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The 1870s saw the peakof Impressionism, both ads a coherent group movement and as a painting style. During that decade, artists divided their time between landscape painting and studies of Parisian life. The gentle rural landscape along the Seinevalley between Parisand Normandyformed the main source of inspiration for Monet, Sisley and Pissarro. Renoir, who regularly worked beside Monet during the first half of the decade, also painted many scenes of interiors, figures and city subjects. Monet and Renoir were joined in Argenteuil by Manet in 1874. In Manet's oil paintings of this period, figures, as usual, dominated even his outdoor scenes, although he lightened and brightened his palette at this time. During the decade, Degas and Manet continued their em­phasis of the 1860s, painting mainly themes of modern Parisian life, such as the boulevards, cafe scenes, the Opera and the ballet. Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) split his allegiance between city life and landscape. The earliest works in the Impressionist style by Mary Cas­satt (1845-1926) date from the latter part of the decade, and her subjects included the Opera, indoor and outdoor figure scenes. She often chose themes comparable to those of Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), but their style and handling were quite individual. Pissarro and Cezanne often worked on landscapes together during this period, although Cezanne divided his time between the north and his native Provence.
By the mid 1870s, the artists' period of apprenticeship was over and their ideas, aims and differences firmly established as a result of regular discussions at Pariscafes from the latter half of the 1860s onwards. Indeed, by this time the Impressionists - or independents as they were still called in the early part of the decade - found themselves, with the exception of Manet, sufficiently united in their disagree­ment with the academic system and its outlet, the Salon exhibitions, to present a united opposition to those institutions. Although their first discussions on the subject in the mid 1860s had come to nothing. by 1874 the members of the Impressionist group finally established their own alternative exhibitions, independent of the official Salon. Their first show took place in April and May 1874, when a critic coined the term 'Impressionist'.
Basic methods of Impressionism
The brilliant young French Symbolist poet, Jules Laforgue (1860-1887), gave a perceptive and informed description of the Impressionist approach, in an article written in 1883. He said the Impressionist artist was one, who 'forgetting the pictures amassed through centuries in museums, forgetting his optical art school training - line, perspective, color - by dint of living and seeing frankly and primitively in the bright open air. . . . outside his poorly lit studio - has succeeded in remaking for himself a natural eye, and in seeing naturally and painting as simply as he sees.' In seeking to free themselves from the conventional studio vision of line, space and chiaroscuro, the Impressionist painters had to re-educate their eyes by careful observation of natural outdoor light effects. They had to learn not to see landscape through the artificial eye of European oil painting.
Photography gave them one alternative vision of the natural world which was not based on painting, and Japanese prints provided another artistic option. The Impressionists' friend and patron Theodore Duret. politician and art critic. noted in an important essay in1878 'Before Japan it was impossible; the painter always lied. Nature with its frank colors was in plain sight, yet no one ever saw anything on canvas but attenuated colors, drowning in a general halftone.' With their 'piercing colors placed side by side', Japanese artists showed 'new methods for reproducing certain effects of nature which had been neglected or considered impossible to render'. Duret summarized 'After the Impressionists had taken from their immediate predecessors in the French school their forthright manner of oil painting out of doors from the first impression with vigorous brushwork, and had grasped the bold, new methods of Japanese colouring, they set off from these acquisitions to develop their own originality and to abandon themselves to their personal sensations.'
While their older colleagues, Manet and Degas, remained essentially committed to studio working methods. albeit novel ones, the younger artists. Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Morisot, Sisley and Cezanne, used outdoor landscape studies as the vehicle for their research into new ways of painting the real world. They abandoned the strongly contrasting lights and darks of Romantic and Realist oil painting. In particular they rejected the use of the sombre earth colours, browns and blacks, which dominated the palettes even of artists like Manet and Degas in the 1860s. Instead they explored the pale colours and close tonal values of studies by Corot (1796-1875), the luminous skies of outdoor seascapes by Boudin (1824-1898), and even the pale opaque shadows which helped flatten pictorial space in works by Ingres (1780-1867). They began to exploit more fully the light-enhancing properties of pale commercial primings, and gradually replaced the traditional brown ebauche with a brightly coloured initial laying in of paint which related directly to the final colours of the oil painting. They continued and extended the making of outdoor etudes, adopting this freely executed study stage as their finished work.
Although the smooth, dark surface of mahogany panels was often used to advantage by earlier nineteenth century landscapists, the Impressionists preferred the lively give and texture of woven fabric supports. Prepared paper and card were often also used as supports for oil sketching in this period for reasons of economy and their light weight which made them easy to carry. Canvas is a coarse cloth woven usually from flax or cotton. but sometimes from hemp. Its widespread use as a painting support dates from the Italian Renaissance. The rise in importance of fabric supports coincides with the increasing cultivation of flax in Europefrom the Middle Ages on. It remained the most important vegetable textile fiber in Europeuntil the end of the eighteenth century, when cotton began to be imported on a large scale from the United States.
Canvas was first used in easel painting merely to provide an underkey for the gesso grounds of medieval panel oil paintings, and only emerged slowly as an independent oil painting support. The adoption of canvas went and in hand with the development of oil painting. Its textured surface stimulated experiments, especially among the Venetian artists, in expressive brush and oil paint handling, which produced emotive effects impossible to obtain with fast drying egg tempera colors on smoothly primed. rigid panel supports.
By the early nineteenth century. ready made canvases were being sold in Francein a standardized range of sizes for easel painting. The range then available. in a squarish rectangular format designed for portrait and figure work. spanned from a small (No 3) canvas, measuring approximately 6in (15.5cm) by 8in (20.8cm). to the largest. (No 120), measuring approximately 6 feet (1.9 metres) by 4 feet (1.2 metres). At that time the metric scale had not yet been fully established. In the early 1830s a longer 'landscape' format was introduced, together with an even more elongated 'marine' shape. By the 1880s five series were on the market. These were the original portrait. vertical landscape, horizontal landscape, vertical marine, and horizontal marine series. Within these five series, each format number had the same sized shorter side, only the longer side varied in length. The code-numbering of portrait formats probably had its origin in the seventeenth century when the major art theorist Roger de Piles recorded that canvas pieces were sold according to cost - a 'canvas of 20 sous' was of given, commonly accepted dimensions. Thus, for example, a canvas costing 20 sous became canvas size No 20.
Despite the fact that most artists and writers thought that the dimensions of standard formats had been rationally conceived to conform with some aesthetic, harmonious ratio, such as the influential 5:8 proportions of the Golden Section. they were in fact determined purely by economic factors. In order to be able to prepare stretched canvases and picture frames in advance. color merchants found it expedient to use fixed measurements, rather than having to follow the whims of artists by making numerous sizes to order.
Before mechanization in the weaving industry hand-loom widths for canvas depended upon the distance a shuttle could be thrown through the warp by the weaver. In Francethis was commonly around 1 metre (3 feet) up to a maximum of 1 metre 40cm (4ft 6in). When standardized sizes are analyzed in relation to the canvas widths available, it is clear that the formats chosen were those which could be cut most economically from the fabric, avoiding undue wastage. For large-scale oil paintings, like those of historic subjects often shown at the important, annual Salon exhibitions, artists had to order specially made canvases, which were sewn from strips of fabric.
The mechanical spinning and weaving of linen was about 50 years behind developments in the mechanization of the cotton industry, so entirely machine-made linen canvas was not common before the mid nineteenth century. Although large, unbroken widths of canvas made massive pictures simpler as the century progressed the tendency was, on the contrary, to smaller, easel-scale oil paintings. This development was prompted by two chief factors the demands of outdoor oil painting which made very large canvases unmanageable, and the necessity for artists to produce many, smaller oil paintings to satisfy the new middle-class market, which called for reasonably priced artworks which would fit in small city apartments.
Most nineteenth century artists used standardized canvases for their easel-scale works, but the Impressionists and those who followed them found new more appropriate ways of exploiting them. Thus the commercial availability of a product had a direct impact on the most basic level of artistic creation - the initial selection of canvas shape on which to start work. This inevitably influenced compositional design, as this must relate to the canvas edges and overall shape. So an artist planning to tackle a particular subject must choose the most suitable canvas proportions to enhance the projected design. The positioning of the subject on the chosen canvas size and shape is called mise en page, and is a crucial, though underestimated, determining factor in Impressionist painting. It shows how self-conscious these artists were, contrary to the currently popular myth of their naive spontaneity.
Although the majority of their artworks are on standardized canvases, the Impressionists did not adopt them wholesale. They also experimented with unusual canvas shapes, either to suit particular subjects or to complement innovatory compositions. These would have been made up to order, usually with ready primed canvas. Monet and Degas were among the artists most overtly and consistently experi­menting with novel formats and compositions. For example, certain of Monet's studies from the early 1870s of Dutch land- and seascapes, were executed on canvases selected in advance to complement the low-lying panoramic scenery of Holland. These were made-to-order canvases more elongated in shape than even the longest commercial 'marine' format. Artists were also beginning to explore the potential of completely square canvases.
Monet and Degas both began using square canvases in the latter 18 70s, and Pissarro then Gauguin followed soon after. Because of the symmetry of their sides, square canvases accentuate an appearance of flatness, making it difficult to create the illusion of reality which a rectangular format can more readily suggest. Therefore square formats were avoided by conservative artists, while they presented the independent painters with an exciting challenge. On square canvases they could more readily wrestle with the problems of compositions in which a balance is created between the illusion of depth and a simultaneous stress on flat surface design.
Commercial priming was done on large expanses of canvas, which were later cut down to the standard sizes and tacked onto their respective stretchers. It is thus possible to identify commercial preparations by examining the canvas edge, as the priming goes right round to the back of the stretcher. Where canvases are primed by hand after stretching, only the face side is covered, and raw canvas remains visible on the overturned edges and around the back.
For priming, the canvas was tacked to huge wooden frames in the workshop and balanced on trestles, the canvas was then primed horizontal. Using tools, like the priming blade which dates back well before the seventeenth century, the first layer of glue size was applied to the fabric. Two skilled men, one either side the flat of canvas, picked up the preparation in ladles and spread it thinly with the blades, working back and forth from the middle out. The size layer sealed the pores of the canvas and made it less absorbent, and therefore less vulnerable to the corrosive effects of the oxides present in the oil of the ground - the next layer. The size dried preventing undue movement in the fabric threads. The surface was then rubbed lightly with a pumice stone to remove fuzz and protruding irregularities in the weave. Then the ground coats, one or two layers of opaque color bound with oil, were applied with the priming blade, ideally allowing thorough drying time between coats. One of the hazards of off-the-peg ready primed supports was that artists had no means of telling when the canvas had been primed, and if it had been left long enough to dry thoroughly. Cracking all over the paint layer could result from a ground which continued to dry long after it had been painted on. Despite this danger, it was rare for artists to take the trouble to prepare their own canvases. As oil grounds could take a year or more to dry, artists were often advised to store them before use to make sure they had a sound base on which to work.
The relatively smooth, two-coated preparation was in general more popular before 1870, but after then Impressionist experiments with canvas texture made the grainy single coat the more sought after. A French color merchant's handbook in 1883 outlined the key differences: 'The texture of the cloth under the prepared ground leaves a good grain, which assists in spreading and laying on the colors, and is useful in giving different textures to the various objects represented. Canvases are prepared with coarse or fine grains, which may be suitable for large or small oil paintings, or for different styles of working. . . . Canvases may be more or less covered with the prepared ground. The thickly covered is more suitable for small figures and high finish, and the thinly covered is better adapted to broad and rapid oil painting.'
A variety of different weights and weaves of canvas fabric were sold commercially for artists' use, Linen was the most common, but cotton and hemp fabrics were also available. Diagonal twill and plain were the two most common weave patterns used for artists' canvas, but odd examples of other more unusual weaves, like the herringbone twill, can also be found. The plain, one-under-one-over simple weave, known as tabby, was sold in a wide choice of weights, ranging from the thin, loose-woven sketching canvas held together by its priming, through to the thickly textured, tightly-woven strong weights. The choice of canvas weight varied according to the size of oil painting, large ones requiring strong fabric, and to the financial means of the artist. Students often used sketching canvas or the cheapish, ordinary' weight canvas which was widely sold.
Supports and paint texture
Among the Impressionists, Monet and Pissarro both preferred a single-coat primed, grainy texture, which they exploited in combination with a dry, stiffish paint quality. The dragged and often crumbly or crusty colors of the paint layer clung well to the textured key of such canvases, which at the same time served to break the movement of the loaded brush across it. This created a stippled and vibrant web of color through which the ground or previous layers of color could show. When working on smoothly primed canvas or panel, it is possible to build up veiled layers through which earlier colors show. However, the dragged and broken effects in the work of Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Morisot and Cassatt could only be achieved by combining the properties of stiffish paint applied with a bristle brush on a textured support. This is why panel was almost never used as a support by Impressionist painters.
While white was the most common color for ready primed canvas in the nineteenth century, a wide range of pale tinted prepara­tions were also available on off-the-peg canvas. These included beige, cream, pinkish grey, bluish grey, putty, milk-chocolate brown, and oatmeal, None were darker than a middle tone, and most were considerably paler. One of the main innovations of the Impressionists was that the overall tonal key in their oil paintings was made lighter and brighter as a result of the concern to represent natural outdoor light. It thus became logical to exploit white and pale tinted primings in the same manner as dark grounds had been used traditionally. A middle to dark colored ground had traditionally been used to speed up execution as it played an active role as a unifying middle tone, which was left to show through the paint layer.
Although, during the 1860s, the all-covering opacity of the paint layer had tended to obliterate the pale grounds used by the independent artists, from about 1870 the ground was increasingly exploited as a color or value in its own right. Patches of white or tinted ground were left bare to read through the loosely handled web of the colors in the paint layer. By choosing a ground tint appropriate to the particular light effect to be painted, the artist saved precious time in front of the subject, where speed was essential if transient lighting conditions were to be captured.
Incorporating the ground-tint into the final effect side-stepped the necessity for an all covering paint layer, a necessity which had traditionally been seen as the great disadvantage of pale grounds. A white ground, on which all colors look good was the perfect base for the technique of the Impressionists who sought to capture subtle color values, minute variations in hue and in warm and cool colors in outdoor light.
Painting color and light
The white or pale grounds acted as a luminous unifying field, a visual metaphor for the brilliant light effects portrayed. In purely physical terms, the actual light-reflective properties of white bounces light back into the spectator's eye, enhancing the luminous appearance of the paint surface. The irregular texture of the grainy, single-primed surface exaggerates this effect: because it scatters the reflected light, producing a pale. pastel quality. When Monet. Pissarro, Sisley, Morisot, Cassatt and, to some extent, Cezanne. Manet and Degas used dragged dryish colors mixed with large amounts of light-reflective lead white, these increased the pale, chalky paint surface.
Oil paints derive their richness of color, or glowing transparency, from the oil binder they contain. The glassy quality of oil allows light to penetrate deep amongst the pigment particles, so that when it is finally reflected back to the eye it is rich with color. Inversely, paint with a minimal amount of oil binder appears mat and pale in color, because light is bounced rapidly back to the eye before it has had time to become saturated with color. This is why in nature, wet surfaces appear darker in color than dry surfaces. The Impressionists recognized that the chalky, pastel-like quality produced by paint with only a small amount of oil imitated the effects of pale, reflected light in nature. To exploit this, Monet and Degas - and probably numerous other contemporaries - are recorded as having soaked most of the oil from their colors before use. One way to do this was to leave their colors on blotting paper for several minutes, before using them. Degas then diluted this paste with turpentine and laid it in thin mat washes, while Monet, and the other Impressionists except Cezanne and Renoir, applied it neat, as a dryish chalky paste ideal for abrupt dragged impasto. It is no coincidence that the pale mat surfaces of Millet's large pastel drawings, exhibited in Parisin 1875, were admired at this time.
In Impressionist painting, pale grounds were often used to stand for the lightest tones. Thus unpainted patches of ground left visible among the colors of the paint layer were used instead of applied color as the pale tones in the upper register of the tonal scale. In Cezanne's work in particular, pale cream or white grounds were left to show through as glowing highlights. As their use of this technique and their know;ledge of color became more sophisticated, the Impressionists began exploiting the potential of tinted grounds for their color value.
They were aware of the influential color theories of Michel-Eugene Chevreul (1786;1889), and they experimented with the effects of color contrasts. These are strongest when colors opposite each other on the color circle are placed side by side. The artists used such complementary contrasts as a means of enhancing their representation of the atmospheric effects of light and color. Thus a cream ground, showing through a loosely painted blue sky, with roughly scumbled white clouds, resulted in an optical effect of warm, glowing sunlight. The warm cream would be enhanced - made to look warmer and pinker - by the adjacent blue, which would appear correspond­ingly cooler. Cream showing through the cloud areas would add an airy effect of warmth. This calculated exploitation of color effects produced an ethereal lightness which was impossible to obtain by a more conventional- and deadening - build-up of colors. So, floating veils of translucent, contrasting color or dragging openly worked webs of opaque color over a tinted ground enabled these artists to create a superb impression of natural phenomena. It was realized that color temperature played an important role in the depiction of natural light effects and that the distinction between warm and cool colors made it possible for the eye to distinguish between very subtle nuances of color with imperceptible contrasts of tone.
Color contrasts and juxtapositions of warm and cool colors were also used to evoke form without recourse to conventional tonal modeling. This was possible because warm colors appear to come forward, and cool colors appear to recede. In nature, warm yellow sunlight finds its contrast in the luminous blue violet reflected light of the shadows. Thus where colors were equivalent in tone but exhibited such warm-cool contrasts, these could be used to describe form or movement in space. The inherent tonal differences of colors could also be exploited. Because, in the spectrum, blue is relatively dark in tone compared to, say, to a pale yellow, these colors together could provide pure, luminously colored equivalents for traditional dark-light contrasts, giving structure to form.
The Impressionists' protracted study of open air light effects led them to question the accepted conventions of 'local' color. Local color is the 'actual' color of objects - the greenness of grass or yellowness of lemons. They noticed that every object's 'local' color appears to the eye modified by reflected colors from surrounding objects and by the colored atmospheric light or sunlight. Rather than painting the colors they had learned objects to be, the Impressionists tried to put down only the colors they actually saw.
The types of natural lighting the Impressionists chose to depict were selected expressly for the luminous brilliance of their effects, and for their lack of strong tonal contrasts. The Romantics and Realists like Courbet were, in the words of Edmond Duranty, the critic friend of Degas, 'persuaded that light only existed on condition that it was thoroughly surrounded by shadows. The basement with a ray of light coming through a narrow air hole. . .'. The Impression­ists avoided deep dark forest settings, choosing instead open airy scenes, from broad new cityboulevards to river- and seascapes. They chose their subjects and viewpoints so that the fall of light produced only minimal shadows. One of the most popular choices was full-face light, which fell directly onto the subject from behind the artist, thus casting any shadows out of sight behind the objects in the scene. Gris clair, a clear, pale, grey light, is what results from a luminous but overcast sky, leaving a shadowless, even diffusion of light, was also widely exploited. The harsh bleaching effects of sun, where shadows are at their shortest, was another type used. Where shadows were included, they were always full of reflected light, and barely darker in tone than the sunlit parts.
Water and snow were, for all but Renoir, studied for their light and color reflective properties. Snow provided a white field, comparable to the white canvas preparation. which showed off all the most delicate varied nuances of warm coloured light and cool shadow. Water was also an excellent vehicle for insubstantial, fluctuating colour, picking up and reflecting light and colours from sky, atmosphere and all surrounding objects. Reflections were also used to structure compositions for as mirror-images of real objects, they could strengthen the abstract design qualities in a picture. The sketchy execution of the picture was essential to the final appearance of immediacy, and to the process of capturing fugitive light effects. Oil painting had to be a rapid jotting down of visual sensations.
In seeking an appropriate means to render their sensations, the Impressionists looked to the techniques used in earlier landscape studies, and in the freely handled compositional equisses common to all art students' training. The Impressionists' use of broken color may in part have its origin in the academic method, where mosaic-like touches of color were used to build up the halftones. However, since the seventeenth century, the use of separate touches of color had been recommended as a means of avoiding sullying the purity of color by overmixing. So, for artists like the Impressionists, who wanted to achieve maximum purity of color, this method made obvious sense, although their touches of color were by no means uniform. Instead of using linear drawing to define form or space, color and brushwork served this purpose in their work. Thus, the varied size, direction or shape of a brush stroke was intentionally eloquent. The foregrounds were often handled in large strokes, distances in small, almost imperceptible touches to give the appearance of depth. Small jerky strokes differentiated foliage from the longer strokes of boughs and tree trunks; objects reflected on water were often described by vertical marks. Reflected light off the water surface was shown in contrasting long, hori;zontal dashes. Buildings were 'constructed' by solid touches or planes of color which followed and stressed their form.
Traditional academic methods of finishing had assumed that one section of the painting would be brought to completion each day. By contrast, Impressionist methods involved making constant adjustments over the entire canvas. This was obviously easier on an easel-size canvas, which the eye could take in complete in a single glance.
A premeditated preparation of colors and tones laid out on the palette, as required by academic practice, was obsolete for the Impres­sionists, because open-air painting inevitably necessitated a moment to moment evolution of color mixtures on the palette. These had to be adjusted or abandoned as the light effects changed, and the artist took up a new canvas or began a new subject.
The idea of the visual world presenting itself to the eye in colored patches of light. or sensations. which was central to the Impressionists' method. derived from contemporary theories about perception. Rejecting the conventional use of abstract lines and edges to give an illusion of form. the Impressionists began to paint light. Their aim was to perceive and record direct optical sense data, or 'visual sensations' as they were called. instead of depicting a scene modified and 'corrected' by the intervention of the intellect, which gave only a rationally conceived notion of the real world, This explains references among the Impressionists to the desire for the infant's un­tutored eye, The Impressionists tried to unlearn their received knowledge of the visual world, and confront its myriad array of colored patches directly. These they translated into touches of paint, which only coalesced into a coherent image as the picture progressed. The importance of depicting visual sensations helps explain why Cezanne described Monet as 'just an eye, but what an eye!'
This search for pictorial equivalents to the artist's perceptions or sensations of light and color outdoors was quite different from the later, more codified and pseudo scientific concerns of the Neo-Impressionists, such as Georges Seurat (1859-1891), in the mid 1880s. Their attempts to create 'optical' color, through the partial fusion on the spectator's retina of colored light emanating from tiny painted dots, has been consistently confused by many critics and art historians, with the 'colored patch' Impressionist technique. No optical fusion was intended or sought in Im­pressionist painting. The artists simply intended that the colors and brushstrokes should - at an appropriate viewing distance - present the spectator with a coherent equivalent of the painter's visual perceptions.
These methods were developed during the 1870s by Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Morisot, Cezanne and Sisley. They were carried forward in modified forms during the following years.