Thursday, 7 June 2012

Lost Impressionists

I’m fascinated by forgotten figures from moments in culture or pop culture. When the Sex Pistols headlined the watershed punk festival at the 100 Club in London in September 1976, they shared the stage with soon-to-be influential bands like The Clash, The Damned, Buzzcocks and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Yet who remembers the Stinky Toys? They also played that night.

I started thinking about an artistic equivalent of this a few years back, when I happened to read an article on Impressionism which casually stated that thirty artists participated in the momentuous first group show on the Boulevard des Capucines. Thirty artists? I thought this was a printing error and rushed to check. No mistake, there were thirty participants.
OK, I thought, so how many of these Impressionists could I name?
Obviously there are the really famous figures – Monet, Renoir, Degas and Cezanne. Then painters like Pissarro, Sisley and Morisot. I could name a couple of slightly lesser known painters associated with the movement – Boudin and Bazille. I was already aware, however, that Bazille had died before the 1874 show.
Other famous painters associated with Impressionism or Post-Impressionism (Gauguin, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Seurat) came much later, I knew - and Manet had declined to participate.
So that’s it. Eight artists in total, leaving twenty two shady forgotten Impressionists who were there at a decisive moment in the birth of Modernism but whose reputations floundered and whose work has seemingly been lost to posterity.

Despite finding little information about these lost painters in much of the literature on Impressionism, it was encouraging to see them get a mention in Waldemar Janusczak’s survey of Impressionism for BBC2 last year. I’ve also since discovered some of these artists were the subject of a Phaidon book in the 80s, now unfortunately long out of print (Kathleen Adler’s ‘Unknown Impressionists’).
In contrast to the towering reputations of their immediate contemporaries, the names of these artists echo like mere ghosts in a chamber of obsolescence… Leopold Robert, Gustave Colin, Alfred Meyer, Edouard Brandon, Louis Debras…

Here are the few crumbs of information I can glean about a select few...

 Felix Bracquemond was a highly prolific printmaker, who achieved artistic recognition in his lifetime – receiving the Legion of Honour in 1889. His wife Marie (mentioned admiringly in the Janusczak series) was herself an artist who contributed to later Impressionist shows.

Particularly fresh and Impressionistic in style are the works of Armand Guillaumin, a key member of the early group, close friend of Cezanne – and later a friend of Vincent van Gogh. 

Ludovic Napoleon Lepic was a close friend of Degas, whose likeness can be spotted in several famous Degas paintings. He went on to win approval from the artistic establishment against which the Impressionists railed – being a medal winner at the 1877 Salon, and officially engaged as a state marine painter.

Meanwhile Zacharie Astruc is perhaps best remembered as the subject of a portrait by his friend Manet (above) – and as an art critic who was an early defender of his fellow Impressionists in print.

 One of the most intriguing people on the list of participants is sculptor Auguste-Louis-Marie Ottin. In his 60s at the time, he was surely the oldest exhibitor in a ground-breaking exhibition that has often, in hindsight, been characterized as a collective of relatively young artists attempting to gain freedom from the rigours of the Paris Salon. Ottin, in contrast to this stereotypical image, was positively soaked in the establishment tradition, having won the Prix de Rome in 1836 and completed many official commissions – amongst them a full length sculpture of Napoleon III. His inclusion in the show is difficult to believe – one can only assume that by this stage of his career Ottin had become disillusioned by the Salon. Perhaps significantly, too, his son Leon-Auguste also participated.

It may seem strange that so many artists have been forgotten by history in the story of Impressionism, where others have gone on to become artists with such huge international reputations… Yet let’s face it, at the time of the first Impressionist exhibition there was no Impressionism. The word was famously coined, with derogatory intent, by Louis Leroy in a scathing review of the show for Le Charivari magazine. The artists themselves only began applying the ‘Impressionist’ label from their third exhibition onwards. Unlike many other contemporary art movements, Impressionism had no clear manifesto. It was just a collective of people looking for a place to exhibit outside the stranglehold of the Paris Salon. Indeed, the only real criteria for entry was that the artists didn’t participate in the Salon that year.

Impressionism is now, of course, characterized as a stylistic movement – with specific qualities which many painters shared. (Landscapes or scenes of modern life, often painted outdoors, using rapidly applied paint which sought to evoke the changing qualities of light.) There was never a written manifesto of these aims, however, and even the most enduringly celebrated Impressionists weren’t necessarily defined by these rules (Degas, for example, never embraced plein air painting). That was the point – there were no rules, it was a society of independent painters. Some went on to grab the headlines and forge common stylistic ground with others, making it convenient for future generations of critics to lump them together in a ‘movement’ – whereas artists like Ottin and Lepic may not have suited the convenient ‘artistic outsiders/rebels’ script which posterity has later placed on the group.
In the case of many participants, we can’t know how their work stacked up qualitatively against the likes of Monet and Renoir – but it is interesting to wonder...

1 comment:

  1. I am also gobsmacked about the lack of information on the lost 22. I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about Art, but this has me shocked. Thank you for what you did uncover.