The Dark Side of Impressionism

Artsy Editors
Jul 12, 2013 3:05PM

At first glance, French Impressionism is nothing short of a delight. The gauzy glow of warm hues and the dancing-on-air application of paint no doubt accounts for Impressionism’s lasting popularity.

But while looking at art it is always important to keep looking, then to look even closer, just when we think we might know exactly what to expect. As a modern style, Impressionism reflected a modern reality that could be troubling. In light of poet Charles Baudelaire’s maxim that “modernity is the transient, the fugitive, the contingent,” Impressionism’s quickly-rendered technique captured and commented upon the speedier pace of life, becoming a powerful register of the very fleetingness--potentially unsatisfying--of the modern city.

A little context: 1860s Paris was a time of disorienting upheaval.  Napoleon III undertook a massive renovation of Paris beginning in 1853.  Appointing the Baron Haussmann in charge, the resulting remapping of Paris has been nicknamed “Haussmannization.” Twisty cobblestoned streets from the medieval period were replaced with the ultra-wide, tree-lined boulevards and beaux-arts facades that Paris is so famous for today.

Haussmann’s efforts certainly ushered Paris into the modern era: road and rail traffic flowed efficiently, a sewer system encouraged better health, and such wide boulevards were essentially revolution-proof.  But many contemporaries of the time saw it as a wholesale destruction of a beloved old home full of charm. Not only were the new boulevards considered boring, repetitive, and indicative of quasi-despotic rule, the totally altered experience of living in and traversing the city was profoundly disturbing.

Art historian Robert Herbert has, in fact, maintained that Impressionist artists expertly depicted the alienation that this new Paris proffered. An unfortunate symptom of such modernity was the loss of an intimate, knowable community; now citizens were strangers in an anonymous crowd.

Look at Manet’s At the Café: in a remarkably compressed canvas the painter presents kaleidoscopic Parisian nightlife. Yet despite physical proximity and loosely handled paint where it seems everything bleeds together, these three figures engage in a triangular network of disparate gazes. They are watching and being watched, yet seem bored, distant, and alone, perhaps exhausted with the spectacle. 

Or Degas’ prostitutes of Women on the Terrace of a Coffehouse, seemingly weary of the night that lays ahead. Divided awkwardly by the stark white architectural pillars, each woman inhabits her own respective space. Although they sit together they are really alone. What's more, the bleeding brushwork behind them indicates the dizzying streetscape they have momentarily escaped. Indeed, these women seem mere apparitions; swiftly sketched, they are sure to flit away at a moment’s notice.  

And so, perhaps Renoir’s famous Dance at the Le moulin de la Galette isn’t the paradise we once thought, despite the speckled light, rosy colors, and the palpable whirling of the dance. Put to canvas as if in a flash, these figures find but a temporary home here in the crowd.

Artsy Editors