Rethinking Impressionism

  • Themes: Art, Culture

The Musée d’Orsay’s latest exhibition marks the 150th anniversary of Impressionism’s birth. It challenges us to rethink the way we see the movement – and exposes us to an altogether more subtle, fascinating history of modern art.

Soleil Levant by Claude Monet (1840-1926).
Soleil Levant by Claude Monet (1840-1926). Credit: IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo

On 15 April 1874 a ‘revolutionary’ new exhibition opened its doors at 35 boulevard des Capucines in Paris. For more than 200 years the artistic life of the French capital had been dominated by the Salon, an annual exhibition presided over by a notoriously picky jury. Over recent years, however, a small group of artists – headed by Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Alfred Sisley – had grown tired of having their works rejected. In late 1873 they had, therefore, formed the ‘Société anonyme cooperative des artistes peintres, sculptuers, graveurs etc’. Guided by the principle of liberty, it set out to hold ‘free exhibitions… at which every member will be able to exhibit his works’. This was the first. Held in the studio of a photographer named Nadar, not far from the Opera Garnier, it contained almost 200 works by 30 artists – and was designed to sound a defiant note of independence.

Hundreds of people came. The critical response was mixed, however. Some reviewers were cautiously enthusiastic: August de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam urged his readers to ‘visit this firework of enraged palettes’, promising that they would ‘come away with a new sensation’. Most were scathing, though. They were appalled by the disregard for realism, the rough brushstrokes, the unfinished appearance of many works. Fernand de Gantès dismissed all but three of the paintings as ‘a pile of nonsense’, while Emile Cardon dubbed it an ‘unseemly trick’. The worst, however, came from Louis Leroy. Writing in La Charivari, he derided most of the works for their lack of realism – and characterised the whole show as nothing more than an ‘Exhibition of Impressionists’. It was meant as a stinging rebuke; but the name stuck and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Musée d’Orsay’s latest exhibition marks the 150th anniversary of Impressionism’s birth. Bringing together a dizzying number of works from galleries and private collections around the world, it set out to recreate that momentous exhibition on the boulevard des Capucines, and to explore the evolution of the Impressionist movement in the turbulent world of late 19th-century France.

Such is the popularity of Impressionism now that it would perhaps have been easy for the Musée d’Orsay to have succumbed to familiar platitudes – or worse, to have projected the later success of the Impressionist movement onto those early days. Galleries are businesses, after all. But the great strength of this exhibition is its historicism. The curators – Sylvie Patry and Anne Robbins – go to extraordinary lengths to present the 1874 exhibition as it was and in its proper context. This brings tremendous nuance to the Impressionists’ story and leads to some genuinely fascinating insights.

What is most immediately striking is the diversity of that first exhibition. For all the later history of the impressionists, what united the Société anonyme was not a shared vision of what art should (or should not) do – but rather a desire to be free of the ‘tyranny’ of the Salon. Though it was dominated by a small group of ‘big names’ – Renoir, Cezanne, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas – it also welcomed many others who belonged to another generation entirely, and whose names are less easily associated with what later became known as Impressionism, such as Adolphe-Félix Cals, Gustave-Henri Colin, and Edouard Brandon. Nor, indeed, was the 1874 exhibition limited to painting. In fact, only a minority of the works on show were canvases. There were far more engravings, lithographs, and drawings – as well as a smattering of sculptures.

Its novelty was ambiguous, too. Although some works – such as Sisley’s La Route de Saint-Germain à Marly – were self-consciously ‘new’, the Société anonyme was nevertheless acutely aware of its debt to earlier traditions. Take Félix Bracquemond’s engravings. Among these remarkable pieces are several after Turner, Ingres, even Holbein. Or Eugène Boudin’s ‘sky studies’. Clearly, these are an important illustration of the Impressionists’ emphasis on painting en plein air, but their traditionalism is also hard to miss. They invite comparison with Constable’s own cloud studies, painted some 50 years earlier. Most extraordinary of all is Alfred Meyer’s staggering Portrait d’homme, after Antonello da Messina, which in both conception and execution could easily be mistaken for a 15th-century piece.

In some respects the 1874 exhibition was actually less ‘modern’ than those who exhibited at the Salon – or at least less responsive to pressing issues in the contemporary world. Granted, this is not to deny the Impressionists’ fascination with theatres, factories, and stations (the ‘cathedrals of modernity’), but it is striking how bourgeois their reflexes remained. As the curators rightly note, the Société anonyme was blissfully – almost willfully – oblivious to France’s recent traumas. Unlike many of those who took part in that year’s Salon, they had no interest in the ugly realities of the Paris Commune and were left cold by the Third Republic’s search for a new national identity.

Arguably the greatest strength of the Musée d’Orsay’s exhibition is the degree to which it cautions against treating the Société anonyme and the Salon as diametrically opposed rivals. There is no doubt that there were contrasts. Monte’s Impression, soleil levant (from which Leroy took the name ‘Impressionists’) is worlds away from the ‘academic’ style of William Bouguereau’s Homère et son guide and the heavy religiosity of Edouard Dantan’s Moine sculptant un christ en bois. But there was no hard line dividing the two. Several of the artists who exhibited at the boulevard des Capucines also submitted works to the Salon. There were technical similarities, too. Charles-François Daubigny’s Les Champs au mois du juin, shown at the Salon, for example, has much the same dappled brushwork as Monet’s Coquelicots. There are not even that many noticeable differences between Edouard Béliard’s Pontoise. Vue depuis le quartier de l’écluse and Antoine Guillement’s wonderfully evocative Bercy en decembre.

The implication of this is striking. Rather than appearing fully-formed, with a coherent sense of identity and mission, Impressionism – as we know it today – emerged slowly, even uncertainly at first. If it gained anything of value from that first exhibition in the boulevard des Capucines it was the mockery of its critics. It was their contempt for what was new – the primacy of ‘impressions’ over realism – that earned the movement its name. This was no small matter. As Emile Zola noted: ‘In France, schools only go a long way once they have been baptised.’ That stinging barb, a term of mockery, arguably gave the early Impressionists their identity, helped them crystallise their sense of purpose. Even though the second exhibition, held the following year, was a dismal failure, and the Société anonyme dissolved a few weeks later, the Impressionist movement had arrived.

Needless to say, the Musée d’Orsay’s presentation is not without its faults. The curators are perhaps a little too eager to stress the ‘modernity’ of the 1874 exhibition than is strictly appropriate at times. It is even more difficult to understand why they have felt it necessary to put on an imaginative, but ultimately pointless, virtual reality show in an adjacent part of the gallery. These are minor quibbles – and take nothing away from what is a genuinely breathtaking exhibition. As Ernest d’Hervilly put it in 1874, there is something remarkable around every corner. It challenges us to rethink the way we see Impressionism – and exposes us to an altogether more subtle, fascinating history of modern art. It is unmissable.

Paris 1874: Inventing Impressionism is at the Musée d’Orsay until 14 July, 2024.


Alexander Lee