The Impressionists – A Painterly Pleasant French Revolution

Waldemar's sense of humour, revealed in the introduction to his TV series about the Impressionists

English art writer, critic, filmmaker, historian and presenter Waldemar Januszczak has twice won the Critic of the Year award and his television series Impressionists Painting and Revolution produced in 2011 was a delightfully funny series that was exceedingly clever, slightly cocky, completely self-assured and an enlightening commentary about art in the modern era.

It showcased those remarkable creative men and women, who over eight exhibitions at Paris between 1874 and 1886, made a great impression, including such luminaries as Claude Monet, Camille Pisarro, Alfred Sisley and Pierre Auguste Renoir. Waldemar provided a witty, erudite, enthusiastic politically incorrect although artistically correct presentation.

Waldemar and Degas

He noted ‘In front of Monet’s 20 views of the building, one begins to realize that art, in setting out to express nature with ever growing accuracy, teaches us to look, to perceive, to feel. The stone itself becomes an organic substance, and one can feel it being transformed as one moment in its life succeeds another.’*

Impressionist art was full of people, within natural settings and, without ‘artifice or grandeur’. Unlike their posh artist predecessors French Impressionist painters while passionate, were in the main spectacularly poor.

They wanted to provide an all-new view of life as it really was, not by following an old set of rules.

They pulled away from the French Academy, whose focus was on the ancient past, to produce a new style of painting set in the reality of the present.

We could say that in the history of art the first impression would definitely turn out to be a lasting impression. His series, delicious as ‘chocolat’ showed Waldemar Januszczak exploring and explaining the works from what is a very ‘cool’ group of painters, who brought about this painterly pleasant French Revolution.

Boys bathing and at play by Frederick Bazille

During the latter half of the nineteenth century people from all walks of life found it very difficult to cope with the Impressionists and their new vision.

We also know that when faced with reality most people will turn away, because truth can often lead down difficult pathways. The Impressionist promise was, that if you did decide to follow their lead then you would at least be able to trust you were seeing an optimistic view of a life well lived.

The Impressionists thought beyond the square, brilliantly capturing life in special places indoors as well as the great outdoors where nature ruled in all her spectacular glory.

They wanted society to become forward thinking and provided subjects that were either dark or light, en grisaille or in full glorious rich sensuous colour. They recorded people at play, at the opera, the ballet, the horse races, at home, in their garden, in their bedrooms, on their bed, from under their bed, dressing, undressing, buck naked in their bath, when bathing outdoors, and more.

On the Terrace at Servres by Marie Bracquemond

In his series Januszczak brilliantly evoked the mood and world of some of the more well known men who led the charge, Camille Pissarro (1830 – 1903), Claude Monet (1840 – 1926), Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919).

Then there were the women who turned their heads and hearts.

Beth Morisot who epitomized rebellion in the ranks and American Mary Cassatt who preferred somewhat more emotional works.

He also highlights Marie Bracquemond (1841-1916) who is not as well known as the rest of her contemporaries. She covered her ceramics in deeply intense works of impressionist art and her paintings were inspired by Monet, Degas and, in later life Gauguin.

Waldemar also reflected on Gaugin’s brief one year Danish period, as well as that of lesser-known Impressionist painters, including the seven foot giant Frédérick Bazille (1841-1870).

Gustave Caillebotte Self Portrait

He died not long after producing a couple of what are now considered ‘impressionist’ masterpieces and before the groups first exhibition.

Gustave Caillebotte (1848 – 1894) recorded local tradie lads with their tops off scraping a timber floor and Waldemar gives us a clear explanation about just what they were doing.

He also shows us what all the Impressionists went through so that they could remain true to their ideals, the spirit of their movement and the execution of their art.

He actually does what they did and goes where they went and we are lucky enough to be invited to travel along on the journey with him. Some jumped onto new fangled trains weaving their way across the countryside from Paris to other cities in France to capture many more impressions.

The train Waldemar rode on was a fabulously chic period piece beautifully restored, complete with fabulous French fabrics. It had the sort of elegant less is more aesthetic, with just the right amount of style, that we have come to expect from French people.

The Impressionists made great statements about social change.

They paused in the countryside, capturing the light of the sky in Normandy where the intense colour of red poppies flowering in its fallow fields remind us of war and peace.

They recorded the haze leaching off lovely lavender fields in the heat of a Provencal summer, as it releases its heady calming fragrance into the cool night air.

Monet's floating studio

They floated on boats along the Seine, including Monet’s, which was especially fitted out for the purpose.

They followed the river as it meandered in circuitous routes through the city of Paris having picnics on its banks while recording all sorts of places from power stations to railway stations for posterity.

The Cliffs at Etretat by Claude Monet

When they reached the seashore they scrambled over slippery moss covered rocks to capture the marvelous magic of the ocean and rocky formations along the seashore.

This was where the turbulence of the waves echoed the up and down aspects of their life and its times.

No doubt the waves were as unpredictable as the swelling number of tourists clamouring to see them at work, giving them a whole lot of trouble while helping to establish their all new celebrity status.

Waldemar Januszczak is always a highly amusing fellow, and in this series  he was totally immersed in the times telling tales about his favourite subject, art.

His walk over the cobbles, up hillsides and along the alleyways of Montmartre with another chap in toe helping him to carry a large canvas was particularly inspired.

The many impressionable scenes we know from this period are mostly because they have been produced on picture postcards and the tops of chocolate boxes. Over four episodes in his series they are slowly and surely revealed.

However what we discovered was that they were not meant to be frivolous, fussily produced or designed to pander to rampant commercialism. They all had a firm philosophy, an important aspect of this very focused new wave movement in art

Succinctly revealing ever-changing concepts about modernism Januszczak, while pursuing and achieving established standards of excellence, explained that while in full revolt The Impressionists maintained in their works the characteristics that define contemporary art in every age; confidence in execution, structure, form and style.

When going out into the field to paint during Impressionist times you needed to take along a great deal of stuff. First there was your wide brimmed hat, a fold up seat, a palette and a painter’s smock but only in a suitably dark colour so as not to detract you from the intensity of the colours you were using. As well you needed a parasol to shade your eyes from the midday sun and help you to see your colours as they really were.

The all-new fangled artistic travel kit, with its fold up easel was a brilliant innovative design. This all new artist’s essential had a secret place in which to keep your paints and was now available in a brilliant new invention, tubes.

Waldemar coping with all the same clobber the Impressionists would have carried was a glorious sight to behold. It revealed his humility and informed us about how he’s prepared to go to any lengths and put himself into any situation if he can make a point about his beloved art. We all remember the point he is making because of it.

He helped viewers to understand in brilliant fashion how new information and new inventions impacted on the world that the Impressionists were choosing to record just as they do in our own time.

In a scene set in a street in Montemarte we catch him struggling to keep hold of a small squirming Sable in his arms while holding onto a particularly noisy Pig on a lead who oinks loudly. This is nothing short of genius. While the smooth silky hair of a purposefully bred Sable on the head of an old masters brush helped them refine detail, he explained, it is the pig who was set to make the biggest impression of all.

The pig represented the hair of a brilliant new paint brush in waiting, which without Impressionism it seems, wouldn’t have happened at all.

Each new style of brush released at this time, offered yet another opportunity for painters to achieve very different results when applying paint to their canvas. Painters treading a pathway to truth trampled across fields of snow leaving many deep impressions.

They wanted to capture the silent shadows of a winter’s day. Waldemar pointed out that when painting ‘colourful’ shadows they were at first scoffed at by critics. However they were vindicated when colour scientists came to their aid proving they had recorded what they saw accurately.

Waldemar tromped knee deep through snow in a field and stays out in the cold after dark where, with the use of hand puppets, two giant torches and some colourful cellophane paper, he revealed amazingly how it all worked. Fascinating stuff.

Then there was the misty magic of valley mornings or walking through and even on water to record the ice, the flash floods and rotten rainy days.

At Paris Impressionist painters turned their focus to recording people in pleasant places coming together to enjoy dancing, singing or a night out at the opera. Waldemar clearly admireed Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) who celebrated and painted life, beauty and female sensuality.

He delightfully goes dancing in a tavern nearby to best illustrate his appreciation for Renoir’s sense of fun when he was painting dancing couples at Montmartre.

He also exposes on reflection, the depth of character perhaps not immediately apparent or realised at first glance.

Renoir’s art today still retains its incredible luminosity.

He was the people painter of the bourgeoisie at play.

His adventurous use and love of colour is evident in his Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette 1876 and Luncheon of the Boating Party 1881.

Both are among the most popular and revered of all his works, intimate plush snapshots of a life lived in the moment, enhanced by a spectacular use of colour, light and movement.

Dancers warming up by Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas (1834-1917) preferred to be known as a realist, rather than an impressionist.

Today he is easily identified because of his mastery of movement in his images of the ballet.

More than half his works depict dancers, partly because they sold well and helped him keep food on the table, which has always been hard for artists.

His keen observation of contemporary life meant that he also went to the races where thoroughbred horses and riders provided a very different style of prancing subject.

Waldemar particularly explored the incredible palette of colours Degas used for his dancers.

They were available in pastels made from pigments by the family of Henri Roche.

Pastels de Roche is still operating today in the same place where Degas went to shop.

A family member provides a glimpse for Waldemar of the brilliant yellows, blues, pinks and greens pastels still available.

Whether you have a talent or not for drawing these small sticks of colour are so appealing you simply want to pick them up and start trying to draw, such is their power of evoking a response, much like impressionist art.

As the years went by the lines between reality and fantasy became blurred for Degas, as early impressions gave way to the chaos and order of abstraction.

Studio Frédérick Bazille, rue Condamine 1870 by Bazille who was nearly seven feet tall

In trying to sort out what to call themselves for the first of their eight exhibitions nasturtiums was a name bandied about, but thankfully wasn’t adopted.

The first ‘Impressionist’ exhibition was held in 1874 in the former studio of the photographer Nadar at 35 boulevard des Capucines, Paris on April 15 under the title Anonyme des Artistes (peintres, sculpteurs, Gravcurs etc).

It was a reviewing critic Louis Leroy working for the magazine Le Charivari who first coined the phrase Impressionist when commenting on a work by Monet called ‘Impression oleil levant’.

A flight of stairs led directly from the street to the rooms above, the walls of which were covered in red a colour favoured by Nadar,  one we also know that the British painter of light Joseph Mallord William Turner (often called the first ‘true’ impressionist) favoured to show off paintings best.

Avenue de L'Opera at Paris by Camille Pissarro

Passionate about Camille Pissaro (1830 – 1903) and admiring his generous nature Waldemar discloses that it was he who was the driving force that finally brought the fifteen initial aspiring artists together to establish their collective, or ‘impressionist’ society.

Pisarro is the only one who displayed his works at all eight of the Impressionist exhibitions held at Paris between 1874 – 1886.

Pissarro has a fascinating background. A Jewish painter he was in fact a revolution all by himself. He became the father figure of the movement as well as friend and mentor to major post-impressionist figures such as Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne.

It was Pissarro who organized that Van Gogh, who was deadly poor when he died, would have a place to finally rest his tormented soul. His brother Theo, Van Gogh’s life long supporter and friend, was later laid to rest alongside him in the municipal cemetery at Auvers-sur-Oise.

Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891) nearly brought the movement to a full stop with his ‘dotty’ paintings. He altered course by overlaying concepts of classicism taught at the École des Beaux Arts where he had been a student.

When the salons rejected his first major painting Bathers at Asniéres he threw his hat into an arena of independent artists.

His goal was to create a new language of art, based on a scientific approach to painting using colour to create harmony and emotion in art as in music.

His Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte depicts members of the different social classes that existed at the time. It is an extraordinary testament to his abilities at blending colours optically.

He died suddenly at 32 years of age so we are left to ponder only on what might have been.

Claude Monet, who was a founder of the impressionist movement, was the most consistent and prolific practitioner, outliving nearly all his colleagues. Waldemar explains how old age and the use of special glasses helped his fading eyesight.

Dear Monet this meant that at end of his long career he would still manage to produce an extraordinary set of paintings of his beloved water lilies at Giverny, to keep the game in play.

Gifted to the state this amazing group have been on display in the Orangerie at the west end of the Tuileries Gardens at Paris since 1927. Ironic really, that they ended up inside a building whose architecture was inspired by the classical style, which is all about order and rules.

However we could take the other meaning of the world classic and apply it to the art of Monet the Impressionist.

It means ‘of the first rank or of the highest quality’ so in fact being where they are now is the ultimate compliment to his genius, and by default to all the Impressionists. The final comment perhaps should go to Pissarro. He said “We are all the subjects of impressions, and some of use seek to convey the impressions to others. In the art of communicating impressions lies the power of generalizing without losing that logical connection of parts to the whole which satisfies the mind.”

The Impressionists are, as Waldemar Januszczak confessed at the beginning of his series, “terribly popular, terribly familiar and terribly commercialized”. But there is a reason for that. They became popular because people from all walks of life, creeds and cultures have been able to plug into it the art movement, whose message was in reality a celebration of life.

Impressionism has never really ended. By defying all the odds, including blindness, Claude Monet was still a radical to the end. He made sure the realistic style he and his colleagues championed would remain as its protagonists always intended, fresh and full of possibilities.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2014

*Georges Clemenceau on Monet’s series paintings of Rouen Cathedral.

1 Comment

  • kc says:

    I thought this a most entertaining introduction to this art movement. I kept thinking how it just might grab the minds of teenagers and get them thinking about art. Appalled to find really vicious criticism from critics and audiences when searching the web to find DVDs to buy. I don’t think the Impressionists would have had much time for those people and their sour view of life.

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