Fleeting Impressionism


Impressionist paintings often seem somewhat like painted snapshots—views of a particular place at a particular time, so vividly rendered that they convince us utterly of their verisimilitude. Sailboats moored at the river’s edge, women lounging in a garden, sun-drenched fields of flowers—in Monet’s or Renoir’s depictions of such subjects, you frequently have the sense that the painter merely set his easel down and began to paint, capturing the scene almost instantaneously.

A number of contemporary accounts, by both critics and advocates of the Impressionists, emphasized the spontaneity of their paintings. By their adversaries, the Impressionists were criticized for painting thoughtlessly and quickly, without respect for the rules of artistic propriety. Among their supporters, they were lauded for precisely this same freedom of approach. The artists themselves also emphasized the sincerity, immediacy, and spontaneity of their art. “I paint the way a bird sings,” Monet told his friend and biographer, Gustave Geffroy.

During much of the 115 years that have passed since the first Impressionist exhibition, the notion has persisted that Impressionism was a kind of “natural,” almost primitive way of painting, based on an innocent, childlike vision. In recent years, however, it has become apparent that even Monet’s paintings were not done as spontaneously as was previously thought, that even he—commonly considered the “purest” of the Impressionists—frequently executed his pictures over an extended period of time and reworked them in the studio. This was first demonstrated in detail ten years ago in an article by the influential Yale art historian Robert L. Herbert, who through careful examination of the visual evidence showed just how much planning and reworking went into Monet’s seemingly spontaneous paintings.1

The reconsideration of Impressionist technique led to a widespread reevaluation of Impressionism in general. Once it was recognized how much calculation and thought went into the Impressionists’ paintings, it had to be recognized that despite their almost documentary appearance, those paintings are to some degree fictions—though fictions based on actual places and events rather than on history or imagination. With hindsight, of course, it became apparent that when Monet and Renoir painted scenes of people bathing, rowing, sailing, or strolling, they had to reinvent or compose pastiches of their subjects, since life caught on the run could not be made to stand still and “pose.” And because they used somewhat complicated technical procedures, their paintings, like Wordsworth’s poems, are to some degree based on “emotion recollected in tranquility.”

The formal means as well as the subjects of the Impressionists were more deliberately chosen than was previously thought. Impressionist brush strokes, for example, evoke spontaneity even when they do not actually enact it—for spontaneity was a necessary fiction of Impressionism. Sincerity, immediacy, and naturalness were felt by the Impressionists and their admirers to be inherent virtues that had ethical as well as aesthetic significance. Underlying most recent writing about Impressionism is a reevaluation of the moral universe of the Impressionists. We now must reckon with the fact that in Impressionist painting, as in other…

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