Sunday, 9 September 2012

Monet, the impressionists, and colour 1


Impression soleil levant
Claude Monet
Oil on canvas

This was the painting that gave rise to the title Impressionists. 'One of the canvases submitted for the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874, this was singled out by an antagonistic critic as typifying the "half-finished" look of all the works on show, and he dubbed the group "Impressionists."In the personal terminology Monet used to describe his various types of paintings he would normally have called this work a pochade (sketch). However, as he said himself, he called it "impression" because "it really could not pass as a view of Le Havre," and he subsequently used the same word for a number of his paintings, all of them quick atmospheric sketches capturing a particular light effect. An "impression" for Monet was a special and limited form of sketch, and although the other Impressionists accepted the word as a reasonable description of their aims, Monet himself used it only when he felt it appropriate to a particular work.'
excerpt from Monet by Trewin Copplestone

Impressionist ideas and techniques:
The following information is from

This says that Edouard Manet, another French painter, stopped painting in the very slow classical way of preparing, adding layers which had to dry, and then varnishing the painting, and decided to paint a whole oil painting in one sitting. This allowed him to paint from life which appealed to him as a 'Realist' school painter, who wanted to paint things as they really are, rather than as they would ideally be. The impressionists used this rapid painting technique to allow them to capture particular qualities of light which were too transient for the classical technique. 

In the 1860s, several artists met near Manet's studio at Café Guerbois twice a week including Monet, Renoir, Degas, Alfred Sisley, Émile Zola, and sometimes Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, and others. 

The other relevant innovation of Manet was 'tachism' which was a word to describe how he used patches of colour to indicate light hitting colours, rather than using shading with a series of different kinds of that colour. The impressionists took this idea and broke up the patches into smaller areas. 

I tried to find a painting of Manet's that I would be able to see this technique in, but found this instead, and on a website I found the Margaret Atwood poem about it, which was published in the Winter 1993-4 Ploughshares. I include it because it made me laugh by how accurately it describes my slightly sickened response to this painting. 

Oil on board
Musee D'Orsay, Paris

“Manet’s Olympia” 
She reclines, more or less.
Try that posture, it’s hardly languor.
Her right arm sharp angles.
With her left she conceals her ambush.
Shoes but not stockings,
how sinister. The flower
behind her ear is naturally
not real, of a piece
with the sofa’s drapery.
The windows (if any) are shut.
This is indoor sin.
Above the head of the (clothed) maid
is an invisible voice balloon: Slut.
But. Consider the body,
unfragile, defiant, the pale nipples
staring you right in the bull’s-eye.
Consider also the black ribbon
around the neck. What’s under it?
A fine red threadline, where the head
was taken off and glued back on.
The body’s on offer,
but the neck’s as far as it goes.
This is no morsel.
Put clothes on her and you’d have a schoolteacher,
the kind with the brittle whiphand.
There’s someone else in this room.
You, Monsieur Voyeur.
As for that object of yours
she’s seen those before, and better.

I, the head, am the only subject
of this picture.
You, Sir, are furniture.

Get stuffed.
by Margaret Atwood

It makes me wish I had been there at the exhibition to see the outrage. Although, remembering my confusion and fascination with Manet's Dejeuner sur l'herbe as a teenager, I might have been as disturbed as everyone else.

Looking at copies of this painting on the internet, I found an interesting comment about the controversy by one of the impressionists, .......saying (in my interpretation of his words) that since there are plenty of naked or semi-clothed women in the Louvre the outrage was unreasonable and should show people their hypocrisy. This had the effect of a revelation on me. This was conceptual art!

But then later I realised that the 'unfinished' style and the deliberate provocation could well be a reason for outrage, making it less of a masterwork of meaning than it could otherwise have been. 

The technique isn't really visible to me in any of the reproductions I could find online. So I am moving on, the subject of my second Impressionist page being what happened next...

'Colour is my day-long obsession, joy, and torment.' Claude Manet, quoted in Colour a workshop for artists and designers' by David Hornung.
Port Gouphare, Belle Ile
Art Gallery of New South Wales

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