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Derided as wallpaper, Impressionist paintings have become masterpieces

Posted in Art, Artist, Historical articles, History, Nature, Uncategorized on Saturday, 31 December 2011

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This edited article about art originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 888 published on 27 January 1979.

Renoir, picture, image, illustration

Renoir at the notorious Impressionist Exhibition by Andrew Howat

“This exhibition is the work of lunatics,” howled an art critic. “These pictures are fit only for wallpaper,” cried another. Their scorn was typical of the reaction aroused by the work of a group of young artists, soon to be known as the Impressionists, when it was first put on public view in 1874. Time has proved the critics wrong, for the Impressionists’ paintings are so valuable today that only a billionaire could buy them all.

However, at the time, they aroused a great scandal. The Parisian public expected realistic people in pictures, preferably pictures that told a story. Instead, they found themselves staring at pictures in which artists were obsessed with light and with the colours in shadows.

Some of the names in that exhibition are now immortal – Monet, Cezanne, Pissarro, Degas, Sisley and Renoir. These men saw, like their friend Manet who did not exhibit, things as they were at a fleeting moment. Certain painters before them, such as Constable and Turner, had also done this. If Monet saw hills that in the distance looked blue, he painted the blue. Yet in the 1870s other artists always painted hills green.

The Impressionists worked fast, in the open air, something which was unheard of then. Monet would paint the same scene at various times of the day to catch the different lights which transformed it. Form for him and his friends became less important than atmosphere and light. They found that shadows were not black but were different shades of the substance on which they fell.

Most of the Impressionist were so poor that they did not eat very well! Once Renoir had to steal food from his mother’s table to feed Monet.

It was Monet who had wanted to paint fogs, but the critics, apparently blind to the subtle colours to be found in shades and mists, objected. So he decided to paint an even foggier subject – negroes fighting in a tunnel. Later, he began painting the Gare St Lazare, a Paris station with smoke so thick that hardly a thing could be seen. Naturally, the picture was condemned as an insult to the public.

The great exhibition of 1874 was an attempt to show people just what the group was trying to achieve, and 39 artists contributed over 160 works. The opening date was 15th April. The exhibition was held in studios on the second floor at 35 Boulevard des Capucines, studios that a photographer had just left. At the time, the word Impressionism had not been coined, but it was just round the corner.

The public did not avoid the exhibition. Attendances were good, but only because the word went round that the pictures were so unusual. One critic declared that the artists had declared war on beauty. But it was a writer named Louis Leroy who really tried hard-to ruin the artists. Today he is only remembered with mockery because of what he wrote, and because he unwittingly gave the group a name.

He stared at a beautiful, haunting, evocative piece by Monet called “Impression: Sunrise” It was a study of morning mist on water. There were two boats in the foreground, their masts barely visible in the background, with a red sun breaking through.

In his article, which included his crude remarks about the picture’s value as wallpaper, he coined the word “Impressionist”, for his feature was headed: “The Impressionists’ Exhibition”. He wrote: “I felt sure that since I was impressed, there must be some impression in it . . . half-finished wallpaper is more finished than this sea-piece.” Others picked up the same theme.

As well as causing a sensation, the exhibition was a disaster financially. It lost so much money, that the artists had to pay money few of them could afford to make good the losses.

Critics had not only sneered at the use of colour and lack of form but at actual “distortions”. In his famous “Boulevard des Capucines”, Monet had suggested people by dabs of colour. These were derided as “black-tongue-lickings”.

Eventually the tide turned. The group, inspired by their ideals, stuck together, and between 1874 and 1886 there were eight Impressionist exhibitions. There came a time when the sneers turned to cheers and they became an admired group of heroes. Later, they were overtaken by others but it was the Impressionists who heralded the dawn of modern Art.

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