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Chapter V.

The French Impressionists.

With a few exceptions all the work in this room is associated with the origins of a movement which revolutionized modern painting, and which has had the major share in the development of American art.

The term, "Impressionism,' seems to have been derived from a picture by Monet exhibited in 1863, which represented a sunset and was entitled "Au Impression." But it was Manet (18321883) who was the initiator of the movement. Gustave Courbet, about the year 1855, broke the bonds of lifeless classicism and mechanical romanticism which paralyzed artistic energies, and lead the way back toward a healthy realism and naturalism. But Courbet did not discover the way into the open air; he did not let in the light. Manet it was who was the pioneer. It is only since his time that paintings have fully reflected the scintillant, quivering energy of sunlight which drenches the visible world. Among old masters there are a few, like Correggio and Valesquez, who admit the vibrancy of light; but, generally' speaking, most pre-impressionistic painting was done, as it were, in a sort of vacuum. Which is not, however, to detract anything from its glory and its mastery in its own varied fields.

Impressionism has been defined as a sort of pictorial stenography. Ignoring details, which a quick synthetic vision does not seize, it was also, especially at first, a reaction against symbolism, intellectualism and literary elements in painting. According to Manet, the principal person in a picture was the light; and the chief clement of his technique, namely, the laying on of pure colors side by side on the canvas so that they would combine when seen at a certain distance into an effect similar to the impression produced by gazing at an object bathed in light, became the corner stone of the modern method, Manet was followed by the great experimenter, Claude Monet, born 1840, and still living. With Monet came Renoir, Pissaro, Sisley, and many other lesser lights who, as Christian Brinton remarks, "quickly flooded studio and gallery with a radiance ever near yet until then so strangely neglected." Pissaro and Monet were influenced in London, where both lived for a time, by the later works of Turner - that genius who worshiped the sun so ardently that in his old age he was rewarded by revelations of the new dispensation of light and sun-filled air.

But it would be a mistake to consider that Impressionism spread its luminous message only from Paris. That message seemed to be "in the air," like sunshine itself, and found its way into painting at about the same time, in various parts of the world. The lonely peasant-painter, Segantini, in the Italian Alps; Sorolla, on the glaring shores of Spain, and others elsewhere, were discovering its secrets, but Paris was the center of radiation. Readers of George Moore's inimitable "Confessions of a Young Man" will remember the fascinating scenes in the now world-famous Cafe de la Nouvelle Athenee, where the ridiculed little band of revolutionists used to gather to discuss their theories, aided manfully in the press by Catulle Mendes, Baudelaire, and Zola. Only one dealer believed in them - and he eventually made a fortune. And now the French government sends to San Francisco examples of their works which rank high among the treasures of the nation. To certain American painters living in Paris at that time, or a little later, the new revelation came with convincing force. Among them were Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, F. W. Benson, Edmund C. Tarbell and George Ritchcock. Gari Melchers was also allied with them. None save Childe Hassam remained quite faithful to the extreme type of the broken color method.

Wall A is devoted to Monet. An example of his early, literal manner is to be seen in the seaside scene. The haystack painting and the lovely lily pond recall the fact that Monet would paint the same subject at various hours of the day in order to show how its aspect changed under varying conditions of light. Both these pictures belong to series of the same subjects.

A number of the works of Pissaro, Sisley, and Renoir hang upon Wall C, surrounding a painting by Eugene Crarriere, a refined and sensitive artist who revolted against the exaggerations of the "plein air" school and bathed his figures in a sort of fluid glow of twilight which conveys an impression of melancholy. Pissaro and Sisley were landscapists. Renoir is primarily a figure painter, and a master of still-life. His has remained a very potent influence.

Upon Wall D hangs an interesting group of small landscapes by Eugene Boudin (1824-1898), a painter who, though conservative and of an older school, shows affiliations with Impressionism and encouraged Claude Monet to fight his early battles. Renoir is further represented by two canvases (Nos. 2833, 2828), but (he commanding interest of this wall is the Puvis de Chavannes, an exquisite painting to which those who appreciate his genius are drawn again and again. In Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898) you find the result of the teachings of the plein air school mingled with the symbolism and idealism and poetical spirit which radical realists, and painters only interested in technique and material considerations, would banish from art, but which return again and again. Puvis is usually accorded the honor of being the greatest decorative mural painter of the nineteenth century. One of his great works is in the Boston Library.

In following the story of Impressionism we have left Wall B until the last, but it could not possibly be ignored, holding as it does a picture by Gaston La Touche (No. 2815), an artist who reacted from realism to the elegant manner of the artificial eighteenth century; and another, more important, by Fritz Thaulau, the Norwegian master, who is said to be the greatest painter of running water who has ever lived, and also one by Nicholas Fechin, a modern Russian of the younger school. This picture, hanging in the center of the wall, has attracted much interest and has been the occasion for a great deal of discussion.

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