The Impressionists

We all know the power of words. Whether it’s an insult or praise, the effect can be a game changer in some situations. One that came to mind was through an article I read recently, announcing the forthcoming Courtauld Impressionists exhibition at the National Gallery in London.

The exhibition reminded me of the now famous one that had been held nearly a century and a half ago in Paris, April 1874. The group of artists who had come together to show their work included, among others, Renoir, Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Pissarro and Sisley, all anxious to make the public aware of their new style of painting, as well as making sales.

Unfortunately, the exhibition was something of a disaster. Few sales were made and they were belittled by the conservatives who clung to the establishment view of what art should be. The Impressionists were seen as a radical group with their new, modern way of how they saw the world around them.

A little-known critic, Louis Leroy, attacked their work, and in particular, he mocked Monet’s painting in his review:

‘What does that canvas depict? Look at the catalogue.’

Impression, Sunrise.’

Impression – I was sure of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it …’

This abbreviated version of his caustic review led to the term we all now know: The Impressionists. A term meant to ridicule the artists; instead it has come to describe one of the most important artistic movements in the world.

Someone who saw the Impressionists in a totally different light was the young poet, Jules Laforge, who died at the age of twenty-seven. He wrote in a very perceptive essay:

‘… the academic painter sees nothing but white light spreading everywhere, whilst the Impressionist sees it bathing everything, not in dead whiteness, but in a thousand conflicting vibrations, in rich prismatic decompositions of colour…’

These were powerful, prophetic words, and would herald the coming of a movement that would gain strength and worldwide popularity in the years to follow.

W.L.