Monday, May 17, 2010

Hello Impressionism

I once tried to sell a Monet to an Eastern potentate. He sat opposite me in the marbled splendour of his palace wearing an expression of intelligent perpiexity. Outside, the palm trees barely moved in the oppressive afternoon heat, and the sea beyond was a still, deep blue. Through the window I could see the golden dome of a vast, recently constructed mosque, and a skyscraper decorated with the insignia of an international bank and a neon advertisement for Coca-Cola. Here in this cavernous reception room where the air-conditioning spun its chill cocoon, I noticed that even the carpets were sprinkled with gold dust. The lift in which a flunkey had accompanied me up to these private quarters was walled in mink. What was I doing here, I asked myself? Through a geological freak — huge resources of oil being mineable beneath the barren surface of his country - this man was rich to a degree that set him apart from the rest of humanity. He had a fine face and impeccable manners. He treated me with enormous politeness.

Claude Monet - The Grand Canal, Venice (1908)

‘So’, he said, peering at the painting I had brought with me, ‘this will cost 7 million dollars at auction?’ He gave a quick, uncertain smile, as if he suspected he might be the victim of a practical joke but was determined to remain a good sport about it.

I told him it would, possibly even more. ‘But how can that be?’ ‘Because it’s by Claude Monet, one of the most famous of the Impressionist painters. It’s a very beautiful one.’

‘Please, explain to me something I do not understand.’ He rose from his chair and walked over to a painting that he already had hanging on his wall. ‘For this work by Jean-Leon Géróme I paid only 900,000 dollars.’

It showed a street market in Cairo. Each figure was minutely, photographically painted, with all the finish that distinguished the masters of French academic art in the second half of the nineteenth century ‘Surely’, insisted the owner, ‘this Gérôme is superior to the Monet. It is a masterpiece. It is real. It is how things look’.

Gérôme - The Baths at Bursa (1885)

How things look. His Royal Highness had touched upon the essence of what Impressionism was about. Nonetheless, I decided not to risk a theoretical debate and stuck to the financial certainties. ‘The Gérôme is a very good one, of course’, I reassured him. ‘But the Monet is more highly prized on the market.’

‘But this man Monet does not know how to paint, not as well as Gérôme. The colour is jarring. The figures are awkward. The strokes of the brush are too broad, they are not precise. There is no detail.’

I thought about quoting at him how Mallarmé explained Impressionism in 1876: ‘As to the detail of the picture, nothing should be absolutely fixed. The represented subject, being composed of a harmony of reflected and ever-changing lights, cannot be supposed always to look the same but palpitates with movement, light, and life....’ But I wasn’t confident it would do any good. My client came from a culture unfamiliar with the way western painting had developed over the past century and a quarter. He was groping towards an understanding of it. By instinct, however, he preferred the certainities of Gérôme to the suggestive imprecisions of the Impressionists. And it came to me then that this was how people – not just the philistines, but intelligent people, too – must have reacted when the Impressionists first exhibited in Paris is the early 1870s.

The enduring appeal of Impressionist painting has proved to be its capacity to uplift the spirits of the spectator, its mood-enhancing effect. Doctors and dentists around the world decorate their waiting rooms with reproductions of sunlit Monets and Renoirs. It is anxiety-therapy by dappled light. Even amid the initial hostility; this anti-depressant quality was identified surprisingly early on. The critic Armand Silvestre wrote in 1873: ‘what apparently should hasten the success of these newcomers is that their pictures are painted according to a singularly cheerful scale. A “blond” light floods them and everything in them is gaiety, clarity; spring festival...’, what the Impressionists chose to paint appears to the cynical eye of hindsight a deliberate exercise in customer manipulation, blatant exploitation of the feel-good factor. A list of what is characteristic Impressionist subject matter and what isn’t would run as follows:

Recreation, holidays
Picnics, gardens
Streets, restaurants, cafes
Race meetings
Theatres, concert halls
Sea views
Undulating countryside
Cornfields, sunlit snow scenes

Battle scenes
History morality
Death, disaster
Emotional profundity
Intellectual complexity
Precipitous landscape
Night scenes
Bad weather: storms, floods

Of course it would be an exaggeration to claim that the Impressionists never painted bad weather or its effects; but the reality of the present-day market is that subjects like floods are difficult to sell, precisely because they upset people’s expectations of what Impressionist painting should be all about.

Claude Monet - Gare Saint Lazare (1877)

Another important factor in the rise of Impressionism was the railway. Railways were emblematic of modern life, and thus ideal subject matter for artists who strove to be contemporary. Monet, Manet and Pissarro all featured trains, stations and railway lines in their work. Indeed Monet’s series of views of the Gare Saint-Lazare is one of the icons of Impressionism, the artist’s technique finding its perfect expression in the rendering of the evanescence of the steam billowing up from the engines. The invention of the railway was important to landscape painters of this generation in another way, too. It opened up the countryside to city-based artists in search of accessible rural subject matter. A day-return to Argenteuil could produce five or six paintings (one of the advantages of their method was that Monet and his school worked quickly). Then there was the enormous wealth that the late nineteenth-century railway expansion produced, a significant element in France’s economic boom of the early 1880s, which brought more money into the art market and in turn boosted demand for the Impressionists. Railway fortunes were even huger in the United States, and this new wealth also benefited the Impressionists: for instance Mary Cassatt’s brother Alexander, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, was an early collector. The age of mass travel had begun; and as coal yielded to oil as the fuel of preference, so yet more staggering wealth was created for oil producers. Hence, a hundred years on, my feeble attempts to sell this Monet in the shadow of the mosque.

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