The Impressionists discovered the beauty of the modern scene, and, bettering their instructions, added a lyrical quality--their delight in it. They were enchanted by that world, the world as they found it, which they had been sent to woo by the austere canons of a scientific creed. The marriage of reason turned into a love affair. To the passing show they had been bidden look for all they required: the passing show was lavish beyond hope or imagination. No wonder they fell in love; and no wonder, given their genius for expression, they made the sensitive of their age and the next share the emotion.
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.
From April 15th to May 15th, 1874, a group of independent young French painters who had formed a société anonyme that included Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne, Degas, Guillaumin and Berthe Morisot, held an exhibition, apart from the official Salon, at the studio of the photographer Nadar. The exhibition caused in uproar, and a journalist named Leroy, writing in the satirical magazine Le Charivari of April 25th, jeeringly called the exhibitors 'impressionists', after a canvas by Monet entitled Impression, Sunrise. This name, accepted by the painters themselves, became very popular and was universally adopted. The meaning of the term, however, remained vague. The spontaneous Impressionism of the artists was superseded by the doctrinaire Impressionism of the critics, who turned a living ideal into a set system. Then successive reactions against Impressionism set its limits even more rigidly and distorted its scope. It is therefore quite difficult to recapture its actual climate and to mark out correctly the range of the movement which brought about a renewal not only of vision but of the whole of modern sensibility, and which united so many dissimilar artists. Each of them fulfilled himself according to his own genius, sustained in his freedom by the very principles which constituted Impressionism.
The greatness of Impressionism has to do with the genius and talent of about a dozen men and one woman. The Impressionist painters were born between 1830 and 1841 -- Pissarro, the eldest, in 1830, Manet in 1832, Degas in 1834, Cézanne and Sisley in 1839, Monet in 1840, Renoir, Bazille, Guillaumin and Berthe Morisot in 1841. These young innovators, from different environments, came together in Paris about 1860. Pissarro, Cézanne and Guillaumin met at the Académie Suisse; Monet, Renoir, Bazille and Sisley at the Atelier Gleyre. They soon escaped, however, to the Forest of Fontainebleau, where they began to paint in the naturalistic, compact manner of the Barbizon school. From there they went to the Seine estuary and the Channel beaches, which were to become, between 1860 and 1870, the cradle of Impressionism. It was in that light-and-water-saturated air that Monet, in contact with the two innovators, Boudin ( 1924-1998) and Jongkind ( 1819-1891), evolved a style of painting that became more and more fluid, ethereal and highly coloured. Pissarro and Sisley remained close to Corot. Cézanne and Degas, the one still under the sway of Romanticism the other still dominated by Classicism, had no part in this pre-imprenionist phase. Manet, through the modernity of his subjects and his succès de scandale in 1863 at the Salon des Refusés, became, perhaps in spite of himself, the standard-bearer of the young school that met at the Café Guerbois. In 1869 Monet and Renoir, whose figures and open-air compositions had been inspired by Courbet, painted, at Bougival, a small village on the Seine, the picturesque wharf of the Grenouillère, a restless confusion of boats and gaily coloured dresses, While through the foliage a thousand reflections of sunlight broke upon the moving surface of the river. It was in their endeavour to convey the dynamism and the joy of that spectacle, which constantly stimulated them, that they spontaneously discovered what were to become the technical principles of Impressionism: division of tone and shimmering spots of colour. A new vision was born, derived not from a theory but from on-the-spot observation of the reflection of sunlight along the banks of the Seine. Certainly their style had not yet attained unity, and it was not to become a truly conscious one until 1873, but the freshness of these first achievements was never to be surpassed.
The Franco-German war of 1870 dispersed the group just when their experiments were taking shape. Manet, Renoir, Degas and Bazille were called up and went to war; Bazille was killed in the battle of Beaune-la-Rolande. Monet, Pissarro and Sisley took refuge in London, where Daubigny introduced them to Durand-Ruel, the dealer who was to become their chief defender. Their discovery of Turner and Constable hastened the evolution of their technique. In 1872 Monet at Argenteuil, near Paris, and Pissarro at Pontoise (Seine-et-Oise) began painting the new type of open-air landscape. Monet's work, on the grand, universal scale, dominated by the spell of water and by the phantasms of light, attracted Renoir, Sisley and Manet; Pissarro's, bucolic and earthy, with more stress on structural values, influenced Cézanne and Guillaumin. In 1873, with the conversion of Manet, Cézanne and, to a limited extent, Degas, to light-coloured painting, the Impressionist style spread and became more generally understood. The small brush strokes already used for reproducing reflections in water were now applied to trees, houses, sky, hills -- all the elements of the landscape. The colours became systematically lighter and the shadows themselves were coloured. The transitional greys and browns used by Corot gave way to the pure colours of the spectrum, harmonized or contrasted according to the law of complementary colours. Coherence of vision brought in its wake unity of technique, the exaltation and vibration of light as the dominant principle, and consequently the abandonment of contour, of modelling, of chiaroscuro, and of over-precise details, the over-all composition retaining the vigour of a sketch, with the incomplete, unfinished look that so shocked contemporaries. The critic Armand Silvestre made a fine distinction between the three painters: ' Monet, the most skilful and the most daring:, Sisley, the most harmonious and the most timid; Pissarro, the most true and the most naïve'. Renoir led his figures into the sunlight. In 1874, with the exception of Manet, who remained faithful to the official Salon, the group as a whole faced the public, under a barrage of insults and taunts. Seven joint exhibitions followed, at intervals, until 1886. In 1876 Duranty, the writer and art critic, published The New Painting -- a significant title -- and shrewdly analysed the orientation of the young painters: 'Going from intuition to intuition, they have gradually come to the decomposition of sunlight into its rays, its elements, and to reconstructing its unity by the general harmony of the iridescent colours which they spread on their canvases'. The year 1877 was perhaps the peak year of Impressionism, the moment of its most homogeneous and complete unfolding. On the occasion of the third exhibition, and at the suggestion of Renoir, Georges Rivière publishded a little periodical entitled The Impressions, in which he commented intelligendy and warmly on his friends' efforts: 'Treating a subject for its colours and not for the subject itself', he sunmurized, 'is what distinguishes Impressionists from other painters', thus emphashing the victory of pictorial autonomy. The traditional representation of the 'subject', determined by mythology or history or bourgeois convention, was replaced by contemplation of the 'motif', a tree, a thatched hut, a horizon, detached from space and time, a universal source of values; the painting corresponded to its content, without any literary overtones. In 1979 there appeared a brochure, The Impressionist Painters, by the writer and art critic Téodore Duret; this work, together with Duranty's, constituted the first study of the movement as a whole. The defection of Monet, Renoir and Sisley in 1880, at the time of the group's fifth exhibition, revealed a profound crisis, both personal and aesthetic.
After a heroic decade of enduring contempt, and producing masterpieces, Impressionism, at the very moment that it began to gain recognition, ceased to exist as a spontaneous ideal. Each of its founders, having reached maturity, thenceforth went his own way, while retaining allegiance to the common cult that had brought them all together -- that of Nature and of liberty.
The death of Manet in 1883 -- by then a new generation has arisen ( Seurat, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Lautrec), nourished on Impressionism but reacting against it -- coincided with the complete breaking up of the original group, despite the efforts of Durand-Ruel. Before hurrying on to the last stages of Impressionism, to the solvent influence of Cézanne, to Gauguin and Van Gogh (sometimes called "neo-Impressionists," sometimes "Symbolists," and both in a sense anti-Impressionist), and to Seurat the grand neo-Impressionist, with whom, I take it, Impressionism ends and post-Impressionism begins, there is just one quality of Impressionist art--a quality of which I have written at length elsewhere--about which I would like to say something here because of its effect not on painters only, but on the general sensibility of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Geographical dispersion ( Pissarro at Eragny, Monet at Giverny, Sisley at Saint-Mammès, Cézanne at Aix-en-Provence, Renoir alternately travelling and staying in Paris before finally settling in Provence) was accompanied by a divergence in their aesthetic principles. At that time, as Lionello Venturi puts it, ' Monet tended toward a symbolism of colour and light, Pissarro was attracted to pointillism, Renoir wished to assimilate elements of academic form, Cézanne concentrated on problems of construction, and Sisley took satisfaction in style'. Renoir and Cézanne, carried along by their genius, fulfilled themselves without faltering, in a continuous upward surge. Monet, Sisley and Pissarro, however, the three landscape painters most closely linked to Impressionism, and the most confused, had many vicissitudes, producing uneasy and uneven work, sometimes merely decorative, without being able to recapture the fine equilibrium and spontaneity of their beginnings. Certainly they were still achieving much, but a spirit of system and literary or scientific influences often restricted the freedom of their intuition. After 1895 Pissarro regained in astonishing creative vigour, and his last masterpieces, like those of Monet, Renoir and Cézanne, still derived from Impressionism in the broad sense of the term, by reason of their cosmic sweep, vibrtaion of light, and direct emotion before Nature.
Thus Impressionism was not a set group with a congealed programme or a master-disciple relationship; it was a privileged correspondence of taste, a living experience, a moment of brotherhood, shared by young artists indifferent to ideas but rich in sensations, who suddenly discovered the world and found it vast enough for each of them to draw upon it without constraint. And because painting for them was something spontaneous, not derived from a theory, they revolted against its traditional 'laws'. If almost all the artists of the avant-garde, different as they were in temperament, joined together, between 1960 and 1870, to contribute to the formation of what was to be called Impressionism, it was not as a result of their gradual submission to some uniform principle or technical prescription, but because of their impatient desire to free their own personalities for a dynamic contact with Nature and life, and to shatter -- following Manet's lead -all official conventions, all academic fetters. 'The effect of sincerity', mid Manet, 'is to give one's work the character of a protest, the painter being concerned only with conveying his impression. He simply seeks to be himself and no one else.' In point of fact, the Impressionist painter, guided solely by his intuition, could only rely on his own sincerity, and each of his paintings, being an act of 'creation', was a reaffirmation and rediscovery of painting. The world did not exist once and for all in a set form, but every glance rediscovered it in its renewed freshness, and the least of its aspects was part of its moving beauty. Such liberty could not but shock the people of that time, whose vision had been petrified by the École des Beaux-Arts (itself in expression of social petrifaction). To us, however, the Impressionist experiment appears to have fitted naturally into the pictorial tradition which has come down to us from the Renaissance, while pursuing more and more faithfully the optical expression of reality. Under the dominant influence of Courbet, the Impressionists started out in a more or less realistic tradition, which they intensified to the point where it was overthrown, and replaced by the flight from reality of modern painting. Although the visible world that they offer us appears more real, or is perhaps a better likeness, than the objective data of Realism, it is important to realize that the two attitudes are much more in opposition to each other than they are a continuation of each other. The realistic painter still rests his work on an intellectual basis and adapts his emotions to his knowledge -- that is, he fits them into traditional frames: respect for contour, the rules of anatomy and perspective, the primacy of chiaroscuro. Opposed to this realistic intellectualism is the sensualism of Impressionism; the unity of its style is founded on personal intuition, on an emotional choice unfettered by any theoretical data. The external universe loses its constraining power and, entirely transposed into anti-naturalist pure colours, becomes for the artist a 'theme', in the musical sense of the word, on which he can make variations to his heart's content. Delacroix comes to mind, but the freedom of Impressionism is both richer and more rigorous than that of Romanticism. Romanticism was, in fact, tinged with too much torment and day-dreaming, too many external elements that were often artificial, too many fantastic and literary suggestions. Impressionism delivered painting from the literary passion of Romanticism and from the social rhetoric of Realism, and restored its purity. Having won its autonomy, at the price of heroic struggles, Impressionism expresses none the less the moral vision of its period -- straightforwardness, sincerity, an impetus towards individual liberty and social equality, poetry revealed in the most rustic themes, in humble, everyday life. This was the universal fraternity of light, as opposed to the 'select', the distinguished, the exceptional, the 'finished', as opposed to the hierarchical canons and false elegance of the Salon officiel.
It is obvious that Impressionism, even in its most homogeneous period, from 1970 to 1880, showed a variety of tendencies. After that date, with the coming of a new generation, other tendencies sprang up -- Neo-Impressionism, Symbolism, Expressionism -- that reacted violently against it, even though they derived from it. Nevertheless, in spite of the complexity of temperaments and movements, a vast spiritual unity, from 1860 to 1900, marks the whole of a period which may still justly be called Impressionist, when painting, thanks to an unparalleled constellation of geniuses, acquired full autonomy, at the same time bearing witness, in the most sensitive and truthful manner, to the life of the period and to its deepest aspirations.