Impressionism Revisited by Ted Seth Jacobs

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Impressionism Revisited

by Ted Seth Jacobs

Over one-hundred years ago Impressionism appeared on the scene. It is my understanding that it was created as a reaction against the classicist 'Salon' painting of the period, which was endorsed by the state and appreciated by the public. Impressionism claimed to show the seen world more truly, in a less artificial and stylized manner. It also was supposed to bring painting out of the studio and into the open air of the outdoors. It usually preferred to celebrate everyday life and the pleasures of real middle-class people, rather than to draw its subjects from mythology, historical episodes from the past or other escapes from everyday reality. The contemporaneous Naturalist movement, on the other hand, painted down-to-earth laboring people and the suffering poor.

The Impressionists found it necessary to create a style of drawing, a treatment of light and a range of colors — a "palette" — that was different from Academic norms, and better matched to the Impressionist conception of visual reality.

Impressionist drawing puts great emphasis on an idiosyncratic outer silhouette, or shaped contour, supposedly drawn more from observation than from preconceived structurally-based forms. To the Academic, Impressionist shapes are odd and unexpected. Compared to the Salon style the Impressionist treatment of the modeling of form through gradations of light is more 'flattened.' Technically speaking, that results in the range of value change between the lightest and darkest tones being narrower and less accentuated than in Academic painting. Traditional painting had a more "rounded" look.

The Impressionists sought a more unexpected compositional arrangement on the canvas, an uncomposed "snapshot" quality. Impressionist subjects are often cut off at the edge of the picture, while academic compositions more often situate the subject as if in the centre of a three-dimensional box-like stage.

Since Impressionism was accepted by the critics, art dealers, and the public, about one hundred years ago, it has been assumed that its value was in creating a more vital, and especially, a truer picture of how the world appears, than did the Academic, or Salon painters.

It is now time to question this assumption. It is time to pose the question, "Does the Impressionist vision of life actually look to us today any more 'real' than Academic Salon or Naturalist painting?"

First, it is necessary to understand that no painting is the same as the reality we see. Paintings always look like paintings. Reality always looks like reality, whatever we decide that is. All so-called 'realistic'pictures are in fact a sort of visual coding based on seen reality. Tonally modulated patches of paint stand for visual effects. This codification functions in a cultural context. The chief of an isolated New Guinea tribe will not recognize himself in a photograph until he is taught to do so. He will not at first realise that the photograph is supposed to represent visual reality. We are more or less unconsciously conditioned to interpret, or decode the painted image as a representation of what we see. Pictures are painted tones on a flat canvas. Visual reality is very different. It is a living process of perception. Of course, the flat colored canvases themselves are included in our visual process, but they are not reproductions of the visual world around us. There is a painted world and a seen world, and they are very different.

Joseph Mallard Turner In fact, each artist creates a visual code that in essence is the expression of that artist's deepest nature. This personal expression is the highest value of art. Velazquez's paintings and people always look like the work of Velazquez . Rembrandt creates a Rembrandt world, with its own Rembrandt light and people. Vermeer paints a recognizably Vermeer world.None of these artists creates an exact reproduction of what we see. John Ruskin made this point very clearly.He was a great admirer of Turner , who was renowned for his depiction of glowing sunsets. Ruskin pointed out the fact that the most brilliant Turner sunset hung in a room would not light up the interior, as would a ray of real sunlight coming in through a window. How could pigments ever match the living visual process? We might also well ask, 'Why should it? What value would it have?' I would like to first emphasize that in this article I am not interested in qualifying one kind of painting as artistically better or worse than another. Numberless styles have been invented over the centuries. The Nineteenth Century alone created a plethora of isms. What I will contend, after more than a century has passed since the appearance of Impressionism, and now that, so to speak, the background noise has quieted and the signal can be better appreciated, is that Impressionism is not more real, more in accord with visual reality than was academic Salon painting, or the work of the Naturalists. Impressionism is very different, but not more real.

It has been said that pleasure in anything decreases with repetition. Many people not only constantly require novelty, but become obsessed with the value of newness and change for their own sakes. "If it's new it must be better." What is new is often more readily saleable. I think it entirely possible that in spite of an initial resistance to the novelty of Impressionism, art dealers understood that as a new mode it could be commercially exploited. Many critics and curators like to feel in the forefront of innovative movements, and promote them. It is possible that the popularity of Impressionism was influenced by these factors, as are new movements today. I believe that instinctively or more consciously, the Impressionists rightly perceived that Academic painting did not look to them like the world they lived in. To me, however, it is very questionable whether their work looks any more true than what they were rebelling against. Impressionism was based on much doctrinaire theorising about the visual process and the nature of light and color. The Impressionists must have been tremendously excited by the new tonalities and way of seeing they had discovered. What was of paramount importance to them was to register these new tones and get them on the canvas. It didn't greatly matter how the paint was applied. This caused the critics of the day to be shocked by what they perceived as the "flatness" of the modelling and the crudeness of the paint application, the finish. To them, reality did not look like rather unmodulated patches of paint. From my realist standpoint, these criticisms are still valid. The "color patch" coding system of the Impressionists may have its beauties, but it hardly corresponds to what we see. At the start, what the critics failed to appreciate was the emergence of a new visual paradigm. Again I must ask, because it was new, was it more real? I do not think so. I have often visited the Quai d'Orsay Museum of Nineteenth-Century art in Paris. At each visit I am struck by how poorly the Impressionists captured the vivacity of outdoor tonalities. They were rightly obsessed by the search for 'Le ton juste.' To my eye, they never found it. The justification for the crudity of their finish would be that they were so absorbed in registering the true colors of the landscape that they couldn't be bothered with the niceties of paint treatment.

What shocks me is the unremitting dullness of their plein air palette. Where are the bright colors of nature, the brilliance of sunshine? They are not in the Impressionists' paintings. What we see in fact is a sort of literary description made of images which show what the artists were looking at — "This was bright green grass, this was dazzling sunlight on the side of a house." Unfortunately, the grass in the painting is not nearly green enough, and the painted sun on the house is dull, without the impact made by real sunlight. Yes, the Impressionists painted a lighter more colorful world than the Academics, but one that is many orders duller and darker than how I would paint it. To me, the Impressionist palette looks like a world seen through a depressive vision. The pictures are, so to speak, telling us that the artists were portraying a joyous world, but they are not rendered in the joyous brilliant tones of nature. We see pictures of charming sunny country and people enjoying themselves, but if we notice that the emperor is not wearing the clothes he is supposed to, what is left is a quite tired, dreary world.

The Impressionists were thrilled to discover the flat shapes and patterns of Japanese prints, and Japonisme became the rage. The Naturalists, however, were equally cognizant of the value of flat outer silhouette shapes, and composed their works using this concept very abstractly and tellingly. One need only look at the work of Jules-Alexis Meunier or Dagnan-Bouveret , and even the composition of Jean-Francois Millet , to understand that an emphasis on shape was not the exclusive province of the Impressionists. For presenting a convincing suggestion of visual reality, I find the drawing of the Naturalists superior to that of almost all the Impressionists. The drawing of some Impressionists is better than others, but most suffer from an oversimplification of forms, and many are patently crude. Manet has a very sure grasp of the general outer shapes of things, but his drawing has none of the exquisite sensitivity and refinement of observation of most Naturalists, as is seen in a good Emile Friant , Dagnan-Bouveret, Bastien-Lepage , or Clausen , to name but a few. These artists were trained to register with great delicacy and strength every slightest turn of the contour, and the most subtle subdivisions of human structures. These they searched out with tenacious attention. The slightest modification of line is lovingly attended to. Manet smoothed these subtleties over into a generalised shape. This gives his figures a slight stiffness, compared with a more supple style of drawing. Manet's people have great solidity, but move somewhat artificially, like dolls. The drawing of Monet is quite elementary and crude compared with the Naturalists, or most Orientalists. Renoir created a soft feathery world of excessively sausage-like forms, rather gracelessly drawn. We must not be confused by his subject-matter, which often portrays feminine graceful people. Here again it is important to distinguish between the literary content and the way it is drawn. It is easy to draw graceful people clumsily. The drawing of Degas has a wonderful elasticity and fluidity of movement, but were he in my class I would correct an excessive and inorganic parallelism in his drawing of human forms.

In conclusion, I don't see how it can be said that Impressionist drawing is truer to life than Academic or Naturalist work, or even necessarily that it is more modern. While it may have other strengths, Manet's oversimplification of contour has much in common with Raeburn's . As I have previously mentioned, I cannot pretend to evaluate one style as superior to another. Frans Hals' flashing brushwork is a brilliant codification of the seen world, but can it be called a more real suggestion of what the eyes see than the smoothly finished pictures of Frans Von Mieris ? Similarly, the pasty texture and lack of finish of much Impressionist painting has its beauties, but it certainly cannot be said to look more real than most Academic pictures. We need to reassess Impressionist painting, and stop valuing it for qualities it does not possess. This will also allow us to better appreciate the virtues of other Nineteenth-Century work, which has been downgraded because it is dissimilar to Impressionism. Impressionism, Academism and Naturalism all have their strengths and weaknesses, but I do not see how Impressionism can be said to be a truer visual suggestion of the world than are other styles. Visit Etretat. It looks nothing like a Monet.