Impressionism and the
Philosophical Culture of the Time
The utterances of the impressionistic painters and of the roughly contemporary art critics I quoted in the previous chapter have a seemingly narrow,“professional” ring; they seldom refer to comprehensive problems lying outside the work of the painter. One thus easily gets the impression that these artists were intent on stressing the specific, unique nature of the artistic, pictorial domain, detaching it from other domains of experience, reflection, and life. We read of light and color, of tones and brush strokes, and thus of art as isolated from thought and culture as a whole. Considerable contemporary criticism and interpretation of art still vividly reflects this attitude. It goes without saying that the characteristics of impressionistic painting are unique, and that they pose issues that cannot be fully compared to the specific characteristics of contemporary science, literature, or philosophy. Nevertheless, impressionistic painting has much in common with trends prevailing, or developing, in these other domains, and these common attitudes or problems bear investigation.
The intellectual attitudes characterizing the culture that produced impressionism as an artistic trend were not inherently conducive to strict philosophical reasoning or the building of philosophical systems. To build a philosophical system one has to strive for completeness of presentation, for a full and reasoned connection between the system's distinct parts, and for a fully and evenly articulated argument, requirements seemingly in direct opposition to the leanings that shaped impressionistic art. Nevertheless, the emphasis on certain philosophical notions both in France and in other parts of Europe, as well as the explanations offered for them in latenineteenth-century reflection, show a remarkable, more than accidental similarity with tendencies in impressionistic painting. A glance at these theoretical speculations will shed some light on the spiritual world of impressionism.