Reply To: Painting
EncycliosOrganizerApril 24, 2023 at 9:14 AM
Painting in the XIX century
In 1830 Jacques-Louis David, an exponent of neoclassical painting, had been dead for five years. In his youth, he had taken part in the revolutionary convention by painting incisive portraits of the martyrs of the revolution (Marat, 1793) and by voting for the abolition of the Académie de peinture et de sculpture, since it was a privileged artistic institution of the old regime. He had therefore voted for Napoleon, celebrating his pomp and empire in a series of large, cold compositions of neoclassical taste. Forced to leave Paris with the Restoration, he died in Brussels. The academy, resurrected as Académie des beaux-arts, distributed prizes, including the coveted Prix de Rome, and presided over the selection of works for the Salon.
Around 1830, the most important personality in this sphere was Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), who had adhered in his youth to Romantic ideals, but soon bent his impeccable qualities as a draughtsman to the rendering of classical themes. With the passing of the years his art, though always permeated with a high spirituality, tends to become more narrow. His artistic career presents close analogies with that of the German Peter Cornelius (1783-1867), who, after a similar debut of romantic rebellion against the conventions of the academy, became its despot between 1830 and 1850. Like Ingres, Cornelius advocated the use of drawing as opposed to color, and preferred precision to speed of execution, and painting of historical, religious or mythological subjects to the themes that young artists were proposing in the name of the new principles.
Who were these young people and what were their aims? They belonged to the generation born at the end of the 18th century, from the painters Théodore Géricault (1791-1824), Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), Camille Corot (1796-1875) to the man of letters Victor Hugo (born 1802) and the musician Hector Berlioz (born 1803). The significance of their revolt is perhaps better known in the literary and musical sphere than in the artistic one. We will limit ourselves to recalling the scandal that followed the premiere of Victor Hugo’s Hernani (1830), as well as the stir that his preface to Cromwell (1827) made, with its exaltation of nature, of variety and inspiration, of violent contrasts, of local color, of the characteristic rather than the beautiful, and of drama as the art-guide of the new times. Even for Berlioz, at the Conservatory, the decade 1820-30 marked a constant revolt. The Waverley overture dates back to 1827, the eight scenes of Faust to 1828-29 and the cantata inspired by the “Death of Sardanapalo” to 1830. This was followed by the sensational “Sinfonia fantastica”, then “Aroldo in Italia”.
Géricault gained fame with The Raft of the Medusa (1819), a cruelly dramatic account of a recent shipwreck with all its horrors duly emphasized. He also painted Epsom Races, cavalry officers on rearing horses, and faces of the insane, portrayed in the Paris asylum with impressive realism. The artist worked with an extreme intensity and tension. The excitement of the brushstroke is matched by the excitement and brevity of his life. Ingres called him an enemy of “good, honest painting” and accused him of corrupting the public’s taste. Eugène Delacroix’s early, major works include Marino Faliero, the Death of Sardanapalo, the Assassination of the Bishop of Liège (from Quentin Durward), a series of lithographs illustrating Faust, the Massacre of Scio, and Liberty Leading the People. Undoubtedly, these French artists active around 1830 drew inspiration from the English and German Romantics, Byron and Scott, and early Goethe, as well as contemporary events.
Among the painters of the nineteenth century Delacroix was the highest genius. His Journal and letters represent an incomparable source of information on the contents of the second romanticism, that of the 1830s, which followed the deeper, grander, more austere and more Christian romanticism of the first three decades of the century. For Delacroix, Rubens was the Homer of painting, a conviction that none of the earlier Romantic painters would share. “Father of color and enthusiasm,” Delacroix called him, fascinated by his “energy that is both instinctive and mental.” And he went on to write, as if speaking at the same time about himself and the character of his art: “He dominates us, he overwhelms us with such freedom and such boldness”. But there are also other passages in his writings that seem to contradict these statements, and express admiration for Mozart, for Racine, for Raphael. There are artists, he wrote, who “do not control their genius but are controlled by it” and others “who follow their natural disposition but are at the same time conditioned by it”. The artist of genius, he wrote elsewhere, knows no rules, while in a much later paper his definition of genius indicates “a man of superior rationality”. This conflict between theory and practice should be emphasized because it is exemplary of nineteenth-century artists: George Gilbert Scott has already been mentioned in this regard. Delacroix experienced success but was never popular, nor did he found a school. His social behavior reflects the same conflict between temperament and ambition. Darkly romantic in appearance, elegant and music-loving, he had a long association with a niece of Empress Josephine and for twenty years aspired to enter the academy. Yet he did not hesitate at the same time to call the public “this stupid flock” and to a friend, who advised him not to exhibit works that were too revolutionary or daring, he replied, “The whole universe could not prevent me from seeing things my way.”
What that way was, his admiration for Géricault and his study of the masterpieces in the Louvre tell us in part. Delacroix took pride in being essentially self-taught, a pride that recurs frequently in painters around mid-century and expresses their distrust of acquired traditions. The decisive event, however, in Delacroix’s formative process was his discovery of Constable’s art, which was present in three paintings at the Salon of 1824. Delacroix exhibited there the Massacre of Scio and shortly before the inauguration repainted several pieces to “open” the surfaces, eliminate all heaviness of modeling and color and give the image that immediacy that Constable had been able to achieve to represent the perennial life of nature. Delacroix’s impetuous and rapid brushwork also dates from that period. “When he placed himself before the canvas,” writes Gautier, “he forgot his classical convictions, his fiery temperament as a painter took over, and he executed one of those vehement and feverish sketches of his in a flash.” Delacroix was the first artist to clearly formulate what had already been Constable’s problem and would later become the key point for the Impressionists: to preserve in the final work the freshness of the first sketches, while endowing it with the completeness that is necessarily lacking in the earlier stages of execution. Delacroix was a dogged worker. “We will work until our last breath,” he wrote at the age of fifty-five. “What remains but to get drunk when the hour comes when reality no longer equals the dream?” His oeuvre is vast and manifold. We have already mentioned the early compositions inspired by romantic literature. “Remember certain passages of Byron if you desire eternal inspiration,” he wrote at the age of twenty-six. Liberty Leading the People, of 1830, represents a rare, but no less significant digression into the actuality of contemporary politics.
After 1830, these digressions ceased and the literary themes became less frequent. The Bible, on the other hand, continued to inspire Delacroix, who was the last artist capable of painting works such as Jacob’s Struggle with the Angel, Christ on the Lake of Genezareth and The Good Samaritan – feats that would have been unthinkable for a younger artist born in the 19th century. Religious themes did not reappear, albeit sporadically, until the end of the century with Gauguin and, in the twentieth century, with Rouault and Nolde. The period around the middle of the nineteenth century did not express a deep religiosity nor great enthusiasm, since it was anchored to a realistic vision of the world. And it is extremely significant in this respect that after 1830 Delacroix himself sought more real and less improbable ideas for the stormy scenes he was planning to paint than those that Byron or the Bible could provide him with. He found them on a trip to Morocco in 1831. What he saw there of ardor and violence, or fantasized about seeing there, provided him with inspiration for the rest of his life: battle scenes with sheiks, slaves and women’s rats, or lion hunts resplendent with touches of ruby red and emerald green on bright brown backgrounds and sudden traces of blue, executed with a vehemence that European painting had not known since Rubens. But the inspirational motifs of Rubens’ themes, such as the Rape of the Sabine Women or the Boar of Caledonia, now took on the appearance of contemporaneity. Thus Delacroix, as early as 1830, was initiating realism.
Realism was the central phenomenon of the nineteenth century and corresponded in the artistic sphere to the great development of science and technology, to the On Origin of Species and the Crystal Palace. In French painting, realism takes many forms, from the lithographs of Paul Gavarni (1804-66), inspired by Parisian life, to the social and political caricatures and vivid oil sketches of Honoré Daumier (1808-79) – the theater (Le drame), a washerwoman with her child, a third-class funeral -, to the very popular genre compositions depicting Louis XV or Louis XVI and the more contemporary battle scenes executed with pedantic precision by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonnier (1815-91), to the limpid enchantment of Corot’s landscapes, and to the high achievements of the painters of Barbizon, in the forest of Fontainebleau.
Camille Corot is another of the nineteenth-century artists who had no masters. “No one has taught me anything,” he will write at the end of his life; “I have struggled alone with nature, and this is the result.” And again, “Nature must be interpreted with naiveté.” It is precisely this naivety, which was one of the most fascinating qualities of the beloved “pére Corot”, that gives his small, simple landscapes of Italy, painted between 1820 and 1830, an inimitable freshness and spontaneity. The only possible comparison is perhaps with the contemporary watercolors of Cotman. The much more famous nymphs of Corot, in glades covered with mist, belong to his later years and are among the many testimonies of that lack of creative tension that characterizes many artists of the nineteenth century. Baudelaire, who was the most sensitive of the art critics of the period between 1840 and 1860, placed Corot “at the head of the modern school of painting”, but with the reservation that if Rousseau had exhibited more, this supremacy might not have held for long.
Théodore Rousseau (1812-67) can be considered the leader of the Barbizon group. His vigorous landscape painting appears clearly influenced by Constable’s. It is not easy to say whether the merit of having tried new ways is due to him or to his older companions of the group. It is certain, however, that they transferred to Europe the results of research carried out in England in the first half of the century, to transmit them in the last three decades to the Impressionists. But more important from the point of view of this review is perhaps Jean-François Millet (1814-75), who also settled in Barbizon in 1849. Millet discovered peasants and field workers in the nineteenth century: no one since Bruegel had looked at them with as much compassion. He did not realize, however, that he was giving them an almost monumental dimension – especially by virtue of the low horizons, which give the figures a more than human stature – often tinging them, for example in the famous Angelus, with excessive sentimentality. Baudelaire was the only critic who acutely warned of this danger: “His peasants are pedants who think too much about themselves…. Even if they are intent on ploughing, sowing, looking after or grazing their animals, they always seem to say: it is we, the poor and disinherited of the earth, who make it fertile. We fulfill a mission, we exercise a priestly vocation.” It is not without significance that Millet was so keen not to be mistaken for a socialist. Proudhon’s Qu’est-ce que la propriété? appeared in 1840, his Philosophie de la misère in 1846; since then artistic realism – that is, the representation of life as it really is – could well join forces with socialism.
This was the case of Gustave Courbet (1819-77), the greatest representative of painting in the second half of the nineteenth century. Delacroix, born more than twenty years earlier, continued to feed the burning fire of Romanticism, Corot his poetry. Courbet, on the other hand, confessed to being “without ideals and without religion”, so much so that he polemically headed his letterhead: “Gustave Courbet, painter, without ideals and without religion”. Courbet is, in painting, the equivalent of the first English buildings of the Victorian era in architecture: vigorous, sure and grossier. “I am the first and only artist of this century,” he said of himself. Of imposing build and endowed with a thunderous laugh, he used to bang his fist on the table to show approval or disapproval and consumed countless glasses of beer while working. He boasted that he never had any other intention with women than to amuse them.
Of his vast production, significant are some overtly pornographic paintings, and many of thoughtful suggestion. In French literature he is akin to the much younger Zola, rather than his contemporary Flaubert. Like most progressive artists of the nineteenth century, Courbet was essentially self-taught; he called himself a “student of nature.” The most significant works of his early maturity, around the middle of the century, deserve special mention. First of all, the Spaccapietre, which the artist executed when he was thirty-one years old; this is his comment: “I have not invented anything. I saw those unfortunates every day while walking.” It is incontestable, however, that although he did not invent, he did modify. In fact, the old man and his young companion appear posed in such a way as to create a certain compositional arrangement, and the pictorial material reveals an undeniable richness and mastery. The effect is of life in its concreteness, with a monumental accent equal to that of Millet, but without patheticism. The Stone Breakers were exhibited at the Salon the same year as the Funeral at Ornans, a large canvas (275 x 640 cm), deliberately elementary in its cut, which shows a crowd of motionless figures, as if petrified. The rendering is extremely realistic. No pity or emotion seems to disturb the bystanders.
The Atelier, a few years later, is about the same size. It constituted the pole of attraction and at the same time the manifesto of the pavillon du réalisme that Courbet created for his own works on the occasion of the Universal Exhibition in 1855. In the center is the artist intent on a canvas depicting a landscape. A peasant boy and an unclothed model, whose clothes lie in disarray on the floor, look at him: for anyone can understand his work. On the left, some of his other models, including a hunter, a poor ragged Irishwoman, a Jew, a mortician, a prostitute; on the right appear Baudelaire, impersonating poetry, Proudhon, depicting socialism and, among others, two couples representing free love and worldly love.
To the same period belong also the Bathers, two voluminous female figures in a thick forest, one of which turns her back to the viewer – “the vulgarity and vacuity of the conception are abominable”, noted Delacroix – also Les demoiselles des bords de la Seine, two young women lazily and voluptuously lying on the riverbank, and The Hammock, where a figure very similar to the previous ones shows a little too much arms and breasts: all works revealing of the painter’s sanguine nature. The direct, vigorous rendering and firmness of the modeling enabled Courbet to realize his program, and at the same time create some of the most powerful landscapes and seascapes of the 19th century. Compared to the rocky gorges of Courbet’s rivers, Corot’s canvases appear insubstantial, and so do Monet’s. But often, especially in the late works in which deer and roe deer appear, the image is compromised by excessive ease of execution and bad taste.
Not compromised enough, however, to miss the success: they are precisely the least valid among the compositions of the artist, in fact, to have achieved celebrity thanks to the many reproductions. Courbet remains the interesting and rare case of a great artist with bad taste. Like some of his nudes, some of his landscapes appear to be painted to arouse easy emotions. He could not understand why Daumier, whom he felt was a brother in revolt, chose to remain in the shadows. When Daumier refused the Legion of Honor in 1870, Courbet happily embraced him, disapproving, however, that the refusal was not done with éclat. Courbet knew how to do everything with éclat: that same éclat that George Gilbert Scott, albeit in the duller and more respectable style that was his own, had bestowed on the St. Pancras station. According to Sainte-Beuve in 1862, Courbet was planning to “transform the great railway stations into new temples of painting, covering their vast walls with thousands of themes… picturesque, moral, inspired by industry…; in other words, the saints and miracles of modern society”.
None of those dreams came true, and we do not possess Courbet’s paintings celebrating industry and commerce. More generally, we can say that the industrial revolution and the era of the railroads left but a faint trace on contemporary painting. Wright of Derby’s blacksmiths are Caravaggesque figures in compositions with strong artificial light. Turner’s Rain, Steam, and Speed (1844) is an atmospheric study, not a social one. The same is true of Karl Blechen’s (1798-1840) The Rolling Mill, an impressionistic sketch, and Adolf Menzel’s (1815-1905) The Berlin-Potsdam Railway (1847). But Menzel was also the first painter of merit who chose a factory interior as his theme. His Rolling Mill, a composition measuring 150 by more than 275 cm, shows a dense atmosphere of steam and smoke under the vast glass roof and workers – not at all monumentalized – grappling with the molten, glowing metal casting. The painting dates to 1875.
Menzel’s career is of great interest from our point of view. Remarkably gifted, the artist reveals Blechen’s influence in his early rapid stroke paintings, characteristic of that German pre-Impressionism which was matched in England by Constable and Bonington: landscapes around Berlin, a church interior with a pastor in the pulpit, or a room with white curtains swollen by the breeze and bathed in sunlight. At the same time, however, Menzel was also working on a series of woodcuts intended to illustrate Kugler’s Geschichte Friedrichs des Grossen (“Life of Frederick the Great”): a work to which he devoted himself with great commitment, gathering all possible information about the many details of Prussian life in the eighteenth century. The engravings, extremely precise and accurate, were so successful that the artist decided to execute some oil compositions inspired by the life of the sovereign. The first of these is dated 1850. Realism and historicism, these constants of the nineteenth century, appear implemented with the utmost rigor. The painting technique is reminiscent of the gallant scenes of Rococo inspiration painted by Meissonnier, a technique that Menzel would pick up in later years for compositions of many figures of contemporary subjects. The dinner after the ball of 1878 and Piazza delle erbe in Verona of 1884 are true tours de force, full of minutely observed and diligently rendered details, but always pleasant because they are devoid of pedantry.
The luminosity of his style, which has its roots in early Impressionism, distinguishes Menzel from the English painter who was closest to him, William Powell Frith (1819-1909). Ramsgate Sands of 1854, Derby Day of 1858, and The Paddington Season of 1862 gave the latter European notoriety, so much so that he could have his name followed by these titles on the title page of his autobiography: “Knight of the Legion of Honor, Member of the Royal Academy of Belgium, Member of the Academies of Stockholm, Vienna, and Antwerp.”
The honors granted in Belgium then enjoyed particular prestige, because Antwerp had become the center of academic art in Europe. It was there, through the work of Wappers (1803-74), Gallait (1810-87) and Keyser (1813-87), that a sort of melodramatic history painting was developed, which replaced, after 1830, the now anemic, though noble, neoclassical art of drawing and fresco. The Belgians – and the Frenchman Paul Delaroche (1797-1856) – appear as many Delacroixes, but with a much more modest genius and without his ardor.
Wishing to become a painter of history, Ford Madox Brown (1821-93) went to Antwerp to study under Wappers. After a brief stay in Paris, he settled in Rome where he was influenced by the lessons of Overbeck, the surviving Nestor of the German romantics of the beginning of the century. The fact is documented by the composition Chaucer at the court of Edward III (1845-51), which is strictly Pre-Raphaelite in style, and for the gothic shape of the support, and for the figures in bright tones and dressed in fourteenth-century costumes, although executed a few months before the establishment of the brotherhood. The founders of the latter, notably Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and Millais, were all younger than Brown, whose pupil Rossetti briefly became in the fateful winter of 1847-48.
The aims of the fraternity are defined in the newspaper “The germ”, which had a short life: there we read the principles of a doctrine that in some respects, except one, appears a mere transposition of that of the German romantics. “Without a pure heart we can accomplish nothing worthy,” writes Frederick George Stephens. And again: “Excess action, […] false feeling, sensuality, inventive poverty” are strictly to be avoided. It is necessary to strive for “an intimate adherence to the simplicity of nature” and to draw directly from “those works, relatively few in number, that art has already created according to this spirit”: to be sought in Italian painting prior to Raphael and also, if not mainly, in the Low Countries and in the Germany of Memling and Dürer. These are the principles that inform the drawings and paintings, of subtle charm in their humility and dryness, executed from 1848 onwards by Holman Hunt, Millais and Rossetti. They are works that seem to be at the antipodes with respect to those executed in the same years by Courbet, Millet and Daumier: and yet they too bear the distinctive mark of the middle of the century. Truth is their watchword, but a truth understood differently by the “Nazarenes”. “Truth demands that the author of history painting know perfectly the character of the times and the customs of the characters he is about to represent… to this end he consults experts for the clothing… the architecture, the vegetation or landscape, the accessories.” Menzel would subscribe to these precepts, actually defined by Ford Madox Brown.
Brown, older in age than the other members of the fraternity, of which he was never officially a member, remained faithful to the canons theorized in “The germ” until the end, whether he painted Wyclif or Cordelia or one of those intense green landscapes of his, meticulously observed and rendered with a subtle, minute brushstroke. His most original contribution is identified with one of the precepts of “The germ” (contained in an article by John L. Tupper), according to which artists, in order to find worthy subjects, must not only turn to the past, but also to the “great lessons of piety, truth, charity, nobility and courage” of our time. The heroes of today must figure in the painting of today. If it is true that one must hate Nero, it is no less true that one must hate “the oppressor and exploiter of workers”. Words that Courbet would have shared: but how different are his contemporary heroes, for example the Stone Breakers, from the Stone Breakers that John Brett painted seven years later: a handsome, robust young man in a sunny landscape full of detail.
Ford Madox Brown began painting Last Look at England in 1852, depicting the departure of emigrants to Australia, and in the same year he completed the Work. His later works include John Dalton discovering methane and Crabtree discovering the passage of Venus. The Work constitutes the most important document of all European painting of the time on social reform. It would be too long to describe here the contents and the value of the attitudes and gestures of the almost twenty figures that compose it. No one since Hogarth has attempted to combine so many meanings in the relatively short space of a canvas. The scene is set in Hampstead, which is faithfully reproduced. Immediately recognizable are the portraits of Carlyle and Frederick Denison Maurice, who represent intellectual labor, while the ditchers represent manual labor and a ragged flower seller represents those who never learned to work. Then there are the derelict children of the slums, covered in rags, the brazen young lady and the well-meaning one who distributes pamphlets entitled The Laborer’s Shelter or Drinks for Thirsty Souls. The ditchers prefer beer and are entitled to it. Other writings on posters remind the reader – or rather, the viewer – of the School for Workers (founded by Maurice in 1854 and where Rossetti also taught for some time) and the Children’s Home on Euston road.
This is undoubtedly a literary theme that can only be fully appreciated through guidance or a key. But the same could be said for Courbet’s Atelier or Menzel’s The Dinner After the Ball. The Pre-Raphaelites strenuously opposed the theatrical superficiality of genre painting, whose themes drawn indifferently from literature or the realm of fantasy enjoyed such popularity in the Victorian era; those paintings Dickens described thus in Bleak house (“Bleak House”): “A stone terrace (with clefts), a gondola in the distance, a perfect Venetian doge’s outfit, a white silk gown richly embroidered with Miss Jogg’s profile, a scimitar with superb gold frame and jewels at the hilt, an elaborate Moorish costume (very rare), and Othello. ” The Pre-Raphaelites protested even though the execution was faultless; “filthy underbelly,” Brown wrote in May 1851: their King Lear and Dante and the Lady of Shalott combined accuracy of rendering with a commitment and fervor that were new (at least in the early years of the movement).
As is always the case with groups of young artists, the Pre-Raphaelite fraternity dissolved after a few years and the founders continued in opposite directions. William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) remained faithful to the precepts of the school: to paint The Scapegoat he went to Palestine in 1854, so that his Dead Sea was a real Dead Sea – a very aberrant concept of realism! – and similarly for May Day in Oxford he forced himself, despite his advanced age, to climb Magdalen tower every morning at five o’clock. The images are so close to reality down to the tiniest details and the focus is so sharp that the paintings end up looking quite convincing on a realistic level. Were it not for the horrible and absurd shadowless colors, from violent reds to absinthe greens, they might recall the expanses of pebbles or the close-ups of faces without retouching of modern photography. The palette of Dante Gabriele Rossetti (1828-82) appears warmer and richer in his later works, but no less repulsive. The languid sensuality of his figures is in no way consistent with the principles of “The germ”, even if completely tamed in comparison to the sanguine one of Courbet. Even so, it was necessary to use the purifying filter of Burne-Jones’ cold blues and greys in order for it to acquire widespread popularity: but Burne-Jones’ most refined art belongs to the last phase of the Victorian era.
Finally, there is John Everett Millais (1829-1896), who from being a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood became president of the Royal Academy, painting Northwest Passage and Soap Bubbles instead of Carpenter’s Shop and Ophelia in his last years. His remains the most singular example in England of conflict between the world of committed art and social success. Similar is the case of George Frederick Watts (1817-1904), who began with a vigorous Venetian style, robust and warm, and ended up with immense and vacuous illustrative “machines” such as the famous Mammon, or Love and Life and Time, Death and Judgment.
In the Victorian era, titles contributed greatly to the success of a work. If the man in the street found it easier to distinguish the Renaissance or Gothic character of a façade rather than the wisdom of proportions, in the same way he preferred to look at a painting with two dogs, especially if the title was High Life and Low Life, or the image of a deer entitled The King of the Valley, rather than contemplate painting pure and simple. I chose these two titles at random from the output of Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-73); but they might also recall his Alexander and Diogenes, Distinguished Member of Human Society (a St. Bernard dog), and Dignity and Impudence.
In France, however, rarely was a successful painting, the painting of the year, of literary inspiration. If the English painter appealed to sentiment to win the public’s favor, the French artist had to appeal to the senses. Painters such as Cabanel (1823-89) and Bouguereau (1825-1905) went so far as to repeat their seductive nudes for years and years. Cabanel’s Birth of Venus, with the goddess voluptuously rising from a sea of cardboard, was exhibited at the 1863 Salon and was immediately purchased by Napoleon III, just as Queen Victoria had purchased Frith’s Ramsgate Sands and invested it with the title of Knight Landseer.
The same year that Cabanel’s Venus caused a stir at the Salon, Manet painted his Olympia, which would cause a scandal at the 1865 Salon. The contrast between the art that was well accepted by the public and the painting of Manet and his friends, who a little later would gather around him under the banner of Impressionism, appears even more strident than around mid-century. “An almost infantile ignorance of the first elements of drawing”, “a conscious exhibition of inconceivable vulgarity”, “this Olympia, a sort of female gorilla”, “this obese yellow odalisque”, “an art that has descended so low does not even deserve to be condemned”: these are some of the comments with which the press welcomed Manet’s Olympia when it was exhibited in 1865.
Manet, who was born in 1832, is included in the period examined here only for the works of his debut, while the Impressionists are excluded. In 1870 Degas was but thirty-six years old, and thirty Monet and Renoir. The art of Impressionism, subtle, fleeting, extremely sensitive and superficial – in the literary sense of the word, which indicates an attention to phenomena as they appear exclusively to our eyes – belongs definitely to the late 1800s.
The nineteenth century was indeed a century that saw the prevalence of painting in terms of quality and meaning in the social context: a prevalence that was already perceptible before 1870. The patron of 1870 is no longer that of a century earlier. Around 1770, the relationship between art and society was not very different from what it had been in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Baroque era. Patrons were ecclesiastics, sovereigns, nobles and occasionally even bankers or merchants; they were able, thanks to the education they had received, to appreciate the things of art. A hundred years later, with the decline of the nobility, the patrons were almost all of industrial or commercial extraction, without any aesthetic education or cultural preparation: hence the taste of the buildings they built and the paintings they chose for their homes.
In addition, the construction of entire neighborhoods in the cities was entrusted to speculators who cared only for personal gain. Now if an architect could not build without a client, a painter, if willing to go hungry, could paint without patrons. And the indigent painter, who first appeared in seventeenth-century Holland (i.e., in the first bourgeois republic) became the prototype of the nineteenth-century artist. Millet sold six drawings for a pair of shoes. Renoir wrote in 1869, “We don’t eat every day,” and Monet, in the same year, “I am here, forcibly idle for lack of color.” Painters willing to live in this way might as well have been waiting for the arrival of the rare patron who understood them: thus it was that the most convinced among them were able to hold on to their aesthetic creed and their fervor of research, things for which architects, on the other hand, had no hope of fighting.
It is conventional to indicate the beginning of Impressionism in the activity of Edouard Manet (1823-83) and in some of his paintings such as Breakfast on the Grass and Olympia, both of 1863. But these are not entirely qualifying works.
More than the rendering, it was in fact the subject to scandalize critics and the public. Young men in civilian clothes gathered for an outdoor picnic in the company of a naked girl, or a young woman in the traditional Titian pose but, in fact, more undressed than naked. Courbet had done more and worse. Worse because, as a convinced and programmatic realist as he was, he had wanted his nudes to be seductive, while those of Manet appeared particularly irritating because they were painted with absolute aesthetic detachment. Courbet himself was struck by Olympia, but for its lack of realism. He defined it as a playing card, alluding to the flatness of the figure: in fact, the light strikes it directly, eliminating the nuances of the soft surfaces.
Only Velàzquez, in the seventeenth century, had done something similar, and it is understandable how Manet, during his trip to Spain in 1865, recognized in him “the painter of painters”. This study of bodies invested by direct light became one of the fundamental motifs of the Impressionists. Another characteristic – less new but no less important – was the choice of subjects, always belonging to everyday reality. A third, finally, was highlighted by Manet’s Concert in the Tuileries Gardens of 1862: the representation of a crowd made more effective by cutting the composition and at the same time using a rapid, decisive, summary brushstroke, whose direction indicates the movement of the figures.
Manet was violently attacked. Rossetti called his (and Courbet’s) art “putrescent,” Jules Claretie a “joke or parody.” The best of the young began to gather around him: they were called Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). If we add Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) and Alfred Sisley (1839-99), we have remembered the greatest of the Impressionists. The term was coined later; but “impressions” had already been defined sporadically even the works of the landscape painters of the Barbizon school and their contemporaries, that is, painters born before 1820. One critic had said of Jongkind that “everything in him rests on impression”, another had indicated Daubigny in 1865 as “the leader of the school of impression”. Of the five Impressionists mentioned, all born between 1830 and 1840, three were landscape painters, and Renoir was at least partially so. Only Degas was a figure painter. All had been fascinated by Manet (and Courbet), but in some respects soon came to outdo him and influence him in turn. In 1869 both Monet and Renoir painted La Grenouillère, near Bougival on the Seine: plein air images, in the sense that the changing and fleeting effects of light on the leaves and ripples in the water were captured directly and not filtered through the work in the studio. Painting en plein air became one of the cornerstones of Impressionism.
Other fundamental aspects were the “impression”, that is, the rendering of what the eye sees as it sees it, the representation of movement on the motionless surface of the canvas, and the everyday nature of the subject, whether it be landscape, portrait, still life or genre scene, the latter meaning the representation of events of little importance, but caught in the very moment of their happening. It is true that Manet in 1864 painted the battle between the ships Kearsarge and Alabama, an episode of the American Civil War occurred near the French coast, and in 1867 the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico in front of the firing squad, but these are exceptions in his work and, however, like Olympia, not fully impressionistic.
Degas was a master in representing everyday events. Viscount Lepic and the girls walking in Place de la Concorde (circa 1873), with the figures in the foreground and the frame cutting off their legs. Another passerby appears on the left, but we can only partially see him because the frame cuts him off vertically; the buildings and trees of the square are roughly sketched, and nothing else is visible. Nevertheless, the painting is dense with “facts” in comparison with certain works by Degas: the Two Ironers, one intent on work, the other on stretching and yawning; the women in the act of washing in the tub, observed in their unconscious and therefore gracefully ungainly gestures (“as seen through the keyhole,” said the artist); or his countless “Ballerinas” caught during rehearsals or in the midst of a performance – all of which, despite the casual appearance of their attitudes, are inserted into a refined and tasteful compositional scheme, modelled on Japanese prints.
Japonisme had begun around 1850 and had its moment of greatest popularity at the time of the International Exhibition in London in 1862. However, it had a different meaning for different artists: for Manet, who painted a Japanese print on the background of the portrait of Emile Zola made in 1868, it was translated into light and bright colors, without shadows; for Degas, into an asymmetrical and whimsical layout of the figures; for Whistler, Gauguin and van Gogh, into characters that we will examine later.
In the five years following 1869, the group, whose members were by then thirty-five years old, consolidated and in 1874 organized the first collective exhibition, after the official Salon had closed its doors to most of their works.
Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines, 1873, was exhibited there, where the crowd is rendered in firm, vertical brushstrokes, while the trees are but indistinct masses, except for the branches closest to the viewer, and the houses are again barely hinted at through the cold mist. The space in the depths is a sea of bluish grays in which the street is lost. Renoir exhibited The Stage, 1874, a dazzling double portrait against the backdrop of a theater stage, a work exemplary for the way the artist focuses on the central motif, in this case the young woman’s face, toning down the details in the background and barely suggesting the background. The colors are black and white – the colors used by the early Renoir – and an unmistakable range of pinks and rose-grays in the background. Renoir also exhibited a delightful Ballerina, 1874, with the tulle of the tutu of the most airy white-gray and only a touch of pale blue in the ribbons, brown hair and a somber black bracelet. The background is again indeterminate. The exhibition also included ten Degas, five Pissarro and five Sisley. Of the five Monets, one bore the title Impression, Sunrise, 1872, and from this the newspaper “Charivari” took the cue to refer to the entire group as the “Impressionists”. The term was thus coined forever.
But public and press remained hostile for a long time. The “Figaro” jokingly defined the group’s second exhibition, organized by Durand Ruel in rue le Peletier, not far from the Boulevard des italiens, as a disaster second only to the recent fire at the Opéra. However, the movement also began to find supporters. Zola had already written encouraging words since 1866, prophesying for Manet a place in the Louvre and praising Monet and Pissarro; in 1878, Théodore Duret published an essay dedicated to Les peintres impressionistes. From an economic point of view, however, the artists did not gain any immediate benefit from this change of judgment. After the first two exhibitions, they tried to organize other sales of paintings, exhibiting from fifty to seventy works, but the proceeds did not exceed an average of 160 francs. In 1878 a new sale took place, with a gain for Monet of 185 francs and for Sisley of 115. The situation was quite different in 1894, when Duret was forced to sell his collection: some of Manet’s major works fetched prices ranging from 5000 to 11,000 francs. Among the first major clients were Americans, such as Henry Osborne Havemeyer.
The moment in which new artistic modes impose themselves on the public’s favor always coincides with a change in mentality. In the case of Impressionism, however, it was also a matter of learning to “see”, physically, in a new way. When Ruskin said of Whistler’s Cremorne gardens that they were “a can of paint thrown in the public’s face”, it is more than likely that he could not actually recognize what the raped canvas represented. And yet for today’s viewer, as clueless as he or she may be, the Impressionists have become easier to understand than any other painter, easier by far than even the great masters of the past. This should not be surprising, because the Impressionists were not revolutionaries, even if their technique could make them appear so. They closed the golden age of painting more than they opened the new one, characterized by uncertain, revolutionary aesthetic values. Titian in his later works, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Goya and Constable were their predecessors, insofar as they painted the impressions they received and not the timeless images distilled from a multiplicity of impressions, as Raphael, Poussin or Ingres did.
It is a characteristic phenomenon of Impressionism that one remembers many paintings very well, but finds it difficult to isolate one among many that represents them all. I would be tempted to say that one landscape by Monet is as good as another, just as one study of a ballerina by Degas is no better than another. Everyone can have their own preferences, and of course works of exceptional quality alternate with insignificant, routine works; but the technical skill always leaves one astounded and the pleasure the eye derives from it never ceases to be contagious. By now in his sixties, Camille Pissarro, a little older than his companions and with a more theoretical mind, recommended that his students observe the motif “more for the form and color than for the drawing”, and again to “not lose, until the end, the initial impression”, since “the exactness of the drawing is an obstacle to the impression” and “perceptions must be fixed immediately”.
Renoir, incapable of systematic theorizing, wrote: “I have no theories. I paint like this, for the pleasure of painting”. Monet, who was not himself a theorist, wrote in his later years that he was proud only of the merit of having painted directly from nature, trying to translate his impressions in front of the most fleeting effects. And in another context, he said that he would have liked to be born blind and suddenly regain his sight to paint what he would have seen without knowing the meaning of the objects. This almost fanatical passion for mere vision and for rendering the optical appearance of things prompted the artist, when his wife died, to analyze the various tones of death on her face.
If death itself could be reduced to a simple visual experience, it stands to reason that the Impressionists were uninterested in the conceptual content of the subject. For them, no Adoration of the Shepherds, no Perseus and Andromeda, no Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman, no Slave Market. The painter’s field was infinite, as long as it was strictly visual. The intellectual one was precluded to him. This was a limitation that was soon to be felt. But Monet had the courage to take this position to its extreme consequences. In 1891 he exhibited fifteen variants of the same haystack painted under different effects of light (and sold them, each, for a sum varying between 3000 and 4000 francs). Let no one be distracted from the mere artistic value of my works by the irrelevant interest in the subject: this is his thesis. Let one merely contemplate and admire the truth of the vision. Realism thus continued to impose itself no less than at Courbet’s time, when he had boasted of being “sans idéal et sans religion”, according to his own crude expression; but it was now a realism that had vanished into the immaterial reality of air and light.
Impressionism ended up spreading in all countries, asserting itself in the academies as well, but it took time for this to happen. In England the change took place when the generation to which Walter Sickert (1860-1942) belonged came to the fore, in Germany thanks to the work of Max Liebermann (1847-1935). Liebermann had been in Paris in 1874, Sickert in 1883; an Italian, Giuseppe De Nittis (1846-84) had settled there since 1867. One could therefore consider him the first foreigner to convert to Impressionism, were it not for the Americans, who then began to appear in the European limelight not only as spectacular buyers of paintings, but precisely as spectacular painters, and no one was more spectacular than James MacNeill Whistler (1834-1903), who reached Paris in 1855 and in 1859 decided to move to London.
In the years that followed Breakfast on the Grass and Olympia, up to the Grenouilleres, he was not part of the group that was then being formed, and if his At the Piano, 1859, Maiden in White, 1862 and Port of Valparaiso, 1866 are striking for their proximity to the modes of Impressionism, this is due to Whistler’s own independent research. In the painting that depicts the sea in front of Valparaiso, the dissolution of the material consistency of reality in the gray-blue mist goes far beyond anything that the French had tried until then, and when, more than ten years later, Whistler will try to formulate its aesthetic principles, many will be coincident with the purest impressionism. To name but one, this is how he commented on the presence of a single black figure in one of his landscapes under the snow: “I don’t care about the past, the present or the future of this black figure, put there only because black was needed there”.
But other and more important theses of Whistler are at odds with the principles of the Impressionists, along a line already indicated in some of his early paintings, such as At the Piano, which is a composition no less thoughtful than those on which Degas worked in his early years, before his conversion to contemporary themes. While Degas was still tied to the mythology of the art schools, Whistler, in portraying people of his time, sought to use subtly calculated compositional solutions for non-academic purposes. This attitude touched the highest results in some of his famous portraits, such as that of his mother (1872) and Carlyle (1874). Moreover, Whistler entitled his landscapes not, humbly, “Impressions”, but, with much greater presumption, “Harmonies”, “Symphonies” or “Nocturnes” (thus we have Symphony in gray and green, Nocturne in gray and gold, etc.), thus introducing elements of a musical nature – that is, abstract – and sentimental, elements that were forbidden to the Impressionists, prisoners of the only reality that the eye perceives. Monet or Renoir would never have claimed, as Whistler did, that at twilight “high chimneys become bell towers”, and at night “sheds are buildings”, nor that “painting is the poetry of vision, as music is the poetry of sound”, or even more peremptorily that “nature is usually wrong”.
Whistler loved to amaze, as did later his disciple Oscar Wilde. It is easy to make fun of Oscar Wilde’s lily as well as Whistler’s walking stick and monocle, of all the accessories of the fin-de-siècle aesthete and dandy, but there was something positive and in a certain way precursor in Whistler’s faith in the supremacy of art over life. The Impressionists, judging by the photographs, had no particular taste in arranging their houses. They painted, and in that their relationship with art was exhausted. Whistler’s home, the famous White house on Tite Street in Chelsea, designed by his friend Edward Godwin (1833-86) in 1878, was a challenge to the architecture of the time, the monumental forms and somber colors of fashion. The façade was white, windows and doors opened with whimsical irregularity, and the interior rooms were furnished with a few pieces and painted white or deep yellow. Thus, on the occasion of Whistler’s first solo exhibition, the walls were gray, and blue and white Chinese porcelain helped to highlight the paintings. In this taste for interior decoration Whistler was undoubtedly guided by Godwin, who since 1862 had painted the rooms of his house in Bristol in light colors, furnishing them with a few selected antiques, some Persian carpets and many Japanese prints. Whistler too was soon fascinated by Japanese art: his Princess of the Land of Porcelain (pink and silver) is dated 1865. This work constituted the most important element of the famous Peacock room, which the artist himself decorated (in London in 1877) with dark blue and gold peacocks and luxuriant volutes in oriental style for F.R. Leyland, a very rich shipowner from Liverpool. That same year Comyns Carr opened the Grosvenor gallery for contemporary art exhibitions.
At the same time, it is interesting to note that Godwin must have learned from Japan a taste for light, pure colors and for the refinement and rarefaction of furnishings – around 1875 he designed a considerable number of elegant pieces of furniture for some furniture makers – and that Whistler’s admiration for Japan must have rested on a similar predilection, but also on that infallible taste for exquisite compositions that Degas also showed in those same years. Whistler’s importance lies in his passage from a refined realism to a refined decorativism, and from the gloom of the Victorian style in furnishings to the light colors of the post-Victorian style.
In opposition to Impressionism, [Classicism] made its appearance in France with the cold, gray frescoes of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98) and in Germany with the somber, mysterious, and technically naive painting of Hans von Marées (1837-87). In his works, vaguely mythological figures, depicted frontally or in profile, pose motionless or move silently in sacred groves. The compositions are developed along major axes. Although Marées received only one commission for a cycle of frescoes in his lifetime, he always thought in terms of mural painting. In this, as in the fundamental formulation of his research, he placed himself in clear contrast with the principles of Impressionism. However, he based his work on classical tradition and not on a conscious opposition to Impressionism, which he probably did not know.
In France, in the last years of Marées’ activity, Georges Seurat (1859-91) took a similar position. His themes – as well as his chromatic range and pictorial technique – are very different from those of Marées; what unites them is rather the belief in a rigorous simplification and in the axiality of the composition. Seurat aroused discussion in the brief years of his maturity, between 1884 and 1891, because of his chromatic system rather than his composition. However, the latter was more original and should have baffled far more than his palette. Seurat was endowed with a lucid and rational intelligence and a cold temperament. He took an interest in Chevreul’s and others’ studies of chromatics and discovered that by reducing the palette to a few pure, light and luminous tones and spreading them on the canvas in small juxtaposed brushstrokes, the observer’s eye would achieve “optical amalgam”, receiving the impression of colors closer to those of nature. Seurat’s scientific technique immediately made proselytes: first Paul Signac (1863-1935), and then other French and, shortly thereafter, Belgian (including Henri van de Velde). Signac wrote in 1887, “Our formula is certain and demonstrable, our paintings logical, and no longer entrusted to chance.” These artists, called “divisionists” or “pointillists” for their technique, but better known as neo-impressionists, believed so deeply in a science of painting that they enunciated strict principles about composition, cadences of line, and related emotional meanings, particularly in relation to the emotional significance of color.
The implementation of their principles, however, led them not to give a more rigorous representation of nature, but to radically detach themselves from it. The portrait of Félix Fénéon painted by Signac has circles, stars, luminous swirls, wavy lines in parallel formations and other forms that seem to take up Celtic motifs in the background. Fénéon had been the first to write about the Neo-Impressionists. That abstract background, which foreshadowed the Italian Futurism of 1910-15, was a tribute to those who had said that Signac “sacrifices anecdote to arabesque.” However, this juxtaposition of the figure with abstract forms was only rarely taken up. Seurat never went that far. Nevertheless, his compositions with figures are just as contrived and stylized, painted not to capture a fleeting moment but to express a sense of permanence. The Impressionists, as Fénéon observed, had felt a fascination with the “change, second by second, of the sky, the water, and the leaves” and had sought to arrest “one of these transient aspects on the canvas.” In Seurat’s An Afternoon at the Grande Jatte, 1884-86, every image seems fixed in an eternal immobility. The figures look like wooden toys, simplified in their outlines, rigid, mostly in frontal or profile positions and stopped in their most elementary gestures. The bright colors and the drafting of short juxtaposed brushstrokes are the appropriate tool for this rendering of the scene deliberately naive, naive and childish. In the later The Circus and Chahut, Seurat carried this grotesque and bizarre stylization even further.
If one recognizes in Seurat the master of stylization that forces the natural image into simplified and essential schemes (as did, for example, van de Velde, who defined Seurat as “the artist who made a return to style”), it becomes possible to identify in him the complementary figure of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), defined by Pissarro – the most cultured of the Impressionists and the only one who understood his later opponents – “the refined savage”. Since 1870 Cézanne began to work tenaciously on the simplification of the “motif”, on the arrangement of the planes in the depth of the landscape, on the geometric solidity of the houses, on the concreteness of the female face, rendered in its volumes with the detachment with which an apple is portrayed. In all his patient research he never lost sight of nature. Compared to those of Cézanne, Seurat’s compositions seem “sunlit”. If the ultimate aspiration was simplicity and essentiality, Seurat’s world of dolls could not be the appropriate response. Yet he too, like Cézanne, believed in pure geometry as a remedy for the precariousness of Impressionist vision. In an oft-quoted letter to Emile Bernard, Cézanne wrote, “Everything in nature consists of the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone.” His art actually went even further than this premise, and in the same letter he went on to emphasize the fact that for the painter all drawing is color and all modeling is color. Thus his landscapes, still lifes and portraits ultimately possess a calm, serene nobility in which no trace of the effort to simplify has remained. Nevertheless, if one can identify a principle that underlies all his work, it is faith in geometry as the ordering element of the universe.
Emile Bernard (1868-1941), the recipient of Cézanne’s letter, was also one of van Gogh’s correspondents, as well as a student of Gauguin. He was for some years in the limelight of history thanks to a small group of paintings of a religious nature and to his production in the decorative arts. These works date back to the years 1888-90, when Bernard stayed with Gauguin in Brittany. Bernard did not have a strong personality and sought inspiration in those who had more than him: it is thus remembered more as an interlocutor of Cézanne and van Gogh than as an independent artist. It is undoubted, for example, that in his designs for embroidery and stained glass he was encouraged by Paul Gauguin (1845-1903), who in the same years executed simple clay vases and wooden sculptures, but in the field of sacred painting the roles are reversed, since it was Bernard who influenced Gauguin. In Bernard’s Deposition of 1890, the figures, inspired by tapestries and medieval stained-glass windows, appear extremely elongated, full of tension: a tension that the painting, seen as a whole, does not have. However, beyond the quality of Bernard’s work (certainly inferior to that of Gauguin’s paintings), one fact of great importance should be noted: the return to a content of emotional value. In Gauguin’s sacred paintings, such as Jacob struggling with the angel, the Yellow Christ and the Deposition, the intensity of form and color rivals that of the theme, and this even though Gauguin’s sincerity was unquestionably less than Bernard’s.
How else could he have painted the disquieting Christ in the Garden, lending the divine protagonist his face? In Jacob struggling with the angel, completed in 1888, the ground on which the figures stand is bright red, an early case of a color chosen in contrast to what Gauguin called “damned nature,” and exclusively for emotional reasons. Gauguin spent his summers in Brittany because, after Paris, those places gave him the feeling of “a primitive, untouched world.” Even the figure of the peasant girl praying in front of the vision of Jacob struggling with the angel or the one at the side of the crucifix in the Yellow Christ – copied among other things from a medieval Breton sculpture – express an earthly primitiveness. The aspiration to a primitive and simple life was already alive in Gauguin in those years. In 1887 he was in Martinique and then, in 1891, in Tahiti. In 1893 he returned to Europe, but left forever in 1895. In the tropics he found what he had always dreamed of: the satisfaction of the senses, a rich and generous land, and women and girls (he rarely painted male figures) blooming like flowers in that landscape.
In his late works the modeling is sketchy, the color warm, not bright, the gestures and the environment reduced to the essential. The titles are written in the local language and often have symbolic meanings: Lo spirito della morte veglia or Di dove veniamo, chi siamo, dove andiamo? The layout is reminiscent of tapestries, with the landscapes in the background strongly flattened and simplified and the figures quietly seated, lying or standing, arranged as in a frieze. A short time later Seurat had spoken of “characters situated as if in a frieze, and reduced to their essence”. But Gauguin’s world is not Seurat’s almost game world. It has a gravity and a nobility that allow us to compare it to the nobly ordered universe of Cézanne. On the other hand, the emotional charge brings Gauguin closer to van Gogh. But while Gauguin accepted Cézanne’s lesson when he was in Brittany, he was not influenced by van Gogh, even though the two artists spent some unhappy months together in Arles at the end of 1888.
It was van Gogh’s idea to attempt that sort of association, as he believed in “groups of painters gathered together to realize collectively elaborated ideas” as a remedy for the solitude of the nineteenth-century artist. But while Gauguin had toyed with Christian themes for some time and had therefore decided to enjoy his pagan world, Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) was deeply religious and fundamentally Christian. Before becoming a painter, he had briefly been a lay missionary. Among the great painters of all times perhaps no one had an apprenticeship as difficult as that of van Gogh: he was able to draw and paint only after years of stubborn and disappointing attempts. And the intensity of his work reflects the intensity of his life and work during the three or four short years of finally fruitful activity. What we now call intensity was several times, before those three or four years, defined as madness, especially by those who knew the artist. We are only marginally interested in the fact that he became insane at the end of 1888, that numerous other crises struck him after the first one and that he finally killed himself, thus ending the battle against madness that he had conducted with extreme lucidity.
His art is not insane, no more than Grunewald’s; simply, the illness removed from his Protestant mentality those obstacles that before 1888 had prevented his painting from fully expressing itself. Less than a year elapsed from the end of his stay in Paris, where he was still forming, to the day he pounced on Gauguin to kill him in their room in Arles. The previous months in Arles had been the happiest for his painting, with a series of paintings finally achieved and on the other hand not yet obscured by the awareness of the hard price he had to pay to achieve them. In Paris, between 1886 and 1888, van Gogh had discovered the Impressionists, then the Neo-Impressionists, and also Japanese art. Portraying the first dealer who helped him, père Tanguy, against the backdrop of a wall covered with Japanese prints, he showed that of that art – unlike Manet, Whistler, Degas and Gauguin – he was interested above all in the purity of color without shadows and the incisiveness of the contours. In fact, Van Gogh could write, “All my work is in a certain way founded on Japanese art.” When he moved from Paris to Arles, he wrote to his brother Théo, “I feel as if I were in Japan.” And yet even in his production of those months there is none of the preciousness and chromatic delicacy pursued by Japanese artists; all is impetuous expressiveness, the result of desperate work in the midday sunlight. He painted twelve hours straight and slept twelve hours; thus, he often forgot to eat; he worked “like a madman”, like a reaper who “struggles in the heat”, with “a terrible lucidity”, “twisting with enthusiasm… like a Greek oracle on the tripod”.
Gauguin went to the tropics to find a similar annihilation in the most basic passions, and van Gogh so approved of his choice that he wrote to him (complacently), “The future of painting is certain in the tropics.” However, he did not go there, nor did he feel compelled to seek out allegorical, symbolic, or even religious themes to express himself. Gauguin, whose almost cruel strength and bursting vitality he envied and admired, influenced him only for a brief moment. He opposed what he called the 1′ “abstraction” of Gauguin and his circle, and insistently asserted his fidelity to the motif of nature in order to express his own vision. He painted a Gethsemane, but destroyed it. And he wrote to his brother: “They drive me crazy with their Jesus in the garden, where nothing comes from observation”, and warned Bernard that his paintings of religious subjects risked being “an affectation”, a “mystification”. Is it possible, he asked, to return in good faith to medieval tapestries?
In contrast, van Gogh took on the task of painting the landscape around him, the interiors he saw every day, still lifes of humble objects, and portraits of his few friends, but he painted them with the burning sense of a mission to fulfill. He set out to depict ordinary men and women, “with that something eternal that haloes once symbolized”, “portraits of saints and holy men caught up in life…, and they may be women of today from the most modest classes and yet have something in common with the early Christians”; and he wanted to paint them using an interpretation and a technique “as simple as those crude prints found in country almanacs”. Van Gogh was a much more authentic symbolist than those who consciously professed symbolism in Paris and Brittany. Everything he drew and painted has an underlying meaning.
The compositional elements and, to an even greater extent, the chromatic choices are charged with passion. When he painted a café at night, he made it, using “a tender Louis xv green and a malachite hue that contrasts with a yellow-green and somber blue-greens…in an atmosphere of pale sulfur…”, “a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or kill”. When he painted a bookstore in the evening “with a yellow and pink facade,” it figuratively and literally became “a fire of light.” In a letter he describes the various stages of execution of the portrait of a poet friend and explains how, after obtaining a certain resemblance, he tried to “accentuate the blond color of the hair” with “orange, chrome and pale yellow tones” and replaced the common wall of the room with “the infinity” of the “most intense and charged of blues”, and this in order to achieve the expression of all “the love I have for him”. With the portrait of Madame Roulin, known as La berceuse, he intended to create a painting “that would make sailors, who are both children and martyrs, feel the ancient sensation of being cradled when they see him in the cabin of their boats”.
But if the portraits tend to the quiet, his landscapes of maturity are always turbulent: in 1888 exalted, later still animated by a perpetual creative fury, up to express near death “the most desperate loneliness”. For van Gogh, nature was not order as it was for Cézanne, nor was it bursting richness and magical fecundity as it was for Gauguin, but chaos. It is not possible, he wrote to Bernard, “to force chaos into a container; in fact, it is chaotic precisely because it cannot be contained in a human-sized container. But what we can do is…paint an atom of chaos, a horse, a portrait, your grandmother, apples, a landscape.” This is the reason why, when he tackled a subject outdoors or in an interior, the line of the drawing or the brushstroke were impetuous, rapid, lashing, and the colors, spread out in wide, dense impasto backgrounds, dazzling and intense, were as pure as Seurat’s but never used according to a scientific procedure. His debt to the Neo-Impressionists is evident, but it is not the fundamental element of his art. When he arrived in Arles, he already knew he wanted to “exasperate the essential” (even Gauguin had stated since 1885 that “there is no salvation except in exasperated accentuation”) and use colors “as in stained glass”.
In the same period Bernard, as already mentioned, executed an image on glass with Breton women, using the same composition created for the works of applied art already mentioned. The rational principles which at that very time were leading in England to the Arts and Crafts movement – the Aris and Crafts exhibition society was founded in 1888 – thus oriented these French artists, albeit less consciously, in the same direction. The common principle, even if it is with some hesitation that the term is referred to Cézanne and van Gogh, is decorativism. And yet, compared to the aerial naturalism of the Impressionists, Cézanne’s compact, rough surfaces and van Gogh’s vigorous brushstrokes, laid out in parallel strokes, often curved or wrapped around themselves, in the form of flames or swirls, are no less decorative than the “friezes” of Gauguin and Seurat.
In fact, the two fundamental aspects of the change that was taking place around 1890 were as follows: from realism there passed a new faith in expression, and a new taste for decoration; that is to say, a conception of the painted canvas as an organism endowed with its own autonomous value, different from the representation of something seen in nature. “A painting,” Maurice Denis wrote at the opening of his first article, “is basically a flat surface covered with colors arranged in a certain order.” Renoir himself implemented this change for a brief period. After a trip to Italy he accentuated the contour lines in order to imitate Raphael and Ingres. His highest achievement in this direction was the exquisite group of Bathers, of 1884-87. But the desire to return to expression and decoration was not only of the French. Mystical themes and elongated, swaying, incorporeal figures appear in the paintings of the Dutchman Johannes Toorop (1859-1928; The Faith Retreats, 1891, etc.); vigorously drawn figures, more realistic in their forced, exaggerated attitudes of ritual dances, make up the vast decorative panels of Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918; Night, 1890, etc.); themes inspired by primal sentiments of the past, as well as by the influence of the French. ); themes inspired by primal feelings such as Despair, The Kiss, The Cry or Morning After, unfold the paintings, lithographs and woodcuts of Edvard Münch (1863-1944). The lines can be intentionally charged with meaning – as in the frame of Münch’s Madonna of 1895 – or simply represent a vague aspiration; however, they are always undulating and translate a tension.
In this there is a tangency with the most interesting decorative art movement of the last decade of the century, the movement known in England and France as Art Nouveau, in Germany as Jugendstil and in Italy as Art Nouveau. It is significant that the Jugendstil derived its name from a magazine, since book illustrators were among the earliest and most enthusiastic proponents of art nouveau, while the Art Nouveau style took its name from Liberty’s London store, which first sold goods from the Far East and was linked to the English revival of the decorative arts. England was in fact the first in this field, and the frontispiece of Wren’s city churches by Arthur H. Mackmurdo (1851-1942), with its intertwining of leaves and sinuous stems and the two extremely elongated cockerels pushed to the right and left at the edges of the frame, is now recognized by all scholars as the first example of art nouveau; it dates from 1883.
The sources are undoubtedly to be found in the production of the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts, the Morris wallpapers and certain decorative motifs of English Neo-Gothic. In sculpture, similar research was conducted shortly before 1890 by Alfred Gilbert (1854-1934), better known as the author of the Eros fountain in Piccadilly circus (1887-93). The decorative elements, here and in his other contemporary works, are no less original than those of Mackmurdo, but they are obviously three-dimensional and possess a softness and fullness that derive from other sources: probably Italian Mannerist sculpture and seventeenth-century Dutch ornamentation. But Gilbert’s plastic works found no echo, while Mackmurdo’s two-dimensional ones were immediately imitated by illustrators and graphic artists, including Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98). The latter, for example in Morte d’Arthur of 1892, created with those same ingredients a potion with a decidedly too strong taste and not at all healthy, which ended up poisoning the tasters of other countries even more than the English.
Beardsley’s work was illustrated in the first issue of “The Studio”, the magazine that began to appear in 1893 and immediately assumed the main role in the propaganda of new trends in architecture and decorative arts in England. Similar magazines appeared in France and Germany in the following five years. With not always exaggerated partiality, they fought for the Impressionists as well as the Post-Impressionists, for the rationalism of the Arts and Crafts and for the decadent refinements of the Aesthetes, for a return to popular art and for the preciousness of Japanese art. The action of the magazines was flanked by exhibitions, those of the Arts and Crafts exhibition society already mentioned, those of the Independents in Paris and those no less important than Les vingt in Brussels (both of the latter groups were formed in 1884).
In Brussels, the exhibition also included stained glass, embroidery and ceramics for the first time in 1892, that is, four years after Gauguin and Bernard had turned their attention to the applied arts. Influenced by the lessons of the English Arts and Crafts and the small French group, the Neo-Impressionist painter Henri van de Velde (1863-1958) abandoned painting and turned his attention to architecture and design. Mackmurdo’s sinuous, snappy line is present in his 1892 illustrations (Dominical), but the motifs are abstract, not naturalistic. Art nouveau decorative motifs in fact can be plant-inspired or abstract. The former characterize in particular the glassware of Emile Gallé (1846-1904), the furniture and various objects of the Nancy school, of which he was a member, and the art manual of the German Otto Eckmann (1865-1902); the latter recur instead in the work of van de Velde, in that of the Belgian architect Victor Horta (1861-1946), the French architect Hector Guimard (1867-1942) and the great Scot Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928). In abstract or naturalistic forms, the line of art nouveau is always undulating, and is inspired by the strings of a whip or the stems of flowers, coral or cartilage, filaments or snakes, flame or foam.
Its place is mainly the surface, its end the decoration, as already for William Morris. Thus art nouveau asserted itself particularly in the graphic arts, in which it provoked an authentic revolution that involved not only illustration but also typographic art and posters. Here the most important role was assumed by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) and the Beggarstaff brothers (William Nicholson, 1872-1949, and James Pryde, 1866-1941). Toulouse-Lautrec, a painter in the manner of Degas but a friend of the Post-Impressionists and an admirer of William Morris, whom he called “the answer to every problem” regarding the renewal of typographic art and all applied arts, designed his cabaret stars with the taste and spirit of art nouveau. The Beggarstaffs, on the other hand, adhered to a more restrained and functional style, with distinct flat surfaces. Since about 1885 Mackmurdo had been using the forms from his 1883 frontispiece for the fabrics.
He also designed furniture, notable not only for the art nouveau decoration of the panels, but also for the long, slender uprights, surmounted by a low, flat projecting frame. As we have seen, slender, elongated forms had already replaced the massive Victorian-style ones in furniture designed by Godwin under the influence of Japanese art. In his house in Uccie, near Brussels (1895-96), van de Velde also adopted light, almost transparent forms for his furniture. Soon, however, like other art nouveau artists, he turned to larger and more complex forms. Once again it was the English, from Mackmurdo to the best of the young Arts and Crafts artists and artisans, such as Ernest Gimson (1864-1919), who remained faithful to functionality and simplicity, thus placing themselves at the margins of art nouveau. The panorama is rather intricate but it is essential to know it in order to understand the situation of the decorative arts in Europe around 1900. England had heralded art nouveau as early as 1880, developing its motifs over the next decade. The fashion for art nouveau spread through Europe after 1890, when England had already turned away from it to a more rational, less outré style, from which the new style of the twentieth century would later take its cue.
England, not Scotland; in fact, Glasgow had in Mackintosh the most lively and fertile of the creators of art nouveau, and the only one capable of merging the rationalism of the rigorous square forms of English Art and Crafts with a highly original abstract decoration. The colors were sophisticated – white, mother-of-pearl, pale lilac, soft pink – but the structures to which they were applied, solid. Between 1895 and 1900 Mackintosh, his wife and her sister, the two Macdonalds, together with other collaborators, made Glasgow one of the capitals of European art. In 1900 they exhibited in Vienna, where they profoundly influenced the young architects and designers who had joined together in 1898 to found the Sezession.
The Glasgow school worked with wood, glass, and metals. The best known art nouveau glassware outside England, however, is that of Gallé, already mentioned, and the American Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933). For metals, the thought immediately runs to the fantastic wrought iron of the house of Horta in rue Paul-Emile Janson (1892-93). The use of iron in the various architectural currents of the late nineteenth century was remarkable and multiform, but here we consider it only in its decorative aspect. In addition to Horta’s work, we should not forget the iron decoration of the Paris Metro stations (1900) and the apartment house known as Castel Béranger (1894-98), designed by Guimard. The exterior of Castel Béranger may appear whimsical, with its oriel windows, gables and radical asymmetry, but the forms are geometric and lack the curvilinear tension that characterizes art nouveau. The same observation applies, albeit to a lesser extent, to the exterior of Horta’s house on Rue Paul-Emile Janson and also to the country houses built by Mackintosh near Glasgow, however original and decidedly asymmetrical.
On the other hand, the building that marked Mackintosh’s brief professional success, the School of Art in Glasgow (1897-99), combines in its façade the features of art nouveau with those of a daring functionalism that also marks the solutions adopted in the interior. The large windows of the studio, with their frames, mullions and smooth, unworked vasistas, contrast with the entrance, which is not central and combines unusual curvilinear and straight motifs, heavy or very light. No trace, here, of historical exhumations. And, once again, it should be noted that Mackintosh had a precursor for this rejection of tradition in Mackmurdo. The façade of an exhibition pavilion that Mackmurdo had built in 1886 for the Century Guild, his guild of craftsmen and designers, did not have a single element that recalled the styles of the past. It was resolved with a series of very thin pillars with sort of hats and a low attic, also with short pillars with crowning hats. But he soon turned to a less daring architecture.
The merit of having demonstrated in the most exasperated and radical way that an architecture of art nouveauera style was possible, goes to a single artist, an architect who worked in a country that was certainly not avant-garde and in exceptional circumstances: Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926). He lived in Barcelona and began his activity there with the whimsical Casa Vicens in Gothic-Moorish style, of 1878-80, characteristic for its free geometric forms, for the rough stonework of the external walls, for the bristling wrought ironwork, the latter already extraordinarily close to art nouveau. From here the originality and audacity of Gaudi had to take the start to rise up to the highest peaks of a brilliant and non-functional architecture. The Guell palace was followed by the chapel for the Guell colony, the Guell park and later, in 1905-07, two apartment houses in Barcelona and parts of the great unfinished church of the Sagrada Familia. Gaudi’s columns are slanted, the pinnacles look like antediluvian monsters or termite mounds, the exterior cladding is of crumbled majolica and tile, not only the facades but also the walls of the interiors are undulating, and the stone surfaces look like liquefied lava.
To continue on the path traced by Gaudi was impossible and any attempt to imitate him was doomed to failure. But is this not also true of the exhausted refinements of art nouveau decoration, of the wrought ironwork of Guimard and Horta, of Beardsley’s illustrations and of van de Velde’s furniture itself? All art nouveau has this dual character. As the work of aesthetes for aesthetes, it still belongs to the nineteenth century; for the nineteenth century was the century of art released from material necessity, of art as skillful individual expression, of art appreciated only by connoisseurs. But in its break with the imitation of the styles of the past, in its return to originality, art nouveau announced the twentieth century. It is true that the rejection of tradition had begun with Norman Shaw and Henry Hobson Richardson, but only art nouveau implemented it systematically.
However, the English temperament is alien to any extremism. Thus, Charles Francis Anneslev Voysey (1857-1941) continued the work begun by Shaw and the first Mackmurdo, but his country houses, enchanting for their simplicity and intimacy, are Tudor-inspired, even if simplified in their general layout and details. Voysey’s buildings and to an even greater extent his delightful and fresh designs for textiles and furniture influenced other European countries, but they were taken up as an argument against art nouveau rather than in its favor. Perhaps the extremism of art nouveau was necessary, however, to pave the way for the even more radical and total extremism of the twentieth century. In the first twenty-five years of the new century, Voysey’s sympathy for the Tudor style and Shaw’s sympathy, in the latter part of his career, for Wren’s Baroque, led England into compromise and isolation, excluding it from the group of countries that were working out new solutions.
These solutions, whatever their origin, were never intended as a continuation of, but rather as a reaction to, art nouveau. The extremism of art nouveau, however necessary, decreed its end after no more than a decade. The more a style flourished, the shorter its duration: fatigue and even nausea set in. This was the case with the Viennese Secession, which was followed by the rigorously geometric style of the early twentieth century inspired by Mackintosh and masterfully expressed by Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos. The same happened in Berlin with the more massive style of Peter Behrens, who exerted considerable influence both as an architect and as a designer for industry. He built factories and office buildings-no longer, therefore, private homes-and designed fans, electric kettles, arc lamps, and the like, rather than household furniture, textiles, and wallpaper. Rationalism, functionalism, and social purpose, already theorized by Morris, returned here as in Auguste Perret’s early concrete buildings in Paris, in the stereometry and free plans of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “prairie houses” around Chicago, and in the commercial building of Chicago itself.
Because of its relationship to the architectural developments of our century, the commercial building of Chicago is one of the most interesting phenomena of the last twenty years of the century. The architect who understood its problems most clearly and solved them in the most aesthetically valid forms was Frank Lloyd Wright’s “lieber Meister,” Louis Sullivan (1856-1924). In order to overcome the high cost of land, but also for advertising reasons, American builders invented skyscrapers. At first, these buildings were constructed according to traditional methods, but in 1884, in Chicago, they began to use the iron structure, with pillars and supporting beams and sheets of glass or other light material used to complete the external surfaces. In the use of iron and glass, however, European engineers preceded the Americans. The Crystal palace was built in 1851, and finished, at 56 meters high, in five months, while the vault of St. Pancras station, of 1863-65, the largest of the time, reached 73 meters wide; it was surpassed by the Galerie des machines of the Paris World’s Fair in 1889, an elegant construction 117 meters wide. For the same exposition Gustave Eiffel erected the Eiffel Tower, the tallest structure ever built by man.
But these were not the works of architects. Architects of repute kept away – what is not without significance – from this line of development. Morris, as will be remembered, hated the machine and the products of industry. Ruskin had in turn hated the Crystal palace. George Gilbert Scott, the most successful English architect of the Victorian era, had had to recognize the great technical possibilities offered by steel structures, but personally he never employed them. The most interesting of the Victorian buildings in which iron and glass played a predominant role, the Oriel chambers in Liverpool in 1864, was designed by a little-known architect, Peter Ellis. The first architect of genius who understood the technical possibilities of the new materials and found appropriate architectural forms for them was Sullivan. His Wainwright building in St. Louis, of 1890-91, is a lattice-structure building, emphasizing in its strict partitioning the use of a module-cell. Sullivan in principle was not averse to decoration; in 1888, in one of his earliest works, the Auditorium, he used a highly original type of ornamentation with elegant leaves that anticipated art nouveau no less than Gaudi’s coeval decorative motifs. Yet he urged contemporaries to “avoid the use of ornament for a few years, so that our thoughts may concentrate intensely on producing buildings that are beautiful because they are bare.” This was what was to happen in the twentieth century.
The thirty years of architecture and figurative arts we have so far considered mark the beginning of a new era no less than they close the previous one. Impressionism had been the extreme fulfillment of realism. Cézanne and van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat, Toorop and Munch broke away from realism and prepared the expressionism, cubism and abstract art that were to follow them in the twentieth century. Philip Webb, Norman Shaw and Henry Hobson Richardson had exhausted the possibilities offered by tradition. Sullivan, Mackintosh, and Gaudi broke with the past. And so did the decorators of art nouveau.
But the twentieth century, welcoming the legacy of nineteenth-century painters and architects, welcomed both a blessing and a curse. Architecture and design, thanks to the heritage received, were in a position to elaborate a style in which the new century found full expression and could be understood and accepted by all. Painting and sculpture, on the other hand, were destined to a solitude even greater than that which had befallen Cézanne, Gauguin and van Gogh. Abstraction had made architecture a universal language; painting and sculpture, on the other hand, became such an individual means of expression that they soon became incommunicable. The art and architecture of the first three decades of the twentieth century cannot be discussed in depth if not in the context of this antinomy.