Monday, May 3, 2010

Art History - Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

Eduard Manet, Olympia

         Manet’s Olympia, a Realist painting currently housed in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, provoked angry critique in the Salon of 1865.  The subtlety of the lines in the reclining nude were considered too light, too general, especially in contrast with the extremely dark background. There was a great debate over this painting, and from it arose the impressionists who defended its subtlety. Compared to what came soon after this painting it seems closer to Venetian classicism,  especially in the tradition of the reclining nude, which has a vast history starting with Giorgione and exemplified by his pupil Titian, then followed by many artists such as Rubens and Goya.[i] It seems that Manet wanted to make clear what he was taking from tradition and what he was adding to it.
            Olympia is a Realist painting. Realism, “discarded the formulas of Neoclassicism and the theatrical drama of Romanticism to paint familiar scenes and events as they actually looked.”[ii] In Olympia, a modern young Parisian woman stares directly at the spectator as though she were Manet himself watching his audience react to the then revolutionary ideas he was proposing. It is likely that the young woman was a Parisian whore, which is especially made clear by the black cat at her feet, symbol of infidelity. A maid is giving her flowers from an unknown suitor.  The comparison of a Parisian whore to the mythological grandiosity of traditional reclining nudes such as Giorgione’s sleeping Venus is controversial in itself – critics “advised pregnant women to avoid the picture, and it was re-hung to thwart vandals”[iii] – yet he adds to it a new way of painting, through outlines and patches of color instead of blended smooth and well-defined shapes.  Theophile Gautier of Le Moniteur Universel wrote, “the color of the flesh is dirty, the modeling non-existent. The shadows are indicated by comparatively large smears of blacking.” The artist Jules Claretie wrote,  “What's this yellow-bellied odalisque, this vile model picked up goodness knows where and representing Olympia?” Art historian Anne McCaulay writes, "The paint sat there on the surface of the canvas...It wasn't just the fact that she's a nude and she's a lower class nude, but also the fact that she was painted in...what many people read as almost childish or unskilled fashion," [iv]
            It was not without its support, however. Emile Zola, famed French writer, wrote,
            For you a picture is but an opportunity for analysis. You wanted a nude, and you took Olympia, the first to come along; you wanted bright, luminous patches, and the bouquet provided them; you wanted black patches, and von added a black woman and a black cat. What does all this mean? You hardly know, nor do I. But I know that you succeeded admirably in creating a work of painting, of great painting, and in translating into a special language the verities of light and shade, the realities of persons and things.”[v]

Claude Monet and Pierre Renoir were intrigued by the painting, especially in the way he painted with patches of color rather than refined shading. Manet kept the work with him until his death, at which point Monet organized a fund to purchase it and donated it to the French state.

Cézanne, Mt. St Victoire

            Rarely is an artist more obsessed with a single subject than was Cézanne with Mont Sainte-Victoire. Living in the region, he made some 60 paintings of it, each  reflecting something of his mood and his desire to express the intangible feelings he felt in its presence through impressionistic style. It represented “an inner god that he externalized in this mountain peak--his striving and exaltation and desire for repose.”[vi] These paintings took place during what is sometimes known as his “constructive” period.[vii]
            Cézanne said of his painting style, “…if I start reading too much into things, if I am swept along by a theory today that contradicts yesterday’s, if I think when I am painting, if I interfere, then bang, everything slips away.” He developed many interesting techniques which later influenced many artists, with Pablo Picasso claiming him as “My one and only master . . . Cezanne was like the father of us all”[viii].
            His work can be classified as post-impressionist, with him saying he preferred painting "something solid and durable, like the art of the museums"[ix]. He developed a characteristic of shallow space, wherein the viewer cannot tell the distance between one object and the other.  Many of his forms were simplified to geometric shapes, mere patches of paint applied boldly with a proto-cubist sensibility. To tie them together he was an advocate of the passage, “the blending of overlapping planes into one another”[x

Seurat – Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte

            Georges Seurat spent two years working on his most famous work, Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte. In painstaking pointillism, or divisionism, he depicts an idyllic scene of Parisians relaxing in a park. It is a composite of numerous sketches and studies, first focusing on the park itself and the landscape, and then the people. Seurat was more interested in the shapes of the individuals than he was their personalities. By reducing them to refined shapes with distinct silhouettes he brings a sense of peace to what would otherwise have been a raucous and dynamic scene of dogs playing, boats sailing, children dancing and people moving about.
            On his canvas are three dogs, eight boats and forty-eight people, existing in a perfect harmony. Wendy Beckett writes, “Even if the people in the park are pairs or groups, they still seem alone in their concision of form - alone but not lonely. No figure encroaches on another's space: all coexist in peace.” [xi]  Seurat stated his intention to be to
“make modern people in their essential traits move about as they do on [ancient Greek] friezes and place them on canvases organized by harmonies.” [xii]
            To Seurat, this painting was an attempt to prove his theory that painted dots of pure color, near each other and mixed in the eye rather than on the canvas, would produce a brighter image. He was informed on this theory by the writings of Michel Eugène Chevreul, with what he called “The Law of Simultaneous Contrast”[xiii].  For inspiration on this theory, he looked to the works of Delacroix, Pisarro and Monet, studying their “divided color”, opposing tints that excite the eye.

Claude Monet – Water Lilies

            Monet’s Water Lilies, or Nymphaes, are synonymous with the impressionist movement. It is a vast series of almost 250 paintings, with series being a relatively new concept in which no single painting is more important or telling than the next yet they all work together in harmony. Some are small studies, while others are astonishing in scale, such as his "Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond”, which stands six and a half feet tall by nearly forty two feet wide in total and is comprised of three panels.[xiv] These works are significant in their experimentation with concept, composition and color theory.
            Monet had achieved some wealth and fame by the time he started these paintings. He constructed a garden in Giverny rife with flowers, especially water lilies, and hired six full time gardeners to keep them in shape[xv]. He even built his own Japanese bridge because he felt it would be beautiful in his paintings. This is an interesting development in art because these are not naturally occurring landscapes, which typically glorify religious figures for their creation. These are constructed environments specifically designed for the purpose of being painted, as though they were models being placed by the artist. He called his series Les Grandes Decorations, with the intention of placing them in a large oval room in which the viewer can be completely immersed in his work. [xvi]
            In order to completely immerse the viewer, Monet’s compositions lack much of what is expected in a painting. There is no focal point. The center of the paintings is often negative space, and the visual elements are evenly distributed across the scene.  There is rarely a horizon line, leaving the viewer with just an open expanse of water and lilies. Everything is of equal importance, and rendered with equal care. He experimented with round canvases, as rectangular canvases are more constructed, with defined lines around the edges. Circles are considered more infinite, as though to mimic the roundness of the eye. One might guess that his reason for eventually painting behemoth canvases is so there can be a vantage point from which the viewer cannot see the edges of the painting, removing the problem altogether.
            By removing the subject, the artwork becomes about the treatment. Impressionism is about light, and how it shines through and reflects on objects leaving just an ‘impression’ on the eye of the scene. To bring a rich tone to a subject means mixing seemingly contrary colors on the painting and letting the eyes  do the mixing by themselves. Up close, the water lilies are hard to distinguish among the many splashes of color of which they are composed. However, at a distance, the eye blends the color and is left with an image of great beauty and vibrancy.  

Anxiety, Edvard Munch                                         The Sick Child, Edvard Munch
1896, Lithograph, 42 x 38.7 cm                             1896, Lithograph, 42 x 56.5 cm

Edvard Munch’s Prints

            When Edvard Munch died, he left to the city of Oslo approximately 1100 paintings, 4500 drawings and 18,000 prints.[xvii] He was prolific as a printmaker, but little is known about where he got his start in the process. He moved to Paris in 1896 and submitted his lithograph of Anxiety, printed by famed lithographer Auguste Clot, to be published by the well-known Ambroise Vollard, which gained him much acclaim. This print is notable in that the two colors, which are normally printed separately, were rolled onto one slab and printed all at once. Munch became known for bold choices in printmaking technique. Paul Herrmann once told a story about his process in making prints of The Sick Child.

The lithographic stones with the large head were already lying side by side in rows ready to be printed. Munch arrived, stood in front of the row, closed his eyes, and waved his fingers in the air without looking, ordering 'Print grey, green, blue, brown'. Then he opened his eyes and said to me, 'Let's go and have a schnapps'. And the printer printed until Munch returned and once more without looking ordered 'Yellow, pink, red' and so it went on a couple more times.”[xviii]

With each major painting came lithographic versions, which made them more available to those who were interested in buying his work. There were prints made of The Scream, Madonna and the rest of his series The Frieze of Life, and many more.
            When he left Paris in 1897 he brought with him a small printing press in order to experiment, and also did more official works through Petersen & Waitz in Oslo (then Kristiania). One of his early experiments was with frottage, which is mostly considered to have come from the later Surrealist movement.  It is often practiced today in the form of grave rubbing, in which one takes a crayon and rubs it over a textured surface to get an image wherein the relief is left without color. Sometimes he would take those images and carry them further, drawing on them or layering prints to his liking, such as with his Man’s Head in Woman’s Hair.
            Having his works spread around as much as they were allowed for a broader influence. Gustav Klimt  is known to have encountered Munch’s work  in the 1909 Vienna Kunstschau, and was strongly affected by it. It is likely that he encountered Munch’s work at an earlier time, however, as Munch’s The Kiss, painted in 1897 and later becoming a woodcut, bears a striking resemblance to Klimt’s The Kiss in the way that the two figures appear to merge together into one monolith.

The Kiss, Edvard Munch                                      The Kiss, Gustav Klimt
1898, Woodcut                                                   1908, Oil and gold leaf on canvas 180 cm × 180 cm

Edvard Munch, The Scream

         Munch was known for his expressive, invasive, moody paintings, and there is none more famous than The Scream. It is a seminal work in Expressionist painting, telling of primal fear. It is a part of his Frieze of Life, to which all of his life’s work can be linked. Munch wrote in 1889, “No longer shall interiors be painted with people reading and women knitting. There shall be living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love,”[xix] also stating, “My art is rooted in a single reflection: why am I not as others are? Why was there a curse on my cradle? Why did I come into the world without any choice?” [xx]
            It is often cited in medical circles as depictions of various disorders, frequently being alluded to in psychiatric clinics as an illustration of a panic attack, described as, “a sudden episode of intense fear that develops for no apparent reason and that triggers severe physical reactions. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you're losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.”[xxi] In his diary, Munch wrote,

I was walking along a path with two friends — the sun was setting — suddenly the sky turned blood red — I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence — there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city — my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety — and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.[xxii]

In this work, the screaming character represents Munch’s feelings and the two walking further on the bridge are his seemingly indifferent friends. His cathartic scream is the focal point, and the subject of the background is distant and primarily used as a means of expressing isolation and intensity. There are two painted versions, two pastels and one lithograph, and in all of them there are the distant friends and the relatively barren color fields in the background, standing on a bridge overlooking Oslo.
            According to Robert Rosenblum, Munch had seen a Peruvian mummy in a similar pose at the 1889 Trocadero exposition in Paris, which may have served as some inspiration for the particularly ghoulish appearance of the protagonist.[xxiii] The year prior, in 1892, Munch had painted Death in a Sick-Room, which showed a woman gazing at the viewer with an expressionless mask of an ashy hue. This shows an earlier disposition toward ghastly distortion, which is taken to the utmost level in The Scream. Munch’s Anxiety shows a number of figures crowding the viewer, each with that same sort of expressionless, greenish mask.
            Much has been theorized about the color of the sky as described by Munch in his diary, with scientists linking it to the 1883 eruption of  Krakatoa,[xxiv]  though he is known for his expressive use of color and during episodes of intense panic one is prone to delusions of memory that describe one’s surroundings in terms fitting of the intensity of the feeling.
            Today The Scream is instantly recognizable to most people, with reproductions and parodies being commonplace. One can get a The Scream keychain[xxv], with the tagline, “Have your favorite Gothic art figure in your pocket!”, and it has been referenced on television shows such as The Simpsons and cartoons such as Gary Larson’s “Weiner Dog Art”. Even some of the parodies gain a cultish fame: a halloween mask based on The Scream was used in the popular movie franchise Scream. Its success speaks to the insightful expressiveness of the painting itself, touching on a dark place of the human condition to which many can relate, or at least appreciate.

Renoir and Monet, La Grenouillère

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Grenouillère, 1869. Oil on canvas. 26 1/8 x 32 7/8 in. (66.5 x 81 cm). NM 2425. National museum, Stockholm.[xxvi]

Claude Monet, La Grenouillère, 1869. Oil on canvas. 29 3/8 x 39 1/4 in. (74.6 x 99.7 cm). H. O. Havermeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H.O. Havermeyer, 1929.[xxvii]

            La Grenouillère, “The Froggery”, was a popular restaurant and bathing area in Croissy, France, on the Seine. It was considered a very contemporary subject, and was visited by Emperor Napoleon III and his wife the year Renoir and Monet made these paintings, in 1869.[xxviii]  Monet and Renoir often sat beside each other while painting, which is especially evident in these two works.
            By comparing the two paintings one can see the many differences and similarities between Monet and Renoir’s early work. Renoir chose to make the focus of the painting the people on the platform, each with much detail and character, focusing on the personality. He fills the canvas with the presence of humankind. His brushstroke is heavy with patches of color on the water and trees, but the people are lovingly defined and posed. The sun seems to be behind the artist, made clear by a few shafts of light striking the platform and the woman’s dress, and the way the background across the river glows warmly. The composition seems crowded, with much more shallow space than Monet’s work.
            Monet’s version shows the elegance of the water and the surroundings more than the people. He beautifully renders the water with patches of color, letting nature fill most of the canvas. The water seems more wet and reflective than Renoir’s dry, rough brushstrokes. The focus is still on the people on the platform, but they are very primitive silhouettes compared to Renoir’s details.  The entire scene is in shadow except for the opposite side of the Seine, which brings the same warm radiance as in Renoir’s, but is very loosely rendered with none of the careful shading Renoir paints in the trees across the river. Monet has a much deeper field and a more open, airy composition.
            All the differences seem to show that Renoir was more of the people, and Monet was more of nature, which continued to be their ways through all their lives.

[i] “The Reclining Nude”, Richard Brafford
[ii] ArtLex on Realism, April 2010
[iii] “Manet and his Influence”, 1995 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington. updated 11/2008
[iv] “Culture Shock” The Shock of the Nude: Manet’s Olympia, Prod. Richard P. Rogers, PBS, 2000
[v] “History of Art: The Impressionism”
[vi] “Mont Sainte-Victoire”, Nicolas Pioch, WebMuseum, Sep 2002
[vii] Lindsay, Jack. “Cézanne; his life and art” United States: New York Graphic Society.
[viii] "Einstein, Picasso" Arthur I. Miller, New York Times, 2001
[ix] “Paul Cezanne”, The Worldwide Art Gallery, 2010
[x] “Art History Definition: Passage”, Beth Gersh-Nesic
[xi] “Sister Wendy's American Masterpieces”, Wendy Beckett, DK ADULT, 2001
[xii] “Seurat and the Making of La Grand Jatte” The Art Institute of Chicago, 2004
[xiii] "The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours and Their Applications to the Arts." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 02 May. 2010
[xiv] “Claude Monet”, The Museum of Modern Art
[xv] “Understanding Monet’s Impressionism” Goldensight, Inc.
[xvi] “Giverny Grandes Decorations”, Giverny Impression, Ariane Cauderlier
[xvii] “The Museum and The Collection”, Munch Museum, 2010
[xviii] “Edvard Munch as a Graphic Artist” Gerd Woll
[xix]“Munch Museet – Life and work – Biography”, Munch Museet, 2010
[xx] "Symbolism", Michael Gibson, Taschen, 2006
[xxi] Mayo Clinic Staff, . "Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder." (2010): n. pag. Web. 3 May 2010.
[xxii] “Edvard Munch: The Frieze of Life” Edvard Munch, Arne Eggum, Mara-Helen Wood - 1992
[xxiii] Discovery News, September 7, 2004
[xxiv] "The Blood-Red Sky of the Scream". APS News (American Physical Society), Olson, Donald W.; Russell L. Doescher and Marilynn S. Olson, May 2004
[xxv] “The Munch Scream Keychain from Baron Bob”
[xxvi] "La Grenouillere, 1869", Shelley Esaak,
[xxvii] "La Grenouillere, 1869", Shelley Esaak,
[xxviii] “Webmusem: Monet, Claude: Bathing at La Grenouillère”, Webmuseum, 2002


  1. I read several so far. I'm interested in art and art-related writings, so I will read them all eventually. You write very clearly and informatively. I take it from your comment that you weren't injecting much of your personal opinions into these essays?

  2. I couldn't help but have personal opinions of some, especially The Scream, but yes, I did try to stay as objective as possible.