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 Amazon.com 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 artrenewalcenter.org for the Paxton painting.