Impressionism and the Changing Artistic Zeitgeist in Paris

Categories: Art

Painting Technique & the Making of Modernity” Anthea Callen described the cultural zeitgeist in Paris that paved the way for Impressionism, saying: “The nineteenth history is characterized in art history as an era of innovation.... Science and technology provided painters with a greatly extended range of artists’ materials and pigments, and colour merchants retailed a burgeoning selection of ready-made equipment. It is essential to consider not only the relationship between technological change ad artists’ techniques, but also the new age of which both were a product.

She goes on to describe how painting outside became possible with inventions that made it easier to transport easels and paint, which, in turn, aligned with a feeling of egalitarianism and increased democratization of art and of being an artist; the French national motto now is ’Liberte, egalite, fraternite’, meaning "Liberty, equality, fraternity (brotherhood)”. This motto, though adopted in the late 19th century, was coined during the French revolution, which by Degas’ time, had had almost 100 years to seep into the collective French conscience.

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These ideals of overturning monarchy and rejecting hierarchal authority would parallel the perceived headbutting of Impressionist painters against the Academie des Beaux-Arts, the judging body that dominated over who and what style of painting could be shown publicly. The Academie held annual art exhibits that only featured paintings that conformed to its standards. For struggling artists, getting theirs works exhibited gave them a chance at exposure to patrons of the art and could make or break a reputation, start a career, and win admirers as well as fame.

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Parisian critics of the time largely aligned themselves with the Academie, and were preoccupied with keeping art within a strict and narrow set of guidelines. Anthea goes on to note the power of the art critics of the late 18th century in helping to shape public perception of paintings, stating: “... The written language of the criticism had the power to interpret the new artistic trends... to a a nineteenth century public both visually untutored and suspicious of change.

Therefore art critics, by mediating the meaning of paintings, could successfully defuse the threat of the genuinely radical pictorial statement, disarming it’s political force... ” Originally, even the term “Impressionism” was invented in a critique by then-columnist and art critic Louis Leroy. His first article with the term for the new painting style appeared in the Le Charivari newspaper and used the word “Impressionist” from Claude Monet’s painting entitled “Impression Sunrise” (In french, “Impression, Soleil Levant”).

In the article, he made fun of the new style of painting he was unaccustomed to, and sarcastically compared them to wallpaper and mere unfinished sketches. He wrote: “Impression—I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it ... and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape. ” In 1874, Parisian artists from the Cooperative and Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers staged an exhibit at the studio of photographer and journalist Felix Nadar.

A group of artists composed of Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, and a few others organized the original group of paintings to be shown and were eventually joined by Paul Cezanne, Auguste Renoir and others. The exhibit was an open rebellion against the established artistic standards of the Academie des Beaux-Arts, and featured paintings that directly flouted the conventions of the period. The new style of painting, which featured unusual composition, bright paint colors, and prominent, noticeable brush strokes went against almost everything that the Academie stood for.

Degas’ “The Dance Class” is a perfect example of this style. According to art historian Frederick Hart, Degas differs from the Impressionists in that he "never adopted the Impressionist color fleck" (Hartt 1976, p. 365 Hartt, Frederick (1976). "Degas" Art Volume 2. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc. : 365. ), but his use of bright colors, his delight at capturing everyday people in the middle of a moment, and his commitment to showing the effects of light and unusual composition were typical of the Impressionist movement.

Even Degas himself did not like to align himself with the Impressionist movement, and historian Carol Armstrong points out in her biography of Degas that he did not like to be called an Impressionist: “He was often as anti-impressionist as the critics who reviewed the shows.... Degas was quoted as saying, “No art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and of the study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing. " (Armstrong 1991, p. 22 Armstrong, Carol (1991). Odd Man Out: Readings of the Work and Reputation of Edgar Degas.

Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-02695-7) Although Degas did not originally like the term, now he is considered a large part of the Impressionist painting movement. Art historian Charles Stuckey defended Degas’ inclusion in the Impressionist cannon "it is Degas' fascination with the depiction of movement, including the movement of a spectator's eyes as during a random glance, that is properly speaking 'Impressionist'. ” (Guillaud and Guillaud 1985, p. 28Guillaud, Jaqueline; Guillaud, Maurice (editors) (1985). Degas: Form and Space. New York: Rizzoli. ISBN 0-8478-5407-8)

The Impressionist use of color was partly influenced by Japanese prints, in what it was called ‘Japonism’ in France; the late 1800’s was a time of European fascination with the Orient, and with Japanese art in particular. These Japanese prints often made dramatic use of the “cut-off” composition – where the subject is chopped off at the frame – and Degas uses this visual device in “The Dance Class” as well as throughout his work. Degas was also heavily influenced by the early years of photography, which by the time of the Impressionists, had technologically advanced to the point of the snapshot camera.

The blurriness and accidental cropping off that happened in developing a photograph provided an intriguing new way to look at the world, and Impressionists patterned their compositions in ways similar to the new photographs that had captured the public imagination. Like those photographs and Japanese prints, Degas overturns traditional compositional rules, and does so in many ways in “The Dance Class”; the composition is asemetrical, the the dancers from unusual angles and viewpoints, as though Degas was trying to capture a glimpse that a passing viewer might have.

These elements of composition were quite radical for those times, and critics reacted strongly and negatively to Degas’ depictions of ballerinas. In of Degas’ paintings, dancers were shown backstage or in rehearsal, emphasizing their status as professionals doing a job. This contrasted with their public, glamorous persona, and echoed the Impressionist idealization and infatuation with everyday situations--again, a turn away from the focus of the Academie’'s preference of religious and mythological themes.

The subject matter of Impressionism is often casual, everyday life, captured with an immediacy enhanced by transient effects of light and atmosphere. In this work, it seems as though the moment depicted is one the viewer happened upon; perhaps walking backstage. In no way do the figures seem posed, or, for that matter, poised. This was a radical departure from how paintings prefered by the Academie treated their subjects, and critics strongly reacted. Wrote Camille Mauclair in 1903: Not only does he amuse himself with noting the special movements of the dancers, but he also notes the anatomical defects. He shows with cruel frankness, with a strange love of modern character, the strong legs, the thin shoulders, and the provoking and vulgar heads of these frequently ugly girls of common origin. With the irony of an entomologist piercing the coloured insect he shows us the disenchanting reality in the sad shadow of the scenes, of these butterflies who dazzle us on the stage.

He unveils the reverse side of a dream without, however, caricaturing; he raises even, under the imperfection of the bodies, the animal grace of the organisms; he has the severe beauty of the true. ” (THE FRENCH IMPRESSIONISTS(1860-1900)BY CAMILLE MAUCLAIR Translated from the French text of Camille Mauclair, by P. G. Konody. 1903) “The Dance Class” shows many ballerinas at the end of a dance lesson. The asymmetrical composition has the whole bottom right completely empty space while the upper left of the canvas is full of figures.

Several ballerinas are cut off at the edge of the painting (like photographs and Japanese prints), and they are in the middle of preening, slumping and seem completely unengaged while watching their teacher, the principal figure in the middle of the canvas. Degas closely observed the most spontaneous, natural, ordinary gestures, and was reported to regularly watch dance practices at the Paris Opera, and shows one ballerina scratching her back while looking on, disinterested and seated on top of a piano.

Degas took pains to show these women as they really were: tired and inattentive ballerinas at the end of what undoubtedly was a long and athletically rigorous grueling rehearsal. This depiction exemplifies what Impressionism stood for: a desire for ordinary people to be elevated as worthy of being depicted in art, a desire to capture movement and vibrant color, and a turn away from the rules and confines of the desires of the art elite. Perhaps Degas himself might not like it, but he most certainly characterizes Impressionism perfectly!

Updated: Nov 20, 2023
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Impressionism and the Changing Artistic Zeitgeist in Paris. (2018, Oct 30). Retrieved from

Impressionism and the Changing Artistic Zeitgeist in Paris essay
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