When about 1855-1857 Claude Monet, still in his teens, first acquired a few rudimentary ideas about the art of painting, what was the position of that art in France? What were the obstacles a young, imaginative painter might be expected to come up against?
The Old Masters had one by one receded into a limbo remote from contemporary life, and with them had receded certain strictly compositional problems. This was all to the good: the role of academicism, ineluctably, in every age, is that of devouring its own offspring and thereby disqualifying, for an indeterminate period, a number of principles which, none the less, had proved their validity.
A heated controversy was about to lose its virulence and pass into history. The antagonists were, on the one hand, a (figuratively speaking) blind devotee of Raphael and pictorial conventions deriving almost entirely from the externals of his art; on the other, a thoroughpaced "romantic," an ardent admirer of Rubens and the 16th-century Venetians. For the one, perfection of line was all that mattered; he regarded color as mere "filling," little more than an accessory of flawless draftsmanship. For the other, the splendors of color were the be-all and end-all of painting; line was merely hinted at. In practice, needless to say, the first was a highly skillful colorist and the second a draftsman of great verve and acumen. The Cubists were later to pay homage to the first, whose work, in their eyes, anthologized the wonders that could be done with planes and lines. But, pending the advent of Cubism, it was the second, very early in his career, who was destined to make the discovery on which so much of the coming renewal of painting depended.
At the 1824 Salon, in Paris, among a number of landscapes by contemporary English painters, Delacroix (for he, of course, is the second artist referred to, and Ingres is the first) noticed three landscapes by Constable and was struck by the intensity of certain tones which, at a distance, merged together uniformly. Examining the canvases, he saw that these tones, applied in small, separate brusbstrokes, owed their intensity to their division into shades of the same tone. This new technique invented by an English artist was the prelude of an art revolution, on the other side of the Channel, in which Monet was to play a heroic part.
Much has been made of both Ingres and Delacroix as precursors of modern art. The fact remains that both were staunchly orthodox exponents of an art conceived and executed in the image of the Old Masters, in accordance with the canons of the "classical" schools of Renaissance painting. But they were seized on and idealized by certain moderns who, with a modesty that cloaked no little pride, declared themselves the true continuators of the masters of the past.
In the case of Ingres and Delacroix that debt to the past was apportioned between a small number of Old Masters. Not so with the average run of painters, who carried Eclecticism to extravagant lengths. Ransacking the whole field of art, they picked on formulas which seemed to them the acme of perfection in some shape or form; then, mixing them together, they produced a composite art, a hotchpotch, whose overall effect was insipid to a degree. Such, in brief, was what the contemporary methods of teaching art promoted; such was the normal approach to an understanding and appreciation of painting a hundred years ago, and this was the kind of initiation which a novice, seized by the ambition to paint, was most liable to undergo. Monet was no exception; his first still lifes were the fruit of just such an initiation.