University of Virginia Library

Search this document 
Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 

7. Impressionism in the Historical Process. To ap-
preciate the human associations of impressionism, one
must think back to the centuries when painting and
sculpture were servants of church and state and de-
voted largely to idealizing their dignitaries, to dreams
of Heaven and Hell, or to glorifying scenes of slaughter
and bloody martyrdoms. One must also think back to
the styles which followed impressionism, each with its
own contribution to man's artistic heritage, but mostly
disdaining to represent the simple, peaceful, fleeting
beauty of the countryside. Wars and revolutions, the
mechanization of life by large-scale industry, the
crowding of roads by endless lines of automobiles and
trucks, anxieties about the future—these and other ills
are sometimes regarded as the only realities. They lead
to the belief that it is somehow naïve and reprehensible
to “escape” for a while into the serenity of impres-
sionism. True, that style did not tell the whole truth
about Europe in the nineteenth century; there was an
ugly side, and darker forces were gathering power
behind the scenes. No doubt the owners of some of
these pleasant gardens acquired them by exploiting the
workers. The Paris Commune foreshadowed rising class
struggles, and the war with Prussia foreshadowed 1914.
To most of the impressionists these facts would have
seemed irrelevant; they had their own jobs to do.

As far as it went, impressionism showed one set of
values: the brighter side, emotionally and visually.
Some of these values were fast disappearing from the
world; perhaps never to return. In any case, it is worth-
while to record them with some permanence, and to
hope that similar ones can sometime be provided more
widely, whatever the social order may be.

In another sense of “realism,” it is almost the anti-
thesis of “naturalism.” It involves a different concep-
tion of reality as well as of nature, based on the philos-
ophy of medieval Neo-Platonism. Conceiving nature
as the world of phenomena, observable by human
senses, this school of philosophy declares that nature
is not the whole of reality. Naturalistic art is not realis-
tic in the deepest sense, according to this view. There
is a higher level of reality, the spiritual plane, and on
it there are spiritual beings who cannot be ordinarily
seen by human senses. Truly realistic art would not
be limited to representing things as they appear to the
senses; it would give some idea of spiritual reality.

From this point of view, religious art which people
commonly regard as fantastic, untrue, and unrealistic
may be profoundly realistic. Medieval and Oriental
artists made no claim to showing gods, angels, devils,
or scenes from Heaven and Hell exactly as they would
look to human eyes. The picture or statue could be
expected to give only a vague, symbolic idea of a kind
of reality which was essentially invisible, except when
the supernatural power intentionally manifested itself
in visible form. Realism in this medieval sense is op-
posed to nominalism and empiricism. From the stand-
point of this theory, impressionist art is comparatively
naturalistic but not deeply realistic. In this it is said
to be like all Western art since the Renaissance. In
spite of its limitation to a superficial level of reality,
say the Neo-Platonists, it may occasionally hint at
deeper truths, through the symbolic meaning of the
sensory images which the naturalistic artist portrays.

Philosophic naturalism takes an opposite stand on
this issue. Its conception of reality is based on natural
science, and it doubts or denies the existence of a
distinct, supernatural realm. It regards any repre-
sentation of supernatural beings as lacking in both
realism and naturalism.

In describing a single style in one art, the historian
runs the risk of making it seem a static, frozen pattern,
as in a collection of pictures in a single museum gallery.
In fact, styles in every art are in constant, evolutionary


change, especially in modern Western culture. Primi-
tive styles were, on the whole, more long-lived. Today,
stylistic change accelerates more and more rapidly, to
satisfy the popular demand for novelty. Artists are
under constant pressure to devise new styles in every
medium; to “break with the past” and produce revolu-
tionary innovations.

Change in art was fairly rapid, even in the late
nineteenth century. It was stimulated in part by far-
reaching social changes, many of them consequences
of the French Revolution and the fall of the old régime,
followed by a succession of smaller wars and revolu-
tions, putting power and wealth in the hands of differ-
ent social groups. Some artists, notably Jacques Louis
David, lived through several régimes. Not only were
different styles officially approved; new patrons
emerged, able and willing to pay for the latest thing
in art. But changes of style are not due entirely to social
factors. There is also an internal line of cultural descent
within each art, descending from teacher to pupil and
from one generation of artists and critics to the next.
Sometimes imported styles, such as that of Chinese
decoration in the eighteenth century, merge with in-
digenous ones to form new hybrids.

Any particular style, such as impressionism, is a
temporary stage, a partial equilibrium in a long his-
torical process. It is a small but often influential pattern
of thought and action within a larger culture-pattern,
interacting with patterns old and new in the same and
other arts. It is never entirely original; in every modern
style, however revolutionary it may claim to be, there
are vestiges of older styles, combined with new features
through the creative power of individual artists and
the requirements of new modes of life. Old styles divide
as certain features of one are abandoned, while other
features are preserved in different combinations.

The conscious revolt of artists from the current
fashion seldom turns out to be as complete as it prom-
ised to be; reactions soon occur, and even at the height
of revolt important features from the rejected style may
survive. Thus the impressionists retained in some de-
gree certain features of academic painting, such as
perspective, anatomy, scale, and modeling with darker
shadows. But they modified these considerably, as by
blurring perspective with surface hues, and by chang-
ing shadows from brown or gray to complementary
hues. They often used the traditional palette with tubes
of oil paints, but refrained from mixing their colors
on the palette as was usually done.

Again and again, a movement in art which is hailed
by its leaders and friendly critics as a break with tradi-
tion is only a break with one tradition and a revival
of another. The one revived may be a remote and
foreign one, radically unlike previous styles in the
group. This happened around 1906, when primitive
Negro sculpture began to influence Picasso, Braque,
and others in Paris. The one revived may be a familiar
one, temporarily démodé but easily reestablished in the
taste of elite connoisseurs. This happened around 1865
when the venerable tradition of coloristic painting,
long practiced by the followers of Rubens but recently
out of fashion through the hostility of David and Ingres,
was revived by a new generation of colorists.

The importance of any style, and the greatness of
any artist practicing it, are judged to a large extent
in terms of originality. This raises questions of chrono-
logical priority and of influence, in view of the fact
that greater credit goes to the originator and the one
who influences others, rather than to the imitator.
Judgments of chronological order in Western art can
now be made with considerable reliability, because of
the many documentary records available and the in-
terest in objective historiography on the part of modern
scholars. It is possible to date with considerable relia-
bility the main events in the rise and acceptance of
impressionism and the chief contributions of its various
leaders. This provides one basis for evaluating them
in terms of originality, as in the case of Monet's study
for the Déjeuner sur l'herbe, done three years later than
Manet's picture with the same name, but much more
impressionistic in style (Rewald, pp. 84, 119). Monet's
degree of originality, which was not complete, can also
be estimated by comparing his works with those of
Daubigny, as in the latter's Spring Landscape, done
in 1862 (Rewald, p. 100). When two similar works are
produced by artists living in the same milieu at or near
the same time, one can risk the hypothesis that the
later artist saw and learned something from the earlier
work, or at least heard it discussed. It is a problem
for comparative analysis, not necessarily involving
relative value, to decide how much of Monet's style
(if any) is already present in the earlier works of
Daubigny and Manet.

Going farther, one can try to chart the main se-
quence of steps leading up to impressionism in the
history of Western art as a whole. Since impressionism
involves an emphasis on landscape as a subject and on
luminous color as the main component, one can think
of it as a recent stage in two pictorial traditions.
Giovanni Bellini (1431-1516) can be taken as a some-
what arbitrary starting point for both traditions. Land-
scape painting appears then in the Italian Renaissance,
and for some time thereafter, mainly as a background
for figure-compositions. This includes its development
in the works of Giorgione, Titian, and Tintoretto in
Italy; in those of Velázquez and El Greco in Spain
(excepting the latter's View of Toledo), and in those
of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain (1600-82) in


France. In these last two, we see the human figures
and architecture (largely classical in form) increasingly
subordinated to the parklike, landscape background.
In the north (Flanders and Holland) this occurs also
in Patinir and in some works by Pieter Bruegel the
Elder, Peter Paul Rubens, and Rembrandt. In the
Dutch painters Cuyp, Van Goyen, Hobbema, and Jacob
van Ruysdael, landscape is definitely dominant, al-
though some human figures or human products, such
as houses, often remain for the sake of scale and human
interest. Landscapes become more naturalistic and
more the home of peasants and small farmers; less
parklike. The same can be said of most landscape
painting thereafter, including the impressionist phase.
In France and England during the early nineteenth
century, the classical landscape tradition of Claude
Lorrain and Poussin survives in Corot, Turner, and
sometimes in Constable, but naturalism gains ground.

In eighteenth-century England, there is mutual in-
fluence between the nature poets and the landscape
painters. It is highly romantic in flavor. Constable
occasionally shows a grander scene, as in his English
noble estates and cathedrals, while Turner definitely
prefers the romantic grandeur of Venice, storms at sea,
great conflagrations, and the conflict of sunshine with
mist and smoke. In France, the naturalistic tradition
survives in landscape through the work of Corot, whom
Baudelaire praised on the eve of impressionism; also
in Millet and the Barbizon group, Daubigny, and
Courbet. Throughout the first half of the century in
France, the darker greens and browns predominate
except for lighter tones in Corot's pastoral idylls.

These great traditions of European classic, romantic,
and naturalistic landscape show how strong and varied
a foundation the impressionists had to build upon. In
addition, they had the equally great tradition of color-
istic painting in general, which was likewise derived
to a large extent from the Venetians. Though often
applied to landscape, it also flourished in the painting
of human, superhuman, and animal figures, with or
without landscape backgrounds. It reached a climax
of magnificence and vivid realism in Rubens' grandiose
portrayals of divine and noble personages. In an aristo-
cratic society such as that surrounding Rubens, neither
purely natural landscape nor modest suburban gardens
had sufficient appeal to inspire the impressionist type
of landscape. But the mastery of color which he dis-
played was afterward transferred to other subjects,
including a bright and varied palette and the use of
varicolored shadows.

The high level of painterly colorism in Rubens,
Velázquez, Tiepolo, Vermeer, and Chardin during the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was ably main-
tained by Delacroix in the early nineteenth. The ro-
mantic movement of his generation found this tradition
far more congenial than that of coldly linear neo-
classicism, and included the important ability to make
reflected light and color areas seem, not like paint on
canvas, but like integral parts of solid objects in deep


The debt of French landscape painting to England,
especially Constable (Figure 7) and Turner (Figure 8)
has been much debated. Certainly a close inspection
of their mature works, such as Constable's The Hay
and Turner's The Fighting Téméraire anticipate
some of the principal features of impressionism. Con-
stable frequently uses small dabs of contrasting colors
close together. This enriches the texture and adds to
its realism, but the main tonality usually stays in the
browns and greens, and in local colors rather than
momentary reflections. Turner deals more with the
transitory aspects of sunshine and tempest, as in his
Rain, Steam, and Speed (1844). He paints the vague
and melting forms of mist and water as seen in different
lights and shadows, with striking iridescence and pris-
matic brilliance. If he had painted in Paris twenty years
later, there would be little trouble in admitting him
as an impressionist, but he was a lone, reserved figure
with few friends or admirers.

Pissarro and Monet recognized some influence from
the watercolors of Constable, Turner, and Old Crome.
They visited London museums and painted in the
suburbs in various seasons. But Monet remarked that
Turner's work “was antipathetic to him because of the
exuberant romanticism of his fancy.” Pissarro stated
that “Turner and Constable, while they taught us
something, showed us in their works that they had no
understanding of shadows” (Rewald, p. 258). Turner,
he said, did not apply tone division correctly and
naturally. Both Sisley and Whistler spent some years
in England, and both were interested in the work of
Turner and Constable.

It must be remembered that artists are not always
correct in saying who has or has not influenced them,
especially those whose works resemble their own and
were done only a little earlier. There is a very human
tendency to deny such influence. Nationalistic senti-
ments may cause one to deny any foreign influence.

Certainly it should not be assumed that resemblance
and priority alone are enough to prove influence.
Coincidence and parallel innovation are often possible.
The French impressionists would have found it easier
to learn from Delacroix at home than to go abroad
for lessons in color. Facilities for seeing other artists'
works were much less available a hundred years ago
than now. Travel abroad was expensive; there were
no accurate color-print reproductions. (In America,
Currier and Ives were selling their reproductions by
the thousand at this time; many of them landscapes.)
The difficulty of inferring causal influence is often great
in the case of individuals, but less in that of a whole
style or movement in which many participated. There
can be little doubt that French impressionism was
much indebted to all the great traditions just men-
tioned. The main problem is to decide exactly how
and how much.

In 1865 these traditions lay ready at hand for the
impressionists to use in their own way, to satisfy their
more specialized naturalism. Only the great prestige
and hostility of Ingres, supported by the Academy and


official Salon under government auspices, could have
kept the coloristic tradition so long in subjection. With
Ingres' death in 1867 at the age of eighty-seven, this
obstacle to the full employment of color and to un-
conventional types of drawing (as by Degas) was re-
moved. The importance of Delacroix was more fully
realized and his influence on the techniques of painting
grew, while his romanticism had less appeal to the
rising generation.

Several other kinds of influence, some from outside
the arts, helped to determine the course of painting
in the seventies. One was the rising level of wealth
in the French middle class, due to increasing industry
and trade. The unsuccessful war with Prussia did not
long impede this growth. Increasing numbers of the
bourgeoisie developed a taste for art and the means
of buying it, thus providing more patronage for art,
independent of church and state. Many of the newly
rich preferred the obviously pretty and sentimental,
as in the nudes of Bouguereau and Cabanel, but an
elite in matters of taste was also developing. This elite
was ready to be convinced that the new experiments
were worthwhile, and that frequent changes in style
were normal and progressive in the history of art. A
few discerning dealers in Paris, such as Martinet and
Durand-Ruel, took the risk of exhibiting impressionist
paintings and sold them at prices which seem infinitesi-
mal today. Impressionist landscape appealed to some
by providing pleasant fantasies of suburban, rustic, and
seaside life, such as dwellers on the crowded streets
of Paris might enjoy. Men of the middle class with
money to spare enjoyed the entertainment of cafés,
boating, horse-racing, concerts, theater, ballet, and
circus, all of which provided subjects for Manet and
Degas. Women of the upper bourgeoisie spent much
time at elaborate toilettes, shopping, sewing, and car-
ing for children. Lounging and dancing out-of-doors
were possible in summer. All these subjects were easily
available, close at hand, while in winter or summer
the muddy roads and village squares provided interest-
ing effects of color and light. Tired of both classic and
romantic idealization, discerning critics and collectors
came to like the stimulating shock of almost un-
embellished realism.

Another influence was that of science and the natu-
ralistic attitude associated with it. Some recent experi-
ments in the physics of light and color bore directly
on the problems of impressionist technique. As early
as 1839, Michel-Eugène Chevreul had published a book
on “the law of the simultaneous contrast of colors,”
in which both Delacroix and later Seurat expressed an
interest. Another of his books, on the application of
colors to industrial arts, was published in 1864. Pissarro,
in a letter to Durand-Ruel dated 1886, gives credit to
Seurat and Signac for applying the modern theory of
colors. When asked about his theory, Pissarro replied,
“Seek the modern synthesis through scientific means,
which will be based on the theory of colors discovered
by M. Chevreul, and according to the experiments of
Maxwell and the measurements of O. N. Rood.” (Ogden
N. Rood, an American physicist, made quantitative
analyses of color contrasts and used a color wheel, as
he reported in his book Modern Chromatics, 1881.)
“Substitute the optic mixture for the pigmentary mix-
ture,” Pissarro continues. “In other words, the breaking
up of a color tone into its component elements, for
the optic mixture creates much more intense luminosi-
ties than the pigmentary mixture” (Gauss, p. 24).

The question of the nature of light and the relations
between white and colored light had long interested
physicists such as Isaac Newton, and poets such as
Goethe. H. L. F. von Helmholtz (1821-94) studied the
prismatic components of white light, showing that the
eye combines the different hues on the moving color
wheel into a third hue. Sensations of color, he showed,
depended more on responses in the retina of the eye
than on inherent properties of the object. He also wrote
on The Sensation of Tone as a Physiological Basis for
the Theory of Music,
and thereby stimulated Debussy
to speculate on the nature of the overtones, con-
sonances, and dissonances (Fleming, pp. 683, 712).

In general, the effect of such trends in science was
to strengthen the positivistic or empirical world-view.
“Beauty,” the empiricists had long declared, “is in the
eye of the beholder.” These trends encouraged a natu-
ralistic approach to art, based on observing and repre-
senting facts of nature as opposed to artificial designs
and fantasies of the unreal and supernatural. Among
the facts of nature, they realized, were the psychologi-
cal processes of sense-perception.