Learn to Draw > Claude Monet and the impressionists

In 1872 Claude Monet painted a sunset on the Seine at le Havre; two years later he exhibited it under the title Impression. The influential art critic leroy was incensed at this and other similar paintings and dubbed all the new daubers "Impressionists." Little did he know that he had coined the name for a style which now ranks among the highest in art.

The impressionist way of seeing and transposing was not entirely new. There are signs of it, as we have seen, in the Renaissance in the sfumato technique used by leonardo, in which the air's haze is expressed by obscuring the unessential. This artificial haziness, in effect not unlike the work of the retoucher in photography, evolved increasingly into a sense of natural air, which is normally palpable in Rembrandt, still more enveloping in Watteau, and with the Impressionists a mass uniting all things and beings.



This type of painting increasingly showed the atmosphere as a visible substance and added the new technique of color perspective to the already well-established linear perspective. Linear perspective as a set of mathematical formulae and rules was not discovered until the early fifteenth century in Italy, when it was immediately used in painting; but appreciably earlier there are suggestions of spatial perspective derived simply from observation. In fact, perspective appears wherever single objects overlap each other in a picture and thus show graduation in depth, and when objects in the background appear smaller than those in the foreground.

fresco done on a ceiling that uses dramatic angles to create its effect

Perspective is also a means of making the illusion of space and volume more realistic. It is not essential to this illusion, for whatever one sees in a picture is unco'nsciously related to the aggregate of impressions seen in daily life. For example, there is not the slightest hint of perspective in the prehistoric drawing of the bison, yet one feels that the head and legs are nearer than the body and not on the same plane. In Egyptian wall paintings, too - in spite of the characteristic combined view, part frontal and part profile, which takes no account whatever of perspective, there are foreshortenings of circles and spatial relationships which indicate perspective. In the later styles of ancient Greek art many elements of perspective had become a matter of course.

Giotto, the greatest painting technician of the fourteenth century, paved the way for the development of true perspective by his sheer artistic mastery of form in space; and by the time of leonardo do Vinci perspective is often used according to established rules as one of the major constituents of painting. This new scientific acquisition stimulated tremendous enthusiasm among painters for several centuries to come, but it has never been able to increase the spiritual value of a picture.

Ultimately the beholder is much, more affected by the mysterious charm' of a pervasive and perceptible plane in the picture from which depth or modeling seems to emerge momentarily. A plane broken by perspective has no more mystery and tends to distract from the sense of a concentrated visual experience.

Baroque and Rococo ceiling frescoes are examples of the extreme use of perspective. It is often impossible to see whether they are painted or moulded. This is intentional; the painters aimed at imitating the much more expensive work of moulding and at extending what piaster work was already there by painting moulded forms. Painted moulding looks completely chaotic when it is seen from the wrong angle; and the plastic moulding continuing on from it projects from the wall without any logic.

Lastly came the discovery and use of color perspective. There are no rules for its use, only a few principles which are always being questioned; thus it is difficult to say where and when it first appeared. Its first great triumph, however, was in Impressionism.

Today the perspective-building qualities of colors are used for the most varied purposes. The many Post-Impressionist painters used them, for example, to bring back linear perspective into two dimensions and combined them with a conscious use of the psychological effects of color.

a painting technique that uses principles of light and physics to create its effect

However exact and conclusive they may be, the facts of science are not absolutely indispensable to artistic creation. When they are used consciously, they operate as foreign bodies in art and obscure the artist's clarity of vision. They need first to be deposited like earth in muddy water to make a firm foundation in the artist's mind.

Perspective founded on science was at first given an exaggerated importance and had a damaging effect on the work of many painters. The same is true of the speculations of Dr. Gall (1758-1828) on skull formation as an indication of characterwhich turned out, as it happened, to be untrue - and of the more correct theories on physiognomy of Lavater (1741-1801 ). In the same way the attempt of the Pointillists among the later Impressionists to work scientifically according to the physical properties of light soon came to an end.



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