ARGENTEUIL - IMPRESSIONIST THEMES
Amongst the cities of the world whose names are permanently associated in our minds with certain great art periods, the little township of Argenteuil must not be denied a place; for it was the cradle of an art movement of extreme importance: of Impressionism. As well as its 'place of origin,' an exact date may be fixed as that when the new aesthetic theory touched highwater-mark in the way of truly creative achievement: the year 1874. It was then that the rendering of light and movement, the Impressionists' great discovery, was brought to a pitch of precision and a plenitude never to be surpassed -- though the painters, haunted as all creative spirits are by dreams of bettering their best, still pressed forward on the path of discovery, until indeed they were "in wandering mazes lost." Thus it was when Monet, carried away by not unjustifiable pride, tried to carry his researches into the texture of light still further, and to achieve the impossible in painting. And, in later days, since evidently genius and imagination alone could not suffice, the Neo-Impressionists called in science, and pressed the exact analysis of colour and light-rays to a point where they came up against that ne plus ultra which is the end of all art movements that have worked themselves out. But art goes on, though 'movements' end. Their discoveries are not lost, but serve as starting-points for new discoveries.
Argenteuil shows us that Impressionism is beginning to build up a new aesthetic theory, derived from technical data that were not, strictly speaking, new. But it pressed its realistic observation of nature to a point at which its very excesses, coupled with its scientific analyses of the matière -- the material on which the artist works -- raised what was to be the central problem of modern art. Meanwhile, however, the new school stood by the doctrine of the imitation of nature. They noticed that the masters of the past had practised it, though with an eye to extra-pictorial considerations of many kinds. So had done the Romantics; not only those for whom the 'story' of the picture was everything, but also those who specialized in landscape pure and simple, such men as Brascassat, Marilhat or Georges Michel (whose art, at bottom, always was far less instinctual than intellectual). So it was that Impressionism began by pressing literal realism to an extreme precision, surpassed only by photography -the recent discovery of which had certainly caught the attention of the Impressionists at this stage.
Thus they soon realized they must outdo mere nature-imitation. To use a term soon to come into fashion, and one which our contemporary artists were to adopt with still bolder ends in view, they tried to create a new reality. And theirs was no traditional or slavish realism, but a very personal interpretation of nature -- on the lines of Zola's famous definition of art as "an aspect of creation seen through the medium of a temperament."
It was a new conception of Space and Time that lay at the origin of impressionist aesthetics. Traditional art was based on a concept of permanence; it aspired to the timeproof and unchanging. A gratuitous concept, indeed (to use a modern expression) a piece of wishful thinking, due to a very human longing to cling to the felicities of this present world, or the comforting assurance of a super-world of things eternal. But, nothing if not realistic, the Impressionists perceived the fragility of things, and it was this transient Here and Now they sought to picture. Naturally they were accused of embarking on "a wild-goose chase"; actually they were but endorsing the adage: "All things flow . . . You cannot cross the same river twice." True, their intentions were in a sense contradictory (but is not all art a game played with logic?) since they proposed to "fix" for all eternity the fugitive, the mournful glamour of the fleeting. In this respect it was only too easy for the pundits of classicism to tax the new aesthetic with a lack of spirituality and an addiction to the merely sensuous. "The spirit forms, but the senses deform," it was pointed out, and you can build nothing lasting with the fugitive. And since form persists behind and beyond the colour that is subject to decay, the notion of "coloured sensations" which informed impressionist theory was preposterous. But the men who were raising these objections were, for obvious reasons, unable to foresee that the notion of "coloured sensations" would give rise one day to constructive themes and that Impressionism, itself "fugitive," would come to mark but one stage more in art's long pilgrimage.
Obviously this new aesthetic called for an appropriate technique. Since light was the source of all sensations, light must dominate the artist's palette. Each fleeting aspect of the world needed a technique capable of isolating its coloured moment, and it was thus the artist's task to analyse the vibrations of the air and of light, and to break them up into parts. In the movement of running water, the drift of clouds, the ripple of leafage, the keen eyes of the young Impressionists perceived a juxtaposition of pure colours, and a clash of pure tones, without the intervention of intermediate tonalities. These tones, each acting independently, led to new groupings, much as each individual contributes to the aspect of the group he lives in. Thus, more even than the sight of everchanging nature, it was an organic compulsion to build up a coherent whole that led the Impressionists to the system of dividing up tones and sprinkling the canvas with disconnected spots, splitting up light prism-vise into the seven primary colours. Thus, too, they abolished "local tone," which necessitates a respect for contours binding forms together within fixed, unchanging limits. Hence the presentation of the subject as an ensemble of vibrations generating waves of light, which affect the eye like the images on a cinema screen. The consequence was that form (or anyhow form in its traditionally accepted sense) became totally dispersed, volatilized, and it was against this annihilation of form that soon the post-impressionist reaction took arms.
No doubt there was something slightly mechanical in this procedure; in impressionist technique we often seem to hear as it were a click of turning cogs. And then we think approvingly of Delacroix's comment on a Ruysdael seascape -- that it was "the perfection of art because the art was so completely hidden." But rare are the works, even great ones, of which we could say this! Nor must we forget that we are now at the early, analytic phase of Impressionism -- and it is a habit of young enthusiasts to lay down the law.
Essentially this method of juxtaposed touches of pure colour was not wholly new. In tracing the sources of Impressionism, art-historians have not failed to point out anticipations of its technique in the work of the old masters. Several of the Men of the Renaissance dallied with it. Nearer our times, it was used by Watteau and by Chardin, of whom a contemporary writer, Bachaumont, wrote, "He puts on his colours one after the other, hardly mixing them, the result being like a mosaic or embroidery in which a square stitch (point carré) is employed." Goya, too, sometimes used a narrow, vibrant brushstroke. And Delacroix' transverse strokes showed his knowledge of the uses of complementary colour in bringing out a given hue. Constable, Bonington and Jongkind had contributed to the shaping of the new technique. And, finally, Corot on his deathbed had predicted the coming of Impressionism.
Nevertheless these excellent precedents did not prevent critics and public alike from heaping derision on the new school, whose principles were formulated round about 1872. The war being over, the young artists met again in Paris, but soon retired to the suburbs; notably to the banks of the Seine where regattas, country inns and sunlit foliage quickened their inspiration. Sisley stayed at Marly, Renoir at Croissy, and Monet at Argenteuil, where he was joined by Caillebotte and Manet and, later, by Renoir. During this period Manet painted his Roweys at Argenteuil ( 1874), Caillebotte his Boats at Argenteuil ( 1875), Renoir The Seine at Argenteuil ( 1873), Monet his Regatta at Argenteuil ( 1873). Thus this charming little town may well be regarded as the "Barbizon" of Impressionism. For better than all else, skies and flowing water bespeak the "fugitive."
Never quite converted to the technique of divided tones, Manet kept to the small, slightly elongated strokes in which his amazing manual dexterity could operate to greater advantage than in the microscopic analysis involved in the use of tiny specks of colour. Moreover, protagonist though he was of bright tones, he never liked painting in the open. Also he had little use for new-fangled theories and felt at home with not a few conventions of the older art. He went so far in the way of estrangement from his friends as to persist in canvasing the approval of the "official" Jury. Of course Manet was well-to-do (as, too, was Degas), and a rich man tends to fight shy of perilous adventures. Also he was more interested in figures than in scenery; thus he often put figures in his landscapes, procuring from them those effects of light and shade whose quest he always advocated. "All the rest," he said, "comes naturally, and it often amounts to very little." Renoir, too, was no fanatical admirer of nature; his view was that a man becomes a painter not by gazing at nature but by contemplating the masterpieces in museums. The "division of tones" as practised by him consisted in the use of small, fluttering, richly coloured dabs of pigment. Moreover, he was no servile follower of Monet's dynamic methods; his cult of light, in figures and landscapes alike, never took precedence of his sensuous delight in colour. Sisley restricted his palette to tones of blue, pink and golden-yellow--expressive of his delicate sensibility. Thus Monet cuts the figure of the group-leader, strictly applying as he did, the principles implicit in his method, and painting in strong, luminous, resolute "touches." For he never wavered in his life's endeavour--to re-create light on canvas.
Thus we see that the Impressionists (as was only to be expected) would not be bound by cut-and-dry rules. Nor need we be surprised if, after the Argenteuil phase, during which all were ready to make concessions in the common cause, each individual temperament struck out for itself. And we shall see that with Pissarro and Cézanne, at Pontoise and Auvers, a rift within the ranks of Impressionism began to show itself.