Modern life, by the 1860s, was looking increasingly hectic and perplexing. As towns expanded; as the train threatened to replace the horse-drawn cart; as the advent of electrical lighting illuminated streets at night, bringing the promise of a non-stop, twenty-four-hour-a-day metropolis, so it seemed that life itself had speeded up to a giddy blur. “Modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent,” proclaimed the French poet Charles Baudelaire. Unlike his more conservative English contemporaries, such as John Ruskin, he preferred to celebrate rather than bemoan the new world in which he found himself, urging his contemporaries to savour the chaos of the everchanging city.
The National Gallery’s forthcoming exhibition, “Impression: Painting Quickly in France 1860-1890”, takes Baudelaire’s definition of “modernity” as its starting point and sets out to see what artists did with it. The brainchild of an American curator, Richard Bretell, it explores how a particular group of artists – broadly speaking, the Impressionists plus Edouard Manet and Vincent Van Gogh – attempted to translate their society’s accelerated sense of time into the fabric of nineteenth-century painting. In recent years a multitude of exhibitions and books have encouraged students of Impressionist art to look behind its seductive surface for its political, social and other meanings. Authors of doctoral theses have solemnly investigated the relationship between Monet’s still lives and gender relations in the
Bretell’s exhibition is worth visiting just to see two pictures by Manet on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago: “oomph” exemplified. The boldly impromptu Woman Reading, seems to have been almost physically plucked from the fast-moving panorama of Parisian life, circa 1878. We see a young woman, seated as if at the table next to our own, flicking through one of the new, picture-led magazines that were all the rage at the time – probably the aptly titled La Vie Moderne. She has no time to take off her gloves and doubtless will soon be on her way, having gulped down the mug of beer which, head still foaming, has been thumped down before her by a waiter who has already disappeared. Manet seems in almost as much of a hurry himself, applying the paint to his canvas in a flurry of marks: just twenty brushstrokes to model the girl’s face, according to Bretell (who claims to have counted them), and even fewer for the magazine that she holds. Her right fist is a serpentine squiggle of fatty pigment, the background an elegant incoherence of smudged greens, reds and flesh tones: Manet’s way of insinuating that even when you are sitting still, nowadays, the pace of life makes you feel as though you are in a speeding train.
Eighteenth century painters had shown ladies reading in aristocratic drawing rooms or on benches in country estates, but Manet’s young woman about town is a world away from her demure predecessors. Inhabiting a familiar genre only to transform it, the painter measured the gap that separated the nineteenth century from the stiller world of the ancien regime. He performed a similar feat in his even more startling Races at Longchamp. Painters before had often depicted racehorses, but almost invariably from the side, as if in a statuesque frieze. Manet speeds the action to a blur and adopts a suicidal point of view, looking dead ahead at horses and jockeys as they thunder pell-mell towards the finish. It is a picture that makes a knowing joke of its own apparent rapidity of execution, conjuring images of the artist diving under the running rail even as he puts the last touch to his canvas.
Impressionism is often regarded as a dreamily pastoral movement: a continuation of the Romantics’ dream of oneness with nature or (to put it in its worst light) the art of the picnic. “Painting Quickly” puts such preconceptions to the sword, or at least to the test. One of its principal themes is the extent to which painters apparently dedicated to capturing the beauties of the countryside were affected by new patterns of urban life. Monet, the epitome of the Impressionist artist, is represented by some of his freshest plein-air oil paintings, including the National Gallery’s The Beach at Trouville – a picture of his wife and sister-in-law sitting under parasols beside the sea, its surface visibly encrusted with particles of windblown sand and seashell. Such works were, in part, the product of the artist’s passionate desire to catch life on the wing, expressed in a touching letter to his friend Bazille: “I’ve got such a desire to do everything, my head explodes… I want to struggle, to scrape off, to begin again … it seems to me when I see nature that I want to do it all, write it all down.” But he was equally fascinated by urban subjects such as La Gare Saint-Lazare – trains on the point of departure, shrouded in steam – and it is not hard to believe that his heightened sense of natural time was affected by his experience of the city.
The exhibition distils Impressionism to the art of the “Impression”: the image of what can be glanced or glimpsed but never gazed at, slowly, in tranquillity. Renoir’s statuesque nudes are passed over for works like his stunningly violent A Gust of Wind; Pissarro’s rural idylls are omitted to concentrate on late and experimental pictures like the nearly abstract Boulevard Montmartre at Night. Many members of the Impressionists’ audience were outraged, believing artists had suddenly taken to exhibiting mere preparatory sketches. Artists themselves were sometimes unsure how to categorise their experiments. Monet originally referred to pictures like the freely handled Bathers at la Grenouillere as “mauvaises pochades” – bad sketches – before eventually deciding that they were an integral part of his oeuvre. Richard Bretell argues that in destroying consensus about the difference between “finished” and “unfinished”, the Impressionists paved the way for later and even more improvisatory art. It was only a short step, he says, to the works of the German Expressionists and, beyond, to those of the Action Painters who put American art on the map in the 1940s and 1950s.
There is a certain truth in this, but like many an enthusiast Bretell overstates his case. Painters have always been alert to the capacities of marks that do not, in purely illusionistic terms, represent their subjects. There are passages of freely improvised, sketchily suggestive painting to be found in the work of such widely disparate artists as Tintoretto, Fragonard and John Constable. Bretell may also be wrong to place such exclusive emphasis on the innovations achieved by the Impressionists when they painted at speed. Some of the most adventurous, apparently quickfire Impressionist painting was actually done very slowly, and very deliberately, in the studio. We know that this was almost always the case with Degas – which is why, although he was actually the most brilliantly experimental and innovative French painter of the time, Bretell can only include a handful of his pictures in the exhibition. But it was often true of Monet and of Manet also - just because Woman Reading looks as though it were done fast does not mean it was. Effects of spontaneity are notoriously deceptive, and I suspect quite a few of the pictures Bretell wants us to believe were painted quickly took rather a long time.Having said that, what a relief it is to come across an Impressionist exhibition that wants to do more than merely bring the crowds in; and despite various caveats Bretell’s basic argument – that Impressionism marks a decisive break with the past, which we can only understand if we attend to the minutiae of how the paintings were made, and how they look – is surely correct. Baudelaire’s ideas about the nature of modern life were doubtless influential. So too was the advent of photography. The Impressionists were among the first artists to recognise the danger posed to their profession by the new technology and their reponse, while daring, was also perfectly logical. They accentuated the expressive characteristics of painting, all that separated it from the mechanical illusionism of the photographic image. The blur, the blot, the smudge, the swipe, the inchoate brushstroke in all its glory – these had been part of the vocabulary of art for centuries. But now they assumed a new importance and centrality. Painting, it is fair to say, was never quite the same again.