It is one of the most popular art movements ever, you might almost say the very first art movement as such. There had been previous sea changes like the Renaissance or the Pre Raphs who were trying to revive some imaginary golden age as were the academic movements in France and elsewhere. You had movements that wanted to concentrate on a particular subject such as the Orientalists or shift in subject matter linked to romantic notions such as the change from Myth and History to Pastoralism with the Barbizon School. It was the Barbizon influence that had a direct influence on the formation of impressionism, it was they who were part of the europe-wide interest in painting en plein air.
Greater than all these forces however was the arrival of photography. Much early photography was done in a studio trying to mimic painterly values with classical backdrops etc, but from the very beginning photographers turned their lenses on the world around them. This was the beginning of a new subject matter. Everyday life had never really figured in painting before, yes there had been morality pieces staged in everyday settings, but they were always secondary to the moral message. There were idealisations of the pastoral life such as Millet. Portraits idealised and warts-n-all of course continued throughout, but they had a specific function to fix an individual in recorded history. Earlier and of course influential were the topographical artists such as Turner and Constable, but plein air sketches were for them raw material to be used in the studio afterwards.
Photography also demonstrated something else. Despite us all being immersed in the actual world around us, it surprised people as to how their world appeared suddenly unfamiliar fixed in the monochrome frame of the photographic image. It showed that artists had until then had for the most part looked, but not actually seen. That this caused a huge shift in representational painting is hardly surprising. Indeed all of the impressionists were keen photographers and many of these “impressionistic” moments we so admire were done in part from photographs even post impressionists Cezanne for example used photography a great deal. The idea that photography would replace and supplant painting had I suspect not really been considered or believed possible. This is a repeated human trait, I well remember the arrival of digital photography as I worked at that time building sets for photographs. All the art directors, and photographers were of the opinion that the complex chemical magic of film would never be out done by this upstart technology. We all know how that turned out!
There is much made of the ideas of optical mixing which were taken to extremes by the pointillists and divisionists, but really very few impressionist paintings stuck to that theory. The brushwork in a Manet or a Degas is not really very much different from what had gone before indeed they admired Velasquez for his painterly strengths. There was very much the idea that science was applicable to painting. Everything in that era was being studied and arranged in order and it would have been odd if painting had been left out of dissection and experimentation. It was I presume the discoveries by Newton and others that prompted the idea that colours could be optically mixed.
The main technical ingredient of impressionism was I think however slightly different and I feel tends to be somewhat ignored by art historians. They are of course swept away by the excitement of the era and the often colourful characters of the artists and their lives. The underlying principle is an older one though. Artists discovered quite early on that if you gave the right hints the viewer’s eye would fill in the rest for you. In Pompei you see areas of blocked in green with only a few leaves and branches delineated on top that this is further greenery is assumed. Later you get Frans Hals and others describing lace and rich patterns with just a hint and a splash. They discovered that this would appear more immediate to the viewer than having every thread delineated. It is this combined with direct observation that for me defines impressionism.
It is leveraging this tendency for the eye to fill in the rest that makes impressionism so immediate. Its original purpose was and is I suppose that our brains need to deliver a quick précis of our rapidly changing surroundings so we can react quickly to danger. It is very convenient for artists not to have to spell every area out in detail and a bonus that this actually produces a more involving representation to boot. The saving grace for artists is also that it is something photographs don’t do in the same way. Though a warning here, image processing by computer is catching up and may well be able to paint a pretty good impressionist painting in the very near future.
Another ingredient, also far from new, was uncertainty. When we see the world we cannot exactly define what every patch pif colour and tone is, there are large areas that may be one thing or another. So a dab of paint might be tree or wall or whatever, the viewer will unconsciously assume one or the other. This adds realism because in real life that is just how we sort the flood of incoming visual data.
At the same time from the historical viewpoint the usage painting was fragmenting and a craft tradition pushed out of a huge area of territory it had previously ruled. Any magazine publication you look at today has nearly all photographs, and even the “illustrations” are from picture libraries. Portraiture was decimated, images for political and religious purposes wiped from the map. The only territory left for the easel painter was the decorative function of adorning the domestic wall and collectors. In these reduced niches other imagery competed too pushing craft painting into a smaller and smaller ghetto. That painters reacted by desperately trying to find new purpose is I suppose hardly a surprise. So impressionism became “post” and all the plethora of other -isms and -ists started to compete to be the next big new thing.
Now more than a hundred years later the dust is perhaps beginning to settle. All the experimentation and searching for the new has actually produced nothing much new. Indeed most of the ideas that underpin current output were around by 1915. Ideas such as putting interesting looking stuff in a context that allows it to be admired, abstraction, expressionism and symbolism have been around of thousands of years. Not much truly new in my view has been done in the 20th century and after. It takes an entirely new medium such as film to produce real novelty. Many will disagree with me on this, but most if not all contemporary work can be traced back to examples from the past. They are as impressionism is, historical styles. That said impressionism is very durable and has prospered. There is an easily followed unbroken thread through generations of artists to today. There are more impressionists painting done now than ever before and with the arrival of the internet and social media they are becoming visible. It is hard to see how they will not be worthy of a substantial chapter when the perspective of time allows the art histories of our age to be finally written. It is amusing to note that contemporary art theorists, art historians, art media and art establishments appear entirely blind to the movement, but it was ever thus with things under you nose, or beneath contempt!
I have actually managed to record a painting in the making, usually I start, get lost in the process and forget to take snaps. I’ll do that first.
Here is the inspiration. It is actually a plein air watercolour that went wrong and then was rescued with copious application of body colour. It is of a junction on Cannon St that gives a simultaneous view up 2 streets. I remember being quite pleased with it at the time and felt it might make an interesting bigger picture.
Then there was the photographic information from the day. This is a collage of images put together so I can start to organise the composition. I can see I cribbed the taxi and motorbike probably from the camera monitor, as I recall it was finished on the spot, though my memory might be wrong. I have processed the colour and lighting to look as much like the sketch as possible.
The canvas was 36in by 16in so I started with a 2 inch flat brush. I mixed all the tones and colours before starting painting. I must do this more consistently as it helps tremendously with the flow if you don’t have to keep on remixing little patches of paint. Also because you aren’t dipping into colour with the brushes everything stays clean. I try and keep the blocking in very broad and general. It only took about 15min to get the basics and the beginning of the flow of light.
Once the block in had dried I began to develop the drawing and think about how I wanted the focus points to work against each other. Almost the whole final tone range is in. I can see I have over developed the taxi and motor bike, which caused me problems later. The pedestrians are from the sketch but only stand ins. I paused for a day or two here.
Here we are at the end of the next session. The motorcycle got removed, indeed the whole of the right is in a state of flux. The left has come on and really almost there. I have held back from the final brightening of the road and pavement.
Here is close to the final stage. The painting is framed up and I will leave it where I can see it, I find that after a few weeks you can see the pros and cons more clearly. There are a few tonal tweaks and the detail of the central building has to be softened a little. As you can see the motorbike went back in but more as per the initial sketch.