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The French Impressionists (1860-1900)
by Camille Mauclair
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What we shall have to thank Impressionism for, will be moral and material advantages of considerable importance. Morally it has rendered an immense service to all art, because it has boldly attacked routine and proved by the whole of its work that a combination of independent producers could renew the aesthetic code of a country, without owing anything to official encouragement. It has succeeded where important but isolated creators have succumbed, because it has had the good fortune of uniting a group of gifted men, four of whom will count among the greatest French artists since the origin of national art. It has had the qualities which overcome the hardest resistance: fecundity, courage and sure originality. It has known how to find its strength by referring to the true traditions of the national genius, which have happily enlightened it and saved it from fundamental errors. It has, last, but not least, inflicted an irremediable blow on academic convention and has wrested from it the prestige of teaching which ruled tyrannically for centuries past over the young artists. It has laid a violent hand upon a tenacious and dangerous prejudice, upon a series of conventional notions which were transmitted without consideration for the evolution of modern life and intelligence. It has dared freely to protest against a degenerated ideal which vainly parodied the old masters, pretending to honour them. It has removed from the artistic soul of France a whole order of pseudo-classic elements which worked against its blossoming, and the School will never recover from this bold contradiction which has rallied to it all the youthful. The moral principle of Impressionism has been absolutely logical and sane, and that is why nothing has been able to prevent its triumph.

Technically Impressionism has brought a complete renewal of pictorial vision, substituting the beauty of character for the beauty of proportions and finding adequate expression for the ideas and feelings of its time, which constitutes the secret of all beautiful works. It has taken up again a tradition and added to it a contemporary page. It will have to be thanked for an important series of observations as regards the analysis of light, and for an absolutely original conception of drawing. Some years have been wasted by painters of little worth in imitating it, and the Salons, formerly encumbered with academic pastiches, have been encumbered with Impressionist pastiches. It would be unfair to blame the Impressionists for it. They have shown by their very career that they hated teaching and would never pretend to teach. Impressionism is based upon irrefutable optic laws, but it is neither a style, nor a method, likely ever to become a formula in its turn. One may call upon this art for examples, but not for receipts. On the contrary, its best teaching has been to encourage artists to become absolutely independent and to search ardently for their own individuality. It marks the decline of the School, and will not create a new one which would soon become as fastidious as the other. It will only appear, to those who will thoroughly understand it, as a precious repertory of notes, and the young generation honours it intelligently by not imitating it with servility.

Not that it is without its faults! It has been said, to belittle it, that it only had the value of an interesting attempt, having only been able to indicate some excellent intentions, without creating anything perfect. This is inexact. It is absolutely evident, that Manet, Monet, Renoir and Degas have signed some masterpieces which did not lose by comparison with those in the Louvre, and the same might even be said of their less illustrious friends. But it is also evident that the time spent on research as well as on agitation and enervating controversies pursued during twenty-five years, has been taken from men who could otherwise have done better still. There has been a disparity between Realism and the technique of Impressionism. Its realistic origin has sometimes made it vulgar. It has often treated indifferent subjects in a grand style, and it has too easily beheld life from the anecdotal side. It has lacked psychologic synthesis (if we except Degas). It has too willingly denied all that exists hidden under the apparent reality of the universe and has affected to separate painting from the ideologic faculties which rule over all art. Hatred of academic allegory, defiance of symbolism, abstraction and romantic scenes, has led it to refuse to occupy itself with a whole order of ideas, and it has had the tendency of making the painter beyond all a workman. It was necessary at the moment of its arrival, but it is no longer necessary now, and the painters understand this themselves. Finally it has too often been superficial even in obtaining effects; it has given way to the wish to surprise the eyes, of playing with tones merely for love of cleverness. It often causes one regret to see symphonies of magnificent colour wasted here in pictures of boating men; and there, in pictures of cafe corners; and we have arrived at a degree of complex intellectuality which is no longer satisfied with these rudimentary themes. It has indulged in useless exaggerations, faults of composition and of harmony, and all this cannot be denied.

But it still remains fascinating and splendid for its gifts which will always rouse enthusiasm: freedom, impetuousness, youth, brilliancy, fervour, the joy of painting and the passion for beautiful light. It is, on the whole, the greatest pictorial movement that France has beheld since Delacroix, and it brings to a finish gloriously the nineteenth century, inaugurating the present. It has accomplished the great deed of having brought us again into the presence of our true national lineage, far more so than Romanticism, which was mixed with foreign elements. We have here painting of a kind which could only have been conceived in France, and we have to go right back to Watteau in order to receive again the same impression. Impressionism has brought us an almost unhoped-for renaissance, and this constitutes its most undeniable claim upon the gratitude of the race.

It has exercised a very appreciable influence upon foreign painting. Among the principal painters attracted by its ideas and research, we must mention, in Germany, Max Liebermann and Kuehl; in Norway, Thaulow; in Denmark, Kroyer; in Belgium, Theo Van Rysselberghe, Emile Claus, Verheyden, Heymans, Verstraete, and Baertson; in Italy, Boldini, Segantini, and Michetti; in Spain, Zuloaga, Sorolla y Bastida, Dario de Regoyos and Rusinol; in America, Alexander, Harrison, Sargent; and in England, the painters of the Glasgow School, Lavery, Guthrie and the late John Lewis Brown. All these men come within the active extension of the French movement, and one may say that the honour of having first recognised the truly national movement of this art must be given to those foreign countries which have enriched their collections and museums with works that were despised in the land which had witnessed their birth. At the present moment the effects of this new vision are felt all over the world, down to the very bosom of the academies; and at the Salons, from which the Impressionists are still excluded, can be witnessed an invasion of pictures inspired by them, which the most retrograde juries dare not reject. In whatever measure the recent painters accept Impressionism, they remain preoccupied with it, and even those who love it not are forced to take it into account.

The Impressionist movement can therefore now be considered, apart from all controversies, without vain attacks or exaggerated praise, as an artistic manifestation which has entered the domain of history, and it can be studied with the impartial application of the methods of critical analysis which is usually employed in the study of the former art movements. We shall not pretend to have given in these pages a complete and faultless history; but we shall consider ourselves well rewarded for this work, which is intended to reach the great public, if we have roused their curiosity and sympathy with a group of artists whom we consider admirable; and if we have rectified, in the eyes of the readers of a foreign nation, the errors, the slanders, the undeserved reproaches, with which Frenchmen have been pleased to overwhelm sincere creators who thought with faith and love of the pure tradition of the national genius, and who have for that reason been vilified as much as if they had in an access of anarchical folly risen against the very common sense, taste, reason and clearness, which will remain the eternal merits of their soil. This small, imperfect volume will perhaps find its best excuse in its intention of repairing an old injustice and of affirming a useful and permanent truth: that of the authenticity of the classicism of Impressionism, in the face of the false classicism of the academic world which official honours have made the guardian of a French heritage, whose soul it denied and whose spirit it deceived with its narrow and cold formulas.

THE END

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