It will be beyond the scope of this volume to give a complete history of French Impressionism, and to include all the attractive details to which it might lead, as regards the movement itself and the very curious epoch during which its evolution has taken place. The proportions of this book confine its aim to the clearest possible summing up for the British reader of the ideas, the personalities and the works of a considerable group of artists who, for various reasons, have remained but little known and who have only too frequently been gravely misjudged. These reasons are very obvious: first, the Impressionists have been unable to make a show at the Salons, partly because the jury refused them admission, partly because they held aloof of their own free will. They have, with very rare exceptions, exhibited at special minor galleries, where they become known to a very restricted public. Ever attacked, and poor until the last few years, they enjoyed none of the benefits of publicity and sham glory. It is only quite recently that the admission of the incomplete and badly arranged Caillebotte collection to the Luxembourg Gallery has enabled the public to form a summary idea of Impressionism. To conclude the enumeration of the obstacles, it must be added that there are hardly any photographs of Impressionist works in the market. As it is, photography is but a poor translation of these canvases devoted to the study of the play of light; but even this very feeble means of distribution has been withheld from them! Exhibited at some galleries, gathered principally by Durand-Ruel, sold directly to art-lovers—foreigners mostly—these large series of works have practically remained unknown to the French public. All the public heard was the reproaches and sarcastic comments of the opponents, and they never became aware that in the midst of modern life the greatest, the richest movement was in progress, which the French school had known since the days of Romanticism. Impressionism has been made known to them principally by the controversies and by the fruitful consequences of this movement for the illustration and study of contemporary life.

Manet - Rest


I do not profess to give here a detailed and complete history of Impressionism, for which several volumes like the present one would be required. I shall only try to compile an ensemble of concise and very precise notions and statements bearing upon this vast subject. It will be my special object to try and prove that Impressionism is neither an isolated manifestation, nor a violent denial of the French traditions, but nothing more or less than a logical return to the very spirit of these traditions, contrary to the theories upheld by its detractors. It is for this reason that I have made use of the first chapter to say a few words on the precursors of this movement.

No art manifestation is really isolated. However new it may seem, it is always based upon the previous epochs. The true masters do not give lessons, because art cannot be taught, but they set the example. To admire them does not mean to imitate them: it means the recognition in them of the principles of originality and the comprehension of their source, so that this eternal source may be called to life in oneself, this source which springs from a sincere and sympathetic vision of the aspects of life. The Impressionists have not escaped this beautiful law. I shall speak of them impartially, without excessive enthusiasm; and it will be my special endeavour to demonstrate in each of them the cult of a predecessor, for there have been few artistic movements where the love for, and one might say the hereditary link with, the preceding masters has been more tenacious.

The Academy has struggled violently against Impressionism, accusing it of madness, of systematic negation of the "laws of beauty," which it pretended to defend and of which it claimed to be the official priest. The Academy has shown itself hostile to a degree in this quarrel. It has excluded the Impressionists from the Salons, from awards, from official purchases. Only quite recently the acceptance of the Caillebotte bequest to the Luxembourg Gallery gave rise to a storm of indignation among the official painters. I shall, in the course of this book, enter upon the value of these attacks. Meanwhile I can only say how regrettable this obstinacy appears to me and will appear to every free spirit. It is unworthy even of an ardent conviction to condemn a whole group of artists en bloc as fools, enemies of beauty, or as tricksters anxious to degrade the art of their nation, when these artists worked during forty years towards the same goal, without getting any reward for their effort, but poverty and derision. It is now about ten years since Impressionism has taken root, since its followers can sell their canvases, and since they are admired and praised by a solid and ever-growing section of the public. The hour has therefore arrived, calmly to consider a movement which has imposed itself upon the history of French art from 1860 to 1900 with extreme energy, to leave dithyrambics as well as polemics, and to speak of it with a view to exactness. The Academy, in continuing the propagation of an ideal of beauty fixed by canons derived from Greek, Latin and Renaissance art, and neglecting the Gothic, the Primitives and the Realists, looks upon itself as the guardian of the national tradition, because it exercises an hierarchic authority over the Ecole de Rome, the Salons, and the Ecole des Beaux Arts. All the same, its ideals are of very mixed origin and very little French. Its principles are the same by which the academic art of nearly all the official schools of Europe is governed. This mythological and allegorical art, guided by dogmas and formulas which are imposed upon all pupils regardless of their temperament, is far more international than national. To an impartial critic this statement will show in an even more curious light the excommunication jealously issued by the academic painters against French artists, who, far from revolting in an absurd spirit of parti-pris against the genius of their race, are perhaps more sincerely attached to it than their persecutors. Why should a group of men deliberately choose to paint mad, illogical, bad pictures, and reap a harvest of public derision, poverty and sterility? It would be uncritical to believe merely in a general mystification which makes its authors the worst sufferers. Simple common sense will find in these men a conviction, a sincerity, a sustained effort, and this alone should, in the name of the sacred solidarity of those who by various means try to express their love of the beautiful, suppress the annoying accusations hurled too light-heartedly against Manet and his friends.

Manet - In the Square


I shall define later on the ideas of the Impressionists on technique, composition and style in painting. Meanwhile it will be necessary to indicate their principal precursors.

Their movement may be styled thus: a reaction against the Greco-Latin spirit and the scholastic organisation of painting after the second Renaissance and the Italo-French school of Fontainebleau, by the century of Louis XIV., the school of Rome, and the consular and imperial taste. In this sense Impressionism is a protest analogous to that of Romanticism, exclaiming, to quote the old verse: "Qui nous délivrera des Grecs et des Romains?"1 From this point of view Impressionism has also great affinities with the ideas of the English Pre-Raphaelites, who stepped across the second and even the first Renaissance back to the Primitives.

This reaction is superimposed by another: the reaction of Impressionism, not only against classic subjects, but against the black painting of the degenerate Romanticists. And these two reactions are counterbalanced by a return to the French ideal, to the realistic and characteristic tradition which commences with Jean Foucquet and Clouet, and is continued by Chardin, Claude Lorrain, Poussin, Watteau, La Tour, Fragonard, and the admirable engravers of the eighteenth century down to the final triumph of the allegorical taste of the Roman revolution. Here can be found a whole chain of truly national artists who have either been misjudged, like Chardin, or considered as "small masters" and excluded from the first rank for the benefit of the pompous Allegorists descended from the Italian school.

Impressionism being beyond all a technical reaction, its predecessors should first be looked for from this material point of view. Watteau is the most striking of all. L'Embarquement pour Cythère is, in its technique, an Impressionist canvas. It embodies the most significant of all the principles exposed by Claude Monet: the division of tones by juxtaposed touches of colour which, at a certain distance, produce upon the eye of the beholder the effect of the actual colouring of the things painted, with a variety, a freshness and a delicacy of analysis unobtainable by a single tone prepared and mixed upon the palette.

Manet - Young Man in Costume of Majo


Claude Lorrain, and after him Carle Vernet, are claimed by the Impressionists as precursors from the point of view of decorative landscape arrangement, and particularly of the predominance of light in which all objects are bathed. Ruysdael and Poussin are, in their eyes, for the same reasons precursors, especially Ruysdael, who observed so frankly the blue colouring of the horizon and the influence of blue upon the landscape. It is known that Turner worshipped Claude for the very same reasons. The Impressionists in their turn, consider Turner as one of their masters; they have the greatest admiration for this mighty genius, this sumptuous visionary. They have it equally for Bonington, whose technique is inspired by the same observations as their own. They find, finally, in Delacroix the frequent and very apparent application of their ideas. Notably in the famous Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople, the fair woman kneeling in the foreground is painted in accordance with the principles of the division of tones: the nude back is furrowed with blue, green and yellow touches, the juxtaposition of which produces, at a certain distance, an admirable flesh-tone.

And now I must speak at some length of a painter who, together with the luminous and sparkling landscapist Félix Ziem, was the most direct initiator of Impressionist technique. Monticelli is one of those singular men of genius who are not connected with any school, and whose work is an inexhaustible source of applications. He lived at Marseilles, where he was born, made a short appearance at the Salons, and then returned to his native town, where he died poor, ignored, paralysed and mad. In order to live he sold his small pictures at the cafés, where they fetched ten or twenty francs at the most. To-day they sell for considerable prices, although the government has not yet acquired any work by Monticelli for the public galleries. The mysterious power alone of these paintings secures him a fame which is, alas! posthumous. Many Monticellis have been sold by dealers as Diaz's; now they are more eagerly looked for than Diaz, and collectors have made fortunes with these small canvases bought formerly, to use a colloquial expression which is here only too literally true, "for a piece of bread."

Monticelli painted landscapes, romantic scenes, "fêtes galantes" in the spirit of Watteau, and still-life pictures: one could not imagine a more inspired sense of colour than shown by these works which seem to be painted with crushed jewels, with powerful harmony, and beyond all with an unheard-of delicacy in the perception of fine shades. There are tones which nobody had ever invented yet, a richness, a profusion, a subtlety which almost vie with the resources of music. The fairyland atmosphere of these works surrounds a very firm design of charming style, but, to use the words of the artist himself, "in these canvases the objects are the decoration, the touches are the scales, and the light is the tenor." Monticelli has created for himself an entirely personal technique which can only be compared with that of Turner; he painted with a brush so full, fat and rich, that some of the details are often truly modelled in relief, in a substance as precious as enamels, jewels, ceramics—a substance which is a delight in itself. Every picture by Monticelli provokes astonishment; constructed upon one colour as upon a musical theme, it rises to intensities which one would have thought impossible. His pictures are magnificent bouquets, bursts of joy and colour, where nothing is ever crude, and where everything is ruled by a supreme sense of harmony.

Manet - The Reader


Claude Lorrain, Watteau, Turner and Monticelli constitute really the descent of a landscapist like Claude Monet. In all matters concerning technique, they form the direct chain of Impressionism. As regards design, subject, realism, the study of modern life, the conception of beauty and the portrait, the Impressionist movement is based upon the old French masters, principally upon Chardin, Watteau, Latour, Largillière, Fragonard, Debucourt, Saint-Aubin, Moreau, and Eisen. It has resolutely held aloof from mythology, academic allegory, historical painting, and from the neo-Greek elements of Classicism as well as from the German and Spanish elements of Romanticism. This reactionary movement is therefore entirely French, and surely if it deserves reproach, the one least deserved is that levelled upon it by the official painters: disobedience to the national spirit. Impressionism is an art which does not give much scope to intellectuality, an art whose followers admit scarcely anything but immediate vision, rejecting philosophy and symbols and occupying themselves only with the consideration of light, picturesqueness, keen and clever observation, and antipathy to abstraction, as the innate qualities of French art. We shall see later on, when considering separately its principal masters, that each of them has based his art upon some masters of pure French blood.

Impressionism has, then, hitherto been very badly judged. It is contained in two chief points: search after a new technique, and expression of modern reality. Its birth has not been a spontaneous phenomenon. Manet, who, by his spirit and by the chance of his friendships, grouped around him the principal members, commenced by being classed in the ranks of the Realists of the second Romanticism by the side of Courbet; and during the whole first period of his work he only endeavoured to describe contemporary scenes, at a time when the laws of the new technique were already dawning upon Claude Monet. Gradually the grouping of the Impressionists took place. Claude Monet is really the first initiator: in a parallel line with his ideas and his works Manet passed into the second period of his artistic life, and with him Renoir, Degas and Pissarro. But Manet had already during his first period been the topic of far-echoing polemics, caused by his realism and by the marked influence of the Spaniards and of Hals upon his style; his temperament, too, was that of the head of a school; and for these reasons legend has attached to his name the title of head of the Impressionist school, but this legend is incorrect.

To conclude, the very name "Impressionism" is due to Claude Monet. There has been much serious arguing upon this famous word which has given rise to all sorts of definitions and conclusions. In reality this is its curious origin which is little known, even in criticism. Ever since 1860 the works of Manet and of his friends caused such a stir, that they were rejected en bloc by the Salon jury of 1863. The emperor, inspired by a praiseworthy, liberal thought, demanded that these innovators should at least have the right to exhibit together in a special room which was called the Salon des Refusés. The public crowded there to have a good laugh. One of the pictures which caused most derision was a sunset by Claude Monet, entitled Impressions. From this moment the painters who adopted more or less the same manner were called Impressionists. The word remained in use, and Manet and his friends thought it a matter of indifference whether this label was attached to them, or another. At this despised Salon were to be found the names of Manet, Monet, Whistler, Bracquemont, Jongkind, Fantin-Latour, Renoir, Legros, and many others who have since risen to fame. Universal ridicule only fortified the friendships and resolutions of this group of men, and from that time dates the definite foundation of the Impressionist school. For thirty years it continued to produce without interruption an enormous quantity of works under an accidental and inexact denomination; to obey the creative instinct, without any other dogma than the passionate observation of nature, without any other assistance than individual sympathies, in the face of the disciplinary teaching of the official school.

Degas - The Dancer at the Photographer's