Impressionism: America's sweetheart
Updated: Nov 12, 2021
American Impressionism could be understood as either a venture into individualism and creative expression or as the effects of political and scientific positivism of the previous generations. Impressionism has transitioned from France’s swift dive into modernism into an iconic nationalistic art movement of the United States.
America loves impressionist painting. The romanticism and lightheartedness of the landscape captivates the American eye. The pastel colors and looseness of the brushstrokes
feels ephemeral. French artists in the 19th century such as Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Bazille led the way for this new style of painting. An immediate mode of painting that in Its own time was initially rejected by Paris, the heart of the art world. Meanwhile in the United States, the civil war had ended. America was gaining an international presence and artist were ready to capitalize on this. By the late 1800s a group of American artists were clinging to Giverny and studying the processes of Monet’s artwork. These artists were called “ Givernyites” and Monet himself called them aspiring “ Little Monet’s.” This style was studied by strategic artists and brought back to the US where it spread around the country in the form of various art colonies. The uninhabited landscapes and expansive cities of the United states made perfect subject matter to be executed in this new style, and was an extension of the romantic landscapes already being created by leading artists. This style of painting mirrors the spirit of America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Revolution and change stem from a desire for personal liberties. These changes are often a form of rebellion against whatever prejudices or practices of an established institution whether it be civil disobedience, protest, subversion or the like. Demanding change through rebellion or nonconformity can be seen throughout any culture or political movement. Before North American lands officially became the United States, many explorers from throughout the world came to seek and conquer lands already populated by natives. These early settlements were looking for new riches and freedom. Some looking to get away from religious persecution, or simply to avoid taxes and impositions from their motherland.
Like early New world settlers, some artists became dissatisfied with their overarching institution and gravitated to uncharted creative territory. This renegade group of French artists were getting rejected from exhibitions and decided that they were more willing to look for new riches and freedom from the Academie des Beaux-Arts (the Salon of Paris.) What started as an incremental separation from the academy moved towards divorce (although not all impressionists gave up on the Salon indefinitely.)
The French academy, critics, and the public were generally dismayed by the work in this brushy expressive style of painting. These artists participated in an Emperor approved “Salon of the Refused” exhibition in 1863. This exhibition drew large crowds and a lot of criticism. Many of these artists and others continued to be rejected, and they continued to petition for more of these exhibitions, but were denied. They eventually created the group Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers where they exhibited their work as a formal association. This was the first official step to boycott the institution.
The term “Impressionism” was initially an insult. The paintings were described as mere impressions rather than finished works. In 1877, J. Alden Weir, a trained artist, who eventually succumbed to the style of impressionists wrote “I never in my life saw more horrible things…. They do not observe drawing nor form but give you an impression of what they call nature. It was worse than the Chamber of Horrors. “ This denigration of the painter’s efforts was embraced by the artists group and was appropriated as the formal name of the art movement. The impressionist artists were moving away from the Academic standard of painting which demanded artworks to be classical, historical or allegorical topics painted with a moral message. Paintings were expected to be rational (intelligent) and subjects often idealized. Landscape paintings were often the least respected subject at the Salon, alongside still life. The academy also expected paintings to be done in a traditional manner with thin layers of paint, tame brushwork, subtly mixed pigments, and of course accurate perspective. The four main artists we associate with Impressionism is Claude Monet,, August Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Frederic Bazille but the list of official and unofficial artists we now associate with Impressionism is extensive.
This group of artists found themselves more interested in landscape and would regularly go paint outdoors together. Plein air painting was a practice that gained popularity during the 19th century and was an extension of the types of painting done by the Barbizon school.
This group of artists and number of others found themselves slipping away from tradition and into a new realm of experimentation, directness, and creative expression. They were less concerned with creating sketches and planning elaborate compositions, and more interested in painting the moment. The sketch of the impressionist artist became the finished artwork. They were also influenced by the new processes of photography that created unorthodox compositions, blurry subjects, and distorted perspective. It is also significant that these artists were living in a post-industrial revolution Europe where products were being mass produced at quicker rates. Why then would artists not want to make quicker and more accessible artworks? The idea of spending years on one painting likely became antiquated and unrealistic for artists of this time. Especially artists who desired to make a living painting. It seems quite timely for Fine Artists to work in an instantaneous way as opposed to creating preliminary sketches in preparation for a huge academic composition.
Impressionism went from being heavily criticized to generally accepted by the French public, but fell out of fashion pretty quickly by the 1880s. This was not the case in America. American painters flocked back home to be “little Monet’s”. Art colonies began in many parts of the United states such as in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Indiana, California, New York, and Massachusetts. These colonies became established in the 1890’s through the 1910‘s and beyond. Impressionist exhibitions were on view in New York and Americans emptied their pockets. Durand-Ruel. the major exhibitor of the Impressionists once said, "The American public does not laugh. It buys!" “Without America,” he said, “I would have been lost, ruined, after having bought so many Monet’s and Renoir’s. “
Americans then (in the late 1800’s) were attracted to the lux culture of France, and the history and legacy of European Art. Impressionism made this culture accessible. Americans also preferred spending their new found money on contemporary artists rather than easily forged antique academic painting. Impressionism was accessible and the sentimentality and nostalgia of the unadulterated landscape was alluring. The American dream for many included conquering a small plot of land with a picket fence and a home with a view and a garden. This idealization of leisure, country, and landscape is evident in many impressionist paintings. There are also many French and American impressionist works that celebrate industrialization and innovation depicting smokestacks and city buildings, idealizing and romanticizing it just the same.
American artists became derivative impressionists who eventually found a niche voice within the style. The style and subject matter varied slightly across the country as it developed and essentially became the foundation of American painting education in many art schools. Amanda C Burdan, Curator of the Brandywine museum states “Monet’s American followers were creating works already in ideological harmony with the American colonial revival.” American painting educators in the late 20th and early 21st century likely studied with someone who came from an Impressionist lineage. This translated into many artists ( including myself) who learning impressionist painting techniques as a foundation, rather than side note. Learning to paint as an impressionist in your formative years has its benefits, but can also risk sacrificing drawing and design, an age old argument throughout art history. Do we sacrifice design for chroma? Or are they equally important?
American Impressionism could be understood as either a venture into individualism and creative expression or as the effects of political and scientific positivism of the previous generations. Impressionism has transitioned from France’s swift dive into modernism into an iconic nationalistic movement of the United States.
This blogpost was inspired by two exhibitions:
Polk Museum of Art’s American Impressionism exhibition See here
Brandywine Museums “Americas impressionism: Echoes of a revolution and corresponding book. See here