Pictures of a Stream

“Early Impressionism, too, had a moral aspect”. In this way, Meyer Schapiro opens a powerful chapter on the most revolutionary art movement of the late Nineteenth century. Morality might indeed seem distant from the pleasant moments depicted by painters such as Monet, Degas, Renoir, Caillebotte.  They seem pleasant postcards, and bring along a sense of cosy ease. Apparently, nothing in them is mysterious, nor complex. They show the world as it appears, colours and light in a specific place and time of the day.

Luncheon of the Boating Party – Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The Impressionist moral lies in the pleasurable detachment from social commitment. It is the quest of refined bourgeoises to find pleasure far from the hypocritical values of their own class. It is not the refusal of wealth, nor culture. It is rather the appreciation of both in the private sphere, which becomes utterly aesthetic. Paintings such as Renoir’s Luncheon present the joyful carelessness of the upper class. Yet, they are themselves objects of pleasure: the profusion of dynamic, fast images taken out of a stream of instants. Each of them is as important as the others, with no narrative hierarchy.

The Oarsmen – Gustave Caillebotte

Schapiro underlines the individualist nature of Impressionism. It is a form of art, he argues, that does not foster social but personal values. The aleatory choice of perspectives, subjects, even style leads to a private conception of art over the academic categories. The new model of the artist and connoisseur becomes the flaneur. He is a refined gentleman, who lives through the urban landscapes. He approaches it looking for singles sparks of beauty and pleasure, an elegant consumerist. He inhabits the crowds, but he is not part of them.

 Le Pont de l’Europe – Gustave Caillebotte

Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1994) had a special position among his fellow painters. He was a member of the haute Parisian bourgeoisie. A wealthy man, he studied law and pursued painting as a hobby. Nonetheless, his commitment to the Impressionist group was great. He helped other artists (Monet, Degas, Renoir, to mention some) by buying their works, and financed their 1877 exhibition. Indeed, Caillebotte did not rely on painting to earn a living, as Monet did, and could thus paint with much more ease. He was, at the same time, the artist and the flaneur.

In Le Pont de l’Europe, he paints himself as an elegant man by a well-dressed lady. He holds the hands behind his back, a sign of disengagement and tranquillity. He is gazing over the iron bridge, toward the Gare St-Lazare. In the same direction, a worker (it can be recognised by his blouse) looks down at the tracks. Both he and the train station are typical Impressionist subjects.  Caillebotte casually walks through the streets, witnessing the daily life of the city. He captures instants, moments that will later become paintings.

Gare St-Lazare – Claude Monet

His brush is fine, but the composition is decentred. He is not interested in setting the viewer in the middle of it. He does not want a rational, geometry-based structure. The viewer, indeed, is a flaneur as he is on the canvas. He is passing by, and gazes at the scene, gaining visual pleasure. The experience of pleasure is what the work of art conveys through light and colour. They transfer the vibrancy of the busy Parisian streets to the comfortable house of a bourgeois. Somebody like Caillebotte himself, indeed. Interestingly enough, he did not use to paint en plein air, as the other Impressionists. He preffered his own studio, or a carriage disposed as a moving version of it, free to circulate on the streets but far from people’s curiosity.

The Floor-Scrapers – Gustave Caillebotte

Impressionist art casts a new perspective. It bases appreciation on a private standard of aesthetics. The making, the subject, the public relevance are not determining factors anymore. Pleasure is per se sufficient to determine a good piece of painting. A partial view can be as communicative as a carefully arranged landscape. They are all pictures out of the flowing stream of vision, and they become art when standing as individual and eternal on the canvas.


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Le Pont de l’Europe

Gare St-Lazare

The Floor-Scrapers

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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