5
Impressionism
Reflections on Style

In the preceding chapters of this part I have attempted to trace some of the central intellectual developments—philosophical, scientific, and literary—that form the broad background to what we call impressionism in painting. We now come closer to the painters themselves. Here the question arises: can we speak of a theory of impressionistic painting in a narrow sense, that is, a theory that deals with the specific problems of impressionistic painting and sculpture? Artistic movements at earlier stages of history, from the fifteenth-century Renaissance to nineteenth-century Classicism and Realism, developed doctrines that were intended to help artists solve the problems that were prominent or new in the art of their own time and world. Renaissance perspective is one famous example that immediately comes to mind, while the Baroque study of how to express passions in face and gesture (and the models of such solutions) is another. Often these doctrines were developed by artists, were primarily addressed to artists, and were meant to guide and assist artists in their work. Such theories therefore dealt with problems that painters and sculptors were actually encountering. Did impressionism formulate a doctrine that would parallel the theories of art in former ages? Is there a theory of impressionistic painting?

The question is not easily answered. Impressionist painting, it need scarcely be said, has a very distinct physiognomy that could hardly have come about without thought and reflection. The very fact that the subject matter of impressionistic painting is so consistent—giving pride of place to landscape and to certain specific segments of modern urban life, such as the café and the spectator in a theater box—would indicate some reflection. The treatment of color and the brushwork that remains visible in the paintings, are based at least in part, as we shall shortly discuss in some detail, on theoretical considerations. They diverge too strongly and abruptly from established and accepted models of art to have come about without the artists

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