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 so many different styles, that it was hard to see that it had any particular argument to make. It was not always clear what the Impressionists were supposed to be reacting against, and what they seemed to be building upon. Although one could see how the luminousness of Eugène Fromentin’s A Street in El-Aghouat might be related to Monet’s concern with light, for example, the style of Fromentin’s painting seemed, in fact, conventional and unimaginative to Monet, and he was indifferent to it. The wonder was that any coherent school of painting could emerge from the hodgepodge of images on display, which included closely observed landscapes by Courbet, Corot, Daubigny, Boudin, and Whistler, along with rather portentous allegories by Jules Breton and Puvis de Chavannes and sentimental reveries by academic painters such as Baudry, Bouguereau, and Gérôme.

But even in the rambling galleries of the Grand Palais, where the installation had a rather hit-or-miss quality, the exhibition nonetheless contained such strong Impressionist pictures that one didn’t much care if it seemed to be just another occasion for bringing together a large number of crowd-pleasing masterworks.5 How could one complain too loudly about a show that included such marvelous juxtapositions as that of Manet’s two great early masterpieces, Olympia and Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, on adjoining walls?

In New York the show is leaner and it benefits greatly from an artful installation by the curator Gary Tinterow, in which everything, from the color of the walls to the sequence and spacing of the pictures, has been carefully considered and designed to telling effect. Parts of the installation, such as the juxtaposition of seascapes done by Whistler and Courbet at Trouville in 1865, are like concise visual essays that say more about the influence each painter had on the other, and the effect on both of Japanese prints, than any discussion of them in the catalog. Because of its thoughtful installation, the New York version of the exhibition seems more coherent, even though it is organized around the same themes—and even though a number of important works from French collections, such as Manet’s Olympia and Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, could not be included. In particular, the transition from the relatively dark tones of academic and realist painting to the Impressionists’ lighter and brighter palette comes across much more clearly in New York.


The accompanying catalog, moreover, not only helps to make sense of the exhibition but also takes a fresh and intelligent look at important aspects of the new kind of painting that emerged in France during the 1860s. In addition to providing nine thoughtful and well-documented essays and a comprehensive chronology, the handsomely illustrated catalog also includes detailed individual entries on every painting in the show. For all its considerable virtues, however, the catalog also points to what I take to be the main conceptual weakness of the entire project—the chronological limits that the authors have placed on it, which prevents them from following up on some of the more interesting implications of their research and reflections.

In recent years there have been several exhibitions devoted to specific Impressionist themes (such as landscape) or to the work of individual artists (such as Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, and Cézanne). According to Tinterow and Loyrette, this exhibition is “devoted to the movement itself,” and it is intended to address some of the key issues of art history and enlarge the scope of the earlier exhibitions. It therefore seems regrettable that the Origins of Impressionism does not include works at least from the mid-1870s, when Impressionist painting was at its strongest and most characteristic. During the 1860s, the movement that Edmond Duranty later characterized as “The New Painting” was still very much rooted in the realism of Courbet and the naturalism of landscapists such as Corot and Daubigny. And because this exhibition stops at the end of the decade, it falls short of giving us a full sense of how much the mature paintings of artists like Monet, Renoir, and Cézanne transformed—and in a sense rejected—their essentially realist earlier vision.

Tinterow and Loyrette begin their catalog with the Salon of 1859. This is a departure from traditional accounts, which usually start with the 1863 Salon des Refusés, where the nearly two thousand artists whose submissions had been rejected by the jury of the official Salon were given the chance to participate. (The most famous painting shown there was Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe.) But the notoriously mediocre Salon of 1859 is a good point of departure.6 It provides an excellent example of the malaise that affected French painting after mid-century, and it marks what Loyrette eloquently characterizes as “the end of an era without announcing the birth of new one.” Never before, he remarks, “had technical skill been so common and grand ambition so lacking; everywhere confusion between the genres was erasing once-clear distinctions and turning the old order upside down—landscape and genre painting were triumphant, while history painting was declining, if not dying.” Even within the academic establishment, there was a marked blurring of traditional categories, with painters like Gérôme and Meissonier treating historical themes in an anecdotal way that was considered more appropriate to genre than to history painting.

This weakening of the traditional hierarchies, especially the decline of history painting and the increasing prominence of landscape and genre scenes, was central to the emergence of the New Painting, which stressed landscapes and scenes from everyday life and frequently represented them on the large canvases that had previously been reserved for history painting. The breakdown of artistic hierarchies, of course, was also a direct reflection of the social revolution that was taking place in French society under the Second Empire, when traditional religious assumptions were also beginning to seem outmoded or inadequate. Artists were fighting against the aesthetic equivalent of “prior belief” in much the same way that social reformers were fighting against the political and intellectual constraints of religious doctrine and bourgeois institutions.

The authors are right to suggest that the title of Duranty’s 1876 essay, “The New Painting,” is “far more telling than the reductive label ‘Impressionism.’ ” They also recognize the importance of Courbet as “a model for all the masters of the New Painting,” who admired not only his insistence on painting subjects from everyday life and his impressive technical powers, but also the grandeur of his ambition and his independence. “His belligerence…and polemical stances,” as Loyrette observes, “made Courbet a pioneer in the struggle against academic institutions.”


Courbet sets the stage for the authors’ claim that the development of Impressionism involved not only the creation of a new painting style but also a revolution in artistic values. Resisting the oversimplified conception of Impressionism as simply a violent reaction to academic painting, they take the more interesting view that “the New Painting contemplated Courbet and the lessons of Realism more than it opposed Bouguereau or Gérôme; it profited from the favorable environment created by the collapse of the restrictive old categories of genres and the ensuing triumph of landscape and genre painting.”

This seems a valid point—and one that might have been developed further in both the exhibition and the catalog. For although in recent years there has been a concerted attempt to take a broader view of nineteenth-century French painting, attention has been concentrated almost entirely on the contrast between the academic painters—Meissonier, Gérôme, Bouguereau, and Cabanel—and the modernists.7 Artists who produced slick and largely anecdotal paintings of modern life, such as James Tissot, Jules Bastien-Lepage, and Jean Béraud, have been pretty much left out of the discussion. But it is they, I believe, who can provide us with especially important insights into the qualities of the New Painting. For unlike academic painters such as Bouguereau or Gérôme, who mostly confined themselves to historical, mythological, and exotic subjects, they too were concerned with representing modern life. And the differences between the ways that Tissot and Manet, for example, view contemporary life, can reveal an enormous amount about the New Painting.

Unfortunately in this exhibition Tissot is represented only by a single work, a portrait that tells us little of his relation (or lack of one) to the New Painting. He would have been better represented here by one of his more anecdotal paintings, such as Spring (Salon of 1865), a detailed depiction of three rather moony young women in an apple orchard, which is close in subject to some of Monet’s contemporaneous works; or by A Widow (Salon of 1869), a coy picture of a pretty young woman in a garden with her elderly mother and small daughter, clearly yearning to escape to a new love. Although such paintings might be taken to represent the same world as that of the modernists, their pictures of that world actually have little in common beyond their nominally similar subjects.

Although Tissot’s paintings show contemporary people in supposedly “real-life” situations, they rely upon heavy-handed theatrical effects and use clichés that take for granted the complicity of the viewer; their studied artificiality often reminds us of scenes from operettas. The pictures Tissot painted during the 1860s are instructive precisely because they make it clear just how ambiguous the modernists’ paintings were, and how far they were from being literal illustrations of manners and mores. Paintings like Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, or even Monet’s Women in a Garden of 1866–1867, not only avoid narrative but almost seem to dare us to try to impose a story on them. The departure from the conventions of perspective and the emphatic flattening of the picture space serves to flatten out human relationships and narrative content as well.

Indeed the increased flattening of the picture space seems to have coincided with a waning interest in clear narrative subjects, and with the heightened sense of ambiguity that was central to the modernist artists. The resistance to narrative is especially apparent in Manet’s paintings of the period, from the provocatively irresolute Le déjeuner sur l’herbe completed at the beginning of the decade to the positively puzzling Luncheon in the Studio of 1868. What is so surprising about many of Manet’s paintings of the 1860s is the way in which they seem to reject the kinds of moral certainties that were essential both to the academic painters and to the lesser realist and naturalist painters such as Tissot, Alphonse Legros, and Jules Breton. The modernists’ emphasis on discontinuity and uncertainty led them, among other things, to take a radically new view of subject matter; they tended to think of what was painted largely as a part of how it was painted.

This led to a broad reconsideration of subject matter in painting. In an illuminating essay Loyrette discusses not only the decline but also the transformation of history painting, which “instead of dying,…took on other forms, profiting from the erosion of old categories and appearing where it had never been before.”

Loyrette is particularly interesting in showing how historical and literary themes were treated during the 1860s by artists as diverse as Manet, Fantin-Latour, Degas, Renoir, and Cézanne. Fantin-Latour illustrated scenes from Wagner’s Tannhäuser in a dramatic style very different from the one he used for contemporary scenes. Cézanne depicted both religious and literary subjects, sometimes indirectly, as in his orgiastic The Banquet, painted around 1870, which was probably inspired by Flaubert’s La tentation de Saint Antoine (excerpts of which were published in the 1860s). Degas tried his hand at classical and medieval subjects before he turned his full energy to depicting modern life. And during the 1860s Manet was more interested in the possibilities of history painting, and its uses in advancing his own career, than the other Impressionists. This is evident not only in his paintings of religious subjects but also in his attempts to render contemporary events as historical, as in The Battle of the ‘Kearsage’ and the ‘Alabama’ and The Execution of Maximilian.

What was new about Manet’s form of history painting was its lack of visible moral judgment—its narratives were interrupted or were left open and inconclusive. This is especially clear in The Execution of Maximilian, in which our expectation of a clear confrontation between good and evil—as in Goya’s May 3, 1808, on which Manet’s composition was based—is purposely disappointed. Instead of moral outrage we find what seems a pointed indifference to physical suffering, a stunning sense of moral neutrality.

During the early 1870s, when many of the modernists abandoned history painting, they sought new ways of giving their paintings a comparable significance. Although Loyrette writes informatively about this shift, here again one can’t help wishing that he had taken some of his ideas a bit further and reexamined one of his and Tinterow’s basic premises about the New Painting, what they characterize as its forthrightness and exclusion of metaphor.

Rather than exclude visual metaphor from their paintings, the New Painters, it seems to me, used new techniques and new approaches to subject matter which were intended to transform the nature of visual metaphor; they did so in much the same way that they engaged in transforming the character of history and genre painting.

The shift in their approach to subject matter can be demonstrated by Manet’s eclectic use of sources from art history in many of his major works from the 1860s. In his chapter in the catalog on “The Nude,” Loyrette discusses Manet’s conspicuous use of references to earlier painting, and following the German art historian Werner Hofmann, he raises the question whether Olympia, for example, is “a contemporary equivalent to Titian’s Venus or her complete antithesis, the goddess of love in a new aspect or an ironic profanation of everything she stood for?8 Loyrette claims the picture is a contemporary counterpart of Titian’s painting, “a modern Venus of Urbino in the same way that the Déjeuner sur l’herbe is an 1860 version of [Giorgione’s] A Concert in the Country.”

But Manet seems to suggest that he is both updating earlier works and profaning them. His references to earlier paintings are a calculated use of allusion, in which both respectful and irreverent attitudes toward subjects can coexist precisely because of the ambivalence we are made to feel toward them. At a time when the literary content of painting was being severely reduced, such allusion to earlier painting provided a kind of secondary subject matter for the works in question; and that secondary subject was precisely the painters’ ambivalence and lack of certainty toward their nominal subject. The use of such allusions also allowed Manet to add a historical echo to what appeared to be scenes from contemporary life.


One can see the desire to give a new kind of meaning to scenes from everyday life in the New Painters’ handling of composition and form. A comparison between Courbet’s Oak Tree in Flagey and Monet’s The Bodmer Oak (see page 49), which are conveniently exhibited on the same wall, is instructive. The ancient oak tree in the Courbet painting is set pretty much at the exact center of the picture and is isolated from its surroundings. A dog chasing a hare is nearby, creating an implied anecdotal contrast between the solidity and longevity of the tree and the fleeting events that go on around it. In a sense, the Courbet painting is still very much within the tradition of the paysage moralisé, or moralizing landscape, familiar from the work of Poussin and Claude Lorrain.9 In the Monet painting by contrast, the tree is not only off-center but is embedded within the surrounding landscape, and distinguishable from it only by color and tonal values. Monet is thus able to suggest the grandeur of the oak without placing it at the center of his composition or detaching it from its surroundings. This leveling of emphasis is typical of Impressionist painting, and can be seen in many of the landscapes in the exhibition.

The equal emphasis on different elements within pictures is particularly revealing in the landscapes that contain human figures. In most of the earlier examples of figures within landscapes from this period, such as Jules Breton’s The Calling of the Gleaners (1859) or Alphonse Legros’s Woman and Dog in a Landscape (1860), the figures, following traditional patterns, tend to detach themselves from the surrounding landscape, sometimes almost as if they were pasted down on top of it. This is even true of many modernist paintings during the 1860s, and is especially evident in a painting like Bazille’s large rendition of male bathers, Summer Scene, of 1869. The traditional separation between the figures and their surrounding landscape in such paintings implies a hierarchy of values in which the human figure is given particular emphasis because it is conceived as inherently more important than its surroundings.

One of the most striking innovations of the New Painting was its tendency to de-emphasize individual figures and to integrate figures and landscape, another aspect of the tendency to break down conventional categories of beings and things. This is wonderfully apparent in Renoir’s The Walk of 1870, in which the distribution of light and color, and especially the similarly animated handling of paint in both figures and foliage, create a seamless continuity between the two figures and the landscape they move through. The figures are in effect part of the landscape, and seem to be made of virtually the same substance as the foliage. The means for doing so lie mostly in the brushwork.

During the 1870s both Monet and Renoir would frequently use this new way of conceiving the figure within its surrounding landscape. And in doing so, they also frequently depicted female figures who in a sense become personifications of the landscapes around them, thus creating a metaphor that depended on the handling of the paint. In paintings such as Renoir’s Woman with a Parasol and Child of 1873 or Monet’s Young Girls in a Clump of Dahlias of 1875, the women function both as human participants in the landscape and as personifications of nature embedded within the painted surfaces.

The way paint was applied was crucial. The technique of using many small dabs of paint which Monet and Renoir began to develop during the late 1860s became a key characteristic of Impressionist painting during the 1870s and created an entirely new range of metaphorical possibilities. The Impressionists’ broken stroke started out as a method for describing light and movement and for conveying an impression of spontaneity. The individual brushstrokes describe specific things but they also are meant to show how things interact with their surroundings. One could even say that the “impressionistic” aspect of such painting is the result of a shift in emphasis from representing particular people and things to evoking an ambience or atmosphere of which they are only a part.

This manner of painting was not fully developed until the 1870s, when the brushstrokes in the paintings of Manet and Renoir tended to become smaller and the colors purer. It was also not until then that the numerous small brush marks on the surface of the canvas began to act as a kind of overall mesh or visual screen through which the image was perceived. And when that happened, the brushstrokes began to call attention to themselves in a new way, suggesting that they had their own inner order and logic. We have now become so used to seeing things depicted through a network of small strokes that we may tend to think such pictures are “realistic.” But it is really an arbitrary way of representing reality—as was well understood by hostile contemporary critics.

Moreover, the mottled layers of paint and the varying colors on the surface of the canvas evoked not only the implied movement of air and light, color sensation by color sensation, but also suggested the passage of time, moment by moment, stroke by stroke. This is strikingly apparent in paintings such as Monet’s Sailboats at Argenteuil of 1874, or in Renoir’s Oarsmen at Chatou of 1879. The intangible elements of air, light, and time had by then become implicit components of the subject matter of painting, so much so that the illusionistic visual description of distinct, stable subjects was no longer adequate to express the painters’ vision of a world in constant flux. The new way of painting allowed the artist to give energy and movement precedence over matter and stability—to represent not only things but also the ways in which things and forces interact. In Monet’s famous Impression: Sunrise, for example, there is hardly a solid or stable object in the whole picture. Virtually the whole image is awash within an ebb and flow suggested by brushstrokes evoking the interaction of light, air, and water.

A further implication of the new importance of the painting process itself as part of a picture’s subject matter is that the individual strokes are also to be understood as visible signs of the creation of the painting that we are looking at. This was explicitly intended to make us aware that painting is conceived as a process of exploration and discovery as well as of depiction. The picture can be seen as emerging from the movement back and forth between the vision of the painter and the act of laying down the paint: it is not to be seen as a representation of a preconceived subject. This kind of painting becomes a means of probing surface appearances for underlying truths. Such paintings are not devoid of metaphor; rather, they quite literally expand and transform the metaphorical possibilities of the art. And this, it seems to me, is one of the more important ways in which Impressionism went so far beyond realism as to make the New Painting really new.

Because this new kind of subjectivity was not fully developed until the 1870s, the Origins of Impressionism falls short of showing how the New Painting finally liberated itself from realism. But this does not prevent the exhibition from suggesting what would eventually happen. Evidence of this tendency can be seen from some of the work of the 1860s in the final gallery of the exhibition. The most telling early examples of the subjectivity of the New Painting can be seen in the pictures that Monet and Renoir painted at the riverside resort of La Grenouillère in 1869 (see page 50). Even though they worked virtually side by side, they nonetheless arrived at very different images of the place, and a great deal of the difference between them is to be seen in the differences in brushstroke.

Monet’s version quite literally takes a broader view. The circular island (wittily referred to by contemporaries as the “flower pot” or as “the camembert”) is set at a greater distance from us, and the composition as a whole is made up of more expansive brushstrokes—which are in keeping with the more generalized and austere view of the scene that Monet gives us. Monet also puts greater emphasis on the underlying geometrical structure of his composition. The center of the circular island for example, is at the center of the picture itself, and the tree in the middle and its reflection provide a vertical axis around which the rest of the composition pivots. Even the angles of the boats conform to this sweeping circular movement, which is also echoed by the systematic rendering of the brushstrokes that represent ripples that radiate on the water—these seem almost to follow an underlying scheme of perspective rather than being spontaneously painted. Monet, moreover, is apparently more interested in the place than in the people, who are broadly rendered.

Renoir’s painting, in contrast, brings our eye closer to the island and shows the people on it in greater detail; we can clearly make out their gestures and see what kind of clothes they are wearing. The brushstrokes here are less systematic, and serve to enhance a sense of hubbub in the scene before us. In order to emphasize its human content, Renoir also goes out of his way to convey an almost snapshot-like sense of a fleeting moment. This is especially evident in the rendering of the dog that extends its paw down to one of the rowboats. A gesture like this, of course, implies imminent movement: we know that in a moment the dog will either fall forward or have to pull back. It therefore gives Renoir’s painting a greater immediacy, making it look more like a scene being casually observed.

In subsequent years, both Monet and Renoir frequently used compositional devices that gave their pictures a sense of impending movement, and thereby a sense of time caught on the run. Like the dog in La Grenouillère, however, many of their devices for implying spontaneity were quite calculated. We know very well that no dog posed for that particular gesture any more than Monet could have made sailboats stand still so that he could paint them. By such methods the Impressionists suggested that their paintings were done more quickly, more spontaneously, and more naively than they really were.

But as is already evident in Monet’s and Renoir’s paintings of La Grenouillère, the various artists associated with the movement soon developed rather different styles and seem to have worked toward quite different goals. In the end, despite our desire to put a convenient label on their work, their diversity makes it difficult to characterize the individual artists primarily by their relationship to a group. The movement—to the degree that there was one—was defined not so much by a single style as by a number of similar attitudes toward the function of painting. For the Impressionists, the way they saw became an integral part of what they depicted. From this developed the notion of painting as a way of exploring the world, of seeking knowledge.

In showing us what appear to be unedited slices of contemporary life, the Impressionists also implied that any moment was potentially as important as any other—thus reinforcing the breakdown of aesthetic and other hierarchies in painting which had begun in earnest during the 1850s. In view of their diversity of approach, one can understand why these painters resisted being labeled. And in view of the philosophical values implicit in their art, with its emphasis on flux and on the relativity of experience, it is no wonder that the Impressionists were reviled by the establishment in their own time. They not only seemed to be breaking all the laws of good taste, but in the deep subjectivity and relativism of their approach to painting they challenged basic assumptions about the physical, social, and moral stability of the world around them.

This Issue

November 17, 1994