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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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8. Philosophical Associations of Impressionism.
Styles of art often have philosophical and other cultural
associations which are not obvious to the senses, and
are not clearly realized or consciously intended by the
artist. Types of image used in a certain style may
function as symbols of general concepts, beliefs, and
emotional attitudes. In the Christian Middle Ages, the
images of art were persistently interpreted in terms
of mystical, theological, metaphysical, and moral sym-
bolism. In medieval art the lamb was used as a symbol
of the Incarnation and the Vicarious Atonement; also
of the gentleness of Christ.

In modern times, the symbolic interpretation of art
has declined, but the images used in it may still be
intended or understood in that way, because of the
obvious analogy between a certain image and a certain
abstract meaning or meanings. This is common in
poetry, where the artist can, if he likes, give in words


a clear or partial explanation of the meaning. Thus
to address the Deity as “Rock of Ages” is an obvious
symbol of strength, stability, endurance, and protec-
tion. By contrast, Shelley uses the “wild West Wind”
as a symbol of autumn, destruction, and confusion.

... the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes:...
Mid the steep sky's commotion,
Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed,...

In painting, it is less easy to convey a deeper mean-
ing, and in any case, the impressionists were not much
interested in doing so. Nevertheless, the associations
in human life of such images as sunshine and gloomy
skies, flowers and dead leaves, or transitory things in
general, are too obvious to be ignored entirely. Even
if the artist does not consciously intend them or the
observer consciously think of them, such associations
may be in the back of their minds, especially in contrast
with the symbols of monumental stability used in aca-
demic Christian art. Philosophically minded critics are
apt to be more aware of these opposing meanings than
painters are. This is true of Baudelaire, Castagnary,
and Zola. But we have seen that, with or without
explanations, impressionist art often emphasizes images
of evanescence and the transitory aspects of life. By
painting examples of images which are commonly used
as emotive symbols, the artist can convey their associ-
ated meanings to sensitive persons, whether he intends
to do so or not.

The theme of mutability, or universal change and
decay, has long been a favorite one of poets, composers,
and painters, especially at the height of the romantic
movement in the early nineteenth century. They la-
mented the death of Adonis, of Balder, Siegfried, and
other folk heroes, as well as the passing of youth and
beauty everywhere. Keats wrote of “Beauty that must
die;/ and Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/ Bidding
adieu;...” Since the revival of Epicureanism in the
seventeenth century, this mood of melancholy has often
been followed by the admonition to “seize the day,”
enjoy the present while it lasts, and “Gather ye rose-
buds while ye may.”

The impressionists of the eighteen-seventies were
somewhat indebted to romanticism for this awareness
of mutability as an ever-present reality, and of the need
to enjoy natural beauty while it lasted. But most of
the emotional fervor of romanticism had been replaced,
in their minds, by a practical disposition to preserve,
with the aid of science, a little of the visual wealth
which nature was offering. They did not, as a rule,
associate visual change with decay or destruction, but
rather with light and animation.

Clusters of images and concepts descend through
centuries in cultural evolution. They are variously
systematized into religious, political, and philosophical
symbolism, but loosely, and in many inconsistent ways.
Some reinforce each other, and some are antithetical.
When a group of these ways of thinking, feeling, and
acting descends from one generation to another in
fairly recognizable form, historians often call it a “tra-

In that sense, we have noticed the opposition in
mid-nineteenth-century painting between the classic
and romantic traditions, with naturalism as proposed
by Courbet and Zola as a third possibility. Naturalism
was not new in the nineteenth century, however. As
a style of painting, it was practiced in the Hellenistic
period and in the early Roman empire. As a philo-
sophic theory and world view, it was a tradition de-
scending from ancient Epicureanism, and opposed to
mysticism, Platonism, and metaphysical dualism. The
naturalism of impressionist painting was limited in
scope and lacking in philosophical explanation. Never-
theless, it played an historical role as one manifestation
of the naturalistic and empiricist traditions in Western

It was mentioned above that most serious art in
Europe has emphasized, not the transitory aspects of
life and the world, but the eternal, stable, or long-
enduring ones. These are exemplified in much religious
and official art, including that of the Paris Salons, from
the Gothic period to the twentieth century. The differ-
ence depends only partly on the subject matter, which
in the Salons was religious and serious at times and
at other times secular, playful, anecdotal, or even
comic. It depends also on the form and technique, in
which the academic establishment favored balanced,
monumental, tightly integrated compositions with firm,
hard modeling of line and mass, realistic highlights,
and dark shadows. Such a style was appropriate to the
representation of an hierarchical, authoritarian con-
ception of reality on earth and in heaven; also to an
aristocratic type of social order. Democratic as well
as naturalistic trends, on the other hand, called for
looser, more irregular patterns without persistently
exalting any one type of individual, group, class, or
occupation. The early impressionists, instead of revolt-
ing only against a tradition in painting, were symboli-
cally rejecting also the authoritarian, hierarchical con-
ception of life and the world, which the French
Revolution had only partially destroyed. This rejection
was far from explicit, even as a symbol; it contained


no anticlerical propaganda; its symbolism was vague
and ambiguous, consisting only in the choice of one
type of common imagery instead of another.

The symbolic conflict extended even to the word
“impression.” This and related words were used in
philosophy and ordinary language long before the
movement in French painting to which they were
applied in 1874. They are derived from the Latin word
imprimere, to press, as in making an imprint on paper.
More broadly, people spoke of being mentally im-
pressed by some outside event, person, scene, or expe-
rience. An impression was a direct perceptual effect
of a sensory stimulation. Accordingly, David Hume's
empiricist theory of the origin of knowledge in sense
perception was sometimes called “impressionism.”

In philosophy, the term “impression” usually carried
a suggestion of superficiality, vagueness, and passive-
ness, as of something imprinted on the mind by outer
influences, the mind being at birth a “blank sheet of
paper.” From this point of view, sense perception
seemed to Platonists and Cartesians an inferior mental
process, by contrast with the “clear and distinct ideas”
obtained through reason. Lalande (p. 468) defines “im-
pression” as a “combined state of consciousness, pre-
senting a characteristic affective tone, responding to
an external action; opposite to reflection and to judg-
ment founded on analysis.” Several influential philoso-
phers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
belittled art as concerned with sensation, fantasy, and
deception, rather than with true knowledge. Through
the writings of Diderot, Comte, and others in the next
two centuries, beside the slowly reviving influence of
Epicurean naturalism, liberal French thought gradually
became more receptive toward naturalistic empiricism.
This tended indirectly to strengthen those types of
visual and literary art which used and respected sensory
observation, including impressionism. The conquest
was far from complete, however, and a mystical ele-
ment remained in French symbolism, Satanism, and
décadence at the end of the nineteenth century.

Another element in the ideology of impressionism
can be traced back even farther in history. It was
Heraclitus, among the early Greek philosophers, who
was credited with the idea that everything flows; that
the universe is in a state of constant change. “One
cannot step twice in the same river.” Later philoso-
phers developed the antithesis between change and
permanence, chaos and order, the many and the one,
as opposing tendencies in an endless process of cyclical
alternation. Much of Greek philosophy is concerned
with the problem of what (if anything) can be eternal
and changeless in a universe wherein everything seems
to be subject to decay and death. Democritus and
Epicurus proposed the theory that atoms were eternal
and indestructible. Plato substituted the theory of Ideas
or universal concepts as the principle of permanence.
The Christian philosophers, in their turn, substituted
the concept of God as an eternal, spiritual being, as
contrasted with the inferior world of natural phe-
nomena. Plato disparaged the arts of sensory imitation,
along with the whole phenomenal world, as inferior
to the knowledge of absolute truth. However, both
Platonists and Christians agreed that true art could
symbolize eternal truths. Art which did so was superior
to that providing only sensuous pleasure.

Much religious and official art, even as far back as
the Egyptians, had expressed the idea of eternal
changelessness, as in the Pyramids and rigid, frontal,
monumental statues of the Pharoahs. These were
aimed, in part, at insuring the immortality of deceased
monarchs. For millennia thereafter, a large share of
officially controlled art, both sacred and secular, had
tried to convey the idea of the indestructible strength
of government; the survival of the ruling dynasty and
the perpetuation of the status quo. Representations of
change in human nature, as in the marks of old age,
sickness, injuries, death, and similar “accidents” of
experience, were comparatively rare. Universal types
of person were represented, rather than individual
peculiarities. The latter appeared in Hellenistic art in
a time of actual change and insecurity. During the
Renaissance and baroque eras, official art reinforced
the belief in an eternal, double hierarchy on earth,
spiritual and temporal. The heavenly hierarchy was
represented in terms of a supreme Trinity ruling over
graded ranks of archangels, angels, and saints. The
representation of transitory, accidental phenomena
continued in the popular arts and folklore, with infe-
rior status.

On the other hand, the rise of science and middle-
class culture, in the Renaissance and later, tended to
oppose the hierarchical conception and to substitute
realistic views of things as they would appear in nature
and ordinary experience. This included increasingly
realistic anatomy, perspective, coloring, and irregular

Surviving faith in the eternal stability of the “Great
Design” on earth and in heaven received rude political
shocks in the wars and revolutions which deposed a
succession of French monarchs and weakened the
power of the Church. Intellectually, it was undermined
by Rousseau's attack on the belief in divine right of
kings. The philosophy of naturalism grew in influence
among French intellectuals through the Encyclopédie
and the writings of Diderot, who criticized contem-
porary painting from the standpoint of a middle-class

Intellectually, belief in the universality of change


was strengthened by the discovery of evolution. Later
evolutionists emphasized the idea that everything
changes in the moral and aesthetic world, as well as
in that of organic and social structure. There are no
eternal, transcendental laws of morality, art, or beauty,
they insisted. Styles of art evolve as everything else
does; they compete for survival as do organic species
(Munro, pp. 251-88). By implication, this opened the
door to new styles and methods such as those of im-

In France, Auguste Comte had already advanced the
theory that all civilization passes through three stages:
theological, metaphysical, and positive or empirical.
This theory reinforced and developed the English tra-
dition of political liberalism. Hippolyte Taine, in the
eighteen-sixties, argued that environment as well as
race and historical epoch influenced the growth and
decline of styles. Hegel, in Germany, had previously
advanced a theory of evolution based on metaphysical
idealism, with cosmic mind as the determining princi-
ple. Karl Marx and his followers proposed instead a
naturalistic theory of cultural evolution, in which the
arts were shown as socially determined and as weapons
in the struggle between classes. Ideas such as these
were prevalent in the eighteen-fifties, and the visual
naturalism of Courbet (himself a political radical, once
imprisoned for his activities) fitted in with them. They
were fundamentally opposed to the basic ideology of
the French Academy and the official Salons, even
though the philosophic issues were not clearly stated
at the time.

The direct contribution of impressionism to the arts
was specialized and limited in scope, but indirectly its
influence was far-reaching and constructive. It did
much to free the artist in every style and every medium
from the tyranny of powerful academies, and to en-
courage him in pursuing his own creative line, however
unpromising it might seem at first. This tended to
strengthen the forces of democracy in culture, society,
and education in general.

Another contribution, as we have seen, was to open
the eyes of artists and the public to the wealth of
luminous color and animated movement which, though
seldom noticed, lay before them everywhere. The spe-
cial techniques of impressionism, such as broken color,
enlarged the painter's resources even though they were
not to be preferred for all purposes. The strength and
richness of impressionist painting at its best stimulated
workers in other arts to try analogous experiments.

The emphasis which impressionism placed on care-
ful, analytical observation of nature helped to
strengthen the work of empirical scientists along re-
lated lines, especially in the psychology of perception
and color vision. The world of the senses was treated
with increasing respect by philosophers. It was not,
they realized, a mere source of deception, temptation,
and inferior types of knowledge, but a source of in-
exhaustible values, aesthetic and intellectual.