Artificial Realities

Okay, I realize, I admit, I acknowledge: this one is freakishly endless. (And those who keep up daily cannot say I didn’t warn you.) The post is an essay I once wrote for college credit, and I went crazy. I still love it.

Back in the Nineties, I wanted to take an organized tour-group trip to London, which Janet in her then-role as travel agent was shepherding and supervising for her agency. There was one little problem: it was one week in January (when I should have been at Andrew School, teaching). My then-superintendent, jolly Dave Pappone, told me that I could do this once in my lifetime career, provided I could acquire some academic credit for the experience. (Reminds me of when the feds stopped permitting teachers’ summer travel as a legit tax deduction! Not to make Dave sound like a Scrooge of some kind, unlike our government.) Fortunately for me, the trip was sponsored by Clinton Community College in connection to an Introduction to Art course on the Impressionists (known as HUM 120) since there was a major Impressionism-in-the-Making exhibit in London that year at the National Gallery (I cite the exhibit guide among my sources). So I, having avoided my undergrad Western Art requirement at Iowa Wesleyan College by auditing that 8:00 a.m. class my last semester (I couldn’t afford financially to add those three hours to my usual eighteen-hour load when I was desperately attempting to graduate as a certified secondary teacher with an actual full double major in English/literature and theatre arts) and then rarely awakening by 8:00 to bike across Mt. Pleasant and be present for class, I undertook at Mr. Pappone’s behest to acquire three hours of community college credit, at age 37, so I could travel to London and see the sights.

The trip was fantastic (although I should perhaps turn that crazy week into a little travel essay as—being Janet’s unofficial assistant—we had some unbelievable adventures keeping that tour group in line, including the alcoholic old lady who became our semipermanent pet and responsibility). The art exhibit and the entire National Gallery were thoroughly absorbing to me (of course, the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists at another site provided even more action, as the introduction to the essay below will prove). We all had a great time chasing professor Charles Krumbein, the supposed actual leader of the tour, at breakneck speed on foot all over London, learning how to use the Underground and getting familiar with England’s then-peculiar pub hours. We also saw theatre (Charles’s passion and his real reason for the trip) almost nonstop—Les Misérables, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s (then) newest show Aspects of Love, and more…

Eventually, the week ended and we returned home (perhaps a separate adventure in itself), and then before the end of the semester I had to write an essay on Impressionism to earn those credit hours. Just one problem: the foolish professor (not Mr. Krumbein) had created a project for lazy and inept eighteen-year-olds, not for me. The requirements were ridiculous and excessive (expecting none of the teenaged students to actually follow them). I on the other hand, being offended by the huge scope of the instructions, followed each admonition precisely and completely, and actually explained everything about everything in connection to the origins and development of Impressionism and its continued influence on the evolution of twentieth century art—as you will realize if you read the whole essay to the end.

My art professor had a hard time swallowing that all 28 pages were genuinely my own writing, and I know—reading between the lines of his running comments—that he at first thought it was all plagiarism (being used to the lazy dodges of uninspired and unimaginative community collegiates). By the end I had persuaded (or bored) him to such a depth and extent that I got the A, of course.

The best part of the essay, however, is the introduction (the first seven paragraphs). The event described actually happened, and Janet still worries about me getting excited in museums… (Perhaps that’s one reason we never followed Charles on another London trip?) So read that introduction at least. I think it’s worth it.

One small warning: I hadn’t yet learned on the computer how to make true em-dashes, thus the double hyphens which you will find, nor was I capable of including the correct French diacritical markings (grave and acute accents in particular); and although I attempted to include all the Czech diacriticals correctly on my long Prague travelogue posted back in December, I don’t think I feel the energy sufficient to amend the whole 28-page document here (perhaps I’ll quietly work on that as the weeks go by, once it’s posted…).


Imagine the scene:  the first-floor Gallery Five of the Courtauld Institute exhibit at Somerset House, the deep gloom of number Six in the doorway to the left, the bench behind us holding about four people, bored somewhat and very tired, all focused at the long north wall into Manet’s large A Bar at the Folies-Bergere. Two men are arguing (one rather loudly) about the painting, and other patrons are mixedly amused, intrigued, and (if I am to be honest) embarrassed. Cast the parts:  I’ll be the loud one, too exuberantly excited to notice how foolish I look (and how nearly I almost touch the canvas indicating my points), and the other, quietly, firmly academic (citing his sources and reminding his hearers of the fundamental ambiguity of scholarly debate) is our professorial tour guide, Charles Krumbein. Why are we arguing?  Because the teacher has taunted the pupil into proving to himself (and coincidentally to a roomful of acquaintances, strangers, and vaguely concerned guards) that Manet has painted mostly a reflection in a mirror, not a view across a real room. It is a neat pedagogic trick by Mr. Krumbein, who has been pedantically and enthusiastically explaining the superiority of Impressionism over Academic portraiture all morning. He has lured me into arguing witlessly what my later reading reveals is only too well known. Behind the barmaid is a mirror, which shows us (but not quite from her point of view) what she sees in front of her as a reflection of her reality.

Manet’s painting in question—A Bar at the Follies-Bergère

My points do happen to be actually perceptive and well observed, even (or especially?) for one arguing essentially from ignorance, and the discussion Professor Krumbein has ignited becomes a crisis in my appreciation of art. He challenges me, “How do I know we’re looking into a mirror in the painting?”  First, the bar itself, on which the barmaid lightly leans, is the same bar whose end we see reflected behind her, and therefore the woman’s back seen there is hers in the mirror. Most of the painting, then, being the reflection in the glass, shows us what she sees:  the flat gray-brown stage area with the half-attentive crowd beyond, the far wall, rose-pink, holding other large mirrors which reflect the crowd and the central chandelier from behind, and those two especially over-bright gaslight globes distractingly white (overly bright and obvious because their light reflects so much more brightly than the merely refracted light from patrons, walls, reflected mirror-views, and stage), and the dandified customer to her left seen only as a reflection on our far right. In fact, the odd horizontal dry-brushing of gray or white in the upper right, obscuring the top-hatted customer is simply Manet’s expression of chandelier-produced glare on the glass. We can even see the gilt frame of the mirror and the rose of the wall on which it hangs running parallel to the real bar in front of her, just above her hands.

“But,” Mr. Krumbein objects, “what about all the bottles…” (rose wines, foil-topped champagnes, and Bass Pale Ale–the red triangle labels on which have amused most British museum-goers the whole time we’ve been there) “…and the bowl of oranges on the bar?  They are on the real bar at the bottom. Why are they not in the reflection?”  Because the point of view for the painting is severely from the left-hand side and therefore her body blocks the reflections of most of the objects in the foreground, leaving only the three bottles on the outside left edge visible in the mirror by her right arm. In fact, the point of view seems to be that of the reflected customer, explaining perhaps why we see him only in the mirror.

Mr. Krumbein pursues, “What about the second barmaid’s posture?  Isn’t she leaning differently than the one who faces us?”  Certainly not, she is leaning forward on the heels of both hands, and the severe left-side perspective of the mirror shows her body mostly from the side rather than the front, thus revealing the angle at which she bends.

“No. Look closer. Look at her cuffs,” Charles insists. “They don’t correspond to the girl facing us. It must be a second girl looking into the stage area that we also see in front of us.”  But if it is a second girl, where in real space is she standing?  And what is that little gold-topped wall between the two barmaids? Besides, the cuffs actually correspond exactly. If we notice the gap of sleeve uncovered by lace on her right arm, we can realize that is exactly the same gap reflected on the supposedly left arm in the mirror.

In pointing out the sleeves and the bottles in particular I have gotten extremely excited, realizing for certain that my position must be true, and my forefinger has come within micro-millimeters of the actual painting as I indicate my observations. My wife notices the sudden stiffness, a step forward, of the security guards and interrupts my tirade. The picture, after all, recognized worldwide, an Impressionist masterpiece, is worth millions of dollars. I’d better watch myself lest this overly enthusiastic English teacher end up an accidental art vandal imprisoned in a British gaol.

We move on, into the Courtauld’s Gallery Six, me muttering imprecations defending my ingenious insight, to examine the acid-yellow Van Gogh chair and warped Cezanne Cupid, both of which, although admittedly odd, I refuse to accept as distorted perspectives, rather exhibiting simply strange points of view (the chair viewed from rather high and close). The lighting there is so bad, however, that everyone drifts, tentatively, quickly through the guards, back past A Bar at the Folies-Bergere and then the Renoir between the doors, oblivious of Gallery Four beyond, to see the Rubenses, whose colors and brushwork remind me vividly of the Impressionists we’ve studied all day (as I grumpily attempt to find continuity rather than the stipulated revolution in later nineteenth century French painting). And with the London winter threatening heavy rain to end the afternoon, we all hurry downstairs, gather our checked belongings, and leave.

Our ten minutes’ debate was appropriately over Manet rather than any of the other great nineteenth century French painters, for he more than anyone else exhibits and yet hangs fire in the aesthetic revolution of that period. His Dejeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia ignited the revolution as the most notorious paintings of the era, attacked and savaged by the Academicians, defended devoutly by the independents, marking the critic as new or old by his praise or condemnation, determining the aesthetic battlelines. Manet painted Impressionistically, associated with the major Impressionists, and yet (like Renoir and probably Degas) could not go the whole Impressionist route, refusing to dissolve reality in showers of light. He gets listed (like Degas but not Renoir) as a Realist in our HUM 120 materials, although exhibited and discussed as a major Impressionist. Manet inspires my own judgements and tastes. Most importantly here, however, his work undermines my pupil-victory in argument. It isn’t a mirror in the painting; it’s paint. There is no reality there, but art.

The revolutionary movement in nineteenth century painting wrenched art from the satisfied ideal of a self-effacing copy of life to a preoccupation with technique and art in itself. As the revolution proceeded into the twentieth century, that self-preoccupation has sometimes turned treacherous, sliding art from the barricades of truth to the sterile contentment of investment potential and interior decoration. In this essay, we shall investigate the social, technological, and aesthetic forces that moved painting (and painters) from the traditional strictures of the Academy through a Realist revolution to Impressionistic triumphs and further Post-Impressionist experiments that culminate in a self-conscious twentieth-century modernism perhaps best judged by Tom Wolfe as a self-exalting, self-satisfied, and deceptive con game.

My thesis originates in several impulses that antedate the trip to London. First, my wife has a profound affection for Impressionism, like so many bourgeois these days, so we have spent hours gazing on Monets, Renoirs, Pissaros, and Manets in particular at museums in the cities we have visited. On the other hand, she feels an almost instinctive abhorrence for most twentieth-century and contemporary painting, exhibited in the way she meticulously avoids even passing through the halls of newer and student work at the Art Institute. Second, it amuses me that Impressionism, which so shocked the middle class in its own day, should be the darling of our time, reproduced ad nauseam to be matted and hung in suburban living rooms throughout the world. Indeed, some of the worst art of our day remains vigilantly impressionistic (witness the pathetic paint-sighs at “Poor Artists” sales, limpid motel-room reproductions, and Parisian sidewalk knock-offs).

These paradoxes intrigue me. Is Impressionism as dead and inexpressive of truth today as those revolutionaries believed the classical set-pieces and landscapes of their youth were?  Is modern painting as blandly and insipidly decorative in its slabs of simple color or Pollockian jumbles as my wife feels?  Is truth in art as a rule beyond the reach of the public’s appreciation, which remains generally a century or so behind the vision of artists themselves?  We can resolve these questions, if only tentatively, by examining the history of art in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I shall illustrate the relevant developments through considerations of the paintings studied at the Courtauld Institute and National Gallery in London during January 1991 and other relevant works I have viewed at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and at the Louvre in July 1983, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in June of 1984, and at Chicago’s Art Institute many times.

Art entered the nineteenth century firmly entrenched in the traditions of the Academies, as passed to students through rigorous training at the many ecoles (Cullen 8). Anthea Cullen, following Diderot, explains that students were trained in careful stages to meet Salon approval. First and foremost, a young artist was taught to draw, by copying from Old Masters (10). With the basic skills mastered, the young men then reproduced on paper low-relief sculpture to practice shading (11) before trying to render full sculpture and then at last real human forms (12). Finally these skills of draughtsmanship were translated into painting, the subjects for which, popular taste and Academic authority dictated, must be based on idealized moral and classical themes. Such an objective and logical progression of skills fit perfectly the restrained and rational climate of the eighteenth century. Jacques Louis David (1748-1825) had re-emphasized classicism and working from life (Cullen 14). But cracks in the impassive facade had already begun to appear, as we can see in Goya and perhaps even in David (Brookner 1348).

The French Revolution in 1789 and the outpouring of a radically anti-neoclassic Romantic aesthetic–stemming philosophically from Rousseau, Goethe and Kant–had banged open many doors to individualizing influences throughout European civilization, and these new forces undermined Academy authority. David’s influence contributed to the dramatic works of Romantics like Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) and Theodore Gericault (1791-1824), whose huge canvases teemed with minutely observed details, sometimes drawn from modern, not ancient, sources. Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa made art of the most sensational headlines, and Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus took its theme from Byron. The Romantic infatuation with nature also inspired a whole genre of “historical landscapes,” begun by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (Cullen 19). The painting of mighty exteriors was originally outside the pale of Academic censure, although eventually earning its own category for the Prix de Rome (Cullen 14).

Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa

At the Louvre, with its endless halls of Romantic grandeurs, I was deeply impressed with the careful but powerful paintings the Romantics produced. The overwhelming size of The Raft of the Medusa, for instance, and the strange, eerie lighting combine with the tortured sprawl of anatomically precise and muscular bodies to produce an aweful emotional impact. As a viewer, I found myself stunned by the technical skill required to portray each vivid figure amidst such immensity, to make each detail contribute to the entire vast effect. Whether the revolutionary fervor of democratic ideals is present for us today I am not sure, but scholars say that Gericault made a feeling if allegorical point about the common sailor, or by extension, citizen.

The classical landscapes, with their huge scope, heavy clouds, and mighty ruins, express a Romantic thrill for the exotic, natural and mutable, still effective today, just as Shelley’s “Ozymandias” or Keats’ “Endymion” still stir the blood over passions and splendors gone. The endless vistas remind me of seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes, though with a stronger emotional content and admittedly with a view not to any contemporary or real scene. However, American Romantics of the Catskill School and their followers throughout the country made good use of the style to capture the awesome expanses of the New World, opening to (but as yet untouched by) pioneers proceeding westward to plow and plant and tame the wilderness.

Romantic art, however it may have sought new subjects, remained well within the accepted realm of technique. Academic art emphasized skillful drawing and chiaroscuro light effects. The artist’s brushwork was supposed to be invisible. The Raft of the Medusa, for example, exhibits all the correct qualities. The draughtsmanship of the bodies, the individuality of each face, the tossing raft itself, all pronounce Gericault’s ability to draw–not only with skill but feeling as well. He created a successful illusion of reality to such an intimate level that, even studying the canvas within inches, the brushstrokes remain unseen. Chiaroscuro refers to the creation of shape and size through harmonies and contrasts of light and shadow, based on modulating half-tones, following principles laid down for students in each stage of their art training, starting with a careful crosshatched shading in early drawings. The dramatic, almost stagey golden light of Medusa shapes each person on the raft with a vivid and convincing intensity, and the line of well-lit backs and arms lead the eye smoothly to the apex of the triangular pile of survivors (that neoclassic triangle-based composition being also a mandatory requirement of the Academic style). No matter how the bodies writhe within the desperate struggle on the raft or spill agonizingly into the tossing waters, each contributes to the careful composition. Even the relatively limited color range fulfills the traditional standard, lots of browns and deep somber shades. The Romantics may well have felt at home with the dark coloration, especially depicting tragic scenes, but the overall technique of their work is not all that different from well-meaning, less noted, purely academic hacks.

Most academic of all, the Romantic artists seemed to prefer to paint creations of their own imaginations over scenes they had actually beheld. They may not have leaped to the classical past for images, but they painted what they had not truly seen. Gericault was not present with the survivors of the Medusa wreck, and Delacroix’s Sardanapalus is not picturing any scene Byron actually described (Cullen 15). Thinking about it now, I realize a certain idealization of the shipwrecked Medusa sailors:  none of them seems actually, physically injured. This emphasis on portraying the images of one’s own fancy, regardless whence the inspiration, is well within the scope of Romanticism, like Shelley’s gorgeous mountains and ocean-lakes in Alastor or Victor Hugo’s profoundly researched but still unexperienced sixteenth century of Notre-Dame de Paris. Even Gericault and Delacroix then, unfair as the judgment may be to them overall, may serve as a traditional background with which to contrast their successors.

Romanticism contributed significant momentum to the arrival of a new art, however. Romantics emphasized the “individual gesture” (#3 82), the statement of one’s own ego. Romantics turned to nature and to the modern world for inspiration, beginning a preference for actual subjects over imaginary scenes. Romantics began to “load their shadows” with paint, unlike the thin surfaces of classic backgrounds (Cullen 26). All these differences were adopted and extended by the next generation.

In the 1840s and 1850s, academically trained artists turned more decisively from the moral, classical art they had been taught. Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875), Honore Daumier (1808-1879), Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867), Jean Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), and Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) moved from Romanticism into Realism in their painting. Some captured real life, too real, too intensely naturalistic (dubbed “vulgar” by critics) for the cultured Academy. Millet painted peasants working in the fields, posed classically perhaps but caught in the process of real work (#3 83). Daumier also illustrated the common people of the day; his magazine illustrations capture contemporary moments in comic or satiric caricature, like Dickens’ Phiz and Cruikshank. And Daumier’s oil The Third-Class Carriage not only records modern transportation (#3 87) but the atmosphere of cheap travel; I saw it in New York, and the painting leaves a haunting, gloomy impression of real life, really lived. Both artists were portraying actual “slices of life,” as Emile Zola insisted art must do. Their interest in their fellow humans reveals a democratic, unidealized sensibility.

Millet’s fellow in the Barbizon School–so called because the painters lived and worked in Barbizon, a little village outside Paris–Rousseau painted landscapes, Dutch-inspired in approach but suggesting light effects later fully developed by the Impressionists (#3 84). Corot also painted real-world landscapes and scenes, with less insistence on recording each leaf and branch than his peers (#3 85). His View of Avignon at the National Gallery is more colorful than light-and-dark and also oddly Cezanne-like in the appearance of the landscape as planes of color.

Courbet’s Burial at Ornans

Courbet is the Realist for me. The Burial at Ornans was as profound an experience at the Louvre as Gericault. He may have been criticized in his own time for faulty drawing and awkward compositions (Nochlin 7), but the Burial, even with crisscrossing currents of movement does not seem to lack a clear focus. The huge work (ten feet by twenty-two) seems like a classical frieze in oil, extended and filled with heads moving in procession (like the Athenian marbles at the British Museum). The major figures are far to the left, and even the dog in the foreground looks away from the internment, but the moment seems for all the realism of inattention to hold a classical stillness. Linda Nochlin, in describing the painting, says he was influenced, like Corot, by the art of the Netherlands (105) but also and more significantly for art history by popular art. “Courbet’s style could be seen as directly related to the simplicity and naivete of popular art” (137), but that is his strength: “Courbet, in turning to the revivifying source of popular art is thus at once the first major artist to look toward the primitive in the nineteenth century” (138).

All these Realists, to capture the real environments they painted, moved from their studios out of doors. Admittedly, young artists in the ecole system did outdoor work in their training, but real art, Salon art, was done in the studio from oil “sketches.” Working outside required a rougher, more hurried technique, and the Academy did not approve anything not “finished.”  The Realists began a movement toward less complete, more obviously “painted” art.

Furthermore, the Realists painted reality. Their goal seems to have been to create a perfect illusion of real scenes, practicing traditional perspective and usually chiaroscuro illumination. But the very reality of their images was shocking. Conservative critics saw “dangerous political radicalism” in Courbet’s subjects and in his “formal language” or style and technique (Nochlin 163). However, other artists were to challenge the canons of taste even more threateningly.

Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe

An oil sketch for Dejeuner sur l’herbe by Edourard Manet (1832-1883) hangs at the Courtauld, and I was able to see for myself one of his two most terrorist paintings. Even in reproductions, the nude on the grass beside the two young bohemians is an unusual image. Like the even more notorious Olympia in the Louvre, the girl is looking at us, boldly, directly. I must admit that of the two, Dejeuner seems still more bothersome, perhaps because her nakedness, contrasted with the men’s fully clothed jollity, carries an overt sexism I find uncomfortable (as Dan Ackroyd reminded the public in a famous Saturday Night Live sketch about a lewd fellow’s art appreciation). The sketch seems realistic to me, darker than full Impressionism, and therefore making use of traditional techniques for “laying in layers of color” (Cachin 20). For his overtly modern scene, Manet had suitably classic sources–either unrecognized at the time (#3 90) or else outrageous in being so reinterpreted (“IMPRESS” 26)–and his composition utilizes the classic triangle (“IMPRESS” 26), but for his contemporaries the flat, distinct color areas, lacking shading tones, reduced the shapes to mere color on canvas, not a full-perspective illusion (#3 95). “The result was neither Classicism nor Romanticism, nor the new Realism of everyday experience; it was a declaration of artistic freedom” (Burchell 142).

Dejeuner was exhibited at the first Salon des Refusees, decreed by Napoleon III to counter outcry about the exaggerated number of paintings refused by the Salon that year (Cachin 165). The painting was a scandal, and Olympia two years later raised even greater outrage. Manet was in the forefront of a revolution. His flat shapes resulted from the use of frontal lighting, perhaps inspired by the harsh lighting of contemporary photography; certainly the look of Olympia was reminiscent of whores’ photographs widely distributed in Paris at the time as a kind of advertising (Cullen 27). He had, while remaining recognizably Realist, stepped into new ground artistically.

That new territory included fresh techniques and everyday, middle class subjects. He had already painted a fine picture in 1862 well within the realm of what would a decade later be called Impressionism with Music in the Tuileries, hanging in the National Gallery. His friend Antonin Proust said Manet had taken up painting plein-air at the Tuileries in the period following the success of his Guitarrero (Cachin 122), but Music was a studio piece. The picture is crowded with figures gathered at a concert in the park, including portraits of Manet and many of his friends (Cullen 42). The figures are sketched with a “fragmented” technique (42) of distinct brushstrokes that emphasize the picture plane over the illusion of perspective, although the image definitely recedes in clarity and definition from the foreground. Its bright colors and sense of action caught in an instant convey a real feeling of life without classical allusion. Anthea Cullen’s analysis of his palette (42) includes only black and raw umber (for men’s coats and tree trunks primarily) to darken the otherwise bright shades of blue, green, and white. It is a lively, energetic painting, though carefully organized into horizontal bands–foliage above, people below. The tree trunks divide the horizontal pattern (vividly so in contrast to Courbet’s Burial), especially the one left-leaning trunk that sprouts from the red-sashed girl in the front center. Except for the identifiable portraits, the faces, like that of the girl, are merely sketched with noticeable brushstrokes, and the real persons are far from carefully drawn.

Manet was in fact criticized for his inability to draw, evidently as great a problem as his subject matter. Both qualities with his bright coloration lead directly to Impressionism. Looking at Music in the Tuileries and thinking of Courbet and Gericault, I am reminded of one further important development:  Manet’s painting is small in comparison. Most of the Impressionists’ work tends toward smaller, more intimate sizes. The awesome hugeness of so many Salon-approved paintings in the Louvre was generally reduced by the Impressionists, including Manet.

All these elements–sketchy draughtsmanship, flatness of perspective, obvious brushing (and the resulting irregular surfaces), and relatively small canvas sizes–mark the Impressionists for a good reason. As Proust said of Manet, they painted outdoors, frequently finishing each work on the spot. Capturing transitory effects prompted the sketchy style, and the need to travel to the location with relative ease required the small canvases. And their “fresh-air studios” promoted the most important aspect of their art, the light-drenched brightly living colors. If we contrast Music in the Tuileries, Dejeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia with A Bar at the Folies-Bergere–the first painted less than twenty years before the last (Cachin 15-16)–the primary difference is the quality of light. Jules Laforgue identified in “L’Impressionnisme” of 1883 the qualities which made an Impressionist:  “a modernist painter endowed with an uncommon sensibility of the eye…forgetting the pictures amassed through the centuries in museums, forgetting his art school training…by dint of living and seeing frankly and primitively in the bright open air…has succeeded in remaking for himself a natural eye, and in seeing naturally and painting as simply as he sees” (quoted in Flam 9). Monet was personally described as just “an eye, but what an eye.”  The quality of seeing in some fresh new way and the development of new techniques to record what was seen are the hallmarks of Impressionism emphasized by the artists themselves. Contrasting their bright, pretty canvases with the dark, shadowed art of the past proves they found something new.

In particular they discovered color. Several causes can be traced for the novel colorations in Manet, Monet, Morisot, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisely, and their peers–causes cultural, aesthetic, and technological. Anthea Cullen traces an academic mistrust of color to cultural influences; the neoclassic artists had wished to rise above the level of mere guild-level craftsmanship (an artist is more than a house-painter) and therefore had emphasized line over coloration on the belief that color was too vulgarly sensual whereas draughtsmanship took real intellectual skill (8-9). Both the students’ training with pale marble statuary and the halftones of chiaroscuro limited their eye for coloration; the ecole-trained artists thought and saw in terms of dark and light rather than colors. They also painted indoors in dark-walled studios with restricted northern light, limiting what they saw to cool tonal gradations (29). The Impressionists, like many of their predecessors, moved outdoors, and unlike so many earlier painters saw that reality was not the simple halftones of academic theory. Their fresh vision came easier for them on the foundations of Realism; most of them had been trained by outdoor-loving teachers, Gleyre and Couture (16), who approved the new vision of these students. Likewise, science and technology promoted color; mass-produced, machine-ground paints available in stoppered tin tubes (22) allowed prolonged outside work. Also new, brighter colors were marketed (as the film accompanying The National Gallery’s Art in the Making exhibit emphasized). Even with a foundation of change and the new paints, however, the new art required real artists to see and paint in new ways. In the end, Laforgue was right:  Impressionism resulted from a new eye.

The new eye presented its visions to the public first in April, 1874 (#3 95), and one of Monet’s paintings inspired a scurrilous label for the group, Impressionism, but the painters took the name as their own. An “impression” was supposed to be a quick look, a first glimpse, and unfinished work, but these new Impressionists, the avant-garde of the 1870s and 1880s, proposed that only the impression counts. Even though they often finished their works much more carefully than popularly supposed (then or now), the feeling of spontaneity was emphasized (“Six”). The National Gallery’s Art in the Making:  Impressionism exhibit demonstrates that immediacy, although only The Beach at Trouville seems to have been done on the spot in one sitting (“Six”). All the paintings feel fresh, alive, energetic, spontaneous. Each one seems to record a brilliant, colorful instant of a particular day, as seen by that one artist’s eye.

“The impressionist does not analyze form but only receives the light reflected from that form onto the retina of his eye and seeks to reproduce the effect of that light, rather than the form of the object reflecting it” (#7 182). Impressionism rejected chiaroscuro, the art of rendering form in halftones, learning from previous artists “that reality rested not so much in the simple objective nature of natural phenomena…as in the eye of the spectator…a continuously changing panorama of light and shadow, of moving clouds and reflections on the water” (“IMPRESS” 29). We should notice the importance of change, as revealed by the outdoor world; Monet’s Beach at Trouville, for instance, catches one moment with the sun shining at almost midday and the exact casts of the shadow on the face and dress of his wife (and clearly unshadowed on that distractingly white knee). The Impressionists saw that real objects and real shadows were not single colors or gradations of single tones but batches of complementary and contrasting colors all mixed together–or glaringly separate. So they painted without the traditional earthtones, modulating mixtures and pure strokes of bright color (“IMPRESS” 30) to record what they saw. Rather than premixing colors on their palettes, they painted raw shades right on the canvas or blended or mixed colors wet-in-wet as they painted. “The impressionists began to use their eyes like prisms, turning white light into all its components of the spectrum” (#7 184).

Most importantly, the Impressionists risked incompleteness in their painting. Even academy hacks had painted oil sketches out of doors, but such work was merely preliminary to the final, finished painting to be completed in the studio. The Impressionists made what they felt were finished works often on the spot, more or less in one sitting. The idea was to capture the impression of the scene at that moment, and as time passed they became sensitive (Monet especially) to how fleeting the moment could be. Therefore an Impressionist had to work very fast–using definite, observable brushwork and a sketchy, undetailed style, even leaving bare canvas or gesso visible. The group made a virtue of that hasty, traditionally “incomplete” quality in their work, and the old-fashioned critics, into the next century, condemned that very aspect of the new art, seeing incompleteness as a vice, a lack of talent and technique. It seems quite natural, too, that the critics of the old school could not accustom themselves to Impressionism. The very “incompleteness” of their style draws attention to itself, emphasizes the picture plane, even denies the reality of the landscape or portrait. And that self-consciousness was deliberate. As Monet said:  “When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you–a tree, a house, a field, or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naive impression of the scene before you” (quoted in Flam 9). Monet’s many colors in, say, Bathers at La Grenouillere, recorded in distinct long or short strokes, wide or narrow, do capture the essential shapes and colors of the boats, water, and people at the shady pier.

Monet getting more extreme (and Japanese-influenced) — Sunrise Impression

Claude Monet (1840-1926) is my wife’s ideal Impressionist, and the art historians agree he took this new art as far as anyone. Because Janet loves his painting so much, we usually spend the most time in any museum looking at his (and other available Impressionists’) canvases, and we’ve devised a little game–which we first discovered years ago at the Art Institute and practiced in New York, Paris and London–that provides an important reminder at this point. In our own untutored way, we discovered one trick for appreciating the qualities of a real painting over any reproduction (because our “game” only works with the paintings themselves). What we do is to find, if possible, the “correct viewing point” for each painting, which is how we identify the distance at which the painting suddenly comes into focus as a real scene, where the individual colors and visible taches create an actual landscape. And it works. The usual distance is about fifteen to twenty-five feet, although the larger the painting (like Nympheas) the farther the distance required–the basement hall at The National Gallery doesn’t quite provide enough room for the waterlilies to focus. The Thames Below Westminster and The Japanese Bridge there do fit the system, although Camille’s white knee remained “painterly” as far back as I could move.

Now our game is probably as unsophisticated as the enjoyment some people get from noticing how the eyes in most portraits “follow you around the room.”  But it does provide an enjoyment of Impressionistic technique different from the analyses of art historians:  the paintings do work as representations of reality, not simply as compositions of paint on canvas. And the pleasure, the appreciation of technical skill, is quite as profound as the sense of textures of real material and real flesh in Rembrandt, as the wonder of detail (close up in this case) in Gericault, as the psychological and humane realism of Courbet. To observe the focused landscape dissolve as you approach the painting inspires wonder and awe at the artist’s ability to paint, up close, something that only appears clearly at a great distance.

Even the Rouen Cathedral series plays the game. At an extreme distance (usually through a doorway from another room) the cathedral does appear. Monet may have been dissolving or “corroding” with colored light the solid mass of the building into “fluff” (Flam 13, #7 187-188), but reality remains behind the technique. The airy lavenders and pinks, brushed like cloudscapes, that he colors the stone are unusual (and on a rainy Bastille Day I could find no hint of anything but gray in that cathedral), and Monet at the end of the century was battling Impressionism’s offspring to maintain his own vision of art, as he painted all those series works–cathedral, grainstacks, Seine, poplars–but even to his death he continued to paint what he saw, the world that was out there reflecting light into his incredible eye.

Renoir’s Les Parapluies

Monet is the ultimate Impressionist, remaining with the style to his death; unlike Renoir who turned to Italy for a classical control in the eighties (from which he seems to have drawn an ability to portray a reality beyond light, painting textures and personalities, as in Les Parapluies); unlike Pissarro, who was drawn to Seurat’s pointillism; unlike Cezanne and unlike Degas, who each made his own style. Monet kept his faith in the instinctive, variable tache of his Impressionism. “Implicit in Monet’s notion about what he saw, then, was how he saw it, which was in turn inseparable from how he rendered it. The things that he depicts are inseparable from the dynamic, flickering networks of brush strokes that he employs to depict them, and which represent not only the things themselves but the envelope of light and air that surrounds and permeates them. …Moreover, his brush strokes not only describe the subjects that are being painted but to some degree simultaneously evoke the very process of fragmentary looking and recording that determined the way they were painted” (Flam 9).

Late in his life Monet began to paint huge “decorations” in his studio, the waterlilies. These large works leave behind the small canvas of most Impressionism, mostly I think because he no longer had to carry canvas and easel out of doors, that main reason for the typically small Impressionist painting. The immense distance that would be needed to focus these paintings, impossible in most rooms–even in the great oval rooms of the Orangerie (Gordon and Forge 258-259)–forces the viewer to look at them as paintings, but by the 1920s that attitude was almost de rigeur.

Even as his canvases grew immense, the essence of his style remained:  the Nympheas are recognizably Monet, fluid, natural, instinctive. Indeed, after his reputation waned following his death, that “increasing size and freely flowing brushwork” (#3 99) earned him the interest of Abstract Expressionists and sparked the still current Monet revival. It seems, although critical studies show otherwise, that Monet painted without conscious thought intervening between the light-filled world, his eye, and his canvas, almost as if he painted by sight alone, without the intervention of nerves and muscles.

Another Impressionist, late in his life when arthritis (or rheumatism, depending on which scholar you read) had crippled his hands, painting with brushes strapped to his wrists, even told an admirer who wondered at his still skillful art, that one doesn’t paint with the hands. Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), unlike Monet, preferred portraits, and I find in his work a greater sense of physical reality than in Monet. Four paintings we saw in London may illustrate his differences. Boating on the Seine is an exterior, but (more like Pissarro in his English road scenes than like Monet) the real world–boats, water, shoreline, the house in the background, and the girls rowing are presented with a physical sense greater than the reflections in the river. However, the shapes are not manifested by gradations of tones but mixtures of colors. La Loge at the Courtauld and La Premiere Sortie from Art in the Making study the front and the side of two women, and in both cases the blended brushing for each dress creates a palpable sense of the materials, and the modelling of the faces is delicate. The black stripes in the La Loge dress, startlingly not typical of an Impressionist’s palette, stand out starkly. Les Parapluies, the drawing card of the Impressionist exhibit at The National Gallery, features a typically rosy-cheeked (and solid) Renoir woman, the amazing confusion of umbrellas in the energetic moment as the shower ends, and the details of the man’s glove and the little girl’s coat and hat. The plain dress of the woman with the band-box, especially, conveys a reality of cloth almost like Rembrandt but far more alive with colors.

Is an illusion of physical reality a retreat, or is the sense of classical perfection Renoir sought to achieve in the eighties a greater accomplishment than spontaneous recording of impressions?  The paintings are pleasing, and in fact “pleasing” describes Renoir and may explain his continuous popularity. Throughout his career he did exemplify many Impressionist traits–unusual compositions, figures cut off by the edge of the canvas, fragmenting brushwork to capture one particular moment–but he himself felt that perhaps the Impressionist style was too easy, perhaps too naive and natural.

Camille Pissarro (1863-1944) was another careful Impressionist. The Avenue, Syndenham was reworked in two phases, first an ebauche of big color slabs, worked into the street scene wet-in-wet, then later the figures were added, although he changed his mind about the number and placement of the right-hand group (“Six”) to increase the open quiet of the scene. Pissarro evidently liked city streets; we have seen quite a few, and Janet has grown to admire him second only to Monet. His perspectives are clear and generally traditional, his technique as active as Monet or much Renoir. Much of the contemporary sidewalk art of Paris seems to derive from him more than anyone else. One little nocturnal street view, hanging downstairs at The National Gallery, however, made me stop to realize powerfully the anti-realist message inherent or overt in Impressionism. The vanishing point is just about the center of the canvas, and the picture therefore clearly divides into four acute triangles of dark gray and black separated by lines of white, the streetlights. Blown up on a larger scope, the light lines simplified or narrowed, the picture could be a modern abstraction, blocks of color, pointed shapes without reference to a real scene.

Although the Impressionists created a new freedom of artistry, their naive view of the world, of nature, may have been an end in itself. What they painted was felt to be true (remains true today of their epoch); but even though Pissarro painted contemporary Parisian or London streets, even though Renoir painted his friends and acquaintances, even though Monet painted real trees (that he had to buy to finish the Poplars) and up-to-date engineering (viz. the much earlier Gare Saint-Lazare series), there seems to be something escapist to their work. A modern impressionistic landscape seems trite, almost by definition, without regard to the artist’s talent. Is that because such naive, idle scenes of nature have become a kind of lie, a nonexistent pseudo-reality in our time of hyperindustrialization and urban sprawl?  Not even our rural Iowa seems as primitive, as perfectly natural, as Monet’s Normandy–or even his Paris or London. And how innocent, how calmly, silently euphoric were those actual scenes in his day?  Those poplars were ready for the buzzsaw. By the end of his century he had to retreat to his artificial Oriental garden to find his subjects. Another case in point:  Barbara Erlich White juxtaposes an 1855 photograph with Renoir’s The Pont Neuf, Paris, and even in black and white the photograph carries a greater sense of hurlyburly and urban bustle than Renoir’s graceful shapes in an amber city blessed by a blue and cloud-flecked sky (42-43). His is not a real, true view–for one thing the people are too large for the carriages–but a graceful adaptation of reality. No wonder their supposedly “revolutionary” art ended up selling so well (and perhaps ease of hanging in collectors’ homes might be another reason for those perfectly room-sized canvases).

The Impressionists did not arise as a fluke, nor was their accomplishment merely the result of developments in art history. No art–literary, visual, musical, or performed–(nor any individual person) exists in isolation. Each art and every artistic accomplishment (like any individual) is shaped by the social forces–cultural, historical, ethical, personal, philosophical, technological, aesthetic–which invented, through variable human minds and hands, the arts that exist to exist in the forms practiced at any given time in any given place, and which shaped and shape the individuals who create art based upon, improving upon, diverging from the acknowledged or unacknowleged heritage of the past.

The Impressionist and by extension any human achievement rested upon and in its own way resisted and rebelled against all the art of the past–Realist, Romantic, neoclassic, rococo and baroque, Renaissance, Gothic, Romanesque, classical, (I think we get the point) Egyptian and Cycladic and Mesopotamian, neolithic, paleolithic (and all the intermediate forgettings, neglectings, rediscoverings, misunderstandings,–and I think the point here is made, too–interpretings, reinterpretings), and all the other equally long and complicated traditions of all the regions of the human world as various peoples interpenetrated to one extent or another culturally and personally since –well, logically, since the Universe itself began, effectively, since we cannot forget the inhuman inspirations of things in themselves as noticed, ignored, misunderstood, worshipped, manipulated, destroyed (again, I hope the point–that the relentless progression cannot be fully developed–is clear) by the variable and essentially independent but culturally conditioned minds of people–as individuals and as groups–throughout human time (nor is all even known, especially by me).

Inevitably, the multitudinous and multiplex factors of civilization cannot all be traced, nor do I feel competent to explain the inspiration of a masterpiece. But a few important sociological factors should be indicated at this point as contributing to the Impressionist moment and eye and instinct.

First, consider the Industrial Revolution, which had by the late nineteenth century been altering human life and environment for about two hundred years. Gradually, powered machinery provided new employments, liberating a vast part of the populace from the eternal working bondage of peasant labor, while producing new wealth for the factories’ owners and managers and redistributing via the new machine-fed media of production and demand aristocratic wealth through other classes and aspects of society. Factory employment, in fact, clinched the essential role of money, cash, as the economic foundation of modern society, leaving fewer and fewer communities self-sufficient on the land. The new manufactured goods became the only products available or desired for clothing, housewares, and all the material basis of life; the one example of machine-ground pigments replacing the long heritage of hand-produced paints (and the resulting loss of that knowledge and skill among artists) illustrates the whole socio-economic principle in small. Although laboring hours were tedious and exhaustive and long, new procedures of exchange were creating a new wage-earning middle class responsible for sales, book and record keeping, and all the other paperwork and management jobs that computers have now altered but not extinguished. Work has gradually been shifting from labor toward information management, and in the nineteenth century a mighty portion of European society were becoming office workers, although the world remained a crazy quilt of modern and still medieval employments.

Impressionist landscapes may have captured a vanishing world of nature, but their city scenes illustrated a new life of money and leisure. All those theater scenes (for example, La Loge and all the other theatergoers and Degas’ dancers and patrons) show us these new spenders. The portrait clients for Degas and Renoir are not the nobles of the past, nor are the jockeys and betters of Degas’ days at the races, or his or Seurat’s circus crowds. The cafe and nightclub scenes of Manet, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and Toulouse-Lautrec exemplify the new life of industrial France. Seurat, Renoir and Monet painted the middle class at play in parks and along the riverfronts. And the new idleness–for want of a better word–gave these artist not only subjects, but buyers, and the freedom, of time and money, to paint.

Travel and communications were also transforming the social and psychological world. A cheap day-ticket could transport almost anyone to the idyllic countryside for the weekend (an escape still practiced today by the hundreds of thousands of Parisians who clog the highways from the city on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings). The telegraph (and quickly the telephone) could connect persons or businesses throughout the civilized world–and consider for a moment that Monet never seems to have painted any of the already in his day nearly omnipresent telegraph poles or lines. Furthermore, steamships could carry one (like Gauguin) to the other side of the world or simply to America, like Degas to visit New Orleans and his brother.

Life was becoming comfortable. Modern medical practice, developing gradually from scientific investigation and the treatment of wounded soldiers in the Napoleonic (and later) wars, was extending and easing the lives of most people. Those Impressionists and their heirs generally lived long lives, and so did their dealers, customers and subjects. Perhaps the new health arising in that time is reflected in the optimism most people feel in the art and clearly see in, say, Renoir’s portraits.

Modern physics, breaking the bounds of objective reality, was developing, stimulating and perhaps stimulated by artistic insights. Jack Flam’s interpretation of Monet carries an interestingly relativistic message:  “Almost by definition, starting with their refusal to acknowledge the traditional hierarchies that distinguished a finished work from a sketch, the Impressionist painters set themselves set themselves on a collision course with the very notion of absolute values. Monet’s practice, right from the beginning of his career, of painting multiple views of the same subjects, often from the same or similar viewpoints, implicitly suggested that no single image could convey the full complexity of what it represented and that all variations on a motif had equally valid claims to being ‘true.’  As against traditional painting, in Monet’s work there was no longer a sense that one moment–or one place, or one particular view of that place–had any greater inherent claim on us than another” (Flam 9). That sounds like Einstein denying Newton’s absolute time and motion within an absolute frame of reference, and Einstein, who admittedly, perhaps importantly, came later than Impressionism, was from childhood fascinated by the nature of light.

New light was dawning in our human consciousness about ourselves and our place in this world. Geologists had begun to push back the age of the world into the millions of years, unsettling to a Bible-believing public in the early 1880s. Charles Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859 and began a worldwide tumult over evolution, connecting humanity with other primates and overturning the false concept of fixed and eternal species. Stone relics of our primitive past were being excavated (especially in France) throughout the nineteenth century that uncovered the ancient paleolithic era when Cro-Magnon folk wandered the European tundra and evergreen forests. The era of human prehistory suddenly loomed in European thinking as a vast darkness thousands of years long, and each new discovery seemed to extend the era in geometrical progressions. More dramatically, the most ancient roots of painting were discovered on cave walls at Altamira in the Spanish Pyrenees, and soon the whole Dordogne would reveal its treasures of prehistoric art, including by World War II Lascaux and Trois Freres. At first no one could believe such artistry was thirty thousand years old, but more and more painted caves convinced the scholars, astounded the average man, and intrigued the artists.

New light did not just illumine the past. New ideas, resulting from close scrutiny of real if embarrassing circumstances, were also reshaping the ways in which people looked at the present. Karl Marx developed his critique of the capitalist monetary/labor system with a series of revolutionary economic publications from 1848 (The Communist Manifesto) through 1885 (Das Capital), overturning some of the smug complacency of the monied classes with his predictions of a communist future. Equally disturbing to the average self-satisfied bourgeois was the notion that he might not actually know himself, that a large part of his personality and his identity was buried irretrievably in the Unconscious originally posited by psychologist Sigmund Freud in the 1890s. The huge daemonic vault of repressed and primitive thoughts and emotions seemed as personally terrifying as the possibility of a million years of human evolution before history. On the other hand, artists in many fields saw in the Unconscious the source of creative intuitions and insights, a powerful source of deep and primitive human inspirations.

Created and then transformed under all these influences, Impressionism gradually became a new art as history and aesthetics stood trembling on the threshold of the twentieth century. New painters brought all the intellectual and cultural qualities we have just listed into an art that veered distinctively from Impressionism. Science was one major influence. The new art exhibited and explored psychology, anthropology, and physics.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge

Psychological verisimilitude seems most apparent in two artists, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. I like the way they each, differently, pin a subject’s personality vividly in paint. Edgar Degas (1834-1917), we are told, is essentially a realist, but like his peers he experimented with very unusual placements and compositions, almost photographic cropping of scenes by the canvas edge, and declarative techniques of painting. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) is definitely a post-Impressionist, especially in his distinctive coloration and use of outlining. Both Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas could use garish, almost hideous colors to portray the artificial lighting of nightclubs and theaters, and in that harsh light all the flaws–physical and psychological–of a subject could be scrutinized. Neither one seems traditionally sympathetic with the people he paints (perhaps revealing something of the upper class heritage they also shared?), and yet for all one notices so many unpleasant details or contortions of expression, a viewer doesn’t necessarily dislike the people Degas or Toulouse-Lautrec has portrayed. The artist seems distanced from his subject (perhaps like an analyst) and therefore more scientific (and generally less pretty) than Monet or Renoir. These two seemed to see by a different light, the artificial glare of the indoor world they frequently painted and the illumination of a psychological perspective on the world.

Physics also provided new directions for art, allowing a rationalist attitude to diverge from the Impressionists’ instinctive sensibility. A scientific study of light and color created a new style. Although Georges Seurat (1859-1891) used the Impressionistic palette and raw-color juxtapositions and although he began (as with Bathers, Asnieres) well within the Impressionist style, his later “chromo-luminarist” technique placed their insight on a scientific basis. Inspired by color theorist Michel-Eugene Chevreul, Seurat “was fascinated by the idea that color is controlled by fixed laws which ‘can be taught like music’” (“Seurat” 157). Essentially, he wanted to develop a style which, perhaps like the Academic tradition still being strongly taught and practiced into the twentieth century, could objectify Impressionist intuitions and provide a basis for transmitting the new art to younger generations.

Seurat developed his own pattern of contrasting and complementary colors and developed the idea that no one color is the true shade of any object, but rather a complex interplay of pure colors. So he painted in the famous dots, beginning with the “local color” of the surface in totally white light (“Seurat” 158-159) and then qualified by more color dots representing the subtle inter-relations of reflection, refraction, and absorption of lights. The basic principle was much the same as traditional Impressionism, but more rigorous, intellectual and mathematically precise. At a distance all these colors combine into a lively, visually symphonic unison. “So precise was his method that, given the color of an object, of its surroundings, and of the conditions of the light, he could actually establish beforehand the exact colors or tones he would assemble on his canvas” (“Seurat” 160). His so-called pointillist paintings, although formal, almost rigid in their presentation of figures and shapes, do reveal and intense liveliness of color, a brightness almost unmatched by anyone else.

Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

I like Seurat’s paintings; I’ve enjoyed A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte many times at the Art Institute. Its fantastic size and the wonderful colors stun me every time I see it, but even more than any Impressionist work (except maybe Monet’s Rouen cathedrals), I find myself awestruck as, upon approaching, the intensely real scene (looking from the distance as solidly present as if viewed through a window, even in contrast with the real museum-goers around) dissolves into star-flecks of paint. Even the earlier Bathers, Asnieres uses complementary and contrasting lights and darks, perhaps suggesting the care of the mature technique. Only the intense stillness, the rigidity of the scene makes the huge masterpiece seem not alive from the distance. I do wonder what he might have created had he lived longer.

Seurat avoided doggedly following true Impressionism with his scientific logic and the special quality pointillism gives his work. He lured others, temporarily or loyally, fully or partially, into various aspects of his approach–the dots, the color theories, the notion of control his “science” gave his work. The control additionally involved a certain distance or coolness (expressed in the mood of, say, Grande Jatte) and a sense of sophistication. He also asserted anew the notion of masterpiece which impressions had undermined, for his works were carefully conceived, thoroughly mastered, ambitious statements.

Most of the post-Impressionists, I feel, sought to re-establish a new kind of masterpiece (in rebellion against the mere impression?), but these new masterworks would be determined on the artist’s own terms not by any Academy or pandered public. However, most of the next generation of artists did not express a sophistication like Seurat. In fact, if I were to seek an adjective to describe post-Impressionism, it would be primitive, the very quality that every avant-garde artist we’ve considered was criticized for exhibiting. I find the primitive aspects of late nineteenth century art both intriguing and distancing. Post-Impressionistic primitivism, however, goes further than any predecessor, deepened by the sociological, archaeological and psychological discoveries of the day.

Beyond a perhaps philosophical quest for nonsophistication in style and content, some of the most important post-Impressionists may simply exhibit a kind of truly naive, possibly childish awkwardness in their work. Both Gauguin and Van Gogh came to art only later in their lives. Gauguin had been a businessman and Van Gogh a failed preacher. They were mostly self-taught painters, and though far from qualified to judge, I do wonder how much their primitive style is simply natural. Henri Rousseau qualifies as a “primitive” simply because he painted naively. Do Gauguin and Van Gogh also qualify for the Academic criticism of poor draughtsmanship that had been leveled at Courbet, Manet, and the Impressionists?

Most obviously primitive is Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), refugee from the middle class  and on several occasions from France. He seems to have been infatuated with primitive lifestyles, especially in Polynesia. Gauguin’s choice of Tahitian or Caribbean subjects, his flatly unreal perspective, his often earthy colors, and distinct outlines around forms and bodies all contribute to the naive and primitive flavor of his art. Gauguin deliberately aped the flat, almost childish art of the South Seas, and his work does contain an exotic freshness unlike anyone else. Gauguin’s paintings present a reality of his own creation through the placements of figures, the childlike perspectives, the symbolic value of the figures and their activities (which, for me at least, only the titles often suggest). Far from my favorite artist, Gauguin still interests me, and looking at his actual paintings rather than reproductions, I can be almost hypnotized somehow by the awkwardnesses of his style.

Van Gogh’s Yellow Chair

Neither Gauguin personally nor his art, however, have been as hypnotic and tantalyzing as his one-time friend Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890). As art auction prices have soared to astronomical levels, Van Gogh’s work has led the multi-million-dollar way, so popular has he become. Like Gauguin, Van Gogh was influenced–I think powerfully–by nonWestern art. The Impressionists (such as Monet) had appreciated the novel colors and perspectives of Japanese prints, but it is with Vincent that the influence of Oriental art becomes most apparent. His placement of objects, distorted perspectives, and loud colors all seem to stem from the East. The colors are distinctive, unexpected greens and yellows, vivid reds, and intense blues. Especially in the landscapes, perhaps some of the bright colors derive from the south of France, but Van Gogh often fills an interior with incredible shades. His colors can be more shocking and unusual than any garish Toulouse-Lautrec. But for me it is the brushwork that identifies Van Gogh and which becomes specifically post-Impressionist. His wild, thick strokes literally animate every object he painted:  a kind of primitive life force seems to fill even the yellow chair that we could barely see in the gloom of Gallery Six at the Courtauld. The power of existence crawls in the clotted strokes of the Sunflowers that make those petals as three dimensional as a real blossom, especially against the geometric angles of the blue wall, and the writhing limbs of the green leaves seems to wrap supernatural claws around those yellow heads.

Van Gogh Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

Of course, his self-portraits crawl with an even more powerful animism. The severed-ear picture allows the bandage to glow (the white as incredible against the red and orange background and his green coat as Monet’s wife’s knee in the sunlight on the beach) intensified by the pale and cakey skin, the single button–huge and streaked with yellow and orange–almost expressing a personality of its own, and the pipesmoke as vital as a spirit from another reality. Even so, as in most of his portraits, the eyes remain intensely quiet and still (and sad), almost like those Renaissance gentlemen in Elizabethan portraiture.

The personal vision marks Vincent’s work as indelibly individual. Van Gogh’s self-portraits feel like both the experience and a study of mental illness, just as Starry Night (1889) projects a similar psychotic enthusiasm into the cosmos itself–both in the fiery heavens and the anguished flame-like upward-surging tree in the foreground. Looking at one of his paintings invariably disturbs me, not because I sense some kind of insanity but because that immense vitality seems awful and overwhelming. Van Gogh himself, however, felt he was pushing at the limits of art, not personality. He wrote to his brother Theo in 1889: “Gauguin, Bernard and I may stop at this point perhaps and not conquer, but neither shall we be conquered; perhaps we exist neither for the one thing nor for the other, but to give consolation or to prepare the way for a painting that will give even greater consolation” (Masini 33). His word consolation is arresting, considering the disturbing vitality of his vision. Monet may paint with as forceful a brush but never without a peaceful calm that seems somehow impossibly more serene and sophisticated. Once again, primitivism marks the later from the earlier artist.

By contrast with the madman of Arles, Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) generally feels more somber and quiet. Although born a year before Monet and an important contributor and exhibitor with the Impressionists, Cezanne in his work, however, is distinctly later, more modern (naturally enough, considering the powerful influence of his paintings on twentieth-century giants such as Picasso). He shares with Vincent a kind of crudity in draughtsmanship, although both Gauguin and Van Gogh felt Cezanne was clumsy, gauche and awkward (Shiff 166-167). I certainly found the Courtauld’s Cupid much more difficult (too easily described as wrong or awkward) than the Yellow Chair. But I suppose the wracked perspective and the unsettling mixing of solid objects (the onion and drapery) into the painting shown at the left forefront were deliberate. Richard Shiff says, “The artists and critics who observed this awkward art, those few who in the 1880s and 1890s wrote at length about Cezanne, nevertheless praised him. In fact, during this period it was common for the crude, the awkward, or the distorted to be accepted as more sincerely expressive than the refined” (168). Cezanne was painting his own vision, and the result was in his own manner post-Impressionistically primitive.

Cezanne is a difficult artist to appreciate. He is far more interpretive than Manet, not as appealingly lovely or pretty as Monet and Renoir, nor as immediately magnetic as Van Gogh. His landscapes, portraits, and still lifes often seem stiff and blocky. Yet he directly inspired more modern movements (Symbolism, Fauvism, Cubism) than any other single painter. I’ve also seen (and not necessarily liked) more of his work than anyone except Monet because of that influence. To write about him I have had to reevaluate my attitude and reconsider his work (to avoid the easy and dismissive judgements I’d philistinely made in museums) by studying reproductions, especially those in the Time-Life book The World of Cezanne. I am not yet sure what I think of his painting, but I may have begun to do what he demanded:  “Cezanne shifted the emphasis in painting from the things viewed to the consciousness of the viewer” (Murphy 8). I deliberately placed him at the end of this essay because that insistence is the most singularly modern element I could identify about these artists. His distortions and rearrangements of reality not only assert his aesthetic vision but require my study and consideration to unravel the subject from the technique and vice versa. No, he is not alone in this self-consciousness by a long shot (witness Monet’s huge interpretations late in his life of increasingly minescule portions of reality), but I cannot discuss everything about everyone. Such self-consciousness had been present in all the art of the century.

Cezanne remained committed to the Impressionist naturalism, but he placed a greater, more architectural solidity in his painting. People, buildings, and landscapes are painted as solids heavily occupying space throughout his work from early to late. The space may be disconcerting and unphotographic, but the subjects have a plastic definition, even when he paints with visible and parallel strokes almost like the crosshatched shading of drawing technique (Cullen 105). Among the London paintings, Still Life with Plaster Cast presents the Cupid as a solid mass much like his own head in the self-portrait, both confronting the viewer from a less reliable background. The man smoking a pipe  blends more in technique and color into his background (although his pipe therefore stands out much more than that of the standing kibbitzer behind the card players, where the table seems almost like poured concrete in its pale square solidity against the players’ dark legs). Even the drapery in Card Players has a massiveness in the pale parallel brushstrokes of highlights. Such massiveness is what the painting shows, not necessarily or at all what the actual subject may have possessed.

Cezanne’s Lake at Annency

Most solid of all are those fruits in his still lifes, richly colored and chalky. From the still lifes at the Met and the Art Institute it is those red and yellow globes I recall the best. The fruit comprises a greater reality when I viewed the painting than the drapes, plates, or tables on which they lay (or considering Cezanne’s loosened perspective, seemed almost to roll off). But solidity remains an illusion created by paint, which brings us to the Lake at Annency where the water seems as dense as the mountains or the rock in the left foreground, and the reflections of the building at center are as real as the textures of the mountainside above. Although the water area is scumbled on the canvas and the mountains laid in blockier and more even strokes, there is little to tell the difference by my comprehension of the scene. Essentially, the painting remains a painting, and I as the viewer cannot avoid that awareness.

Cezanne’s “solidity” arose, perhaps like Monet’s airiness, from his basic assumptions. Cezanne said, “Everything in nature is modeled according to the sphere, the cone and the cylinder. One must learn to paint with these simple figures” (Shiff 129). Such geometry is revealed in his painting and the volumetrics of his shapes, and in the end it is geometry that best summarizes Cezanne to me–the blocks of buildings and rocksides, the neat but indistinct parallelograms of fields, the vertical lines of light and shadow that become trees, the planes of faces and hands (Woman with a Coffeepot and the Madame Cezannes) and even foliage (the Art Institute’s Bathers). But even in those geometries there is indistinction, arising I think from his multiple thin colors, often brushed in a squarish or crisscross stroke, blending and overlapping to texture a surface like the wall behind the card players, or table surfaces, or best of all the Louvre’s Rocks in the Forest of Fontainebleau. The textured forms are created generally by colored strokes only without outlines, sometimes clearly delineating the subject’s features, sometimes only suggesting the object portrayed.

No matter the subject, Cezanne felt it necessary to redesign reality for the painting, enlarging or reducing elements, moving things to create balances and harmonies, removing some things to clarify the picture. His subjective choices determined the painting, beginning with the selection of subject but continuing in what he chose to paint and not to paint of what he saw and through what colors he applied in what ways. He created not a rapid impression of the world but a careful (he disliked models because they could not sit still long enough) expression of his vision. He believed the painting must be true to itself as a painting:  “the painter must therefore hold in balance two realities–that of nature, of the three-dimensional world, and that of the two-dimensional image” (Murphy 78). So must the viewer.

With Cezanne we reach, probably cross, the brink of modernism. The fauvists, cubists and abstractionists saw in him, as Matisse said, the “father of us all” (Murphy 172). “Cezanne was certainly the father of twentieth-century cubism and abstract painting. Yet he never even at the end of his life, had any desire to depart entirely from nature. …Abstraction for him was a method, a way station at which he stripped off the visual irrelevances of nature in order that he could begin rebuilding the natural scene as an independent painting…a parallel but separate and unique reality” (“Neo-” 52). Such emphasis on the importance of the work itself reintroduces a certain kind of masterpiece-ism to art that the notion of the impression had (however briefly) denied. Such self-consciousness about the process of painting, although not unique or new, also reaches toward the future. Cezanne’s work, itself in many ways deriving from the transformations in art made by his peers, shoved art into our century.

Modern art breathes from Cezanne. I can myself see the almost easy leap from Rocks to Braque and Picasso’s cubism, where the flat surface of the painting’s image quickly consumes the dimensionality of the subject. Even the same neutral color tones that distinguish Cubism also predominate (although more in blues and greens) in much of Cezanne’s work and the same kinds of brushwork textures. But most of all, modernisms derive from his attitude that he is creating a painting. The cubist, extending from Cezanne, reshapes the world, redesigns (along geometric principles) the subject, simplifying and reorienting. Picasso took cubism even further, reconstructing any subject into entirely new conceptions. Cubism and any abstraction, most famously in any of Picasso’s portrait distortions, are the expression of the artist’s double vision, reality reconsidered as image. But the whole trend is there, the full awareness is there all along. Scholars’ preoccupation with explanations of technique, whenever in the history of art, reveal that the truth has been the same:  art is not nature; it is a manufactured, deliberate, artificial construct. The avant-garde painters of the nineteenth century did not invent one of the most important conceptions underlying modern art; they just made it obvious. The artist is painting, and whatever he or she paints is a picture, a painting, an image, not itself real life, not itself nature. The picture is a lie.

The artist is painting a flat surface with colored strokes, no matter if he is a cautious Academic panderer carefully completing his daily portion of a huge mythological subject or the Spaniard dashing off another minotaur. The image is an illusion. Picasso (or our contemporaries) might break the two-dimensionality and the artificiality of illusion through collage or the inclusion of real objects, but the painting is not itself the real world, even if found objects (even junk or clumps of earth) are displayed. The artist has made a choice, arranged the world, whether in paint or in sculpture or in selecting (even haphazardly) what thing she has found to place in the exhibit.

Modern art has become preoccupied with the role of choosing and self-consciously choosing and making the viewer aware of the choosing. We may mix media, we may despise technique and history, we may create performance art that lasts only a moment in time in defiance of the notion of masterpieces and posterity; but the experience of art remains the same:  creating an experience which is ultimately an illusion of one kind or another. No matter how much the work of art may impinge on real life (and some contemporaries have been and are inventing insidious ways of making their art reality), what makes art also sets art apart from regular reality–creation by a human mind. No matter what truth of whatever kind (and today there are many) the artist seeks to express, the expression is not Nature, no matter how borderline to reality is the experience. If art is here (even if the artist somehow makes me, the viewer, the art) then the world is there, elsewhere. And that is the final aesthetic ambiguity. Art exists in the world, but because it is art it is artificial. As with so many things, Picasso had it right:  “The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies” (Shiff 222).

In the end I was wrong (and yet right) arguing in Somerset House. There is no mirror, no reflection, no barmaid or bottles or bar in Manet’s painting. There is only a painting, and if the scholars are right that the perspectives of the painted mirror are skewed, that illusion was part of Manet’s truth. The painting is a painting and the distortions confess that truth, force us finally to acknowledge that final reality. The painting is a painting, not what it seems to portray. Magritte told us so plainly:  “This is not a pipe.”

Nineteenth-century art audiences generally felt the avant-garde were somehow too incomplete, too primitive, too unskilled. The attitude persisted at large well into our own century. When Roger Fry in 1910 first showed Cezanne’s works in England, he was inundated with children’s drawings sent by parents who felt their offspring could do as well as Cezanne (Murphy 8). Eventually, however, the avant-garde, Impressionists in particular, taught the populace to see in new ways, and today Impressionism enjoys a worldwide popularity. Admittedly, Impressionism can now be understood for the pretty, exuberant, enjoyable art it is. However, it does show the world, it does express a truth. Today the popular attitude may be that it takes no talent or vision to put three black horizontal lines on a white-primed canvas or to decide to place a 1950s purse as an exhibit or to lie between bare electrical wires with buckets of water all around, and the future may become educated by our own contemporaries. I have only two doubts. First is the importance of money in the art world today and second is the self-centeredness that has grown in art.

If in sheer exuberance I had put my finger through the canvas that day in January, I would have committed a million-pound crime, unintentionally and regrettably but a crime nonetheless. My crisis of embarrassment at that moment and some masterpieces of found art (and perhaps Cristo’s multimillion-dollar temporary plastic extravaganzas) bring us to the final issue. Is that painting worth all that money?  Admittedly, Manet (and, one supposes, any artist) spent hours of labor and effort that Marx, at least, would consider of value. But is that value astronomical, regardless who made the painting?  Should a Monet street scene be worth a million times more than a modern impressionist’s sidewalk offering?  If I can put an old shoe in a museum (and archaeologists do that kind of thing all the time), is that shoe really suddenly valuable?

Van Gogh earned essentially nothing on all his work, while today one painting sets a thirty-million-dollar record for cash value at an auction. An old lady in Wisconsin can suddenly find herself wealthy by discovering a minor Vincent in her attic:  one of her relatives made a good investment in picking up that painting on a vacation to France in the nineteenth century. It was indeed a good investment. Art can be more lucrative than coins or baseball cards, certainly increasing far better than stocks and bonds. That little painting hoarded away in the attic all these years has certainly increased in value at least hundreds of thousands of times. At least, so say the investment counselors.

Of course, the investment value of art is not a new issue. The Impressionists themselves enjoyed the fruits of investor-interest. They grew rich from the speculations of buyers who knew the Impressionists’ dealers had been right about the importance and value of earlier movements (like Realism). These buyers frequently were hoping that this little Monet or Renoir would become valuable, and of course, they did. Such buyers made Monet and Renoir rich men. The Salon might not provide its cultural imprimatur, but the Impressionists could achieve a more practical, a more modern criterion of success–cash. The Impressionists’ choice to portray so often consumers spending their francs in the nightclubs, bars, theaters and boulevards of their day has taken on a new significance as money has become the big issue in art.

Years ago Tom Wolfe played the philistine to ask his rude question whether modern art wasn’t just a scam. He phrased the issue as an assertion and outraged the art world. However, I would say that if art is produced and bought only with eyes on the marketplace, considering cash and investment values, Wolfe was right. Economic theory says things and efforts are worth what we think they are, rather as Hamlet told Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hysteria and hype may inflate or undermine the cash value of anything, paintings included, and if the only value a painting has is its cost, then the buyer should indeed beware. The styles, the fashion may change tomorrow, and then your hundred-thousand-dollar oil abstraction could be as salable as a pair of bell-bottom doubleknit slacks (only the pants have the desirable aspect of providing warmth and protection for the legs).

However, the value of a painting, like the value of a pair of pants or a person, is not what you or I might pay but rather inherent somehow in the painting or the person. Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere is valuable beyond its hypothetical cost–to me as an object lesson in “reading” a painting, as a touchstone about the nature of art, as a transcendental moment in my existence–because it expresses vivid truths about life (or reality) and about art. The truths arise from the viewer’s experience with the painting and therefore vary, just as my experiences with people may differ, just as anyone’s use for a pair of unstylish pants may vary. The experience though is not a cash transaction but something in itself, independent of fashions and market pressures.

The only art that could be a scam, then, would be empty decoration, devoid of any value but its cost. Since the nature of anyone’s experience with a painting is private, although colored by fashions and social expectations, then, as many found-art practitioners have discovered, anything could provide such an experience. I can enjoy and contemplate an Ingres portrait (to be aggressive about this issue) regardless what the current crop of art historians may decry about his Academism. And some trendy New York yuppie may find life’s mysteries explored in the latest slab of solid-blue canvas kitsch by the latest  fashionable, successful New York neo-pastoral-concrete abstractionist, even though he bought her painting on his accountant’s advice as a hedge against inflation. On the other hand, if I only admire Cezanne because art historians tell me to, or if my imaginary yuppie finds nothing in his latest condo living-room decoration but the same shade as his Afghani sofa, then we have been cheated. My second-hand respect carries no real value just as his neo-abstractionist wall hanging may not survive next week’s fashions. The true value, the real verite lies in the work itself and us.

I have one further caution. I wonder, looking into modernist exhibits that my wife shuns, how many times we need to be reminded of Magritte’s lesson. Art is art, not reality, although it may be interesting to explore where the line of divergence actually is. Hasn’t that point been made by now?  Do I really need to admire a whole new art-as-art movement to allow this year’s art-school graduates to earn a living?  No matter how self-conscious they were about technique and the nature of a painting as an artificial image, none of the Realists, Impressionists, or post-Impressionists, or even most of the great movements of our century abandoned picturing somehow the world. Even Cezanne insisted on using abstraction only as a means of interpreting the real world. Picasso painted what he saw, perhaps in his imagination rather than literally in his eye, and he definitely painted what he saw in his own ways. The art we have explored in this essay remains valuable on a level of picturing the world (expressing a natural truth) as well as a self-conscious series of techniques and aesthetic philosophies. If the first of the two is wholly removed, then art about art only remains, and such art as that is wholly artificial, just technique, simply decoration. And only the marketplace can give decoration a value, but the estimation of the marketplace can be extinguished overnight. It may pay well to paint fashionable decorations for yuppie living rooms, but no one can really believe that blandly following the fashions is truly art.

The great artists have all cared about their art, and revolutionary artists have tried to push the boundaries of art and technique, even to the point of making uncertain the difference between art and life. But great art is always art about life. Only comfortable second-rate hacks have allowed mere technique to dominate the expression of truth. The nineteenth-century avant-garde overturned the Academy hacks of those days. Who is going to kick the pants of the self-contented decorators of today?


Brookner, Anita. “The State-of-the-Art Crowd.”  Review of Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris, by Thomas E. Crow. TLS:  The Times Literary Supplement 4313 (Friday, 29 November 1985):  9.

Burchell, S. C. and the Editors of Time-Life Books. Age of Progress. Great Ages of Man:  A History of the World’s Cultures. New York:  Time-Life Books, 1966.

Cachin, Francoise, and Charles S. Moffett. Manet 1832-1883. New York:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1983.

Cullen, Anthea. Techniques of the Impressionists. London: Tiger Books International, 1988.

Flam, Jack. “Monet’s Way.”  The New York Review of Books XXXVII:8 (May 17, 1990):  9-13.

Gordon, Robert, and Andrew Forge. Monet. New York:  Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1983.

McMullen, Roy. Degas:  His Life, Times, and Work. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984.

Masini, L. Vincia. Van Gogh. New York:  Grosset & Dunlap, 1967.

Murphy, Richard W. and the Editors of Time-Life Books. The World of Cezanne:  1839-1906. Time-Life Library of Art. Alexandria, Virginia:  Time-Life Books, 1968.

Nochlin, Linda. Gustave Courbet:  A Study of Style and Society. Outstanding Dissertations in the Fine Arts. New York:  Garland Publishing, Inc., 1976.

Rubin, William, ed. Pablo Picasso:  A Retrospective. New York:  The Museum of Modern Art, 1980.

Shiff, Richard. Cezanne and the End of Impressionism. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1984.

“Six Paintings from the Exhibition.”  Art in the Making: Impressionism. 28 November 1990-21 April 1991. London:  The National Gallery, 1990.

White, Barbara Erlich. Renoir:  His Life, Art, and Letters. New York:  Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1984.

and materials provided as core readings for Humanities 120

“Impressionism.”  Chapter 7. 180-234. [cited as (#7)]

Florisoone, Michel. “Impressionism and Symbolism.”

“From Romantic Realism to Naturalism and Impressionism.”  3. 82-118. [cited as (#3)]

“Impressionism.”  26-43. [cited as (“IMPRESS”)]

“The Impressionist Brush.”  (reprinted from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 3, 1973-74.)  188-195.

“Neo-Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.”  43-54. [cited as (“Neo-”)]

“Seurat:  The meaning of the Dots.”  (first published in Art News.)  157-167. [cited as (“Seurat”)]

So there. For all my former English II students who didn’t believe that I could do what I was teaching them—write a research paper: here you are…

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

2 thoughts on “Artificial Realities

  1. Hmmm, very interesting article Mr. John. What better to do on a snow day than to be whisked away in my mind to some world famous art galleries viewing some magnificent pieces of work and getting a brief overview of each piece from this fine author. As my 6 yr old, Rachel, has taken a strong interest in art and is taking a Young Rembrandts class through her school, I have become more intrigued by her pictures and how she creates each one, the same, yet different. I only wish I could see inside her head as she is creating each piece. Thanks for this fantastic article.

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