I Think You May Have the Wrong Impression

"Rowing and Strolling" at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (by Rob Shenk)

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about being an art historian is being asked, “Who is your favorite artist?” or “What is your favorite kind of art?” These questions are always difficult for me to answer honestly in less than a few sentences. Perhaps because I am a talker, or because on any given day or even hour, my answer may be different. My frustration heightens with the questioner’s following claim, “Impressionism is my favorite.” Honestly, this statement just pisses me off more than anything else about being an art historian. First, I tend to suspect the familiarity with art of anyone who quite proudly makes this claim about Impressionism. I mean, how can one know the Ghent Altarpiece, the theatricality of Bernini’s sculptures, or the exquisite brushstroke of the Chinese artists, and still claim that Impressionism is a reigning favorite? I tend to think that those who make this claim only know Impressionism … or really only know the word Impressionism. But, instead of coming down hard on those who may simply want to have a discussion about art, it is really Impressionism, or more precisely, Contemporary Impressionism that irks me.

"Wheat Field with Cypress" at the Metropolitan Museum (by Randy OHC)

As a professor of art history, I get a wonderful opportunity to introduce art to those who are at least interested enough to enroll in my class. At the beginning of each semester I tell my students what an art history professor once told me: “If you like nothing, you have no taste, if you like everything, you have no taste.” Students are immediately relieved to know they are free to express their dislike of a work of art. What I do expect though is their respect of all the works and to honestly engage them. This way they can develop a coherent reason why they like or do not like something fully equipped with a knowledge and sincere admiration of the art.

Each of the past 10 years or so I’ve taught, I’ve confessed to my students my dislike of Impressionism. I offer a small explanation, but never wanted to take too much time from the works of Monet, Renoir, Cassatt, Degas, and others. Because of this, I’ve never really taken the time to truly reflect on my dislike for this style of painting. Up to now, I have been able to take cover under my own position at the front of the class, as well as find a safe haven with art critics and writers who tend to agree with me or at least understand. This little art bubble in which I comfortably live was recently popped when I was invited to rant about Impressionism.

“Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette" at the Musée d'Orsay (by Steve & Sara)

The truth is I love beautiful things too and I really do understand the attraction to the pastel colors and the beautiful landscapes and the pictures of pretty people on holiday. And I admit there have been times while in a gallery, I’ve been caught off guard, jaw-dropped in front of a Renoir. After spending time thinking about what I don’t like I found that it is not the work of the 19th century French Impressionists I dislike so much, but the contemporary painters who have adopted this painting style to market as their own.

What some fans of Impressionism may not realize is that the original Impressionists were rebels. These artists were rejected by salon. Rather than adopting a painting style accepted by the salon, many continued to explore the color and light captured in painting amid harsh criticism. These artists were well trained in painting as well as knowledgeable of art’s history. Artists like Manet consciously engaged history with paintings like “Luncheon on the Grass” and “Olympia” presenting new ideas of representation. Rethinking painting’s realism with a focus on the formal elements of light and color on a canvas and engaging past paintings, the French Impressionists present themselves true lovers of art and willing to challenge the eye of the French salon.

"Impressionism" at the Metropolitan Museum (by Randy OHC)

The difference between those artists working in the 19th century and many of their followers working now is simple. Contemporary Impressionists fail to take any risks at all. Instead they safely tap into a market secured by the popularity of Impressionism. Rather than challenging an accepted aesthetic, many are simply marketing what is known … what is safe. I have met a number of Contemporary Impressionists who do not seem to be even slightly familiar with their 19th century founders let alone works from other periods. Their inability to identify a specific French Impressionist or the artist’s work at first astounds me before it disgusts me.

Again, like most, I love beautiful things and I love art. Ironically, this puts me at odds with Contemporary Impressionists. As much as I may believe these painters love art and may even admire Monet, their participation in Impressionist painting workshops, copying the French artists while claiming ownership to a moment of inspiration, and refusing to take risks is a mockery not only of Impressionism, but of art. Their branding of Impressionism along with calendars, mouse pads, and refrigerator magnets cloud the real beauty of Impressionism as a movement. But most important, such marketing renders too many of us an inability to recognize beauty throughout art’s history.

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