12. Impressionists and Post-Impressionists

The familiarity of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings today (reproduced on greetings cards, calendars and note pads) makes it hard for us to appreciate how radical the work of Manet, Pissarro, Degas, Monet, Renoir, Lautrec and their colleagues first appeared.

In the course of the nineteenth century the painting of grand historical and mythological subjects favored in the Paris Salon exhibitions had grown academic and formulaic. A challenge had already come in the realism of Courbet, Millet, Manet and others, and in the 'alternative' graphic work of artists such as Daumier and Steinlen. Apart from a newly robust technique, realism's opposition to history painting lay primarily in depicting scenes of rural or urban labor, everyday life or even low-life.

In a way, Impressionism was to go one step further, adopting not provocatively debased subjects, but provocatively neutral images. Landscape, traditionally considered a minor genre, was promoted to a major position, taking its cues from Corot and the Barbizon painters in France, and from English Romantic painting, especially Constable.

The Impressionist's major preoccupations were with the perception and recording of light and color. Composition became daringly cropped and seemingly arbitrary, related in a way to the developing medium of photography. Other factors affecting the Impressionists' work included scientific research into color theory (encouraging their use of pure hue, rather than tonal gradation in creating illusion), and the new vogue for eighteenth-century Japanese prints (confirming them in their radical compositional tendencies). The development of tube paints facilitated the artists' outdoor (plein-air) approach to painting the subject directly before them (sur le motif) as opposed to 'reconstructing' it in the studio.

Inevitably there were reactions to, and developments from, Impressionism. Experiments with color became schematized in the neo-Impressionism (or Pointillism or divisionism) of Seurat and his followers, who painted with myriad dots of pure color. Cézanne, dissatisfied with the lack of structure and solidity in the Impressionist surface, moved to more schematic and constructed composition. The term Post-Impressionism, however, is an extremely loose label applied primarily to Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Lautrec and Seurat, but often used to describe other progressive artists after the great decade of Impressionism (1870-80), such as Matisse or Bonnard.