Probing Question: Why is Impressionist art so popular?

Imagine throngs of people standing in line for hours waiting to be let inside a room, and once they've gained admittance, pushing and elbowing each other to get a better view. Fans at a rock concert? Think again. This has been the scene at almost every major museum exhibit of Impressionist art for several decades, from Manet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Monet at the Chicago Art Institute, to Renoir and Pissarro at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

How did Impressionism come to be the crowd-pleasing blockbuster of the art world?

Says Nancy Locke, associate professor of art history at Penn State, "I think these paintings are so popular because we see ourselves in them: we see the bustle of the modern city, the rise of the suburb, a very modern concern with fashion. Yet in the nineteenth century, paintings that represented people trying to be modern was a very new thing. Artists had previously painted mythological and historical subjects, not modern subjects."

The Impressionists frequently depicted scenes of leisure, such as cafés, hotels, beaches, gardens, and public parks.

"We think these subjects are very pleasant, but they were actually very novel for the time," explains Locke, "and the sketch-like style the painters used was initially shocking."

In the mid-nineteenth century, artists in France "had to exhibit in the Salon (a huge annual or biennial exhibition juried by a handful of life members of the French academy) in order to be noticed," she adds.

"The Impressionists stopped exhibiting at the Salon, and they began to organize their own independent exhibitions. It would be akin to artists today circumventing the gallery and instead using the Internet and social media to build a following."

Many who attended their first independent exhibition in 1874 viewed the new style as amateurish and unfinished-looking at best, and scandalous and crazy at worst.

"Because we're so comfortable with Impressionist art today, it is hard to understand what was novel and revolutionary about this style of painting," Locke says. "Taking modernity as a subject, though, was radical in the 1870s, and insofar as the Impressionists painted modernity, they were aligning themselves with predecessors in literature and painting who had already shocked the public in the previous decade or two."

In 1857, she notes, both Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal were put on trial for offending public morality. In painting, both Courbet and Manet had painted nudes that were shocking for their overt references to prostitution. This was a time when the public expected paintings to tell a story and to be edifying and uplifting; instead, the Impressionists painted modern subjects dispassionately."

While people today generally view Impressionism as a pretty and contemplative style, "no one looking at an Impressionist painting in the 1870s thought these images were escapist or prettifying," Locke clarifies. "Most critics claimed that the paintings were horribly ugly, that the people in them looked diseased and dirty, and that the artists must be totally inept."

As tastes changed, the public embraced the looser style, brighter palette and more personal interpretation of the Impressionist movement.  Many of the movement's major figures, such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas, experienced success in their own lifetimes.

According to Locke, Claude Monet was probably the most influential, lived the longest (he died at his famous home in Giverny at age 86) and had perhaps the greatest commercial and critical success. "Monet invented the Impressionist style almost by accident," she says.

"It was common to try to paint large canvases in order to get noticed at the annual Salon exhibitions," she says. "He was having trouble making larger paintings that featured the concentrated simplifications of light effects that interested him. Then he decided that some of his sketches had a looser painting style he could continue to use, mostly on smaller easel paintings. He began to blend small brushstrokes less, and to use larger touches that became more mosaic-like on the surface of the canvas.

"Artists like Alfred Sisley, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Frédéric Bazille gravitated toward Monet's subjects and his interest in transitory light effects. Camille Pissarro started out as a landscape painter more in the mold of Corot, and Berthe Morisot as a figure painter influenced by Edouard Manet, but both began to adopt aspects of Monet's style as well, so it's fair to say that Monet's style best represents Impressionism."

What might Monet or the other artists have thought of the immense popularity of their paintings -- and related merchandise -- today?

"If you're an art historian, it's hard not to cringe when you see neckties with Van Gogh's sunflowers and coffee-table books about Impressionist dogs -- even though I own a Cézanne doll!" replies Locke, with a laugh.

Although the department store began at about the same time as Impressionist painting, and in many ways nineteenth-century Paris gave birth to the modern consumer society, the extent of the merchandising of Impressionist painting would still have been unimaginable back then.

Not that the artists didn't adapt to the marketplace of their time, notes Locke. "Degas undertook many small pastels because they were easier to sell, and several of the Impressionists painted ladies' fans for the market. Portraits were a mainstay of Renoir's because he needed the income. Even though the Impressionists were radical in their time, they were not averse to 'marketing' because they were trying to find audiences."

With crowds topping half a million people for major Impressionist exhibits, it's safe to say they found one.

Nancy Locke is associate professor of art history at Penn State and can be reached at nel3@psu.edu.

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Last Updated August 28, 2014