The End of the Salon and the Rise of Impressionism

If we want to find a historical beginning to the movement, we can take the date of 1873, when a group of artists who called themselves the Independents (The Anonymous Society of Artists) rejected the Salon as a site for their exhibition.  This is the first movement to be formed, in large part, on the basis of rejecting the traditional venue (the Salon) for displaying and selling art.  This is an important factor to keep in mind because it means that despite the fact that there are certain common goals or strategies in their art, they did not unite because of their styles.  They came together because of their dissatisfaction with the Salon system and the type of art it was showing.
Berthe Morisot: Eugene Manet with his Daughter in the Garden, 1883 Renoir: Two Sisters (On the Terrace), 1881

Some definitions of impressionism:

Although these definitions are not identical, the key elements -- contemporary or modern life, an interest in the effects of light, and the avoidance of a narrative with connections to history or religion -- do unite most of the impressionist artists.
For some artists, this impressionist impulse was expressed in terms that went beyond the effects of light: they were more interested in how the effects of light literally "shed light" on social changes which were occurring at the time.  Visually, the artists' styles do look different but the interest in angles of vision (both social vision and optical vision), the rejection of the traditional structure for exhibiting and selling art, along with the rejection or modification of existing subject matter for these artists allows us to identify impressionism as a movement which included female artists as well as male.

What most historians and critics agree on is the belief that impressionism is a form of realism in terms of its subject matter and naturalism in terms of treatment of the subject, but that both the naturalism and realism may have more to do with vision than with social reality.  The interest in "what the eye sees" is most clearly pursued through landscape and/or park-like settings rather than paintings of urban social life, so the subject matter often appears to be an unselected piece of the countryside or park.  Figures in these paintings are usually too unspecific to become our focus -- we see them as part of the landscape.  But in other cases, the interest in what the eyes sees consists of a greater interest in the social world than the unmediated natural world.  In these paintings, vision is a social act as well as an optical act involving light and color.

Monet: Boulevard des Capucines, 1873 Degas: Mlle. Lala at the Fernando Circus, 1879 detail from Caillebotte: Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1876-7
Monet: La Grenouillere, 1869 Monet:  Impression: Sunrise, 1872

In La Grenouillere (the Frog Pond), Monet treats the figures like silhouettes, with little overlapping, almost caricatures of people.  The large expanse of water in the foreground begins to create a sense of deep space which is then enhanced by the angling of the boats in that they create a funnel-like focus on the center.  But this depth is denied by the division of the canvas into four parts via the tree in the center which extends to the top of the canvas and through its reflection in the water to the bottom, and the bridges that extend in from the sides to the island in the center.  A similar emphasis of treatment is given to the trees in the background and the water in the foreground.  A major innovation in this painting is the treatment of the water -- it captures the reflections of different colors of the trees and the sky on a rippling surface.  But the painting on the right, Impression: Sunrise, is more radical and in some ways more characteristic of Monet's later work which becomes increasingly abstract as the brush work and colors become more dominant than the ostensible subject matter.  As we will see, of all the impressionists, Berthe Morisot is probably the only one whose work tends to the same degree of abstraction as we find in Monet.

Caillebotte: Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1876-7

Just as the brushwork and color tend to obscure the visible content, the composition in some cases does so as well.  But this tendency to convey subject matter in an incomplete or ambiguous manner, to make the narrative unclear, may have been a deliberate judgement about the best way to reflect modern life.  If modern life is a life of fashion and contingency, and the role of modern man is that of a sophisticated observer, then the narrative technique should reflect the somewhat incoherent observations made by the person who walks down the street.

The key to the modernism of Paris Street, Rainy Day  is that Caillebotte shows us what the city is; he doesn’t make it into a metaphor of the country or leisure, as another artist might have done.  Yet, it is difficult to see this as simply a picture of the city as it was: the close-up view of the cobble stones at our feet, directing our vision into orderly lines of recession down Paris streets, does appear to be structuring our response to the city.  But Caillebotte, in all his paintings, accepts this view of Paris as natural: it is a city of unembellished geometry, of harsh metal, of a call to order.  Caillebotte neither praises nor dismisses.  He shows it to us and he shows us how his selective vision structures our responsive vision.  The most unconventional feature of the painting -- the three figures in the lower right-hand corner, two of them walking out of the painting and one just entering, should also remind us of the influence of photography on the vision of the Impressionists.

Degas: Ballet Rehearsal, 1874 (oil on canvas, 23" x 33")
Renoir: Dancing at the Moulin de la Galette, 1876  Renoir: Two Sisters (On the Terrace), 1881

The key innovations of the impressionists:

Women and Impressionism: Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt

Morisot: The Wet Nurse Feeding Julie, 1879-80

The figure and background practically blend into one another through the open facture, lack of description, rejection of traditional modeling, and daring coloration.  The subject is also unusual, but not because the woman nursing the child is not the mother.  It is a fact that most children at this time had wet nurses, so that is not why the painting is radical.  It is an unusual painting of a woman at work and as such, it seems to associate the labor of nursing with the labor of mothers and eventually, with the labor of men.  We also know that standing in front of the canvas, the real mother (the artist) is making this painting.  Which leads to the more psychological question -- is the sketchiness, the almost complete invisibility of the figure, intentional and a sign of Morisot's discomfort and ambivalence about trying to unite the roles of artist and mother, or is she saying that the role of the artist is a role of nurturing of equal or greater value than the role of the nursemaid?  Or is she just giving us a painting of a visual impression using an extremely advanced style?  This is her style, after all, a style which has been described as a "new vision."

Cassatt: Lydia in a Loge  (1879)

In Mary Cassatt's painting of her sister, Lydia can be seen to be actively taking in the spectacle.  Her pose is slightly skewed, making her somewhat off center and giving her a more dominating position.  Lydia is clearly enjoying herself and seems to invite the viewer to enjoy the show along with her.  She is part of the spectacle but she enjoys it; it is not a commercial or sexual transaction which she participates in, and ultimately, this sense of her own enjoyment makes the viewer relatively peripheral to the painting, of no more importance than the small male figure who may be staring at her through his opera glasses.

Cassatt’s use of the mirror, although not an invention, departs from the more traditional uses made of mirrors in impressionist and other paintings.  Placing the mirror behind Lydia allows us to see the interior of the theater not as it extends behind Lydia but as it is reflected behind her.  In contrast to Manet’s painting of the Bar at the Folies-Bergere (discussed below), this does not really increase the sense of space in the painting but serves to compress it and give more space to Lydia while reducing the other spectators to little more than ciphers.  Typically, a woman at the opera would have been accompanied by a male escort, and the woman, in a sense, would have been his ornament and the object of other male gazes. Here, Lydia is alone and she does the looking.

Manet and the Paris of Mass Consumption

By 1881, Paris had become a city in which mass consumption was a major activity.  Department stores with lavish display windows existed and exhibitions such as the Crystal Palace exposition in London in 1851 were becoming more widespread. Even the salons, the places where people generally went to see art, were thought of as bazaars, not as galleries.  People collected art in much the same way that they collected new fashions.  One of the things that had changed in the way goods were sold, whether art or clothing, was that they were displayed in such a way as to titillate the spectator’s senses – perhaps you couldn’t touch them, but you could get close to them and you wanted to touch them, so you bought them.  Advertising was a logical accompaniment to this, and magazines had lavish illustrations depicted beautiful women displaying beautiful products.
Edouard Manet: A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1881-2

Manet, an artist who generally chose the place for his signature with an eye to the message it gave, signed this painting by placing his signature on the label of the bottle in the lower left hand corner.  Manet was aware of the art work as a new product in this world of commodities.  A painting of people at the bar can be seen as a genre painting, which was not something new; but Manet’s treatment was.  And to some degree, it is his acknowledgment and awareness of the art market as a part of this new life committed to the enjoyment of spectacles and shopping that shaped his treatment and that changes the painting from being understood solely as a representation of a crowded bar into a painting which is about representation in paintings.

By making most of the painting a reflection in a mirror, Manet centralized issues of representation: how we represent the world, understand it, and communicate this understanding.  Manet’s painting raises questions about the place of women in the world of Paris in the 1880s, the place of the artist, the place of the crowd, and the meaning of spectacle and illusion.  The mirror is again the key to this last question, and only partly because of the disjunction between the reflection we see and where we expect to be standing.  Without addressing the rather detailed attempts to explain the mirror and its reflection, we might want to accept one condition: although we are invited to look at this painting from more than angle, we are stationary viewers and we are not there at the bar.  Our experience is therefore disjunctive: on one hand, if we are at the bar, we are strolling past it.  On the other hand, as a viewer, we stand in one place but have a view which suggests that we've moved.

Impressionism was changing by the late 1880s.  It no longer presented the radical challenge to tradition that it had once presented; in fact, the new avant-garde movements were challenging impressionism.  Impressionism had made a significant challenge to traditional, academic styles and their belief that the painting could recreate an illusion of the real world on the canvas.  The impressionists, in contrast, because they were interested in color and light and the sense of the world as a spectacle, did not try to create the illusion of space.  The impressionist world is one which was  inherently two-dimensional, in which perspective may be hinted at but does not truly exist, in which shadows are the play of colored lights on a reflective surface.  Light and the vibrations of color are the elements of this world, and even the other senses are little more than different manifestations of light and color.  A further implication of this interest in color and light is that the subject matter is little more than a pretext for the exploration of color and light.  The spectacle may have a story, but the story is not really the point.  In this respect, then, we can recognize Caillebotte as an impressionist, because he paints the spectacle of modern Parisian city life, a narrative without an ending, a narrative which is a spectacle, and we recognize Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere as one of his most impressionist paintings.  But we can also recognize that this destabilization of the narrative threatened the ability of the art work to communicate meaningfully to its audience.  This is the risk which leads some observers to describe impressionism as “art for art’s sake” and it is the result of focusing attention on the medium and the technique.  But ironically, the impressionists did not reject subject matter – their subject matter was the daily life of the upper middle class, the bourgeoisie.  They didn’t arrive at abstraction by choice but by accident, through their focus on technique.  The post-impressionists, in contrast, move in two deliberate and opposing directions: toward the reassertion of subject matter and toward the deliberate creation of abstraction.