“1874. The birth of impressionism”, on Arte: a look back at the exhibition that revolutionized painting

From a docu-fiction, we can expect the best, or the worst

“1874. The birth of impressionism”, on Arte: a look back at the exhibition that revolutionized painting

From a docu-fiction, we can expect the best, or the worst. We are here in the first case: the long march of the impressionist painters is precisely and vividly recounted, from the discovery of the wonders that open-air painting allows, on the motif, an illumination experienced by the young Claude Monet, trained by Eugène Boudin on the Normandy cliffs, until this legendary exhibition of 1874 which, thanks to a malicious critic, will give its name to the movement.

The historical context is also well outlined: we are in the second period of the reign of Napoleon III, the one that is described as “liberal”, in the old sense of the term. France is experiencing remarkable economic development, marked by the growth of industry and infrastructure, including the railway. The latter, which put the countryside within reach of Paris, just like the invention of the paint tube, more manageable than the old bladders containing colors, allowed young painters to go and explore the forest of Fontainebleau, where a few had preceded them. pioneers, like Théodore Rousseau or Gustave Courbet.

However, this liberalization of the regime and these new ideas do not enchant everyone, particularly the academic art world, which fiercely sticks to its traditions. With his comrades Frédéric Bazille, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley, Monet encountered this in the workshop of Charles Gleyre, who persisted in teaching them a “beautiful ideal”, taken from antiquity. The quartet flees, deciding to rely on nature as their only guide. They will form the initial nucleus of what has been called the “Batignolles group”, named after this district of Paris newly built by Haussmann, where Bazille has his workshop. They will soon be joined by Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne and Berthe Morisot, who must, to become an artist, overcome an additional handicap: she is a woman...

Support from Emile Zola

Their beginnings were tolerated: they were almost all accepted at the Salons of 1865 and 1866, and they met with a relatively lenient reception from critics, with the notable support of Emile Zola, 26 years old at the time, who became involved truly in the defense of their painting: "I looked for men in the crowd of these eunuchs", he wrote about the exhibitors at the Salon, to better highlight this young generation which allowed him to develop his theory of naturalism . This cost him his job as a journalist, and also displeased the Salon jury: in 1867, they were all refused. This is the beginning of misery for most of them.

Better endowed, Bazille financially supported his friends, but he was killed during the war of 1870. However, as refugees in London, Monet and Pissarro met the man who would invent the modern art market, Paul Durand-Ruel. Its gallery will offer an alternative to the Salon. Except that it cannot accommodate everyone. Thus they created a cooperative limited company of painters, sculptors, etc., in order to organize “free exhibitions, without jury or reward”.

The first took place in the studio of photographer Nadar: more than 200 works were exhibited there in 1874, including Impression, Soleil Levant, by Monet. Believing he was making a good statement, a critic said he was “impressed” by these “impressionists”. A movement was born: it changed the history of art.