The Impenetrable Wall —Impressionists and Their Canvas

Author: Ziwei Chen

pronouns: he/him/his

Shenzhen Middle School

The Impressionists had well studied the history of art.

Otherwise, they could not have been so worldly as to embrace the label “Impressionism” intended to be derogatory. Coined by the outraged critic Louis Leroy, (who was, nonetheless, only a representative of the contemporary public in general,) the term was derived directly from probably the most well-known work of this movement, Impression, Sunrise.

Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1874, oil on canvas

Despite his critical attitude, Leroy proved himself to have a very keen eye on the underlying philosophy of this movement gathering momentum. He wrote in commenting to Monet’s work:

“[W]hat freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.”

We cannot, however, blame him for this dislike of the sketch-like, unfinished quality within this painting, and Monet apparently deserves that. Even a layman can sense something intriguing on the canvas: once look at it, there seems to be a vivid image instantly appeal to his impression; simultaneously, however, every form depicted becomes less recognizable. Under scrutiny, there emerge from the surface of the sea some visible brushstrokes which has so far been regarded as waves, and once they figure out that the dim shapes in the background are nothing but thin applications of paint, the viewers grow more and more uncertain about what the whole picture is suggestive of. Some may wonder why the Impressionists are so famed when all they have done is casting pigment on their unskilful sketches, others turn away and, consequently, lose an opportune chance of learning Monet’s mastery.

Detail of Impression, Sunrise

To appreciate an Impressionist painting, one has to take one step back. Then, the bright colours on canvas will blend with each other, and the captivating image will surface again. For Monet and other Impressionists alike, the reality of art is the reality of our eyes. A painter, they argue, should paint what he sees rather than what he knows. It was guided by this radical idea they openly abandoned depicting exact forms in the preference for brilliant colours, and colours, they believed, are the only things perceived by one taking a momentary glance. In Sunrise, one may discover, the forms of men and boats are reduced to silhouettes and dissolved into the misty surroundings, a scene only recognizable when the picture is viewed as a whole.

Claude Monet, The Saint-Lazarre Station, 1877, oil on canvas

It was this absence of precise forms bewildered (and outraged) Leroy, but to be fair, the struggle between colour and form had been a constant conflict on canvas throughout the history before his time: even the Renaissance Florentines and Venetians could not reach an agreement on this. This conflict is evident between Poussin and Rubens, David and Turner, and Ingres and Delacroix. Despite the continuality of the contest, from Renaissance to 19th century, the emphasis among painters was always on precise form and anatomical reality rather than brilliant colours. At Monet’s time, not surprisingly, the French and even European art was dominated by a group of this kind of conventionalists—the artists of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, a French art school that was indulging, at the time, in the studies of Neoclassicism.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Apotheosis of Homer, 1827, oil on canvas

The distinction between the Académie and the Impressionists is striking. Neoclassicism is everything about Greco-Roman virtues; clear, angular contours; and canvases crowded with historical and/or mythological figures, whereas an Impressionist canvas sheds light on a scene from everyday life. As for painterly techniques, the former follows steadily the tradition of naturalism (or illusionism in some respects) that was established by the Old Masters during the Renaissance. To them, the canvas is a window facing or a mirror reflecting the “real” world, and brushwork is better to be invisible. The Impressionists, at least initially, did not profess to challenge this popular opinion.

They questioned, instead, the actual reality that art is meant to face and reflect. The paintings produced by the Académie, they argued, are portraying scenes far from the reality we perceive in real life. Fictional events aside, no human, at one glance, can actually see so many forms as depicted in a traditional painting. There is inevitable a focal point of our eyes whenever we open them and see something, and the forms or shapes away from the focus are actually little recognizable, even though we may think we have clearly perceived them. The Impressionists were the first artists trying to free art from the prejudices of our knowledge. The world is ever-changing as the light on the objects depicted in the arts, and the Impressionist artists committed themselves to transforming the momentary effect of light and shadow into a pigment composition. The outcome, they thought, is real.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le Moulin de la Galette, 1876, oil on canvas

This disregard of anatomy, however, should not be viewed as the artists’ entire rejection of conventional techniques. Indeed, most “Impressionist” artists at that time produced numerous works in accordance with a remarkably precise perspective, creating a strong sense-of-depth that would be otherwise lost after the brutal intrusion of bright colour, although they preferred atmospheric perspective rather than the traditional linear one. There is one thing that separates the Impressionists from other painters such as Turner who had previously employed the atmospheric perspective and brilliant colour schemes, that the Impressionists had nothing to do with the mystical Romantic passion blurring Turner’s canvas. It was led by the spirits of scientific research that Monet and his fellows began their experiments. From subject matter to composition, the early Impressionism movement was, on the whole, only a colourful furthering of Gustave Courbet’s social Realism. This, as will soon been seen, is only temporarily true.

Gustave Courbet, The Stone Breakers, 1849, oil on canvas

Perhaps the best example of how the advance of technology may influence art creation is the invention of portable cameras. Whereas the Impressionists initially embraced this modern technology that helped them verify their theory of momentary visual image (i.e., how scenes look at a glance), they soon had to face the bitter fact that photographs were indeed a better medium for doing their task—recording the world as it looks like. This was arguably the first time a real aesthetic difficulty unfolded before humankind: absolute realism, that depicting everything as it is in Nature, cannot be art, for then we have Nature already and would not value anything just is it. For centuries, due to technical difficulties, even the most skilful painters could not re-produce Nature on their canvases; now, with a camera, everyone can preserve an image of the real world more precisely than any artist, creating permanence in this ever-changing modern world. I believe it was this painful awareness eventually turned the very first modernist artists to view their work in an entire new light, as they soon discovered that their new weapon, freed colours, was much more powerful than they thought. The movement of Impressionism hence became a real revolution. Even in the works of Monet himself, this increasing subjectivity in modern aesthetics is also evident: although he never gave up his pursuit of a visual reality, in some of his late-year works, definitively, he is depicting visions of his own, which can hardly be seen by others.

Claude Monet, The Japanese Footbridge, 1920-1922, oil on canvas

Throughout the history of modernist painting, the use of colours became increasingly suggestive and subjective: turning away from the outside world, the Expressionists manipulate colours for their inner emotions; the Cubists seek for a balance between the brilliance of Impressionism and the solid, underlying forms of the Old Masters; and finally, artists completely indulging in abstract forms, such as Kandinsky, arrange colours and lines without ever worrying about their representational properties. All in all, for modern artists, one thing has forever changed—they can never longer take their canvas as a window towards the Nature, but an impenetrable wall with visible applications of paint and unpainted spaces; in other words, in a modernist world where Nature recedes, the traces of art and the artists prevail.

Vassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 28 (second version), 1912, oil on canvas

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