Four years ago I went to Saint Petersburg, Russia to explore the world of art. This was my initiation into a space that I never knew existed. After three days of meticulously understanding fine arts, I met a chatty gallery expert who nudged me into this beautiful thing called impressionism. The birth, rise and ultimate end of impressionism itself is quite a story.
BIRTH OF IMPRESSIONISM
Imagine travelling back in time to France in the early 1800s when the concept of classical art was loved, appreciated and held high. Snooty art critics were floating around and your art being displayed at the salon was synonymous with having made it in life.
At this time, a bunch of artists who met frequently in cafes or were fellow classmates in art school that they dropped out of had a very different and radical ideology. Classical art is a reproduction of reality. Faces, structure, symmetry had to be realistic. Impressionism is a perceptive depiction of a scene. This was considered ‘bad painting with no technique.’
THE FIRST EXHIBIT
In the early 1860s, these radical artists banded together on the basis of their desire to paint landscapes, cityscapes, and modern life in new ways. They decided to showcase their art to the world and take on the all-powerful salon. Their first exhibition, which was held at a fellow photographer’s studio free of charge, was quite a disaster. Twenty-nine artists showcased their work hoping to sell, unfortunately, that didn’t really happen. Among these twenty-nine artists were Degas, Cezanne, Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley and Morisot. These are names we pretend to know today even if we don’t! Renoir actually slashed the rate of his painting to push for a sale.
Critics were jubilant. One particular critic named Louis Leroy inadvertently helped arrive at the name ‘impressionists.’ In his satirical piece, he wrote about Monet’s painting –
‘What does the canvas depict? Look at the catalogue. Impression, Sunrise. Impression – I was sure of it. I was just telling myself, there had to be some impression in it … and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wall paper in its embryonic state is more finished than this seascape.’
And Leroy titled his piece as ‘Exhibition of the Impressionists’ with an aim to belittle them.
WHY WAS IMPRESSIONISM SUCH A BAD THING?
Imagine the world of wine today. We all have that one friend who takes a sip and comments on the undertone and overtone, which basically mean nothing to most people. The world of arts was in a similar state in that era. Classical art was the most revered and no other form had a chance. Much less a form that looked ‘too easy’ and had a ‘serious lack of workmanship.’ From an accurate reproduction of reality to altering its state was too hard to accept. To most people impressionism was just a bunch of brush strokes and blotches of paint that basically meant nothing which would combine into something meaningful when viewed from a distance.
THE ULTIMATE END
This tight knit group of artists faced a lot together. Unfortunately, they parted ways in a decade. After their first exhibition in 1874, the group began rifting apart by end of the 1870s because of many reasons. Degas and Pissarro exerted control over the exhibitions, Manet died in 1882, an important patron of the impressionists saw financial difficulties in 1878 which was very hard on the group. Sisley cut himself from the group in entirety, Monet had an affair with Hoschede’s wife and then began to isolate himself from everybody, and Renoir got his work into the salon and began to move with a different crowd.
The last exhibition of the group was in 1886. By then the age of impressionism had spread across the world. Today, it is still viewed as a radical shift from an ideology accepted by all.
To me, it’s not just about the painting. It’s more about what the movement represents. Few people who had the audacity to challenge the most powerful forces. And, imagine doing this at a time when voicing independent opinions was dealt with more severely than Internet trolls.
Wherever you travel to next, throw in an art gallery into the itinerary. Hope you meet your chatty gallery curator soon J