Origins of Impressionism 27, 1994-January 8, 1995
Origins of Impressionism
When a loosely associated group of rebellious French painters began to exhibit together in 1874, in what is now commonly referred to as the first of the original “Impressionist” exhibitions, they did not so define themselves. Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cézanne, Degas, and the others who took part in the exhibition preferred to be regarded as “independent” artists who were opposed to the official Salons. In the catalog for that first group exhibition they specifically avoided a defining label by referring to themselves as a “Société Anonyme.”1
The catchy term “Impressionist” was coined by critics in response to Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise at that show, and the increasing use of the term has proved unsatisfactory. Throughout the eight exhibitions between 1874 and 1886, the artists themselves could never agree on what their group should be called and in their subsequent exhibition catalogs they avoided any official name.2
The concept of “Impressionism” was made even more questionable by the subsequent invention of the term “Post-Impressionism,” by Roger Fry in 1910, to apply to the work of the later Cézanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh.3 The notion of something called Post-Impressionism cast Impressionism itself in a different light—much as the invention of Postmodernism has caused critics to reconsider what they mean by Modernism. Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionists did not share a uniform style, but they seemed to Fry less concerned to directly represent nature than the Impressionists themselves. As a result, the reliance on direct observation that was associated with Impressionist painting was taken by many writers and artists to be its central characteristic. The work came to be seen as another form of realism, representing familiar scenes from everyday life in an apparently direct and naturalistic way. Indeed, for many early twentieth-century artists, Impressionism came to be considered a “superficial” form of realism, as opposed to the more “profound” kind of painting practiced by Cézanne and the other Post-Impressionists.4
In fact, although Impressionist painting was concerned with the representation of scenes from modern life rather than historical or literary subjects, its goals were as different from the realism that preceded it—of Courbet, and Millet, for example—as they were from the more abstract kind of painting that followed it. Just how its goals differed from realist painting, however, has been difficult to define, and it is one of the main issues addressed by the current Origins of Impressionism exhibit in New York and its accompanying catalog.
The exhibition opened in Paris, where its slightly different title, Impressionnisme: Les origines, 1859–1869, emphasized the single decade before the Impressionists first exhibited together. When I saw it there last summer, no clear thesis seemed to emerge from the hundreds of works shown. The paintings were organized thematically, according to their fairly standard subjects, such as history painting, the nude, still life, and portraiture, as if to suggest the different currents in French painting that prepared the way for Impressionism. But the exhibition included so many different painters, working in what appeared to be…
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