First Years of French Impressionism

“The true artists are those who take their epoch at exactly the point to which it has been carried by the preceding ages. To retreat is to do nothing, is to work without result, is to have neither understood nor profited from the lessons of the past.”

When Gustave Courbet wrote these words in 1861, the Academie des Beaux-Arts, powerhouse of French painting for over 200 years, was running out of steam. History painting, once the highest embodiment of academic art, had become slick and formulaic. Constant Troyon, one of the nation’s most honored artists, depicted nothing but cows. The Salon – the annual showcase of the art establishment – was so beset with favoritism and petty vendettas that Napoleon III was eventually called in to referee. No wonder Courbet and his young admirers wanted to chart new horizons. The question was, where would their talent take them?

The answer lies at Impressionnisme: Les Origines, now on view at the Grand Palais. The show’s main theme is that 15 years before the first official group exhibition in 1874, the painters who gave birth to Impressionism were already refining the techniques, subjects, and philosophies that became the movement’s hallmarks. They did so as close friends and rivals, influencing each other in a way that both stretched and tempered their individual talents. Rather than looking to the past for inspiration, they captured the visions of their time.

This is a smashing show. On their own, the paintings are wonderful, but so is the instructive power of their arrangement. To illustrate the artists’ collaboration and one-upmanship, as well as how they broke from long-standing traditions, the exhibition is categorized into still lifes, marine paintings, portraits, and more. A room dedicated to early landscapes holds a wonderful juxtaposition of oak trees, one painted in 1852 by Barbizon School artist Théodore Rousseau, the other in 1864 by Courbet. Despite the commonalties, the paintings bear the distinct marks of their makers. Rousseau’s is august and perfectly balanced, individual blades of grass neatly struck. Courbet’s is much ruder, with a brighter palette, boughs shouldering out past the frame, the grass scrambled on underneath. Emile Zola once called Courbet’s palette knife an “instrument of modernity.” The audacity with which he used it was new as well.

The next room holds a surprise – history paintings. What’s more, a historical oil sketch by Degas, who’s much better known for his racehorses and ballerinas. As the curators claim, we see in these early paintings the germ of the later work. This 1865 battle scene features a nude crouching away from an attacker, hands alongside her head. Viewed alone, she could be one of Degas’s bathers, 20 years still to come.

The nude, a wall placard says, was the last bastion of the traditional style. When the proto-Impressionists started fooling with it, scandal was guaranteed. The exhibition demonstrates how Manet first pushed, then shoved, this particular envelope. His Surprised Nymph of 1861 (usually in Buenos Aires) is relatively conservative. The nymph looks directly at the viewer, but her modesty is hidden behind a knot of elbows, knees, and fabric. Then there’s the Dejeuner sur l’herbe of 1863. Here the nude not only looks at us, but dares to contemplate us, chin poised reflectively in hand. Finally, with Olympia, all pretense of modesty or nymph-hood is gone. Olympia stares, bored, her hand plopped in place like a fat pink spider. The work aroused such hostility at the 1865 Salon that Manet briefly decamped for Spain.

With still lifes, the young artists had a subject that cost little, didn’t complain and could be painted no matter what the weather. The spirit of camaraderie and competition the subject inspired is clear. Particularly dazzling here is a series of flower paintings by Manet, Monet, Degas, Boudin (Monet’s teacher), Bazille and Renoir – not only for the individual performances but also for the overall quality of the team.

If the exhibition falters in any way, it is in the mysterious indifference to Berthe Morisot, represented here with only one small but luminous marine painting. True, propriety prevented her from drinking and otherwise hanging out with the boys, but she did sketch with them at the Louvre, collaborate closely with her brother-in-law Manet, and contribute nine works to the very first Impressionist show.

As much as viewers today thrill to Les Origines, one shouldn’t forget the reaction of the mid-19th century. One critic decried an early Impressionist show as “an accumulation of crudities which are shown to the public, with no thought of the fatal consequences that may result! Yesterday a poor soul was arrested on the rue Le Peletier, who, after having seen the exhibition, was biting the passers-by!” Persistence won out. By refusing to retreat into the banalities of the past, this extraordinary group of painters fulfilled Courbet’s decree, and became the true artists of their epoch.

Impressionnisme: Les Origines 1859-1869, Grand Palais, ave. Winston Churchill, 8e, April 23 to August 8, daily except Tuesday 11 am-8 pm.


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