Reply To: Impressionism

  • Encyclios

    May 16, 2023 at 1:42 PM

    The critical consecration – Impressionism between continuity and rupture

    Nonetheless, at the very moment when the Impressionists seemed most disunited, the first signs of consecration appeared. Of course, the hostility of official circles persisted with the refusal to exhibit Manet’s Olympia at the Louvre and the scandal of the Caillebotte bequest (1894): the Institut claimed to oppose the bequest of this collection, which included 65 of the painter’s paintings; but Renoir, in his capacity as executor of the estate, succeeded in having about forty of them accepted at the Musée du Luxembourg. The first amateurs were, among others, V. Choquet, G. Charpentier, Count Doria; at the same time, the market began to organize itself, which was to be so important for the affirmation of Impressionist painting: Paul Petit, Boussot & Valladon, Bernheim and especially Durand-Ruel, who in 1886 presented more than 300 canvases in New York, where the critics expressed themselves in very favorable terms. Around 1900, the public laughed less. The auctions began.

    All of this, however, is very little when compared to the critical success that the movement experienced during the twentieth century, a success crowned by the opening, immediately after the Second World War, of the Museum of Impressionism in Paris (at the Jeu de Paume building) and, more recently, by the Centennial Exhibition. The reasons for such a great fervor on the part of the public are manifold. Impressionism is recognized as the first pictorial revolution that made a clean break with the tradition of the past, and therefore the birth of modern art. Moreover, we are often pleased to associate Impressionism with the magical notion of “avant-garde”, born with the 20th century. In fact, the beginning of Impressionism underlined one of the crucial phases of the contrast between bourgeois taste and free artistic creation: a conflict that was resolved, for many of its promoters, in an existence of misery and in the condition of “cursed artists”, another exquisitely modern myth.

    The reality is however much more complex, and lies perhaps in the fundamental bivalence of continuity and rupture, inherent in the movement. Continuity, first of all: considered individually, the members of the group did not present anything revolutionary; and when they depicted the city, despite the events of the Commune, they did not paint according to the innovative spirit that inspired Delacroix in painting Liberty on the barricades, but rather illustrated the festive and fairy-tale scenario: think of Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines (1873, New York, private collection), the Ball at the Moulin de la Galette, or the Music at the Tuileries. While it is true that the aristocratic Degas was interested in the microcosm of the milliners and washerwomen, painting “en plein air” cannot simply be explained as a city fashion favored by the spread of public transportation.

    On the other hand, none of them hid their desire to be accepted at the Salon (and in time almost all of them were admitted, and in 1883 Manet was even awarded the much sought-after Legion d’Honneur). In their efforts to get closer to nature, the Impressionists remained steeped in the very realism they thought they were fighting. In fact, what they sought was still the “faithful copy of nature”, the “objective truth”, a new “imitation” of the ephemeral and of the world “in the act of creating itself”. From this point of view, Impressionism fits in perfectly with the tradition of French landscape painting in the 19th century, since for it the painting is still an “open window” on the world, heir to the “vedute”. Its importance does not lie, therefore, in having broken with, but in having splendidly concluded, a tradition that is centuries old.

    On the other hand, Impressionism also has a value of rupture; and in these terms it has been understood from the moment it began to spread, in France as well as abroad. In France, where certain provincial museums (Le Havre, Lyon) showed, at times, more eagerness to acquire Impressionist paintings than the Louvre, the Salon d’Automne played an important role, presenting in 1904 33 works by Cézanne and 35 by Renoir, in 1905 31 by Manet, in 1907 again Cézanne with 56 paintings. It would be easier, from that moment, to understand what Matisse’s early works owed to Manet and Signac; what Bonnard foresaw in Renoir; what the Cubists would learn from Cézanne.