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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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3. Beginnings of and Changing Attitudes toward
The word “impression” as applied to
a painting, and “impressionism” as applied to the style
developed by Monet and his friends, were used at first
as terms of ridicule. At the time, they implied some-
thing hasty and superficial, perhaps unfinished, crude,
and therefore inferior to the academic product. Euro-
pean taste, elite and popular, had for centuries favored
works of art and other products which were finely
finished, like a smoothly polished piece of furniture,
as a sign that the workman was master of his craft.
True, Michelangelo and a few other great artists had
left some apparently unfinished surfaces, but this
method had not been widely followed. The influence
of Ingres, Corot, J. L. David, Boucher, and Chardin
had been on the side of smooth finish. That of Delacroix
had not, but he had been bitterly attacked by Ingres
and others for his emphasis on color.

To call one's picture an “impression,” as Monet
modestly did in 1874, suggested that it was not thor-
oughly worked out; that it was rather incomplete and
unimportant as a picture, though perhaps worth keep-
ing as a souvenir of a brief experience. To call a picture
by someone else a “mere impression” was definitely
belittling. These ambivalent meanings helped to make
the painters themselves rather doubtful about it, until
the movement acquired substantial prestige.

Later on, their friendly critics insisted that a picture
was not necessarily bad or trivial, merely because it
recorded a quick impression. It could even be, in a
sense, superficial; that is, concerned with surfaces and
with directly visible aspects, rather than with inner
structures. It could seem unfinished by ordinary stand-
ards, and yet have reached the point in its development
at which the painter wished to stop; at which he had
said all he wished to say in this particular work, and
at which he would defeat its purpose if he said more.
In its own way, the picture is completely finished. The


practice of omitting some visible details, which might
not be noticed in a quick glance, was not only excusa-
ble, but a positive means to the desired effect of eva-
nescence, as in a landscape with setting sun. In addi-
tion, it might be a means to bringing out a design.

The steps which led to the acceptance of impres-
sionism by influential critics can be summarized as
follows (Rewald, p. 19). The Academy of Fine Arts
in Paris, a part of the Institut de France, had long ruled
the world of art through its power to select the jury
for choosing pictures to be shown at the biennial Salon.
The prestige to be gained by exhibiting there could
bring fame and fortune to a young artist, especially
by recommending his work to wealthy and official
patrons. Students who followed the academic rules and
the tastes of their teachers were likely to profit by it.
Individual protests against the situation had not been
lacking, but had produced little effect.

As the time for opening the Salon of 1863 drew near,
rumors circulated that the jury was to be more severe
than ever. In April the official results showed that
three-fifths of the five thousand paintings submitted had
been rejected (Rewald, p. 79). A storm of protests broke
out, some of which reached the ears of Emperor Napo-
leon III. He proposed that the rejected works be shown
elsewhere in the same building as the Salon proper.
This was done, much to the satisfaction of the young
radicals. The new exhibition was entitled the Salon des
Manet, Whistler, Pissarro, Cézanne, and
Jongkind were among those exhibiting (Rewald, p. 80).
The crowds are said to have mingled surprise with
laughter. Most of the comments were negative, but a
few critics ventured to praise the Refusés, notably
Fernand Desnoyers and Jules Antoine Castagnary.
Émile Zola was hesitant, but on the whole friendly,
especially to Manet. Zacharie Astruc praised Manet
with enthusiasm, but the Emperor considered his
Déjeuner sur l'herbe “immodest.” (This painting, of a
nude outdoors in the company of two clothed men,
was not impressionist but a naturalistic version of a
Raphael engraving.) In 1863 Charles Baudelaire, a
discerning critic and important poet, in praising the
sketches of contemporary life by Constantin Guys, put
his finger on an essential feature of impressionism. It
was the artist's role, he declared, “to disengage the
eternal factors from the transitory ones.” He coined
the word “modernité,” which he defined as “the tran-
sitory, the fugitive, the contingent, one-half of art of
which the other half is the eternal and the immutable”
(Rewald, p. 127).

In the late sixties, many appeals were sent to officials
for a new San des Refusés, but without success.
Courbet and Manet built their own pavilions in the
World's Fair of 1867. Meanwhile, the loosely assembled
group of radicals (as yet unnamed) drew closer together
and engaged in active, café discussions, especially
about the merits of open-air painting, which most of
them favored. Individually, they exhibited in shops and
galleries. Some of them were extremely poor, espe-
cially Monet. Only Manet was really wealthy. Degas
and Sisley were moderately affluent. Year after year,
paintings in the new style attracted more attention
from the critics, pro and con.

In 1873 the group organized as a joint stock com-
pany, under a vague title (Société des artistes, peintres,
etc.) which did not commit the members to any partic-
ular style of art. Degas cooperated with it, but called
it a “realist” movement. Manet refrained from exhibit-
ing with them.

When the pictures were being hung in 1874, Renoir's
brother Edmond (in charge of editing the catalogue)
objected to the monotonous titles Monet had given to
his works. They were, for example, Entrance of a
Village, Leaving the Village, Morning in a Village,
the like. Monet then replied: “Why don't you just put
Impression!” The picture he selected, a view of Le
Havre from his window with the sun appearing
through vapors, painted in 1872, was catalogued as
Impression, Sunrise (Rewald, pp. 315-17).

Shortly after the show opened, under the title “Ex-
hibition of the Impressionists,” an article ridiculing it
appeared in the magazine Charivari. It was signed by
Louis Leroy (Rewald, pp. 318, 608). The article con-
sisted of an imaginary conversation between himself
and an academic landscape painter during a visit to
the exhibition. Paintings by Renoir, Monet, Pissarro,
Sisley, and others were appraised in such terms as
“palette-scrapings,” “dirty canvas,” “black tongue-
lickings,” “mud-splashes,” “hair-raising,” “slap-dash,”
and “noxious.” Sarcastic remarks were made about the
term “impression.” “Leave me alone, now, with your
impression... it's neither here nor there.”

This magazine, says Mr. Rewald, is the first publica-
tion in which the painters were called “impressionists,”
and it is typical of the countless attacks made on the
successive group exhibitions. The first publication de-
voted to the impressionist group avoided the term
“impressionist.” It was by Edmond Duranty, la nou-
velle peinture
(1876), and dealt with “the group of
artists who exhibit at the Durand-Ruel Galleries.” An
English critic, P. S. Hamerton, charged them with
“neglect of details, their lack of drawing, their in-
difference to the charm of composition.” An anony-
mous American critic called two pictures by Monet
“two of the most absurd daubs in that laughable col-
lection of absurdities.” But the young poet, Stéphane
Mallarmé, defended the group, while J. A. Castagnary
praised them as making a step in the right direction.


“They are impressionists,” he said, “in the sense that
they render not a landscape but the sensation produced
by a landscape” (Rewald, p. 330). H. Garland, in
Crumbling Idols (1894), published what Mr. Rewald
calls “the first all-out defense of the movement to be
written in English.” The first definition of the term
“impressionists,” says Mr. Rewald, came from a friend
of Renoir who wrote: “Treating a subject in terms of
the tone and not of the subject itself, that is what
distinguishes the impressionists from other painters” (p.
338). This was hardly an adequate definition of the

Mr. Rewald's own descriptive summary of impres-
sionism in painting mentions several aims or effects
and several technical means to them. The impres-
sionists, he writes, “selected one element from real-
ity—light—to interpret all of nature.” They sought “to
retain the fluid play of light” and to enrich the color
effects. “The multitude of obvious touches and the
contrasts among them had helped to express or suggest
the activity, the scintillation of light.” The painter
sought, through a techniques of vivid strokes, “to retain
rapidly changing aspects” and to work rapidly in
choosing some of the aspects presented by nature, “in
order to translate the miracles of light into a language
of pigment and two dimensions” (p. 338). This list of
characteristics applies, obviously, to pictorial impres-
sionism but not to the analogous styles in music and
literature. Within the impressionist group, it applies
more to the individual style of Monet than to that of