Editor's note: The following 1975 essay was published on August 23, 2004 in Resource Library with permission of Thomas Daives, New Canaan, CT. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact Mr. Daives by writing to the author at 58 Beacon Hill Lane, New Canaan, CT, 06480.
Art in America: 1825-1975
by Thomas Davies
THE BARBIZON INFLUENCE
The Bridge to Impressionism
1870 - 1910
Thus far, it would seem that America was untouched by European influences during the 19th and early 20th Century. This is untrue, even while the Hudson River School was reaching its peak and Western art was flourishing, the influence of France was reaching American shores. As early as 1855 several works by a radical group of French landscape and figure painters from the forests of Fountainbleau were exhibited in Boston. With names like Corot and Courbet, America was seeing the Barbizon painters for the first time. Other names, famous today, were present, Rousseau and Millet. These painters advocated that ordinary life was fit subject matter for art. Referred to as "democratic paintings", they were despised in the French Academies of the day. Reflecting the approach of the Barbizon painter, American painters began rendering the landscape as an informal and intimate view of nature, subtle and delicate without the hard, meticulous, and above all, detailed and often panoramic viewpoint taken by the Hudson River School. It would take some twenty years before this approach was accepted in America; and, in reality the Barbizon outlook bridged the gap between the native Hudson River School, and impressionism.
The First Major Shock Wave
1885 - 1930
The year was 1874, the place was Paris, a new word in the art world was formed -- impressionism. In that year the first exhibition was held of works by a group of painters then referred to as "the gang". Today they are household names, Renoir, Cezanne, Degas, Pissaro and the one generally given credit as the father of the group -- Monet. Amid shocked and hostile reactions from public and critics alike, a picture of Monet's entitled Sunrise Impression, gave the movement its name. An irate critic characterized all the paintings in the exhibition as "impressionistic". The term stuck.
What is impressionism? It is a term that is today often loosely applied to any picture that is not strictly realistic or photographic. Technically there are several important differences between impressionistic painting and the previous ways of painting. These artists were concerned with the effects of light and color out of doors. They learned that there is no true color in nature, but rather that color and light are reflected from various surfaces and change depending upon the colors nearby and the atmospheric conditions. The color of one object, in fact, is only relative to its neighbouring objects. True impressionist paintings had several important characteristics; they were high key in color with the colors tending to blend together in gradations without sharp color contrasts. It was discovered that black -- which is the true absence of light, doesn't exist in nature and that even shadows have reflected light and are therefore blue or violet in color. In fact the existence of blue shadows became an identifying symbol of impressionistic paintings and the public ridicule which they produced. The next characteristic was the use of broken color, or applying the paint directly on canvas in short individual brush strokes that are clearly visible and often overlapping each other, instead of first mixing the colors on the artist's palette. By selecting the right complementary colors this technique produces an effect of scintillating or almost vibrating light and color, similar to that which the eye sees on a bright sunny day. This technique usually resulted in the final characteristic of impressionistic painting -- a rough texture or paint surface on the canvas which helped create the feeling of atmosphere and vibrating light. To the viewer of such paintings, this technique heightens the effect of light but also blurs the outline of objects so that they merge into or blend with other objects, thus eliminating detail to create an overall impression.
The first glimpse America had of French Impressionism was a show held in Boston in 1883, just 28 years after the first Barbizon show. A second and larger exhibition of 300 paintings was held in New York in 1886 and was surprisingly well received considering the shocking boldness of these pictures. Perhaps the greatest debt the American impressionists owed to the French was color. The Americans, like the French, preferred to portray the happier side of life, informal scenes of parks, gardens, villages, bright sunshine and happy people. However, the American tradition of realism continued .to dominate their approach. Unlike the French, the American impressionists still gave priority to subject, form and structure, while the French were more concerned with a unified appearance where all elements within the picture were of equal importance. The Americans used high key colors but did not fully adopt the broken color technique of the French and rarely achieved the vibrancy of light that characterized the best of the French school. The American was drawn to impressionism because he shared the French interests in the everyday world as subject matter, the spontaneous, informal and intimate point of view and the simple joy of color. The subject matter was always happy, cheerful, never depicting the crowded, teeming, poverty ridden aspects of the cities, with their tenements and growing numbers of immigrants. By the mid-1890's, impressionism was fully accepted as the major movement in American art.
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