Claude Monet, Impression, Soleil Levant (1872).
The terms Impressionism and Impressionists normally refer to an art movement from the late nineteenth century, as well as to its adherents. The word Impressionist began as a derogatory term to describe Monet’s painting, Impression, Sunrise. Defining the qualities which make Impressionism impressionistic is a bit more difficult.1
A Wikipedia retrieval defined Impressionism as follows:
“Characteristics of Impressionist paintings include relatively small, thin, yet visible brush strokes, open composition, emphasis on the accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities (often accentuating the effects of the passage of time), ordinary subject matter, the inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience, and unusual visual angles.”2
So much for the wiki.
Our present lack of clarity on the issue is nothing new. R.A.M. Stevenson, whom I have quoted a few times on this site, describes in his monograph on Velazquez how the general public was likely to define Impressionism during its heyday. “Many people, in speaking of impressionism, imply that it must be unmodelled, scarce drawn, roughly surfaced, ugly, at least commonplace in subject. Others hold that whatever else it may do, it must represent, like an instantaneous photograph, passing movements by blotches and blurs, and show you strange and really unimpressionistic attitudes never seen in life, but mechanically revealed by the camera.”3
There were other painters however, who painted impressionistically and yet also pursued accurate drawing, value, and color. Gammell claimed that, “Although the name ‘impressionist,’ first applied in derision to a small group of French landscapists, it has since been given a larger meaning and is now widely used to designate the entire category of painters, in whatever period they worked, who have been mainly preoccupied with rendering their impressions of the visible world. The word ‘impressionism’ admirably suggests this purpose and differentiates it from a realism which seeks to imitate appearances.”4
Although Gammell wrote that in 1946, Stevenson had said much the same thing nearly 50 years earlier.5
Frank Benson, The Sunny Window (1919)
In the biography of his principle teacher, William Mcgregor Paxton, Gammell shows that this definition of impressionism was quite broad and as such perhaps beyond appropriation by one group.
After all, the element in painting which we call impressionism is simply the pictorial expression of an artist’s reaction to his visual impressions . . . Whenever any painter transcribes a visual impression to paper or canvas, to that extent he is an impressionist. Obviously, then, all painters who have made representation a part of their aim have been, to some degree, impressionists.
R. H. Ives Gammell6
In his short 1961 biography of Degas (The Shop-Talk of Edgar Degas) Gammell writes, “When written with a capital I the word Impressionist is now ordinarily used in referring to the group under the leadership of Claude Monet. Degas, of course, was also an impressionist in the larger sense of the term which includes all painters primarily concerned with recording their visual impressions in paint.7
Achieving a true visual impression in a painting, as defined by Stevenson, Gammell, and others of the time, requires a direct and consistent study of nature as you observe it.
“The essential characteristic of the impressionist painter is his attitude to what, in studio parlance, is often called nature. The word “nature” has long been in common use among painters to designate objectively observed aspects of the visible world. These aspects may be compared with an artist’s representation of them and, when the representation differs from the thing represented, the divergence may safely be attributed to the artist’s defective powers of observation, the inadequacy of his rendering or to his intentional alteration. Nature provides the starting point of the rendering as well as the criteria by which the truth of the finished product may be judged.”8
Joseph DeCamp, The Blue Cup (1909).
Some of the quotes above may seem to imply that all the impressionist artist does is directly copy nature.9 But, this interpretation would be a mistake. Paraphrasing one of America’s great landscape painters, George Inness, painting is nature as seen through a temperament. Gammell would not have disagreed. Recall earlier when he said, “the word ‘impressionism’ admirably suggests this purpose and differentiates it from a realism which seeks to imitate appearances.”10
As another example, when writing about Paxton’s prowess as a draftsman, Gammell states that, “once he has established his shapes correctly, every draftsman of distinction tends to alter them slightly to conform with his personal feeling for style. With DeCamp this resulted in an emphasis of the flat planes, whereas Paxton lingered over the curves.”11
Dennis Miller Bunker The Pool, Medfield (1889).
This kind of impressionism is also termed the unity of effect and seeing the big-look. Gammell described this quite well in his biography of the American artist, Dennis Miller Bunker and also, later on, in his biography of Paxton:
“For an essential characteristic of all fine painting is unity of effect, and this unity is destroyed by any detail stated in a false relation to the other component parts of the picture. This is particularly true [when] the purpose is to recreate on the canvas the impression made on the painter’s eye . . . To achieve this end, each detail must be set down with just the degree of definition and coloration which it holds for the eye when the focus of vision is adjusted to include the entire scene depicted. Piecemeal notation of individual detail immediately destroys the requisite unity of impression and turns the canvas into a compilation of separately observed visual facts. This invariably results in a hard, dry look, destroying all breadth of effect and offensive even to those who are quite unaware of its technical cause.”12
“The selection of a visual focus is of primary importance to all painters seeking to render nature as it appears to their eyes. It is well known, and easily verifiable, that as we look at things we adjust the focus of our vision to the purpose in hand. When we focus on a small area the surrounding objects appear increasingly blurred as they recede form the center of vision. When, on the other hand, we widen our field of vision so as to embrace a larger area no single detail appears with great sharpness of definition. To establish and to hold a single visual focus throughout the painting of a picture and to give objects precisely the degree of definition compatible with that particular focus is a major problem of impressionist painting. The perfect solution of that problem imparts a grandeur of style which can be studied in the mature work of Velazquez and Vermeer.”13
Edmund Tarbell, Reverie (1913).
Achieving a unity of effect in a painting is no small task and it can be tiring work for the artist. “Painting from nature, as it is interpreted and practiced by impressionist painters, is essentially creative work. People who have no understanding of this kind of art imagine it to be a sort of routine copying, a task which the eye and hand carry out almost mechanically. This wholly mistaken opinion may seem substantiated by the habit of talking to their sitters cultivated by most portrait painters, a necessary part of their job which greatly increases the fatigue of painting. The fact is, however, that making a synthesis of observed visual facts, the fundamental act of impressionist painting, is an exceptionally exhausting form of mental activity to which is added the physical fatigue of walking back and forth before the canvas. The nervous tension accompanying this kind of work is also considerable.”14
Many of the twentieth century painters who carried on the tradition in pursuit of the unity of effect were Americans, based out of Boston. They became known as The Boston School and The Ten. Gammell, whose main training came from Paxton (who was part of The Boston School), passed this tradition onto Richard Lack and so on.
1 Note the lower-case letter “i”. This convention began shortly after the beginnings of the Impressionist movement as a means to distinguish the movement, with its upper-case “I”, from the broader approach to painting directly from nature.
2Wikipedia article on Impressionism, retrieved March 24, 2011.
3 R.A.M. Stevenson, Velasquez, George Bell & Sons, London, 1906, page 121.
4 R.H. Ives Gammell, Twilight of Painting, Parnassus Imprints, Orleans, MA, 1946, page 67.
5 R.A.M. Stevenson, Velasquez, George Bell & Sons, London, 1899, pages 113-125.
6 R.H. Ives Gammell, William McGregor Paxton: 1869-1941, Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1979, page 19.
7 R. H. Ives Gammell, The Shop-Talk of Edgar Degas, ed. University Press, Boston, 1961, page 6.
8 R.H. Ives Gammell, ibid., page 19.
9 Bear in mind we are speaking of trained painters, not students.
10 R.H. Ives Gammell, op cit., page 67.
11 R.H. Ives Gammell, op cit., page 54.
12 R.H. Ives Gammell, Dennis Miller Bunker, Coward-McCann Inc., New York, 1953, page 65.
13 R.H. Ives Gammell, op cit., page 37.
14 R.H. Ives Gammell, op cit., page 44.