Saturday, June 1, 2013

Monet, Sargent, and “Impressionism”

Most histories of Impressionism define the movement in terms of the outward stylistic features of the paintings. These features typically include such things as small strokes, broken color, white ground, high key palette, rapid execution, sketchy handling, and commonplace subject matter.

(Above: Monet, "Houses of Parliament, London, Sun Breaking Through the Fog" 1904)

This approach to defining a trend in painting is natural for art historians who spend a lot of their time categorizing paintings and trying to make sense of them after the fact.

But to really understand Impressionism from the inside out, it would be helpful to know what the artists themselves said they were trying to accomplish in visual terms. In particular, it would be interesting to know what Claude Monet was trying to do, since Monet was the one that Edgar Degas called “the Sole Impressionist.”

The problem is that Monet was intuitive in his approach, modest in his statements, and averse to theorizing.

(Above: "Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood," by John Singer Sargent, 1887)

One place to find answers to this important semantic question is the American expatriate John Singer Sargent. Sargent was perfectly bilingual, was close friends with Monet, he admired him greatly as an artist, and painted outdoors with him.

According to Sargent's 1927 biography by Evan Charteris Sargent didn’t agree at all with the way people were starting to use the term "impressionist."

"My dear MacColl,
I daresay I muddled what I said about Impressionism last night and perhaps this is a clear definition of what I think Monet would mean by the word, "The observation of the colour and value of the image on our retina of those objects or parts of objects of which we are prevented by an excess or deficiency of light from seeing the surface or local colour."
Of course to a very astigmatic or abnormal eyesight the whole field of vision might offer phenomena for the notation of an impressionist, but to the average vision it is only in extreme cases of light and dark, that the eye is conscious of seeing something else than the object, in other words conscious of its own medium—that something else is what the impressionist tries to note exactly. . . .
Yrs. sincerely,
John S. Sargent.
Continuing to quote Charteris: The two letters which follow were written [by Sargent] to Mr. Jameson, a close friend of Sargent and the author of a volume on art which forms the text of the letters.
31, Tite Street,
Chelsea, S.W.,
My dear Jameson, March 20th
I have been reading your book with great enjoyment, and feel as if my ideas and my vocabulary had gone through a very satisfactory spring cleaning and I like the opposition of your clear processes of reasoning and analysis as far as that will take one and the ultimate mystery that you lead one up to from the different directions. There is one point only that I should quibble at and that is your use of the word Impressionism and Impressionist, 
These words were coined in Paris at a particular moment when Claude Monet opened the eyes of a few people to certain phenomena of optics, and they have a very precise meaning which is not the one that you use them for, so that in the exact sense or to a Frenchman, [George Frederick] Watts' saying "All art is Impressionism" would be a misuse of words. "Impressionism" was the name given to a certain form of observation when Monet not content with using his eyes to see what things were or what they looked like as everybody had done before him, turned his attention to noting what took place on his own retina (as an oculist would test his own vision). 
It led to his doing 50 pictures of the same subject under varying degrees of light and the phenomena which he recorded would be more or less apparent when there was excess or deficiency of light and the fact that he is astigmatic accounts for his having an excellent subject for his own discoveries in this line. 
A person with normal eyesight would have nothing to know in the way of "Impressionism" unless he were in a blinding light or in the dusk or dark.
 If you want to know what an impressionist tries for (by the way Degas said there is only one Impressionist "Claude Monet") go out of doors and look at a landscape with the sun in your eyes and alter the angle of your hat brim and notice the difference of colour in dark objects according to the amount of light you let into your eyes—you can vary it from the local colour of the object (if there is less light) to something entirely different which is an appearance on your own retina when there is too much light. 
It takes years to be able to note this accurately enough for painting purposes and it would only seem worth while to people who would wear the same glasses as the painter and then it has the effect of for the first time coming across a picture that looks like nature and gives the sense of living—for these reasons Monet bowled me over—and he counts as having added a new perception to Artists as the man did who invented perspective. 
This observation or faculty does not make a man an Artist any more than a knowledge of perspective does—it is merely a refining of one's means towards representing things and one step further away from the hieroglyph by adding to the representation of a thing the conscious Will of the Medium through which one sees it. One of these days some genius will turn it to account and make it part of the necessary equipment of an Artist. 
For the present in its exact sense "impressionism" does not come within the scope of your considerations. Of course I agree with what you say, given the rough and tumble and un-Jameson like use of the word. 
You can make impression stand for whatever you like but not add-sm or -ist without being challenged by the astigmatic.
Yours sincerely,
John S. Sargent
...and the next letter by Sargent:
My dear Jameson, April (dated 1911 or 1912).
Thanks for your kind letter. I am glad you take my bit of special pleading good naturedly. I was afraid after having posted my letter that I had not made clear that I was not quarrelling with what you said about Impressionism but only defining the term. Of course your meaning is the general accepted one and the right one in the context as long as the precise meaning is so little known it will be years before the idea itself will have become familiar even to most painters—when it is, there will have to be a foot note in your book. 
The habit of breaking up one's colour to make it brilliant dates from further back than Impressionism—Couture advocates it in a little book called "Causeries d'Atelier" written about 1860—it is part of the technique of Impressionism but used for quite a different reason. Couture, Delacroix, Orchardson break up their colour but they are not Impressionists.
 Yours sincerely, John S. Sargent.
Did Monet agree with Sargent's correction of Jameson? Charteris shared Sargent's letter with Monet, and Monet recalls the famous origins of the word from the critic Louis Leroy, and he seems less willing to split hairs:
"Impressionism it is only the immediate sensation. All painters were more or less impressionistic. This is especially a matter of instinct. All this is simpler than Sargent believed. The term Impressionism was invented by the satirical newspaper as ridicule, which angered Manet. I did a lot wrong, because I was a bad example of it. . . I needed to create a cooler sensation. Yes it is the fading and passing tones within a tone. It is a nuance, for example between blue and yellow. It is something that can only be expressed in painting. It is true that the sun decomposes everything.

Monet then turned to recollections of Sargent:

(Above: Sargent "Venetian Bead Stringers")
"I remember for the first time meeting Sargent and [Paul] Helleu at the Rue de la Paix 1876. Sargent was making a fuss over me, saying, “Is that really you, Claude Monet?” Then he invited me to dinner. He wanted to take us to the Cafe de la Paix, and he had many friends with him. I suggested the Cafe du Helder, and requested a private room. Unfortunately there were several of my pictures there, I was embarrassed as we entered, ashamed that Sargent and the others might think it was because of my paintings I had brought us to Cafe Helder."
Monet continued that when he saw Sargent in London, Sargent claimed that Sargent himself was not an Impressionist in the sense that he understood the word because he was too much under the influence of his teacher Carolus-Duran. Carolus-Duran drew his inspiration more from the Spanish school of Velazquez, which put its emphasis on correct values.

Monet said further, with great modesty, that "Sargent is greater than I am...I have a horror of theories. At least I have the merit of having painted directly to nature by seeking to make my impressions of the most fugitive effects. I am sorry to have been the cause of this name that has been given to a group, most of which had nothing impressionism."
This revelation has made me revise my assumptions about the relationship of Sargent and Monet, and about the intent of Impressionist painting. It has made it easier for me to look beyond some of its more obvious, extreme, and external features. I am especially surprised to see the term cast in terms of the eye's response not only to very bright light, but also very dim light.


Katana Leigh DuFour said...

I HAVE AN ASTIGMATISM TOO!!! So exciting. It really is useful for seeing the lights/darks without getting caught up by detail, even though the constant wearing of glasses except when I am a passengar in a car, gives me a daily headache. I would love more tips on how to make the most of my poor eyesight. When I was young, my mom took me to meet another friend of hers - an artist who was going blind. The difference between her photorealistic paintings done with her glasses and her high saturation abstraction still lifes was striking and I remember it to this day. I would LOVE to hear more about how eyesight affects what we see.

Keith Parker said...

Sounds like his approach was more inquisitive, and almost scientific. Well now I'm headed outside to squint and see if I get any weird colors playing across my vision. As always, thanks for sharing.

Walt Morton said...

Great post, James.
This also made me think of recent news stories about people who are tetrachromats and can see more colors than the rest of us.

There are also some online color acuity tests that anybody can take for free, though I am a little suspicious of the real accuracy of these tests because of the variability of people's home computer monitors and testing conditions. Here's one:

dragonladych said...

Interesting, and just in time for a blog post I was writing.

I see that I am not alone here. I have extreme astigmatism and I often wondered how this affected my painting and my rapport to colours.

I'm a big Monet fan, maybe there's a reason why?

PS: to Katana, my optician said it was pointless to try and correct such extreme astigmatism, I think my glasses do correct it a bit but mostly they correct my myopia.
The headaches could come either from too big a correction (to be confirmed by a specialist) or just because you don't wear them constantly, the brain has to always adjust from one to the other?

Rich said...

Someone who had visited Cezanne in his atelier had written:

"Cezanne very well knew about the uniqueness of Monet's colorist-eye. Recalling the way he knew how to color the shade, the parts receiving the sky's reflection without any direct sunlight, he said:
"The sky's blue, isn't it? And this, this Monet found out.""

Mark Heng said...

Very Interesting! I've seen a couple of good retellings of the Impressionism story in the last couple of years, and this bit seems to have been forgotten!

Impressionism- Revenge of the Nice:

The Impressionists- Painting and Revolution:

Henry Frank said...

Wow, I'm very glad you posted this. This is more depth than I've seen impressionism explained with. It gives me a little more respect for it and makes me want to go back and reexamine a few paintings that might not have caught my eye the first time around. I like the explanation about light on the retina as well as the inclusion of dim or low light paintings. It also makes me wonder what they would have thought about some of the night-time/low-light paintings paintings that Frederic Remington did (such as this wolf painting).

Sandra Galda said...

Thank you for this post! It is a subject of interest in the atelier I study at and I just attempted yesterday to obtain a good translation from the French of the last quote by Monet you included. ! thank you!
--a student of the Boston School in NH.

Craig Banholzer said...

Thanks. This is priceless. I will be reading it again and again. What is especially interesting is that it was Sargent, and not Monet, who had the more specific sense of what the word meant. This may be because he was able to see it from the outside, as it were, having come from a related, but different, painterly orientation.

I am also astigmatic, so much so that contact lenses are not much use to me, and I sometimes paint without glasses on to get the "impression." So, that's the other interesting thing: Sargent calls Monet "the astigmatic," as if Monet's inventon was specifically the result of a defect of his visual apparatus. There's a book I read several years ago on the subject of how defective vision has influenced painters: "The World Through Blunted Sight" by Patrick Trevor Roper, and now I want to read it again to see what, if anything, he he has to say about Monet and Impressionism.

Simone said...

The thought that occurred to me while reading this post is that grown men were quibbling about something which is in a sense child's play.....paint and colors. And here we adults are more than a century later still fascinated with it. Trying to understand more full the truth and beauty of it as it pertains to fine art. It's an exhilarating thought. The whole discussion also begs the question: How have we, the heirs of this Impressionism, this idea of being attentive to the image as it "really" appears on our retinas, How have we done in furthering it's use and understanding? I'd say some have done quite well but the phenomena is known to such a small segment of society, the visual artists, that it seems somewhat esoteric.

Eugene Arenhaus said...

The term "Impressionism" had become too politically loaded too quickly, I suppose. It started out as a derogatory epithet in an article, coined about a particular painting (yes, it was a Monet), and journalists quickly popularized it, associating it with the whole group of rebels-against-against-the-French-Academy of the moment. I suspect the term became muddled since its very birth, and some artists got lumped in who were never even close to Monet's method at that time, like Edouard Manet who had still been exploring Spanish school of painting and causing scandals with non-academic subject matter, not loose and colorful painting.

I think quite a few of these artists were learning from Monet, but almost none of them really grasped his visceral method. It's certainly not easy to grasp! But what he did (perhaps inadvertently) cause was the change in the way the artists looked at color and light.

I find it ironic, though, that this half-observational, half-extreme, paradoxically romantic and naturalistic at the same time, approach to painting, had apparently been single-handedly invented fifty years before, by Turner.

Turner was more in love with sunsets, than with sunlight and fog (like Monet). Turner's palette was different, too; Monet favored light, airy, vibrant colors while Turner's were more fiery and earthy - he was one of the very few painters who could use black and make it work as a color. Still, I see great similarity in the way they approached the picture.

They have the same energetic, superpositional painting that throws out nearly everything but the visceral, perceptional light. They even show the same way to shift and enliven the hue by daubing pure contrasting color here and there, though it is easier to notice in Monet whose texture is rougher. So it's a little odd that the Impressionists seem to have ignored Turner altogether - hard to tell whether due to some French sort of "not invented here" syndrome or because of relative obscurity.

James Gurney said...

On a Facebook post about a painting I did of a supermarket with a lens flare effect, Roger Reed of Illustration House commented: "I was just reading about Sargent. It was apparently his understanding that what Monet meant by Impressionism was the flooding of the retina with light from a nearby source (sun) through half-closed eyes!"
I shared this post with him, and he said, "I hadn't noticed that you already blogged about this; you did a wonderful job. Yes, that's exactly what I was recently reading. It's obvious that Monet has no sense of theory, nor even a firm grasp of words, though his phrase "my impressions of the most fugitive effects" is helpful. Do I understand correctly that their emphasis on astigmatism has to do with chromatic distortions or refractions that only an astigmat sees? [And do normally-visioned people see something similar when they squint, and the eyelashes cause refractions?] In your supermarket painting, you render subtle rings around the light source, but with no chromatic aberration. I take it you are not an astigmat, or am I down the wrong rabbit-hole? [I have no astigmatism, so I don't know what they're talking about.]"

Roger, you're right, that neither Monet nor Sargent were big on theory, but Sargent may be our best link about what Monet was thinking artistically. I have no idea what Sargent meant about astigmatism. I'm not astigmatic either, and I wonder if what you're suggesting when you say "chromatic distortions or refractions" are chromatic aberration, which is an artifact of color photography. I don't know if there's an analogue to that in human vision.

The thing that struck me most about Sargent's take on Monet's Impressionism was the idea that impressionism was about the eyes adjustment not only to super-bright environments, but also to super-dark ones. That would explain a lot of Sargent's Venetian scenes. The only other links I can think of to what was really meant by "impressionism" is the writings of Frank Vincent Dumond and R. Ives Gammell in "Twilight of Painting." Very interesting reading, and very different from what you read about in art textbooks.