Knowing the exact time Monet started painting Impression: Sunrise tells us absolutely nothing about the birth of a genre that evolved over 200 years.
The birth of impressionism now has an exact date and time: it was invented at 7.35am on 13 November 1872, according to an astrophysicist who has calculated exactly when Claude Monet painted Impression: Sunrise, his smoky dawn vision of the port of Le Havre.
This makes a nice headline, but history, sadly for journalists, does not work like that. Things never really happen in a neat, packaged way. That’s why the first historian, Herodotus, dedicated so much of his epic book about the wars between Persian and ancient Greece to a digressive discussion about the entire history of the known world: he was trying to get at the complexity of cause and effect.
Art is just as complex as war. When Monet called his intensely atmospheric morning scene Impression: Sunrise he coined a name for this art movement in which French painters dedicated themselves to capturing the fleeting light of never-to-be-repeated moments. But it was not until they had a group exhibition in 1874 that they were recognised as fighting for a common cause. On the other hand, the ideas impressionism was to make notorious, then famous, then revered, were not new at all.
At the heart of impressionism is a desire to paint the immediate, sensual passing scene, in city or country – ideally and mythically – by placing an easel in the open air. John Singer Sargent beautifully captures this ideal in a portrait of Monet at work in the flux of nature, his easel set up amid the balmy elements.
But this idea did not appear like a flash when Monet painted Impression: Sunrise at 7.35am on 13 November 1872. It had evolved over nearly two centuries – at least. Oil sketching in the open air was already common in the 18th century, when it reflected a Newtonian belief in empirical truth and the Romantic pursuit of oneness with nature. The Welsh 18th-century artist Thomas Jones was a particularly bold Georgian proponent of painting in the open air.
In the early 19th century, British artists including John Constable and Richard Parkes Bonington not only took their gear outside but paid attention to the flux and even randomness of nature in a way the impressionists acknowledged as an inspiration. In France (where Bonington spent a lot of time), landscape artists including Millet and Corot were also deeply alive to the sensuality of nature. In other words, the impressionist attitude evolved out of the Romantic movement.
And yet it was utterly new. Something happened when Monet and his contemporaries looked openly at whatever happened in front of their eyes. The real revolution of impressionist art was to abolish all hierarchies of subject and genre, to try to show life just as it is, finding the beauty in the everyday. This was the birth of modern art – even the ready-made is anticipated by the casual ordinariness of impressionist painting.
Change in art is never instant. But impressionism was epochal.
Source: The Guardian.