The "Climate" of the Impressionist period


It was in or about the years 1870-1871 that the ideas behind Impressionism took more or less coherent and explicit form. On the political and social plane this was a momentous epoch, but the painters do not seem to have been seriously perturbed. As we have seen, the Impressionists were dispersed during the war, in France and abroad, and do not seem to have been much disturbed by it; nor did the proclamation of the Third Republic affect them greatly. Such indeed was their normal financial plight that they had failed to notice some excellent reforms brought in under the Second Empire; so slightly had these benefited them. Nor did they perceive that, almost immediately after the defeat, France entered on a phase of quite unlooked-or prosperity. Even the picture-dealing business, too, made a forward stride, and the activities of the famous Durand-Ruel family of picture-dealers, especially in opening up new markets in Great Britain and the United States, gave an unexpected fillip to the investment value of works of art.
A period of great inventions and discoveries now set in. Renan published his Future of Science. Bell invented the telephone, Edison the incandescent electric lamp, Pasteur began his series of epoch-making discoveries, and railways spread their iron tentacles across the whole of France.
Under the auspices of science a new world was coming into being. Yet, though the Impressionists, too, were inaugurating a wholly new way of viewing the world and were as truly pioneers as the great scientists, these discoveries of science left them cold. None the less they could not help being affected by the prevailing 'climate' and by the almost universal feeling that the world was on the brink of a new age, in which the secrets of nature were to be scientifically probed and exploited for the common good. Yet, though they formed a clan apart, they responded to that revolutionary atmosphere which, after the upheavals of 1789, 1830, 1848 and 1871, once more prevailed in France. For one thing, most of them were of humble origin and the middle class often made them painfully aware of this; as when they taxed the younger painters' work with vulgarity, and blamed them for preferring subjects unsuited for the 'noble' academic style, and for concentrating on rustic and lower-class life.
Yet it was precisely because they refused to be bound by the static, cut-and-dry conventions imposed by the Academy -- conventions which the Academy, now as ever a loyal servant of officialdom and decorum, accepted as in duty bound, and indeed in which it rejoiced -- that the Impressionists instinctively accepted that notion of evolution whose laws had been established by such men as Darwin, Spencer and Lamarck. It was perhaps partly this awareness of evolution as an instinctual drive that led these highly gifted artists to resist constraints deriving from an outlook too purely intellectual and sophisticated. Nor must we forget that the natural desire for liberty, born with the Revolution, had been promoted by the increasing influence of Rousseau's doctrines, which sponsored a scheme for living congenial to their social status -- in most cases that of the worker, employee or small farmer. Lives passed in contact with nature, not to mention the reasonable self-interest of those who have to earn laboriously their daily bread, had inspired them with a classical devotion to the soil, to Terra Mater, and likewise a sturdy independence, for which art offered a very favourable field.
Thus we soon find the Impressionists desisting even from their short stays in the capital, moving out to the country and settling there. No such notion would ever have crossed the minds of the academic painters, tethered to Paris, as being the centre for the distribution of medals, for making a reputation and for cultivating people who might commission portraits. This 'society' clientèle knew nothing of the French countryside except what it had seen in BastienLepage's landscapes, which were exactly to its taste. Before making their new, direct approach to nature, the Impressionists duly studied it in the Landscapes of Corot, Courbet, Rousseau, Dupré, Boudin, Jongkind and the rest. And thus it was they lit on their great discovery. For now the young artists compared nature as portrayed by the Masters with the actual scene before them -- and were amazed at the discrepancy. What they discovered furnished that challenge to excel their predecessors that painters always stand in need of; and they now brought to bear that 'analytical' observation which, as we have seen, lies at the root of all impressionist technique. In short, discarding all conventions of the past, they looked at nature with new eyes.
Like the first observers of the phenomena of electricity, steam-power, or some new element, the Impressionists, too, made far-reaching discoveries, though as yet they had no idea of their possibilities. In pursuing these investigations each man followed the line best suited to his temperament. Men like Monet sought to see exactly what it was that happened; those like Cézanne, why it happened thus. Thus analysis was the order of the day, Degas analysing movement, Monet light and Cézanne form. They studied life and nature with an application, sometimes wildly enthusiastic, sometimes almost painfully intense. We can picture these young painters poring intently on the book of nature, like a schoolboy, bent over his exercise-book, puckering his brows or putting out his tongue in the effort to control his novice pen. Whereas the successful painter of the day merely applied himself to burnishing his hero's helmet, while dreaming of the gold medals awaiting him.
Thus the impressionist period encouraged both the fervour of young sensibilities and the scientific precision dear to neophytes, and it was through the interaction of these that the new way of viewing the world came into being. Thus it always has been, and always will be when youthful aspirations join forces with freedom of expression and a gift for technical innovation. And despite the divergencies which subsequently led the Impressionists each to go his personal way, it is to these qualities shared in common that their contribution to art and the 'climate' of their time owes its indubitable unity.

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