4,600,000. the paintings of this period are among the most familiar images in art. the greatness of the artists is a commonplace of western culture. it's yours. but the impressionists started out as radicals. when it was first exhibited, their art was rejected as disturbing, inept, incomprehensible, even immoral. why were people so hostile? what was the accepted art of the period? in mid 19th-century france, as so often in the story of the art of the west, art was a serious business loaded with political significance. it was used by the rulers not only to embody their ideals of beauty, but to enshrine the values which, in their eyes, underpinned a civilized and stable society.
art which didn't do that could be the object of contempt, fear, and even repression. there could hardly be a better example of the official establishment art of the time than this building, the paris opera house. it was constructed at vast cost-- 10 lives were lost in building it, 500 houses destroyed to make way for it, all to celebrate the values of french, bourgeois, metropolitan culture and the stability and continuity of its political life. this stability had been undermined by the franco-prussian war and the siege of paris in 1870. then in the following year, 1871, the people of paris seized control of the city. but the commune was overthrown with terrible brutality. [woman singing opera] thousands of people were executed, and the center of the city was left partially wrecked.
the opera was begun before the franco-prussian war but only completed after the crushing of the commune. but while the finishing touches were being applied here, just across the city an artist lay in prison. gustave courbet had been a member of the paris commune. he'd been accused of helping destroy the vendome column, symbol of french imperialism. [rumble] courbet came from the country. he came from the jura near the swiss border. he saw himself as a wild man from the backwoods. he was a notorious rebel against establishment values in art. the parisian art world was dominated by the salon, a vast state-sponsored exhibition.
here large-scale religious or historical subjects were preferred, showing dramatic deeds or moralizing themes like couture's romans of the decadence. highly popular, too, were images of beautiful women presented in settings remote in time or place-- in classical antiquity or an imaginary orient. there were also trivial anecdotal pictures of everyday life. courbet called his art "realist." [church bell ringing]
rejecting the idealized vision and false rhetoric of academic art, he painted the mourners attending a funeral in his own small town. courbet said, "it was not my intention "to attain the trivial goal of art for art's sake. "no. my aim is to translate the customs, the ideas, "and the appearance of my own epoch as i see them." we're not told who's being buried, but it's clearly no one of national significance, but courbet called his vast picture a history of a burial at ornans. by its size and title, he was claiming that his society's everyday customs were just as worthy subjects of serious historical art
as any other. modern landscape and modern people were now the raw material for a serious form of painting. courbet intended his picture to be seen at the paris salon. it was clearly meant to shock, particularly in the political circumstances of 1850 when it was exhibited. in the elections of may 1849, about 1/3 of the votes in the countryside had been polled for radical republican candidates who opposed the presidency of louis napoleon. to the urban bourgeoisie, these rural republicans seemed a threat to the whole social order. courbet was born here in ornans, the son of a prosperous farmer, a member of the class which the parisians had found so puzzling when they saw it depicted in the burial.
courbet presented himself as a man of the country... a sort of natural being with untamed appetites. courbet was also an anarchist, a follower of pierre-joseph proudhon, who wanted to do away with central government and create a classless society of free individuals. individualism and realism were closely connected for courbet, who felt that the artist could only realize himself through an immersion in the physical world. "i believe that painting is an essentially concrete art "and can only consist in the representation of real and existing things." "an abstract object does not belong in the domain of painting."
courbet's technique, with its loose brushwork and sweeps of the palette knife, producing simple, very physical surfaces of thick oil paint, tangibly records his engagement with the physical stuff of this world. courbet's landscapes, with their simple, natural elements-- trees, crags, waterfalls-- emphasize the primacy of the eye over the conventions of academic art. placing himself and his art at the center of his political allegory, the painter's studio, he asserted the importance of the painter's individuality and his independence from the demands of the state and the artistic establishment. but his attack on the values of the salon was not a sign of indifference to it.
his bathers is a parody of the rhetorical poses of the classical tradition with its blatantly unidealized women. the nude, too, that most traditional of subjects, had become part of the realist project. courbet's egalitarian ideas, his rejection of academic art, his insistence on being true to the appearance of the modern world as he saw it, all had a great influence on manet and the impressionists. but the modernity which they thought they should portray in their art was not that of the country, but of the city with its new classes, its parks, its suburbs, and its fashionable life. baudelaire himself made a pioneer plea
for a new art of the city when he said that the true artist will be he who snatches from the life of today its epic quality, who makes us understand how poetic we are in our cravats and our patent leather boots. edouard manet outlived courbet by only a decade, but his work seems to belong to a different era. his own position as a fashionable man in the demi-monde was not unusual, but this world had not been regarded as suitable material for art. in 1862, he painted a fashionable gathering listening to music in the tuileries gardens. his technique was harshly criticized by his contemporaries. it was emphatically unlike the manual dexterity of academic training. he was criticized for treating everything alike.
clothes, umbrellas, chairs are given just as much significance as a face. the picture was contrived to seem artless, a personal response to his optical experience. and this in itself was an attack on academic hierarchies of the face over the body, of the hero over the ordinary person. but the first major scandal of manet's career was provoked when he submitted the dejeuner sur l'herbe to the salon in 1863. it was rejected. the dejeuner was a parody of earlier artistic traditions. manet said, "i'm going to redo giorgione's picture "in the transparency of the atmosphere with figures like you see there by the river." the dejeuner is an attempt, like courbet's bathers, to paint the nude in a modern way.
but these are city people, people you might know. in bringing the scene up-to-date, manet, too, has subverted the meaning of the earlier tradition. the situation is hard to fathom. gestures and expressions make no obvious sense, and yet the directness of the woman's gaze invites us to participate in this equivocal situation. undeterred by the reception of the dejeuner sur l'herbe, manet submitted olympia to the salon in 1865. it was accepted, but it provoked great derision.
the model was thought hideous and her surroundings degraded. olympia with her black servant was identified by some critics as a parisian prostitute. the treatment of the painting also shocked the viewers. the paint is applied with a calculated simplicity, and the lighting is harsh and frontal, leaving a ribbon of dark shadow round her body. her presence is quite at odds with the finesse of academic painting. olympia exposes the conventions which structured the display of sexuality in the nudes which were successful at the salon, nudes such as cabanel's birth of venus, which won the medal of honor in 1863. violating the principle that nudes in art
must be remote and passive, this modern venus challenges the viewer to respond to her gaze. olympia is silenced but not rendered powerless by her position. in the heavily censored regime of napoleon iii, she brought to the salon a disturbing suggestion-- that there were elements in life that might not be under control. the industrial revolution was bringing profound social changes to france. paris itself was transformed by baron haussmann, the prefect of paris, whose great boulevards were crashing through the old neighborhoods. an elegant, impersonal, modern city was created. new classes emerged and asserted their right to enjoy themselves.
taking their cue from manet, younger artists began to paint aspects of modern city life. but the city they observed was often an uncertain, anonymous place. it offered alienation as well as adventure. the cafe concerts were places of popular entertainment where people from different classes could mingle, their identities masked. edgar degas, in particular, explored places like these with an extraordinary variety of techniques, increasingly using pastel as a means of combining color with drawing. [woman singing in french]
pierre auguste renoir painted a far more involved and festive vision of the era. the forms of the figures dissolved into a play of patches of warm and cool color, which suggest the fall of sunlight through the trees. by this focus on the surface of appearances, renoir treats the modern world as a spectacle, rather than creating the sort of moral narrative favored by academic artists. of this study, nude in sunlight, a newspaper critic said, "someone kindly explain to monsieur renoir "that a woman's torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh "with the green and purplish b blotches that indicate a state of putrefaction in a corpse."
his la loge was shown at the first impressionist exhibition in 1874. this exhibition was an explicit rejection of the salon because it was jury free. all subscribers had a right to display their work. the show was dominated by outdoor scenes, mostly small, informal pictures which the artists painted in the open air in front of their subjects. most critics welcomed the initiative of the exhibition, but many also complained that the works were unfinished with their visible brushwork and their imprecise definition of form.
the artists themselves distinguished between their more elaborate and tidily executed canvases and their sketches, rapid notations of subjects or natural effects. one of claude monet's sketches, impression--sunrise, precipitated the naming of the group as impressionists. the expatriate american, james mcneill whistler, was also invited to join the first exhibition, but he preferred to continue showing his work in london, although his very simple, freely brushed nocturnes had much in common with the impressionists' atmospheric sketches. it was this lack of finish which led the celebrated english critic, ruskin, to accuse whistler of flinging a pot of paint in the face of the public. the impressionists' interest in open-air painting led them to the landscape on the outskirts of paris
and the expanding villages along the river seine. such areas were meeting places of several different worlds. camille pissarro made art out of the least prepossessing parts of his surroundings. even a drab road in louveciennes, where he lived, could provide the raw material for art. pissarro generally peopled the streets of louveciennes with peasant figures, showing it as a country village, but when renoir painted the same stretch of road, he transformed it into a cheerful pleasure ground with fashionably dressed strollers from the city. monet lived for five years at argenteuil on the river seine. he painted it over and over again in all weathers and all seasons. he was becoming increasingly concerned with the problems
of translating fleeting light effects into paint. but he continued to explore the many different facets of the place. [train chugs] [train whistle blows] industry itself, the cause of suburban expansion, was largely ignored or evaded, although the chimneys of a local factory made a discreet appearance. but all these landscapes show his surroundings very much in a process of change, of transformation. this went right against the conventions of contemporary french landscape painting, which presented the countryside of france as a timeless, historical world. pissarro, who was an anarchist and a socialist, was one of the few impressionists who tried to come to terms
with the industrial landscape itself. by the early 1880s, in part because of commercial failure, the project of painting modern life began to be abandoned. most of the group, by now in middle age, were in retreat from explicitly modern subjects. they began to leave the city. renoir became preoccupied with the nude in an increasingly timeless, traditional way. pissarro began to express his utopian anarchism in paintings of peasant life, adopting the techniques of younger artists who applied their paint in small points of color. light became monet's central preoccupation. he was now less interested in the substance of the objects that he painted than in the ways in which their appearance was modified by light and atmosphere. he treated his subjects in long series of paintings
showing the same motif in different lights. he said, "the further i go, "the better i see that it takes a great deal of work "to succeed in rendering what i want to render-- "instantaneity, above all, the enveloppe, "the same light spread over everything, "and i'm more than ever disgusted at things that come easily at the first attempt." this rejection of the sketch, together with his pursuit of the most transitory light effects, forced monet to work up his increasingly elaborate paint surfaces in the studio, away from the natural subject. eventually, he solved this predicament with his retreat into a world that he made for himself, a world in which nature was brought within a few yards of his front door and weeded by his six gardeners.
in the 1890s, monet began to build his water garden at giverny, and this garden, periodically enlarged, soon became his principal subject. nature here was organized according to his exact specifications. the light played across a world all of his own design. he could work out-of-doors summer after summer when the weather was right, but also work close by in his studio, where his memory would be freshest, and bring the pictures to the degree of finish he sought. he spent his final decade working on these huge canvases of the lily pond, and they remain an old man's celebration of the world of light and color.
this is monet's old studio, giverny, now the gift shop restored with lavish donations from foreign sponsors, especially americans-- rockefeller, ford, henry kissinger, richard nixon. here you can buy the age of the impressionists in reproduction. it's ironic that having started out as radicals, the impressionists should end up being the art of the establishment, the most sought-after, the most well-known, and the most reproduced art in history. the familiarity of impressionism deprives us
of the disquiet the works provoked when they were first exhibited. the very modernity they tried to paint is now bathed in easy nostalgia. painting the rituals and pleasures of an expanding middle-class world, the impressionists hold up a flattering mirror to our own desires and aspirations. here, the restaurant fournais, a chateau by the river seine, a group of people sit on a sunlit balcony, surrounded by the trappings of material well-being-- food, drink, nice clothes, easy friendship-- happy in themselves, confident in their world. but in the 1880s, a number of young, ambitious artists felt that the impressionist technique had taken them as far as it could. they tried to push beyond that in a variety of ways.
we call them post-impressionists. many detected in their work a subtle shift in the relationship between painting and the world it portrayed, as if modern life had become a problem for artists. in 1886, george seurat exhibited his monumental work-- sunday afternoon on the island of the grande jatte. this is one of the most influential pictures of the 188os, and it signals a radical departure from the renoir. the picture depicts another island on the river seine also used by the parisians for sunday outings, the same kind of place as the renoir.