Thursday, December 2, 2010

what then, is impressionism?

Lou Christie and Del Shannon from Lou

Tonight's post is a RERUN, something I never do. I never write the posts ahead of time, I sit down at my computer and write a new one each day, so there is no "hopper" with unused posts waiting to be sphinctererd out into the world. But I will have no internet tonight. I want to review an idea, which is one of the "period" explanations of impressionism that I ran into studying with Ives Gammell. This is how the Boston School (and probably many others) in the early 20th century defined impressionism. I like it, I think it makes sense of a lot of things, but it is of course, not commonly applied today.


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.


Pati Springmeyer said...

What a treat to read this post. I often look at art books of painters I admire on my breaks, Tarbell and Paxton are biggies for me. Your post got me thinking about how different( direct, lively but controlled brush work, wet in- to -wet form painting) my process is now as a working artist, than my approach was during my academic atelier training. This definition of impressionism works for me - thank you.
Pati Springmeyer

अर्जुन said...

Vital reading~
Velasquez by R.A.M. Stevenson said...

And it works for me too.

Lucy said...

There are two books by Anthea Callen one called Techniques of the Impressionists and the larger more comprehensive The Art of The Impressionists and the Making of Modernity. These two book are exhaustive in their research and filled with color examples. All facets of the movement are discussed in great detail. Another seminal idea was to express form and light through shifting color, rather than modeling light and dark. Additionally the development of different pigments in the nineteenth centuries gave painters a range of color not seen before. But yes, completing a picture out of doors or from life in its entirety was the big idea.

Kevin Mizner said...

Great post, but the "Lightning strikes again..." reference was too funny!

billspaintingmn said...

OK, let me see if I understand this.
You cannot observe design into a painting, It must be installed.
So is that academic, even in a plein air, wet into wet approach?
Any time I make a choice or decided
approach, is that academic?
When you are outside and have found a scene you will paint, is studying the scene academic?
(Right now my brain feels like a bow tie.)
I am thinking that Impessionism is
an artistic sport that uses what ever means,(academic) to score a point. All's fair game right?!

Gregory Becker said...

Having examined Monet and Rembrants tonal stuctures and value systems, I realized that they are in fact very similar in their approach to the use of values.
Monet and Rembrant in comparison did something very interesting with values in their tonal stuctures.
Monet expanded his lights and dropped in his darks as incidentals.
Rembrant expanded his darks and dropped in his lights as incidentals.
Both artists departed from evenly spaced integers when it came to values.
I see this as such a dominant feature in their tonal stuctures.
I may do some posts on this subject.

Vianna Szabo said...

Great explanation, I agree with your description and I am especially happy that you mentioned Benson. He is an underrated impressionist who much like Sargent and Zorn was a phenomenal water-colorist.

Paintdancer said...

Fascinating stuff! I found your blog through Susan Roux and am glad that I did.

I think I am a little of both- academic and impressionist , but regarding the alla prima part, if I can't get it done in one sitting it goes out in the trash. Like a one night stand, that approach does require spontaneity:0)

Stapleton Kearns said...

I apologize as I am unable to reply to all of theses comments today, I am under severe time and internet access constraints. However I will resume that practice soon.

Pablo Tapia said...


I'm Pablo form Australia. Here there was a Scott-Australian called Max Meldrum (1877-1955) who trained briefly in the ateliers of Paris (firstly Colarossi and secondly Julian)and spent many years studying the old masters in Europe....especially Velasquez. He developed a complete philosophy and methodology of painting based on the scientific discoveries, at the time, on vision and perception.
Later he became very influential in Australian art creating an entire local movement called “tonal impressionism”, his followers were known as ‘Meldrumites’. New academic writing today uses the term “Australian Tonalism” to describe this later period but the term might be a bit confusing because it is not exactly like academic Tonalist painting which is based on drawing up to some extent.

Essentially it’s based on the idea that all images are flat in the retinas and are just a collection of abstract tonal coloured shapes...painting becomes difficult only because it's intertwined with the other senses, specially the sense of touch, and we create mental symbols of the things we see...all good for living but a hindrance for objective seeing and painting. True Meldrumites, and this sets them apart from all other movements ...including French Impressionism, learn to shut down the cognitive and tactile aspects of the process of seeing thus they paint what they truly and objectively see in front of them following a specific three step circular procedure (of course today the idea of ‘objectivity’ is a difficult one...but in practical terms the method is extremely effective if trust is put on the philosophy behind it).

In this method 'drawing', in the strict sense, is not used at all because lines are mental symbols...lines symbolise your knowledge of the tactile experience of the objects in front of you. But with more careful scrutiny you might realise that boundaries are blurry or even disappear in some areas.

There is a book written by him that was reprinted just a couple of years ago where he explains his philosophy and basic method. (But in all honesty it is a difficult reading):
Ed. Kenyon R. Ames, 2008. ‘The Science of Appearances: as formulated and taught by Max Meldrum’, Cinemascope Productions, Victoria, Australia.

There is a great book called See it! Paint it! By Don Gallagher that explains the method in a far clearer manner...though it’s out of print and copies are really hard to find.

Recently there was a retrospective of his work and his followers’ and a good book came out of that called: ‘Misty Moderns: Australian Tonalist 1915-1950’ by Tracey Lock-Weir.

Though it might seem that his teachings are long gone actually there were few of his students who kept on teaching it well into the 80s and even up to the year 2000 in different parts of the country, so there are still some practicing artists who follow the method and ideas 100% or in some form at least. He also toured USA quite successfully though I do not know up to what extend today one might find his influence around there.

Hope this contributes to your topic.

Best regards,

Pablo T.