Symbolism – Gustave Moreau


Gustave Moreau, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864
Gustave Moreau, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864

Gustave Moreau is recognised as a founder of the Symbolist movement in France, although his paintings in this style began being exhibited some 15 years before the movement is considered to have commenced. His favourite subjects were ancient civilisations and mythological themes which he portrayed in densely worked, encrusted canvasses.

He was chiefly influenced by Romantic painters Eugene Delacroix and Theodore Chasseriau and their use of exotic romanticism, dramatic lighting and bright colours. After Chasseriau’s untimely death at the age of 37, Moreau undertook a two year study trip to Italy from 1857, where he studied Renaissance masters and became convinced of the spiritual value of art. His travel through the towns and cities of Italy also exposed him to the influence of Byzantine enamels, early mosaics, and Persian and Indian miniatures, all of which played a significant role in the evolution of his individual style and in the jewel-like effect of his technique, noted Bennett Schiff in the Smithsonian in August 1999.

Like many other artists in Paris at the time, Moreau was also influenced by Asian art. In 1869, he attended the  Palais de l’Industrie which was the largest and most extensive exhibition of Asian art held in Europe. It consisted of over 1,000 objects from China, Japan, India and Persia. Moreau sketched many of the works which were exhibited and incorporated the style of drawing into many of his works.

At the Paris Salon of 1864 Moreau exhibited his first major work,  Oedipus and the Sphinx, which launched him into prominence. It established his lasting preoccupations with the opposition between good and evil, male and female and physicality and spirituality. To Moreau, the work represented humankind facing the eternal mystery of life with moral strength and self-confidence.

Schiff wrote that “Outstanding examples of psychological and physical detachment can be seen in one after another of Moreau’s paintings… In Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864), for instance, the winged creature – half nude female, half lion, an incubus clawed into Oedipus’ breast – does not seem to inflict pain at all. Instead, the grotesque creature and its placid victim appear to be dreamily engrossed in each other, although Oedipus is soon to answer the Sphinx’s riddle and she, or it, is to fall dead to the ground, finally, having already shredded any number of hapless voyagers unable to answer the riddle. Their bits and pieces are, in Moreau’s superbly rendered canvas, strewn about the foreground.”

In 1876 Moreau exhibited three of his most famous paintings in the Salon: Hercules and the Lernaean  Hydra, Salome Dancing Before Herod, and The Apparition.


The Apparition portrays Salome who, according to the Gospels, bewitched the ruler Herod Antipas, the husband of her mother Herodiad, with her dancing. As a reward she was given the head of John the Baptist.

Several influences can be seen in this composition, including his copies of  Japanese prints from the Palais de l’Industrie.

There is also a reference to head of Medusa, brandished by Perseus, in Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze in Florence (Loggia dei Lanzi). The decoration of Herod’s palace is directly inspired by the Alhambra in Granada. Through these various elements, Moreau recreates a magnificent, idealised Orient, using complex technical means such as highlighting,  grattage* and incisions.

After the death of a close female friend in 1890 Moreau’s style altered. “His brushwork became looser and more expressive; his pigment grew thicker, more impastoed; and his forms became increasingly abstract,” Schiff wrote. “The overriding effect of these later paintings was to evoke an emotional response through the use of color, line and form. Some even view his later nonfigurative works as heralds of Abstract Expressionism. Certainly his art inspired a generation of Symbolist painters, poets and writers and had a marked impact on other artists.” 

In 1888, Moreau was elected to the Academie des Beaux-Arts and at the age 65 he became a professor. He was considered by many as the last great teacher there. His influence on younger painters such as Henri Matisse, Albert Marquet and Georges Rouault extended to many art movements (Symbolism, Abstract Expressionism and Fauvism for example).

He didn’t set his pupils on the right road,” Matisse said. “He took them off it. He made them uneasy…. He didn’t show us how to paint; he roused our imagination.” quoted Hilary Spurling in The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908.
*Grattage is a technique in which (usually wet) paint is scraped off the canvas.

This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art  which is designed for adult learners and students of art history. 

This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris,  key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.

If you’d like to see some of the  Australian artwork you’ll find in my gallery, scroll down to the bottom of the page. You’ll also find many French works on paper and beautiful fashion plates from the early 1900s by visiting the gallery.


icons-follow-blog  icon-ecourse  icons-visit-gallery

Symbolism – A short introduction

James Ensor, The Frightful Musicans, 1891
James Ensor, The Frightful Musicans, 1891

Symbolism was both an literary and artistic movement prominent in the last two decades of the 19th Century, when symbols were used to express the imagination of both poets and artists – with ‘dreaming’ being the essence of their creativity. Musicians were also experimenting with innovative forms, emphasising subtlety, mood and imagination.

Symbolist origins in art can be traced back to the paintings of Gustave Moreau and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes were producing in the 1860s and 70s. Both artists were drawn to Romantic subjects and concepts that focused on emotion and allusion, and subjectivity over objectivity.  While Moreau created theatrical compositions with richly decorative surfaces and great detail, Purvis de Chavannes produced monumental forms with muted colours in order to express abstract ideas. His style led to a preference for broad strokes of unmodulated colour and flat, often abstract forms by future Symbolist painters.

Moreau later said that he did not believe in what he could touch or in what he could see; the only things that he believed in were the things he could not see. *

Symbolist writers such as Gustave Kahn and Jean Moréas,  and poets Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarme, had a significant influence on the development of the art style. At the age of 22 Mallarmé spoke of a new use of language which would “paint not the thing itself but the effect that it produces“.  He considered that straight description had no place in art and  “to name an object“, he wrote in 1891, “is to deprive the public of three quarters of its pleasure…. Guesswork should enter into it. To suggest – that should be the poet’s dream. In suggesting, he makes the best possible use of that mysterious thing, the symbol”. ** 

Paul Gauguin, Day of the Gods, 1893
Paul Gauguin, Day of the Gods, 1893


Paul Gauguin also played an important role in the  development of Symbolism. By 1885 both his writing and his painting were reflecting Symbolist interests. He believed that the emotional response to nature was more important than the intellectual; that lines, colours and even numbers communicated meaning; intuition was crucial to artistic creation, and that artists should communicate ideas and feelings derived from nature by means of the simplest forms, after dreaming in front of the subject.

In 1891, in an article about Gauguin, Albert Aurier described Symbolism as the subjective vision of an artist expressed through a simplified and non-naturalistic style. ***

Symbolist artists painted in a highly metaphorical and suggestive manner, using subtle symbols which emphasised the meaning behind the forms, lines, shapes, and colours of their subject matter.

Many symbolists believed that art should reveal absolute truths and that these truths could only be found in either a spiritual or mystical realm, or as a result of personal experience, rather than an purely objective view of the material world.  They emphasised  depicting emotions which were difficult to visualise.

Rather than sharing a single artistic style, they believed that there should be more to art than was encompassed by everyday visual experience.

In 1889 Edvard Munch defined what he saw as the limitations of Impressionism, “I’ve had enough of ‘interiors’ and ‘people reading’, and ‘women knitting’, I want to paint real live people who breathe, feel, suffer and live. People who see these pictures will understand that these are sacred matters, and they will take off their hats, as if they were in church“. ****

The key themes in Symbolist art were love, fear, anguish, death, sexual awakening, and unrequited desire, with women often being the main symbol for expressing these themes, typically either as the virgin or femme fatale.

Inspiration often came from folk tales, biblical stories, Greek mythology, imaginary dream worlds and hallucinatory revelations (as the result of drug use).

Odilon Redon, another early Symbolist, worked almost exclusively in black and white until in his 50s, creating numerous subjects influenced by the writer Edgar Allan Poe. Later works were beautifully coloured.

It is no co-incidence that psychiatry and psychoanalysis were developing at exactly the same time – Sigmund Fraud’s probing into the unconscious and the meaning of dreams resonated with the Symbolists. There was also a general reawakening of interest in spirituality, in both the conventional church and unconventional esoteric cults. It was also a time when interest was developing in vegetarianism, mediation and naturism. *****

Other artists associated with Symbolism are James Ensor, Henri Rousseau, Gustav Klimt and Jeanne Jacquemin.

Of all the major movements of the second half of the 19th Century, Symbolism was the most pervasively European and least focused on France – it had followers in Britain, Belgium, Austria and Scandinavia.

* ** **** John Russell, The Meanings of Modern Art, Thames and Hudson, 1981, pp 72 – 74.

*** Herchel B Chip (ed), Theories of Modern Art, A Sourcebook for Artists and Critics, p89.

***** Symbolism, in The Illustrated Story of Art, Doring Kingersley, London, 2013, pp 298 – 307.


This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art  which is designed for adult learners and students of art history. 

This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris,  key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.

icons-follow-blog    icon-ecourse  icons-visit-gallery




Post Impressionism – Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Women on the Beach, 1891
Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Women on the Beach, 1891

Post Impressionist Paul Gauguin is highly recognised for his focus on colour, two dimensional forms, and the symbolic meaning of his art.

Primarily known for his paintings, he was also a printmaker and creator of ceramic sculptures and woodcarvings.

He was a financially successful stockbroker and self-taught amateur artist,  influenced by the avant-garde  art of the 19th Century through his legal guardian’s collection of works by Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Eugene Delacroix, Honore Daumier, Theodore Rousseau and early works by Camille Pissarro, amongst many others.

His earliest recorded major painting to survive is Working the Land, painted in 1873. The brilliant blue of its sky and the brightness and of the greens and yellows in the field were reminiscent of landscapes of the four seasons that Pissarro had recently completed.

Camille Pissarro, The Four Seasons, Spring, 1872
Camille Pissarro, The Four Seasons, Spring, 1872
Paul Gauguin, Working the Land, 1873
Paul Gauguin, Working the Land, 1873

It is probable that his intimate knowledge of Pissarro’s landscapes was a key factor in his interest in the Impressionists, and the 1870s he began collecting their artworks, and then adopting some of their techniques (under Pissarro’s tutelage). He was also influenced by Paul Cezanne’s parallel, constructive brushstrokes.

Paul Gauguin, Banks of the Oise, 1881
Paul Gauguin, Banks of the Oise, 1881


Paul Gaugin, Still Life with Fruit Plate, 1880
Paul Gaugin, Still Life with Fruit Plate, 1880

Encouraged by both Pissarro and Edgar Degas, Gauguin contributed to five of the eight Impressionist exhibitions between 1880 – 1882. He also contributed to the debates and discussions that took place between the artists gathering in Montmartre, questioning  the nature and role of art in modern society.

In 1882, after a stock market crash and recession left him unemployed and financially ruined, Gauguin abandoned the business world to pursue life as a full-time artist.

When working in Brittany and Martinique, the year after the final Impressionist exhibition,  he began the artistic transformation to Post Impressionism with which we are more familiar today, and the creator of “primitive” and exotic images overlayed with symbolic meaning.

In 1886, he  first visited  Pont-Aven in Brittany, a rugged land of fervently religious people. Gauguin had received a seminary education in his youth and his religious beliefs never deserted him  – although he increasingly questioned the strictures of the traditional Catholic church. In Pont-Aven he hoped to tap into the expressive potential he believed he would find in a more rural, even “primitive” culture.

Over the next several years he often travelled between Paris and Brittany, and also spent time in Panama and Martinique.

In 1888, he worked with Émile Bernard, Louis Anquetin, Paul Sérusier and others in Pont-Aven,  developing new theories of painting. They adopted a style of painting known as Synthetism.  Synthetism referred to the synthesis of simplified forms and colour schemes with the main idea or feeling of the subject, in order to produce a bolder artistic statement. Essentially the Pont-Aven artists reduced three-dimensional figures and shapes to flatter two dimensional forms with heavy dark outlines (also known as Cloisonnism).

For Gauguin, painting also had a symbolic focus, with a brighter palette designed to express human emotion. The new style was, in part, inspired by Gothic art (particularly stained-glass and enamel work) and Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints (Japonisme), which were in vogue amongst many artists of the Pont-Aven school. A key painting from this period was Vision After the Sermon which became an important Symbolist  work statement.

Gauguin  also worked  alongside Vincent van Gogh (whom he probably met in Paris during the previous year)  in Arles in the south of France in the summer of 1888, at the time that van Gogh was attempting to set up an artists’ colony.

Both artists continued to experiment with compositional techniques derived from Japanese art,  as well as the symbolic ‘language’  of colour, seeking to emphasise subjective feelings and ideas over naturalistic representation. However,  Gauguin and van Gogh argued badly (it was at this time that Van Gogh reportedly cut off part of his left ear) and Gauguin returned to Paris.

In 1891 he moved to Tahiti, where he expected to find an unspoiled culture which was exotic and sensual. Instead, he was confronted with a world already transformed by western missionaries and colonial rule.  He had to  re-imagine or ‘ invent’  the world he sought, not only in paintings but with woodcarvings, graphics, and written works which generally present an image of an intoxicating earthly paradise where the painter lived as a native among the natives.

However, he also struggled with ways to express the questions of life and death, knowledge and evil that preoccupied him, and he interwove the images and mythology of island life with those of the west and other cultures.

He painted such works as Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going To? in 1898. This work was an enormous contemplation of life and death told through a series of figures, beginning with a baby and ending with an old woman, and is surrounded by a dreamlike, poetic aura.

Paul Gaugin, Where do we come from, Who are we, Where are we going, 1897
Paul Gauguin, Where do we come from, Who are we, Where are we going, 1897

After a trip to France from 1893 to 1895, Gauguin returned to the South Seas. However, by this time he was suffering  from illness and depression. In 1901 he moved to the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa, still searching for a lost paradise. “I think the savage element there, together with complete solitude, will revive the fire of my enthusiasm before I die, give new life to my imagination and bring my talents to a fitting conclusion.” He died there in 1903.

In this blog I have focused on Gauguin’s artistic achievements, but commentaries on his personal life are not so complimentary. A key question you may wish to consider is whether your knowledge of an artist’s personal life influences how you feel about their art.

This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art  which is designed for adult learners and students of art history. 

This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris,  key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.

If you’d like to see some of the  Australian artwork you’ll find in my gallery, scroll down to the bottom of the page. You’ll also find many French works on paper and beautiful fashion plates from the early 1900s by visiting the gallery.

icons-follow-blog     icon-ecourse     icons-visit-gallery



Post Impressionism – Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers, 1888

Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh’s first job  was working in the Hague branch of an  international art dealing firm, Goupil & Cie.  It was 1869 and he was just 16.

He was reasonably successful in the firm so he was then was transferred to the London branch in 1873 and then later to Paris. However, he lost interest in the role, which led to his dismissal in 1876.

Following this, he briefly became a teacher in England, and then, deeply interested in Christianity (his father was a Protestant Minister), a lay preacher in a mining community in southern Belgium. He was also dismissed by the church, but his future artwork was heavily influenced by his spiritual beliefs.

Largely self-taught, van Gogh began his study as an artist by meticulously copying prints and studying nineteenth-century drawing manuals and lesson books. He believed that it was necessary to master working with black and white before working with colour, and  that it was important to concentrate on learning the rudiments of figure drawing and rendering landscapes in correct perspective.

Van Gogh’s admiration for the  Realist Barbizon artists, in particular Jean-François Millet, whose work he’d seen in London, influenced his decision to paint rural life.  During 1884 – 85, while again living with his parents in Nuenen in the Netherlands,  he painted more than forty studies of peasant heads, which culminated in The Potato Eaters.  Van Gogh wrote that he wanted to express that they “have tilled the earth themselves with the same hands they are putting in the dish”.


His style underwent a major transformation during a two-year stay in Paris from 1886 to 1888. During this period he took lessons in the studio of Fernand Cormon – an artist who was very popular with foreign students. It was here that he met fellow students Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Emile Bernard. Vincent’s brother Theo was by this time the manager of Goupil and Cie in Paris,  and he was able to introduce Vincent to the light filled work of prominent Impressionist artists such as Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro.  Vincent also saw the latest technical innovations (pointillism) by Post Impressionists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac.

Vincent discovered a new source of inspiration in Japanese woodcuts, which sold in large quantities in Paris. Both he  and Theo began to collect them. The influence of the bold outlines, cropping and colour contrasts in these prints showed through immediately in his own work.

He used brighter colours and developed his own style of painting using short brush strokes. The themes he painted also changed, with rural labourers giving way to cafés and boulevards, the countryside along the Seine and floral still lifes. He also tried out more commercial subjects, such as portraits. However, Vincent mostly acted as his own sitter,  as models were relatively expensive,  and he painted more than twenty self-portraits.

By 1888 Vincent began to tire of the frenetic city life in Paris. Unfortunately his mental health  began its decline, resulting in violent mood swings, depression, and drunken and erratic behaviour. He longed for the peace of the countryside, for sun, and for the light of ‘Japanese’ landscapes, which he hoped to find in Provence in the South of France, and so in February 1888 he moved to the “little yellow house” in Arles.

He hoped his friends would join him and help found a colony of artists.  Paul Gauguin did join him for a short period of time, but with disastrous results. Van Gogh’s nervous temperament made him a difficult companion and night-long discussions combined with painting all day undermined his health. It was at this time that he cut off part of his left ear with a razor. Penniless, he spent his money on paint rather than food,  living on coffee, bread and absinthe.

His ongoing depression caused him to seek periodic refuge in a nearby asylum at St Remy.  Over the course of the next year, he painted some 150 paintings, including many still lifes and landscapes.  He also painted copies of works, using black-and-white photographs and prints,  by such artists as Delacroix, Rembrandt and Millet. He described his copies as “interpretations” or “translations”, comparing his role as an artist to that of a musician playing music written by another composer.

In May of 1890, his mental health appeared to have improved and he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise under the watchful eye of Dr. Gachet. Two months later he was dead, having reportedly shot himself “for the good of all”.

Van Gogh’s finest works were produced in less than three years – in a technique that grew more and more impassioned in brushstroke, in symbolic and intense colour, in surface tension, and in the movement and vibration of form and line.

During his brief career he sold only one of his paintings. However, by 1890, van Gogh’s work had begun to attract critical attention. His paintings were featured at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris between 1888 and 1890, as well as in Brussels in 1890, and articles about his work began to appear in major newspapers.


Read more, and see a full range of images at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam

This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art  which is designed for adult learners and students of art history. 

This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris,  key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.

If you’d like to see some of the  Australian artwork you’ll find in my gallery, scroll down to the bottom of the page. You’ll also find many French works on paper and beautiful fashion plates from the early 1900s by visiting the gallery.

icons-follow-blog  icon-ecourse   icons-visit-gallery

Édouard Manet – Olympia, 1863

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863
Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863

As he had in Luncheon on the Grass, Manet again used paintings by respected artists as a basis for the painting Olympia, 1863. The painting was a nude in a style not unlike early studio photographs, but the pose was modelled on Titian’s Venus of Urbino, 1538.

Titian’s painting is in fact not dissimilar to an earlier work, The Sleeping Venus, painted by the Italian Renaissance artist Giorgione, and it now generally accepted that the landscape and sky were completed by Titian after Giorgione’s death in 1510.

The painting is also reminiscent of Francisco Goya’s painting The Nude Maja,  1800, and Ingres’ La Grand Odalisque, 1814.

Manet began the work after being challenged by the Paris Salon to submit a nude painting. His  depiction of a self-assured prostitute was accepted by the Salon in 1865, but  it created a scandal. According to French journalist and politician Antonin Proust, “only the precautions taken by the administration prevented the painting being punctured and torn” by offended viewers.

The painting was controversial partly because Olympia is wearing some small items such as an orchid in her hair, a bracelet, a ribbon around her neck, and slippers – all of which accentuated her nakedness, sexuality, and comfortable courtesan lifestyle. The orchid, upswept hair, black cat, and bouquet of flowers were all recognised symbols of sexuality at the time.

However, this modern Venus is thin, which was counter to prevailing standards, and so the painting’s lack of idealism rankled viewers.

The painting’s flatness, inspired by Japanese wood block art, serves to make the nude more human and less voluptuous. Olympia’s body,  as well as her gaze, is unabashedly confrontational. She defiantly looks out to the viewer as her maid offers flowers from one of her male suitors. Although her hand rests on her leg, hiding her pubic area, the reference to traditional female virtue is ironic; a notion of modesty is notoriously absent in this work.

A  critic denounced Olympia’s “shamelessly flexed” left hand, which seemed to him a mockery of the relaxed, shielding hand of Titian’s Venus. Similarly, the alert black cat at the foot of the bed strikes a sexually rebellious note in contrast to that of the sleeping dog in Titian’s portrayal of the goddess in his Venus of Urbino.

As with Luncheon on the Grass, the painting raised the issue of prostitution within contemporary France and the roles of women within society.

Olympia was the subject of caricatures in the popular press, but was championed by the French avant-garde community, and the painting’s significance was appreciated by artists such as Gustave Courbet, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, and later Paul Gauguin.

What reaction do you have this painting, when compared with earlier works of similar subjects?

This is an excerpt from my interactive online modern art appreciation program

Édouard Manet – a pivotal artist in transitioning to a Modernist approach

Edouard Manet, Young Flautist, or The Fifer, 1866
Edouard Manet, Young Flautist, or The Fifer, 1866

Édouard Manet was one of the first 19th-century artists to paint modern life, and a pivotal figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism. His early works, The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe) and Olympia, both  painted in 1863, caused great controversy and served as rallying points for young painters who would introduce Impressionism. Today, these are considered watershed paintings that mark the genesis of modern art.

Manet put great emphasis on acceptance by the Paris Salon. In fact, he believed that success as an artist could only be obtained through recognition at the Salon.

Spanish Guitar Player, painted in 1862, reflected the Parisian love of “all things Spanish” and was one of Manet’s first works to be accepted by the Salon, however  it was not this painting which brought  his much sought after recognition (notoriety) but the rejected Dejeuner sur l’herbe.

He became friends with the Impressionists Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro through another painter, Berthe Morisot, who was a member of the group and drew him into their activities. She is credited with convincing Manet to attempt plein air painting, which she had been practicing since she was introduced to it by another friend of hers, Camille Corot.

Although his own work influenced and anticipated the Impressionist style, he resisted involvement in Impressionist exhibitions, partly because he didn’t wish to be seen as the representative of a group identity, and partly because he wanted the prestige of exhibiting at the Salon.

He was influenced by other Impressionists, especially Monet and Morisot. Their influence is seen in Manet’s use of lighter colours, but he retained his distinctive use of black, uncharacteristic of Impressionist painting. He painted many outdoor (plein air) pieces, but always returned to what he considered the serious work of the studio.

Some of Manet’s best-loved works are his café scenes. His completed paintings were often based on small sketches he made while out socializing. These works, including At the Café, The Beer Drinkers and The Café Concert, amongst others, depict 19th-century Paris. He sought to illuminate the rituals of both common and bourgeoisie French people. His subjects are reading, waiting for friends, drinking and working. In stark contrast to his café scenes, Manet also painted the tragedies and triumphs of war.

In my next blog more about Manet…


 This is an excerpt from my online art appreciation program

Impressionism – Marie Bracquemond

Marie Bracquemond, Pierre Bracquemong as a Child, 1878
Marie Bracquemond, Pierre Bracquemond as a Child, 1878

Born Marie Quiveron, Marie Braquemond (1840 – 1916) was one of the four key women associated with the Impressionists. She was included in their exhibitions three times; in 1879, 1880 and 1886.

As a young woman she was admitted to Ingres’s studio and worked with two of his students. Although, according to Bracquemond, Ingres “doubted the courage and perseverance of a woman in the field of painting … [and] … would assign to them only the painting of flowers, of fruits, of still lifes, portraits and genre scenes…”, her work was accepted at the Paris Salon from 1857 (when she was only 17).

Marie Braquemond
Marie Braquemond

She began receiving commissions, including one from the court of Empress Eugenie, the Empress of France and wife of Napoleon III. Bracquemond was also commissioned by Count de Nieuwerkerke, the Director-General of French museums, to copy more important paintings in the Louvre.

It was here she met her husband, Félix Bracquemond. He introduced  Marie to his artist friends, such as Millet, Corot, Degas, and Rodin and through them she received more commissions. She also became involved in his work for the Haviland Limoges factory, where he was artistic director.

Marie designed plates for dinner services and executed large Faience (tin-glazed earthenware) tile panels entitled The Muses, which were shown at the Universal Exhibition of 1878. The preliminary sketch used for the design was shown at the Impressionist Exhibition of 1879, and Edgar Degas was among its greatest admirers.

In an article in the 1904 magazine Women in the Fine Arts,  Clara Erskine Clement, author of Women in the Fine Arts from the Seventh Century to the Twentieth Century AD, wrote about Marie Bracquemond’s ability:

“…Madame Bracquemond had the facility of employing the faience colours so well that she produced a clearness and richness not achieved by other artists.  The progress made in the Haviland faience in the 70’s was very largely due to Madame Bracquemond, whose pieces were almost always sold from the atelier before being fired, so great was her success…”

From the late 1870s Bracquemond’s style had began to change. Her canvases grew larger and her colours intensified. She began sketching and painting en plein air, and Monet, Renoir  and Degas became her mentors. Her fascination with the colouristic effects on sunlight on white resulted in paintings such as Woman in White and the more fully realised On the Terrace at Sévres, both of which appeared in the 1880 exhibition.

The “woman in white”, which was captured outdoors in a garden or at the seashore, soon became an archetypal Impressionist motif around the world. Many artists found it a perfect vehicle for the investigation of the formal properties of reflected light and colour.

Bracquemond also experimented with different light effects, moving from work which explored natural daylight, such as Tea Time, to paintings under artificial light, such as Under the Lamp.


In 1886, Félix met Paul Gauguin through Impressionist artist Alfred Sisley, and brought the impoverished artist home. Gauguin had a decisive influence on Marie and he taught her how to prepare canvases. Unlike many of her Impressionist contemporaries, Bracquemond spent a great deal of effort planning her pieces. Even though many of her works have a spontaneous feel, she prepared them in a traditional way through sketches and drawings before starting on the canvas.

Bracquemond was an artist who is considered to have approached the interpretation of her human subjects with particular empathy for their individuality. Her models were usually family members, such as her son, sister and close friends, including Sisley and his wife.

The greatest challenge in her career proved to be the discouragement of her husband, and by 1890 the domestic conflict that her painting provoked led her to giving up paintings almost completely. Her son Pierre recorded in La vie de Félix and Marie Bracquemond the pain and difficulties that his mother suffered and his father’s jealousy of her talent.

However, she remained a fervent defender of Impressionism “Impressionism has produced… not only a new, but a very useful way of looking at things. It is as if all at once a window opens and the sun and air enter your house in torrents“.


icon-ecourse                                                   icons-visit-gallery

This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art  which is designed for adult learners and students of art history.

This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris,  key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.


Impressionism – Eva Gonzalés

Eva Gonzalés, White Shoes, 1879-80
Eva Gonzalés, White Shoes, 1879-80

Eva Gonzalès was the daughter of a Spanish writer and a Belgian musician. She was just 17 when she joined Charles Chaplin’s studio in Paris as a pupil in 1866,  but within three years she became Edouárd Manet’s only formal pupil.

Although Gonzalès is classified as an Impressionist artist, she, like Manet, didn’t participate in any of  their group exhibitions. Instead, with Manet’s encouragement she preferred  to show at the Paris Salon, exhibiting there between 1870 and 1882-3, and at the Salon de Refusés in 1873.

Unfortunately, at her debut showing in 1870, where she exhibited three paintings, her work was overshadowed by Manet’s own submission of a portrait of Gonzalés as a dark haired fashionable model. As a result, she wasn’t considered by the critics to be a serious artist in her own right.

Her major submission was the life-sized Little Soldier, which was an unmistakable reference to Manet’s Fife Player of 1866. However, in her painting Gonzalés transformed the figure of a small boy into a three-dimensional figure with a slightly turned pose, softer focus and extended shadows, unlike Manet’s more flattened two-dimensional painting. She continued to work in the realistic style of Manet’s earlier Spanish period and began to have some success.

In the early 1870s she painted a number of Impressionist plein air landscape studies using the ‘bird’s eye’ viewpoint, flattened perspective and sunlit palette which Monet characterised in his views of Sainte-Adresse during the ’60s.

In her later works she frequently portrayed women (in particular her sister Jeanne, also an accomplished artist) and domestic scenes. Her pastels, for which she is most well known, have a light and delicate touch. Her small pastel domestic scene The Nest which was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1873 met with acclaim, but the reviews refer to her ‘feminine technique’. In contrast, her other submission that year was a large realist painting Loge at the Theatre des Italians. This painting was rejected by the critics for its ‘masculine vigour’ because of the strong brushwork and allusion to erotic symbolism through the inclusion of a sumptuous bouquet of flowers.

By the late 1870s her assured pastel portraits demonstrated that she had found her true style, which can be compared with Degas and other Impressionists.

Overall, her life’s work was small (the catalogue raisonné of her works lists a total of 124 works) as she died within days of giving birth in 1883.

This is an excerpt from my interactive online modern art appreciation program

Impressionism – Mary Cassatt; Painter and and Printmaker

Mary Cassatt, Self Portrait, 1878
Mary Cassatt, Self Portrait, 1878

Known for her perceptive depictions of women and children, Mary Cassatt was one of the few American artists in France in the 1800s. She began to show regularly at the Paris Salon in 1868 – with her first work exhibited being a Realist work, The Mandolin Player.

After several tours to Europe, she settled permanently in Paris In 1874. As women weren’t then accepted at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, it is believed that she studied privately with Jean-Leon Gerome, a teacher from the school. Cassatt also attended classes by Charles Chaplin and Thomas Couture and, like Berthe Morisot, she also regularly copied masters at the Louvre.

In 1875 she saw the pastel work of Edgar Degas in a gallery window. Years later, Cassatt described the importance of this experience, “I used to go and flatten my nose against the window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” She became extremely proficient in the use of pastels, eventually creating many of her most important works in this medium. Degas also introduced her to etching, of which he was a recognised master at the time.

In 1877, Degas invited her to join the Impressionists and a close working relationship developed between them. From similar upper-class backgrounds, the two painters enjoyed a friendship based on common artistic sensibilities and interests in bold compositional structure, the asymmetry and high vantage point of Japanese prints, and contemporary subject matter. Their admiration and support for each other endured long after their art began to head in different directions.

Cassatt exhibited in four of the eight Impressionist exhibitions; in 1879, 1880, 1881, and 1886. During this period she revised her technique, composition, and use of colour and light from the earlier and darker Realist works.

In April 1890, an exhibition of Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris inspired Cassatt to begin experimenting with different print techniques. However, she blended the Japanese design with that of the Impressionists. Impressionists didn’t use black so she used light pastel colours instead. (Some art historians believe her blending of the two styles made a lasting contribution to the graphic arts.)

Also, she chose not to employ the woodblock process, instead using aquatint, drypoint, etching, and hand-colouring. She made bold compositional choices—flattening forms and perspective, cropping compositions, contrasting decorative patterns and introducing broad planes of colour. Between 1890-91 she executed a series of ten prints that explored the private activities of women. After painstakingly overseeing the execution of each print, Cassatt exhibited the resulting series at the Durand Ruel Gallery in Paris. Together, the prints combined the spare beauty of Japanese woodcut designs with innovative colour patterns and finely tuned drawing.

The Bath was Cassatt’s first effort in the series, and the only one, according to her, in which she truly tried to imitate Japanese design. She produced seventeen different states for The Bath, more than for any other print in the series. Here she was still mastering the technical difficulties of translating woodcuts into intaglio prints. In The Bath, colour is used very simply for the blue tub, the yellow in woman’s dress and the soft background.

The subject, a mother and child, is a favourite of Cassatt’s, and in the series as a whole, she opens a window on women’s private lives in the nineteenth century.

Mary Cassatt, who chose her independence and a painting career over being married and having a family, continued painting until 1915, when she became virtually blind. As an independently wealthy woman, she acquired a number of artworks from her fellow artists and either donated or bequeathed these to American art museums, where her work was highly regarded.

This is an excerpt from my interactive online modern art appreciation program

Impressionism – Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot, The Cradle, 1872
Berthe Morisot, The Cradle, 1872

If you’ve been following my modern art blogs, you’ll notice that this the first time I’ve included a woman artist. It’s from about this time that it’s a little easier to find records of female painters – and for the rest of this blog series (and in my on-line interactive program) you will see a number of artists whom you may not have heard of, even though they were painting and exhibiting with their male counter-parts.

One of the most well known female Impressionists is Berthe Morisot. After receiving private art tuition, and copying artworks from the Louvre, she registered as a copyist with the Louvre, where she met Realist painter Camille Corot, who encouraged her to paint en plein air. In 1864 two of her landscape paintings were exhibited at the Salon de Paris, and she subsequently showed regularly at the Salon until the Impressionist exhibitions.

In 1868 Morisot became friends with Édouard Manet, who painted several portraits of her, and who is also regarded as having a strong influence on her work. In return, Manet appreciated Morisot’s distinctive original style and compositions, some of which he incorporated into his own work, and it was Morisot who persuaded him to attempt plein air painting. It was also Morisot who introduced Manet to the Impressionist circle of painters, where she was one of the most prolific artists.

She was the only woman to exhibit in the first Impressionist exhibition (in 1874), and then continued to show in the next seven of the eight Impressionist exhibitions (only missing the  exhibition the year when her daughter was born, in 1878). Also unusual for her time,  Morisot continued to paint professionally after her marriage (to Manet’s brother) and the birth of her only child. Her daughter Julie was the subject of many of her artworks.

During her early Impressionist period her works were almost always small in scale. She worked in oil paint, watercolours, or pastel, and sketched using various drawing media.  From about 1880, when her brushstrokes became looser, she evoked a greater sense of freedom in her works. She was also known for creating a sense of space and depth through her use of colour, albeit with a limited colour palette.

Like most woman artists of her time, her subject matter generally reflected the cultural restrictions on her gender and she often painted domestic scenes.

Her subjects were often posed outdoors, enveloped by sunlight.  She insisted on the “interiority” of her images and refused to include the intrusion of background detail into the very private and intimate study she was portraying. Morisot was concerned with “self” not the interaction of “self” and its environment.   The outer edges of her paintings were often left unfinished, allowing the canvas to show through and increasing the sense of spontaneity.

As one critic noted at the time, “Her painting has all the frankness of improvisation; it truly is the impression caught by a sincere eye and accurately rendered by a hand that does not cheat.”

In my next few blogs, you’ll see more woman Impressionists.

This is an excerpt from my online modern art appreciation program

Impressionism – Alfred Sisley, Landscapes

Alfed Sisley, The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne, 1872
Alfred Sisley, The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne, 1872

Alfred Sisley’s English heritage and Parisian upbringing served him well in developing as an Impressionist landscape artist. Early in his career, he spent four years in London studying J.M.W. Turner and John Constable.  However he returned to London in 1861, where, like Pissarro, Camille Corot’s Realist landscape paintings strongly influenced his style. (He first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1867 as Corot’s pupil.)

Through Corot’s  influence he retained a passionate interest in the sky, which nearly always dominated his paintings, and also in the effects of snow, which he combined to create strongly dramatic effects. His  early style was also deeply influenced by Courbet and Daubigny.

From 1862, he studied at the Paris École des Beaux-Arts (at the studio of Charles Gleyr) with fellow students Frédéric Bazille, Claude Monet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. These artists often gathered at Café Guerbois on the Grande rue des Batignolles, where they met Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and others who were part of, or sympathetic to, the Impressionist movement.

Sisley concentrated on painting landscapes more consistently than any other Impressionist painter.  He celebrated the intimate qualities of the places he lived in, exploring the effects of changing light and weather and mapping scenes from a variety of viewpoints in different seasons. Unlike other Impressionists such as Monet, Renoir and Pissarro who developed their styles over time, Sisley stayed true to his love of painting landscapes in the Impressionist style.

He spent some time painting in Fontainebleau southeast of Paris, at Chailly with Monet, Bazille and Renoir, and later at Marlotte with Renoir. He moved his family to Moret-sur-Loing, near Fontainebleau,  in 1880 and remained close to the area for the rest of his life. (He died from throat cancer at the age of 59 in 1899.)  Fontainebleau was a source of inspiration that he would revisit many time on canvas, or occasionally with a camera, as he also seems to have worked from photographs at times.

Sisley had also fled to London during the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune in the early 1870s. There Pissarro introduced him to art dealer Duand-Ruel, and he became part of the dealer’s stable. Unfortunately, the war caused him a severe reversal of fortune: most of his paintings were either lost or destroyed, and his father, who had been supporting Sisley, lost his fortune. Reduced to extreme poverty, Sisley had to support himself and his family through modest sales of his work.

In the images below you will see how successfully Sisley captured the world around him, producing very atmospheric and restful landscapes. You’ll also see the influence of his fellow Impressionist artists.

This is an excerpt from my online modern art appreciation program

Impressionism – Camille Pissarro

Camille Pissarro,  Barges on Pontoise, 1872
Camille Pissarro, Barges on Pontoise, 1872

Camille Pissarro was instrumental in establishing the Impressionists, holding the group together and encouraging individual members. He was the only painter of the group who participated in all eight of the Impressionist exhibitions held in Paris between 1874 and 1886.

It was Pissarro who drafted the convention for the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers) and who was the principal organiser of their first joint exhibition. Consequently, he was regarded as a central figure of the group. Although he was the oldest of the Impressionists, Pissarro never ceased assimilating the work of others and developing his artistic style.

In his early career Pissarro was strongly attracted to the paintings of Realist Camille Corot which he had seen on display at Paris’s Universal Exposition in 1855. (Corot taught him informally, urging him to paint from nature.) He then studied at various academic institutions (including the École des Beaux-Arts and Académie Suisse) where he met future Impressionists Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne and Armand Guillaumin. Through Monet, he also met Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley.

His work was exhibited at the Paris Salon throughout the 1860s until 1870, although in 1863 he participated in the Salon des Refusés with Edouard Manet, Paul Cezanne, James Abbott McNeill Whistler and others. During the Franco-Prussian War, Pissarro fled to London where he lived between 1870–71. There he met Paul Durand-Ruel, the Parisian dealer who would become an ardent supporter of Pissarro and his fellow Impressionists. (On his return to France, Pissarro discovered that much of the work in his studio had been destroyed by Prussian soldiers.)

Like his fellow Impressionists, Pissarro painted both urban and rural French life, particularly landscapes in and around Pontoise, as well as scenes from Montmartre, and his mature work displayed an empathy with peasants and labourers. Working  closely en plein  air with Monet, Renoir, and Sisley, he revised his method of landscape painting (from his earlier Realist influences), changing the way in which he used colour and applied patches of paint.

Pissarro was also a strong influence on other artists. He was an astute judge of young talent and in 1872 gathered a small circle of painters around him, demonstrating his method of painting patiently from nature.  Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, Signac and Matisse all benefited from his generous encouragement and advice. (Pissarro also later adopted the pointillist style of Seurat.)    These sessions caused Cézanne to change his entire approach to art. In 1902 he said of his mentor “As for old Pissarro, he was a father to me, a man to consult and something like the good Lord“. Renoir referred to his work as “revolutionary“, through his artistic portrayals of the “common man“, as Pissarro insisted on painting individuals in natural settings without “artifice or grandeur“.

Art historian John Rewald called Pissarro the “Dean of the Impressionist paintersby virtue of his wisdom and his balanced, kind, and warmhearted personality“.

You can see Pissarro’s Impressionist style in  Barges on Pontoise, 1872 and Houses at Bougival, Autumn, 1870, where he has used a variety of brush strokes in different sections of the works.

This is an excerpt from my online modern art appreciation program

In my next blog there will be more landscapes, this time by Impressionist artist Alfred Sisley.

Impressionism – Monet and Renoir, La Grenouillére (The Frog Pond), 1869


Claude Monet, Bain à la Grenouillère, 1869
Claude Monet, Bain à la Grenouillère, 1869

In the summer of 1869 Monet was living in conditions of extreme hardship with his family at Saint-Michel, a hamlet near Bougival, west of Paris. The two works he had submitted to the Paris Salon that year (The Magpie and  Fishing Boats at Sea) had been rejected, and he was keen to paint a ‘tableau’ (living picture) to submit to the Salon in 1870 that might find fresh mass appeal.

Renoir, also desperately poor at the time,  was staying in the vicinity with his parents, and he and Monet painted together at La Grenouillére (The Frog Pond) a popular meeting place on the river near Bougival, which was easily accessible by train. Here people met to swim, dance and drink.

The restaurant at La Grenouillére, which was located on a barge, was a fashionable place for the emerging middle class to enjoy the new pleasures of suburban Paris.  The small island next to the restaurant, with a weeping willow at its centre, was known as Pot de fluers ( flowerpot) or ‘ the camembert‘.  Accessible by gang planks,  people would meet and talk before progressing to the bar of La Grenouillére.

The name La Grenouillére was based on its double meaning.  It’s not only the French term for frog pond, but it was also used colloquially to describe women who were, as Renoir’s son in his memoir of his father put it, “not exactly prostitutes, but a class of unattached young women, characteristic of the Parisian scene [at the time], changing lovers easily, satisfying any whim, going nonchalantly from a  mansion on the Champs-Elyseés to a garret in the Batignolles“.

He continued, “Among that group Renoir got a great many of his volunteer models. According to him, the grenouilles, or ‘frogs’ were often ‘very good sorts’. Because the French people love a medley of classes, actresses, society women and respectable middle-class also patronised the… restaurant”.

August Renoir, La Grenouillère, 1869
August Renoir, La Grenouillère, 1869

Both Monet and Renoir were living a ‘hand to mouth existence’.  Monet would literally paint until he ran out of colour, then take up sketching in preparation for the next time he could pull together a few francs from his friends in order to continue.  Renoir was being supported by his family. Thankfully the owner of La Grenouillére, Monsieur Fournaise, accepted some of their paintings in exchange for food.

They painted scenes of boats and swimmers and of couples strolling along the water’s edge or crossing the gangplanks. Painting many views of the same scene quickly, they captured the changes in light and atmosphere as the day progressed. In their surviving works from that summer, it is clear that they usually painted alongside each other.

In experimenting with techniques for painting outdoors, they developed a method for capturing the play of light on water. They painted rapidly with short, comma like brushstrokes, and they juxtaposed sharply contrasting, unmixed colours which brought a shimmering life to water. It enabled them to portray the transitory effects of light and atmosphere – goals they had been pursuing for years. Both came to value the sketchy, unfinished quality of the work.

Renoir’s paintings

Details from Renoir’s paintings

Renoir painted huddles of people on the camembert, experimenting with little patches or taches (French for ‘spots’) which were indistinct wiggling strokes which he applied by putting one mark next to another, creating subtle colour variations. He also dashed off bright white impasto (thick paint straight out of the tube) across the water, suggesting reflections of bright light and the movement of the water created by the bathers and the boats.

Monet’s Paintings

(It’s considered that the lost painting of La Grenouillére,  photographed above, was his ‘tableau’ which he submitted to the Salon in 1870, but was rejected.)

Details from Monet’s paintings

Monet was also experimenting with new ways of reflecting water – using huge broad strokes of brown, white and blue. His preference for treating forms in bold masses, juxtaposing patches of colour and suppressing unnecessary detail echoed Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcuts. (It appears that he began collecting Japanese woodblock prints as early as 1864–65 and owned volumes of work by Hokusai.)

Monet may have incorporated the innovations into his paintings the most boldly, but it is not possible to say who was the key initiator of the changes they made to their painting styles. However, the discoveries Claude Monet and  Pierre-Auguste Renior made that summer from painting together and sharing ideas, and the techniques they developed, clearly influenced the evolving Impressionist style.

 Photos of La Grenouillére

(See more information about Monet’s painting techniques and his use of complementary colours in the free trial section of my e-course.)

(Also,  you’ll find detailed information about 19th Century Painting Inventions and how they influenced  the painting style of Monet, and other Impressionists,  in the full e-course.)

This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art,  which is designed for adult learners and students of art history. 

This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism  through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris,  key Paris exhibitions, favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.

view 2

icons-follow-blog    icon-ecourse      icons-visit-gallery


Impressionism – Edgar Degas, La Classe de Danse, 1874

Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, 1874
Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, 1874

Edgar Degas was both an avid photographer and a collector of Japanese prints and his The Dance Class (La Classe de Danse) of 1874 shows influences of both.  From the 1870s until his death, one of Degas’s favourite subjects was ballerinas at work, in rehearsal or at rest, and he tirelessly explored the theme with many variations in posture and gesture.

Degas regularly went to the Paris opera house, not only as a member of the audience, but also as a visitor backstage and to the dance studio, where he was introduced by a friend who played in the orchestra. (The imaginary scene was set in the rehearsal room of the old Paris Opéra, which had recently burnt down.)

More than the stage performance, it was the training and rehearsals that interested him.

Degas closely observed the most spontaneous, natural, ordinary gestures, the pauses when concentration is relaxed and the body slumps after the exhausting effort  and rigour of practising.

In The Dance Class the class is coming to an end – the pupils are stretching, twisting to scratch their backs, adjusting their hair or clothes or just sitting,  no longer paying any attention to their demanding teacher,  Jules Perrot. You can also see some mothers waiting more or less patiently for the class to end.

There is just one dancer who is still executing a position for the teacher.


In its asymmetrical composition the dancers are seemingly caught off guard in various awkward poses, leaving an expanse of empty floor space in the lower right section of the painting.

The slightly raised viewpoint looking diagonally across the studio emphasises the vanishing perspective of floor boards, which were such an important part of the vignette.

You can see the influence of photography and Japonisme in this painting.  The scene (image) appears to be cropped – we know that there is more to the musical instrument on the left and more dancers on the right. It doesn’t appear posed, rather just a scene from a normal day in the life of dancer at rehearsal, and we sense that this is just a snapshot in time.


There are also large areas of similar colour, the floor, the dancers’ tutus, the walls, and the ceilings. Degas has  relieved these colours with splashes of red and brown, so that the painting doesn’t lose interest.

As an added touch, you can just see a poster for Rossini’s Gaullaume Tell on the wall next to the mirror which pays tribute to the singer Jean-Baptiste Faure. Faure commissioned the picture and lent it to the 1876 Impressionist exhibition.



As you’ll see from the photo gallery below,  Degas introduced the additional elements of photography and Japonisme in his many studies of the movement of dancers.


In my next post I talk about Monet and Renoir  painting together at La Grenouillere (the Frog Pond).


This is an excerpt from my e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art, where you will enjoy the history of art from Romanticism through to Abstract Art.

icons-follow-blog   icon-ecourse  icons-visit-gallery



Impressionism – The Influence of Japonisme

Mary Cassatt, Woman Bathing  c. 1890–91
Mary Cassatt, Woman Bathing c. 1890–91

A major influence on Impressionism was Japanese art prints (Japonisme).

The term Japonisme was coined by the French journalist and art critic Philippe Burty in an article published in 1876 to describe the strong interest for Japanese artworks and decorative items.

After Japanese ports reopened to trade with the West in 1854, shiploads of  oriental bric-a brac began pouring into France.  In 1862, a Far Eastern curio shop called Le Porte Chinoise opened near the Louvre Museum, attracting artists visiting the gallery. It sold fans, kimonos, lacquered boxes, hanging scrolls, ceramics, bronze statuary and other items.

In 1867,  Japan held its first formal arts and crafts exhibition at the Paris Exposition Universelle. The exhibition attracted a great deal of interest and resulted in all things Japanese becoming stylish and fashionable. Shops selling Japanese woodblock prints, kimonos, fans and antiquities popped up in Paris like mushrooms.

In the images below, you’ll see paintings by Edouard Manet and James Tissot, indicating that artists visited the 1867 and later expositions, as well as the shops selling Japanese items.

Siegried Bing, who is known as the founder of L’Art Nouveau, began collecting Oriental art and design from the mid 1870s and by the 1880s, after a year long visit to the Orient, he was running no less that three stores in Paris and had become one of the most influential dealers of Japanese art in Europe. In 1890 he organised an exhibition of Japanese woodcuts.

Bing also published a richly illustrated journal, Le Japon Artistique, between 1888 and 1891 which was intended to promote the principles of Japanese design amongst European artists.  He argued that the art of the two nations was united by “ a bond of kinship born of the same love of beauty“*.   Louis Gonse had already published a comprehensive study of Japanese art in two volumes entitled L’Art Japonais in 1883.


These and other similar publications increased the knowledge and interest in Japanese art.

On the crest of this wave of interest in all things Japanese were woodcut prints by masters of the Ukiyo-e  ‘Floating World’ school of printmaking. The subject matter of the Ukiyo-e in 18th and 19th Centuries was drawn from everyday life, it celebrated the non-heroic and was based on the idea that all is transient. These prints were mass-produced as woodcuts and were cheap enough for the average Japanese person (or Parisian) to afford. Three master printmakers from the period were Utamaro, Hiroshige and Hokusai.


The key features of Ukiyo-e prints were that they:

  • had limited depth (flattened picture plane)
  • emphasised shapes
  • used a dark outline
  • generally had asymmetrical composition
  • used flat areas of colour (ie, not modulated or varied)
  • had little or no use of strong contrasts between light and dark (chiaroscuro)
  • could have unusual viewpoints
  • often used a diagonal emphasis in composition
  • focused on everyday subject matter
  • often includes calligraphy
  • were identified by the artist’s stamp
  • had quite large production runs (100+)

Examples of Impressionist and Post Impressionist paintings and prints.

Many of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists experimented with Japanese techniques in painting and  printmaking, with a number of artists emulating the Ukiyo-e style.

For example,  Claude Monet painted a number of bridges over ponds in his Waterlily series. He praised the quality of Japanese art that “evokes presence by means of shadow, the whole by means of a fragment“.

Mary Cassatt was particularly interested in print making, often using women and children as her subjects. Edgar Degas reflected many of the compositional styles in his drawings and pastels. Van Gogh was also highly influenced by Japanse design and  both Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec are renowned for their large areas of flat colour.

In the painting by Manet below, you can see the Japanese prints and screen in the background. To him, these prints brought proof that you could dispense with perspective and limit yourself to flat colours and lines and still do justice to subject matter – even to subject matter drawn from contemporary life. Manet was amongst a number of the artists of the time who collected Japanese prints and other items for their personal appreciation.


Artists such as Toulouse Lautrec saw the value in printmaking and posters not just in terms of composition, but also as a way to create multiple copies of works at a reasonably inexpensive cost.

Like photography, the style of these prints also contributed significantly to the “snapshot” angles and unconventional compositions which would become characteristic of this movement.

Japonisme transformed Impressionist art by demonstrating that simple, transitory, everyday subjects could be presented in appealingly decorative ways. The Impressionists, and Post-Impressionists, admired the use of flat, decorative shapes, bright colours, and asymmetrical compositions which assisted them in exploring new ways of painting and printmaking.

*  S Bing, in Salon Annuel  des  Japonais, Premiere Anee, 1883

 This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art  which is designed for adult learners and students of art history.

This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris,  key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.

You’ll also find many French works on paper and beautiful fashion plates from the early 1900s by visiting the gallery.

icons-follow-blog    icon-ecourse   icons-visit-gallery

Impressionism – The influence of Photography

Edgar Degas, Race Horses, 1883-85
Edgar Degas, Race Horses, 1883-85

The rise of Impressionism can be seen in part as a response by artists to the newly established medium of photography. In the same way that Japonisme focused on everyday life, photography also influenced the Impressionists’ interest in capturing a ‘snapshot’ of ordinary people doing everyday things.

The taking of fixed or still images provided a new medium with which to capture reality, and changed the way people in general, and artists in particular, saw the world, and created new artistic opportunities.

Learning from the science of photography, artists developed a range of new painting techniques. And, rather than compete with the ability of the photograph to record ‘ a moment of truth’ the Impressionists, such as Monet, felt free to represent what they saw in an entirely different way – focusing more on light, colour and movement in  a way that was not possible with photography. Over time, these subjective observations became much more widely accepted as works of art, although initially they were thought to be ‘sketchy’ or ‘unfinished’.

Claude Monet, Impression Sunrise,1872
Claude Monet, Impression Sunrise, 1872

Early Photography

In 1839, Daguerre’s disclosure of the secret process he used to record an image onto a silvered sheet of copper, which was the first workable and permanent method to achieve this (known as the Daguerreotype), led to the invention of the photograph, which was to become one of the most popular inventions of the century.

Daguerre, historic photograph from 1837, two years before he shared his technique
Daguerre, historic photograph from 1837, two years before he shared his technique

By 1849, some 100,000 Parisians*  were having their pictures taken every year. (Interestingly, in the same way we use Photoshop today, customers often requested that their photograph be re-touched to hide perceived faults, or to add colour.)

Daguerreotypes were unique and non-replicable, but with the introduction of the carte de visite (visiting  or calling card) in the 1850s photographic images could be produced cheaply and easily distributed.  Cartes de visite were prints, usually, albumen, affixed to a card measuring about 6 x 10cm. This standard format was patented by a French photographer, Andre Adolphe Disderi, in 1854. Through the use of a sliding plate holder and a camera with four lenses, eight negatives could be taken on a single 8″ x 10″ glass plate, which allowed eight prints to be made every time the negative was printed.

Cartes de visite were most popular from the 1860s to the 1890s,  largely coinciding with Impressionism.

Influence on artists

Some artists found they lost commissions to paint small intricate portraits in favour of people preferring to have studio photographs taken. However, for others it became  an inspiration for new ways of not only composing their artworks but also painting using more experimental techniques.

Photographs (as they do today) assisted in the portraiture painting process. Many artists found that they could do away with tedious sittings of models and instead use both shorter sittings, and photographs, to paint portraits. Portable cameras could also be taken outdoors to record landscapes – enabling the painting process to be completed in the studio.

In the early stages of camera development, long exposures with a camera were required to capture the image, which created ‘shutter-drag’, allowing for beautiful fluid movement and gracefully blurred selections. Some artists, such as Degas, sought to recreate this effect to soften the overall painting.

Princess Metternich and Degas.jpg

One of the most famous photographers from the mid 1800s was Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon) who established the most fashionable portrait studio in Paris – it was here that the Impressionists held their first exhibition in 1874.


As the medium developed, photographers like Eadweard Muybridge experimented with the camera’s stilled, or stopped, movement.

Stopping action was a fascinating new concept. Before photographic stop-action, it was difficult to capture a muscle in a state of tension, or the gait of a horse in mid-step, for example.



Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas was one Impressionist who was so intrigued with this new ability to capture a moment in time that he also pursued photography as a creative outlet. There are a number of examples of how he used his knowledge of photography in his art, which you can see in his sketches and paintings of race horses. For example, he was amazed that Muybridge’s photos proved that a horse’s feet leave the ground in a rolling sequence, not in the “hobbyhorse” pairs that most artists favoured.

In the above paintings by Degas you can also see the technique of cropping, that is selecting only part of a subject to be included in the picture plane, allowing for a more intimate connection with the viewer, as it creates the illusion that there is a larger scene, just outside of the viewer’s vision. Cropping became an important compositional technique adopted by many artists.

Photography, far from limiting the appeal of paintings, provided artists with new points of view, and encouraged then to translate photographic techniques in their work, enabling them to capture everyday life with a greater sense of vitality and intimacy.

*  Pierre Schneider, The World of Manet, 1832-1883, Time Life Books, 1968

 This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art  which is designed for adult learners and students of art history.

This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris,  key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.

icons-follow-blog             icon-ecourse

icons-visit-gallery            Australian Art History




Impressionism – The transition from Realism in the 1860s.

Berthe Morisot On the Balcony 1872
Berthe Morisot On the Balcony 1872

Impressionism, which can be considered to be the first of the Modern Art movements, had its immediate roots in the traditions of Realism. Realist painters such as Courbet, Millet and Corot were capturing scenes from the ‘natural’ world and people going about their everyday lives, particularly in the countryside.

The Impressionists  also developed an interest in contemporary subject matter, but of an informal and pleasurable kind, especially aspects of the social life of Paris and its surrounds.

A key difference in style between the Realists and Impressionists was that whilst the Realists focused more on the detail of their subject matter, the Impressionists were intent on capturing the most fleeting aspects of nature – especially the changing light of the sun. Most Realist artists made sketches or studies to be completed back in the studio, and often used models and other props to help them finalise their works. The Impressionists also went out into the countryside but chose to paint outdoors (en plein air), often returning to the same spot on several occasions, at the same time of the day, to complete their work. This was made possible because of the increasing number of train routes from Paris to the nearby countryside, and new inventions such as portable and collapsible easels, paint in tubes, a greater range of colours and paintbrushes which were  stronger and thicker.

Other artists who influenced the Impressionist style included Édouard Manet, Eugéne Delacroix and  English painter J. M. W. Turner.

Édouard Manet’s was developing a new approach to painting, with innovations in both colour and brushwork.

Traditionally artists had begun painting their canvases with a layer of dark paint and then built lighter layers of paint on top, waiting for each layer to dry before adding the next one. Finally, they glazed the painting to give the surface a smooth finish. The whole process could take weeks or months.

Manet preferred to complete his portraiture paintings in one sitting whilst his models were sitting in front of him. He did this by painting in  a single layer and leaving the final product unglazed. When he made a mistake, he scraped off the paint down to the bare canvas, and then repainted that area.

Manet also painted in patches of colour to make sharper contrasts. Instead of painting a range of progressively lighter or darker shades of an object to indicate how close it was to a light source, he would simply apply a patch of pure colour.

The Impressionists adopted and modified Manet’s alla prima (at once) painting technique to enable them to capture the shifting effects of light, and also modified his method of applying colour patches by breaking them up into much tinier patches, flecks, and dabs of colour. Impressionists  also “loaded” the paint on the surface, when the accepted tradition of the time was to paint shadows thinly. They also used white, or very lightly tinted colours, to add to brilliance of colour and luminosity to their work.

The Impressionists were also indebted to Romanticist Eugéne Delacroix for his use of  intense colours and pure undiluted pigment. He also began placing pure colours next to each other noticing they would mix in the eye.

J.M.H. Turner’s abstract portrayal of light and the elemental forces of nature also laid the ground work for impressionism.

Impressionism can be identified by the following features:

  • Contemporary social life of a middle class in the cities and suburbs usually at leisure as the main subject;
  • Painting in the evening to get effets de soir – the shadowy effects of the light in the evening or twilight.
  • The composition implies a glimpse or fleeting impression of a scene;
  • Painters experimented with varying  elements such as light and viewpoint;
  • Painters observed nature in natural light;
  • Figures and objects have no outlines, contrast of colour and value create shapes instead;
  • Compositions are cropped, partial figures, unusual  points of view above or below the scene, awkward poses suggesting imminent movement;
  • In paintings made en plein air (outdoors), shadows are boldly painted with the blue of the sky as it is reflected onto surfaces, giving a sense of freshness and openness that was not captured in painting previously. (Blue shadows on snow inspired the technique.)
  • The Impressionists relaxed the boundary between subject and background so that the effect of an Impressionist painting often resembles a snapshot, a part of a larger reality captured as if by chance.
  • Short, thick strokes of paint are used to quickly capture the essence of the subject, rather than its details. The paint is often applied impasto. (Paint is laid on an area of the surface (or the entire canvas) very thickly, usually thickly enough that the brush or painting-knife strokes are visible. Paint can also be mixed right on the canvas. When dry, impasto provides texture, the paint coming out of the canvas.)
  • Colours are applied side-by-side with as little mixing as possible, creating a vibrant surface. The optical mixing of colours occurs in the eye of the viewer.
  • Grays and dark tones are produced by mixing complementary colours. In pure Impressionism the use of black paint is avoided.
  • Wet paint is placed into wet paint without waiting for successive applications to dry, producing softer edges and an intermingling of colour.
  • Impressionist paintings do not exploit the transparency of thin paint films (glazes) which earlier artists built up carefully to produce effects. The surface of an Impressionist painting is typically opaque.
  • The play of natural light is emphasized. Close attention is paid to the reflection of colours from object to object.

Consider the images in the gallery below. The first three paintings are by Manet, Turner and Delacroix. Can you see how they may have influenced the brushwork and colouring of the following Impressionist works?

In my next blog, I’ll talk some more about the Impressionist style and introduce a few of the key artists; Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas, and Mary Cassatt.

This is an excerpt from my online modern art appreciation program