Mass-produced prints of works by impressionist artists are so readily available that some people now see the art as bland with little to say about modern life. But when it was created it was seen as shocking and dangerously avant garde. The artists used experimental techniques and new media — such as ready mixed paint in tubes — bright colours, quick, obvious brush strokes and layers of texture.
Impressionism was born in a period of rapid modernisation in France, especially in Paris, where new bridges, roads, railways and buildings were shooting up. Everyday life became the only worthy subject matter for artists.
The new exhibition, “Inventing Impressionism — The Man who Sold 1,000 Monets”, is based on the idea that impressionism was not, in fact, created by artists but by an art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel. Many artists, however, can be seen as having influenced the movement: Eugene Delacroix, with his loose handling of paint; Camille Corot, who painted “en plein air”; the British artists John Constable and JMW Turner, who also painted outside in the elements; and the Pre‑Raphaelites, whose subjects were often suburban.
But the major artistic influence on the early impressionists was the realist painter Gustave Courbet. A follower of the libertarian socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, he was in Paris in 1848 for the revolution which deposed the monarchy. In an attempt to maintain his creative freedom, Courbet showed his work outside the Salon, the massive annual exhibition. Admission was based on selection by a deeply conservative jury that also bestowed awards and prizes. Many impressionist artists had at least some of their work accepted during the 1860s, but they also experienced ignominious rejection.
So the movement had many parents. Its birth agony, though, was the Paris Commune of 1871 — a carnival of the oppressed and a revolution in democracy that lasted just 72 days before government forces drowned it in blood. The first group exhibition organised by impressionist artists was held just three years after the Commune, in 1874. During the Commune, Courbet organised a Federation of Artists. Its initial proclamation read, “The committee will assist in our regeneration, the inauguration of luxury for the whole community and the splendours of the future and the universal republic.”
Edouard Manet was the acknowledged leader of the group that became known as the impressionists. An outspoken republican, he had painted work critical of Napoleon III, including the Emperor’s military fiascos in Mexico. Manet was elected onto Courbet’s federation but could not participate, having enlisted in the army, as had Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas. Nevertheless, Manet was the only impressionist artist to respond directly to the Commune, painting the aftermath of fighting on a barricade, and also mass executions.
The war and Commune affected other artists in profound ways. One such was the wealthy young painter Frédéric Bazille, who had begun planning an independent group exhibition as early as 1867. The show was put on hold because of the Franco-Prussian war in which Bazille himself was killed in action in 1870.
The most politically conscious of the impressionists — and the only one to have work included in all of the exhibitions — was Camille Pissarro, an anarchist. After trying to establish his family and career in Paris, he had moved to London at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. There he met Claude Monet, and it was here that they both encountered art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, the subject of this exhibition.
The establishment of the deeply reactionary Third Republic following the defeat of the Commune, along with the re-establishment of the Salon, led the impressionists to consider again holding an independent exhibition to display their work directly to buyers.
The movement has been criticised as the art of forgetting — helping to obliterate the war and Commune from public memory with its pastoral landscapes and scenes of the bourgeois at leisure. But art with a clear political message would have been foolhardy after the Commune. Painting landscapes was a political act in itself as it went against the established hierarchy of genres which regarded formal historical and religious paintings most highly.
One of the Commune’s great heroes, Louise Michel, later wrote, “Art, like science and liberty, must be no less available than food. Everyone must take up a torch to let the coming era walk in light. Art for all! Science for all! Bread for all!”
So in the end, who invented impressionism? It sure as hell wasn’t you Mr Durand-Ruel.
Inventing Impressionism runs from 4 March to 31 May at the National Gallery, London.
The exhibition will be staffed by outside contractors. Workers have taken strike action in defence of their jobs so anyone attending should check for further strikes. And remember, some of the huge £16 entrance fee will be boosting the profits of G4S.