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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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2. Types of Pictorial Impressionism. The two sty-
listic traits just mentioned have at times been practiced
separately, producing individual variants. These will
be called in the present article Types One and Two
of pictorial impressionism. While many of the impres-
sionists dealt with bright sunlight reflections at various
times of day and seasons of the year, one of them,
Whistler, worked out a variant of Type One in showing
moonlight, twilight, the glow of lamps as seen through
fog or reflected on moving water, and the flashing,
short-lived brilliance of fireworks (Figure 3). Whistler,
born in America but living in England, was in close
touch with the French group. He preferred the darker,
more subtle and delicate lights and atmospheres near
dawn or darkness, to the often glaring, obvious effects
of full sunshine. He liked the momentary burst of
soaring rockets against a black sky, and the wispy
streaks of lamplight on distant strollers in a park. He
used the butterfly as part of his signature, to symbolize
the lightly poised, ephemeral nature of the phenomena
he chose to represent.

One of the outstanding characteristics of sunlight
reflection is the rapid change and evanescence of each
particular aspect, as in a sunrise or sunset. As one looks
and tries to set it down in paint, it is fast changing
into something different. Its beauty is fleeting, and for
that very reason even a partial success in arresting it
on canvas can be welcome. This was an ever-present
interest of Monet and of others in the group. But
sunlight is not the only kind of transitory, quickly
vanishing phenomenon. In many of Degas' works there
is little or no vivid sunlight. The emphasis is not on
color, but on momentary configurations of line and
solid shape, such as those formed by the prancing legs


of racehorses or the graceful movements of ballet
dancers. These he represented again and again, often
with rich color but without the sunlight radiance which
Monet sought. To heighten the effect of rapid change,
he often showed part of a figure at the edge of the
canvas, overlapped by the frame, as if just entering
or leaving the picture. A group of persons in a café
corner could be shown as if arranged by accident and
about to move (Figure 4). This was foreign to the posed
and self-contained, monumental type of composition
which the Salon favored. Conservatives referred to it
as “bleeding off.” Degas' bathing women, maids, laun-
dresses, and shopgirls lacked the academic types of
statuesque beauty admired by academic taste, but they
presented unconventional, unposed, naturalistic de-
signs, formed by living bodies in the course of ordinary

This emphasis on transitory visual phenomena, other
than light reflections, produced a third type of pictorial
impressionism. If one had to choose a single, very
comprehensive term to characterize impressionism in
general, it might well be that of representing transitory
phenomena. But this would ignore some other impor-
tant variants and oversimplify the account.

The quality of transitoriness is sometimes attributed
to the scene or object depicted, sometimes to the
artist's perception of a still or moving object, and
sometimes to both. In any case, the artist tries to
communicate that quality to the observer. It is not
implied that the artist worked quickly or sketchily. He
may have done so, or he may have labored long to
produce that appearance. Said Degas: “No art was ever
less spontaneous than mine.... Of inspiration, spon-
taneity, temperament I know nothing” (Rewald, p.
177). “The study of nature,” he said, “is of no signifi-
cance.” It was more important, he thought, to learn
to draw as Holbein did.

Although Degas is now commonly classed as an
impressionist, because of his association with the group
and his interest in transitory phenomena, he did not
like this designation for himself. He preferred to be
called a naturalist or realist, and these terms fit him
equally well. Like Courbet, he represented many as-
pects of life and the world, including some which are
commonly regarded as ugly. He depicted scenes of city
life as well as the countryside, and did not avoid sub-
jects possessing dramatic, human interest. In choosing
city scenes and human activities, both he and Courbet
stepped outside what is commonly called “nature” in
a narrow sense of that word. In a broader sense man
and all his works, as well as dancers and racehorses,
are all parts of nature. Artists who classed themselves
as naturalists, in the mid-nineteenth century, stressed
the ideal of truth in art, as opposed to the specious,
artificial beauties of the classic and romantic schools.
Many of the characters whom Courbet and Degas
represented were from the working class, and these
artists showed them objectively, without emotional
partisanship. Most of the impressionists showed a more
specialized interest in the purely visual aspects of
country landscape.

Degas' trait of letting human figures, horses, and
other objects emerge from the edge of the picture, so
that parts of them are cut off, makes some of his
pictures look like modern photographic snapshots (Figure 5)-.
In amateur photography, this may be a
result of careless failure to organize the picture within
the rectangular frame. With Degas, it is intended for
the sake of heightening the transitory, momentary
aspect of the scene.

The similarity has caused some writers to suppose
that Degas was influenced by photography. The extent
of this influence, if any, is controversial. Baudelaire
denounced photography as impoverishing French art


(Rewald, p. 33). The Daguerrotype process had been
invented by Daguerre and Niepce in 1839, and photog-
raphy had had a generation of development since
then. As men of the world, living much in Paris, the
impressionists must have noticed this development and
wondered about its future possibilities. James Clerk
Maxwell, physicist, demonstrated a kind of color pho-
tography in the eighteen-sixties, but a practicable
method was not invented until 1904. This was done
by the Lumière brothers in France. (C. G. and M. R.
Mueller, p. 72). In the eighteen-seventies photography
was still rather slow and laborious. The age of fast
snapshots, of the candid camera indoors and out, was
still far off. Still more remote was the motion-picture
film. Degas had little to learn from the actual photo-
graphs of his day, most of which were very static
portraits. But there can be no doubt of the opposite
influence: that of Degas' action-drawing on photog-
raphy and the cinema.

It was not until near the end of the century that
the possibilities of photography as a medium for serious
art were commonly recognized. The possibility of rep-
resenting moving bodies by that means, and stationary
bodies as if from a moving point of view, was actively
demonstrated in the last decade of the century. Still
photography and painting could not carry it far enough
to satisfy the demand for movement, which eventually
led to the motion picture. The interest in realistic light
and color, stimulated and satisfied to a large extent by
the impressionists, led eventually to the color film of
the twentieth century. Still photography was a demo-
cratic medium, requiring little expenditure or technical
training for the amateur, although such training and
equipment brought additional rewards.

The recent high development of color photography,
especially in the film, has led some critics to disparage
impressionist painting as limited in scope and super-
seded by these mechanical devices. It is certainly true
that some of the things landscape painting tried to do,
and did with much difficulty in the nineteenth century,
are now done in a flash by color photography without
the aid of laborious techniques. The same sort of claim
can be made for color photography as replacing all
realistic painting, of human figures, animals, still life,
and every other subject. But one should not, of course,
minimize the personal touch which is still vitally im-
portant in art. In spite of the great advances which
it has made, photography is still much less flexible than
painting, and less capable of expressing the subtleties
of individual style. This may not always be the case,
and the ways in which the film can excel painting are
already numerous.

In the meantime, it is well to remember that many
of the effects now most admired in color film and
photography were derived from previous paintings,
impressionist and other. In the best color films, one
is often struck by the number of shots adapted from
paintings. In the cinema, the term “impressionism” has
come to mean a series of shots which build up a mood
or atmosphere, or the quality of a scene, without any
definite story or logical connection. The representation
of change and motion, which could not be fully
achieved in still painting, is raised by the film to a
level of infinite power and scope. But, fascinating as
it can be in a theater, or for occasional showings at
home, it does not fulfill the functions of a motionless
picture which can be hung on a wall or painted on
a wall, to be studied carefully at will, or seen “out
of the corner of one's eye,” as an ever-present source
of enjoyment.