The Realism That Is Impressionism

        All great painters are more or less impressionists


        In short, a painter may properly be called an impressionist to just the extent that he renders aspects of nature as he saw them with unflinching honesty.

        Given its most complete expression in the art of Velasquez, who is still its greatest exemplar, its (impressionism's) aim has ever been to convey on canvas the impression made on the painter by the subject he elects to depict.”

                                                                                  R. H. Ives Gammell


[Velasquez' painting is a] "realism of general aspect."


        The realistic or truthful-as-possible depiction of people and things for use in paintings has pretty much always been a goal of representational painters. Pictorial subject matter depicting life as it is lived in reality, rather than its idealized, fantasized, or otherwise altered variant has 'always' been around as well. Romanticism in subject matter, no matter how realistic the drawing and stylization in the work's treatment of objects and people, falls outside the definition of realism.

         By the 1600's, the Dutch painters were not only known for their realistic depiction of daily life on the streets, but for actually painting peopled interiors directly from life. Even when depicting historical subject-matter such as Christ healing the sick, Rembrandt had done so realistically (even including a defecating dog in the foreground.) However, it's in Vermeer that we have the Dutch model for the modern impressionist - realist, one who sets up in their studio an entire scene of life just as it might have happened, and then painting it more or less exactly as they see it.

        Well, it's not quite that simple, because well before Vermeer something like this form of realism was already being practiced in Spain. Velasquez was raised on it, as evidenced by his early kitchen pictures. Yet from there, it was the direction in which he took this approach which had the greatest early impact on the emergence of realism in the 1800s -  particularly with Las Hilanderas and Las Meninas. His fluid, direct-painterly methods and the sense of life they conveyed stood him stand apart from the more typical, hard outlined and carefully modeled works, including his own, leading up to that time. So great was his influence in Boston that recipients of the traveling award at Boston's Museum School were sent to Madrid to copy in the Prado. Their inevitable painting choice, if not their actual assignment, was Velasquez' figure of a woman spinning in the right corner of Las Hilanderas.

                In that same Museum School training, directed as it was by Antwerp trained painter, Otto Grundman, Dutch painters were also extolled as examples for emulation. Typically great Dutch craftsmanship would be pointed out, yet with the advent of a new emphasis on light and color following the advent of Monet. The master of light, Jan Vermeer, became a painter of particular interest to those who would subsequently lead the Boston School. It isn't surprising that Museum School trained (and eventual teacher there) Philip Hale, would select Vermeer as the subject for a book. Hale's thesis, not only a singular written presentation of Vermeer's art, does a remarkable job in also introducing key tenets of Boston School impressionism. It should be read by anyone wishing to understand them. Paxton, who collaborated in Hale's research and analysis, is reported to have extolled Vermeer as his ideal of good painting - something Gammell clearly bought into as well. At times Paxton seems to be almost self-consciously imitating his work. As with Velasquez, graduates of the Museum School often copied Vermeer in Antwerp or elsewhere to complete their training

        As indicated, many of the Dutch were occupied with the idea of painting things just as seen; in the room, or on the table, before them. Still lifes, interiors, or genre scenes were most often set up and copied accurately, granting further impetus to the observation of visual truths. With some exceptions (Rembrandt being the most notable) conventions related to painting remained fairly uniform - dominated by the idea of drawing the figure or object pre-eminent, with its outlines executed first, and then its interior surface modeled with mid-tones rather like a modern day coloring book. With their finely articulated two-dimensional accuracy, and their continuous lines, Holbein's drawings often look as if traced on a glass. When Vermeer paints interiors, as in The Astronomer, he outlines each object in the same way. Even he is clearly operating from object outlines.

        Yet in Velasquez, who is obviously more interested in the larger visual impression for its own sake than Rembrandt, we see a real shift in the approach from the old way of painting. Velasquez's goal is to articulate the visual world as it appears, on its own terms, even when it includes an entire ensemble of people, and a variety of spaces. To execute such a complicated picture in a life-like way, he found new efficiencies: ways of getting more quickly to the point, and to the collection of relationships making up the big visual impression as we would call it today. His orientation is similar in certain ways to that of a French still-life artist named Jean Simeon Chardin, the other painter of key interest to Tarbell and the Boston school.

        Carolus-Duran and Dannat (the latter of which would have a major influence on Tarbell and Benson) as well as numerous others of their generation had found Velasquez' later approach well suited to their realist/impressionist ambitions. In the 1800's, some say as a result of the French Revolution of 1848 or even earlier, a realism understood as getting back to the depiction of life as it really is, began to dominate the visual arts. Sargent, who had adopted Carolus-Duran's approach almost exactly, had spent time in Spain working out his version of Velasquez' impressionism. Meanwhile Sorolla, Zorn, and our friends which made up the Boston School among many others dropped, for example, indirect and outline-first academic painting even when making imaginative pictures. Sargent's Oyster Gatherers of Calais and Smoke of Ambergris are examples.

        Yet even before that particular "French Revolution," the Dutch had already been developing painting along similar lines. Eventually, or one is tempted to say inevitably given their strong background in painting directly from life, landscape painting on location came to be attempted there. By the early 1800s, it was spreading south. At sixteen years of age, Monet is said to have found a Dutch trained painter, Boudin, painting on the beach. He put himself under his mentorship, eventually working with the artist's teacher, Jongkind - all in pursuit of the fascinating art of plein aire painting. Their approach to painting was also nearly outline free. By the time we get to Monet in particular, as he digs deeper into the study of the color of light directly before nature, it is clear that ever more effective and efficient processes for execution finally became de rigeur. At that point the methods of painting from life changed decidedly. And those of the Boston School were one of the more impressive in achieving all impressionism could hope for, what Gammell would go on to call the 'greatest evolution of impressionism.”

Velazquez, Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus, 1618-22

Velazquez, Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus, 1618-22

Velazquez, Las Hilanderas, 1657

Velazquez, Las Hilanderas, 1657

Representational Painting's Two Models

    “It cannot be too frequently pointed out to students of the period that both academicians and impressionists were justified in their respective aesthetic aims and that it is absurd to hold one type of painting to be a higher form than the other.   

    “...[T]hese objectives (of academic Lefevbre and the others) are alien to the impressionist endeavor which, as we have noted previously, aims to report the immediate impact of something seen and observed by the painter in its envelopment of light and atmosphere. Both ideals have suscitated great works of art, but each should be judged by its own criteria with the painter’s specific intent in mind .... a painter is obviously free to choose between these two mutually incompatible goals and his preference is usually determined by his native inclination.       

       “The word, 'impressionism' admirably suggests this purpose and differentiates it from a realism which seeks to imitate appearances rather than convey an artists reactions to those appearances...Indifferent to the world of the imagination they were deeply stirred by the world they saw about them.”                                                                                                                   R. H. Ives Gammell

    The evidence clearly supports the idea that representational pictures are of two basic sorts: imaginative, or pictures first seen in the mind and then pieced together like fiction writing in literature, and impressionistic, or pictures of the world as seen before the artist at the moment; a kind of "journalism of the senses" (though such an analogy may not entirely suffice.) For the purposes of this discussion, since it revolves around the teachings of Gammell, it is the key differentiation.

     Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, David's Oath of the Horatii, Leighton's Cymon and Iphigenia and most of the works of Gammell, are examples of the former. The creation of such works require many levels of preparation. The poses and groupings of the actors are drawn up as thumbnail sketches which are then most often worked up in detailed studies from live models. Clothing is studied in separate drawings, perhaps with the use of a manikin. Architecture is drawn out in some detail, often with three-dimensional models put to use. In Poussin's case, detailed dioramas were constructed which featured clay figures sculpted to scale. Elaborate layouts of all the elements are drawn onto paper, and traced or squared up onto the canvas or wall. Detailed grisaille studies of the parts and/or the whole are typically painted onto the surface before any color is added. The work proceeds in this complicated, indirect, and procedural vein ... ultimately leading to the final full color covering of paint for which many, if not all the parts, had been pre-painted as color studies. This form of the picture making craft is mechanically very complex, and has produced amazing results for those inclined to a work of the imagination. Creating a work in this way is a time consuming, and usually a very expensive proposition. The sort of work a wealthy government or church might have commissioned or promote in its institutions of art, but which a poor or middle income painter would have been hard pressed to endeavor. The Prix de Rome and a chance to study with masters of such painting in Rome was awarded by the government of France in specially designed competitions to young men who proved adept in its production.

    The word 'impressionism' was put to use by Gammell as the label for any paintings done from nature essentially just as the artist sees it before them, or as a reasonably proximal interpretation of what they see. Yet Monet and others of his plein air landscape painting circle were those first associated with the appellation. Speaking to the term's use as a descriptive for work done directly from life, R. A. M. Stevenson considers it understandable that “...[I]mpressionism was first fully made manifest in the work of a portrait painter.” Specifically Velasquez, (for whom his book is named and his inquiry prompted.) Still-lifes and interiors - like those of Chardin, Vermeer, or Velasquez - were initially set up, then painted on the spot as wholly pre-designed subjects. As their subjects stood before them as a gestalt, their process of execution was more direct and far more efficient than those of the imaginative painter. To paint a still-life, the impressionist will select and arrange the objects, select a lighting and vantage-point, decide the picture's size and proportions, stretch a canvas, and simply go to work. With figurative subjects, the model will be placed in a pre-arranged setting and assigned a pose which they will hold like a potato on a plate for as long as needed. The human model may be absent from the setting while the artist works on other elements, but ideally the ensemble is always together and apiece.

    The outdoor landscape is even less complicated, with the artist doing very little arranging - little more than looking around, finding a scene through their viewfinder, and setting canvas on easel. The only preliminary may be a small thumbnail drawing or a color study for initial review. From that point forward and without further ado, the impressionist directly renders what they sees before them with as much grace and efficiency as possible.

    Less direct methods may be used by some impressionists who will enact preliminary drawings of the scene or set-tup before them. The Gammell method for students included full value preliminary drawings of the whole, to be sized up and traced onto canvas, which is then laid in and subsequently finished one area at a time. This outline based method differs decidedly from that of the Boston School referred to by Gammell as the greatest evolution of impressionism. It is more closely tied to an older way, similar to that involved in producing Velasquez' early bodegónes; ways ultimately dropped by him in his quest for a more vivid expression of the visual effect, ways more commonly used by the imaginative painter.

    One final version of painting that would have to be considered 'impressionism' under Gammell's definition is the trompe l'oeil painting. It is treated historically as a deformity or a curiosity by comparison with the rest of impressionism, owing to its intentional exaggeration of detail and a tendency to reward a localized "looking in," rather than emphasize the truth of the larger impression. Having had to figure most things out for themselves, thanks to our widespread disconnect from the wisdom of the past, many of today's representational painters use curious combinations of any number of ways of handling visual truth even when working, as it were, "impressionistically."

    The fact that impressionist painting could be fairly readily undertaken by those without much financial support contributed to an increase in the number of those aspiring to be painters in the first place. A major onslaught of truly bad painting naturally accompanied this trend, as fewer and fewer acquired even a modicum of the necessary underlying skills. The destruction of the drawing base in our educational institutions, along with the failure of individual artists with skill to personally take responsibility for the success of the next generation are equally to blame in the damage done to representational art in the last hundred years. These realities in no way diminish the brilliance of impressionism's “greatest practitioners” in the Boston School, especially given the notion, as affirmed by Joseph Decamp, that it is the method “easiest to understand but hardest to do.” 

    Although imaginative artists have found that a key to their strength is in the ability to create a visually plausible scene, neither their operation nor their results would be usefully labeled impressionistic. They are not simply responding to the seen world as it is, but creating one of their own out of whole cloth. And although in that effort an understanding of perspective and chiaroscuro, the anatomies of plants, animals and people, interior and exterior architecture and even how they relate in the settings are very helpful to them, the impressionist painter finds thinking of these things can be an actual hindrance to their success; success which is significantly measured by truth to the look of nature. At best this kind of knowledge is primarily (and ought to be used as) a resource for checking one's work.

    Apart from accuracy of shape making and form interpretation, some compositional universals and, of course, skill in the oil medium, little of the complex technical craft of the imaginative painter is of use to the impressionist. It is inevitably piecemeal and object-based and would, if used by an impressionist, impair the hallmark unity of the visual whole. On the other hand, there is no question that the training undergone by the student of impressionism to see and accurately render the world before themselves visually would clearly benefit the imaginative painter in their quest for visual plausibility. All painters of stature speaking on the subject emphasize, before and all other considerations, the central importance of the mastery of the look of nature: key to understanding “la source” of art.

Gammel, The Predicament ,1958

Gammel, The Predicament ,1958

DeCamp, The Blue Cup, 1909

DeCamp, The Blue Cup, 1909

Jules Joseph LeFebvre, Judith, 1892

Jules Joseph LeFebvre, Judith, 1892