The Other Impressionists
5. Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne
The Impressionist Group
Renoir, whose training has been slower and who is more shy, but pursues his own objective relentlessly, is gradually freed from the conventions of the studio and from the smooth and glossy technique which he undoubtedly acquired while painting on porcelain. Coaxed to Fontainebleau by his friends he is still somewhat reluctant to work in the open air and, to apply the new techniques he has evolved, always seems to need to go back to the density and volume of the human figure.
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The first of his works which may be regarded as having "crossed the line" is the portrait "Lisa with Umbrella," painted in the forest of Fontainebleau in 1867, and successfully admitted to the Salon of 1868. The face, full of charm, melts into the shade of the forest undergrowth but the body, in a white dress, is picked up by the sunlight and blossoms out to occupy the whole centre of the composition, producing a nice arrangement of light reflections which emphasise the shape. Working near Monet in 1868 and 1869, he composes a number of pure landscapes: La Grenouillere, skating scenes in the Bois de Boulogne, snow effects, in which he subscribes to his companion's line while still main-taining unity of colour. He practises an enveloping approach to the subject with very fine brushwork, which lightens the most imposing masses and wraps shapes in a nimbus of poetry and sentiment. This allows him to maintain precision in details and show his knowledge of the old masters (in the sense of purity, not naivety, like the Italian Franciscan painters) in a complete and even impassioned view. Even during this period he increases the number of portraits of his friends, particularly of the Sisley household, of which the two large full-length figures are matched in a lively and charming pose. For more, see: Best Impressionist Paintings.
Alfred Sisley, who still enjoys a comfortable life and whose painting develops slowly and without incident, on the contrary is already confirmed exclusively as a landscapist. His impressions are expressed in very fine chromatic variations, but in a minor fashion.
Bazille also remains withdrawn. He fervently
embraces Monet's plein-airism and in this spirit produces the great "Family
Reunion" in 1867, which involves a whole series of studies for some
of the eleven persons grouped in the composition. But he is probably more
faithful to the letter than to the spirit of the new ideas, concerned
less with seizing likenesses than with psychological verisimilitude. His
people are immobile, as if caught in meditation, offering a silent resistance
to attempts to bring them together. Although they are represented in the
open air, under arches of foliage, they do not seem to be influenced either
by the light or by what adjoins them. It is true, however, that these
paintings were painted in the white light of the Midi, which shines brightly
and has none of the nuances of light in the Channel area or around Paris.
An excellent man of exemplary kindness and scrupulously frank, "having
all the noble qualities of youth, faith, loyalty and refinement"
(Emile Zola), Bazille plays a very considerable role in the development
of Impressionism by the confidence he places in his friends and the support
he gives them. But he remains still short of revelation and it is not
possible to say how far he might have taken part in the festival of Impressionism
if he had escaped this unfortunate fate.
From 1859, he lives in the countryside around Paris, successively at Montmorency, La Varenne-Saint-Hilaire from 1863, the Hermitage at Pontoise from 1867 and Louveciennes from 1868. He works alone, grappling with the land and taking part in life in the fields, gaining respect for the bearing of the workers, the passing of farm carts, and using great stretches of green and brown handled with small fragments and, from 1868 to 1870, instinctively practising a sort of fragmentation of touch undoubtedly stemming from an innate Divisionism, like seeking the different densities of matter. Gradually he gets a little more light into each stroke of the brush, clarifying his slightly sombre compositions. He is not afraid of producing a limited number of paintings on the same theme (it is easier to sell small canvases which he furnishes regularly at reasonable prices to his dealer, the elder Martin). These are very fruitful years for him. He paints landscapes near his house, the main road near where he lives, in summer as well as winter, and the variations which the seasons bring. Unhappily we know only a very small number of his works. Pissarro was caught by the Prussian advance in 1870 at Louveciennes and had to flee, leaving behind hundreds of canvases (including fifty works by Monet which the latter had asked him to mind). These canvases were thrown into the courtyard to cover the mud and trodden down by German soldiers who had set up the house as a butchery for the troops.
The contribution of Berthe
Morisot during this period must not be neglected. Because she benefited
from an exceptional family and financial situation, and because she was
a woman, she has been too often regarded as an amateur while in fact she
produced, admittedly under easier conditions, works which already have
a definite character and are valuable for their improvisation, which she
was always to maintain. She takes impressions as they strike her, with
a frankness and simplicity and feminine spontaneity which on many occasions
show her as an innovator. It is on seeing her painting in the Salon of
1867, for which she had painted a View of Paris from the Trocadero Heights
(the aerial photographs by Nadar were taken in 1865), that Manet gets
the idea of painting his "View of the Universal Exhibition,"
which now reposes in the Oslo Museum, in which he shows on different levels
an arrangement of terraces and pavilions dotted with figures. A year later
she becomes his pupil and favourite model.
Degas's most important discovery is undoubtedly
that of stage business. About 1868 or 1869, taken to the Opera by his
friend Desire Dihau, bassoon player in the orchestra, he gets the idea
of presenting the musicians in their pit, where they are generally half-hidden.
To keep them in their proper place and still have enough light he puts
them under the footlights, violently lighting the legs and bodies of the
dancers. From this first work onwards he shows a great ingenuity in arranging
his decor and, although the musicians in the foreground may still be treated
like a series of portraits (he introduces several of his friends), the
fairyland impression of the stage in the background is a fore-runner of
later pastels in which the artist depicts variations of the dance.
In the first stage, he devotes himself
to fixing his impressions on detailed and almost elementary subjects.
He boldly places his still-life on white cloths which accentuate the shapes,
and the brilliance of colours is heightened by the use of black patches,
which he borrows from Manet. His first portraits, laid on in a thick paste,
with figures sometimes as large as life, stick strictly to the ideological
aim that he is pursuing. His father reading a novel stands out in front
of the whitish covering of his armchair. His friends Zola and Alexis are
curiously placed on a seat and cushions like oriental sages, divested
of all useless accessories or decor. (One cannot help thinking on the
other hand of Manet's portrait of Zola, almost contemporary, in which
the face counts for little while the composition includes everything calculated
to represent the man, his tastes and what interests him.) In this light
Cezanne's work then appears singularly bold and innovationist, which is
the main thing about it.
Impressionist Meetings in the Cafe Guerbois
Manet's pavilion in the exhibition of 1867
was not the success he had hoped for, while Courbet's, with some 110 works,
drew much more attention from the public as Manet's revived old quarrels.
In Manet's showing, however, is the essence of his work in fifty paintings,
presented in the most dignified and modest way with the painter simply
inviting the public to view "some sincere works". This exhibition
allows all the younger painters to measure the importance and the extent
of Manet's work. Only he was able to present so new and so significant
a collection of works. Even the idea of an exhibition was to be retained
by his comrades. Monet and his friends thought of taking a pavilion after
the exhibition closed to show, in their turn, works which could be presented
in a systematic fashion without the disadvantage of a neighbouring show.
Even if they were unable to find the money to stage the exhibition, it
still remained their aim. Zola's intervention on the side of Manet also
was to have lasting effects and give a theoretical adhesion to the meetings
of the young artists and writers.
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