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The Beginnings of Impressionist Landscape



In 1841 an American artist invented collapsible metal tubes for oil paints. For impressionists, who often painted out-of-doors, this new convenience was indispensable. About the same time, railway expansion was making the countryside more accessible: new lines connected Paris with Normandy and with towns along the Seine that became home and subject for many impressionist painters. Our strongest image of these artists is out-of-doors, hats shading their eyes, easels alongside a riverbank as they transcribed fleeting effects of light and atmosphere on the landscape.

By the middle of the century, open-air painting was an established tradition, though most artists maintained the distinction between oil sketches made outdoors and finished works painted in the studio. Bolder painting styles were starting to blur these differences, and realism, which emphasized "truth," prompted many artists to paint nature with unembellished directness instead of "enhancing" raw sensation through representations of myth or allegory. Landscape artists Corot and Boudin were strong influences on young impressionist painters. Corot made many oil sketches from nature, outdoors, but there was no market for them in his lifetime. The paintings he exhibited and sold were painted in the studio. Boudin, however, began to paint his landscapes entirely en plein air -- in the open air.

By about 1870, impressionists Pissarro, Sisley, Monet, and Renoir had made a touchstone of open-air painting. Asked by an interviewer about his studio, Monet flung his arms open before the Seine and its buttercup-covered banks, saying "That's my studio." This vision of impressionism was part myth -- in fact, many pictures show signs of studio work -- but it underscores the importance these artists placed on direct observation, speed, and spontaneity as they tried to capture the look of changing weather, seasons, and times of day.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, French, 1796 - 1875, View near Epernon, 1850/1860, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.13

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Boudin, twenty years older than most of the impressionists, was among the few artists of his generation to insist on painting in the open air, declaring three brushstrokes done outdoors to be of greater value than days spent working in the studio. Grains of sand from the beaches where Boudin painted still adhere to some of his pictures. At times he was accompanied by the young Claude Monet. "Suddenly a veil was torn away," Monet said of Boudin's influence, "my destiny as a painter opened up to me." Boudin acknowledged the debt of Monet and other impressionists with characteristic modesty: "I may well have had some small measure of influence on the movement that led painters to study actual daylight and express the changing aspects of the sky with the utmost sincerity." He exhibited with them at the first impressionist exhibition in 1874.

Though Boudin believed sincerity was achieved by painting directly from nature, he still made adjustments to his paintings in the studio. "An impression is gained in an instant," he advised a student, "but it then has to be condensed following the rules of art or rather your own feeling and that is the most difficult thing -- to finish a painting without spoiling anything."

Eugène Boudin, French, 1824 - 1898, Bathing Time at Deauville, 1865, oil on wood, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.8

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About two dozen men and women sit in straight-backed, wooden chairs gathered along a sandy beach near low, gently breaking waves with sailboats floating in the ocean beyond in this horizontal landscape painting. The scene is loosely painted throughout, making much of the detail indistinct. Most of the people sit with their backs to us but the faces we can see suggest they all have light skin. The people gather in a loose crowd that crosses the right two-thirds of the composition. The women wear long dresses with full skirts, their shoulders wrapped in matching shawls in black, smoke gray, royal or arctic blue, rust red, or cream white. Some wear straw-colored hats with black or baby-blue bands, and others wear scarves over their hair. The men also wear hats, most of them black top hats, and suits in black or pecan brown. Some people hold up parasols in harvest gold, slate blue, teal, or gray. A few straight-backed, wooden chairs with rushed seats sit empty or are tipped over to our left of the group. Two children, one wearing marigold orange and the other topaz blue, and both wearing straw hats, kneel or squat and bend over the sand at the center of the group. Two dark brown or black dogs, one small and one large, stand to our right. Two tall, wooden poles rise high above the crowd near the right edge of the composition. A thin banner with blue, white, and red stripes flutters from the pole closer to us, and a red banner lifts in the breeze on the one farther away. Painted with thick, visible brushstrokes, low waves with white crests lap against the shore in bands of pale lilac purple, light turquoise, and aquamarine blue just beyond the crowd. Two people sit in a rowboat in the ocean to our left, and several sailboats with tan sails move into the distance to the horizon, which comes about a quarter of the way up the composition. Bright white strokes to our right could be sails in bright sunlight, deep in the distance. One boat amid the sailboats puffs a plume of gray smoke. Pale, almost translucent white clouds drift across the light blue sky above. The artist signed and dated the painting in the lower left corner: “E. Boudin 63.”

When Boudin began to paint vacationers on the beaches of Normandy, his subject was unconventional. Seascapes, often populated with small peasant figures or fishermen, still attracted French painters in the mid-1800s. But Boudin's images, unlike those of other rustic genre scenes, recorded a new phenomenon, the tourist with money and leisure time. His subjects were also his buyers, and he satisfied them by producing more than four thousand paintings like this one.

Boudin's beach scenes, though crowded, lack obvious narrative or anecdote. He characterized not individuals, but the bourgeoisie and their postures and fashions, including the huge crinolines that in high winds occasionally sent women over cliffs or into carriage wheels. Like the plume of smoke issuing from a steamer, the anonymity of the figures imparts a sense of modern life. Boudin seems to have been a bit ambivalent about his subjects. At times he defended them, but he also dismissed them as "gilded parasites," to insist that his true subjects were light and color.

Eugène Boudin, French, 1824 - 1898, Beach Scene at Trouville, 1863, oil on wood, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.14

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Moss-green land rising to a tree-topped bluff follows the curve of a sandy beach surrounding a pale blue cove in this horizontal landscape painting. The hill and olive-green trees take up most of the height of the left side of the composition. The beach curves from the lower right corner back and to our left, and curves around the cliff face of the bluff. Closest to us, the land is flecked with saffron gold, and two dark brown patches smear the sand. The beach or a sandbar creates a strip of pale brown across the horizon, which comes halfway up the canvas. Distant hills to our left are suggested by a battleship-gray slope. The slate-blue sky above is layered with swirls and bands of oyster-white and pewter-gray clouds. The artist signed the lower left, “COROT.”

This painting is an oil sketch. Painted outdoors within a few hours, it was meant to record Corot's direct impression of the landscape. Its long, sweeping brushstrokes capture in shorthand the look and "feel" of light and weather. Such small works, never intended as finished paintings, were part of the normal practice of landscape artists. By referring to them later, a painter could re-create in his more elaborate studio paintings the freshness and immediacy of his initial observation. The outdoor sketch was like notes taken from nature, data to be transformed through the artist's imagination in the studio into finished, salable works.

Corot and fellow landscape artists working in the forest of Fontainebleau were important influences on the impressionists, not only in their commitment to plein-air painting, but also in their adoption of a brighter palette. Corot, using a light-colored ground, suffused his paintings with a silvery light and poetic feel. Pissarro, in particular, identified himself as Corot's student, and in the horizontal layering of his landscapes is a legacy of Corot's classical training and careful compositions.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, French, 1796 - 1875, Beach near Etretat, c. 1872, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, 1970.17.117

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Clouds hunker over a water-logged street that separates us from the end of a row of buildings in this horizontal painting. The scene is loosely painted, especially in the sky and water. The lowest level of the building across from us is apricot orange. The second story is pale peach, and dormered windows cut into the gray and then brown rooflines above. The words “AS’ NICOLAS” are painted in gray near the top of the second level, and more letters on the level below are illegible. The roofline drops down a level where it meets the structure next to it, along the left edge of the canvas. Two women in long skirts stand at a darkened, open doorway near the front corner of the structure. A sign on the side of the building hangs from a horizontal arm over three men in and near a shallow boat, which is being propelled by a man who stands in the stern with a long stick. The street is so wet that it first appears to be a canal or river. It is only when we notice dashes of mauve, pale pink, and gray to our left that we realize the cobblestone road is flooded. A band of buildings with tan walls and black or red roofs spans the right two-thirds of the horizon, which comes about a quarter of the way up this composition. A grove of cinnamon-brown trees and some open structures could be a submerged park in the near distance. Two poles and some spindly trees to our right are reflected in the water. Dark forms around these areas could be more people. Pale blue and very pale pink whip together in the sky, suggesting churning clouds veiling the blue sky. The artist signed and dated the work in the lower left corner, “Sisley 72.”

In December 1872, the Seine overflowed its banks at the small village of Port-Marly. The opportunity to paint the watery reflections of a rain-heavy sky lured both Alfred Sisley and Claude Monet. Sisley painted several flood views in 1872, and others a few years later.

Traditionally, artists depicted flood scenes to communicate the drama and destructive power of nature. Sisley, however, who has been called the "purest" of the impressionists, was interested in visual effects only. He painted this picture on the spot, probably in a single session. The colors are the muted and nuanced tones Sisley preferred, and the shapes of his brushstrokes change in response to the different textures of light and the landscape: gliding ripples in the watery reflections, broad square blocks of pigment in the window panes. Sisley chose his vantage points carefully, to frame and compose his views. Notice how he uses the trees and pylon at the right to balance the tall mass of the restaurant on the left and how the dark figures who pole small boats help our eye mark the distance into the background.

Alfred Sisley, French, 1839 - 1899, Flood at Port-Marly, 1872, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1985.64.38

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The town of Argenteuil on the Seine was less than a thirty-minute train ride from Paris' Gare Saint-Lazare. The river widened at Argenteuil, and it became a popular spot for boating and water sports, attracting industry as well. After Monet moved there in 1871, he often hosted colleagues like Sisley. Sometimes the two friends set up their easels side by side, as they seem to have done on the Boulevard Héloïse. Argenteuil attracted well-to-do yachtsmen, but here it is the working town that Sisley records. He seems most concerned with its shapes and textures and the delicate colors of the pale winter sky. A softening of detail conveys the chill of a damp day. Of all the impressionists, Sisley was the one most committed to landscape and to the impressionist style in its most pure form, never abandoning, even temporarily, impressionism's goal of capturing the transient effects of light and atmosphere.

Monet and Sisley met while students of the academic painter Charles Gleyre. With Renoir and Frédéric Bazille, also studying in Gleyre's studio, and with Camille Pissarro they formulated the essential goals of impressionism.

Alfred Sisley, French, 1839 - 1899, Boulevard Héloïse, Argenteuil, 1872, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, 1970.17.82

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A tree with emerald-green leaves and laden with white blossoms grows in a dirt field, and is silhouetted against a vibrant blue sky in this horizontal landscape painting. The scene is loosely painted with visible dabs and strokes. The tree takes up most of the left half of the painting, and is closest to us. It casts a dappled shadow onto the ground to our right. A barren tree with gnarled branches grows nearby, in the tree’s shadow. A row of more trees extends in the distance to our right. A narrow dirt path, bordered by low green growth, stretches from the bottom edge of the canvas, to our right of center, into the field. To our left and farther from us, a woman leans over and reaches for the ground. She faces our left in profile and wears a white bonnet, a brown shawl, and a blue skirt. Near the line of trees to our right, a man walks toward the woman. He wears blue pants, a white shirt, a dark cap, and he carries a tan bag over his left shoulder. There are more trees along the horizon, which comes about a third of the way up the composition. The sky above is light gray near the horizon and deepens to vivid blue with fluffy white clouds. The painting is signed and dated in the lower right: “C. Pissarro 1872.”

When the idea arose for a group exhibition of work by the artists who would come to be called impressionists, Pissarro and Sisley were among the earliest and most enthusiastic supporters. Pissarro drafted the group's written statement of purpose and would be the only artist to participate in all eight impressionist exhibitions. This painting was one of five he showed at the first exhibition in 1874.

It was made shortly after Pissarro had returned to his home in Louveciennes after fleeing France during the Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune. (Born in the Virgin Islands, then a possession of Denmark, Pissarro was a Danish citizen.) During the war his house had been used by Prussian troops, and many of the canvases he left there were destroyed. He must have viewed the freshly plowed earth, like the spring blossoms that bring life to the dormant landscape, as a signal of renewed hope for his adopted country and for his career. Pissarro's work was then beginning to attract buyers. This painting, for example, was one of the first impressionist works purchased by Paul Durand-Ruel, a dealer whose support was to become critical to the young artists.

Camille Pissarro, French, 1830 - 1903, Orchard in Bloom, Louveciennes, 1872, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, 1970.17.51

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We look slightly down onto a bare, gnarled tree near a gray, dirt path, which leads back to a hamlet in this horizontal landscape painting. The scene is loosely painted with visible brushstrokes, so many details are indistinct. To our left, the gray tree trunk sways to the left as the branches of its skeletal canopy nearly span the width of the painting. The path extends from the lower right corner of the painting into the distance, around a lattice-like fence, which also runs across the width of the canvas. To our right and facing away from us, a person wearing brown pants, a sky-blue shirt, and a gray cap leans his forearms on the chest-high fence as he presumably talks with the woman standing on the other side. She wears a long navy-blue dress with a sea-blue apron and a tan hat. The land enclosed within the fence is painted with bands of peanut brown and sage green. Another woman wearing a slate-blue skirt, a sky-blue shirt, and a white cap walks away from us down the path using a cane or walking stick. To her right is a thicket of loosely painted moss-green and rust-brown foliage. Across a gully in the distance, a white picket fence separates us from the small village. The buildings have white or beige walls and pitched terracotta-red, tan, or denim-blue roofs. Beyond these structures, flax-brown trees are silhouetted against a light blue sky with fluffy white clouds. The artist signed and dated the painting in dark brown in the lower left corner: “C. Pissarro. 1872.”

Pissarro, who was committed to socialist principles, identified strongly with the land and with the peasant farmers who worked it. He moved with his family from Paris in the 1860s to a number of small villages like Louveciennes. While many of his fellow impressionists chose subjects from modern life and leisure, sophisticated even if their settings were in the countryside, Pissarro preferred scenes of an older, more rural way of life like this garden fence and the small figures who pause in their work. Some contemporaries criticized Pissarro for his unadorned rusticity. About Orchard in Bloom, Louveciennes one wrote, "He has a deplorable predilection for market-gardens and does not hesitate to paint cabbages."

It was in the early 1870s that Pissarro made his most purely impressionist pictures, painted, as this one probably was, in a single session on the spot. The paint here is quickly applied, thick in some areas, much thinner in others. We can see, in the trees, for example, where one brushstroke has been pulled through an earlier one that still lay wet on the canvas.

Camille Pissarro, French, 1830 - 1903, The Fence, 1872, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1985.64.31

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