First Impressionist Exhibition: Contemporary Criticism

"The exhibition of the Revoltes"
April 29, 1874

In all justice, in approaching the exhibition on the boulevard des Capucines, one should divide it into two parts: one which cannot be too highly encouraged, the other against which one cannot react too strongly; the first which has every right to our praise, the second which should be very vigorously rejected; the latter despicable, the former worthy of great interest.

This is not the first time that artists have come together to form a company and thus to free themselves from administrative supervision. A first attempt was made about 15 years ago: two hundred artists came together on the boulevard des Italiens to exhibit their works and sell them directly to collectors. Interesting exhibitions took place, the public was already aware of the Exhibition of the Societe rationale des beaux-arts, when hostilities amongst its administrative staff brought about the liquidation of the company.

Today, the new association of artists will encounter only sympathy on the part of the administration, which has officially announced that it wishes to give up the management of artistic exhibitions, from next year onwards.

I know that many people feel great alarm at the advent of an age when artists, abandoned to their own devices, will take responsibility for the organization of their own annual exhibition, draw up their own regulations, form their own jury, accept or reject the works to be exhibited, make awards or at least present the administration with the list of artists recognized as being the most deserving.

The Limited Company of artist-painters has settled these difficult questions in the simplest fashion; it has done away with the admission jury, and with awards. Is the absence of all rules a good thing? Only the future will enlighten us.

Other artists will undoubtedly follow the example of the Limited Company of painters and we shall see 20 or 30 artistic companies created, each with its own public, as happens in England. This is a good thing, for art can only gain from the growth of intellectual freedom.

The principle which has presided at this association is thus utterly praiseworthy, and we are unreservedly in favour of the founders of this association, as you may see. It now remains for us to evaluate the first exhibition of the Limited Company from a purely artistic point of view; we shall do so with equal sincerity.

One hundred and sixty-five pictures, drawings, watercolours, engravings etc. are exhibited in Nadar's former studio by 30 artist-members of the Company. Of these, some should certainly have been presented to the jury of the official Exhibition and would certainly have been accepted; but we should add that their authors in no way belong to the new school. The artists who painted them have been seduced by the idea offreeing themselves from administrative supervision, and have associated themselves with an attempt at emancipation which they approve of.

M. de Nittis, who has had a very justifiable success in recent Salons; M. Lepine, a young landscape painter with a great future, and a conscientious artist; M. Boudin, whose seascapes are highly thought of; M. Bracquemond, a master of the etching; and MM. Brandon, Cals and de Molins, could not justly be considered as adepts of the new School. We shall not therefore concern ourselves here with either them or their work, certain that we shall find them at the Palais des Champs-Elysees or on rue Le Peletier. There thus remain MM. Degas, Cezanne, Monnet [sic], Sisley, Pissarro, Mlle Berthe Morisot etc. etc., the disciples of M. Manet, the pioneers of the painting of the future, the most convinced and authoritative representatives of the School of Impressionism.

This school does away with two things: line, without which it is impossible to reproduce any form, animate or inanimate, and colour, which gives the form the appearance of reality.

Dirty three-quarters of a canvas with black and white, rub the rest with yellow, dot it with red and blue blobs at random, and you will have an impression of spring before which the initiates will swoon in ecstasy.

Smear a panel with grey, plonk some black and yellow lines across it, and the enlightened few, the visionaries, exclaim: Isn't that a perfect impression of the bois de Meudon?

When the human figure is involved, it is another matter entirely: the aim is not to render its form, its relief, its expression - it is enough to give an impression with no definite line, no colour, light or shadow; in the implementation of so extravagant a theory, artists fall into hopeless, grotesque confusion, happily without precedent in art, for it is quite simply the negation of the most elementary rules of drawing and painting. The scribblings of a child have a naivety, a sincerity which make one smile, but the excesses of this school sicken or disgust.

The famous Salon des Refuses, whose very name brings a smile to the lips - with its nut-brown women on yellow horses in forests of blue trees - that salon was a veritable Louvre in comparison with the Exhibition on the boulevard des Capucines.

In examining the works exhibited (I particularly recommend numbers 54, 42, 60, 43, 97 and 164) one wonders whether one is seeing the fruit either of a process of mystification which is highly unsuitable for the public, or the result of mental derangement which one could not but regret. In this latter case, this exhibition would no longer be the concern of the critics, but of Dr. Blanche.

But alas, all this is serious - seriously executed, seriously discussed, regarded as a new lease of life for art, as the last word in painting. Raphael, Michelangelo, Correggio, Velasquez, Greuze, Ingres, Delacroix and Th. Rousseau are pedestrian painters who never understood the first thing about nature, plodders who have had their hour and whose works the keepers of our museums should consign to the attics.

And let no one accuse us of exaggeration - we have heard the arguments of these painters and their admirers, at the Hotel Drouot where their paintings have never been known to sell, at the dealers on rue Laffitte who stack up their sketches in the extremely faint hope of an opportunity for a sale. We have heard them propounding their theories while looking with superb pity on the works we are accustomed to admiring; despising all that study has taught us to love, and intoning with quite irrational pride, "If you understand anything of the soarings of genius, you will admire Manet and us who are his disciples."

Furthermore, they speak with such sincerity that they have ultimately convinced one art lover, though admittedly only one: M. Faure, who sold his fine Dupres, his splendid Delacroix, his marvellous Corots and his Roybes, to purchase some Degats [sic], Cezannes and Manets!

It is true that M. Faure has always liked to attract attention. Buying Cezannes is as good a way as any of so doing, and of achieving a unique piece of self-advertisement.

"L'exposition du boulevard des Capucines- Les impressionnistes"
April 29, 1874

Let us begin with the exhibition on the boulevard des Capucines. A few years ago, word went around the studios that a new school of painting had been born. What were its aims, its method, its field of observation? How were its products to be distinguished from those of earlier schools, and what did it contribute to the balance of contemporary art? At first it was difficult to know. The members of the jury, with their usual intelligence, aspired to bar the way to the newcomers. They closed the door of the Salon to them, forbade them any publicity and, by means of all the sillinesses to which egoism, stupidity and envy have access in this world, forced them to be delivered up to ridicule.

Persecuted, hounded, shunned, banned by official art, the alleged anarchists formed a group. Durand-Ruel, who is untroubled by administrative prejudices, put one of his rooms at their disposal and for the first time the public was able to judge for itself the tendencies of those who, for some reason, were being referred to as the "Japanese" of painting. Since then, time has moved on. Strengthened by a number of new supporters, encouraged by considerable approbation, the painters of whom we are speaking formed a cooperative association and rented Nadar's former studio on the boulevard des Capucines; it is there, in premises of their own, arranged by their own hand, that they have just organized their first exhibition; and it is on the subject of this exhibition that we propose to address our readers.

Let us say firstly, for artists who might be tempted to take part in such an enterprise, that it is based on excellent principles. All the partners have an equal interest, for whose maintenance an administrative council of 15 members has been appointed, elected and renewable by a third each year. Works are hung according to size: the small ones on the line, the others above; and all in alphabetical order, after a lottery for the beginning letter and with the stipulation that in no case will there be more than two rows of paintings. Wise arrangements, which guarantee each shareholder exactly the same overall advantages.

Let us say next, for the information of the public, that they will find there no canvases already compromised and stigmatized by rejection. These are all original works, which have not appeared before any jury, and which consequently have not been the object of any decision that might cast a slur upon them. They appear virgin before the art-lover, who thus has complete freedom of appreciation. Nor should it be thought that the whole is meager or of scant importance. The catalogue includes 165 items: paintings, watercolours, etchings, pastels, drawings etc.; and if there are some among the exhibitors who are still struggling for recognition, there are also a number who have already joined the ranks of the honoured. Such are MM. Eugene Boudin, whose beaches and seascapes today command the highest prices; Stanislas Lepine, who has made himself a reputation with his banks of the Seine, so delicately rendered; Brandon, who devoted himself solely to the painting of Jewish life; Gustave Colin, whose Pyrenean pages flame with light and sun; Cals, who applies his meditative and reflective art to the representation of popular types and scenes. I shall mention just one engraver by name, but it is that of a master - M. Felix Bracquemond, the well-known etcher. His contribution consists of over 30 plates, mostly first-class, some of which are valuable historical documents: the portrait of Auguste Comte, those of Theophile Gautier, Baudelaire, Meryon, Charles Kean etc.

But the question of school, which I mentioned at the beginning, does not arise in connection with these known names, nor with these accepted works. To gain some idea of the nature of the newcomers, of their aims, their dreams, their achievements; to assess the gap which separates their method of interpretation from that adopted before them, one must stand in front of the canvases by MM. Pissarro, Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Degas and Guillaumin and also of those of Mlle Berthe Morisot. These are the "directors" of the new school - if school it be - and this is what we shall shortly be considering.

What an irony! Here we have four [sic] young men and one young woman who have caused the jury to tremble for five or six years! It is with the aim of barring the route to these four young men and this young woman that, for five or six years, the jury has heaped idiocy on idiocy, piled up abuses of power, compromised itself so utterly before public opinion that there is not a man in France who dares speak in its favour.

Let us therefore look at what these terrible revolutionaries have to offer us that is so monstrous, so subversive of the social order.

I swear on the ashes of Cabanel and Gerome, there is talent here, even much talent. These young people have a way of understanding nature which is not in the least boring or banal. It is lively, light, alert; it is ravishing. What instant understanding of the object and what amusing brushwork! True, it is summary, but how accurate the pointers are!

* * *

The common view that brings these artists together in a group and makes of them a collective force within our disintegrating age is their determination not to aim for perfection, but to be satisfied with a certain general aspect. Once the impression is captured, they declare their role finished. The term Japanese, which was given them first, made no sense. If one wishes to characterize and explain them with a single word, then one would have to coin the word impressionists. They are impressionists in that they do not render a landscape, but the sensation produced by the landscape. The word itself has passed into their language: in the catalogue the Sunrise by Monet is called not landscape, but impression. Thus they take leave of reality and enter the realms of idealism.

So what essentially separates them from their predecessors is a matter of degree of finish. The object of their art has not changed, the means of translation alone is altered, some would say debased. Such, in itself, is the aim, the whole aim, of the impressionists.

Now what is the value of this novelty? Does it constitute a real revolution? No, since the principle and to a great extent the form of the art remain unchanged. Does it lay the ground for the emergence of a school? No, because a school feeds on ideas and not on material means, is distinguished by its doctrines and not by its techniques. If it does not constitute a revolution or contain the seed of any school, what is it then? A manner and nothing more. After Courbet, after Daubiguy, after Corot, one cannot say that the impressionists invented the unfinished. They vaunt it, they glorify it, they raise it to the dignity of a system. They make it the keystone of their art, they put it on a pedestal and adore it; that is all. This exaggeration is a manner. And what is the fate of manners in art? It is to remain typical of the person who invented them or the small clique who accepted them, it is to shrink rather than to expand; it is to become stationary without reproducing, and soon to perish where they stand.

In a few years, the artists today gathered together on the boulevard des Capucines will be divided. The strongest among them, those who are distinguished and courageous, will have recognized that, if there are some subjects which lend themselves to a rapid 'impression' and are adequately expressed by a sketch, there are others, many in number, which demand clear expression and precise execution; that the superiority of the painter consists precisely in treating each subject according to the manner that suits it; and, consequently, that they should not be dogmatic, and should boldly choose the form which renders the idea in all its fullness. Those who, continuing their course, will have perfected their draughtsmanship, will abandon impressionism as an art truly too superficial for them. As for the others who, failing to reflect and learn, will have pursued the impression to excess, the example of M. Cezanne (A Modern Olympia) may immediately serve to show them the fate which awaits them. Starting from idealization, they will arrive at that degree of unbridled romanticism where nature has become a mere excuse for dreaming, and where the imagination becomes powerless to formulate anything except personal subjective fantasies, with no echo in general reason, because they are without control or any possible verification in reality.

"Le plein air, Exposition du boulevard des Capucines"
May 7, 1874

[A young group of painters has] opened an exhibition on the boulevard des Capucines. If they had had the complete courage of their convictions (or strong enough backs to run and bear the risks) they might perhaps have managed to strike a considerable blow.

Their attempt, very deserving of sympathy, is in danger of being stillborn because it is not sufficiently emphatic. To have invited the participation of certain painters who are shuffling around the edges of the official Salon's latest batch of inanities, and even artists of unquestionable talent, but who are active in areas quite different from their own, such as MM. de Nittis, Boudin, Bracquemond, Brandon, Lepine and Gustave Colin, was a major mistake in both logistics and tactics.

One must always reckon with the inertia of public judgment. The public has no initiative. Initiative has to be taken on its behalf. If it has to choose between two works presented to it simultaneously, one in conformity with accepted conventions, the other baffling all tradition, it is a foregone conclusion that the public will declare itself in favour of the conventional work at the expense of the work of innovation.

That is what is happening at the boulevard des Capucines. The only really interesting part of the exhibition, the only part worthy of study, is also the only part whose curious implication eludes the great majority of visitors.

This rapprochement was premature, at the very least. It may work in a few years' time. So it is possible that it may offer a lesson and, in certain conditions, may provide the opportunity for a triumph for the "plein air school".

For this is what I would like to call this school - which has somewhat oddly been christened the group of the Intransigents - as that pursuit of reality in the plein air is its clearest objective

. The plein air school is represented at the boulevard des Capucines by MM. Monet, Pissaro [sic], Sisley, de Gas [sic], Rouart, Renoir and Mlle Morisot.

Their leader, M. Manet, is absent. Did he fear the eccentricities of certain paintings whose authors I have not named? Did he disapprove of the compromise which allowed into so restricted an exhibition pictures conceived and painted in a spirit quite different from that of the school? I do not know. Was he right or wrong to hold back? I offer no answer. But there is no doubt at all that a selection of his paintings would have provided this exhibition with a more decisive, or at the very least more complete, statement of intent.

It is also possible that M. Manet, who has a fighting spirit, prefers to fight on common ground, that of the official Salon. Let us respect each man's ideal freedom to prefer one course of action to another.

It may be helpful to inform the visitor that none of the pictures exhibited here has been submitted to the scrutiny of the official jury. As the exhibition opened on April 1, it is by no means an exhibition of Refuses. But those who have seen it do not need to be told that not one would have been accepted, had they indeed been subjected to that trial. Why? In my eyes, that is their merit, for they break openly with all the traditional conventions.

That said, there are a dozen canvases in this exhibition which open up quite unexpected vistas of the richness of realistic effect that may be obtained with colour.

Never, for example, has the northern daylight in our apartments been rendered with the realistic power contained in the canvas by M. Manet [sic] entitled Luncheon. Never has the seething life of the street, the teeming of the crowd on the asphalt and of vehicles on the roadway, the waving of the trees on the boulevard in dust and light, the elusiveness, the transience, the immediacy of movement been captured and fixed in all its prodigious fluidity as it is in the extraordinary and marvelous sketch which M. Manet [sic] has catalogued under the title Boulevard des Capucines. From a distance, this stream of life, this great shimmering of light and shade, spangled with brighter light and stronger shade, must be saluted as a masterpiece. As you approach, everything vanishes; all that remains is an indecipherable chaos of palette scrapings.

Clearly, this is not the ultimate statement of art in general, nor of this art in particular. This sketch must be transformed into a finished work. But what a clarion call for those who have a subtle ear to hear, and how far it carries into the future!

* * *

We are told that a new exhibition by the same group of artists will take place this autumn. At that time, less hard-pressed by the other exhibitions, we shall no doubt be able to study these curious artistic revelations at greater leisure.

But let the Limited Company - since that is what it is; indeed it might even be described as a cooperative- take stock. Its current organization opens the door to all the inept painters, all the laggards of the official exhibitions upon application for a share. This is the kiss of death.

If the company does not alter its status, does not affirm a common principle, it will not survive as an artistic company. That it might survive as a commercial one does not interest me at all.