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Impressionism was an art form created in the 1860s in France. A French critic gave the name for this movement after seeing Claude Monet’s painting "Impression-Aube". The Impressionists wanted to stress the illusion of the representation in the art of painting, mainly the representation of landscapes and still-lives. They proposed only "impressions" of what they saw, yet they emphasised the representation of real nature, as contrary to presentation of imaginary scenes. Impressionist painters left their workshops to paint outside, in the open, and in front of their views of nature. They sought light, the sun and its varying effects on nature in colours. They were obsessed by colour, and studied colour effects intensely.

Divisionism and Pointillism

Divisionism was the juxtaposition of dots or of small strokes of primary colour, methodically laid on the canvas. The Divisionist painters used the three subtractive primary colours to construct in the eye of the viewer all other hues. They "divided" the hues of the eye into the primary colours, and also aspired at harmony by separating all elements of colour, hence the name of this kind of painting.
Pointillists, then, obtained the combined colour effects only by juxtaposing small dots of paint.
Divisionism took the concepts of Impressionism one step further so that it is also called "Neo-Impressionism". The name was founded by the Italian painter Gaetano Previati, who wrote a book in 1906 with the title "Principi scientifici del Divisionismo", and the name was then taken on by French painters.


Impressionists used all techniques of lines and directions. However, they gave preponderance to colour, and to bringing colour areas on the canvas. Most Impressionists only needed a few high-level lines and looked first to colour to induce emotions, not to clear lines. Yet, they did not reject strong underlying structure in pictures! Horizontal directions dominated in the landscapes.

Compositions remained often simple and high-level. The basic triangles and also vertical and horizontal layers were used for structure. The main emphasis was not however on the academic use of form and compositions. Emphasis was on the creation of emotion through colour, not through line, composition of forms or clever and intricate compositions.

Impressionist painters honour light in all its changes and facets. They were fascinated by the relation between light and colour in a free depiction of their subjects. They applied colour in soft hues and bright tones. Impressionists preferred clearly visible transitions of colour in many hues.

The artists avoided historical, genre, religious or romantic themes, and turned resolutely to landscapes, cityscapes and still-lives in the first place. Impressionists did not seek out intricate detail, also not in their figures.

Impressionists did know the importance of volume and of depth of space, but these were usually not applied in a sophisticated way. Chiaroscuro was used, but in broad areas instead of in many subsequent smaller juxtaposed zones or in delicate graduations of colour. Later Impressionists were much concerned with the representation of volume and space, but they emphasised more or were more aware of the flatness of the canvas. So instead of creating sophisticated illusions of depth, they simplified their relations to space, in order to represent it purely in colour changes, thus more indicating volume and depth than wanting to imitate it on the canvas.

Painters of this period and style were among many others: Claude Monet, Camille Pisarro, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Pierre Renoir, and Alfred Sisley.

Impressionism continued on the impulse given to landscape painting and to genre painting by the Romanticists and the Realists. Impressionism was a radical evolution in formal style. The artists rendered the impression they had of the landscape only, and therefore neglected line for colour. That was new in art, and in the beginning vehemently ridiculed. Impressionism was another artistic, formal expression of looking at nature and objects. The Realists had darkened much their tones; Impressionists would re-introduce light and study effects of bright light on landscapes, on figures and interior scenes. Divisionism was a logical outcome of the tendency to study effects of light, and through discoveries in light theory of scientists like Michel-Eugène Chevreul, this movement evolved to a new style of juxtaposing small coloured dots on the canvas.

Hoar Frost

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). Musée d’Orsay. Paris. 1873.

"Hoar Frost" leaves a direct impression of cold. We feel instantly the dire cold of the frozen ground. We pity the farmer, who walks with a stick so that he would not glide away under the thick bushel of wood on his shoulders. In this frost, the man will need to keep his house warm and therefore he has to go in the morning a long way to way to carry his cut wood home. The sun rises slowly and far. She sends her first long shadows over the ploughed fields. This is a fine picture of a landscape in the winter season, painted in harmonious colours.

We can admire the colours of the picture and how they evoke in the viewer the impression of cold. Details are frugal however. We see the man, a few bare trees, the ploughed fields and the small country road. This shows a rather lonely scene. The colours fuse everywhere in this picture. They inter-react nicely, and do not much contrast, but seem to blend into one another as in fact this whole scene blends, even the man and nature. The painter’s brushstroke is broad but delicate, and in particular places like in the trees and bushes, and in the figure they are far more detailed than in the overall landscape.
There is a mixture of detail and of predominance of mood in the country view. The hues are modulated, so that the colours differ not much form little area to little area. But there is less to discover in this picture than in paintings of earlier masters, and the picture is clearly far less ambitious in idea. It represents merely a landscape, and then it renders mostly only the first, rapid impression of the artist.
Pissarro of course went outside in the hoar frost and painted, and that was new, but we have to conclude that this is a "first phase" picture only, of which the first glance says all there is to know about it. Such paintings are all eye, and we mean the real eye, not the mind’s eye. The view is beautiful and harmonious; the picture is efficient in inducing a certain tender emotion – here of the cold on a lonely winter day in the country. But there is not much more to discover. That was exactly what the critics of the nineteenth century reproached this picture for.

The paining "Hoar Frost" lacked moreover nicely worked-out detail. There was no special, elevated idea expressed, and reality was not even so faithfully represented as with the Realists, who with time had become accepted by the Parisian Academy. In times of historical painting, of Romantic outbursts of energy, after Neo-Classicist heroism, the view of a country path in winter cold could not arouse the intellectual interests of French critics of 1874. Paintings like this were instantly rejected.

Camille Pissarro painted in small strokes of paint laid one stroke next to the other. There is a wealth of hues to be found in every small patch of the canvas. Yet, when seen from a distance, the larger areas realise one overall hue, one global tone.
There are three such overall hues in Pissarro’s painting "Hoar Frost". The road and parts of the fields, the parts that have received no sunrays yet, are in a peculiar hue of white-grey frost. The parts of the fields that did receive the sun can be seen in brown hues, as of course ploughed fields normally are. The sky is a subdued blue, and so are the shadows that are thrown in long lines over the fields. Were these really the colours as the eye of Pissarro saw them? Probably yes, but not necessarily. The impression of the cold and its working on the fields was the feeling that needed to be conveyed. For that reason, hues other than the realistic natural colours could be used and that fact also puzzled the critics. The whole art of the painter lay in conveying the idea of the landscape at a particular moment in time, and thus in a particular moment of light. But pictures like this were not realistic mimesis of nature.

In 1873, several French painters who knew each other well because they all more or less painted in the same style, decided also to exhibit together. They had exhibited before, and their art was not unknown. The French and thus Parisian, venerable Academy, organised each year an official exhibition of the works of the best painters of France. This was the yearly Salon. A committee chose the works that could qualify for the exhibition. In the 1860s, there were so many refused pictures, and the protests of the refused so potent, that it was decided to install also an exhibition of the refused paintings, the "Salon des Refusés". But everything was hung in the Exhibition of the Refused paintings. There were hundreds of frames. All pictures were hung together one higher than the other, so that the high walls were covered. The top paintings completely disappeared in the assembly. The public could hardly remark many of the pictures of the group of friends of Pissarro, informally called the group of "Batignolles".

In 1863, the Salon was held in the Palais de l’Industrie in Paris. There were over three thousand applicants. Pissarro, Manet, Whistler, Monet, Jongkind, Fantin-Latour, Braquenard, all applied but were all refused. The superintendent of the official exhibition, the Count of Nieuwerkerke, proposed the first "Salon des Refusés", and on 15 May 1863 this first Salon took place with more than six hundred fifty refused pictures rejected at the official Salon. Since 1865, the group of painters around Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet was called the Group of Batignolles, because they lived and gathered in the Rue des Batignolles in Paris. They came together in the Café Guerbois there. Pissarro always lived in the country, in the 1870s in Pontoise near Paris.

In 1873 the group of young radicals was not pleased anymore with the Salon des Refusés. They wanted to exhibit as one coherent group and separately. They formed an association called the "Anonymous Cooperative Society of Artists, Painters, Sculptors and Engravers". They were looking for an exhibition hall, when the photographer Félix Nadar proposed his studio on the corner of the Boulevard des Capucins and the Rue Daunon in Paris, in the fashionable Madeleine quarter of Paris.
This would be the "Salon des Indépendents". Around twenty painters were found ready to exhibit, and offered paintings. Edouard Manet, who had until then been the leader of the Batignolles painters, refused to exhibit, so that leadership passed entirely to Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet. At the exhibition, Pissarro, Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Degas and Berthe Morisot had pictures hanging together in one room, among which "Hoar Frost".

A painting of Claude Monet was the "Impression: Sunrise". A critic used that title to suggest that the artists of the Salon des Indépendents painted just that, impressions. Other critics wrote in very satirical moods on the paintings, and also "Hoar Frost" was mocked as if having neither top nor bottom, front nor back, and on which the furrows of the ploughed fields were merely palette scrapings on a dirty canvas.
The name "Impressionists" was a name of derision, but the Batignolles group during a meeting at the "Brasserie des Martyrs", the "Coffeehouse of the Martyrs", decided to adopt the name and proclaim themselves to be a movement. The name "martyrs" was well chosen, because they had sold almost no paintings at the exhibition. Members of this Impressionist movement then were Pissarro, Monet, Sisley, Degas, Renoir, Morisot, Guillaumin, Boudin and Cézanne. Pissarro became the unofficial inspirer of the movement.

The painting "Hoar Frost" was one of paintings hung at the First Impressionist Exhibition of Paris. Camille Pissarro was very poor until the last years of his life, as were almost all the Impressionist painters who had no family money. The poorest of all the now famous painters was Camille. But he kept the movement alive, calling the group to exhibit year after year, until the movement reached the fame we know currently. The Impressionist paintings are now among the very most expensive pictures in the world. Each painting is individually estimated and sold at millions of dollars to tens of millions of Euros. Yet, where lies the value of these paintings? Were all of the critics of the nineteenth century art writers unjustified?

We already stated that Pissarro’s painting is a "phase 1" picture. Impression paintings of landscapes, of still-lives, of portraits, indeed evoke a fine instant mood at their visual effects by the musical quality of their colours combined with the mostly picturesque subjects. These add to feelings of unequivocal, simple aesthetic pleasure. A few details can generally be discovered in the composition or in the colours, but these paintings seldom carry richness in symbols or in inspirational ideas. They represent a landscape as really seen outdoors at a particular moment, and that is that. A viewer sees and admires the painting in a few seconds, and then can go on; he or she knows the entire picture.
Impressionist art leaves however such a strong visual experience, that it needs no further knowledge. The art therefore was apparently easy, and became very fashionable since the end of the nineteenth century. Such an analysis passes by the extraordinary eye for colours and the transformations shown in the depiction of reality, in order to make the scene more real than real. The technical prowess of the painters and the wealth of hues in their pictures remain unequalled.

The story of how the Batignolles painters, in a large part due to the steadfastness of Camille Pissarro, came from oblivion to fame, plus the romantic lives of its masters like Pissarro and Claude Monet or Edgar Degas add interesting tunes to their paintings. The Impressionist paintings have therefore also become "third phase" pictures, and have been recognised as very valuable.
The technique of the Impressionist painters was particular, based on new insights in the forming of colour impressions in the viewer. The Impressionist painters were all colours and not much line. They used slight touches of juxtaposed colour hues to imitate the great variety of the colours of nature.

The Impressionist painters sought a certain continuance of finding spiritual delight in landscapes. The Romantics had painted landscapes and brought the landscape themes to mythical dimensions. For the Romantics, the landscapes induced intense feelings of loneliness, of spleen, of sad melancholic moods, and these reflected the moods of the Romantic soul, the isolation of man in the universe. Because of the soul’s mood also certain landscapes that were more in empathy with this mood had to be chosen.
The Impressionists did not seek this mystic symbiosis with nature. They were satisfied in simply seeing nature as they found it, often by chance, and paint its ever-changing varations under changing light. They admired nature as it was, and for its own sake, marvelling at the ever-changing wealth of colours that came with the passing sun.
The Renaissance Florentines had been suspicious of colour, because colours changed and thus were not at all an intrinsic quality of the object or figure, as were lines and forms. The Impressionists lived by the changing nature of colour, and tried to capture its changing nature.

The Impressionists took elements from the Romantics, some of the delight in the landscape, but they had found the extraordinary wealth of the varying colour hues of nature. They marvelled in the way light formed and changed colours. Pissarro’s "Hoar frost" is one example of a painting showing a simple landscape at an unusual hour of the day and in unusual conditions of lighting.

The Impressionists succeeded because of three reasons. They succeeded because they proposed very strong "phase 1" impressions on viewers, because of their romantic lives and because of their peculiar technique of using small juxtaposed colour strokes to an extraordinary variation of hues, which brought admiration for the visual processes. This brought the Impressionist painters to their current high valuation.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: August 2010
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