Monday, February 22, 2010

A definition of impressionism

I received this query today, I think I will riff a little on it tonight.

I am doing a little research on Impressionism, so that I can clearly define it for the students and help them begin playing with Impressionist concepts in there work. I want to put together a little workshop instructional pamphlet as a hand out. My question for you is, do you have an suggestions about specific writings that would make good reference material? Any insights you could offer off the cuff would be greatly appreciated. Thanks,

The painting above is an impressionist painting! I can hear some of you muttering, "no way"!
The painting is typical of the work of William Paxton, one of the Boston School. Below is another by Frank Benson.

Usually people expect broken color landscapes painted in a high key when they hear the word impressionism. But there are other sorts, the Boston painters of the late 19th century were impressionists who sometimes, but not always, painted with broken color, and with visible brush strokes.

At the turn of the 20th century these men and others used a definition of impressionism that is a little different than you might expect. When they referred to the French Impressionists with a capital "I" they meant a specific group of painters with Monet as its founder. When they talked about impressionism with a small "i" they meant a method or philosophy of painting. They felt that painters throughout history were roughly divided into two camps, impressionists and academics. They defined these two groups by their intentions.

An Academic painter is moved by a piece of literature, a historic event, the Bible or a story he himself wishes to tell. Academic paintings are assembled in the studio from drawings, studies from models and involve envisioning things that either never took place, or had to be imagined. Leon Gerome or Ingres will do as examples of this type. This sort of painters tend to work over drawings transferred to the canvas and carefully colored, often thinly in glazes. They usually work sequentially and indirectly.They often conceal the hand of the artist and have no visible or minimally visible brushstrokes.

An impressionist painter (the word here refers to an approach to painting rather than the French coterie of painters) is moved by the world before his eyes, and attempts to place that on his canvas. He is thus standing before that which he paints. His paintings are not assembled from drawings or imagination but observed. Often, but not always the impressionist works with visible brush strokes and opaquely in straight paint, or alla prima, rather than in transparent glazes over a fixed drawing. Examples of this approach would be Monet or Childe Hassam.

Now here is where I am going to introduce you to a controversial idea. This is not a commonly accepted idea today and you may find it strange, but it was a common idea at the turn of the 20th century when impressionism was in vogue. The impressionist painters of that day would argue that Rembrandt and Velazquez were impressionist painters too! They felt that these artists also met the criterion above. They stood before their subject and painted what they saw filtered through their personal interpretation. This would apply to some Rembrandts of course, his Biblical subjects were more academic in intent.

Regardless of whether you buy that assertion or not, it is an interesting one, and from it we can extract a rough working definition of an impressionist painter. The impressionist stands before nature and is moved to portray it on his canvas. An outdoor landscape painter is virtually always an impressionist by this definition.

The second part of the question above asks me to recommend a text for impressionist painting. Since it is a workshop and not an atelier level course I will recommend a book I think is very usable and approachable. It is "Keys to Successful Color in Landscape Painting" by Foster Caddell. this book is available from and though out of print is not hard to find. It is a wonderfully simple and easy to read text explaining the basic ideas of impressionist color. This book could be used as a high shool text or perhaps even in middle school because of its basic and simplified explanations of how to make color vibrate. I highly recomend this book to those of you learning about impressionist landscape painting.

Thanks to the for the Paxton painting.


Tom said...

I would definitely agree with that. It’s like the Vernon Blake quote, it is more important what the artist is after, their intentions, and if the intentions are to portray the effects and the visual truth of appearances, that puts a lot of artist in the impressionist camp. . Their intentions are closely aligned even if their working methods and styles are different, as you stated in the beginning of your post.

Is it just me or does the Pissarro paintings look simpler less complex then the American paintings in the your pervious post?

Simone said...

Very good post. Never really thought that the most distinguishing aspect of impressionism is painting from life using one's observation. Seems obvious. I like the Benson painting. I recently procured a book on his sporting art, autographed by the author (not Benson). Enjoyable stuff. Have not been able to determine for certain if John Prentis Benson was his brother.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

Nice post.
This is a good topic. I think Vermeer and Velazquez are impressionists as well.
A real good description of impressionism is in the Gammell book on Dennis Miller Bunker. One of the better descriptions I have found. That is a tough book to locate, but some libraries have it.

willek said...

Very interesting, Stape. I am just now in the process of reading Ives Gammell's book about the Boston Painters. I'm about half way through and two passages are relavent. One in the first chapter where he describes the way impressionist painting keys on the lower values in a scene. Those values are capable of being matched with paint, he says. The second is his description of Frank Bensons two basic impressionst tennents he repeated to each entering class, eg: painting the scene as the whole is seen in the "instant" and secondly, the colors must be seen in relation to each other and not individualistically.

billspaintingmn said...

Thanks Stape! I'm learning stuff!

Tim Fitzgerald said...

On a completely different subject. I wanted to tell you one of the most important things I have learned from you. It was one of those breakthrough moments , and something everyone else will think duh but nonetheless important to me.
Reading one of your posts you said and I paraphrase here "you must paint everything in a painting" meaning every thing in a painting is as important as the focal point. You cant give more attention to one part over another. It won't paint itself. Thanks for that!!
In a recent painting I was having trouble with a reflection in water and I wasn't to worried about it thinking it's not to important and will paint itself. That's when it hit me It won't paint itself. Duh!

Frank P. Ordaz said...

art is like golf...the approach is everything..

interesting approach and ditto

Jeremy Elder said...

You just cleared up a lot of my questions about impressionism. Thanks!

Darren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darren said...

Great post Stape!

Gammell, in his books, The Boston Painters (like willek said) and the Twilight of Painting as well as in his monographs of Bunker and Paxton outlines this idea as well.

R.A.M. Stevenson (student of Carlous-Duran) also discusses some of this in his book, The Art of Velasquez, from the late 1800's. And it's free on Google books.

jeff said...

Excellent post. This is one the most simple and straight forward explanations I have read in a long time. Well done.
I would include Frans Hals in the 17th century painters who influenced these painters.

I think Paxton is one of the most underrated American painters, his work is amazing, subtle and full of control. His drawing is flawless.

Benson is also another underrated painter. I was just looking at the two beauties that the MFA has here in Boston the other day.

The Paxton you picked Stape is one great painting. I need to see this in person.

Philip Koch said...

Stape I like your posing of two fundamentally differing attitudes toward realist painting. It's a simple way of putting it, yet it says a lot.

Probably most of us realist painters have some of both in us to varying degrees. I know I love both ways of working and have had great success and some miserable failures working in each of these modes.

Stapleton Kearns said...

It of course is of no interest to me what an artist intends, only what he expresses.The
Pissaros seem plenty complex to me.

Stapleton Kearns said...

John was his brother and mostly did marine art.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Ives is, of course, where I learned that description.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Ives is still doing his thing. I guess I am not surprised that people are still reading his writing.

Stapleton Kearns said...

You are welcome.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Did I say that?
I have no idea when or what I meant.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

I am used, therefore I am useful.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That's where I learned it about 35 years ago. I didn't know it was online though. That's great.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Yes Hals would be a great example.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Had you heard that before. It is very Boston school. It is not something you will hear much out there today.