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At the turn of 19th century painting undergone a lot of changes with new discoveries in science and the defeat of France in Franco-Prussian war. Artists like Edouard Monet and Georges Seurat helped shape these transformations. Monet is usually seen as the father of Impressionism due to his debut at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 with Impression Sunrise. Monet used hues that sometimes contradicted the actual color of the object. His technique was based on observation of how objects and surfaces reflect light. Seurat took the world by storm with his Grande Jatte in 1884-6 where the painting seems to dance with the use of divisionism. Divisionism was based on scientific theories of color by Blanc. Seurat’s scientific approach and Monet’s observational one greatly differed from the academic standards they were surrounded with.
In the 1860’s Monet begins painting the style of Barbizon painters. The Barbizon school revolutionized landscape painting. All throughout history painters took to nature to practice painting from observation. They would first take to country sides with sketchbooks to try and replicate nature and then in their studios they would put together idealized landscapes referring back to their sketches and archeological magazines. Therefore landscapes would look symmetrical and clear in recession of space. Late 18th century came with invention of portable paints so now painters would paint on the spot on small canvases to train hand and eye to record color and texture accurately. However the artists would again retreat to their studios to form idealized landscapes and the painting exercises only served as reminders on the wall. The greatest challenge was to capture something transient like running water. There are a lot of studies of running water from this time.
The Barbizon artists took it upon them selves to move these studies forward. Daubigny is one of the forerunners of impressionists. He explores the light and shade of the clouds to get a better sense of nature. He was the first to paint completely on the scene. Monet was inspired by his example and sets out to paint on the scene but instead of painting only the landscape he challenges himself with also including figures. Boudin was the greatest influence on Monet. His works were small scaled and usually focused on tourists at the beach. Later Monet paints series of tourists at the beach but his works are close ups of the beach goers while Boudin’s works are dominated by the sky and the tourists are small. He dedicated so much of the canvas to the sky because it is the most changeable element and therefore seemed the most interesting. Although Courbet wasn’t part of the Barbizon group he contributed to revolution of landscape by applying paint with a palette knife making the surface rougher and the subject rough as well.
Monet becomes increasingly interested in solid objects in relation to liquid and the way light and shadow play on the water. He begins painting seascapes because of its always changing pattern of elements he was attracted to. Monet works quickly and with deliberation on the spot in a boat. He has paint quickly to capture the changes the water has every second. He would get these changes down quickly and switch the canvas to continue capturing the water. Later in his studio he would work on the preliminary painting. He would have a few of then he’d be working on.
The Green Wave demonstrated his pursuit to capture the liquid versus the solid object. The painting is alive to motion as Richard R. Berttell points out. “We seem to participate with Monet in his unseen boat… we experience the swell in the deep, dark green water, represented with suck thick paint that the boats seem to float on the paint rather than on water… Monet wanted no restraint in his medium.” (p.109) The horizon line is very high which makes it feel as if the viewers are included into the painting and as if the wave is about to crash into them. The realism and intensity of this painting that could only have been achieved by observation from nature is what sets Monet’s works apart.
Paul Tucker writes in his article that “for the first time [on April 15th, 1874], Paris had witnessed a large scale independent exhibition of avant-garde art mounted as a direct challenge to the salon, the academy and the official art world.” (p.465) This challenge was the display of Impressionist works which included Degas, Pissarro, Renoir, and Sisley along with some people who were more traditional. The result was effective to see because on one hand, as Tucker mentions, “it gave the show an academic guise; on the other, it made the Impressionists’ advance quite clear.” (p.469) The contrast of the works really made the Impressionists stand out, but responses to their works were not always kind. Even though most critics agreed that this new form of art is what France needed after the bitter defeat in the war, they still could not get over the unfinished feeling of the works presented in the exhibition. However along the negative comments there was some praise. For example Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines received an exhilarating review from critic Chesneau. “’Never’ he asserted, ‘… has the prodigious animation of a public street… the agitation of the trees along the boulevard in the light and dust, the fugitive, the instantaneous… ever been understood and fixed with such prodigious fluidity as in the extraordinary, marvelous sketch.. the Boulevard des Capucines.” (p.470)
However the main work which later became legendary was overlooked by most critics and laughed at by others. The Impression, Sunrise which is rumored to be where the movement got its name. This painting is extremely patriotic because it celebrates the rebuilding and industrialization of Paris after the Franco-Prussian war. The setting is Le Havre, one of the busiest ports in the country; therefore it was every Frenchman’s source of pride. It represents Le Havre at the time of sunrise. Sunrise was a widely used motif in painting it represents the start of a new day. In this context Monet is saying that it is a new beginning for France. The sun is located right over the construction site which further announces the promise of France regaining its strength. The sun’s reflection in the water stretches forward to the viewer. In the forefront it is easy to make out a boat with workers because they are painted in black-blues. The workers represent the reinvigoration of economy and shows Parisians undefeated and working towards reconstructing France. In the background very hazily Monet indicates the industrialization of Paris by depicting on the right billowing smoke out of pipes and on the right he shows rebuilding of Paris by hinting at the building cranes.
Impression, Sunrise shows Monet’s interest in relationship of water sky and land. Here he almost blends all three elements except for the sun which stands out the most in contrast to the “robin’s egg blue”. The rest of the background is painted in deeper blues and warm grays and reddish oranges. The colors look almost artificial but the texture of water Monet creates by a few blue-green touches and the dark silhouette of boatmen in the forefront along with the perspective and the depth that is created by the sun’s reflection make this scene very believable. This painting was definitely painted on site.
The Impression, Sunrise was one of six canvases Monet made to represent the port. He painted it during dusk, dawn, day and dark from varying points. The attraction of a series is in that a series does not have to be finished and it has an unlimited number of possibilities. “They convey the idea that one canvas could never fully entrap the characteristics of a given motif, raising even more serious aesthetic questions about the very nature of the motif,” Berttell writes in his article. (p.118) This sense that a motif in nature can never be really captured in only one painting gives us a greater sense of magnificence of nature. It forces us to observe the limitless power that nature contains. Series method seems like the only logical resolution to show the ever changing water and the sky in its relation to the ground. It also demonstrates Monet’s dedication to the goal of capturing nature in its true which was a goal he shared with his teacher Boudin and contemporary Bazille. They transformed landscape painting which moved from the fields and villages to be shared in studios and city café’s. (Berttell, p.104)
Georges Seurat was more interested in a deeper meaning in a painting rather than representing nature in its full reality. His subject matter mostly concentrated on representing Parisians in ‘their essential aspect’ in ‘harmonies of color’. Seurat considered his paintings as essences of his subjects that only harmonies in color could produce. Seurat’s style is usually dubbed Post- Impressionist because he uses some Impressionist ideas about color and combines them with philosophies of Blanc. In fact Grande Jatte can be dissected according to theories Blanc wrote in his book Grammarie with which Seurat was really familiar.
The people in Grande Jatte are anonymous and therefore make this painting a commentary rather than direct portrayal of an afternoon in the park. The stiff approach recalls the style of Egyptian Art. The figures are even arranged according to the hierarchy of classes in the park. According to Blanc Egyptian art lacked life because it was focused on character of a society caught up with superstition which makes the society uptight and conservative. (pp.16-17)The Egyptian style arrangement is easy to pick out in Grande Jatte. The stoic figure of a bourgeoisie woman in the front looks stiff and unmovable much like the statues of Egyptian pharaohs. Furthermore she is painted in profile which was a trademark of the Egyptians. There Seurat is mocking a woman’s rigidity. The soldiers are called to attention by someone who isn’t even a captain; he is only a flute player in uniform. Here Seurat comments how the soldiers blindly follow orders even though they do not come from their elder. The only person who is relaxing on the scene is a worker in the foreground. He reclines on his arm looking out at the Seine. This figure is reminiscent of Seurat’s earlier work Bathing at Asnières where he shows workers relaxing after a hard week’s work. The place where Grande Jatte takes place is actually across the river from where Bathing at Asnières takes place. The worker represents a contrast of Egyptian hiarchy and Greek democracy.
Grande Jatte looks incredibly artificial. Still it tries to capture nature in terms of color theory. For example the grass looks almost yellow where the sun strikes it. as mentioned in Smith’s article, Feneon, who was one of Seurat’s contemporaries and wrote extensively about his works, says that Seurat’s color contains reflections of light therefore green grass looks yellowish when exposed in the light. (p.33) Some of the light passes through the grass and creates a transmission spectrum which also contains red. This sense of spectrum is possible because of luminosity that is created by placing dots of color beside each other on the canvas rather than mixing them on the palette. This creates an optical mixture where the eye of the viewer is mixing the colors which make the colors look more vibrant because the eye goes from combining the two dots to separating them and back again. Scientifically speaking, “mixtures of pigment absorb more light than do their component pigments individually and are therefore considerably darker than optical mixtures.” (p.31) This theory Seurat most likely has gotten from color theorist Rood. There is also a clear recession in space which is clearly shown by the levels and scale of the people in the painting. They gradually recede and get smaller as if to one focal point in the back ground which is on the top over the flute player.
Seurat’s Grande Jatte is of monumental size which contrasts with the small Impressionist paintings. Blanc “recommended that the artist should attempt mural painting in order to restore the art to its original unity with architecture and sculpture.” (p. 29) And in fact we can see the geometric forms in people’s garnets and umbrellas, measured proportions and perspectives which accurately show recession in space. These precise elements contrast immensely with the spontaneity of Impressionists.
The feeling and essence of society can only be approached by color harmonies. color had an emotionally significant for Blanc; he said that color should be based on experience rather than judgment of taste. Blanc stressed the role of each hue and recommended artists to carefully plan out application of hues. La Cahut demonstrates Seurat’s use of Blanc’s theories of line and color. In this painting everything is unrealistically red. Blanc proposed that red is the color of warmth and happiness. Seurat paints in his divisionist style by placing red dots on the canvas with some blue and green for shadows. Another thing that points to happy theme are the parallels of feet, instruments, and facial expressions all pointing upward. Blanc also suggested that upward bound parallel lines are signs of happiness. Consequently downward facing diagonals and cool colors can create sadness. And calm is achieved through balanced of the use of the light and by lines that are horizontal.
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