Impressionist paintings are my favourite and I tend to spend most time at any museum with Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro et al. So this post on painters labeled Impressionists has been long time coming. Originally, Impressionism was a moniker coined by an unfriendly art critic, Louis Leroy after viewing Monet’s Impression: Sunrise (1872). The term however was taken up quickly by more sympathetic critics, who used it in an alternative sense to mean the impression left on the senses by a visual experience that is rapid and transitory. Most impressionist painters chose to paint outdoors (en plein air), capturing the changing light and atmosphere. High-key palettes and a variety of brushstrokes were used to interpret the character and texture of an object in nature and the impact that light had on it.
In this post, let’s look at a painting of Manet, an artist whose later compositions I find particularly bold and striking.
Édouard Manet (1832-83) can be called the precursor of Impressionism although he himself sought success in a more a conventional way than most Impressionists. Born to a wealthy Parisian family, he trained in the traditional manner. His paintings The Spanish Singer (1861), and a portrait he had made of his parents were even showcased at the prestigious and very mainstream Paris Salon.
Manet however soon revealed first streaks of his revolutionary nature when he painted Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass), an oil on canvas painting in 1862-63.
What I particularly love about this painting is its bold composition and the play of light and dark that works this composition to the hilt. The model is Victorine Meurent, Manet’s favourite model and the two gentlemen, Manet’s brother and brother-in-law. It is said that the woman’s torso is modeled on Manet’s more full-bodied wife Suzanne Leenhoff. There is another female figure at the back bathing in a pond. It is important to note that there are nearly no observable shadows, while the woman in the foreground almost seems illuminated. In fact, this painting does not display the later Impressionist preoccupation with depicting “real” light-effects because here, although striking, the light seems unreal.
Inevitably this painting was rejected by the prim folks of the Salon in 1863 and it caused a great scandal and controversy with both the public and critics alike. The juxtaposition of a beautiful nude woman sitting causally at a picnic looking the viewer boldly in the eye, accompanied by two fully dressed men engaged in a conversation of their own was considered indecent. This, despite the fact that similar paintings had been made in the seventeenth century. I suppose what was considered inappropriate (as often happens with art) was a modern interpretation of the classics.
Some of the more progressive critics also dismissed this composition as ‘absurd’. Only in passing were its impeccable qualities of light and color in landscape and the very life-like modelling of the woman’s anatomy mentioned. However, the younger set of artists that came to be known as the Impressionists around 1870s regarded the spirited Manet as a figurehead and leader. Just goes to show what is considered obscene and worthy of scorn at one time can become a classic…rather quickly 🙂
(Ref: Essential Impressionists by Antonia Cunningham)