How the impressionists found a new way of capturing the remarkable in everyday life

Some think of the impressionists as the painterly equivalent of easy listening. Inventing Impressionism, themed around the collection of Paul Durand-Ruel, shows just how wrong they are.

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Inventing Impressionism
National Gallery, London WC2
 

Here are some chairs I noticed. An empty chair at the natural optical centre of Degas’s Dance Foyer of the Opera at rue le Peletier (1872), occupied by a fan and a puddle of white cloth. It is waiting – and the viewer is waiting, subliminally – for its occupant to return and claim the fan. It is reserved. Someone has bagged it. Not a circumstance you often see painted, though common enough in real life. Nor is the violinist playing. He is pausing, his bow at rest on his trouser leg. Degas has painted a pause. A thing that hasn’t been painted before. In the same picture, a dancer to the right, in the foreground, is sitting on another chair, her legs stiffly out front – ungainly yet graceful, resting. The upright back of the chair is invisible because it is under her unmanageably stiff tulle skirt, lifting the skirt up and slightly out of alignment. All her fatigue is there in the mistake, the carelessness of her plonking down. (The tulle in this picture, by the way, is a miracle: done not in the easier pastel, with its naturally smudgy, suggestive cloudiness, but in oil paint, using the texture of the fine linen canvas.)

Degas’s Ballet Class (circa 1880) has a little old lady in the foreground reading a folded newspaper. Her straw hat has a band of feathers, leaving the crown exposed, to parallel the bald spot of the dancing master. Her paper has a flap hanging down that mirrors the main dancer’s open scissor legs. So, cleverly composed, then, but I want to draw your attention to the way the old lady is sitting on her chair. She isn’t sitting so much as lying, stretched out, ankles crossed, like the hypotenuse of the chair’s right angle. We have all done this. Only Degas has painted it – the slovenly opposite of the dancer’s reflex poise and a posture exuding indifference. She isn’t impressed or glamourised. For her, this is a workplace, as factual as any factory.

My third chair is in the background of Renoir’s Dance at Bougival (1883). A woman is tipping her chair forward, tilting it so only the front two legs are on the ground. In the foreground of the same picture, there are two dead matches and a flattened cigarette end. Why am I telling you this? First, because those dirty dead matches (there’s a third one off to the right of the painting) are cognate with Monet’s grimy flowerpot, damp with grey mould, holding azaleas in the bottom left-hand panel of a door – a bespoke composition for the drawing room of his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel.

You wouldn’t find a chair in Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus (1827). Aesthetically, that is where Durand-Ruel began his career – the usual spectacular, pell-mell chaos of female nudity and a Hugh Hefner bed with ivory elephant heads (tusks truncated) as the corner posts. The early part of the 19th century was in thrall to classicism and orientalism. Think of Byron’s poetic drama Sardanapalus or “The Giaour: a Fragment of a Turkish Tale”, or Keats’s besotted classicism and the unfinished emulation of his two stalled epics, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion. Manet began under the influence of Courbet’s realism and before the insulting handle “impressionists” was conferred by hostile critics, most of these painters thought of themselves as a realist movement. Within the movement, they are also sharply differentiated: Monet, Sisley and Pissarro committed primarily to landscape, whereas Manet and especially Degas looked to the human figure for their subject.

Degas's Dance Foyer of the Opera at rue Le Peletier

In the contemporary popular mind, the impressionists are primarily thought to be pretty – the painterly equivalent of easy listening. Which is a big mistake.

While Degas was in America in 1872 he was much taken with the Southern Creole women, feeling they had “that touch of ugliness without which no salvation”. Let’s not get too politically correct here. His remark has a general application. It speaks to a shared aesthetic disposition. By “ugliness”, Degas means ordinary life – a girl having her hair combed on a beach; women unperturbed, unselfconscious at their ablutions; a laundress stretching, yawning, another one ironing. They are the painters of modern life, in Baudelaire’s encapsulation. As modern as T S Eliot’s woman who yawns and draws her stocking up in “Sweeney Among the Nightingales”.

But what about Renoir? What about our prejudice against his generic prettily plump girls, with their squeezed eyes, tangerine lips and chocolate-box demeanour? Look properly and, picture by picture, you see the differences more than the family resemblances. Remember the dead matches and the fag end? In this exhibition, it is worth looking at all of Renoir’s dancing couples, in Dance in the Country, Dance in the City and Dance at Bougival. Painted in 1883, they are variations on a theme, pointedly different beyond their superficial resemblance. The man’s face in Dance in the City is masked by his partner’s head; the white silk dress is a bravura passage of painting; the man’s swung tails are in motion. Both dancers are wearing white kid gloves. No fag ends on the floor here. Only four superbly painted gloved hands, especially the woman’s right hand going away from us into the picture. A stand of palm fronds parallels the man’s fringe and the complication of her dress. And Renoir’s portraits of Durand-Ruel’s immediate family show, for instance, that Charles’s eyes look in slightly different directions – an obliquity of vision like that of Newsnight’s Evan Davis. The prejudice of prettification is unjustified, as this show demonstrates incontrovertibly.

At the Courtauld, there is a wonderful black pastel by Renoir – currently resting in darkness, in storage because it is a work on paper – which shows a woman in mourning, her veil partly lifted and gathered to just below her nose so that she can speak more freely. Her coat has a perfectly captured glossy black fur collar and lapel. There is a big black, semi-transparent tulle bow under her chin. Renoir’s Veiled Woman is one of the most beautiful works of art in the world. Its economy of means – black – is exemplary, almost spartan. Yet its beauty is as obvious as a blow in the face though it keeps the secret of how it has been achieved. How do you draw a haze, the invisibly visible? You do it partly, I would hazard, by risking the darker twilight ruched just under the nose, a whisker away from a moustache, somewhere between Terry Thomas and an RAF squadron leader. Beside this perfect drawing, even Manet’s exquisite Mme Manet at the Piano (not in this show) looks a little deliberate, with its superb double chin and her translucent black blouse, opaque at the seams.

The “Inventing Impressionism” exhibition, at the National Gallery in London until 31 May, is very enjoyable. It is subtitled “Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market” and is themed around the dealer. Durand-Ruel promoted the impressionists much as the CIA promoted American abstract expressionism in the 1950s and 1960s, if without the CIA’s financial resources. He was persuased and indefatigable – and nearly went bankrupt on several occasions before his triumph. It is touching and immediate to see a photograph of his drawing room and its doors painted by Monet, whose panels are here reconstructed for us. Finally, though, Durand-Ruel’s contribution is like that of a literary agent: vital to the machinery of commerce but negligible in terms of the art. I was reminded of Eliot’s tribute to the author of From Ritual to Romance, one of the sources for The Waste Land: “. . . it was just, no doubt, that I should pay my tribute to the work of Miss Jessie Weston; but I regret having sent so many enquirers off on a wild goose chase”. Durand-Ruel’s account books, the records of transactions, are interesting and it is just that tribute should be paid, yet they are a wild goose chase, the pretext for a show. It is the paintings that count.

There are two very good pictures by Berthe Morisot. Hanging the Laundry Out to Dry (1875) strikes the echt, central impressionist note. At some distance, there is a white wash, hung out, draped on fences: an arrangement of stamp hinges, touched in quickly, spontaneously, two sheets to the wind, yet strangely precise, individual and differentiated – sheets, pillow slips, shirts, underthings, smalls. As a painting it is the opposite of classical, calm in its claims, utterly without clamour. The other Morisot is Woman at her Toilette (1875-80), which is hung a little high for my taste and overlit. At eye level, I could have looked at it without my spectacles: always a good way of seeing more. Still, it is a terrific painting. The woman’s face is turned away. Her forehead, nostril and eye are three light touches, three threads of black. (The influence of Manet, drawing with paint.) You can see the metal fastening of her velvet choker. The whole is a silver-grey harmony of feathered touches. The wallpaper (or perhaps screen) behind the woman is continuous with her dress and her body – a perfect twilight of pigment. The woman’s right arm is raised to her hair; dangerously unreadable at first, I would say, the forearm is slightly larger than the biceps. It registers as questionable, as too, too solid flesh, a problem in a picture otherwise all feathering.

Mary Cassatt’s Child’s Bath (1893) is a work that makes you long for more. I wish the National Gallery would mount a Cassatt show. She is a great but underrated painter of androgynous women and beefy children, a genius of the eternal mother-and-child topos, completely purged of sentimentality. Here, the little girl’s body is indisputable from the belly button to the horizontal crease under the place where her breasts will be. Fingers and toes are striped like the mother’s dress, whose own stripes are unerringly rendered and a serious test of a painter. Go wrong once and you’re done for. Hard to paint, easy to fault.

The Child’s Bath by Mary Cassatt

A word about the landscape paintings of Sisley, Pissarro and Monet. There are five paintings of poplar trees by Monet. In the catalogue they seem unpromising, possibly trial pieces. They are hung together in this show one after another, a lovely grouping, each different, a great chord of paintings. His Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873) is nothing reproduced in the catalogue but stunning in actuality. The whole left-hand side of the picture is a grouping of auburn trees nearly indistinguishable from their reflection in the water. It is all pigment, a great Jackson Pollock, an expanding universe of burnt orange, a coup of abstraction as representation. And his La Pointe de la Hève, Sainte-Adresse (1864) shows a pebbly, sandy beach with a rusty sewage pipe going into the sea, its joints like the waterproof Elastoplast rings on an earthworm.

Sisley and Pissarro are lesser painters but worth anyone’s time. Pissarro’s Farm at Montfoucault of 1894 captures a claustrophobia of farm buildings. Three white hens on a narrow path. To the left a woman chopping wood on a stump. Everything hemmed in by one of those pointless immovable banks. Sisley’s The Ferry of the Île de la Loge: Flood (1872) shows a farmhouse with three rows of green shutters like reflections. Then there are further, fainter reflections in the waters. The ferry cable makes a pleasing line, dipping and rising out of sight to the top of a wooden pylon structure in the foreground. There are scaling ladder rungs running alternately up the pylon. It is well done and recognisable even if you haven’t seen it before. It commands our assent.

Degas's Peasant Girls Bathing in the Sea at Dusk

The greatest picture here is Degas’s Peasant Girls Bathing in the Sea at Dusk (1869-75). I had never seen it before, not even reproduced in a book. It is extraordinary. Three dark brown naked girls, big but not buxom, filling the canvas from top to bottom, are holding hands, like the frieze of dancers in Matisse’s celebrated painting at the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Whereas Matisse’s dancers are red on a green-and-blue background, Degas’s young women might be torn out of brown paper. The whole looks rough and amazingly unfinished for the artist. (Think of his meticulous racehorses.) The overall pictorial mood is dun. To the right, however, a naked woman is sitting on a boat seat fixing her hair, her flesh a more conventional colour. The sea isn’t painted in any detail. It is a murk. Its reality inhabits the body language of the three main figures. What are they saying? They are all at an angle. The one on the right is facing outwards towards the viewer. The other two are turning their backs. Or so it seems, until the picture makes its impact. The figure facing out is actually turning her back on the impact of the incoming wave that is about to strike. This is what their bodies are saying. Again, it is something we have all seen – the cringe, the standing on tiptoe, before the enveloping tide. But this is the first time it has been painted. Go and see this exhibition. It is an education for the eye.

For more details of the exhibition visit: nationalgallery.org.uk

This article appears in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?