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I’ve been reading a lot about the Impressionists and the Impressionist movement recently. A couple of weeks ago I decided to go to the High Museum in Atlanta to see the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit and find out if there were any Impressionist paintings in the High’s collection. Happily, there were some and one of them is a Monet. My reaction to seeing the paintings in person was unexpected.
In my readings about the public’s response to the Impressionist paintings I was surprised by how overwhelmingly negative the response was. I can understand that not everyone would appreciate the new art style as not everyone has the same taste. These new works broke all the conventionally accepted rules for paintings, such as hiding brushwork to create a smooth finish and painting subjects with moral lessons or historical allegories, and that in itself was strange. However, it was the critics’ vehemence against the works that stood out. For example, Albert Wolff actually wrote of the second exhibition, “These so-called artists take canvases, paint, and brushes, fling a few colors here and there and add a signature.” Clearly, Wolff was expressing the modern-day saying “my two-year-old could do that” and didn’t think any time or training was employed in making the works. He even went so far as to accuse the exhibition of inciting abnormal behavior and wrote, “Yesterday a man was arrested on rue Le Peletier for biting passersby after leaving this exhibition.” This sentiment evokes the fear of something new causing madness and corrupting the public, especially the youth. It reminds me of the response people had to rap music or Andy Warhol’s works. In other words, different is bad and must be expunged.
We’ve all seen the most famous of the Impressionist works, such as Monet’s Bridge over a Pool of Water Lilies (1899) or Renoir’s A Girl with a Watering Can (1876), but I would hazard that most everyone familiar with these pictures has only seen printed reproductions. In print, you can’t see the paint built up on the painting; they just look like flat paintings that are a little hazy around the edges.
I knew I was already a little jaded with the Impressionists, so I decided when I got to the High to immerse myself in the Baroque, Rococo, and Romantic paintings on display before viewing the Impressionist ones. I wanted to see the progression of subject and technique over time. I marveled at the nigh-photographic quality of some of them. The fine brushwork resulted in a smooth painting surface that was exquisite.
After spending quite some time with these works, I turned a corner to find the Impressionist works and was unprepared for my reaction to them. I was angry! I suddenly understood why the reception of this style was so negative. The paint was pushed around on the canvas as if child had done it and was built up so thick on one of the paintings that the painting was no longer a 2-D representation, but a 3-D work almost like low relief.
I studied Monet’s Canal à Zaandam (1871) walking up close and examining the brushwork, stepping fifteen feet away and marveling at the whole. Wash, rinse, repeat. I must have been at that painting for at least a half an hour. The conclusion I came to is Monet was a genius. Although up close the brush work looks like child’s play, from a distance the whole of the work becomes apparent and had Monet tried to hide the brushwork the vivacity would have been lost.
If you haven’t seen an Impressionist painting in person yet, make sure and put it on your bucket list. It’ll change the way you view the world and in a good way. Fortunately, I didn’t end up with the urge to bite someone.