Thursday, January 03, 2013

Impressionism - Technology sparks an evolution in art

Acorn Media sent me a fascinating series they recently released on DVD entitled "Understanding Art: Impressionism."  Not only did I find the details of the groundbreaking artists' lives covered in the series  interesting, but, being a technologist, I was surprised that this revolutionary change in art was partially brought about by several technological advances in artists' equipment.

Impressionism is foremost an effort to capture the real world in natural light (en plein air).  But before the invention of a portable easel, artists had been pretty much shackled to an indoor studio because of the bulky nature of their painting platform.  According to the series, this changed dramatically with the development of a compact, collapsible easel and  the mid-18th century introduction of premixed paints in lead tubes (resembling modern toothpaste tubes), which allowed artists to work more spontaneously, both outdoors and indoors. Previously, painters made their own paints individually, by grinding and mixing dry pigment powders with linseed oil, which were then stored in animal bladders.

[J. M. W.] Turner was one of the first artists in Britain to use synthetic colours as they gradually became available, with chromium yellow becoming his favourite. 
The transition from archaic alchemy to modern chemistry during the nineteenth century would mean that new metallic elements, such as Chromium, could be treated with different acids and combined with various other metals to provide a much wider range of colours for artists. 
Chromium yellow, chromium orange and chromium red, as well as a completely new range of chromium greens became available. 
These pigments made in a laboratory setting were found to have all the properties, including durability and permanence, of their natural counterparts. - Carolyn McDowall, Turner from the Tate - A Major Art Show for Australia 2013

 Although Turner painted before the full-blown Impressionist movement began in earnest, the video points out that he inspired later Impressionists like Monet.  Turner is of particular interest to my own family because we think Joseph Mallord William Turner may possibly be one of our ancestors. Our grandfather, Joseph William Turner, was born near Maidstone, England where J.M.W. Turner lived.  When my sister Jane and I were in England, we were told J.M.W. Turner was a notorious womanizer as well as a great painter and we can't help but wonder at the close similarity in names.  My grandfather (or his father) could have been named after J.M.W. Turner because of the painter's celebrity, but it does make you wonder due to the proximity to their family homes.  Since J.M.W. Turner lived from 1775 - 1851, he couldn't have been my grandfather's father but he could have been his grandfather.  Anyway, we enjoy viewing his art and like to think he may have been part of our extended family. Jane and I toured the Turner gallery at the Tate when we were in London in 2006 and later I saw more of Turner's work on exhibit at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

But, back to the Impressionist revolution.  Another technological improvement introduced in the mid-1800s was  the development of the ferrule, the metal portion of the brush covering the attachment of the bristles to the wooden shaft.  Prior to the development of the ferrule, bristles were attached to the brush by thread bindings that held the bristles in a circular clump.  Although the ends of the bristles could be clipped to alter the shape, the application of paint was still circumscribed by the overall circular shape of the brush.  With the invention of the ferrule, the shape of the entire array of bristles could be flattened to varying degrees by flattening the metal of the ferrule.  This enabled artists to apply paint in short, thick strokes (termed "impasto") that became typical of many Impressionists' works.

This closeup of "Woman in a Garden" by Berthe Morisot,
(1882/1883) illustrates the thicker application of paint
employed by Impressionists.  Photographed at the Art
Institute of Chicago by Mary Harrsch.


As I watched the series, I was also surprised by another pragmatic detail adopted by the Impressionists.  The narrator pointed out that Impressionists typically wore dark smocks so the reflected color of their clothing would not pollute the colors reflected by the natural light they were attempting to capture.  I had to smile at this as that is exactly the reason I wear dark, non-reflective clothing when I photograph artwork in a natural light setting.  I learned this the hard way by wearing bright red on one of my first photoshoots and discovering after I got back to my office that all of my images had a rosy glow that I then had to spend hours in Photoshop to remove.  If I had studied the Impressionists first, I might have saved myself a lot of work!

Other interesting details I learned from the video series included the fact that syphilis was rampant in 19th century France.  Upon researching this point on Wikipedia, I learned that syphilis is thought by some scholars to have been carried back to Europe by crewmen returning from Christopher Columbus' voyages to the New World since it was not diagnosed in Europe until 1494.  The Columbian theory is rejected by those who think syphilis was simply not recognized until then but had existed previously in the Old World for many years.   I had thought it had been around since the world's oldest profession but apparently not.  I had heard for many years about Small pox and measles brought by European colonists to the New World being a tragic consequence to the Native American peoples here.  But maybe they inadvertently got a little payback afterall. Unfortunately, though, syphilis took its toll on some of the most gifted of the Impressionists, including Edouard Manet.

"Artists throughout history have led lives worthy of tabloid headlines. What makes the artistic temperament so susceptible to notorious and off-the-wall conduct? "Artists in general are unusual people," says Kevin Stayton, chief curator of the Brooklyn Museum. "Great artists push boundaries, have new ways of seeing and thinking, and do things no one has done before. This energy is not going to be confined to their work. It spills over to how they live." But the legend of an artist never outshines the art itself. Says Stanton, "Tons of people throughout history have tried to be artists, and lived outrageous lives. But if the art doesn't make them immortal, their behavior certainly won't." - Artists Behaving Badly by Courtney Jordan, Smithsonian Magazine

However, this was not necessarily the case with Edouard Manet.  The video explained that some scholars think that Manet married his father's mistress, Suzanne Leenhoff, out of duty and actually contracted syphilis from his own father through her.  Although Edouard treated Leenhoff's son as his own, some think Leon could have actually been his half brother.  I thought it was ironic that his stodgy traditionalist father who was a highly respected judge in "polite" society may have led more of a secret lifestyle like that ascribed to artists while his artist son was far more conservative.
A self-portrait by Frédéric Bazille.
Photographed at the Art Institute of Chicago
by Mary Harrsch.

I was also saddened to learn that one of the artists was killed at the tender age of only 28 in the Franco-Prussian War.  On November 28, 1870, Frédéric Bazille was with his unit at the Battle of Beaune-la-Rolande when, his officer having been injured, he took command and led an assault on the German position. He was hit twice in the failed attack and died on the battlefield.  Bazille was not only a gifted artist in his own right but used his wealth to support the other less fortunate Impressionists, providing them with a studio and often materials as well.

I have been fortunate in my travels to view a number of Impressionists exhibits.  The first was an exhibit at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore in 2004. The Musee d'Orsay in Paris is one of the world's largest facilities that permanently houses many Impressionist works.  I was fortunate enough to visit the museum in 2008 when I was in Paris and recommend it as a "must see" for anyone traveling to France.

The Art Institute of Chicago has some really exceptional Impressionists works in their collection too, including several from one of my favorite Impressionists, Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  I spent two enjoyable days exploring their galleries in 2009.

Young Woman Sewing by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1879
Photographed at the Art Institute of Chicago by
Mary Harrsch.


Then this year the Portland Art Museum hosted an exhibit of both historical and modern impressionism.  One of Monet's famous lily ponds of Giverny, part of their permanent collection, shared the limelight with works by Renoir, Manet, Gaugin, Degas, Van Gogh and Impressionist pioneer Camille Pissaro.

Closeup Detail of "Waterlillies" (1914-1915) by Claude Monet.
Photographed at the Portland Art Museum by Mary Harrsch.

"Young Girls Reading" (1891) by Pierre-Auguste
Renoir.  Photographed at the Portland Art Museum
by Mary Harrsch.

Born on the island of St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies,
Jewish artist Camille Pissarro preferred to paint quiet country
scenes rather than the raucous social life of Paris. "The Red House"
 (1873) Photographed at the Portland Art Museum by Mary Harrsch.
Watching Acorn Media's "Understanding Art: Impressionism" really made these artists come alive for me and the lush imagery and humorous recreations of famous paintings with live models allowed me to savor their work like a fine glass of wine.  I think you'll find it just as captivating.

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