It should be stated from the outset that there is nothing dogmatic about this explanation of the Impressionist theories, and that it is not the result of a preconceived plan. In art a system is not improvised. A theory is slowly evolved, nearly always unknown to the author, from the discoveries of his sincere instinct, and this theory can only be formulated after years by criticism facing the works. Monet and Manet have worked for a long time without ever thinking that theories would be built upon their paintings. Yet a certain number of considerations will strike the close observer, and I will put these considerations before the reader, after reminding him that spontaneity and feeling are the essentials of all art.

Degas - Carriages at the Races


The Impressionist ideas may be summed up in the following manner:—

In nature no colour exists by itself. The colouring of the objects is a pure illusion: the only creative source of colour is the sunlight which envelopes all things, and reveals them, according to the hours, with infinite modifications. The mystery of matter escapes us; we do not know the exact moment when reality separates itself from unreality. All we know is, that our vision has formed the habit of discerning in the universe two notions: form and colour; but these two notions are inseparable. Only artificially can we distinguish between outline and colour: in nature the distinction does not exist. Light reveals the forms, and, playing upon the different states of matter, the substance of leaves, the grain of stones, the fluidity of air in deep layers, gives them dissimilar colouring. If the light disappears, forms and colours vanish together. We only see colours; everything has a colour, and it is by the perception of the different colour surfaces striking our eyes, that we conceive the forms, i.e. the outlines of these colours.

The idea of distance, of perspective, of volume is given us by darker or lighter colours: this idea is what is called in painting the sense of values. A value is the degree of dark or light intensity, which permits our eyes to comprehend that one object is further or nearer than another. And as painting is not and cannot be the imitation of nature, but merely her artificial interpretation, since it only has at its disposal two out of three dimensions, the values are the only means that remain for expressing depth on a flat surface.

Colour is therefore the procreatrix of design. Or, colour being simply the irradiation of light, it follows that all colour is composed of the same elements as sunlight, namely the seven tones of the spectrum. It is known, that these seven tones appear different owing to the unequal speed of the waves of light. The tones of nature appear to us therefore different, like those of the spectrum, and for the same reason. The colours vary with the intensity of light. There is no colour peculiar to any object, but only more or less rapid vibration of light upon its surface. The speed depends, as is demonstrated by optics, on the degree of the inclination of the rays which, according to their vertical or oblique direction, give different light and colour.

The colours of the spectrum are thus recomposed in everything we see. It is their relative proportion which makes new tones out of the seven spectral tones. This leads immediately to some practical conclusions, the first of which is, that what has formerly been called local colour is an error: a leaf is not green, a tree-trunk is not brown, and, according to the time of day, i.e. according to the greater or smaller inclination of the rays (scientifically called the angle of incidence), the green of the leaf and the brown of the tree are modified. What has to be studied therefore in these objects, if one wishes to recall their colour to the beholder of a picture, is the composition of the atmosphere which separates them from the eye. This atmosphere is the real subject of the picture, and whatever is represented upon it only exists through its medium.

Degas - The Greek Dance - Pastel


A second consequence of this analysis of light is, that shadow is not absence of light, but light of a different quality and of different value. Shadow is not a part of the landscape, where light ceases, but where it is subordinated to a light which appears to us more intense. In the shadow the rays of the spectrum vibrate with different speed. Painting should therefore try to discover here, as in the light parts, the play of the atoms of solar light, instead of representing shadows with ready-made tones composed of bitumen and black.

The third conclusion resulting from this: the colours in the shadow are modified by refraction. That means, f.i. in a picture representing an interior, the source of light (window) may not be indicated: the light circling round the picture will then be composed of the reflections of rays whose source is invisible, and all the objects, acting as mirrors for these reflections, will consequently influence each other. Their colours will affect each other, even if the surfaces be dull. A red vase placed upon a blue carpet will lead to a very subtle, but mathematically exact, interchange between this blue and this red, and this exchange of luminous waves will create between the two colours a tone of reflections composed of both. These composite reflections will form a scale of tones complementary of the two principal colours. The science of optics can work out these complementary colours with mathematical exactness. If f.i. a head receives the orange rays of daylight from one side and the bluish light of an interior from the other, green reflections will necessarily appear on the nose and in the middle region of the face. The painter Besnard, who has specially devoted himself to this minute study of complementary colours, has given us some famous examples of it.

The last consequence of these propositions is that the blending of the spectral tones is accomplished by a parallel and distinct projection of the colours. They are artificially reunited on the crystalline: a lens interposed between the light and the eye, and opposing the crystalline, which is a living lens, dissociates again these united rays, and shows us again the seven distinct colours of the atmosphere. It is no less artificial if a painter mixes upon his palette different colours to compose a tone; it is again artificial that paints have been invented which represent some of the combinations of the spectrum, just to save the artist the trouble of constantly mixing the seven solar tones. Such mixtures are false, and they have the disadvantage of creating heavy tonalities, since the coarse mixture of powders and oils cannot accomplish the action of light which reunites the luminous waves into an intense white of unimpaired transparency. The colours mixed on the palette compose a dirty grey. What, then, is the painter to do, who is anxious to approach, as near as our poor human means will allow, that divine fairyland of nature? Here we touch upon the very foundations of Impressionism. The painter will have to paint with only the seven colours of the spectrum, and discard all the others: that is what Claude Monet has done boldly, adding to them only white and black. He will, furthermore, instead of composing mixtures on his palette, place upon his canvas touches of none but the seven colours juxtaposed, and leave the individual rays of each of these colours to blend at a certain distance, so as to act like sunlight itself upon the eye of the beholder.

Degas - Waiting


This, then, is the theory of the dissociation of tones, which is the main point of Impressionist technique. It has the immense advantage of suppressing all mixtures, of leaving to each colour its proper strength, and consequently its freshness and brilliancy. At the same time the difficulties are extreme. The painter's eye must be admirably subtle. Light becomes the sole subject of the picture; the interest of the object upon which it plays is secondary. Painting thus conceived becomes a purely optic art, a search for harmonies, a sort of natural poem, quite distinct from expression, style and design, which were the principal aims of former painting. It is almost necessary to invent another name for this special art which, clearly pictorial though it be, comes as near to music, as it gets far away from literature and psychology. It is only natural that, fascinated by this study, the Impressionists have almost remained strangers to the painting of expression, and altogether hostile to historical and symbolist painting. It is therefore principally in landscape painting that they have achieved the greatness that is theirs.

Through the application of these principles which I have set forth very summarily, Claude Monet arrived at painting by means of the infinitely varied juxtaposition of a quantity of colour spots which dissociate the tones of the spectrum and draw the forms of objects through the arabesque of their vibrations. A landscape thus conceived becomes a kind of symphony, starting from one theme (the most luminous point,f.i.), and developing all over the canvas the variations of this theme. This investigation is added to the habitual preoccupations of the landscapist study of the character peculiar to the scene, style of the trees or houses, accentuation of the decorative side—and to the habitual preoccupations of the figure painter in the portrait. The canvases of Monet, Renoir and Pissarro have, in consequence of this research, an absolutely original aspect: their shadows are striped with blue, rose-madder and green; nothing is opaque or sooty; a light vibration strikes the eye. Finally, blue and orange predominate, simply because in these studies—which are more often than not full sunlight effects—blue is the complementary colour of the orange light of the sun, and is profusely distributed in the shadows. In these canvases can be found a vast amount of exact grades of tone, which seem to have been entirely ignored by the older painters, whose principal concern was style, and who reduced a landscape to three or four broad tones, endeavouring only to explain the sentiment inspired by it.

And now I shall have to pass on to the Impressionists' ideas on the style itself of painting, on Realism.

From the outset it must not be forgotten that Impressionism has been propagated by men who had all been Realists; that means by a reactionary movement against classic and romantic painting. This movement, of which Courbet will always remain the most famous representative, has been anti-intellectual. It has protested against every literary, psychologic or symbolical element in painting. It has reacted at the same time against the historical painting of Delaroche and the mythological painting of the Ecole de Rome, with an extreme violence which appears to us excessive now, but which found its explanation in the intolerable tediousness or emphasis at which the official painters had arrived. Courbet was a magnificent worker, with rudimentary ideas, and he endeavoured to exclude even those which he possessed. This exaggeration which diminishes our admiration for his work and prevents us from finding in it any emotion but that which results from technical mastery, was salutary for the development of the art of his successors. It caused the young painters to turn resolutely towards the aspects of contemporary life, and to draw style and emotion from their own epoch; and this intention was right. An artistic tradition is not continued by imitating the style of the past, but by extracting the immediate impression of each epoch. That is what the really great masters have done, and it is the succession of their sincere and profound observations which constitutes the style of the races.

Monet - The Pines


Manet and his friends drew all their strength from this idea. Much finer and more learned than a man like Courbet, they saw an aspect of modernity far more complex, and less limited to immediate and grossly superficial realism. Nor must it be forgotten that they were contemporaries of the realistic, anti-romantic literary movement, a movement which gave them nothing but friends. Flaubert and the Goncourts proved that Realism is not the enemy of refined form and of delicate psychology. The influence of these ideas created first of all Manet and his friends: the technical evolution (of which we have traced the chief traits) came only much later to oppose itself to their conceptions. Impressionism can therefore be defined as a revolution of pictorial technique together with an attempt at expressing modernity. The reaction against Symbolism and Romanticism happened to coincide with the reaction against muddy technique.

The Impressionists, whilst occupying themselves with cleansing the palette of the bitumen of which the Academy made exaggerated use, whilst also observing nature with a greater love of light, made it their object to escape in the representation of human beings the laws of beauty, such as were taught by the School. And on this point one might apply to them all that one knows of the ideas of the Goncourts and Flaubert, and later of Zola, in the domain of the novel. They were moved by the same ideas; to speak of the one group is to speak of the other. The longing for truth, the horror of emphasis and of false idealism which paralysed the novelist as well as the painter, led the Impressionists to substitute for beauty a novel notion, that of character. To search for, and to express, the true character of a being or of a site, seemed to them more significant, more moving, than to search for an exclusive beauty, based upon rules, and inspired by the Greco-Latin ideal. Like the Flemings, the Germans, the Spaniards, and in opposition to the Italians whose influence had conquered all the European academies, the French Realist-Impressionists, relying upon the qualities of lightness, sincerity and expressive clearness which are the real merits of their race, detached themselves from the oppressive and narrow preoccupation with the beautiful and with all the metaphysics and abstractions following in its train.

Claude Monet - Church at Vernon


This fact of the substitution of character for beauty is the essential feature of the movement. What is called Impressionism is—let it not be forgotten—a technique which can be applied to any subject. Whether the subject be a virgin, or a labourer, it can be painted with divided tones, and certain living artists, like the symbolist Henri Martin, who has almost the ideas of a Pre-Raphaelite, have proved it by employing this technique for the rendering of religious or philosophic subjects. But one can only understand the effort and the faults of the painters grouped around Manet, by constantly recalling to one's mind their predeliction for character. Before Manet a distinction was made between noble subjects, and others which were relegated to the domain of genre in which no great artist was admitted to exist by the School, the familiarity of their subjects barring from them this rank. By the suppression of the nobleness inherent to the treated subject, the painter's technical merit is one of the first things to be considered in giving him rank. The Realist-Impressionists painted scenes in the ball-room, on the river, in the field, the street, the foundry, modern interiors, and found in the life of the humble immense scope for studying the gestures, the costumes, the expressions of the nineteenth century.

Their effort had its bearing upon the way of representing persons, upon what is called, in the studio language, the "mise en cadre." There, too, they overthrew the principles admitted by the School. Manet, and especially Degas, have created in this respect a new style from which the whole art of realistic contemporary illustration is derived. This style had been hitherto totally ignored, or the artists had shrunk from applying it. It is a style which is founded upon the small painters of the eighteenth century, upon Saint-Aubin, Debucourt, Moreau, and, further back, upon Pater and the Dutchmen. But this time, instead of confining this style to vignettes and very small dimensions, the Impressionists have boldly given it the dimensions and importance of big canvases. They have no longer based the laws of composition, and consequently of style, upon the ideas relative to the subjects, but upon values and harmonies. To take a summary example: if the School composed a picture representing the death of Agamemnon, it did not fail to subordinate the whole composition to Agamemnon, then to Clytemnestra, then to the witnesses of the murder, graduating the moral and literary interest according to the different persons, and sacrificing to this interest the colouring and the realistic qualities of the scene. The Realists composed by picking out first the strongest "value" of the picture, say a red dress, and then distributing the other values according to a harmonious progression of their tonalities. "The principal person in a picture," said Manet, "is the light." With Manet and his friends we find, then, that the concern for expression and for the sentiments evoked by the subject, was always subordinated to a purely pictorial and decorative preoccupation. This has frequently led the Impressionists to grave errors, which they have, however, generally avoided by confining themselves to very simple subjects, for which the daily life supplied the grouping.

Renoir - Madame Maitre


One of the reforms due to their conception has been the suppression of the professional model, and the substitution for it of the natural model, seen in the exercise of his occupation. This is one of the most useful conquests for the benefit of modern painting. It marks a just return to nature and simplicity. Nearly all their figures are real portraits; and in everything that concerns the labourer and the peasant, they have found the proper style and character, because they have observed these beings in the true medium of their occupations, instead of forcing them into a sham pose and painting them in disguise. The basis of all their pictures has been first of all a series of landscape and figure studies made in the open air, far from the studio, and afterwards co-ordinated. One may wish pictorial art to have higher ambitions; and one may find in the Primitives an example of a curious mysticism, an expression of the abstract and of dreams. But one should not underrate the power of naïve and realistic observation, which the Primitives carried into the execution of their works, subordinating it, however, to religious expression, and it must also be admitted that the Realist-Impressionists served at least their conception of art logically and homogeneously. The criticism which may be levelled against them is that which Realism itself carries in its train, and we shall see that esthetics could never create classifications capable of defining and containing the infinite gradations of creative temperaments.

In art, classifications have rarely any value, and are rather damaging. Realism and Idealism are abstract terms which cannot suffice to characterise beings who obey their sensibility. It is therefore necessary to invent as many words as there are remarkable men. If Leonardo was a great painter, are Turner and Monet not painters at all? There is no connection between them; their methods of thought and expression are antithetical. Perhaps it will be most simple, to admire them all, and to renounce any further definition of the painter, adopting this word to mark the man who uses the palette as his means of expression.

Thus preoccupation with contemporary emotions, substitution of character for classic beauty (or of emotional beauty for formal beauty), admission of the genre-painter into the first rank, composition based upon the reciprocal reaction of values, subordination of the subject to the interest of execution, the effort to isolate the art of painting from the ideas inherent to that of literature, and particularly the instinctive move towards the "symphonisation" of colours, and consequently towards music,—these are the principal features of the aesthetic code of the Realist-Impressionists, if this term may be applied to a group of men hostile towards esthetics such as they are generally taught.