Some Notes on French Impressionism

“Most wonderful of all is the way in which the painter manages, by mere pigments put on canvas, to make you feel all the heat and harmony and happiness of summer.”

Impressionism, like most new things, great or small, is at present more discussed than understood. The word itself is elastic, and covers a variety of significations; the teachings of the school, in themselves narrow and definite, are only vaguely known and apprehended even by many professional critics. When we find “dealers in knowledge of art,” to quote Mr. John La Farge, not caring to distinguish between the well-defined formula of the impressionist school of painting and the vague current use of the word “impressionism,” how can we expect people in general to do otherwise?

Impressionism as a tendency in modern art has a general and a special application. Taken broadly, impressionism may relate to the conception or to the handling, to the way of seeing a thing or to the manner of painting it. With people in general, who use words like coins, without stopping to look at them, it relates merely to the manner of painting. Their eye is shocked or startled by splashy or rough painting which they hear described as impressionistic. They do not look for or understand the impression which this manner aims at conveying, and to them everything coarse and rough must be impressionistic, and everything impressionistic must be rough; just as to some people everything in rhyme is poetry, and poetry is nothing but a jingle of rhyme.

To all who know anything about impressionism it is evident, instead, that it is the painters’ manner of seeing things that is of importance to us outsiders. It does not concern us very much to know if they use camel’s hair or bristles in their brushes, if they daub their paints on with knives or even with their thumbs; but their manner of looking at things does concern us intimately, as artists are the eyes or seers of the period in which they live, and our own vision is, consciously or unconsciously, influenced by theirs. The less we instinctively like their vision and presentment of life, the more it behooves us to examine impartially the principles that have guided them. We might otherwise run the risk of rejecting in theory that which is forcing itself upon us in practice.

Those who know the works of the painters vaguely grouped together as impressionistic will have noticed that, different as they are, they have all one thing in common. They aim at being the reproduction of one impression on the artist’s eye, and through his eye on his mind; not of a set of collateral impressions fused into one.

To take some instances at random: Cazin’s vision is dreamy and full of sad poetry, while Raffaēlli is nothing if not distinct. Besnard’s vision is one of light and fire, or of beautiful, mystic twilight. Whistler’s symphonies and harmonies indicate by their very names impressions seen dreamily, and transplanted by the poetic imagination into the borderland of painting and music, but always real impressions, suggested by the outer world. Some impressions are hazy, others almost pitilessly clear. Some painters reproduce the impression of a moment, while others render the Stimmung, the poetry of the hour or the subject; but this one thing they all have in common, — the visual unity of their picture.

It is well known that the eye cannot rest on two things simultaneously. If you are looking across a stretch of English landscape, in May, with a splendid foreground tangle of varied foliage, — golden oaks and copper beeches, deep-hued cypresses and rich green elms, — and a long vista beyond of billowy slopes and broken, feathery hedgerows, you either see the foliage, while the distance is only an indistinct soft background, luminously green or softly veiled in gray, dark and sombre or rich with shifting, hurrying lights and shades; or else you see the distant view, — some special portion of the distant view, some brightly illumined slope of grass, where the sunlight is just striking two or three quietly grazing cows, or a fairylike, aerial bit of hedgerow, while the foliage in the foreground is only one mass of gloriously confused color. Now a landscape where this unity of impression has been preserved is more likely to give you a broad, open-air impression, and to produce the illusion of looking at a real scene, than would a landscape painted by an artist who had allowed his eye to travel painfully from object to object, and who had painted the elms in the distant hedgerows with the same care (allowing, of course, for perspective) as the bright, golden-leaved oak on the downward slope.

The principle of the unity of impression is not by any means an invention of the impressionists, nor is it their exclusive property. One of the chief merits of the best impressionists, however, lies in their strenuous insistence on obedience to the law of focus; while of course everybody has a right, without being taken to task for using words in a vague and unsatisfactory way, to call art impressionistic which aims at reproducing the unity of impression.

Applied to the rendering of form and of movement, individual or collective, this principle, strengthened by the influence of Japanese art and of instantaneous photography, has produced results that are characteristically modern. When exaggerated, these results are not always edifying to lovers of art. When kept within bounds by an artistic conception, they represent an almost immeasurable widening of the resources of Western art. Witness the many suggestive phases of characteristic movement, the fugitive expressive poses, that are now, as never before, caught and rendered on the canvas.

In the painting of crowds and confused masses of people, modern art really owes an immense debt of gratitude to impressionism proper in the person of one of its earliest masters, Édouard Manet. It has been my good fortune to examine lately a small Manet in private possession, which exemplifies this to a high degree. It represents a horse race, giving the horses in full front view, and the intensely excited crowd along the stand to the left. It is “impressionistic” in the sense of being blurred and blotchy, but the horses and jockeys are instinct with speed, and the confused mass of small black and white patches, with a few daubs of color between, turns out to be thousands of moving heads and arms and parasols. It is only a small canvas, and yet I know but few pictures that so appeal to the intensely modern feeling of collective sympathy.

Impressionism in color coincides so nearly with the central teachings of the impressionist school of to-day that I prefer to treat of it in connection with them. The underlying principle is the same as in the forms of impressionism already treated; namely, the assumption that the study of the laws of optical effect still has many fruitful secrets in store for the painter. It does not busy itself with the choice of subject; it is a language, not a school of philosophy. It does not, however, exclude individuality, nor does it tend to make painting merely another form of colored photography. It rests on suggestions from nature, but allows for the artist’s temperament as well as f or possible idiosyncrasies of his vision. It may be dreamy or clear, delicate or rugged, according to the bent of the painter’s mind, which predisposes him to view things in a certain way, and according to the extent and the comparative clearness of his visual range. This is an important point to observe, as it explains many seeming discrepancies. When you see painting like Raffaēlli’s, all crisp and clear form, side by side with dreamy blurred landscapes, and do not understand why you hear both described as impressionistic, the probable explanation is, that one man has a clear vision and a wide range, while the other has the sharpness taken off the edges by a short-sighted or blunt vision.

The great secret of all impressionism lies in aiming to reproduce, as nearly as possible, the same kind of physical impression on the spectator’s eye that was produced on the eye of the artist by the object seen in nature; to make one immediate impression on our retina; to let it come in at once, as it were, through the front door, and, calmly or brightly, announce its presence. It is for us to say if it does so, and if there is enough, in the painter’s vision, of the mystical essence called pictorial truth, or rather the truths that are apprehensible by the age in which we live, for us to accept. Before we do so, however, we must be sure that we are comparing the artist’s vision with our own vision of nature, and not with preconceived notions of what that conventional thing called a picture “ought to be.”

All this may seem to deal with the form, and not the spirit of art. Well, so it does, so impressionism does, in a grand, enthusiastic, undaunted way that is full of noble promise for the future of art. It is a truism that all great creative periods have been preceded by periods of realism, of enthusiastic devotion to form, to the instruments and means of rendering. Why, then, not apply this truism to our own times, and augur the best for the future from the very enthusiasm for the widening of the resources of art shown by the men of the present day? By this I do not mean to say that the great modern tendency which has produced such a picture as Besnard’s Le Soir de la Vie does not possess the soul as well as the language of art. But I do mean to say that care for form need not necessarily be deemed a sign of decadence in art; especially not, I venture to believe, in ages of transition and the ferment of new ideals.

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In 1886, the list of the most notable impressionists given by their mouth-piece, M. Félix-Fénéon, included the following artists: M. Caillebotte, Miss Cassatt, MM. Cézanne, Degas, de Nittis, Forain, Gaugin, Guillaumin, Monet, Madame Morisot, MM. Piette, Camille Pissarro, Lucien Pissaro, Raffaēlli, Renoir, Seurat, Signae, Sisley, Zandomeneghi. This list is liable to correction. M. de Nittis, for instance, could hardly be classed with the impressionists in 1886. M. Raffaēlli had also, to a certain extent, deserted the party cause and condescended to exhibit at the Salon. I give the enumeration, however, as it serves to show what men then ranked or had ranked with the impressionists. These painters may be divided into two groups: one comprising the men who busy themselves mainly with problems of form, les synthétistes; and the other those who are engaged principally in solving problems of light, les luministes.

A certain group of the luminists are called les pointillistes, or the followers of le pointillé. The most noticeable fact about the pointillistes is that their art practice is the outcome of scientific theories. The impulse was an artistic, not a theoretic one; but given this impulse to find a medium of expression more suited to the highly developed visual sensibilities of the age than the older one, they went to science for help, and we hear of Dubois-Pillet carrying Mr. N. O. Rood’s Theory of Colors about with him, and Seurat studying Chevreul’s De la Loi du Contraste Simultané des Couleurs. The result is the method known as le pointillé, from the little points or atoms of color by which the canvas is covered. The formula on which le pointillé rests is the same as that put in practice by M. Claude Monet and others among the luminists, only it is more rigorously applied. The double formula of the mélange optique and the division du ton rests on the assumption that any representation in color of an object in nature that the artist might wish to paint, say a sunlit tree, would, if divided on the canvas into the nearest approach possible to its chromatic components, and left to mingle on our retina, be more likely to excite our visual nerves in the same way as the rays of light from the tree in nature than if the painter had mixed his pigments on his palette into the nearest approach possible to the greens of the tree. This formula, with the close attention to the laws of optics it involves, also entails, as a necessary consequence, the study of the influence of contrast and of reflections on the images produced on our retina. Such is the theory on which the practice of all the luminists is based; but while Claude Monet is content with splashing red and gold and purple upon his canvas anyhow, so long as he gets the vibrations and the play of reflections and counteractions of color he sees in nature, the pointillistes insist on a “logical division” of the color into the smallest particles possible.

The first sight of a canvas representing sunlight painted in strict pointillé suggests nothing whatever to you but an immense surface dotted with a multitude of little purplish or turquoise-blue, vermilion, and greenish-yellow wafers. You dimly see that they are arranged in forms, which seem to stand for curious representations of trees and grass and shadowy human beings, but the most conspicuous things about the picture are the wafers. With some painters you never get over this first impression; the wafers are always there, and the curious flatness and similarity of texture that result from using the same brush-work all over the canvas. By putting the whole length of several rooms between you and the canvas, and allowing the air in the rooms to help out the mélange optique on your retina, or by looking at the canvas with only one eye, and that more than half shut, you can, however, sometimes succeed in seeing something of the intensity of sunlight, the life and depth of shadow, that the painter aims at conveying, and in understanding how intelligent men can devote themselves to this apparently forlorn quest.

With other painters the quest is not at all forlorn, and if you only give them time the first shock of surprise will grow into a swell of delight at seeing beauties caught on the canvas which before were pronounced “unpaintable.” Such are Renoir’s splendid renderings of intense southern sunlight and color; or Sisley’s delicate luminous spring days, and Camille Pissarro’s bright, gleaming, sparkling sunlight. All who have enjoyed the beauty, light in tone and high in key, yet intense in quality and full of vivid play of color, of a French spring morning, or who have noticed how different a landscape appears if looked at with the sun’s rays or against them, — how in the latter case everything seems alive with glittering, quivering, dancing light, — will be able to appreciate these conquests of the luminists.

And who can resist Claude Monet? M. Monet is an acknowledged master now, and it is not necessary to sing his praises; yet I cannot help dwelling on two points: the universality of his genius as a landscape painter, and the eminently poetical qualities of his mind. He is a luminist, the enthusiastic apostle of a new technical creed. To him nothing is of interest that does not bear upon the great problem of fixing the sun’s rays upon the canvas. But he sees this problem everywhere, just as it is everywhere. We notice the painting of sunlight by the luminists, because it is their most striking if not their most wonderful achievement; but it is evident that their theory would be nowhere if it applied only to the painting of sunlight. M. Monet paints everything as the mood seizes him: fruit, with a glossiness and tempting juiciness of texture surpassed by no other fruit-painting that I know; vast desolate railway stations, shrouded in mist and smoke; northern summer seas, lashed into a silvery foam, shot through with green and mauve, by a summer storm; breezy southern seas, all alive with intense color and happy rhythmic movement; dull days off the coast of Brittany, with the most exquisite play of quiet color in the water; hot days of blazing sunlight off the same coast, or young woods in October, with the maples and lime-trees all aflame with autumn tints, and the bright sunshine pouring in between the stems of the trees.

Then there is the wonderful series of the haystacks, exhibited at M. Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris in May; seventeen pictures of the same haystacks, sometimes one, sometimes two, begun in August, and carried on until the haystacks were taken down in March, and yet a perfect revelation of some of the most glorious beauties of color and mood in nature: beauties of summer and of winter; of evening skies throbbing with rosy light, while deep blue shadows are already reigning over the distant hills; of morning mists illuminated in glory; of peaceful, new-fallen snow under softly veiled skies, or of the golden haze of summer sunsets. M. Monet’s décomposition du ton gives results which he who runs may read. You see a haystack that seems to glow in the sunlight; you go nearer, and see that this effect is got by painting an irregular prism along the edges of the stack and suffusing the shadows with purple. In another picture, the same means—a prism along the edge of the stack—serves to give the effect of crisp, clear winter sunlight striking the yellow straw. But most wonderful of all is the way in which the painter manages, by mere pigments put on canvas, to make you feel all the heat and harmony and happiness of summer. By the side of achievement such as this who would cavil if the zeal of the pioneer sometimes carries the painter too far?

Claude Monet is a poet; everything he touches in his inspired moments seems to give out its inmost tone of beauty. He is a born colorist, enthusiastic and inspiring. But above all he is an artist, — one who sees things as a whole, and paints them with that subtile concentration of all means of expression toward one end which is one of the most precious qualities of the true artist.

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Synthesis, too, has its heroes, artists to whom it has been a vital principle, not a mere formula, and who have won great and deserved success outside the narrow confines of the coterie; and I should delight to linger on the powerful qualities of the art of M. Degas, on M. Forain’s penetratingly clever and artistic interpretations of some phases of contemporary life, on Miss Mary Cassatt’s truly womanly studies of mothers and children, or felicitous, free translations of the exquisite synthetic art of the Japanese. But space is limited, and so I prefer to pass on at once to some unknown phases and obscure martyrs of impressionism, which have a pathetic interest of their own.

The formula of synthesis, or the reduction of drawing to the necessary, the vital lines of the movement, cannot lay claim to the same originality as that of the décomposition du ton. Not to mention the Japanese, who have carried the synthetic treatment of line to such high and singular excellence, or the Greek vase-painters, or Giotto, or countless others, all children and primitive artists are synthesists after their fashion, — a fashion that seems to meet the high approval of some of the present synthésistes, to judge by specimens of their work. In others, you perceive landscape, with the element of light left almost entirely aside, synthetized down to the dusky dull sign-painting of our grandfather’s times, or scenes from contemporary life to grotesque caricatures. There is a good deal of affectation and coterie fashion in this, and of that curious allegiance to definite formulas, no matter how cramping, which mingles so strangely with the true artistic faculty in many French minds. But there are also, in many painters, the most undoubted sincerity, a profound feeling for the charm of mystery, and that longing for and reaching after the deeper spiritual truths of life that are thrilling through many a corner of Paris, undreamt of by the foreigners on the boulevards and the frequenters of the light theatres. Many an imaginative truth or curious suggestion looks out at you from among the exaggerations or mannerisms of products of l’art hieratique or l’art symbolique, whether enveloped in dusky mystery or wedded to luminism in visions of splendor.

One man in particular has the faculty of inflaming your imagination, till you feel ready to declare him one of the bringers of heavenly fire. And yet his art is mad. Your first impulse is to laugh at these staggering cottages with flaming red roofs, or at this blaze of rockets and Catherine-wheels, supposed to represent night. But your laugh dies on your lips; you go on gazing, stupefied yet interested; and when you at last leave the exhibition, you do not know whether you have been looking at the pictures of a madman or not, but you have forgotten all the other pictures in the room. Such was my first impression of Vincent Van Goghe’s work, and I was not astonished to hear that the man had committed suicide. I sought every opportunity of seeing more of his art, and thus one day I went to the studio of M. Gauguin, in one of the distant unconventional quarters of Montparnasse, where some of his pictures were to be seen. It was all very remarkable. Among things that were not merely exaggerated, but violently distorted, there were some splendidly conventionalized flowers, — gorgeous sunflowers, and huge white roses on an apple-green background. There was an Alpine pass, absurd in color and handling, in streaky waves of dark paint, yet with more of Dante’s Inferno and the awesome weirdness of desolate Alpine passes toward twilight than many better pictures. There was his own portrait, drawn with a firmness of band which accentuated every angularity of that powerful skull and bony face, while he had chosen to give himself a green background that threw the most uncanny greenish reflections over the sandy-blond face. It is the face of a maniac or a criminal, with the eyes of a longing soul.

Another day I was taken to Montmartre, to the little shop of Le Père Tanguy, full of the works of the néo-impressionnistes, and several Van Goghes among them. Many were exaggerated, every one was sincere, and two studies of figures were superb. One was a sower of the most splendidly energetic movement; another an old man weeping, bent down over his hands in a perfect abandonment of grief.

Le Père Tanguy is himself a martyr to the cause of néo-impressionnisme. His shop was very difficult to find, as he is constantly shifting his quarters, from inability to pay his rent. No one knows what or where he eats; he sleeps in a closet among his oils and varnishes, and gives up all the room he can to his beloved pictures. There they were, piled up in stacks: violent or thrilling Van Goghes; dusky, heavy Cézannes that looked as if they were painted in mud, yet had curious felicities of interpretation of character; exquisite fruit-painting by Dubois-Pillet, which showed how he could paint when he chose; daring early Sisleys, that made the master of the shop shake his kindly head at the artist’s later painting; and many others, all lovingly preserved, and lovingly brought out by the old man. Le Père Tanguy is a short, thick-set, elderly man, with a grizzled beard and large beaming dark blue eyes. He had a curious way of first looking down at his picture with all the fond love of a mother, and then looking up at you over his glasses, as if begging you to admire his beloved children. His French and his manners were perfect; and when he took off his greasy cap and made his bow, it was with all the grace and dignity of the old school. He has gone on for years finding the impressionists in colors, etc., and the artists I was with told me, after we left the shop, that many a time had he been sorely in need of money and had gone to remind some artist of an outstanding bill, but found some excuse for his call and come away again without mentioning it, because it seemed to him as if the artist were in straits.

I could not help feeling, apart from all opinions of my own, that a movement in art which can inspire such devotion must have a deeper final import than the mere ravings of a coterie.