The 1870s saw the peak of Impressionism, both as a coherent
group movement and as a painting style. During that decade, artists divided
their time between landscape painting and studies of Parisian life. The
gentle rural landscape along the Seine valley between Paris and Normandy
formed the main source of inspiration for Monet. Sisley and Pissarro.
By the mid 1870s. the artists' period of apprenticeship was over and their ideas, aims and differences firmly established as a result of regular discussions at Paris cafes from the latter half of the 1860s onwards. Indeed, by this time the Impressionists - or independents as they were still called in the early part of the decade - found themselves, with the exception of Manet, sufficiently united in their disagree-ment with the academic system and its outlet. the Salon exhibitions, to present a united opposition to those institutions. Although their first discussions on the subject in the mid 1860s had come to nothing, by 1874 the members of the Impressionist group finally established their own alternative exhibitions, independent of the official Salon. Their first show took place in April and May 1874, when a critic coined the term 'Impressionist'.
Basic methods of Impressionism
Photography gave them one alternative vision of the natural world which was not based on painting, and Japanese prints provided another artistic option. The Impressionists' friend and patron Theodore Duret. politician and art critic, noted in an important essay in 1878 'Before Japan it was impossible; the painter always lied. Nature with its frank colors was in plain sight, yet no one ever saw anything on canvas but attenuated colors, drowning in a general halftone.' With their "piercing colors placed side by side'. Japanese artists showed 'new methods for reproducing certain effects of nature which had been neglected or considered impossible to render'. Duret summarized 'After the Impressionists had taken from their immediate predecessors in the French school their forthright manner of painting out of doors from the first impression with vigorous brushwork. and had grasped the bold. new methods of Japanese coloring, they set off from these acquisitions to develop their own originality and to abandon themselves to their personal sensations.'
While their older colleagues. Manet and Degas, remained
essentially committed to studio working methods, albeit novel ones, the
younger artists, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro. Mori-sot. Sisley and Cezanne,
used outdoor land-scape studies as the vehicle for their research into
new ways of painting the real world. They abandoned the strongly contrasting
lights and darks of Romantic and Realist painting. In par-ticular they
rejected the use of the somber earth colors, browns and blacks, which
dom-inated the palettes even of artists like Manet and Degas in the 1860s.
Instead they explored the pale colors and close tonal values of studies
by Corot (1 796-1875). the luminous skies of out-door seascapes by Boudin
(1824-1898). and even the pale opaque shadows which helped flatten pictorial
space in works by Ingres (1780-1867). They began to exploit more fully
the light-enhancing properties of pale commercial primings, and gradually
replaced the traditional brown ebauche with a brightly colored initial
laying in of paint which related directly to the final colors of the painting.
They continued and extended the making of outdoor etudes, adopting this
freely executed study stage as their finished work.
By the early nineteenth century, ready made canvases were being sold in France in a standardized range of sizes for easel painting, 'the range then available, in a squarish rectangular format designed for portrait and figure work. spanned from a small (No 3) canvas, measuring approximately 6in (15.5cm) by 8in (20.5cm), to the largest. (No 120), measuring approxim-ately 6 feet (1.9 meters) by 4 feet (1.2 meters). At that time the metric scale had not yet been fully established. In the early 1830s a longer 'landscape' format was introduced, together with an even more elongated "marine' shape. By the 1850s five series were on the market. These were the original portrait, vertical land-scape. horizontal landscape, vertical marine. and horizontal marine series. Within these five series, each format number had the same sized shorter side. only the longer side varied in length. The code-numbering of portrait formats probably had its origin in the seventeenth century when the major art theorist Roger de Piles recorded that canvas pieces were sold according to cost - a 'canvas of 20 sous' was of given, commonly accepted dimensions. Thus. for example, a canvas costing 20 sous became canvas size No 20.
Despite the fact that most artists and writers thought that the dimensions of standard for-mats had been rationally conceived to conform with some aesthetic, harmonious ratio, such as the influential 5:8 proportions of the Golden Section, they were in fact determined purely by economic factors. In order to be able to prepare stretched canvases and picture frames in ad-vance, color merchants found it expedient to use fixed measurements, rather than having to follow the whims of artists by making numer-ous sizes to order.
Before mechanization in the weaving indus-try, hand-loom widths for canvas depended upon the distance a shuttle could be thrown through the warp by the weaver. In France this was commonly around 1 meter (3 feet) up to a maximum of 1 meter 40cm (4ft 6in). When standardized sizes are analyzed in relation to the canvas widths available, it is clear that the formats chosen were those which could be cut most economically from the fabric, avoiding undue wastage. For large-scale paintings, like those of historic subjects often shown at the important, annual Salon exhibitions, artists had to order specially made canvases, which were sewn from strips of fabric.
The mechanical spinning and weaving of linen was about
50 years behind developments in the mechanization of the cotton industry,
so entirely machine-made linen canvas was not common before the mid nineteenth
century. Although large, unbroken widths of canvas made massive pictures
simpler as the century progressed, the tendency was, on the contrary.
to smaller, easel-scale paintings. This develop-ment was prompted by two
chief factors - the demands of outdoor painting, which made very large
canvases unmanageable, and the necessity for artists to produce many.
smaller paint-ings to satisfy the new middle-class market. which called
for reasonably priced works which would fit in small city apartments.
There is a table shows the main standardized canvas formats. Commercially produced ready primed, ready stretched canvases in a wide range of standard sizes were available off the peg to artists in the nineteenth century. The range shown here of five series from portrait to horizontal marine, were on the market by the mid 1850s, and still sold m the 1890s. This table came from the 1896 catalog of the French color merchant Lefranc. The measurements are in centimeters.
Monet and Degas both began using square canvases in the
latter 1870s, and Pissarro then
For priming, the canvas was tacked to huge wooden frames in the workshop and balanced on trestles, the canvas was then primed hori-zontal. Using tools, like the priming blade which dates back well before the seventeenth century, the first layer of glue size was applied to the fabric. Two skilled men. one either side the flat of canvas, picked up the preparation in ladles and spread it thinly with the blades. working back and forth from the middle out. The size layer sealed the pores of the canvas and made it less absorbent, and therefore less vulnerable to the corrosive effects of the oxides present in the oil of the ground - the next layer. The size dried preventing undue movement in the fabric threads. The surface was then rubbed lightly with a pumice stone to remove fuzz and protruding irregularities in the weave. Then the ground coats, one or two layers of opaque color bound with oil, were applied with the priming blade, ideally allowing thorough dry-ing time between coats. One of the hazards of off-the-peg ready primed supports was that artists had no means( of telling when the canvas had been primed, and if it had been left long enough to dry thoroughly. Cracking all over the paint layer could result from a ground which continued to dry long after it had been painted on. Despite this danger, it was rare for artists to take the trouble to prepare their own canvases. As oil grounds could take a year or more to dry, artists were often advised to store them before use to make sure they had a sound base on which to work.
The relatively smooth, two-coated prepar-ation was in
general more popular before 1870, but after then Impressionist experiments
with canvas texture made the grainy single coat the more sought after.
A French color merchant's handbook in 1883 outlined the key differences:
A variety of different weights and weaves of canvas fabric were sold commercially for artists' use. Linen was the most common, but cotton and hemp fabrics were also available. Diagonal twill and plain were the two most common weave patterns used for artists' canvas, but odd examples of other more unusual weaves, like the herringbone twill, can also be found. The plain, one-under-one-over simple weave, known as tabby, was sold in a wide choice of weights, ranging from the thin. loose-woven sketching canvas held together by its priming, through to the thickly textured. tightly-woven strong weights. The choice of canvas weight varied according to the size of painting, large ones requiring strong fabric, and to the financial means of the artist. Students often used sketch-ing canvas or the cheapish 'ordinary' weight canvas which was widely sold.
Dancers (c 1880) by Degas was unfinished. This means that the unifying warm hue of the raw canvas shows clearly among the colours. This picture, and the Portrait of Durantyf1879), show Degas experimenting with the novel composi tionalpoten tial of specially made square canvases. Abstract, decorative designs which stress the flatness of the picture plane are easier to create on square formats. Here, geometric shapes are contrasted with the nebulous forms of the tutus which are set against them. The dancers are set in a diagonal which recedes from lower right to upper left, in opposition to the diagonal of the foreground bench. The rectangles in the background, parallel to the picture plane, reinforce it. The unfinished handling provides a softening contrast with the taut composition. The stiff scumbling, seen clearly in the painting of the floor, shows the dragging which is inevitable when working in pain t on a relatively absorbent support - this canvas was unprimed but probably sized with glue.
Supports and paint texture
While white was the most common color for ready primed canvas in the nineteenth century, a wide range of pale tinted prepara-tions were also available on off-the-peg canvas. These included beige, cream, pinkish gray, bluish gray, putty, milk-chocolate brown, and oatmeal. None were darker than a middle tone, and most were considerably paler. One of the main innovations of the Impressionists was that the overall tonal key in their paintings was made lighter and brighter as a result of the concern to represent natural outdoor light. It thus became logical to exploit white and pale tinted primings in the same manner as dark grounds had been used traditionally. A middle to dark colored ground had traditionally been used to speed up execution as it played an active role as a unifying middle tone, which was left to show through the paint layer.
Although, during the 18 60s. the all-covering opacity of the paint layer had tended to obliter-ate the pale grounds used by the independent artists, from about 1870 the ground was in-creasingly exploited as a color or value in its own right. Patches of white or tinted ground were left bare. to read through the loosely handled web of the colors in the paint layer. By choosing a ground tint appropriate to the particular light effect to be painted, the artist saved precious time in front of the subject, where speed was essential if transient lighting conditions were to be captured.
Incorporating the ground-tint into the final effect side-stepped the necessity for an all-covering paint layer, a necessity which had traditionally been seen as the great disadvan-tage of pale grounds. A white ground, on which all colors look good, was the perfect base for the technique of the Impressionists who sought to capture subtle color values, minute variations in hue and in warm and cool colors in outdoor light.
Painting color and light
Oil paints derive their richness of color, or ; glowing transparency, from the oil binder they contain. The glassy quality of oil allows light to penetrate deep amongst the pigment particles, so that when it is finally reflected back to the eye it is rich with color. Inversely, paint with a minimal amount of oil binder appears mat and pale in color, because light is bounced rapidly back to the eye before it has had time to become saturated with color. This is why in nature, wet surfaces appear darker in color than dry surfaces. The Impressionists recognized that the chalky, pastel-like quality produced by paint with only a small amount of oil imitated the effects of pale, reflected light in nature. To exploit this, Monet and Degas - and probably numerous other contemporaries - are recorded as having soaked most of the oil from their colors before use. One way to do this was to leave their colors on blotting paper for several minutes, before using them. Degas then diluted this paste with turpentine and laid it in thin mat washes, while Monet, and the other Impressionists except Cezanne and Renoir, applied it neat, as a dryish chalky paste ideal for abrupt dragged impasto. It is no coincidence that the pale mat surfaces of Millet's large pastel drawings, exhibited in Paris in 1875, were admired at this time.
The Beach at Trouville (1870) by Monet has grains ofsa on the surface. This we confirmed when the work was cleaned in 1965. This definitely means it was painted in situ. The cool gray ground is left to stand among the paint layer colors, on the beach, center, and around the chair. It also unifies these hues and saves painting the entire canvas. The canvas itself is small, measuiii 37.5x 45.7cm (14 3/4 x l8in).
In Impressionist painting, pale grounds were often used to stand for the lightest tones. Thus unpainted patches of ground left visible among the colors of the paint layer were used instead of applied color as the pale tones in the upper register of the tonal scale. In Cezanne's work in particular, pale cream or white grounds were left to show through as glowing highlights. As their use of this technique and their know-ledge of color became more sophisticated, the Impressionists began exploiting the potential of tinted grounds for their color value.
They were aware of the influential color theories of Michel-Eugene Chevreui (1786-1889). and they experimented with the effects of color contrasts. These are strongest when colors opposite each other on the color circle are placed side by side. The artists used such complementary contrasts as a means of en-hancing their representation of the atmospheric effects of light and color. Thus a cream ground, showing through a loosely painted blue sky, with roughly scumbled white clouds, resulted in an optical effect of warm, glowing sunlight. The warm cream would be enhanced - made to look warmer and pinker - by the adjacent blue, which would appear correspond-ingly cooler. Cream showing through the cloud areas would add an airy effect of warmth. This calculated exploitation of color effects pro-duced an ethereal lightness which was im-possible to obtain by a more conventional - and deadening - build-up of colors. So, floating veils of translucent, contrasting color or drag-ging openly worked webs of opaque color over a tinted ground enabled these artists to create a superb impression of natural phenomena. It was realized that color temperature played an important role in the depiction of natural light effects and that the distinction between warm and cool colors made it possible for the eye to distinguish between very subtle nuances of color with imperceptible contrasts of tone.
Color contrasts and juxtapositions of warm and cool colors were also used to evoke form without recourse to conventional tonal model-ing. This was possible because warm colors appear to come forward, and cool colors appear to recede. In nature, warm yellow sun-light finds its contrast in the luminous blue-violet reflected light of the shadows. Thus where colors were equivalent in tone but exhibited such warm-cool contrasts, these 09o-pcould be used to describe form or movement in space. The inherent tonal differences of colors could also be exploited. Because, in the spec-trum, blue is relatively dark in tone compared to, say, a pale yellow, these colors together could provide pure, luminously colored equiv-alents for traditional dark-light contrasts, giving structure to form.
Cezanne painted The Lake
of Annecy while on a visit to Talloires in July 1896. It shows
how contrasts of color temperature -warm and cool colors - can be used
instead of purely light-dark tonal contrasts to create a sense of form
in space. On the central turret, warm, pinkish-yellow colors indicate
the side on which the light falls, from left to righ t. By contrast, the
shadowed side, filled with reflected ligh t from the sky, is tinted blue.
The pervasive atmospheric light outdoors means that contrasts of light
and shade are minimalized, thus highlights and shadows are close in tonal
value, and so distinctions between light and shade are made through warm-cool
Chevreul's Chromatic Circle of Hues was first published in 1839. His experiments showed how colors opposite each other on the color circle-complementary colors are mutually enhancing.
In The Bridge at Villeneuve-la Garonne (1872) by Alfred Sisley the midday sun falls full on the scene. All the shadows are suppressed except those in the reflection of the dramatic bridge structure.
Chevreul's Chromatic Scale of Tones shows the gradation of a red from white to black through all variations of tint. Tonal gradations were used by academic painters to create relief on form, butpure color could also be used. As can be seen from the color circle, yellow is pale in tone compared U blue. Such inherent tonal differences between colors were used by Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist painters to structure form through color.
Monet pain ted Break up of Ice on the Seine: Ice Floes in 1880. This dramatic natural event depicted lasted only a few days in early January 1880, yet Monet produced about 17 canvases of it. These included a larger variant of this picture, painted later for the Salon of 1880, where it was refused. Thus he was supplementing outdoor work with studio-painted variations. Snow and ice along with wa ter provided ideal vehicles for the effects of colored light. The unconventional central axis balances the trees and their reflections, while the water surface is defined by the colored ice floes. This canvas is more elongated than the narrowest marine 40 standard format, measuring 60x100cm (23 3/4 x 39 1/2 in).
The types of natural lighting the Impressionists chose to depict were selected expressly for the luminous brilliance of their effects, and for their lack of strong tonal contrasts. The Romantics, and Realists like Courbet were, in the words of Edmond Duranty, the critic friend of Degas, 'persuaded that light only existed on condition that it was thoroughly surrounded by shadows. The basement with a ray of light coming through a narrow air hole . . .'. The Impression-ists avoided deep dark forest settings, choosing instead open airy scenes, from broad new city boulevards to river- and seascapes. They chose their subjects and viewpoints so that the fall of light produced only minimal shadows. One of the most popular choices was full-face light. which fell directly onto the subject from behind the artist, thus casting any shadows out of sight behind the objects in the scene. Gris clair. a clear, pale, gray light, is what results from a luminous but overcast sky. leaving a shadowless, even diffusion of light, was also widely exploited. The harsh bleaching effects of midday sun. where shadows are at their short-est. was another type used. Where shadows were included, they were always full of reflected light, and barely darker in tone than the sunlit parts.
Water and snow were. for all but Renoir. studied for their light and color reflective properties. Snow provided a white field, com-parable to the white canvas preparation, which showed off all the most delicate varied nuances of warm colored light and shadow. Water was also an excellent vehicle for insubstantial, fluctuating film color, picking up and reflec-ting light and colors from sky, atmosphere and all surrounding objects. Reflections were also used to structure compositions, for, asmirror-images of real objects, they could strengthen the abstract design qualities in a picture.
The sketchy execution of the picture was essential to the final appearance of immediacy, and to the process of capturing fugitive light effects. Painting had to be a rapid jotting down of visual sensations.
In seeking an appropriate means to render their sensations, the Impressionists looked to the techniques used in earlier landscape studies. and in the freely handled compositional equisses common to all art students' training. The Impressionists' use of broken color may in part have its origin in the academic method, where mosaic-like touches of color were used to build up the halftones. However, since the seventeenth century, the use of separate touches of color had been recommended as a means of avoiding sullying the purity of color by overmixing. So. for artists like the Impres-sionists, who wanted to achieve maximum purity of color, this method made obvious sense, although their touches of color were by no means uniform. Instead of using linear drawing to define form or space, color and brushwork served this purpose in their work. Thus, the varied size, direction or shape of a brushstroke was intentionally eloquent. The foregrounds were often handled in large strokes, distances in small, almost imperceptible touches to give the appearance of depth. Small jerky strokes differentiated foliage from the longer strokes of boughs and tree trunks; ob-jects reflected on water were often described by vertical marks. Reflected light off the water surface was shown in contrasting long, hori-zontal dashes. Buildings were 'constructed' by solid touches or planes of color which followed and stressed their form.
Renoir painted Gust of Wind around 1873. The detail fright shows that Renoir exploited a beige ground to provide a warm color base which shows among the cooler greens of the paint layer. The dehcate feathery strokes of yellow-greens, viridian, white and yellowochre, with touches of vermilion, are floated wet in wet over the beigepriming. Where the ground shows through it appears even warmer by contrast to the acid greens. This suggests the dry grasses on the hillside. Thinly applied color for the distances contrasts with impasted touches to evoke foreground textures. Loaded blue-grays and white for the sky and clouds are warmed by the beige ground to suggest sunligh t flickering through from behind.
Traditional academic methods of finishing had assumed that one section of the painting would be brought to completion each day. By contrast, Impressionist methods involved mak-ing constant adjustments over the entire canvas. This was obviously easier on an easel-size can-vas, which the eye could take in complete in a single glance.
A premeditated preparation of colors and tones laid out on the palette, as required by academic practice, was obsolete for the Impres-sionists, because open-air painting inevitably necessitated a moment to moment evolution of color mixtures on the palette. These had to be adjusted or abandoned as the light effects changed, and the artist took up a new canvas or began a new subject.
The idea of the visual world presenting itself to the eye in colored patches of light, or sensations, which was central to the Impression-ists' method, derived from contemporary theo-ries about perception. Rejecting the conven-tional use of abstract lines and edges to give an illusion of form. the Impressionists began to paint light. Their aim was to perceive and record direct optical sense data, or 'visual sensations' as they were called, instead of depicting a scene modified and 'corrected' by the intervention of the intellect, which gave only a rationally conceived notion of the real world. This explains references among the Impressionists to the desire for the infant's un-tutored eye. The Impressionists tried to unlearn their received knowledge of the visual world, and confront its myriad array of colored patches directly. These they translated into touches of paint, which only coalesced into a coherent image as the picture progressed. The importance of depicting visual sensations helps explain why Cezanne described Monet as 'just an eye, but what an eye!'
This search for pictorial equivalents to the artist's perceptions or sensations of light and color outdoors was quite different from the later, more codified and pseudoscientific concerns of the Neo-Impressionists. such as Georges Seurat (18 59-1891). in the mid 1880s. Their attempts to create 'optical' color, through the partial fusion on the spectator's retina of colored light emananting from tiny painted dots, has been consistently confused by many critics and art historians, with the 'colored patch' Impressionist technique. No optical fusion was intended or sought in Im-pressionist painting. The artists simply intended that the colors and brushstrokes should - at an appropriate viewing distance - present the spectator with a coherent equivalent of the painter's visual perceptions.
These methods were developed during the 1870s by Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Morisot. Cezanne and Sisley. They were carried forward in modified forms during the following years.
Manet painted Claude Monet and his Wife on his Floating Studio in 1874. Influenced by Impressionist methods, Manet began painting out of doors in the early 1870s, working with Monet and Renoir in 1874 at Argenteuil, where this work was painted. Manet has lightened bis palette and abandoned the harsh contrasts of light and shade and the rich darks of his studio-painted landscapes of the 1860s.
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