Henri Fantin-Latour’s painting, A workshop at the Batignolles

First impressions

The first Impressionist exhibition was no obscure bit of posturing, but artistic sedition

On Art

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Long before the Impressionists became the Impressionists, they had other names. The key members, including Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Berthe Morisot, Degas and Sisley, used to meet at the Café Guerbois near Manet’s studio in Batignolles, north-west Paris. They were known as the “Batignolles Group”.

In 1873, they formalised this loose faction as the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers. Zola, a boyhood friend of Cézanne, suggested they call themselves “the Actualists”. Degas thought they should be called “La Capucine” after the Boulevard des Capucines where their first show was held. But when a hostile critic called them “the Impressionists” as a slight, they adopted that name instead — or it adopted them.

April 15th marks the 150th anniversary of the first Impressionist exhibition, held in 1874, an event that has taken on mythic proportions. One critic declared simply that the Impressionists “have declared war on beauty”. They also declared war on the official French art establishment.

They were the first painters to hold a group exhibition outside the purview of the venerable Académie des Beaux-Arts and its annual Salon and, in choosing to show their works in the studio of the photographer Nadar, the first to hold an exhibition outside a formal gallery too.

When the 30 artists associated with the group listed a show containing 165 paintings (there were in fact more), it was an affront. The exhibition opened two weeks before the Salon as a direct challenge, and it came just three years after the conclusion of the humiliating Franco-Prussian War and the brutally-suppressed Commune that followed it. This was not an obscure bit of posturing but artistic sedition. These were febrile times.

The exhibition ran for a month and was seen by some 3,500 people — about 100 a day as opposed to the 10,000 daily visitors to the Salon — who paid 50 centimes to enter and 20 for the catalogue. Many were there to scoff, despite the presence of city sergeants hired at a cost of 141 francs to give the exhibition an official air.

Renoir was in charge of the hanging, and the pictures were placed by size and by the artists drawing lots. Rather than the Salon’s floor-to-ceiling hang, these paintings were shown at a maximum of two deep.

Despite the element of succès de scandale, the exhibition was not financially viable. Degas and Berthe Morisot each exhibited 10 paintings but sold none; Sisley was the most successful artist, making 1,000 francs; Monet and Renoir made just shy of 200 apiece and Pissarro 130 francs.

Their Anonymous Society had been formed as a joint stock company with the artists and their patrons buying shares. At the end of the year, the company had assets of 278 francs but liabilities of more than 3,700 francs: each of the exhibitors owed 184 francs, and the company was liquidated.

Perhaps more painful was the critical reaction. Not all the notices were bad — some were encouraging, most were indifferent. But as Pissarro complained in a letter, “the critics are eating us alive”. It is the negative reaction that has become the authorised story.

There was nothing mealy-mouthed about the attacks: “these are paint scrapings from a palette spread evenly over a dirty canvas. There is neither head nor tail, top nor bottom, back nor front”, said one; “in no country on earth will you find the things he [Pissarro] paints”, ran another; a third suggested the paintings were the work of a “pleasant evil who amused himself by dipping his brushes in colour, smearing them with tarpaulins and signing them with different names”.

It was a phrase of a middling critic named Louis Leroy that gave the group its name. Leroy imagines visiting the exhibition in the company of a traditional painter with the expectation of seeing “the kind of painting one sees everywhere, good and bad, rather bad than good, but not hostile to good artistic manners, devotion to form, and respect for the masters”.

The inability of the artists to paint properly, they decide, means that the pictures are nothing but “impressions” — sketches. In front of a Monet, one of them asks: “What do those innumerable black tongue-lickings in the lower part of the picture represent?” “Why, those are people walking along.”

In front of a Pissarro painting of cabbages, the traditional painter turns scarlet: “I swear not to eat any more as long as I live!” Monet’s Impression, Sunrise provoked the most famous outburst: “A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.”

Two years later, the slights kept coming. An exhibition of Impressionist works at the Durand-Ruel gallery offered “a cruel spectacle”, said Le Figaro’s critic. The work of the “five or six lunatics” left him with “a heavy heart”.

Tell Pissarro, he says, that “the trees are not purple, that the sky is not a fresh butter tone”; inform Renoir “that the torso of a woman is not a mass of decomposing flesh with purplish green spots which denote the state of complete putrefaction in a corpse”; warn everyone of the “Frightful spectacle of the human vanity going astray until insanity”.

It is the attacks, used by the painters themselves to bolster their contra mundum self-image, that have been remembered. They must have been as bracingly enjoyable to write as they were to read. However, it just so happens that they were wrong.

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