Which of the following two paintings is an example of impressionism?
|Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1916|
|William McGregor Paxton, The Breakfast, 1911|
Though the initial reaction would likely be to name the work by Monet as the singular impressionist piece, in truth, both paintings are impressionist works.
The term "impressionism" (with a small "i"), as it was generally used in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, describes a major tradition of Western painting in which the painter reverently and perceptively transcribes the visual impact of a real scene before him as it appears to his uniquely trained and developed visual faculty. Such a painter is particularly concerned with matters of optical phenomena such as truthful rendering of light, shade, tone, color, and relative degree of definition. Painters like Vermeer and Velásquez were among the most distinguished practitioners in this tradition, which then became dominant in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Plein-air painting was but one - albeit one of the most far-reaching - developments of this tradition. But the visual phenomena recorded by Monet and his followers, as well as the techniques evolved to record them, were only one aspect of a large and general preoccupation of the age.¹
... the element in painting which we call impressionism is simply the pictorial expression of an artist's reaction to his visual impressions. The dominant characteristic of the painter, the trait marking him out from other men, has always been an exceptional sensitivity to such impressions. Whenever any painter transcribes a visual impression to paper or canvas, to that extent he is an impressionist. Obviously, then, all painters who have made representation a part of their aim have been, to some degree, impressionists. For many, rendering visual impressions was a minor part of their art or at most it remained ancillary to some other esthetic purpose. But others found the phenomena of the visible world so surpassingly beautiful and fascinating that they devoted their lives to rendering with paint or pencil what they saw, as they saw it, using the other elements of their craft to enhance their portrayal. Painters of this latter sort have now been designated impressionists because no other title is so descriptive of their aims. To ignore or to belittle the esthetic value of impressionist painting is to reverse judgments which have prevailed over a very long period. To discard the working methods evolved by the impressionist masters is to greatly reduce the scope of painting as an art.
The essential characteristic of the impressionist painter is his attitude to what, in studio parlance, is often called nature. The word "nature" has long been in common use among painters to designate objectively observed aspects of the visible world. These aspects may be compared with an artist's representation of them, and when the representation differs from the thing represented, the divergence may safely be attributed to the artist's defective powers of observation, to the inadequacy of his rendering or to his intentional alteration. Nature provides the starting point of the rendering as well as a criterion by which the truth of the finished product may be judged. The general validity of this criterion has been accepted by virtually all painters of the Western tradition from Giotto to Cézanne. But the impressionist tends to place visual truth ahead of all other pictorial qualities. He does this because the beauty he perceives in nature seems to him of a higher order and of a more deeply satisfying kind than any other. Consequently nature remains his chief source of inspiration and his dominant purpose is to render as faithfully as possible those aspects which stir him most. He realizes that an aspect is necessarily conditioned by its beholder, without whom it could have no existence at all. He is perfectly aware, too, that this subjective factor modifies his own observation and introduces an element into his rendering which is largely responsible for its artistic validity. So he strives to render his impression of reality, not to create a facsimile of it. But the true impressionist remains humble before nature. And the great practitioners have proclaimed that the more completely they gave themselves to the study of nature the finer were their results...
... the chief contribution of nineteenth-century painting was the renewed study if color which it under went in the sixties. Landscape painting and the study of color relationships observable in nature out of doors, as demonstrated by the group exhibiting with Claude Monet, brought a new element to the art of painting, an element which actually revolutionized that art and seemed at the time destined to expand its scope immeasurably. We have now so completely assimilated the discoveries of that era that people have forgotten their once revolutionary character. The change which they brought about in our perception of color remains especially evident, of course, in the painting of landscape. More subtle and therefore less perceptible to the untrained eye, but perhaps even more important in its effect on the art of painting, was the change in the painter's perception of flesh-tints. Because the human body, and especially the head, furnishes the most important theme for the painter's art, rendering the subtle and elusive character of flesh has ever been his central problem, the one which has generally been the supreme test of his craftsmanship.
The great change in perception of color which took place in the nineteenth century was primarily due, as I have already indicated, to the vogue of plein-air painting. The effort to render brilliant light effects, and especially sunlight, forced painters working out of doors to study color relations as they had never been studied before. Their researches led to the adoption of methods now familiar to all, such as the use of more or less pure tones in juxtaposed touches. Although the more extreme of these methods soon fell into disuse they served to make painters aware of color variations to which they had formerly been blind and this awareness came to be partially shared by the public. Plein-air painting became a necessary part of the professional painter's training and the acuity of vision which he developed out of doors affected the work he did indoors as well. He saw that things were colored very differently from the way they had previously been depicted and that they looked vastly more beautiful and exciting to the eye.
By temperament an impressionist and living in a period when the impressionist ideal was universally accepted, Paxton dedicated his powers to setting down on canvas the beauty he found so stirring in nature, which he looked at with eyes of very exceptional sensitiveness and accuracy. It is not an exaggeration to say that he accomplished his object more completely and faultlessly than an other painter who worked in the color-scale evolved in the late nineteenth century. Paxton's pictures may be taken as examples of the ultimate limit to which that kind of painting can be carried.²
|William McGregor Paxton, Portrait of Elizabeth Blaney, 1916|
¹ William Coles, William McGregor Paxton, N.A. 1869-1941, (Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, 1978), pg.8.
² R.H. Ives Gammell, William McGregor Paxton, N.A. 1869-1941: Introductory Essay on Impressionism, (Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, 1978), pp. 14-18.