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A Cool Reception for Warm Tones: American Audiences’ Initial Reaction to Impressionism

Publié le 1 février, 2009 | Pas de commentaires

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The Impressionist paintings in America today enjoy a revered place in artistic venues, as well as both official and personal comments of individual artistic appreciation. But was it always so? Looking at the time when Impressionism was in its nascent stages shows us that, much like some new art forms that we see emerging today, the Impressionist art at first encountered rejection; the exploration of its history illuminates the artistic challenges of the present, positing some of the contemporary impulses of artistic evaluation strangely close to our 19th century predecessors.

* Ryan T. Swihart is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of History at Lehman College, City University of New York (CUNY).

Surface Closeup
Quasimondo, Surface Closeup, 2009
Certains droits réservés.

In 2009 a conservative viewer in an art museum scoffs at the pile of aluminum cans, the gendered laser light show and the canvas painted all in white and moves quickly on to the real art, which will of course include nineteenth century Impressionist works. It was not always so. A little over a century ago Impressionism was something of an aesthetic scandal in its own right. American viewers saw works by Monet et al. as unsettling, radical departures from accepted practices and expectations. To some critics they were hardly art at all. Revisiting that moment can augment our thinking about aesthetic problems still with us today. It also might remind us how artistic rebellion and public resistance can, over time, yield new consensus about what is acceptable and what is beautiful.

Several arguments animated complaints about Impressionism as it was understood by its American audiences and critics (1). Henry James, writing for the New York Tribune, regretted what he saw as the retreat from the “good old rules that decree that beauty is beauty and ugliness, ugliness” (2). American painter George Inness disparaged the Impressionists’ “scientific tendency to ignore the reality of the unseen” and their mistaken judgment that “the material is the real” (3). This older understanding of the purpose of art insisted that the artist’s duty was to work from nature but to render a higher, necessarily artificial, beauty, not simply to reproduce raw nature as it appeared to the senses. On the other hand, Impressionist paintings’ unconventional coloring provoked accusations that practitioners of the form willfully and brashly distorted nature rather than faithfully representing it as had earlier French landscapists. Impressionists were criticized both for being too real and for not being real enough.

Another strain of disapproval focused on the unfinished and rough nature of impressionist works, which appeared to critics more like preliminary sketches than completed paintings. Impressionism looked like it had been too easy. The physical process of creation seemed too crudely evident. “What new dogma is this, then, that so long as color is heaped on in a vigorous manner, a picture must be accepted as complete, however crude and raw it may seem, however absolute is the evidence that the artist stopped before he had done?” asked the editors of Appleton’s in 1878 (4). In a genuine, finished painting, the author continued, “one who looks at it sees textures, not paint, force by virtue of completeness and not by ruggedness, things and not guesses at things” (5).

Not just the concern of learned critics, Impressionism quickly made its way into more general public discourse. Satire aimed at the Impressionists and their works was scattered liberally throughout the newspaper pages of the 1880s and 1890s, and even lingered into the first years of the twentieth century. This body of work included cartoons, comical fictional tales and even a good deal of poetry. The main themes included the perceived conceitedness or presumption of impressionist painters, the inexact nature of their images, their unorthodox use of color, and their anti-establishment attitudes toward the critical and professional community. Almost all of these are present in an “Impressionist Poem,” submitted first to the New York Sun in 1886 and then picked up and reprinted around the country:

Languid I lie on the peachblow grass,
Watching the cadmium cloudlets pass;
Shafts from the creamy sun descending
Break and spatter with glinting grace
Mountains, in no particular place
Starting or ending.

Wrapped in a rainbow colored fog
Sleeps the land; and each pool and bog
Shines like the skin of a dolphin dying.
Not a tree but is caught and kissed,
In an pallid absinthe mist,
Nimbus like lying…

Then will the critics, long color blind,
And the art world, ages and ages behind,
Hail, as wondrous rich accessions,
Human figures devoid of bones,
All earth’s colors, without the tones –
In short, impressions (6).

Another amateur poet focused later more specifically on the unorthodox color choices of the impressionists in her “Impressionist’s Invitation:”

Come out, my love, and stroll with me
Across the cobalt dunes;
We’ll sit beside the sunset sea
That green-and-grayly croons,
That dies along the madder sands
In lines of scumbled foam;
And then we’ll clasp our umber hands,
And mauvely wander home (7).

“Can you give me any good reasons for liking impressionist pictures?” asked a widely published joke. “Yes, indeed; they can be hung either side up with equally good effect” (8). (Ah, 19th century humor…) Yet another: “Mr. Impressionist—‘That’s my last there on the easel. Now there is a picture, Squibs.’ Squibs—‘Yes, so it is. I can tell that by the frame’” (9).

More serious, perhaps, was humor that pointed to the impressionist aesthetic’s tendency to undermine critical evaluation and confuse traditional standards of judgment, even for those who considered themselves cultured, capable observers of art. Along these lines, critics and reviewers often complained that advocates of Impressionism condemned pictures too strictly verisimilar as unsophisticated and outdated. In the Boston Transcript and elsewhere we find this sketch: “Connoisseur—‘It sounds mean to repeat it, but he declared your landscape did not look a bit like nature.’ Artist—‘Ah, that was high praise! The true Impressionist does not have to indulge in servile imitation of the object he depicts’” (10). In a longer piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer a proud amateur collector’s satisfaction slowly deflates as his more up-to-date friend explains that his newest acquisition fails because all its elements are immediately recognizable:

Be calm, Blotterwink [the sophisticated comrade remarks]. You have been taken in. Why, man, where have you been living that you can’t tell a real picture when you see it? You have admitted that the cows look like cows and the trees like trees. . . . Then, look at that sunset. Why, that’s the kind of sunset you see every day. It’s yellow, pink and red. It is not brown.
I don’t believe I ever saw a brown sunset, said Blotterwink.
Of course not; nobody ever did. That’s where the art is exhibited. I’ll take you somewhere and let you buy a picture that will keep you wondering for a week whether it’s a house on fire or a charge of heavy dragoons. When you find out I’ll come and congratulate you (11).

Many critics found this sort of situation all too accurate but not at all funny. To Royal Cortissoz, the astute and long-time art critic for the New York Tribune, the Impressionists’ insistence that the burden of explanation rested no longer with the artist but with the viewer appeared more like a shirking of duty than an interesting adventure. In 1894 he recalled that

Rousseau, Corot and Millet . . . would paint in their own ways, they would give themselves free swing, but the first intention of their work would be to reproduce nature with truth. The impressionist’s intention is somewhat the same, but he makes the following distinction. “This is as I see nature,” he declares. “You may tell me that that is an oak, and that those flowers are daisies. Yonder bush may be one of roses. Mais que voulez-vous? I am no maker of catalogues. I do not pretend to tell you just what is there. I tell you what I see there, and what I see is so much tone. I leave it to your cleverness to translate my tone, my beautiful pigments, back to natural facts. Presto!” . . . It marks a step in the . . . direction of personality resting satisfied with its own outlook (12).

Such contributions to the discourse on modern art, whether meant to be amusing or not, point to a threatening shift in the relation of the public to cultural objects and to the idea of cultural refinement as accessible, permanent, and therefore valuable. These episodes in print suggest a situation in which the achievement of cultural sophistication or literacy might be only temporary, that the realm of aesthetic judgment and appreciation could be as changeable as that of politics or fashion. So what was the use of educating oneself anyway?

The discomfort many cultural commentators were just beginning to feel with Impressionism was colored by a sense of betrayal: just as Americans were rising toward the cultural standards set by Europeans it seemed that the rules were changing suddenly and even irrationally. Americans interested in cultural refinement had gladly reverenced the Renaissance after it was pointed out to them that they should; they had read their John Ruskin and then their Matthew Arnold; they had learned to discern an Ingres from a David; they had followed the rise and decline of the Munich school; they had enshrined serene images by Puvis de Chavannes in their own public buildings; and they had absorbed the idea that the technical aspects of art were ever evolving toward higher planes of perfection. Then they began abruptly to hear and read that the old ways needed overthrowing, that what was needed was a revolution in seeing and painting, that light itself was now to be the primary protagonist in pictures, that immediate impressions dashed off in an afternoon were to be privileged over carefully wrought, highly finished compositions, that historical subject matter was taboo.

The stirrings of uneasiness among those skeptical of such new developments and theories about visual art would seem prophetic in future years, as the works and the celebrity of full-fledged modernists came to dominate the art world before WWI. For culturally interested Americans of the 1880s the suggestion that a cult of primitivism would soon arrive along with advocacy for a complete abandonment of traditional representation would have sounded terrifying but unlikely, and yet this is just what they would face in the first years of the twentieth century. When such developments achieved their full force, a discourse of protection would become more vigorously conservative than those of the nineteenth century by expressing more frankly suspicion about the idea that cultural progress had to be animated by outright rebellion against the past.

The uneven reception of Impressionism and its later privileged position in the canon of Western painting might leave us with several things to think about. The confused and uncertain story of Impressionism’s arrival here should be taken as a reminder to remain humble but alert. Humble in our recognition of our relative ignorance on any given topic; alert because we do in fact believe that some suspicion in the face of new forms is healthy both for viewers and for art. In 2009 it seems more difficult than ever to evaluate new aesthetic ideas and presentations because they seem to be coming at us so quickly. We should remember we are not the first to feel this. We should remember that past eras were no simpler or easy to interpret for those who lived through them. We can, I think, nurture both an open mind and a critical eye, doing our best to walk the fine line between stubbornness and gullibility. Finally, what we see looking at the long history of the Impressionists from our perch in the twenty-first century is that, for all their austere and forbidding theoretical rhetoric, artistic ideas, like other ideas, must in the end submit to a certain rough democracy of taste.


(1) William Gerdts, in American Impressionism(New York: Artabras, 1984), page 30, has noted in a detailed discussion how “American critical evaluation of the [Impressionist] movement was confounded by indecision as to exactly what Impressionism was.”
(2) James, Henry. “Parisian Festivity.” New York Tribune. 13 May 1876. As quoted in Gerdts, American Impressionism, 30.
(3) Inness, George. “Mr. Inness on Art-Matters.” Art Journal. Vol. 5 (1879): 374-77. As quoted in Gerdts, American Impressionism, 30.
(4) “Editor’s Table.” Appleton’s Journal. Vol. 5 (Aug 1878): 185-86. As quoted in Gerdts, American Impressionism, 44.
(5) “Editor’s Table.” Appleton’s Journal. Vol. 5 (Aug 1878): 185-86. As quoted in Gerdts, American Impressionism, 44.
(6) Tyrell, Henry. “Impressionist Poems.” Dallas Morning News. 27 June 1886. Vol. 5, AHN. Attributed to the New York Sun.
(7) Baker, Mercy E. “An Impressionist’s Invitation.” Fort Worth Morning Register. 3 Jan 1902. Vol. 7, AHN. Attributed to January 1902 issue of Harpers Magazine.
(8) Santa Fe Daily New Mexican. 7 Feb 1895. Vol. 3, AHN.
(9) Duluth News-Tribune. 15 April 1896. Vol. 3, AHN. Attributed to Harlem Life.
(10) “The Impressionist.” Fort Worth Morning Register. 19 Nov 1899. Vol. 13, AHN. Attributed to the Boston Transcript.
(11) “His Wrong Ideas of Art; Liked Picture But It Was Too Far Removed from Impressionist School.” Philadelphia Inquirer. 31 July 1898. Vol. 10, AHN.
(12) Cortissoz, Royal. “Egotism in Contemporary Art.” Atlantic Monthly. Vol. 73, No. 439 (May 1894): 647, C-MOA. This would become an even more contentious matter in the coming decade, when modern artists would be increasingly accused of charlatanry and fakery – the idea being that they just tossed some paint at the canvas and then convinced the public that what resulted was fine art if only the public were sophisticated enough to understand.

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