Saturday 5 September 2020


National Gallery, London

(Yes, a visual arts review even more absurdly late than usual. It’s just a jumping-on point to talk about Impressionism, really. Because how can you write about Modernism without including Impressionism?)

Painting Set Free?

This was a story which for the longest time everyone knew. The Impressionists were the foundational text – the first Modernist movement, bold new notions sprang from their lofty garret-dwelling brows to strike an unsuspecting world. In their day derided by critics, subsisting in a state of poverty but sticking to their radical approach, their obstinacy eventually proving… well, you know how it goes. It was an argument usually upheld by the expedient of starting your history of Modernism with them, so they could appear without antecedents on the first page.

It stuck because it was a good story, one they were often keen to keep up themselves. Renoir, for example, was wont to claim “we have freed painting from the importance of the subject. I am at liberty to paint flowers without their needing to tell a story.” Paintings no longer had to be tableaus, depicting some grand subject, conveying some great moment in history or providing some instructive allegory. But is that really how it was? The uncompromising genius-savant, isn’t he more likely to show up in some interminable Ayn Rand novel than real life?

Ask what made for this clean break, and you’re likely to be told either “they painted directly from nature” or “they made their subject everyday life.” Both of which actually began with Realism. In fact when you compare them up close it’s hard to find points of departure from Realism. (Which is further complicated by Manet and Degas, two artists commonly thought to be Impressionists, insisting they were really Realists. For convenience’s sake let’s leave them out of this and take the contents of this show’s ‘Beginnings’ room - Corot, Courbet and Millet - as our Realists.)

Most people know this now, at least among those who might care. Yet answering one question inevitably raises another. You can list the similarities as much as you like. But line the works up side by side, and suddenly it all seems different. It’s like the relationship between punk and pub rock. Make a formal list of their characteristics, and they come out as near-identical. Listen to them and they sound a world apart.

The answer lies in the light. The Realists were still painting things, while the Impressionists were all about the effects of light. We use the phrase ‘a trick of the light’ as though the sun is some neutral, objective spotlight which occasionally plays up on us and needs a factory reset. But the Impressionists paint as though ‘tricks of the light’ is all there is. Because in fact that’s all there is. Manet insisted “I paint what I see and not what others like to see.” To paint what you saw, not what you took to be there... like all revolutions it seems obvious only in retrospect.

And from the light came the transience of the moment. Rather than great moments of history they sought to conveythe very opposite – the immediate, the here and now. Inspiration wasn’t something rare or esoteric, striking rarely and without warning like lightning. Inspiration lay all about you, you just needed to see it.

People had become so used to conventions of painting they’d become defining, not just dividing the world in ‘picturable’ and ‘non-picturable’ (which would have been bad enough) but infecting what we saw when we looked at things. This isn’t just a question of whatto see, the way our selective vision looks past the homeless on the street. This is literally about how to see. The act of seeming to reflect reality, that was the very thing which constructed it. It was a feedback loop of reinforced wrongness.

And the significance of this swap-over is enormous. Once it was a given that art was not just a part of the dominant culture, but existed to be an articulation of that culture. Now subjective experience ruled over received wisdom.Custom was no longer support but dead weight, to be thrown off so we could get back to looking at what was directly in front of us. The dismissive critical reaction to Impressionism is today too easily dismissed itself, its mocking too readily mocked. It should instead be taken as a measure of the size of the shift undertaken. Some were always going to get left behind.

Let’s try to show this shift with a before and after, a Realist against an Impressionist work. Realism was the more politically engaged of the movements, with Courbet not just participating in the Paris Commune but being elected to the council and founding its Federation of Artists. So it would be appealing to claim art history has been suppressing it all this time, in favour of the more palatable Impressionism.

And it’s true, though most (not all) of the Impressionists were politically progressive this had less effect upon their work. As ever, Monet is probably archetypal. He espoused a generalised soft Socialism which probably best aligned with a broad humanitarianism. Their revolution was primarily aesthetic, about a new way of seeing the world. A world more akin to their patrons (including, as coming up, their chief patron) – a middle class, growing in both numbers and prosperity, expanding into broadening suburbs, whose hobbies were seeing and being seen and who had the leisure time to indulge them.

But in truth, for the most part Realism has been forgotten because its dull and stodgy stuff. So partly to be fair and partly to enliven things, I’ve chosen a work from the show you can actually appreciate – Jean-Francois Millet’s ’The Sheepfold, Moonlight’ (1856/8, below).

Millet paints an atmosphere as much as a scene, which is described by the show as having “a spiritual quality”. Yet if it’s more challenging to make things out that’s just because there’s less light, like the moon has a lower wattage than the sun. It would be easy enough to ‘decode’, to picture the scene as if the mid-day sun was suddenly switched on. There’s nothing here of, for example, the silveriness of moonlight. And shadows are held to be solid black, whereas Impressionism was forever breaking them down into constituent colours.

Contrast that to Monet’s ’The Train in the Snow’ (1875, above). Millet’s shepherd and hut are balanced either side of the moon, inscribing the composition on our memory by a neat triangle. Everything looks arranged, settled. While Monet’s silhouettes are fleeting, barely discernible. They won’t be hanging around, but soon boarding that moving train. What’s conveyed is less objects than movement. The train, a mass of bolted iron plating, looks barely more substantial than the cloud of smoke it emits. Millet creates a chunk of blackness at the base of his frame to set the scene. Monet runs a fence right into us. He’s not elegantly enclosing his work, he’s reaching out to meet us.

It’s a challenge to pull off a good composition, but Millet can. Yet it’s a bigger challenge to make your composition seem casual, as if you’ve just got down something you happened to see, that it came together by good fortune alone. This is what Monet and the other Impressionists could do, par excellence, over and over again.

As a neat summary, note how ’the Sheepfold, Moonlight’ differs in title formulation to Monet’s movement-titling ’Impression, Sunrise’ (1874, not included in this show). One places the objects first and then time of day second, the other the reverse. Things had been thought of as self-evident and universal, or they were not things at all. Now impressions counted for more.

So, transience, immediacy… next we have cropping. Monet running that fence right into the frame may look audacious enough, but they could be bolder still. Sisley’s ’The Ferry of the Isle de la Longe: Flood’ (1972, above) not only abruptly cuts off the pole and – perhaps more daringly – the tree, he then thinks nothing of doing it again in their reflection! Even human figures had to be wary of getting too close to the edge of the frame, or face having bits lopped off them. Subconsciously, we associate this with verite moments, with hastily snapped photos not worked-upon canvases, with stuff happening.

Loving Everyday Life

Which all leads us up to the really big shift made by Impressionism - the mood. To talk about anything, inevitably you reduce it to parts. And so you risk chopping down all the trees then wondering why you can’t see the wood any more. Like so many things, Impressionism’s essence doesn’t lie in those parts but the way they work together. And this mood is the sum of everything above.

This is not the world of the stiff and staid but one that swishes with movement, bristling with quiet excitement. It’s much like the way we now picture the Twenties and Sixties, perambulating Flaneurs the grandfathers of Carnaby Street dandies. Realism looks left behind by comparison, dour and drab. Which takes us to a very different question to the one asked before. Why should two generations, only a few years apart, paint such different moods?

The Realists essentially had two parents. They were the product of the 1848 revolution, aiming at a more accessible, democratic subject matter. But they were also a reaction to Romanticism’s… well, romanticism. They wanted to portray nature not fancifully but with exactitude. Combine these two and you get an art delivered with polemical force, to the point it could be wilfully anti-aesthetic. Their works can feel like roughage served up as a meal, by someone highly insistent this is good for you.

Whereas an art that celebrated everyday life, that captured the moment and the flux of movement, casual-seeming compositions with almost audaciously arbitrary cropping - all this was to be found in Japanese art, by Hokusai and others. These prints had only started to become available in the West in 1854. Not originally highly valued, they were distributed somewhat haphazardly. There’s tales of them being transported as packing, much like the American comics which obsessed me in my childhood. But the Impressionists avidly sought them out. (See here for an account of Hokusai’s influence.)

But there’s also less aesthetic, more material explanations. The show mentions “a commitment to modern subject matter that was daring and new.” In fact their self-chosen name, until a scoffing critic went and christened them for good, was ‘New Painting’. And that’s my bluffers guide to getting Impressionism – imagine every single thing in every single painting is brand spanking new. People sport newly bought clothes to parade down recently laid out avenues. If there’s a building or bridge, it went up last week. If the sun is out, imagine the first day of Summer. Try and imagine, if you can, the paint still drying on the canvas.

Remember that risible Ronald Reagan ad “it’s morning in America”? By contrast, the Impressionists really didconvey the idea that it was morning in (then) modern France, that everything hitherto had just been a lead-in and history was finally taking off. They painted new things with a vibrancy, in a state of quiet excitement. And this was because, though only a generation later than the Realists, they inhabited quite a different world. This (
unsigned, insofar as I could see) piece sums it up well:

“The Industrial Revolution brought economic prosperity to France, and Emperor Napoleon III set out to make Paris the showpiece of Europe…. the dirty, old medieval city [was replaced] with wide boulevards, parks, and monuments. The new steel-ribbed railroad stations and bridges were feats of modern engineering. Cafés, restaurants, and theatres lured the bourgeoisie, the powerful new merchant class who had made their homes in and around Paris.”

Overall, it was less what was new than that it was new, and the underlying sense that even what was new today would soon be supplanted by something brighter. Society had not just turned a corner. Society had disconnected the brakes.

And it’s important to note, in that quote above, the Industrial Revolution has slipped into the past tense. Monet’s known to have seen and been impressed by Turner, that revolution’s great chronicler, on his first stay in London. Yet what happens when we contrast the two?

You could see ’Railway Bridge, Argenteuil’ (1873, above) as a deliberate reversal in perspective to Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ (1844). There’s the same three elements – train, boat and observing eye – but rejigged.

Our viewpoint is no longer some vertiginous point atop a viaduct but seated on a green riverbank. And the boat, barely visible in Turner, now dominates. To the point we take on its sense of time; we imagine the train flying by, the yacht taking longer to glide past, then the ripples it leaves slowly subsiding. In fact the steam so resembling a cloud connects the two, the train engine to the wind that sails the boat. We shall probably never know whether Monet consciously intended any of this, but neither do we need to.

Turner paints trains as if they were first erupting onto the landscape, as to him they largely were. Monet paints them after they’ve settled down. Turner’s trains you jump out the way of, Monet’s you jump aboard. But above all, when Turner painted his time it was in terms of era, with Monet its time of day. Turner paints trains on broad canvases to represent the Industrial revolution. Monet aims to capture a particular piece of riverbank at half past three in the afternoon, before it inevitably dissipated into quarter to four.

Let Paint be Paint

And there is one element of Impressionism they gained neither from the Realists or Japanese art, and that’s the way they painted. Pissarro’s ’Fox Hill, Upper Norwood’ (1870, above) looks absolutely convincing as an evocation of pictorial space. Much like Monet’s fence the road is depicted as reaching out to us, like an invitation, instilling in us the feeling we could step into it and start strolling down that lane. And yet there’s a paradox to it, because it also looks very much like a painting. Look, for example, at the stretch of road nearest us. You can see the brush strokes clear as day.

By convention paint was applied ‘smoothly’, the artist demonstrating his skill via leaving work untraceable back to his hand. The result was an odd combination of a painter and decorator after a smooth finish and the workings of a special effects unit in films, where seeing how it’s done is held to ruin the all-important illusion. The Impressionists favoured hogshair brushes; thicker and rougher, they were generally considered inferior. But for them that was their selling point. They’d then paint ’wet-on-wet’, where rather than being pre-prepared on the pallette colours mixed together on the canvas as they were being being applied.

And this seeming contradiction, that we see it both as a street and as paint, once on the canvas they combine virtuously. It’s immediately visible that someone painted this, for us to look at. But rather than mar the pictorial illusion it adds to the sense of immediacy, of engagement. The artist stood there, saw this scene, and wanted to paint it so we could see it too. It’s like being told a story spontaneously and slightly breathlessly, versus one recitedin smooth and modulated tones. This was taken up and run with by successive generations, to such a degree it would be easy to overlook it’s origins here. But they’re here plain as day.

And all of this, based up really looking at what’s in front of you, however much it borrowed from before it felt like starting from first principles. And it’s noticeable how soon further movements sprung from that first principle. Those used to reading paintings as a continuing autobiography of the artist are thwarted by Impressionism. Yet it was based in subjective experience, impressions being subjective by definition. And within a generation others had picked up on that. Monet’s Normandy is more an account of Normandy than it is of Monet, while Gauguin’s Brittany is the reverse. Yet there was still a swift and smooth transition from Monet to Gauguin.

But at the same time...

Romanticism Reimagined

Reacting against Realism, itself a reaction to Romanticism, did Impressionism then bounce into reviving Romanticism? This of course violates the most fundamental premise of the Standard Narrative, that this the pioneering movement which launched Modernism. But the answer, while complicated, is basically “yes.”

Romanticism was really founded on a paradox. It attempted to evoke the sublime power of nature, so much vaster and greater than us. Yet the Romantic artist assumes he will find himself within nature, effectively anthropomorphising it. Nature was more inspiration for art than subject matter. If it obsessed the artists, it was really only for what it represented. While the Impressionists looked hard into that same nature, determined to convey what they actually saw. Look at the very first image on the Wikipedia page on Romanticism to see their trope of the dominant figure bestride a landscape. Which doesn’t come up in Impressionism at all.

And take Monet’s ‘Coal Carriers’ (c. 1875, above), notable for an Impressionist work because it isn’t really - particularly with that sombre colour scheme. The indicia tells us he did see this scene, but broke his custom to paint it “partly from memory”. With the figures semi-silhouetted it becomes harder to distinguish the men from their burdens, like one has sunk into the other. Their regular spacing is most probably a genuine observation, they were evening out the loads placed on those gangplanks. But it also suggests a prototype of Fordism, men as units of production.

But, most strangely for Monet, to quote the show “everything in this picture is constructed”. He’ll normally paint as though his elements just flew in and found their perfect arrangement. Everything here is so in it’s place it looks trapped in it. The iron bridge, elsewhere celebrated as an artery of mobility, blocks off the sky, caps the scene and cements its oppressive mood.

Phoebe Pool in ’Impressionism’ (Thames & Hudson) concedes it’s “uncharacteristic” for him, and suggests both that it’s a forerunner of Expressionism and that Monet’s interest lay in the formal qualities. Yet other paintings are just as formalised without looking so restricting. And, at least to me, rather than a forerunner of anything it’s a holdover from Romanticism, and particularly the Industrial Gothic.

Compare it to Gustav Dore’s ‘Over London By Rail’ (1872). Which is of homes not a workplace. But the figures are as isolated, in those identical yet separate chamber-like gardens. It’s dominated by two bridges, an enclosing curve, to the point where there’s as much train smoke in the air as there is sky. It presents London simultaneously as a machine and a prison.

If in Romanticism nature is where you go to find yourself, it’s no surprise the City then stands for the opposite – alienation and dehumanisation. It isn’t just where nature isn’t; it exists in a state of anti-nature and un-life. Like one of those despotic kingdoms of legend, where everyone had become drones of the wicked ruler’s will and all activity reduced to the mechanistic. They’re often presented as though a bad spell hangs in the air like a thick fug. And if this painting doesn’t exactly portray that scenario it has the mood of it.

Bertrand Russell once said “the Romantic outlook, partly because it is aristocratic, and partly because it prefers passion to calculation, has a vehement contempt for commerce and finance. It is thus led to proclaim an opposition to capitalism which is quite different from that of the socialist who represents the interests of the proletariat, since it is an opposition based on dislike of economic preoccupations.” In short, its hostility to the city becomes part of its tendency to look back upon Feudalism as some sort of idyll. Consequently, it’s criticisms of capital may sound bold but stem from an underlying conservatism. All of which is here.

Impressionism Invented

And if all that leaves one important element of the story out, it’s something which commendably the whole show is built around rectifying. It comes from the collection of Paul Durand-Ruel, billed as “the man who sold a thousand Monets”, the dealer for almost all the Impressionists and many of the Realists before them. That’s him above, paintedby Renoir in 1910, as a warm and wise fatherly figure. Being there, on the ground floor, he was in pole position to get his mitts on the best work. But there’s more, in fact quite a bit more, than that...

For he sold this modern art by modern methods. And, much like the art, it can be hard to think back to a time when those methods needed devising. The show claims, credibly, “he can be credited with inventing the profession of the modern art dealer”. His interest was not in artworks, but the artists who produced them. Over who he’d play a long game. He’d block-buy their work, putting them on a stipend to produce more. He’d set up solo exhibitions for them, something then rarely done for living artists, arranged chronologically to demonstrate the artist’s development. Lectures and publications spelt out this strange new art to prospective punters.

He’d offer works to institutions as a calling card, and if one place turned him down (as they often did, including the National) he tried another. Bankrolling them, he nearly bankrupted himself twice over (1874 and 1884). He later recalled “everyone agreed I had gone mad”, before concluding “my madness has been wisdom.”

But above all, and perhaps most importantly, he did all this not as a long-term investment but because he believed in the work. Though the son of a dealer, he didn’t become one himself until discovering (initially) the Realists. He called himself “a missionary or a soldier”, filling his own apartment with their efforts. He sought not to find an audience so much as create one.

“Without him,” said Monet “we wouldn’t have survived.” Which may be a bit of an exaggeration, as some of the gang (Manet, Degas and Cezanne) were independently wealthy. But there’s no doubt his contribution was significant. He took a misunderstood, marginalised art and rather than rendering it palatable broke the public to it.

Which does dispel much of the romanticised myth of the lone genius, skipping meals to stay in brushes but still refusing to compromise his vision. But the irony is that learning this doesn’t do away with the myth so much as explain how it came to be coined. Perhaps inevitably, the selling of Impressionists goes hand-in-glove with the invention of Impressionism.

And the bohemian artist is largely a myth that starts here, certainly more so than with Romanticism. It’s at root a story of the successful avant-garde. The moral isn’t about obstinacy or the nobility of poverty but of being right when no-one else could see it, of perseverance paying off, of the world finally catching up to lavish you with acclaim. But how that happened is normally left obscure. The bohemian artist can’t be seen to chase fame without blowing his cover. So we need to imagine all this simply arrived one day, like a surprise delivery.

And there’s another important element to this invention. Durand-Riel simply gave up on selling them to France, perhaps ruminating that few are prophets in their own land, and finding greater success in Germany and (particularly) America – new painting for the new world. The first State-side show was New York in 1886. “Without America I would have been ruined,” he later confessed.

And the significance of ‘Frenchness’ seems to start here, their full name soon becoming ‘The Impressionists of Paris’, to be sold in the same way as you would wine or cheese. Even the recent Royal Academy show was titled ‘From Paris’. (And as a general rule, anything which calls them ‘The French Impressionists’ is likely to keep up the arose-from-nowhere legend.) This meant anything challenging or inexplicable could be put down to Gallic inscrutability, rather than your own oafishness. Significantly, to this day we use the loan term “joie de vivre”, like you can’t really say “joy of life” in English.

But this was all invention. Monet visited London precisely to paint it, which under his brush looks as Impressionist as anywhere else. Pissarro could be Impressionist in Upper Norwood, surely suggesting place was not the main factor. If Impressionism started in Paris it’s because it was easier to be an artist there than most other places. (The art world was centred there and, believe it or not, back then it was cheap to live in.) What defines Impressionism, as we’ve hopefully shown, isn’t place at all – it’s era. That’s what makes them Modernists.

Renoir’s Not the Real Thing

You’ve seen the best, now it’s time for the rest…

Those art snob dismissals of Impressionism, the ‘hot takes’ you have to read through whenever the subject comes up, they do have one moment of truth to them – Renoir. If the realists were like roughage on a plate, Renoir is the opposite extreme - glutinous and saccharine, the icing which turns out to not even have a cake beneath it. Admittedly, there are better efforts by him. (The portrait of Durant-Ruel above is bearable.) But look through several of his works at once and you start to feel like when you’ve eaten too many sugary snacks, there’s the same sense of base-level seductiveness even as you find the amassed glutinousness nauseating.

’Two Sisters On the Terrace’ (1881, above) looks like all the criticisms made of Impressionism were condensed onto one canvas – kistch bling. If only we could say that Renoir was Impressionism’s guilty secret. Alas the truth is the reverse, his is the public face of the movement whose accomplishments are the lesser known part, an Athena poster atop an iceberg of innovation.

Compare it to the Pissarro and Sisley already shown, clearly greater works. Yet ask anyone who the Impressionists were, and you’ll get recited back the triumvirate of Monet, Degas and him. (It may be true that Sisley lacked a distinctive style, that ultimately he was just another Impressionist. You sometimes recognise his work by eliminating all the other names till you’re left with his. For all that, still better - much better - than Renoir.)

It would be appealing to believe people had been so conditioned by this myth of Gallicnesss that they take Renoir for the real thing. But the worse option seems more likely, people like Renoir because they like him; they want Impressionism to look this way, not bold and new but florid and gaudy. So for example that Academy show of 2012 used a Renoir as its poster image - (‘Girl With a Fan’, 1879). Though more cheeringly, a Boston gallery saw anti-Renoir protests.

And this is something which started in his own day. Durand-Ruel, though tagged as “the man who sold a thousand Monets” actually sold five hundred more Renoirs. Quiet contrary to the Impressionist stereotype of uncompromising aesthetes, he made no bones about painting what sold, hob-nobbing with the well-off, painting them on commission. And after getting accepted by the Salon, he skipped the fourth, fifth and sixth Impressionist exhibitions. By the 1880s he’d already abandoned almost all of the Impressionist style. Seeing Dali as the archetypal Surrealist is harmless by comparison.

Indeed he seems to have relished a role as a populist provocateur, stating that art’s role was “to brighten up the walls” and so on. (It’s true that while others in the group had independent means, he had to live off his sales. But that would also be true of Sisley. Who never really had any sales to speak of.)

Ultimately, the lesson of Impressionism’s a simple one – just to see what’s in front of you involves a constant struggle. To the point that we now need to look at their artworks the way they looked at their subject. Which is to say, put aside our preconceptions and expectations, and actually look at them.

This is hard precisely because of all the stories strung around them, partly by the artists and dealers themselves, which are now hard to dispel. As ever, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mention Impressionism and the focus falls on flowers and the Seine-side strolling. If you only know of this bunch by biscuit tin lids, your perspective on them will be hopelessly warped. Which unfortunately is the way most do know them.

And as soon as you lose this, the modernity of a Modernist movement, it gets replaced by its antithesis. The whole accursed kitsch appeal of Impressionism today, what consigns it to wrapping paper and packaging, is that it’s come to be seen as a window into a theme park past, when avenues were wide and people dressed up nice. In a sour irony the very scenes painted to look excitingly modern are now cooed over for their quaintness. In the haughty critics and art snobs, Impressionism may have self-proclaimed enemies. But the real damage done to it is from its so-called fans.

But if they could see a scene for what it was, casting off received wisdom, we should surely be able to see a painting. The world they depicted is long gone. But the freshness, the vividity, the engaging nature of their work continues to shine down the decades at us.

Coming soon! Monet, Monet, Monet...


  1. I have learned more about art from your blog in the last year than from the previous fifty years.

    1. I don't know whether to be flattered or frightened!

  2. Well, both responses are approproiate: I really am dreadfully ignorant about art. But you should be pleased as well, because the reason I am reading your art posts, even though they're about something that doesn't/didn't inherently interest me, is that you are a fascinating writer. You hit that all-too-rare combination of insight and enthusiasm; the former too frequently goes with cynicism instead.

    1. I probably am quite evangelical about Impressionism. I think, in a way, we've now come full circle and people just don't get what they were about. With the even worse encumbrance that people now imagine they do get them. It's very Yoda-like. To really see their works you don't need to learn new stuff, you need to un-learn things you've been told.