Impressionism for Beginners #3: A Fascination for Landscapes

This is a short series of articles offering a simple yet detailed overview of art movements – an attempt to make art history more “digestible.” The series begins with a look at Impressionism.

I previously talked about how Realism challenged the values championed by the academies that controlled the production of art in France by representing scenes from everyday life, rather than representing scenes pulled from history, religion or mythology.

However, the fact that Realists tended to represent these scenes via a style that widely followed the conventions of Classical Art that were championed by the academies meant that they were generally accepted by these institutions and featured in their official exhibitions.

These official exhibitions were known as Salons and they were more than the traditional venue for displaying and selling art. Inclusion in the Salons was crucial for an artist’s success because it solidified their reputation in the art world.

Malle Babbe. Frans Hals. 1630. Frans Hals was a major precursor of Impressionism and Realism, anticipating some of its innovative features two centuries before their time.

Impressionist works were hardly ever accepted in the Salons because they were dismissed both for their style and for their subject matter. This led to a growing frustration that eventually prompted them to dismiss the Salons and test new ways to display and sell their works with great success.

However, it is important to remember that Impressionists were not the first to dismiss loyalty to Classical Art conventions in favor of personal style. Nor were they the first to paint in the landscape, or “en plein air.”

In the 17th-century, Baroque painters like the Spanish Diego Velázquez and the Dutch painter Frans Hals used color to structure forms. The latter even developed a notable personal style in his portrait paintings that highlighted the vitality of his subjects and movements via quick, loose strokes of bright colors.

In England, a number of 18th century Romantic painters, like John Constable, helped elevate the academic status of landscape painting with their scenes of villages and countrysides. Fellow countryman J.M.W. Turner transcended mere literal imitation of nature via his abstract expressionist epic scenes of landscapes.

Going to the Ball (San Martino). Joseph Mallord William Turner. 1846. Turner’s landscape paintings wowed audiences by abstracting nature.

Historians and critics have argued that landscape painting has been a breeding ground for artistic experimentation with color, style and form. In France, landscape painting had long been an established art. For artists, it also represented a way to escape Paris and its political instability.

However, the artistic academies of the time considered landscape painting as a minor genre rooted in classical traditions.

Laura Auricchio writes: “Because depictions of flora and fauna neither relate learned tales nor require knowledge of human anatomy, landscape ranked near the bottom of the hierarchy of genres endorsed by France’s Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”

The Seine at Giverny, Morning Mists. Claude Monet. 1897.

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