Monet, Morisot, Renoir and the birth of Impressionism
Superb early works that helped to define a movement, as well as shape the enduring legacies of Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, are to be offered in our Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale in London on 28 February
On 15 April, 1874, an exhibition opened at a photographer’s former studio on the Boulevard des Capucines on Paris’s fashionable Right Bank. Organised by a group of artists who called themselves the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, Etc., it showed the radical work of Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot, among others.
For these artists, at the time hardly known within the Paris art world, as well as the critics and public who came to visit the exhibition, it would have been impossible to fathom just how important it was. The First Impressionist Exhibition, as it has come to be known, launched a movement that would alter the course of art for ever.
Using pure, unmixed colours, the Impressionists painted with a never-before-seen spontaneity and rapidity, leaving their brushstrokes visible as they sought to capture the ephemeral effects of light, atmosphere and movement. Often painting within the landscape itself — en plein air — they captured a direct and instinctive response to their subjects, leaving behind the studied techniques and often-meticulous mimesis of the work of their artistic predecessors.
Painted in the immediate aftermath of the groundbreaking First Impressionist Exhibition, Monet’s Les Bords de la Seine au Petit-Gennevilliers focuses on the idyllic Parisian suburb of Petit-Gennevilliers, on the opposite bank of the Seine to the artist’s adopted home in Argenteuil. This area quickly became synonymous with the birth of Impressionism, for it was here, during a period of financial success and personal stability for the artist, that Monet consolidated the formal vocabulary which would come to define the movement.
Working alongside Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Édouard Manet, Monet produced a string of plein-air masterpieces over the course of the summer of 1874, works which capture the enchanting atmosphere of life in Argenteuil, and demonstrate the growing sense of immediacy that was developing in Monet’s art.
Focusing on the play of light and the fleeting, ephemeral movement of the sky and the river, Les Bords de la Seine au Petit-Gennevilliers is filled with swift, loose brushstrokes that convey a sense of the speed with which the artist rendered the scene. Monet chooses a viewpoint looking upstream, away from the smoke stacks of the nearby factories that bordered the town. He was able to achieve this perspective by venturing onto the water itself, having invested funds from his recent sales to the pioneering Impressionist dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in the construction of a floating studio earlier that year.
Monet was able to achieve his viewpoint looking upstream by venturing onto the water itself, having invested in the construction of a floating studio earlier that year
As a result, the fast-flowing river becomes a central protagonist in the composition, its gentle ripples and reflections captured by the artist in a series of short brushstrokes which stand independently from one another, as he seeks to record the ephemeral effects of light touching water.
Monet’s gift for portraying the movement and transparency of water is equally evident in Saules au Bord de l’Yerres (1876), which eloquently captures an impression of the lush, idyllic atmosphere on the river Yerres which had so enchanted the artist during his stay in the small, quiet hamlet of Montgeron during the second half of 1876. The interplay between light and shadow, water and sky, reality and reflection, perfectly illustrates the deftness of Monet’s technique and compositional structuring as he reached a new maturity in his Impressionist style.
Monet had travelled to Montgeron at the invitation of his friend and patron, Ernest Hoschedé, who had commissioned the artist to paint a series of large-scale works to decorate the dining room of his country residence, the Château Rottembourg. The artist spent six months ensconced in the château’s sumptuous accommodations, observing life on the estate, studying its landscape under different atmospheric effects, and exploring the banks of the nearby river Yerres.
Delighted with his new surroundings, the artist produced four canvases for the château, each more than six feet in height. Alongside this central quartet Monet created a number of other paintings, including Saules au Bord de l’Yerres. Shortly after its creation the painting was purchased from the artist by another of his important supporters at this time, the prodigious collector Georges de Bellio.
As well as the French countryside, many of the early Impressionists rendered evocative visions of life in the rapidly modernising capital. Works such as Berthe Morisot’s Femme en Noir (1875) and Renoir’s Femme en Chapeau (1881) transport us to the streets of Third Republic Paris. In Morisot’s Femme et Enfant au Balcon (1872), we become a third protagonist in the scene itself, standing alongside the woman and young girl as they gaze out over the shimmering, panoramic vision of the city spread before them.
Berthe Morisot was a founding member of the Impressionist group and exhibited with them in all but one of the group exhibitions between 1874 and 1886. Femme et Enfant au Balcon is one of the most acclaimed works of her career, encapsulating many of the themes and characteristics that define the artist’s distinct form of Impressionism.
The painting dates from a turning point in Morisot’s early career. After being trained at home alongside her sister Edma, her professional career as an artist had begun in 1864, when she exhibited at the Salon for the first time. Gradually the Morisot sisters became a part of the avant-garde art world of Paris, socialising with Manet, Degas, Fantin-Latour and Puvis de Chavannes at various evening soirées. After Edma’s marriage in 1869, Berthe Morisot became more committed than ever to pursuing a career as an artist.
‘Femme en Noir’ demonstrates Morisot’s ability to imbue her painting with a luminescence that distinguishes her from her Impressionist peers
In the summer of 1871 Morisot’s painting began to flourish. With a surge of creativity, her brushstrokes became looser and her compositions flooded with light and delicate colour. Exemplifying the artist’s nascent Impressionist style, Femme et Enfant au Balcon, painted the following year, displays a combination of spontaneous, softly feathered brushwork and areas of fine, exquisite detail.
In 1867 Morisot had met Edouard Manet at the Louvre. Intrigued by her intense gaze and captivated by her striking beauty, Manet asked her to pose for him, using her as a model for one of the figures in Le Balcon of 1868-69 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), the first of many works in which she would feature. Manet played a vital role in Morisot’s early career, providing encouragement in moments of uncertainty as she forged an independent identity as an artist. Both artists respected and admired each other’s work, influencing and inspiring one another both stylistically and thematically at different points. In 1874, Morisot married Manet’s brother, Eugène.
Fashion played an important role in Morisot’s art and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Femme en Noir — painted in 1875, a year before the Second Impressionist exhibition — depicting an elegant and beautifully attired young woman making her way to the theatre. Also known as Avant le Théâtre, the painting is one of the only full-length portraits in Berthe Morisot’s oeuvre, and is undoubtedly one of the finest works of her career. With delicate brushstrokes that capture the gentle fall of light upon the model’s face and shoulders, as well as the texture of the black silk fabric of her dress, the painting demonstrates Morisot’s ability to imbue her painting with a luminescence that distinguishes her from her Impressionist peers.
Renoir began to paint with a greater sense of firmness and stability, increasingly shunning the spontaneity that characterised his earlier Impressionist works
One of the most celebrated and prolific portraitists of Impressionism, Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted the wealthy elite of Paris as well as his family, friends and anonymous models, such as the fashionable young woman in Femme au Chapeau (1881). Intimate and tender, this painting not only demonstrates Renoir’s innate skill at capturing the female form, but also encapsulates his novel form of Impressionist portraiture.
The portrait dates from a moment of transition in Renoir’s career. In 1881, dealer Paul Durand-Ruel began to buy Renoir’s work, which enabled the artist to enjoy a certain level of financial security. As a result he was able to travel abroad for the first time, and in the spring of that year he set off for North Africa, following in the footsteps of the Romantic artist, Eugène Delacroix. Later, in the autumn, Renoir made an artistic pilgrimage to Italy, where he fell under the spell of the Renaissance masters, and the work of Raphael in particular.
These trips irrevocably changed Renoir’s artistic approach. On his return to Paris he began to paint with a greater sense of firmness and stability, increasingly shunning the spontaneity and rapidity of execution that characterised his earlier Impressionist works. Painted in the midst of this important stylistic shift, Femme au Chapeau embodies this new direction.
From landscapes to cityscapes, portraiture to still-lifes, the Impressionists reconfigured the conventions of painting, paving the way for artists of the 20th century. Shunning realism and illusionism, they created a new pictorial language, creating works that remain today as vivid as when they were first painted over a century ago.