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The birth of Impressionism, 150 years ago. By David Horspool

Blog | By David Horspool | Apr 06, 2024

Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet - the picture that launched a movement (Picture: Musée Marmottan Monet)

150 years ago, a much mocked exhibition gave birth to a new artistic movement. David Horspool on Impressionism

This April, it is 150 years since a group of French painters put on a show at the former studio of the photographer Nadar in Paris.

They called themselves the Société Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs et Graveurs. Like any self-respecting collection of artists, they had squabbled over the name. One of their number argued for ‘La Capucine’, a reference to the address of Nadar’s studio at Boulevard des Capucines. Capucine means nasturtium, and the idea was that this ‘victory flower’ could be a defiant symbol of the new brotherhood (which included one sister).

We know them by a third name, given by a mocking journalist: the Impressionists. The offending hack was Louis LeRoy. He superciliously imagined the reaction of a connoisseur to the show, taking one of the paintings, ‘Impression, Sunrise’, as the representative work, and its ‘last straw’. ‘Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape’, LeRoy wrote, simultaneously demonstrating his aesthetic blindness and a total ignorance of DIY. Embryonic wallpaper? Come again?

LeRoy was looking at, if failing to see, Claude Monet’s unforgettable evocation of a morning at Le Havre harbour.

Ever since, more sympathetic art historians have fallen over themselves to argue that ‘Impression, Sunrise’, despite its useful name, is not the most emblematic of Impressionist paintings. Maybe so but, as well as its clinching title, it has many of the elements that the ordinary viewer associates with what became arguably the most popular artistic movement of all time.

Monet gives us a concentration on light and colour, the immediacy of a scene painted outdoors, ‘en plein air’, and the evocation of beauty from everyday life, with the working boat crew and already billowing chimneys.

Monet may be the Impressionist painter par excellence, but the movement to which his painting gave a name was a matter of shared passions and inclinations rather than strict rules. Some of the Impressionists, like Monet, Pissarro and Renoir, painted outside. Some, like Manet (who did not show at the 1874 exhibition but is always yoked to the Impressionists nonetheless) and Degas, preferred the studio.

The artists came from different backgrounds, too. Pissarro had been born a Danish citizen to an ironmonger on St Thomas, one of the Virgin Islands. Monet was the perennially broke son of a disapproving businessman.

Manet, by contrast, was from much grander stock, his father a judge and his mother the daughter of a Napoleonic diplomat. Degas’s father was a banker, his mother from a prominent Lousiana Creole family. The only woman among the group, Berthe Morrisot, was the daughter of a prefect and a descendant of Fragonard.

The movement that got its name in 1874 had been germinating for more than a decade. Although some of the exhibitors found a measure of commercial success afterwards, the first show was anything but a hit financially.

Monet’s letters complaining to friends about not having a sou kept flowing. One of the first serious collectors of his and his peers’ art, Ernest Hoschedé, went bust. The knockdown prices at the subsequent auction lowered their painters’ market value for years to come.

Pissarro suffered particularly badly, though Monet, whose life sometimes reads like a caricature of a French artist’s, with equal portions of genius, pretension, chutzpah and selfishness, moved in with Hoschedé’s estranged wife.

The Impressionists were undoubtedly giants of art history, but do they matter to history more generally? In this country, art history is often looked down on, a subject for posh types (including the Prince and Princess of Wales) rather than scholarly ones. The subject is far more venerated in Germany or France.

The danger with concentrating on piquant facts like Monet’s marital history or Degas’s descent into anti-Semitism is to reduce Impressionism to a matter of personalities. Of course, individual genius was ultimately the driving force behind the movement. And anyone who looks at a selection of paintings by its big names is struck by how dissimilar many of them are. No one could truthfully mistake a Monet for a Manet.

Impressionism was, in part, a statement of individualism, and often a reaction to stifling convention. But it did not take place in a historical vacuum.

1874 was only three years after the cataclysmic events of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1) and the brief uprising and revolutionary experiment known as the Paris Commune (1871).

Some of those who exhibited at Nadar’s studio had fled France during the war. Monet and Pissarro had washed up in London, where Monet painted Westminster and Pissarro found Impressionist inspiration in Upper Norwood. Manet stayed in France, and bore witness to the violent suppression of the Commune.

To that political upheaval can be added a technological one, heralded by the very location of the first Impressionist exhibition, in a photographer’s studio. Photography was both challenge and inspiration to painters.They at first seemed to react by striving for ever-greater realism, as in the work of Courbet. They then leant towards the concentration on colour and light rather than exactitude, which dominated later.

Impressionism changed art, without question, but it also changed the way most of us see the world.