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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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1. The Impressionist Revolt against Academic
The word “impressionism” is applied to a
style of painting which flourished, especially in France,
during the eighteen-seventies. Most of the impres-
sionists emphasized effects of sunlight and color in
landscape, as produced by a technique of painting in
perceptible, contrasting brush-strokes and dabs of rela-
tively unmixed colors. The concept of impressionism
was later extended to somewhat analogous styles in
other arts, including sculpture, music, and literature.

Impressionist painting spread to England, the United
States of America, and other countries. During the
eighteen-eighties it developed along divergent lines
which led to post-impressionism and various twen-
tieth-century styles. It is still practiced to a lesser extent
by conservative painters, sometimes in combination
with other techniques.

This article will deal mainly with impressionism in
painting, but will touch also on some of its historical
and cultural relationships, including analogous styles
in other arts.

The following are usually classed as impressionists:
Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Paul
Cézanne, Edgar Degas, James A. McNeill Whistler,
Alfred Sisley, Auguste Renoir, and Berthe Morisot.
Georges Seurat is sometimes classed as an impres-
sionist; more often as a post-impressionist or pointillist.

The leaders of impressionism in the eighteen-
seventies differed considerably as individuals. They
produced several new styles, which can be regarded
as variants of impressionism. Some of them painted in
the impressionist manner at times and differently at
other times. They were united for a while by a spirit
of revolt against the official Paris Salon. This led some
of them to exhibit as a group in the Salon des Refusés,
beginning in 1874. Their aim was to show the public
experimental works of the kind which they had been
exhibiting separately, and which had been rejected by
the ultraconservative juries of the official Salon. As a
group and as individual artists, they made a lasting
contribution to art in helping to free the painter from
outworn, academic rules, and in calling his attention
to the wealth of color and light in the world about
him. The impetus they gave to a progressive, experi-
mental attitude in all the arts has lasted up to the
present day, even though the attention of style leaders
has moved on to other tasks and methods.

The nature of this contribution can be most clearly
understood by contrasting it with the academic tradi-
tion of the official Paris Salon, which exercised great
power by appointing juries to decide which contem-
porary works could be exhibited under its favorable


auspices. Year after year, the Salon favored dramatic,
religious, historical, and mythological scenes, often in
a rather tightly formal, monumental style of composi-
tion, symmetrical or firmly balanced, and self-
contained. It favored smooth, gracefully neo-classical
forms, emphasizing line and solid shape rather than
color and light, and modeled in a weak version of the
sculptural style of Raphael and the Florentine Renais-
sance. As in the paintings of Nicolas Poussin (1594-
1665) and J. A. D. Ingres (1780-1867), color was sec-
ondary to line, mass, and perspective. It was usually
added after the composition, highlights, and dark
shadows had been sketched in without it. Usual subjects
were the parks, palaces, wars, and amusements of the
rich and the noble in all their luxury, in addition to
trivial genre scenes, pretty nudes, and sentimental con-
versation pieces. Academic art often tended to flatter
the government and the wealthy bourgeoisie, as well
as the hereditary aristocracy and the higher clergy.
Typical academic painters of the eighteen-fifties were
Thomas Couture and William Adolphe Bouguereau.

Most academic or Salon painting was done in the
studio; most impressionist painting out of doors. The
latter was based more on direct observation of nature.
The Salon pictures tended to make all figures and
objects almost equally sharp and clear, except in the
misty, aerial perspective of distant horizons. Impres-
sionists saw that even under the clearest weather con-
ditions, only those parts of the field of vision on which
attention is focused have maximum sharpness; others
seem somewhat vague, blurred, or shadowy. So it was,
in a sense, realistic to represent them so. Likewise,
according to the impressionists, the eyes tend to see
some reflected color in shadows. To represent them
so is realistic and also enriches the texture of the whole

The impressionists favored a direct, painterly ap-
proach to the canvas in terms of pure colors, with little
or no mixture on the palette. Instead of beginning with
a dark surface for the shadows and gradually building
up the highlights through a succession of lighter glazes,
they followed from the start various methods for
achieving a lighter, brighter surface. One method
(sometimes practiced by Manet) was to begin with a
very light surface and gradually to fill in the darker
areas, putting shadows where they would help produce
a luminous design, full of contrasts (Figure 1).

The characteristics most commonly associated with
the name “impressionism” are those of Claude Monet.
They are found to some extent in the work of others
of the group, but not all of them, and even Monet did
not always use this method. These characteristics
(called stylistic traits) consist (1) in representing scenes
in such a way as to emphasize the reflections of sunlight
on colored objects out of doors, including the vibrating
or shimmering effect which sunlight often produces;
(2) as a means to this end, the technique of juxtaposing
small strokes or dabs of different unmixed colors
closely together. This method has been called “broken
color” or “divided color” and also, “vibrism” or “divi-
sionism.” In such painting, color and light tend to
dominate over line and solid shape. These remain, but
the contours of objects are often somewhat blurred and
their relative distances obscured by the brilliance of
the colored surfaces. Extremely bright, shimmering
tonalities are often achieved by this method, but not
always. Dimmer effects of winter, mist, or evening
half-lights are also sought; in each case with a definite
tonality approximating one observable in the everyday
world (Figure 2).

Degas sometimes used divided color in his ballet
scenes, not to represent sunlight, but for a general
effect of rich color and artificial luminosity, as under
a theater spotlight.

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.

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

4. Sculptural Impressionism. In the very different
art of sculpture, a tendency arose which is somewhat
analogous to impressionist painting. Sculptural im-
pressionism is most highly developed in the work of
Auguste Rodin (Figure 6). As if to ignore and overcome
the inherently static, rigid quality of marble and
bronze, he represented in them the most fluid, melting,
and evanescent of forms, such as clouds and water.
Human or human-like figures in his work seem to be
in the process of breathing, awakening, moving, or
expiring; of being created by the hand of God. Rough,
uneven, deliberately unfinished parts abound in his
statues, as if to show the finished parts emerging from
them. (In this he shows the influence of Michelangelo.)
In portrait sculpture, Rodin's surfaces are sensitive and
expressive, while he often seems to care little for
building a strong inner structure.

In The Age of Bronze (also called The Awakening
of Man
), Rodin expressed his early interest in evolution
and primitive man. Rodin's sculptural style can be
linked with Degas as a kind of visual impressionism.
It relies, not on color, but on surface and solid
shape, together with light reflections, to suggest the
moving, changing aspects of living flesh and human

5. Musical and Literary Impressionism. Musical and
literary impressionism constitute a fifth and sixth mani-
festation of the style. They consist in representing the
transitory nature of phenomena other than visual ones,
especially in music and poetry. As often happens in
the history of a style, the name “impressionist” was
applied more and more broadly in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries. It was differently under-
stood by artists working in different media. Artists and
critics discerned analogous effects in various arts and
in those aspects of the outside world perceptible
through different senses. Baudelaire had pointed out
what he called Correspondances between the various
senses. Some composers felt that certain keys in music
resembled certain colors. Individuals differed on just
what these associations were, but the discussion stimu-
lated active efforts to produce in music and poetry
effects like those of impressionist painting. For these
they used rich, dissonant chords and unusual rhythmic
and harmonic effects, as well as exotic instrumental


There was a real psychological ground for these
efforts in that music and literature, being time arts,
are inherently adapted for suggesting change and
movement. This is not a question of any fixed limits
for pictura and poesis, or of what they ought to do,
but of what is relatively easy and natural for them.
Music, moreover, is usually hampered by its own self-
imposed limitations which are derived from trying to
imitate natural sounds exactly, but it can and does try
to suggest in its own way moods, actions, and ideas
analogous to those conveyed in other arts. Impressionist
music broke up the traditional “correct” harmonic and
melodic progressions and reorganized the elements into
more free, impulsive, irregular forms.

In the late nineteenth century, program music was
much in vogue, partly through the influence of Richard
Wagner. Afterwards, Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy,
and Maurice Ravel continued to compose in this way,
often with explicit hints of impressionist painting.
Debussy gave to several of his compositions titles sug-
gesting visual imagery, such as Reflections in the Water,
Goldfish, Fireworks,
and Gardens in the Rain. The
impressionist painters had used musical titles, such as
Nocturne. As if to reinforce this connection between
various arts and various senses, Debussy sometimes
quoted a line or two of poetry in a musical score, so
that a similar mood or image was conveyed: for exam-
ple, Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir
(“Sounds and perfumes turn in the evening air”).
Tastes and odors are, of course, among the most eva-
nescent of phenomena, and poetry of the time is full
of references to them. It was Joris-Karl Huysmans, in
his novel A Rebours, who imagined symphonies of
tastes and perfumes.

Poetry has advantages and limitations, unlike those
of other arts, and these affected its attempts to emulate
impressionist painting. But Verlaine, Rimbaud, and
Mallarmé in France, and later the “imagist” poets such
as Amy Lowell in America, all showed the influence
of impressionist painting and music. In prose, Henry
James in America, Marcel Proust in France, and James
Joyce in Ireland and England, developed this approach
at length. To be sure, the use of words to describe
fleeting images and to call up vague hints of their
emotional overtones, was not a new creation of modern
French or English poetry. Nature poetry and prose had
helped to show the impressionist painters where to
look. But the close personal association of leaders in
all these arts, in café and studio conversations, resulted
in much cross-fertilization of the arts themselves. Ac-
tive friendship with painters of the avant-garde helped
to enrich the content of poetry and music. Even where
definite imitation was prevented by the nature of the
medium, each pioneer experiment in one art was a
challenge for those in other arts.

One way in which poetry showed this influence was
in the heightened emphasis on sensory images with
vague emotional associations, at the expense of clear-
cut, rationalistic thinking. Some poets, notably Mal-
larmé, specialized on the obscure “symbolic” associa-
tions of rare words and exotic images; also on
composing by the free association of words, without
advance planning of the work as a whole. Such reliance
on impulse and subrational association is a late stage
in the romantic movement. “Symbolism,” in this sense,
does not imply a systematic use of established religious
or metaphysical meanings, as in medieval art. Some
of these poets were mystics and supernaturalists, but
they were also strongly individualistic and determined
to preserve their artistic independence. As the century
drew near its close, both poetry and visual art took
on an air of conscious decadence, dwelling on strange
sins, perversions, neuroses, and insanity, along with
expressions of satiety and world-weariness, often ac-
companied by thoughts of suicide or of return to the
Church. These trends drew the symbolists away from
the pictorial naturalism of Courbet and the impres-
sionists, and from the literary naturalism of Émile Zola,
which aspired toward scientific truth.

Literary, impressionism in general involves a tend-
ency of the writer to report his observations and his
feelings toward outer objects in detail but rather casu-
ally; without any definite, prearranged plan or system.
At times it leads to a series of miscellaneous memoirs
and away from any definite plot or conceptual frame-

6. Impressionistic Criticism. Criticism is usually re-
garded as a distinct branch of literature, and from that
point of view one can speak of critical impressionism
as a kind of literary style. In accordance with the
mentality of the critic and his aims at the time of
writing, criticism verges toward prose narrative or
philosophic exposition, science or lyrical verse. The
kind of criticism now classed as impressionistic is ex-
emplified by Anatole France and Walter Pater. The
former discussed what he called “the unsubstantiality
of aesthetics” in the Preface to his Life and Letters.
“The good critic,” says France, “is he who relates the
adventures of his soul among masterpieces.” (But surely
the good critic is not limited to studying masterpieces.)

Pater defended hedonism in his “Conclusion” to
Studies in the History of the Renaissance. His skeptical
hedonism places him close to the French naturalists,
but in other respects he differs, being more subjective
than they and less interested in the scientific observa-
tion of nature. Anatole France's genial skepticism ex-
tends to aesthetics and criticism as well as to theology
and metaphysics. From his point of view there are no
firm grounds for objectively evaluating works of art.
All the critic can justifiably do is to give his impressions


of each work of art that he encounters, together with
his emotional responses to it. He can describe the work
as it appears to him and say whether he likes it or
not, but he cannot prove how others should feel about
it. However, his own impressions may help others to
enjoy it or to make up their minds about it.

Like pictorial impressionism, the critical type em-
phasizes the direct, immediate experience of particular
phenomena, whether of nature or of art. Its approach
is unsystematic in that it follows no preconceived plan
or general theory. As in early impressionist painting,
this approach tends to avoid the conventional ways
of unifying criticism, and may produce only miscel-
laneous anecdotes. In the works of discerning and
discriminating writers like France and Pater, who
know how to communicate their experiences, some
unity is imparted by the consistent expression of a
definite personality and point of view. A particular
work of art may impress the critic very differently on
different occasions, or even while he is observing it.

The tendency of modern thought, says Pater in the
“Conclusion,” is to regard all things and principles as
inconstant fashions. Each object is detached into a
group of impressions—color, odor, texture—in the
mind of the observer. What is real in life reduces itself
to a series of momentary, sharp impressions. What we
have to do is to be forever curiously testing new opin-
ions and courting new impressions. Art professes to
give “nothing but the highest quality to your moments
as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake.” In
spite of his antipathy toward theories, Pater is here
advancing an ethical and aesthetic theory of his own,
based on Epicurean naturalism, and applicable to the
criticism of painting as well as other arts.

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.

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 previous hit ideology next hit 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 previous hit ideology next hit 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.


C. Baudelaire, The Mirror of Art (London, 1955), pp. 29,
230, 275. C. Debussy, Préludes for Piano, First Book, No.
4 (Paris, 1910), 15. Reflets dans l'eau is one of the series
called Images. E. Duranty, la nouvelle peinture (Paris,
1876). W. Fleming, Arts and Ideas (New York, 1955), pp.
683, 712. There are also later editions. A. France, Life and
trans. A. W. Evans, first series (London, 1911),
Preface. C. E. Gauss, The Aesthetic Theories of French Artists
(Baltimore, 1966), pp. 24-25. A. Hauser, The Social History
of Art
(London, 1951), Ch. 4. H. W. Janson, History of Art
(New York, 1962), pp. 489-502. S. E. Lee, History of Far
Eastern Art
(New York, 1964), pp. 387, 509. A. Lalande,
Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie (Paris,
1947), p. 468. P. H. Lang, Music in Western Civilization
(New York, 1941), pp. 1014-23. B. Maiuri, The National
Museum, Naples
(Novara, Italy, 1959), pp. 106-11. C. G.
Mueller and M. Rudolph, Light and Vision (New York,
1966), p. 72. T. Munro, Evolution in the Arts and Other
Theories of Culture History
(Cleveland, 1963), pp. 251-88.
B. S. Myers, Art and Civilization (New York, 1958), pp.
348-51. W. Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance
(London, 1873), Conclusion. J. Rewald, The History of Im-
(New York, 1961), a comprehensive, detailed,
and excellent work; cited frequently in this article, it has
many illustrations, some in color. Vitruvius, De architectura,
Vol. I, trans. T. Granger (London, 1931), 203-04. E. Weber,
Paths to the Present (New York, 1960), translations of writ-
ings by Baudelaire, Courbet, Zola, Blémont, and contri-
butions by Pater and others. É. Zola, Mon Salon (Paris,
1866). P. Zucker, Styles in Painting (New York, 1950), p.


[See also Art and Play; Classicism; Classification of the
Arts; Criticism; Evolutionism; Expressionism; Form; Genius;
Hierarchy; Iconography; Romanticism; Style; Taste.]