The Impressionist Revolution

The DeYoung Museum in San Francisco has a wonderful special exhibition, Birth of Impressionism, which uses French paintings from the late 19th century to provide a kind of social history of the impressionist movement. As is well known, the impressionists were shut out of the classic Paris salons because of their unorthodox subject matter and style. Rejected by the art establishment, they became a school of their own. The exhibition shows many of the paintings that were accepted by the official shows; and it offers early impressionist paintings that reveal how the painters interacted with each other as their movement took shape.

For example, there’s a painting of a painter painting. His model is a dead bird. Displayed next to this painting is another of that same dead bird. But this second painting is not the one portrayed in the first painting, it is by a third painter, who happened along to the studio, saw the dead bird being painted, and set up his easel to paint alongside. Three artists going at it in a kind of art incest.

Two comments. First, the official salon paintings that the impressionists reacted against were often magnificent paintings. They weren’t all stiff, tired, and mannered, as art history would sometimes seem to suggest. Also, it’s not hard to see that they shared some of the impressionists’ approach. In fact, one could easily mistake some of their paintings for impressionist art.

Revolutionaries tend to overstate their reaction against the status quo. Really, the New Age owes a lot to the reviled Old Age.

Second, the impressionists became a “school” mainly because the official salon rejected them. They had widely different ideas and styles, and no one might ever have thought to group them had they not been driven together by their rejection. They met together, often. They met in cafes on a regular basis to talk and argue, and they often disagreed strenuously. (At one such meeting Manet fought a duel with Duranty, and wounded him. Afterwards, their friendship continued.) The cafes gave them a place to work out their ideas and to be part of something bigger than themselves. Revolutions require fellowship. And rejection can create it.

Where do would-be revolutionaries find fellowship today? On the internet?

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