Impressionism today is the subject of widespread acclaim, encompassing such famous artists as Monet, Degas and Renoir. But in today’s climate of admiration, it’s easy to forget that this was once a widely derided form of art. Critics called the impressionists untalented lunatics, and the name of the movement itself was once a derogative label. The National Gallery is set to host a new exhibition called Inventing Impressionism from 4th March to 31st May 2015, which is the best place to go and see how art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel managed to bring the work of these artists towards acceptance and eventual success. So now is the perfect time to look at how precarious a start the impressionist movement had.
Manet and the salon of the rejected
Manet is seen by many as the spiritual father of the impressionist movement. Although he did not categorise himself as an impressionist artist, he was an exponent of some of the movement’s key ideas, focusing on painting outdoors rather than in a studio, capturing the effects of light, showing brushstrokes in his work, and rejecting classical themes in favour of the everyday. His work was rejected by the art establishment and refused a place in the ‘salon’, or exhibition, of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Instead he was allowed a place in the 1868 Salon des Refusés – or ‘salon of the rejected’ – where his piece Luncheon on the Grass was widely criticised for the scandalous inclusion of a naked woman amongst two fully-clothed men.
The spectre of war
Manet regularly met with many like-minded artists, such as Monet and Renoir, at the Café Guerbois in Paris, and it was from these exchanges that a real movement began to emerge. However, in 1870, this meeting of minds was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war. Many of the artists fled to safety, and as a result, the movement could have ended before it really began. However, the continued friendship of Monet and Camille Pissarro in London, and the end of the war in 1871, meant that the group were soon back together again.
With the help of art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, Monet and Pissarro encouraged a group of fellow artists to host a new exhibition in 1874 in a Parisian photography studio. This was to include Monet’s now-famous Impression, Sunrise, which was a brilliant example of the movement’s ideals. But people at the time weren’t so receptive. They wanted more uplifting works of art following the heartache of a recent war, rather than these strange, ‘sketch-like’ incarnations. Influential critic Louis Leroy called the works ‘Impressionist’ as a derisive nod to Monet’s title, implying that they were insubstantial and unfinished. But the artists adopted the term as a badge of honour, and the critics soon followed suit.
Today it is one of the most famous, and most widely appreciated, art movements in the world. Check out the must-see Inventing Impressionism exhibit at the National Gallery to discover its charms for yourself.