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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Impressionism's Influence

"Impressionism may properly be called the greatest single disintegrating force in nineteenth century painting".

These are not words you'd like to hear if you're a fan of impressionism...and who isn't, but R.H. Ives Gammell is an opinionated guy and most of what he has written concerning art has proved to be true.
Gammell (1893-1981) was no artistic slouch. Having worked under Joseph DeCamp and William Paxton, he then passed on his knowledge to Richard Lack, among others. Lack in turn became the father of the resurrected atelier system now so popular around the world.

William McGregor Paxton  -  Woman Sewing  -  30"x 25"  -  Oil  -  1913

In his insightful book, The Twilight of Painting, Gammell discusses impressionism and how it became a corrupting influence on painting.
"The name 'impressionist', first applied in derision to a small group of French landscapists, has since been given a larger meaning and is now widely used to designate an entire category of painters, in whatever period they have worked, who have been mainly preoccupied with rendering their impressions of the visible world."

Claude Monet  -  Impression, Sunrise  -  18.9"x 24.8"  -  Oil  -  1872

"The word 'impressionism' admirably suggests this purpose and differentiates it from a realism which seeks to imitate appearances, rather than to convey an artist's reaction to those appearances. Like all major trends in the history of art, nineteenth century impressionism was brought to birth by the advent of individuals whose temperament led them to seek expression in new fields. These particular men had no interest in the semi-literary art of the academicians and consequently were dissatisfied with the technical methods taught in their ateliers.
Indifferent to the world of the imagination, they were deeply stirred by the world they saw about them. The task they set for themselves was to render in paint that world as they saw it, and they took for guides those masters of the past who had been controlled by a similar purpose. Just as the academic painters based their styles on the great Italians, these men turned to the artists of Holland and Spain. Above all, Velasquez seemed to possess the artistic virtues they most prized." (Twilight of Painting, R. H Ives Gammell, 1946)

Diego Rodriquez de Silva Velasquez  -  Juan de Pareja  -  32"x 27.52  -  Oil  -  1650

Gammell explains that the impressionist painter reacts to the appearance of the external world around him, but warns that when he becomes exclusively absorbed with the appearance of things, he is apt to grow indifferent to their intrinsic nature.
He points out as an example still life painting, in which an artist may be deeply stirred by light, shade, color, and texture, while missing what the objects themselves suggest in terms of human experience.
John Singer Sargent, who favored Velasquez, supports Gammell's assessment when he stated in 1885, "The artist ought to know nothing whatever about the nature of the object before him, but should concentrate all his powers on a representation of its appearance."

John Singer Sargent  -  The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy  -  28.11"x 22.24"  -  Oil  -  1907

All this is well and good for the artists participating in the birth of Impressionism because, for the most part, they were recipients of sound training, being influenced by teaching of the academic tradition. 

Eduard Manet  -  A Bar at the Folies Bergere  -  37.75"x 51.25  -  Oil  -  1882

Camille Pissarro  -  Boulevard Montmarte  -  28.75"x 36.25"  -  Oil  -  1897

Pierre Auguste Renoir  -  Claude Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil  -  19.69"x 24"  -  Oil  -  1875

Gammell goes on to say, "Traditional teaching made enormous demands on both teacher and pupil. Only a man in possession of very considerable knowledge and skill could pretend to teach and demonstrate the elements of this kind of painting. Only a student having exceptional enthusiasm, intelligence, and talent would be attracted by its stern discipline."

Paul Cezanne  -  Mont Sainte-Victoire  -  31"x 39"  -  Oil  -  1900

Actually, Gammell didn't have a problem with the basic principles of impressionism and what those principles contributed to the art of painting. What began as a rejection by the academicians toward this new painting movement escalated into an unhealthy hostility on both sides. This ultimately resulted in contempt by the impressionists toward the academicians and their supposedly bad teaching.
Well, as the impressionist concepts of painting gained a passionate following of art students, writers, and the fashionable world, government recognition soon followed...and as Gammell points out...the inevitable happened. The art of painting and how it was taught began to decline.

John Marin  -  Brooklyn Bridge  -  18.62"x 15.62"  -  1912

Raoul Dufy  -  At the Races  -  18.12"x 21.62"  -  1935

Because the new movement basically threw out the baby with the bath water, a flood of new want-a-be artists, who weren't interested in the rigors of academy training, entered the art scene...and of course some of these students became teachers...and the decline was on.

Maurice Prendergast  -  Central Park, New York  -  14.12"x 21.87"  -  Watercolor  -  1901

When any of the foundational principles of composition, drawing, values, and color are deemphasized...or one emphasized over others...all of painting suffers, and that's exactly what happened.

Georges Rouault  -  The Three Judges  -  21.88"x 41.62"  -  Gouache and Oil  -  1913

Pablo Picasso  -  Nude Woman with Necklace  -  44.75"x 63.62"  -  Oil  -  1968

Andre Derain  -  Three Figures on the Grass  -  38"x 55"  -  Oil  -  1906

As time went on, most of the teaching derived from impressionist principles took over. Less and less stress was placed on exactitude of drawing and values. Deterioration of drawing is easily acknowledged when viewing the images shown here. With color removed, it's also easy to discern poor value choices.

Jackson Pollock  -  Shimmering Substance  -  30.12"x 24.25"  -  Oil  -  1946

In closing, two further comments by Gammell concerning impressionism's negative influence on painting are: There was great emphasis placed on one's personal vision. This eventually evolved into what we today call self-expression. Secondly, the nature of impressionist thought can encourage rapid execution which may result in poorly executed works...and in my opinion can be an excuse for covering up inadequacies. 

(All quotes are from Twilight of Painting, R. H. Ives Gammell; Photos: Art Renewal Center and Google Images)

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Blogger Dot Courson said...

Hey John,
This blog was the basis of a discussion we had in my class yesterday. My students, interestingly enough, really wanted to know what you thought about the new impressionist groups today. Also they said they think of your own work as more "impressionisticly" rendered (spell check says that's not a word!) than "photo realistic". Needless to say it was a fun discussion and how I wish I could have had you there to discuss this with them! Hope you will respond to that here…
They well know how strictly you adhere to solid academic approaches because half of them have taken your workshops more than once. I'm glad they read this, as I encourage them to approach their work with adherence to drawing, values, etc. to the best of my abilities. (Yesterday they did thumbnails and tonal monochromatic drawings... BUT, coming off of an "impressionistic still life" workshop, they each choose a repeating dominant local color for under painting, instead of an umber.)
Right now there seems to be all kinds of "art education" online and elsewhere and there is a risk in confusing students who are not able to attend formal art schools. I believe it's more my job to teach and also to hash out and explain deviations they see, not in conflict of solid art principals, but as an adherence to these principals as they each grow and develop their own abilities and sense of style. But I truly believe it helps them to see and understand different styles of work. What are your thoughts about that? Hope you will blog about that sometime.
This post is a wonderful reminder not to throw out the baby with the bathwater in art education! Thank you for helping me to be a better artist and teacher, my friend. - Dot

July 24, 2012 at 2:19 PM  
Blogger john pototschnik said...

Hi Dot and greetings to your students. When I began my career in the fine arts, impressionism was all the rage and all the galleries wanted to label me an impressionist. I do not consider myself an impressionist. I resisted it at the time but was ignored. The label impressionist sold then, and continues to sell. However, the fashionable words being tossed around now are "classical" and "plein air". I'm not a big fan of dividing ourselves up by painting styles,or mediums, for that matter. It's all in an effort to set ourselves apart from another group when the real focus should be set on the quality of the work...and only on the quality of the work. There's a certain pride that is inherent in a label that I'm not sure is productive. My work may have some relationship to impressionism, possibly in the appearance of a certain looseness in areas, but it falls short in purity of color,and use of broken color, allowing for visual mixing of paint on the canvas. My paintings are more than an impression, hopefully having more depth. They are not rapidly conceived or rapidly painted.I generally do not use heavy applications of paint, and I like a well conceived, well drawn, refined work.
Impressionism has added many wonderful principles to the world of painting. As the blog states, the concern is beginning with impressionism (paint application/color)and not first being well-trained in the things that make for great art. That's how we have ended up with tons of rapidly painted, colorful works with lousy compositions and no understanding of drawing or values.
I agree with your comments on art education, Dot. Students need to gain a thorough understanding and ability in the principles of great painting. How those principles shake out with each individual student is the thing that will make their work unique. Just concentrating on creating a style or certain look to ones work is a huge mistake. That cart is way out there in front of the horse.
Take care my friends. There are no shortcuts.

July 26, 2012 at 1:00 AM  
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