‘It was as if he had been struck with a subtle blindness that permitted images to give their colour to the eye but communicated nothing to the brain’, writes Edith Wharton describing a moment of crisis for Ralph Marvell in The Custom of the Country. Her imagery is taken from the theory of Impressionism. I tried it myself once: I let my gaze linger on one of Monet’s series paintings of poplars on the River Epte, in an attempt to achieve Ralph Marvell’s state of mind. I registered the pure visual sensation of the sinuous S-shape formed against the sky by the trees receding round the bends in the river, broken by the strong vertical lines of their trunks in the foreground. I congratulated myself. This was good, this was what Impressionism was all about: pure visual sensation, nature absorbed optically in a system of shapes of colour. Hadn’t Monet wished he could have been born blind, then suddenly regain his sight, so that he could begin to paint without knowing what the objects were that he saw before him? In the same way that Ralph Waldo Emerson pursued the idea of the ‘transparent eyeball’ that would exclude all personal interpretation from the direct experience of nature, so Monet sought what he called ‘the innocent eye’.
But here is the fallacy of Impressionism. Here are the seeds of its demise. There is no such thing as pure visual sensation. Because we have not been born blind, sensation and perception are inseparable. An artist cannot render objective truth. A painting reproducing nature will always be refracted through the personality of the artist, as Zola recognised: ‘Art is a bit of creation seen through a powerful temperament’, he wrote in 1867. Indeed that is what gives it its piquancy, what distinguishes it as a work of art. And as spectators, too, we know too much. We are interpretative beings. We will never be like Ralph Marvell seeing things simply as abstract patches of colour. The patches are inevitably significant, associative. So the S-shape means something. It is the foliage on a line of trees growing on the banks of a river curving into the distance. But because we know too much we can also interpret shapes in variant ways, not as the artist intended. As I stood in front of the painting, Monet’s poplars suddenly reformed themselves in front of my eyes as something quite different: the shimmering but unmistakable impression of a dollar sign.
Claude Monet - Poplars on the River Epte (1891)
By the end of the 1870s, artists in the Impressionist circle were beginning to recognise that it was time to move on. They had reached a kind of cul-de-sac. Just to register your impressions in front of nature, which the Impressionists were doing supremely well, had become limiting. Degas spoke of ‘the tyranny of nature’, declaring painters had made themselves ‘the slaves of chance circumstances of nature and light’. Renoir wrote in 1880: ‘While painting directly from nature, the artist reaches the point where he looks only for the effects of light, where he no longer composes, and he quickly descends to monotony’. The symbolist Odion Redon took the argument a step further. ‘Man is a thinking being’, he wrote the same year ‘Man will always be there. Whatever the role played by light, it won’t be able to turn him aside. On the contrary, the future belongs to a subjective world.’ Art was more than simply registering your optical impressions in front of nature. Art meant the interpretation of the objective world by the subjective experience. In 1893, Pissarro too was admitting in a letter to his son: ‘Everything (in nature) is beautiful, the whole secret lies in knowing how to interpret’. In Zola’s equation, a balance between nature (the thing depicted) and temperament (the artistic prism through which it is depicted), the scales now tipped in favour of the latter. The way was open for van Gogh and Gauguin, and the generation of the Post-Impressionists, to brandish their temperaments to such extraordinary effect.
The lack of intellectual and emotional content in Impressionism has worried people ever since. Impressionist art is the art of surfaces: its subsequent historians are sometimes guilty of ‘going very deeply into the surface of things’, and in their anxiety investing paintings with an emotional profundity which simply isn’t there.
Claude Monet - Winter on the Seine, Lavacourt (1880)
Here is a modern writer, Paul Hayes Tucker, struggling with Monet’s winter scenes of the early 1880s:
With its surface cluttered with huge slabs of ice from the once-frozen river, the views of the
You can’t help suspecting that the pain, wonderment, resignation and hope exist more meaningfully in the mind of Professor Tucker than that of Claude Monet.
A debate was instigated in a Parisian literary journal in 1890 as to whether naturalism was now dead. The writer Paul Alexis was so exercised by the question that he telegraphed to the editor: ‘Naturalisme pas mort. Lettre suit’. But whatever the letter said, the tide had turned in both literature and art. The Impressionists were ‘taking orders from outside’, whereas Gauguin wanted to obey what came from within. ‘Don’t copy too much from nature’. he said to his disciple Schuffenecker. ‘Art is an abstraction. Derive it from nature by indulging in dreams in the presence of nature, and think more of creation than of the result.’ Van Gogh echoed him: ‘Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily so as to express myself forcibly’. This was the beginning of modern art and the unshackling of the artist from the obligation to reproduce natural appearances. But it couldn’t have happened without the Impressionist revolution. The emancipation of light and colour achieved by the Impressionists destablised people’s expectations as to how a picture should look and opened the way to modernism. It was a catalyst to the development of Expressionism and non-representational art.
I wish I were a natural salesman. At heart I find selling people things embarrassing. It’s too personal, this insinuating imposition of your own will upon another human being. You are trying to persuade them into something they don’t necessarily want to do, to buy something they don’t actually need. Exactly, says my friend Jasper, it’s a bit like a seduction. Jasper is an art dealer with a brilliant eye, a persuasive tongue, and a very thick skin. As a result he is enviably successful at selling people pictures, and probably as a Casanova too.
What was I doing, I asked myself in the opulence of my Eastern client’s private drawing room, trying to get this man to buy a Monet? I realised I was only doing it because he was very rich. Because the Impressionist picture has become the conventional accoutrement of the rich, the symbol of his status: the poplar that turned into the dollar. Initially, impressionist paintings were things that buyers had to be persuaded they wanted; then, in the twentieth century, priceless things that the very rich had been persuaded they wanted very much indeed. Literally priceless, because they are of no definable intrinsic value. When did this change come about, I wondered? And why? And how was it that - despite my shortcomings as a salesman — my Eastern client ended up buying the Monet that at first so bemused him, for rather more than the $7 million it had been estimated to fetch at auction?