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INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND
'In a new age, new techniques. It's a simple matter of good sense', commented the young French writer and critic J. K. Huysmans (1848-1907) extremely perceptively on the innovatory Impressionist group in 1879. However, it had taken almost a century of social, political and artistic upheaval, and of struggle against the extreme stranglehold of the French Academy, for all but a few to recognize this fact. Traditional conventions in French art were deeply ingrained, and the whole established structure of the art world dug in its conservative heels against change, novelty and the needs of the new age. From the French Revolution of 1789 onwards, three generations of young, independent artists were forced to seek their own alternatives in style, training, patronage and painting methods, against the power monopoly invested in the Academy. The rise of Impressionism, with its radical new aims and painting techniques, can only be under-stood against the background which dictated artistic taste, and against which these young artists reacted.
The rise of the Academies
The human form was not simply to be'imitated' in drawing, but to be idealized — inconformity with ancient Greek, Roman and Renaissance art — to represent the purest forms of an ideal of truth and beauty upon which the mind could eflect and thus be elevated.
These attitudes influenced the choice of subject matter
which, as a result, fell into a distinct hierarchy according to the degree
of spiritual elevation it was felt to display. Lowest on the scale were
still life, animal painting, rural landscape and genre or domestic scenes.
Historical landscape painting, by which was meant a heroic landscape with
a moral or classical theme, together with portrait and religious subjects,
were more highly regarded. However, the most highly respected type of
painting was history painting, which represented heroic deeds from the
history of the Greeks and Romans. Through this type of work, the artist
could best show skill in depicting both the nude and draperies. To this
end, the Academy encouraged students to familiarize themselves with details
of classical history and mythology and to study and copy the works of
Paralleling this high ideal, academic artists —unlike their guild counterparts — were from the first forbidden to advertise or hawk their products. Such lowly, mercantile activity was considered beneath the dignity of fine artists.Instead, a regular venue, the Salon, so named after the Salon Carre in the Louvre where the first exhibitions were held, was established as the sole acceptable market place for the work of Academy-trained artists. The power of the Salon grew, and it retained its monopoly as the main outlet for artists' work until the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Teaching under the Academy
Academic control of teaching was not limited to drawing instruction at the Ecole; academicians prepared students for entry into the Ecole with drawing lessons in their private teaching studios or ateliers, where they also instructed advanced students in painting practice. The great ency-clopedia, compiled by the French writer Denis Diderot (1 713-1784) and published in the latter half of the eighteenth century, shows the typical progress of students through the various stages in the hierarchicaldrawing curriculum, which would give them access to the Ecole. The first stage involved copying either drawings or engravings, first in terms only of outline, then with hatched shading. This was known as work 'from the flat'because students had merely to imitate the simple lines to which the form had already been reduced.
Once this was successfully mastered, the student moved on to drawing low-relief sculpture. Here the fall of light and shade on the simple raised forms had to be translated into shading. This shading followed strict conventions and formed an important part of the approach to painting ap-proved by the Academy. It was called chiaroscuro, which means light-dark in Italian. To achieve the subtleties of chiaroscuro shading, series of distinct, hatched parallel marks indicated shaded areas, while the white of the paper was left blank to represent highlights. For this, pencil or graphite, a crisp precise medium, was preferred during the first half of the century. Chalk or charcoal which were softer and more suited to the rubbed blending which was used to create tonal gradations, became the popular media as the system liberalized.
The next step was for students to draw from sculpture in the round. First only parts of, and then complete statues, usually cast after antique examples, had to be translated into delicate patterns of line, built up to recreate on flat paper the illusion of form in space. Because the reliefs and sculptures were cast in white plaster, no color was present to distract the eye; the form present-ed itself simply in monochrome gradations of tone from light to dark. As the models from which the students worked were already idealized works of art, they helped to inculcate in the students a mannered vision of nature, which encouraged them to draw the live model in a conventional, idealized and unindividual way. Thus, by the time students graduated to work from the live figure, their drawing style had already been formed.
Although the real color and anatomical idiosyncracies of the human figure were a shock to the students' unaccustomed eyes, the tendency to see the form only in abstract line and tonal grad-ations was already well in grained. Models were commonly posed in noble stances derived from antique statues, which both aided the transition from cast to live model, and maintained the em-phasis on the classical tradition. Such exercises were designed to give students the competence to tackle complex figure compositions based on classical themes, which would prepare them for the grand Rome Prize, the final competition toward which all their studies were directed.
Only when students were thoroughly proficient in drawing from the live model were they permitted to use color. The master generally gave a brief introduction to the materials and tools of painting and their care, and then the students began copying a painted head. This was either an example specially executed by the master, or, occasionally, students were sent to the Louvre to copy an Old Master head. Venetian or Flemish artists were usually chosen because their lively handling and color were simpler to imitate. Students were then put to work from a live head. before going on toattempt to paint the nude model. The first stage in the painting process was the thinly painted laying in of the lines, broad masses and half- tones of the subject, which provided the base for the finished painting. This stage was called the ebauche. This first layer had to be 'leaner'. in other words contain less oil. than the final reworking, to adhere to the rule 'fat over lean', essential to competent oil painting. This rule is important because, if an oily layer is laid over an even oilier base, the latter will continue drying after the final coat is dry, thus causing the top layer to shrink and crack, exposing the underpainting.
Students were taught to prepare their palette in advance, using mainly earth colors plus Prussian blue, black and lead white. As the nineteenth century progressed, the use of the earth colors, which were relatively stable chemically, gave way to a preference for the impermanent beauties of tarry colors, like bitumen, which destroyed many paintings. Carefully prepared tints, which were thoroughly mixed with a pliant knife on a palette, were arranged in separate rows aligned with the outer edge of a clean palette - lights, darks and intermediary halftones. Once the palette was ready, light charcoal lines were drawn onto the primed canvas to indicate the contours of the form. The canvas was then gently tapped or blown on to remove excess dusty particles of the charcoal, to prevent their muddying the wet oil colors.
Next a dilute red-brown mixture was prepared by adding turpentine to an earth-color mixture, and with this transparent tint the charcoal contours were reworked and strengthened using a fine sable-hair brush. Again with the dilute mixture, called the 'sauce', the main areas of shadow were broadly laid in. normally with a larger, stiffer hog's hair brush, following the guidelines provided by the contours. Backgrounds were generally roughed in as early as possible, to block out the pale priming color which, because of its glaring brilliance, made it difficult for the student to judge the correcttonal values in the picture. Detail.was avoided in this early stage, only the general effects of light and shade were sought.
Then. with thicker paint and usually a stiff brush, the lights — or parts of the painting directly illuminated by the fall of light — were added, but not at full strength. Next came the careful work of building up the delicately gradated halftones between the lights and the darks, to give relief to the form. These were placed side by side in separate, mosaic-like touches of color, which were finally blended until the changes in tone were imperceptible and the brushstrokes no longer visible. After blending the halftones, a few lively, expressive brushstrokes of color were applied to both lights and darks, to help the work retain a feeling of spontaneity.
Once this stage was complete, the work was left to dry thoroughly. The most thinly painted dilute areas of color — the shadows and general background — would dry fairly rapidly due to evaporation of the turpentine spirit. The more thickly applied halftones and highlights could take a week, more usually two, to dry. The ebauche stage was then finished by first scraping down the dry surface, to remove any irregularities which might interfere with the smooth movement of the brush during reworking.Then the mosaic application of halftones was repeated, the highlights brought to full strength and the color of the shadows deepened and enriched.
When painting from the live nude. students had to work rapidly to complete the ebauche. They had also to work in relatively thin paint, or it would not dry in time to be finished in the week allotted to each pose. Many unfinished life paintings survive, indicating how difficult it was to complete a figure study in so short a time. Backgrounds were generally left loose and vague, the greatest care being devoted to working up the precise tonal and color values on the figure itself.
The technical formula most widely recommended for executing the ebauche in the ateliers was to paint the lights thickly, in opaque impasto and, in contrast, to wash in the shadows thinly and transparently. This technique, normally retained for the finishing as well as the ebauche stage, aided the rendering of form in two important ways. First, the subtle transition from balanced light to shadowed areas created a convincing illusion of form in space — a sculpture-like solidity. Secondly, the physical character of the finished surface, with projecting impasted lights and flat shadows, gave a relief-like authenticity to the actual paint surface. The raised, light parts of a picture were intended to pick up and reflect back to the spectator the actual light in the room where the work was hung, thus reinforcing the illusion of light in the picture itself. For this reason artists preferred to hang their work under a light source comparable to that under which it had been executed, preferably with the actual light source falling at the same angle as the painted fall of light so they would not contradict each other.
The art student's life
The afternoons were spent in the painting and drawing collections of the Louvre, making copies from the Old Masters. This was a crucial element in the Ecole program. Copying was intended to familiarize students with the techniques of the past, and to inspire them to emulate the compo-sitional ideas and devices of the great masters. Students also collected and copied engravings and lithographs after Old Master paintings.
Drawing classes at the Ecole, for those advanced enough to register there, began in the late afternoon, usually at 4pm. Students normally worked from casts or the live model at the Ecole. During the summer months, most students were encouraged to draw and paint from nature, doing outdoor landscape work. A knowledge of landscape was considered essential even for students primarily interested in figure painting, as they needed to be able to paint authentic landscape backdrops to their figure compositions. It was also thought important in training the students' powers of observation.
Constrained by the tightly organized teaching program, students learned to work at speed in order to succeed in the numerous timed drawing and painting competitions around which their studies were structured. Each competition marked a progressively more demanding step on the ladder toward the most coveted award, the Prix deRome. which assured the winner fame after four or five years' study at the French Academy in the Italian capital. Until the early nineteenth century, only one Rome Prize — in history painting — was awarded every year and thus, because of the large numbers of students involved, few students had any real chance of success in this outdated system. Neither consistent application, nor even talent guaranteed advancement. Each master backed a protege, and this often encouraged servile imitation in preference to independent originality on the part of the young artists.
The Academy's authority questioned
Another new factor was the marked increase in competitiveness resulting from the rapid growth in numbers of would-be artists from the late eighteenth century onwards. The collaborative studio-workshop training and practice still common in the seventeenth century had disappeared. The new individualism, inspired by the French Revolution of 1789 and the riseof the bourgeoisie, found its parallels in the career structure of artists. Professionalism, reinforced by a rigorous, quantifiable training, gradually gave artists a new middle class respectability and social acceptability.
By the early nineteenth century, certain more liberal
changes were essential to the survival of the academic system, confronted
as it was with growing dissention and dissatisfaction among independently
minded artists. Some recognition of new trends had to be given by the
Academy, for social and economic up heaval had created new official state
and bourgeois patrons, whose needs and taste were often at variance with
academic ideals. In 1816 the Academy introduced an official four yearly
Rome Prize in historic landscape painting, to placate the taste of public
and artists for this increasingly popular genre, and at the same time
to bring it within the Academy's control. However, this fostered only
the classical landscape
Ironically, some aspects of the academic curriculum itself laid the foundations for the independent stylistic innovations which led to Impressionism and which eventually eroded the Academy's supremacy. The concentrated nature of the academic training ensured that students spent the majority of their time on the freely worked stages of painting - the ebauche of the life model, and the esquisse. This was the compositional sketch in oils intended to prepare students for the Rome Prize competitions. This sketch was adopted as a preliminary competition for the Rome Prize in 1816, indicating a new officially approved emphasis on the looser, preparatory stages of the painting process, as against previous concentration on the tightly methodical finishing procedures.
The compositional esquisse was broadly and expressively
handled. Masses of light, shade and color were laid down to create the
design which embodied the artist's first inspired idea for the final painting.
Careful finish was not expected for this sketch, in which - on the contrary
- spontaneity and originality were the prime qualities sought. The painted
sketch was normally preceded by drawn sketches and, if and when the final
work was to be executed, the artist followed up the painted esguisse with
a series of carefully drawn and painted etudes. These were studies from
life of individual elements in the composition, which refined and tightened
the original idea. The compositional scheme was then transferred by drawing
onto the final canvas, and the slow, meticulous process of executing the
finished picture began. Critics of the academic system argued that this
laborious process resulted in a sterile and mannered final product. They
felt that this meant the artist's original inspiration was inevitably
lost because touches of individuality were
The concept of originality was a major issue much debated
in nineteenth century artistic
The Independents and new ways of training
Couture encouraged his students to work rapidly and simply to 'keep the first vivid impression'. He often suppressed detail and half- tones in the interests of direct spontaneity. His brushwork was lively, his colors often dragged in thick confident strokes, and his forms, reduced to broad masses, outlined in strong con tours. Couture passed on his love of the Old Masters to Manet, and their friendly association ended only in 1859, when Couture saw that Manet had abandoned the master's commitment to historic guises for his subject matter. Under the influence of writers like the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), Manet turned to fusing Old Master themes with modern life subjects. That year he exhibited in his studio his rejected Salon entry. The Absinthe Drinker, a modern dress subject which Couture considered lacking in the refining moral overtones of the classical tradition.
Other alternatives for art students sprang up as the
century progressed. Around the time of the restoration of the monarchy
in 1815. Suisse. an ex-model in David's studio, established an open life
studio on the corner of the Quai des Orfevres. There, unfettered by teaching
or competitions, artists as diverse as Ingres, Courbet, Manet and Cezanne
were to find access to life models, both male and female, to further their
own training and interests. The atelier of Rodolphe Julian, which came
to be known as the Academy Julian, founded in 1868. became internationally
renowned among independent artists. While it did prepare students who
wished for the Ecole, Julian's liberal program became for many an alternative
to that formal training. Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran's classes from 1841
to 1869 provided another option for drawing instruction. He invented a
method of training by drawing from memory, which encouraged originality
in a way unknown in servile copying from the model. His most famous students
were the sculptor Auguste
Another extremely influential figure in the challenge to the Academy was Eugene Delacroix who was regarded as an independent artist. Delacroix considered himself as a painter who was simply bringing new energy and vitality to a tired classical tradition. However. conservatives criticized him as an innovator. while his works were revered by younger artists for their expressive color and bold brushwork. The visible sign of the brush, which was suppressed by academic 'finish' came to represent for the Impressionist generation the outward mark of the artist's individuality — a personal calligraphy which identified originality and uniqueness. Delacroix founded no school of followers as did Ingres and the academic masters, but his example was important to many younger independent artists, particularly the Impressionists.
Corot was another extremely important independent artist who. although he kept no formal teaching studio, frequently taught and encouraged young artists, including the leading Impressionists Camille Pissarro (1830- 1903) and Berthe Morisot (1841-1895). Corot had trained in the classical landscape tradition, but he abandoned the traditional chiaroscuro way of rendering light and shade in landscape. He was also innovatory and influential in advocating immediacy and the importance of the first impression as evidence of the artist's most genuine personal response to the subject. His maxim was 'Always the masses, the whole, . . . that which strikes you. Never lose the first impression which has moved you.' Significantly. such advice had become common currency by the 1870s, when the Impressionist style was at its height.
New approaches to landscape painting
In nineteenth century France, landscape painting. especially rural landscape, was the type of painting least fettered by the rules of academic tradition. This was the key reason why it became the leading area for the stylistic and technical innovations which reached their peak with Impressionism.
Many older independent artists — like both Delacroix
and Corot — did not break completely
Academic landscape painting made little direct reference to real light effects in nature. Instead, a classical formula was advocated, which arbitrarily placed darks in the fore ground, with somber theatrical 'wings' of trees or buildings to right and left, the scene growing systematically paler toward a luminous horizon. The lights and darks were a schematized studio invention intended mainly to direct the viewer's eye into the pictorial space. The whole was planned to represent an idea, a human ideal, not real raw nature - indeed the unidealized imitation of nature was condemned as being base and purely mechanical. Whereas in academic figure painting the esquisse was the most freely and spontaneously executed stage, and etudes of individual compositional elements were relatively slowly and carefully worked under static studio lighting conditions, in landscape painting the etude formed the loose stage, in which the artist's response to the natural effect was captured. Speed in the outdoor etude was essential, because of the fast changing, ephemeral lighting effects which had to be translated into paint.
In the academic landscape program, these small etudes from nature provided the raw material and visual vocabulary which aided the artist's memory when the final work was undertaken in the studio. This large-scale piece subjected the initial ideas embodied in the etudes to the classicizing process, in which the classical compositional formula dictated the pictorial structure. This, in turn, dictated the balance and tonal range of light and shade, and most of the original effects were lost in the search for an internal pictorial coherence. An elevating heroic theme, either historical or biblical, was another requirement of academic landscape painting. As accurate observation of particular rural sites in natural outdoor light gained in importance, so artists gradually abandoned studio reworking, preferring more truthful studies executed entirely before nature.
David's affected disdain for technical tradition simply echoed the age-old split between the intellectual and manual aspects of art. The dissolution of traditional practical" know-how had gone hand in hand with the rise of academic training in the seventeenth century. The craft-based guilds had fostered practical expertise, which was handed down by the apprenticeship system from master to pupil. Apprentices had originally to learn all the skills of the trade before they began studying drawing and painting, and thus they were well versed in the chemistry of their materials.
In the early days of the Academies, painting techniques were similarly picked up from the master in whose atelier students worked. However, as the preparation of materials was taken out of the hands of trainees and taken over by professional merchants and specialists, there was no longer a need for this side of the trade to be learned, leaving artists with no practical knowledge of their materials. Nothing was introduced into the students' training to replace this lost knowledge, and awareness of the basic constituents and properties of their tools in-trade was soon lost to artists.
This development is not surprising in view of the attitude of artists to the sordid practicalities which had long linked their profession to that of the common artisan. But not only was the knowledge of materials lost, techniques for handling them survived only to become sterile rules, meaningless and misunderstood by those who used them. Artists' problems were further complicated in the nineteenth century by the introduction of mass-production into the artists' materials trade, which transformed their equipment almost beyond recognition.
Contemporary writers disagreed as to the cause of this technical malaise. Some traditionalists felt inadequate training of the artist was to blame. Color merchants, like the famous English paint chemist George Field, were quick to take this side to defend their profession. He wrote in 1835 that the 'odium of employing bad articles attaches to the artist if he resorts to vicious sources or employ his means improperly'. However, as the French specialist on artist's techniques J. F. L. Merimee had pointed out in 1830, artists "no longer learning the nature of their colors were incompetent to detect fraud or to distinguish the good from the inferior sort.' Many therefore used whatever came to hand and some even preferred the cheapest materials available.
Couture also believed that artists themselves rather than poor materials were to blame for the loss of sound painting. He wrote that it was a great prejudice to think that modern colors were less good than those used by the Old Masters. He naively considered that the best paints were the simplest, like those used by housepainters, and, for this reason, he felt that the excessive care and complicated preparation employed by artists' colormen were detrimental to the resulting colors. For Couture, the solidity of Old Master paintings came not from superior materials, but simply from better painting methods. Renoir (1841-1919) had similar views, which he expressed forcibly on several occasions.
From about the early to mid seventeenth century up until the mid eighteenth century the trade in artists' materials was associated with the more general trades of pharmacy and grocery. Although the influential late seventeenth century art theorist Roger de Piles mentioned 'color vendors', it was apparently only after the mid eighteenth century that artists' colormen began appearing as an independent class of trader. Most early color merchants concentrated on the manufacture of a particular commodity — watercolors, varnishes, particular oil colors or pastels, for example, and often bought their raw materials from different manufacturers. However, they all retailed a complete range of items essential to the artist, including supports, frames, brushes.drawing materials, paper, palettes and easels which were ready made by other specialist manufacturers. Thus a particular colorman could be engaged in the specialized production and improvement of one product — like the 'artificial crayons' perfected in the late eighteenth century by Conte — which would then appear amongst the merchandise retailed by other color merchants. Many merchants who began by selling artists' materials soon diversified. moving into picture dealing and restoration by way of renting out engravings and pictures for amateurs to copy. A famous example was the Durand-Ruel family, who began as paper retailers and became the first most loyal and most important dealers in Impressionist paintings. Other firms began as small manufacturers or retailers and expanded into large-scale mass-producers and entre preneurs. supplying their goods to the retail side of the trade.
Vibert recommended alia prima or 'at-a single-sitting' painting as the most durable and safe method, but. as he considered it an ex- tremely difficult technique that few could master, he insisted upon careful underpainting. The methods promoted by academic training were in fact contradictory. On the one hand hasty execution was encouraged because students were pressured by time. However, on the other hand, speed was incompatible with the reworked. multilayered finishing techniques fostered by the Academy, because slow and thorough drying of each successive layer in an oil painting is essential to the work's durability. These successive reworkings resulted in a complex paint layer which was extremely vulnerable because of the increased number of unpredictable chemical reactions involved. The independent rural landscapists, and later the Impressionists, discouraged repeated reworkings by advocating alia prima painting and landscape etudes executed rapidly before nature. This meant that they were simultaneously insisting upon the importance of permanency in their works.
Thus, from the 1850s on, the growing popularity of the rapid, sketch-like alia prima painting technique — which facilitated the recording of natural effects — had clear practical advantages. In addition to its aesthetic attraction in reflecting the artist's originality, it was also more suited to the new, mass-produced materials available. Many independents, like Manet in the 1860s. were to attempt a compromise between old and new methods, trying to fuse traditional elements with the search for immediacy, for the effect of spontaneity in their work. It was as a result of the lively experimentation which dominated artistic activity during this decade, that the obsolete chiaroscuro techniques were finally superseded by the novel techniques of Impressionism.
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