The Impressionists - Part II

Already by the late 1860s Monet and the other Impressionists were trying to paint the world as they saw it outdoors. Shadows cast a different colour in daylight and reflected hues make an even greater difference. This was radically different from the style of the time.

The Academy in Paris were unsure about this new direction and rejected them from exhibition. This spurred the new group to set up an exhibition of their own. In 1874 the first Impressionist exhibition was held, in direct confrontation with the annual Salon held by the Academy.

Although the movement had a few patrons, it took years before it was accepted. In this time, the various artists developed their own styles and ideas.

Monet's Coqueliots presents many of the ideas of the Impressionist movement. Depth is not characterised by perspective lines, but by colour. Things that are nearer have stronger colours and thicker strokes. The movement of the wind is captured in visual cues, such as the umbrella and the hat slightly askew, and in the blurring of colours, as in the grass on the right-hand side.

One reason for the "fuzziness" is because of changeable weather conditions, the paintings had to be painted quickly and there was no time for detail. The compromise meant that these paintings had to be viewed not up close and in detail, but from afar. The painting had to be viewed as a whole, and not as a sum of detailed parts.

This idea dictated the construction of the exhibition halls in the Musee d'Orsay. Instead of angled spotlights shining on the paintings, sunlight is the primary source of illumination. The impressionist gallery is placed close to the roof so that the best light is available, and it is acknowledged that the paintings will look different over the day as the sun changes position and colour. The idea is that spotlights will focus a viewer's attention onto a few parts of the picture, whereas changing sunlight will make a viewer look at the painting as a whole in various ways.

Degas, on the other hand, favoured the accenuation of movement. Movement is emphasised through a variety of methods. One is by blurring the details and using sudden changes in colour. Another is the framing of the picture off-centre, which gives the impression of it being a candid shot from a camera (Instant photography was a recent invention in the 1870s and Degas was a hobbyist photographer).

Although Renoir and Monet were good friends and frequently went to the same places to paint, they began to diverge in interpretation in the late 1880's. Renoir began to include many classical elements in his painting, such as attention to detail, but they were still impressionistic by the use of bright, complementary colours.

Monet became more interested in how light and climate affected colour. He purposely chose subjects that had a lot of moving light (such as seascapes and landscapes that had a lot of water) or diffused light (such as foggy weather).

The series of paintings of the cathedral at Rouen was, for him, a demanding study of the different aspects of light, the same cathedral at similar angles, just in different climates. The result is a stunning series of paintings, each individual although of the same subject from the same position. He later developed a similar series of haystacks that prompted Kandinsky to say that the subject does not matter any more and that only the colours are of interest.

The Rouen Cathedral series paintings are far more impressive in real life than in print. The paintings have texture, in Monet's effort to capture the light. Up close they resemble a random collection of vigorous brush strokes and the paint is clearly thicker in places. The painting is, in fact, three dimensional, looks quite different depending on the light source and the angle you view it at. The raised sections correspond to the highlighted areas of the subject, where the light catches a potrusion in the foreground.

Monet's later works became more abstract, as he tried to capture the essence of the light before him. This further abstraction led to the neo-impressionistic movement, and painters such as Seurat and Van Gogh, but since that's beyond Impressionism, we'll stop here.


posted on Thursday, July 03, 2003 - permalink
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