Fading ImpressionsThe problem with any style of art, or art "movement" is that after a time it begins to wear thin. This happens largely for two reasons. One, those exploring it eventually manage to plumb its depths and wring from it everything of any substantive value, both individually and as a group. And second, whatever following the style or movement eventually manages to generate, gradually begins to tire of it and move onto something new and more chic. It has happened that way over and over again, especially during the Modernist era when one style tended to follow another, with each both building upon its predecessor and yet rejecting elements of it.
An interesting case in point is Impressionism. In fact, it's a classic case in point. The style was born in the 1870s, matured in the 1880s, and by 1890 was on its way out. Even its most steadfast proponents realised that. Renoir, for instance, certainly did. He moved into the study of female nudes with only occasional lapses into impressionism for some of his backgrounds. In general he was disillusioned with it. His nude figures became rather hard edged; even one would have to say "academic". His 1887 canvas, Bathers, is an example of this. Mary Cassatt is another good example. Her subject matter did not change significantly but her method of handling it did. Her style, as seen in her 1891 drypoint, aquatint etching, Maternal Caress, demonstrates not only an abandonment of painting in favour of prints, but a growing interest in the linear and compositional qualities of Japanese prints.
About the only stalwart holdout for Impressionism was Claude Monet and even his work was not without a certain evolutionary quality that, even if it did not abandon Impressionism, certainly could be said to have taken it in new directions. By the 1890s, Monet was starting to make something of a reputation for himself, some money for himself and his family, and perhaps most importantly, he seems to have earned some freedom for himself, to paint whatever he wanted without need to worry about whether it would sell. As a result, he began to dig deeper into light, colour, textures, and shapes with lengthy studies of things like haystacks, riverbank poplars, the Rouen Cathedral, and finally, in the latter years of his life, his marvellous waterlilies. The sheer quantity of paintings in each series underlines the extraordinary effort he felt necessary to legitimatise the Impressionism so many of his friends had abandoned and even scorned, in an attempt to cement a place for it in art history.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
20 July 1998