From the first attempts to the “Salon des refusés” of 1863
Until then, each of these artists had admired on the one hand the masters of the Barbizon school, J.-F. Millet, C. Corot and Ch.-F. Daubigny, who were trying to give the illusion (but painting in a studio) of the “plein air”, and on the other hand the realism of Courbet, the painter from Ornans whom some of them would have known personally. Near Honfleur, E. Boudin and J. Jongkind were already painting “sur le motif” and were attentive to the variations of light on the beaches of Normandy. It will be precisely Boudin who will urge Monet, in the years following 1858, to paint exclusively “en plein air”, stating that “three strokes from life are worth more than two days of work at the easel. From him Monet inherited the passion for the view of the sea beaches, which became fashionable following the development of tourism and he strove (clearing, at the same time, his palette) not to dissociate the preparatory study from the final outcome of the painting, so that the canvas retained the freshness of improvisation.
To remain faithful to the “impression” was the imperative of the moment: already in 1863, therefore ten years before the famous exhibition, the critic J.-A. Castagnary observed about Jongkind: “In him, everything resides in the impression”; and in 1865 he designated Daubigny as the “master of the impression”. And much earlier, at the Salon of 1847, Th. Thoré-Burger observed that the purpose of painting is “to communicate to others the impression made by the artist in the presence of nature”. Another commitment is to paint the figure “en plein air”. Courbet (who preferred to have an ox brought to his studio rather than go and paint it directly in the fields) had tried the experiment, but always without going out into the open air (Demoiselles des bords de la Seine, 1856. Paris, Mus. d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris); and so had Manet in Music at the Tuileries (1860-61, London, Nat. Gal.).
Destined between ’60 and ’70 to play, in spite of himself, that revolutionary role that Courbet had played ten years earlier, Manet (who, according to what Mallarmé reports, often repeated: “The eye, a hand”, thus summarizing with extraordinary conciseness the intimate relationship between perception and pictorial gesture) will polarize on himself the malicious attention of critics and the hilarity of the public at the “Salon des refusés” of 1863, where he exhibited Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Paris, Louvre); From this work, any mythological reference to Giorgione’s Country Concert had been excluded, in homage to “modernity”, the myth exalted by Baudelaire around the middle of the century.
In order to be recognized, it was necessary, at that time, to exhibit at the Salon, but access to it involved the “filter” of a jury that feared the political scope of realism and insisted on defending a hierarchy of genres, in which landscape occupied the last place. Since more than 4000 works were rejected in 1863, arousing a strong discontent in artistic circles, Napoleon III (fresh buyer of the corny Venus by Cabanel) established the “Salon des refusés” in opposition to the official Salon. There exhibited, in addition to Manet, Fantin-Latour, Guillaumin, Jongkind, Cézanne, Pissarro, Whistler, Bracquemond.
From 1863 to the first group exhibition of 1874 New scandal will arouse, at the Salon of 1865, Manet’s Olympia (Paris, Louvre), judged too “impudent”, while the young independents saw in it a manifesto. (And perhaps it was for this very reason that Monet later opened a subscription to make this painting a gift to the Louvre).
Meanwhile, other friends were converting to painting “sur le motif” (Monet’s Women in the Garden, 1867 Paris, Louvre, influenced Bazille’s The Family Reunion, 1867-69, Paris, Louvre). At the Café Guerbois, where the “bande à Manet” met at this time, new ideas were being worked out. Dominated the cenacle two writers: L.-E. Duranty, already a defender of realism (in 1856 he had founded the magazine of the same name) and a close friend of Degas, and Zola, who had the task of giving theoretical consistency to the meetings.
In the group shone Degas with fierce jokes against the landscape painters, also attended the Café Guerbois Cézanne, although in 1867 he was still a tributary of Romanticism and painted in full brushstroke (The Rape (London, private collection). Pissarro, who sometimes still signed himself “Corot’s pupil” and painted in the region of Pontoise (The Hermitage of Pontoise, 1867, London, private collection), was a frequent visitor, as was Renoir, who devoted himself to “plein air” in the forest of Fontainebleau.
These meetings at the Café Guerbois will give the group a certain cohesion, and in the paintings painted side by side by Renoir and Monet in 1869, at the famous baths of the Grenouillère on La Seine, Paris near Bougival, we can see the first paintings fully exemplifying what will be Impressionism; the accent is placed on the vibration of the reflections on the water, the touches are elongated, dense of matter, juxtaposed respecting the alternation of light and dark areas, while the light unites figures and landscape in a single atmosphere.
At the moment when the research was taking shape (cite Pissarro again; The Stagecoach at Louveciennes, 1870, Paris, Musée d’Orsay), the Franco-Prussian war broke out. Nourished, at least some of them, by ideas of opposition, by the republican and humanitarian spirit that had spread in the years preceding the conflict, exasperated by conventionalism and by official doctrines (defended by the Salons and, indirectly, by power), they developed the conviction that the war affected a society to which they did not belong and even that it could determine a perhaps even healthy break. Only Bazille enlisted immediately and died in combat. Renoir was called to arms in spite of himself; Degas and Manet waited to enlist at the fall of the empire; Cézanne retired to Estaque; Monet left Le Havre and moved to London, where he found Pissarro, Sisley and Daubigny, who introduced them to Paul Durand-Ruel, the art dealer whose name will remain indissolubly linked to that of Impressionism.
In London Monet and Pissarro discovered Constable and Turner’s magical light (Rain, steam, speed, 1843, London, National Gallery). Modern theme par excellence, the railroad will interest Pissarro (The stop at Penge; Upper Norwood, 1871, London, Courtauld Institute of Art), and later all the Impressionists, especially Monet (La Gare Saint-Lazare series, 1896-97).
Around 1872 they all found themselves in Paris, now preferring the Nouvelle Athènes to the Café Guerbois. In the meantime, Monet had moved to Argenteuil; he lived there for six years, receiving frequent visits from Renoir from Paris and Sisley from Louveciennes (Argenteuil Square, 1872, Paris, Musée d’Orsay). As Cézanne and Guillaumin in turn met with Pissarro in the vicinity of Pontoise, the two groups that had formed ten years earlier at the Atelier Gleyre and the Académie Suisse were partially reconstituted. The two leaders, Monet and Pissarro, were now masters of the new technique. While Cézanne tried, along with Pissarro, to assimilate the Impressionist lesson, Monet and Renoir renewed the experience they had lived in 1869 at La Grenouillère working alongside each other.
In The Duck Pond, 1873 (Renoir’s exemplar in Roquebrune, Coll. Reves; Monet’s in Paris, private collection) and Sails at Argenteuil, 1873-74 (Monet’s exemplar in Paris, Louvre; Renoir’s in Portland, Oregon, Art Mus.) each intensity of color, each change of light, are rendered through minute “comma” touches. Thanks to Monet’s influence on the whole group, Manet himself in 1874 painted outside Paris his Monet working in his bàteau atelier in Argenteuil, 1874 (Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen). Only Degas (who, however, had also applied himself in 1869 to landscape painting from life) remained essentially tied to the city (The Dance Redoubt at the Opera, 1872; The Box, 1874, both in Paris, Louvre) and left Paris only to make sketches of racing courses, then transposing them onto canvas in the atelier. But he too, concerned with the “rendering” of light, was able to draw excellent effects from the artificial lighting, now violent now softened, of the scene, using both a game of fading colors and a sort of light dust, and new technical procedures (tempera, pastel, monotype, etc..). Monet’s painting underwent a further evolution in 1873-74 (The Poppies, 1873, Paris, Louvre); and it was a group finally quite homogeneous that founded the “Société anonyme cooperative” and that in 1874 faced the public for the first time. It was a real scandal; the following year the group organized, with catastrophic results, an auction at the Hôtel Drouot.