The Impressionists – Capturing 19th Century Paris By Day and By Night

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The work commissioned by Napoléon III formed the basis of modernity under an extensive series of ‘Second Empire reforms’ during the years 1853-18701. Chief Urban Planner, Baron Hausmann’s planned redevelopment of Paris (quite literally) opened the avenues expected of a modern metropolis: sprawling boulevards, public spaces and monuments invited polite society to engage in leisure by day and these activities could be surveyed out in the open2.

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Paris, 1878, Boulevard Haussmann between Boulevard des Italiens and Rue Taitbout, Engraved Dumont.

The pace and flow of life spilled out into café culture, morning and afternoon promenades and observational diversions, all of which demonstrated the social mobility of a new epoch. It became the artist’s motivation to channel this mode in painting and style became more ‘avant-garde’ to transfix images of the Parisian locale at their leisure. Into this comes the writings of eminent 19th century critic Charles Baudelaire – noting his social commentary, insight into ‘la bohème’ and view of le ‘flâneur’ or cult of dandyism. Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Pierre August Renoir (1841-1919), are two French artists who render, with great immediacy, passing scenes of the contemporary in the world which they inhabited.

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Map of Paris During the Period of the “Grands Travaux” by Baron Georges Haussmann, 1864.

Renoir and Degas paint in the loosely affiliative style of ‘Impressionism’ which emerged in art to meet the challenges of the modern. Rejected by the Salon (the artistic authority of Paris), among these a circle of artists broke away from the French Academy of Fine Arts to hang their works at eye level in a series of independent exhibitions (starting in 1874)3. This brought viewers into familiar scenes of their day-to-day existence, contrary to the classical themes of old. Their focus was on scenes of modern life at any given moment and their aim was to paint with the immediacy of a photograph, down to the workings of light, colour and experimental composition. The respective paintings of Renoir and Degas are demonstrative of the broadening of leisure to different levels of the social strata in and around Paris as it expanded and became a place of recreation. Pivotal to this transition was Baron Haussman’s civic planning and the living of more open lives in a hub of social activity.

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Renoir, Dance at le Moulin de la Gallete, 1876.

‘Dance at le Moulin de la Gallette’, 1876 by Renoir and ‘Place de la Concorde’, 1875 by Degas outline different aspects of Parisian life, set against the new city scape. Daytime and afternoon leisure is shown to be open to different classes5: in ‘Dance at le Moulin de la Gallette’ Renoir paints a crowd of figures from the working classes enjoying the diversion of an open-air dance hall and café6, popularly frequented by artists; whilst ‘Place de la Concorde’ shows eminent figure Ludovic-Napoléon Lapic passing by on a stroll with his daughters7.

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Renoir, Place de la Concorde, 1875.

Renoir focuses, in this instance, on the diversity of people who are socially mobile and at liberty to pass time in a pleasure garden whilst Degas records the steady daytime pace of life and public civility pursued by the upper classes. These are both arrested moments of recreation, which see people occupying spaces for the purpose of leisure. Such aspects show a society branching out into civilised culture and quieting down after periods of revolution and uprising. There is a pattern evident within these paintings, whereby the figures go casually about their lives and can afford to fall into a certain leisurely routine.

Renoir and Degas use variations of light in their paintings to achieve an accurate depiction of its effect, rendering their scenes of leisure highly sensory. Advances in optics and colour theory enabled artists to realise how local colour is modified by light and reflections8. In ‘Dance at le Moulin de la Gallette’ Renoir uses shades of light to soften flesh tones and interplay the elements of his composition; his forms bear no hard outlines and are composed of flecks of colour, light and gentle shadow. Of the surface view given, solid shapes dissolve and re-form through the use of halation9. The artist notices how shadows are coloured by the objects around them and how light filters through the variegated leaves, falling naturalistically onto the scene below and creating a dappled effect. Renoir splits this light into different colours, all in a rosy, warm hue. By painting directly onto the canvas as opposed to the use of dark underpainting, Renoir creates a lighter, brighter effect10. Renoir through his understanding of light, implies the passage of time in the scene. Degas achieves this too in ‘Place de la Concorde’.

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Degas, Women on a Cafe Terrace, 1877.

This differs to the artist’s use of light in ‘Women on a Cafe Terrace’, 1877, as the source of light comes from gas lights which serve to emphasise the scene’s artificiality11. Degas works in pastels to achieve the effect of the light’s glare through glass and picks out the red hue of the women’s hair, the harshness of a starkly lit face and the passing figures recede into a halation of shadow. Here, within a nocturnal painting, a subculture emerges. The painting reminds us that another world exists after dark, lit by the introduction of gaslights on the streets12 and open to more marginal characters operating under its cover. In this painting, Degas studies the ‘workaday’ side of urban living through the brief retirement of women seated in a café, set apart from the rush outside only by panels of glass. Here Degas differs from Renoir, as, whilst Renoir presents people sharing their delight outdoors, the women Degas paints are seen from the perspective of the working streets – at leisure, but transitioning into the more sordid night time entertainments of burlesque, bars and prostitution.

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Degas and Photography – Study of Ballerina.

Advances in photography provide these artists with the scope to experiment when setting out their composition, this is made explicit in Degas’s painting ‘Women on a Cafe Terrace’ where it seems appropriate that a modern art style should correlate with a new form of experimental technology. Degas believes camera work to be an ‘image of magical instantaneity’13, incorporates this into his own painting and positions his figures off-centre, rejecting the traditional notion of centred figural groups. Here the women are cut-off at the sides and lower plane and are pushed into the recesses of the canvas. He uses the verticals of suggested window pains to interrupt views of the figures and to break them apart. These effects disrupt the painting and work to unsettle the viewer through pictorial instability14.

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Degas and Photography – Movement of Ballerina.

Degas worked with the motion picture machine during its development, which allowed multiple shots to be taken at high shutter speeds15. He used this to study movement and gesture and the corresponding shifts through motion. The pastel used allows Degas to smudge articles of clothing, faces, hair and shadows to give the effect of slow shutter speeds16 blurring motion as it happens. The vertical panels and close proximity of the women to the viewer flattens the perspective as in panoramic landscape photography, which entirely alters the view given.

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In ‘Place de la Concorde’, movement in shown in several different directions at once as the figures are positioned at different angles. The expansiveness of the public square creates a large amount of negative space behind the figures and the use of cropping verges on photography.

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Midnight: Mother and Sleepy Child, Kitagawa Utamaro (Japanese, ca. 1754–1806).

Stylistically, ‘Place de la Concorde’ may also have been influenced by Japonisme in art with emphasis flat areas, the placement of overlapping elements and diminishing scale of recessional spaces to further flatten an expanse17. This works without a vanishing point and supports the compositional method of cropping, suppressing the three-dimensional effect of a painting. Renoir in ‘Dance at le Moulin de la Gallette’ cuts off the figures of dancers and gathered onlookers which suggests the continuation of movement and the scene beyond the frame. The photographical elements of Impressionist paintings add to the immediacy with which they were painted, to show different degrees of motion. In painting people at leisure, Renoir and Degas paint candid, not staged or posed moments in time.

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Sources Used: 

1R. L Herbert, Impressionism: Art Leisure and Parisian Society (Yale University, 1988), pp. 1-5.

2S. Rice, Parisian Views (MIT Press, 1999), pp. 32-60.

3A. Boime, The Salon Des Refusés and the Evolution of Modern Art, pp. 411-423.

4M. Filler, ‘Architecture View; Baron Haussmann, Urban Designer Par Excellence’, The New York Times, Arts, March 24, 1991, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/03/24/arts/architecture-view-baron-haussmann-urbandesigner-par-excellence.html [accessed 2017].

5G P. Weisberg, Montmartre and the Making of Mass Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2001), p. 31.

6M. Facos, An Introduction to Nineteenth-Century Art (Taylor & Francis, 2011), pp. 318-320.

7T. Balducci and H. Belnap Jensen (eds), Women, Femininity and Public Space in European Visual Culture, 1789-1914 (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2014), p. 151.

8A. Callen, The Art of Impressionism: Painting Techniques & the Making of Modernity (Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 3-8.

9K A Marling, ‘Technology and Culture’, The Johns Hospkins University Press and the Society for the History of Technology, Vol. 18, No. 3, Jul., 1977, pp. 565-567.

10M. Lewis, Critical Readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: An Anthology (University of California Press, 2007), p. 154.

11R. Kendall, Degas Landscapes (Yale University Press, 1993), p. 138.

12R. Schwartz, ‘Mapping Paris, The Changing Streets of Paris: Gaslights’, Mount Holyoke College: “Les 12 Mis” and “Les Media”, https://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hist255-s01/mapping-paris/ Gaslights.html [accessed 2017].

13‘A Modern Vision: Impressionism and Post-Impressionism at The Art Institute of Chicago’, Collection of the Elizabeth Stone Robson Teacher Resource Center, Department of Museum Education (The Art Institute of Chicago, 1992).

14C. Gottileb, ‘Movement in Painting’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Jul., 1977), pp. 565-567.

15A. Gazetas, An Introduction to World Cinema, 2d ed (MacFarland, 2008), pp. 11-15.

16G. Cogeval, E. Vuillard (Yale University Press, 2003), pp. 437-428.

17‘East Meets West — Japonisme and Impressionism’, Art Institute Chicago, Collections, http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/my/east-meets-west-japonisme-and-impressionism/13453 [accessed 2017].

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