Impressionism and Romanticism
The Impressionists did not come of nothing, they are the products of a steady evolution of the modern French school. 1 -- Théodore Duret, 1878
While most general accounts of the Impressionists briefly acknowledge the artists' Romantic predecessors and their involvement with nature, the precise ways in which the tradition of Romantic landscape painting might have continued to be meaningful to the Impressionists have never been adequately explored. Instead, the Romantic landscape painters have themselves often been treated ahistorically in this context, as impressionistes manqués. In evaluating the importance of the Barbizon painters for the Impressionists in her book of 1967, for example, Phoebe Pool wrote: "Eventually, artists [i.e., the Impressionists] were to become more interested in the small dabs of paint than in what they represented. But Millet, Rousseau and Daubigny did not reach that point; they still had a more Romantic interest in nature."2
A similarly distorted, evolutionary view was also applied in the twentieth century to discussions of John Constable and J. M. W. Turner, who, for a long time, were essentially understood and valued as precursors of Impressionism. 3 This ahistorical approach to the Romantic landscape painters has been corrected by recent scholarship, which encourages us to look at Constable and Turner in the context of their own Romantic predecessors and contemporaries -- artists such as John Crome, Alexander and John Robert Cozens, Philip de Loutherbourg, Caspar David Friedrich, and Théodore Rousseau -- rather than as incomplete steps on the path toward the twentieth century's mistaken notion of a naturalist and formalist Impressionist ideal.
It is time now to extend to the Impressionists as well the implications of the late twentieth century's revised and historically more viable attitude toward Constable and Turner -- to shift our perspective, in other words, so that the Impressionists, too, may be placed more consistently and more meaningfully within the context provided for them by their own predecessors and contemporaries -- artists such as Camille Corot, Théodore Rousseau, Charles François Daubigny, and Johan Barthold Jongkind, as well as Constable and Turner. Approached this way, the formal and expressive resemblances between a Turner and a Monet, for example (colorplates 4 and 5; 14 and 15), would no longer be seen as a surprising prefiguration of the later artist on the part of the earlier one, but as the period itself would have been inclined to see it, as a growth and development of the later artist out of a tradition exemplified by the earlier one. As the French novelist and art critic Théophile Gautier wrote in 1877 on the relationship of the contemporary present to the Romantic past: "Today has its roots in yesterday; ideas like arabic letters are linked to what has come before and to what follows." 4