Effect and Emotion in Romantic and Impressionist Painting
Among writers and critics closest to the Impressionists in the 1870s, there was a response to Impressionist painting that has since been lost or suppressed in the art historical literature. In 1877, for example, on the occasion of the Impressionists' third group exhibition, Georges Rivière, a friend and sympathetic critic, published a weekly journal, L'Impressionniste, which was devoted to documenting and commenting on this exhibition. Of one of Monet Gare Saint-Lazare pictures (such as fig. 10) -- those same pictures that George Heard Hamilton was later to describe as merely "pictures of places," "intellectually and emotionally restricted," and precluding "any possibility of reminiscence and reflection" 17 -- Rivière wrote:
One sees the grandiose and frenetic movement of a station where the ground trembles with each turn of the wheels. The platforms are dank with soot, and the atmosphere is charged with that acrid odor that emanates from burning coal.
Looking at this magnificent painting, one is seized by the same emotion as before nature, and this emotion is perhaps stronger still, for in the painting there is that of the artist as well. 18
Of the viewer of the Impressionists' works, Rivière wrote: "This painting addresses itself to his heart; if he is moved, the objective is fulfilled."19
In thus describing the Impressionists as artists who feel and experience deeply "before nature" (a term used here to signify direct plein-air contact with the environment, whether in rural or urban settings) and in his understanding of them as artists who strived to convey their personal emotional experiences through their paintings, Rivière was not alone. In 1874 the critic Jules Castagnary wrote: "They are impressionists in the sense that they render not the landscape, but the sensations produced by the landscape."20 And in 1877 Philippe Burty, though rejecting the term "impressionist" as vulgar and inaccurate, nevertheless wrote appreciatively of these artists, in the same spirit, that they could best be characterized as "impressionable people." 21
In many writings by contemporaries of the Impressionists, the expressive intentions of these artists were directly and sometimes exclusively linked with their concern for rendering the "effects" of nature's light out-of-doors. Emile Zola, one of the Impressionists' earliest supporters in the 1860s, described them in 1880 as artists who "propose to leave the studio, where painters have been immured for centuries, to go and paint out-of-doors." He continued:
This study of light, in its thousands of decompositions and recompositions, is what has been called more or less appropriately impressionism, because a painting becomes as a result the impression of a moment felt [éprouvée] before nature. 22