established important precedents for the Impressionists. In common with the Realists, the Barbizon artists were determined to forget previously learned academic formulas and replaced painterly rhetoric with a devotion to nature and heeded Millet’s advice to “keep in mind virgin impressions of nature.” For the painters, Barbizon was a new Arcadia, a place where art that belied the fact of industrialization could be made in this wooded place.  The area surrounding the village of Barbizon served as a latter day Roman Campagna.  The artists turned away from the melancholia of modern life and sought release in the rural past, seeing the great trees and the peaceful peasants as evidence of timeless values and their idealized vision of life in the past.

By the 1860s, the Barbizon School painters began to achieve success under the careful guidance of their dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, one of the pioneers of the new artist-dealer system.  Constant Tryon actually won the coveted Legion of Honor and many medals in the Salon.  Daubigny, in fact, became a member of the Salon jury and aided in the acceptance of the fledgling Impressionists to the 1869 Salon. But when Monet, who was singled out for the rancor of the jury was excluded, Daubigny resigned his position, along with Corot. Diaz came to the aid of Renoir and set up an account for the improvised artist, enabling him to buy brighter colors. Daubigny and his colleague from Le Harvre,Louis Eugène Boudin(Monet’s tutor), were the only landscape painters of their era to work directly from nature–plein air painting.  Although the Barbizon School artists painted en plein air, the works were completed in the studio.  Nevertheless, their paintings were routinely attacked as “rough drafts” because they juxtaposed spots of color, a technique used by Delacroix, rather than blending colors into a seamless fusion of teints.  By 1865, the members of the Barbizon School were referred to as “impressionists,” a term that had a long academic history.

Pure Landscape

 

Landscape—pure landscape—received academic sanction in the Salons only by 1817, but the theoretical principles of pure landscape painting had been laid by 1800 by Pierre-Henri Valenciennes.  Valenciennes claimed that landscape painting was a distinct branch of art and was not subordinate in the academic hierarchy.  He established two kinds of landscape painting: rural, representations of nature as it was; and paysage historique, nature as it ought to be. The rural, or picturesque, landscape would evoke an emotional response, while the historic landscape provided the opportunity for an intellectual appraisal. The work of Valenciennes was continued by his pupil, J. B. Deperthes, who wrote Théorie de paysage (1818) and claimed that landscape painting should be ranked second only to history painting.  Landscape, insisted Deperthes, had a greater social value because, unlike history painting, which was accessible only to the educated, paintings of the countryside could be appreciated by the masses. Like Valenciennes, Deperthes advised the study of landscape in the open air (en plein air) so that the artist could achieve a “general effect” of the view.  Dutch and Flemish masters and Claude, he said, should be studied for their compositions and use of light.

As the Nineteenth Century progressed and, with it, industrialization, theoreticians felt that only in rural settings could there be a relationship between the artist and nature. Under Romanticism, all of the advanced painters began to use landscape as a carrier of their emotions and as the bearer of artistic experiments. Despite the insistence of the Academy of the inferiority of the genre, there was a Prix de Rome landscape competition and students were encouraged to sketch from nature and to sketch from memory. By 1806, Holland was under French “protection,” and Dutch artists were sent to study in Rome and the Dutch tradition with its emphasis on genre and landscape, was incorporated into the French system.  It should be noted that the works most admired by the French landscape painters were the least admired by the Seventeenth century Dutch buyer.  Dutch landscape paintings and seascape paintings were mass-produced, painted quickly for the sake of volume.  They sold cheaply on the open market and were considered to be of lesser quality, compared to the carefully painted and minutely observed still lives.

Nevertheless, the low horizon lines of Dutch landscapes and the quick sketchy quality that gave the scenes so much vitality were greatly admired by the French artists, especially the Impressionists.   The Barbizon artist, Troyon found his preferred subject in Holland, where he saw the paintings of the famous painter of Dutch cows, Paulus Potter.   Following the Nineteenth century taste for animal painting, Troyon became, along with Rosa Bonheur, one of the most famous depicters of French animals.  During the Second Empire, the arch conservative Comte Nieuerkerke abolished the landscape competition in 1863, but it was reestablished in 1869 with the Prix Troyon, sponsored by the artist’s mother after his death.

Plein-air Techniques

By mid-century, when the painters began to move to the village of Barbizon, an appreciation for sketches in natural settings had grown up among collectors.   This appreciation for the first thoughts of the artist was an outgrowth of Romanticism and the idea of the artist as a “genius,” whose mere marks were to be savored and revered.  An entire vocabulary grew up around the stages of creation, from sketch to finished work of art.   The “impression” was the first take, the original sketch, which was greatly valued by collectors in the Romantic period as evidence of first thoughts of the artist and of the authenticity of his genius.  The fact that there were so many terms for this quick impression, effet, ébauche, and équisse, indicates the growing importance of the preliminary works.  In contrast to the quick impression, the étude was a study of light and shade, and Corot first to accept the étude as primary work of art.  The etude was a study of valeur or of the total surface quality.  Another term for this kind of preliminary work was the pochade, or study, meaning a self-contained work of art focusing on dark and light values.

Making preliminary sketches in situ, or on site, was followed by actually painting out of doors, en plein air. Being able to paint out of doors was due to the invention of the small portable easel and of portable paints in tubes, around 1840.  Until that period, paint was made by hand, with pigments ground by the artist who could “feel” green or blue and the different tactile qualities of each pigment.  But in 1836, a company, Blot, offered the first machine ground colors for sale.  The artists were now liberated from the studio and from the tyranny of layering transparent colors.   These new pigments were opaque colors, in contrast to the transparent colors and traditional glazes, pioneered by the Flemish artists of the Renaissance.  The artists employed poppy seed oil, which created a smooth, buttery surface, and, rather like cake frosting, retained the marks of the brush.  The artists now used a kind of paint that was slow drying, creating a wet-on-wet technique.  They loaded their brushes or used the palette knife to slather the creamy paint, which had been stiffened with additives, beef and mutton tallow, onto the canvas.

The “ground” of the mid-century canvas would have been dark.  The combination of the use of tar based bitumen, for the ground of  “brown sauce,” led to darkening and cracking over time; and the additives to the paint, led to yellowing over time.  We cannot know what Courbet’s original works looked like, but his use of thick paint and the palette knife, intensified his identification with the laborer and the sensuous “realism” of his surface.   Courbet’s impasto indicated a lack of elevated moral tone and a lack of rational picture conventions, reducing his paintings to a raw imitation of nature.  In other words, his paintings were too materialistic, too marked as paintings, as nature. For “art” to be “art,” the object had to rise above nature, an elevation signaled by the slick or “licked” finish.    The sheer physicality of the portable and convenient paint would have prevented the appropriate fini, or “finish,” referring to the quality of surface.  The acceptable fini was smooth as enamel, as seen in the highly crafted paintings of Ingres.  But the new kind of paint ushered in a new kind of finish.

The otherwise inoffensive paintings of the Barbizon School were attacked by the critics on many grounds, not the least of which was the manner of applying paint.  Delacroix would later be admired by a new generation of artists, who would call themselves, “divisionists,” because he divided his colors and applied them separately.  Delacroix would lay red and green next to each other to intensify the colors and make them visually vibrate.   The idea of laying down paint in touches or as a tache, a patch, or a local tone that was not blended was continued by the Barbizon artists.  To work with tones and divided colors was to eschew traditional chiaroscuro or the strong contrast between lights and darks. Chiaroscuro was an Academic aesthetic ideal, which carried an ideological meaning of following traditional ways.  This academic chiaroscuro was a studio chiaroscuro artificially constructed by the cool north light, created under controlled conditions, which allowed an ideal of demi-teints or half-tones.  To reject studio chiaroscuro for the light and colors of nature in situ was to reject high ideals of painting and the established conventions of academic art.

Impact of the Barbizon School

The Barbizon School was most important as a precursor to the Impressionists and as a part of a growing number of “outsider” artists.  The “outsiders” were either half-trained, like Courbet, or chose to position themselves apart from the mainstream.  They explored new subject matter and new ways of painting.  Some were in search for a “truth” or “sincerity,” others were seeking a way to be “modern.”  Although Deperthes had urged for artists to look for the “picturesque,” fifty years later, such charm and quaintness was out of date.  The cloud studies of John Constable were better role models than his paintings of village life.   The cloud studies of Eugène Delacroix were more interesting than his dramatic content.  “Studies” were connected to the idea of scientific study of nature, required a quick and objective eye, that looked without hierarchy. The emotional landscapes of the Romantic artists were set aside for the unassuming quick sketches of pieces of nature.  The Barbizon School found “humble” subjects in ordinary landscapes, rendered without uplifting narration or romantic symbolism.   The nostalgia of the past and the tourism of the guidebooks were ignored in favor of recording a nature, which was as old as France itself, using a new way of painting.

The impact of the Barbizon School was by no means confined to Paris.  Tachistes referred to artists who favored the new “patch” style of painting.  The Macchiaioli, or the Italian “spot painters,” met at the Café Michelangelo, where Edgar Degas and James Tissot would join them. The Macchiaioli formed as a group as early as 1859, and the members of the group admired Corot, Troyon, Decamps, and the Barbizon School.  The Italians were opposed to the Italian establishment, which, of course, followed the precepts of the Academy. Insisting on the need to be contemporary and unpretentious, they referred to the classical tradition with coglionèlla or derision. Led by Telemaco Signorini and Diego Martelli and the journalist and theorist, Giovanni Fattori, the Italian painters simplified the distribution of light and shade into contrasting spots, which they referred to as macchie.  The Italian artists lived in a nation that was locked in the past, but France was changing from year to year and the idea of “nature” changed as well, from a forest to suburban pleasure grounds.  It would take twenty years for the lessons of Courbet, Manet, the Italian artists, and the Barbizon School to come to fruition in the Impressionists, who made their debut in 1874, clearly showing the intersection between modernity and nature.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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Podcast Episode 7: The Academy and the Avant-Garde

THE ACADEMY AND THE AVANT-GARDE IN FRANCE

The artists of the French Academy and the artists of the French avant-garde are often presented as being protagonists, but, in fact, each group defined itself in terms of the other.  The French Academy was the bastion of the establishment, of rules and regulations and of order.  The avant-garde bohemians were the original outsider artists, misfits without credentials, who were able to break the rules of art and change the course of art.  But the Academy absorbed and co-opted and softened the concepts and techniques of the avant-garde artists, making the “radical” changes acceptable to the general public.

The model for the Academy as the purveyor for “official” art, approved by the State, which supported the system of art schools, was followed by other nations. England had its own Royal Academy, Germany had its academies, even Spain and America had an Academy. The struggles between the forces of the Academy or the status quo and the Avant-Garde or change were fought mostly in Paris and London. There were several reasons for the quarrels between the older and young generations. First, there were questions of style, centered mostly in painting—how to paint, second, there were issues of content—what subject matter was appropriate for public consumption, and third, by the second half of the nineteenth century, there were economic conditions.

Arbitrary academic restrictions on art, censorship by the state on artists became an economic restraint of trade. As Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, there were simply too many aspirants for too few positions in the Academic system and the so-called avant-garde artists were those artists who, for reasons of style or content or both, could not find success within  the existing establishments. It would be these artists, pushed into the position of being Refusées, who would seek out new means of exhibiting, displaying and selling their “outsider art.”

 

 

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