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How Have Impressionists Changed the Hierarchy of Subject Matter in Art?
The second half of the nineteenth century in Europe was a time when the monarchical order was surviving the last decades, new technologies and ways of consuming food, spending time became more common and widespread. Thus, the official art of that period proclaimed the beauty of exact lines, realism and did not recognize the possibility of the existence of art outside of a specific canon. As a result of such “tyranny of form,” the paintings in an impressionistic manner were born and gained incredible popularity, publicity and revolutionized art and viewer’s perception of it. One needs to understand that the official “high” art was regulated not only by rules regarding the form of painting but also by content, and, therefore, the history of the Impressionists’ influence on the art of the whole world should be studied and analyzed, based on the form, content, and context of the era in which the Impressionists appeared. This artistic style and epoch changed the hierarchy of art and opened the new perspective for perceiving objects of art.
The history of art is one continuous process in which one can observe the denial of continuation of certain traditions, the invention of new techniques, the combination of the new and old, and the like. Therefore, the art process in France in the time of the first exhibition of the Impressionists was based on a long tradition and canon, which contained a list of themes and artistic techniques that were allowed to use. In general, the hierarchy of subject matter can be divided into two broad groups: history paintings and non-historical paintings (Belton). Each of these broad categories had its graduation and place in the hierarchy. So, the top group, history paintings, contained the opportunity to paint pictures on historical themes as well as religious and mythological topics or motives (Belton). To create a “successful” painting in this category, the artist had to conduct a lengthy study of the literature on the subject and look through other pictures created by previous artists in order to select the canonical components – composition, characters, color solution – and find details that are available for interpretation to show the own innovations and skills. The creation of such paintings required the intellectual courage; it was necessary to imagine the scene as it could be, and depict it as realistically as possible. One can say that the artists had to put their intention into knowledge and write it into reality.
The paintings that belonged to the second group were divided according to the principle of proximity of the object/theme to the artist. Thus, still life and landscapes were located at the end of the hierarchy because they demanded from the artist not so much knowledge and experience and intellectual desire to create a realistic picture but the ability to depict: convey proportions, lines, and colors (Belton). Apparently, such pieces of art were simple to draw, because they did not require careful preparation. Separately it is worth noting that such paintings are readily perceived by spectators – the primary task of the public is to look at how the artist skillfully copied the landscape/still life/person’s face. All the pictures that existed within the hierarchy could get into the Salon (Salon de Paris). First Salon started its work in 1667 and became the place for the annual massive art-exhibition: “The Salons were continuously experienced and described as spectacles from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century. Their sheer visual power was a product of the large diverse audience and the impressive architectural spaces decorated with ever increasing numbers of art works” (Hallam). Being exhibited in the Salon meant being advertised and known among people who have enough financial opportunities to order a painting or buy an existing work.
The Salon that emerged as a place for the presentation of artists and their works created in a year quickly became a censorship institution, which not only selects the best works for the exhibition but also decides what art is and what is not. In this context, one needs to remember that Salons were founded by a government that means that all pictures exhibited there must be politically correct (Crow 2). It is no wonder that thanks to the canonicity and stiffness of the Salon the world received the Salon des Refusés. This exhibition was created by people who were not permitted to exhibit in Salon de Paris because their works were not good enough or politically correct. The Salon des Refusés was a place where Impressionism was born.
Before starting to discuss the revolutionary discoveries and ideas suggested by the artists who are referred to the impressionistic manner, it is worth noting that Impressionism is a broad term, which is often referred to artists who did not consider themselves as ones or on a certain stage of their creativity were consonant with the general ideas of this directions. The beginning of Impressionism is used to be found in 1863 when Édouard Manet exhibited his work The Luncheon on the Grass in the Salon des Refusés, although certain elements and tendencies to the emergence of such manner of paintings arose before Manet (Rosenfeld). To date, recognized and well-known “canonical” Impressionists are Edgar Degas, Luis Aranda Jimenez, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Valentin Serov. However, it must be remembered that while doing more detailed reflections on these painters and their works it is necessary to take into account the periods of creativity of each of the artists.
Therefore, the Salon des Refusés emerges as an institution in which were no censors, which led to the possibility of simultaneously exhibiting a large number of works performed in various manners and by artists with different level and skills. It is known that this Salon worked as a parallel to the official Salon and attracted a vast amount of the public (Moss). One of the most “bombs” that irritated critics and viewers was the work of Manet the above-mentioned The Luncheon on the Grass. In order to understand why the public reacted so negatively to the paintings, one must understand that “Images of women were dominant in the Salon in the second half of the nineteenth century, in a marked change from the ubiquitous classicized male nudes of Davidian Neoclassicism. These came in the form of pearlescent goddesses (…) with clinging drapery, lustful glances, and mock heroism than the sublime” (Rosenfeld). Therefore, the artists could draw a nude nature, but the plot of the picture was supposed to tell a lofty “allowed” story. Also, it must be remembered that, first of all, at that time the background of the painting was valued because it added the depth to the central object in the picture as well as a large number of details that complicated the picture (Boime 216). The Luncheon on the Grass angered viewers and critics because those naked women were prostitutes, not goddesses. Such an appeal to social reality opened a way to the emergence of a new art.
Impressionists believed that everyday life could be an object worthy of drawing. Therefore, a large number of pictures appear that depict the urban scenes of a large bright city: cafes, dances, passers-by, meetings, picnics. All these images showed the life that ordinary Parisians lived, which allowed art to stop looking for “truths” in mythology and classical subjects, but to look at life around. Consequently, the top genre ceases to be so privileged and essential, because young artists have discovered a new horizon of experiments with drawing and art. The themes of such paintings are the scenes mentioned above from the life of the city, portraits of representatives of various layers of society, still lifes, which depict only asparagus, large-scale landscapes, in which the artist offers to look just at one or two water-lilies, but not the whole landscape.
All these topics contributed to experiments with media and expressive language. The most significant idea and contribution of Impressionists to the world of art is the realization that one can draw not the object itself, but only the impression of the artist that is caused by the object (Rosenfeld). Around this central idea, the manner was formed: light, bright colors, “sloppy” cut brushstrokes, lack of drawn details and attention to perspective, shadows. The style of drawing was so different from the canonical one that the first critics believed that the explorers were amateurs or bad artists who could not draw (Moss). At the same time, such a first departure from the idea that the artist must transmit the object so photo-realistically made the emergence of abstract painting, Gauguin’s color theory, the deconstructivist experiments of Picasso, etc. Changing the point of view on the subject of painting required a change in contemplation and perception of the drawn. If the artists previously did not care about the viewer, because the work of art was completed and closed, it was essential for impressionists to interact with spectators (Rosenfeld). Audience from passive extras was transformed into a co-author who must look at someone else’s vision of the object and construct own, recalling the real appearance of the subject.
As a result, the Impressionists changed artists and viewers view on the object of art, arguing that everyone perceives the world differently, so there is no need to “literally” depict it. Based on this belief a traditional impressionistic manner arose, in which there were no clear lines, shadows, but were broad strokes and light colors. The opinion about the unimportance of the object allows the analysis and study of everyday life, due to which there was a large number of urban landscapes, scenes from the life of ordinary Parisian and atypical for the previous artists still life. A large number of paintings in this manner rebelled against the established hierarchy and outruns the popularity of history paintings on mythological, historical, religious themes. Artists tried to catch reality and offered to unravel it to their viewer, who not immediately but appreciate the possibility of creative viewing of paintings.
Belton, Robert J. “The Elements Of Art.” Fccs.Ok.Ubc.Ca, 1996, http://fccs.ok.ubc.ca/about/links/resources/arthistory/elements.html.
Boime, Albert. “The Salon Des Refuses And The Evolution Of Modern Art.” Art Quarterly, vol 32, 1969, pp. 411-26.
Crow, Thomas. Painters And Public Life In Eighteenth-Century Paris. New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 2000.
Hallam, John S. “Salon Symbolism – Paris Salon Exhibitions: 1667-1880.” Paris Salon Exhibitions, 2013, https://sites.google.com/a/plu.edu/paris-salon-exhibitions-1667-1880/salon-symbolism.
Moss, Melissa Beattie. “Why Is Impressionist Art So Popular?.” News.Psu.Edu, 2014, http://news.psu.edu/story/324175/2014/08/28/research/probing-question-why-impressionist-art-so-popular.
Rosenfeld, Jason. “The Salon And The Royal Academy In The Nineteenth Century.” The Met’S Heilbrunn Timeline Of Art History, 2004, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/sara/hd_sara.htm.