Landscapes in the Age of Impressionism Audio Commentaries
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA
Diary September 14 1892
He [Monet] spoke of stupid people saying, "you are going to finish that, you are not
going to leave that comme ca." "Mais pourquoi pas?" Why not, indeed, and who is the
judge when to stop, if not the painter.
This exhortation of others to "finish that" has weighed on me all my life.
Diary November 25 1894
I looked Saturday at my things ... and there seems to me an advance—in the last two
years--the American things, while not as sweet in color as the French, are perhaps a little
solider, better grasped, firmer. They seem cruder, and this is perhaps partly an affair of
difference in climate, atmosphere, though I don't think it is all do [sic] to this.
September 1892 Century Magazine 44 Claude Monet
One cause of the popular prejudice against impressionism is the supposed wilful
exaggeration of color. No doubt restrained, negative color pleases better the average
mind, and only a colorist and searcher can use pure, vivid color with good effect, as
Monet certainly does. That there is more color in nature than the average observer is
aware of, I believe any one not color-blind can prove for himself by taking the time and
trouble to look for it. It is a plausible theory that our forefathers saw fewer tones and
colors than we; that they had, in fact, a simpler and more naïve vision; that the modern
eye is being educated to distinguish a complexity of shades and varieties of color before
unknown. And for a comparison take the sense of taste, which is susceptible of
cultivation to such an extraordinary degree that the expert can distinguish not only
different varieties and ages of wine, but mixtures as well; yet this sense in the generality
of mankind, in comparison, hardly exists. In like manner a painter gifted with a fine
visual reception of things spends years in developing and educating that sense; then
comes the man who never in his life looked at nature but in a casual and patronizing way
and who swears he “never saw such color as that”. Which is right or nearest right?
Everything worth while in our art is due to the influence of French art. We have not yet
arrived at a national art. The old idea that American art, that a national art, is to become a
fact by the reproduction of local subjects, though a few still cling to it, has long since
been put in the discard….Our own art is arid and bloodless. It is like nothing so much as
dry bones. It shows that we are afraid to be impulsive, afraid to forget restraint, afraid
above everything to appear ridiculous.
Theodore Robinson, Hassam, Weir and Twachtman were the first to bring here or show
the influence of the French impressionists under the leadership of Monet. They brought
into our art a new theory of color, a color that was honestly derived from the color of
nature. They brought into the country in fact, a truth that we had not fully realized. They
sent our landscapists out into the open, sent them out after a new view of na ture and
cleared away the murkiness of the studio landscape.
John Singer Sargent
I daresay I muddled what I said about Impressionism last night and perhaps this is a clear
definition of what I think Monet would mean by the word, “The observation of the color
and value of the image on our retina of those objects or parts of object of which we are
prevented by an excess or deficiency of light from seeing the surface or local color”…..
…it is only in extreme cases of light and dark that the eye is conscious of seeing
something else than the object, in other words conscious of its own medium – that
something else is what the impressionst tries to note exactly….
If you want to know what an impressionist tries for (by the way Degas said there is only
one Impressionist “Claude Monet”) go out of doors and look at a landscape with the sun
in your eyes and alter the angle of you hat brim and notice the difference of color in dark
objects according to the amount of light you let into your eyes – you can vary it from the
local color of the object (if there is less light) to something entirely different which is an
appearance on your own retina when there it too much light.
It takes years to be able to note this accurately enough for painting purposes and it would
only seem worth while to people who would wear the same glasses as the painter and
then it has the effect of for the first time coming across a picture that looks like nature
and gives the sense of living – for these reasons Monet bowled me over – and he counts
as having added a new perception to Artists as the man did who invented perspective.
A copy of your letter has been handed to me in which I find your art editor has classified
my work among the “Impressionists”. The article is certainly all that I could ask in the
way of compliment. I am sorry, however, that either of my works should have been so
lacking the necessary detail that from a legitimate landscape-painter I have come to be
classed as a follower of the new fad “Impressionism.
We are all the subjects of impressions, and some of us legitimates seek to convey our
impressions to others. In the art of communicating impressions lies the power of
generalizing without losing the logical connection of parts to the whole which satisfies
The elements of this, therefore, are solidity of objects and transparency of shadows in a
breathable atmosphere through which we are conscious of spaces and distances. By the
rendering of these elements we suggest the invisible side of visible objects. These
elements constitute the grammar of painting, and the want of that grammar gives to
pictures either the flatness of the silhouette or the vulgarity of an over-strained objectivity
When people tell me that the painter sees nature in the way the Impressionists paint it, I
say “Humbug”! from the lie of intent to the lie of ignorance.
There are fairly intelligent people who still think that the old masters had secrets; secrets
of color, secrets of all sorts and kinds of processes. They had nothing of the kind. What
is much harder to make people understand is that if you were ever in France as a young
man and you are an artist that you must have learned everything that you know in Paris. I
have for years been trying to tell people who ought to know it as well almost as I do that I
did not learn how to paint in France
To give life to the work of art is certainly one of the most necessary tasks of the true
artists. Everything must serve this end: form, color, surface. The artist’s impression is
the life-giving factor.
Although the landscape painter must always be the master of his brush and his subject,
the manner of painting must be capable of expressing the emotions of the artist. You see
I am in favor of differing techniques within the same picture. This is not the general
opinion at present, but I think I am right, especially when it is a question of light.
The sunlight in softening the outlines of one part of a scene will exalt others and these
effects of light which seem nearly material in a landscape ought to be interpreted in a
material way on canvas…
The sky is not simply a background: its planes give depth (for the sky has planes as well
as solid ground), and the shapes of clouds give movement to a picture. What is more
beautiful indeed than the summer sky, with its wispy clouds idly floating across the blue?
What movement and grace! Don’t you agree? They are like waves on the sea: one is
uplifted and carried away. But there is another aspect – the evening sky. Clouds grow
thin, like furrowed fields, like eddies of watwer frozen in the air, and then gradually fade
away in the light of the setting sun. Solemnity and melancholy – the sad moment of
departure which I find especially moving.
We needed the arrival of Japanese albums in our midst before anyone dared to sit down
on a river bank and juxtapose on a canvas a roof which was bright red, a wall which was
white, a green poplar, a yellow road and blue water. Before the example given by the
Japanese this was impossible, the painter always lied. Nature with its boldest colors
blinded him; all one ever saw on a canvas were subdued colors, drowning in half tone.
…having stopped one day in Vernon I found the silhouette of the church so strange that I
undertook to render it. It was early summer and the weather was still a little crisp. Cool
foggy mornings were followed by sudden bursts of sunshine whose rays, warm as they
were, succeeded only in slowly dissolving the mists clinging to all the rough surfaces of
the building and which put an ideally vaporous envelope around the stone that time had
turned golden. This observation was the starting point for my series of Cathedrals. I told
myself it wouldn’t be a bad idea to study the same subject at different times of the day
and note the effects of light that modified the appearance and colors of the building in
such a tangible way from one hour to the next. I didn’t follow up the idea at the time, but
little by little it germinated in my brain
Pierre Auguste Renoir
Out of doors one uses colors one would never think of in the weaker studio light. But
landscape painting is a thankless job. You waste half the day for the sake of one hour’s
painting. You only finish one picture out of ten, because the weather keeps changing.
You start work on a sunlight effect, and it comes on to rain – or you had a few clouds in
the sky, and the wind blows them away. It’s always the same story!
…a picture is meant to be looked at inside a house, where the window lets in a false light.
So a little work must be done in the studio in addition to what one has done out of doors.
You should get away from the intoxication of real light and digest your impressions in
the reduced light of a room. Then you can get drunk on sunshine again. You go out and
work, and you come back and work; and finally your picture begins to look like