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Impressionism and Impressionist Techniques


In a review of an art exhibition held at the former studio of the celebrated photographer Nadar in 1874, the critic, Louis Leroy described the artists exhibiting there as 'hostile to good artistic manners, devotion to form and respect for the masters'. Leroy was referring to the artist's rejection of the manner of drawing from the antique that was taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In the same review, the critic dubbed the artists 'Impressionists' after the title of one of the paintings on show, Claude Monet's Impression, Sunrise (Muse Marmottan, Paris). The exhibition came to be viewed as the first of the so-called Impressionist group shows.

The group of painters in the 1874 exhibition included Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cezanne and Pierre Auguste Renoir. Monet, Pissarro and Cezanne had met between 1860 and 1862. Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Frederic Bazille were introduced to the group between 1862 and 1864 by Monet whom they had met at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Other artists who contributed to the Impressionist group exhibitions during the 1870s and 1880s were recognised as practitioners of the style. They include Gustave Caillebotte and the women artists Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. Edouard Manet, an older artist whom the Impressionists admired, was also linked to the group.

The concept of the impression was of central importance to a good deal of Impressionist practice. An impression was generally accepted at this time to be either the initial impression a scene made on the mind, or a kind of rough sketch, often made on the spot, which related to this. An impression was not thought to be suitably detailed or finished enough to be exhibited. Monets use of the word in his painting, Impression, Sunrise was in part meant to excuse his painting from accusations of being unfinished.

Impressionist technique challenged the smooth finish demanded by the Ecole des Beaux- Arts. However, the sketchiness or patchiness found in many Impressionist paintings is not the result of carelessness or incompetence, as was implied by critics. It was an intentional device used by these painters to convey something of the experience of the rapid movement or variety in a scene. Nevertheless, it is largely a myth that the spontaneous effects sought after by Impressionist painters were the result of simply painting quickly on the spot. The effects of spontaneity in many Impressionist paintings involved a process of careful calculation and reworking of paint layers in the studio.

Sisley's Boats on the Seine (c.1877) in the Courtauld collection, is however one of the rare examples of a truly alla prima or 'single sitting' Impressionist painting. It was painted rapidly on the spot and is characterised by the sketchiness attributed to Impressionist painting. The fact that Sisley signed it confirms that he regarded it as a finished work. Painting directly from Nature out-of-doors (en plein air) was one of the ways in which the Impressionists challenged the training offered at the Ecole des Beaux- Arts. The paint layer used by Sisley is thin and the cream priming of the canvas shows through in places, especially in the sky, adding warm tones that suggest hot sunlight. The rapid handling was essential to capture the fleeting effects of the scene, helping also to evoke them. Broad, horiztonal strokes are used for the water surface while the smaller boat to the right is summarised in a few sweeps of the brush.

Later in his career, Monet's choice of landscape subjects show a preoccupation with effects of atmosphere and weather. He worked in Antibes from February until May 1888. The Courtauld painting is one of a series of ten works that he exhibited on his return. In the Antibes paintings, Monet was faced with the problem of capturing the intensity of Mediterranean light and colour. He achieved this by, as one critic put it, using 'the same colours on every part of the canvas'. Greens and blues complemented by pinks and oranges throughout establish the saturated light of the scene. Although ostensibly capturing a fleeting effect of outdoor light, the painting is elaborately executed and was clearly substantially re-worked. The strong diagonal and flat appearance of the silhouetted tree betrays the influence of Japanese art. Monet was an avid collector of Japanese prints, which were readily available in Paris during the 1860s. Japanese culture was considered to be 'primitive' in mid-nineteenth-century France. Its perceived navet appealed to the Impressionists because it added to the idea that, in their impressions, they were recording the primal impact nature made on their senses.

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