Tatachilla Lutheran College student Saskia Gerhardy has been awarded the statewide Flinders University Prize for Excellence in History.
In an essay that looked at Impressionist art and politics in Paris in the 19th century, Saskia brought alive the different reactions to painters such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet.
“What Saskia did so well was to show how this new style of painting changed society,” Flinders historian Associate Professor Matthew Fitzpatrick said.
“Even when it was accepted by the artistic establishment, it still provoked harsh criticism from those who feared the new freedoms it expressed.
“The judges were very impressed that Saskia recognised the enormous historical impact that art could have.”
An annual competition, the Flinders University prize for Excellence in History is awarded each year to the student who submits the best essay dealing with a topic in modern history. Last year’s prize was awarded to Jade Pass of Loreto College, who explored Australia’s ANZAC traditions. Only the best three essays from each school in the state may be submitted to the competition.
Saskia’s award-winning essay:
“The Parisian upper class during the 19th Century had contempt for the Impressionist art movement as it encouraged free thinking within the middle and lower classes.’ To what extent is this an accurate statement?”
It can be stated that the Impressionist art movement of the 19th century triggered dramatic forces of change in the artistic world. This movement created freethinking, allowing individuals to become more liberal in their emotions and reactions towards art. Impressionist artists were essentially middle class bohemians who, tired with old idealistic painting methods, instead chose to paint what they saw, with the main focus of their work being lighting, not subject. During the centuries art has always changed and evolved with the times, however with such a dramatic change and an overbearing upper class the shift in artistic focus caused conflict. During this time Paris was separated into upper, middle and lower classes, with strict lines drawn dividing them. The upper class held a high degree of control over the lower classes, and was an important social group that shaped Parisian society. The class as a whole was lavish and adhered to tradition and was displeased with the new artistic idealism that the Impressionists provided the lower class. It can be argued that due to the untraditional methods used in their paintings, the Impressionists encouraged viewers of their art to interpret and imagine. The ‘unromanticised’ subjects that the Impressionist depicted in their artwork were realistic and distant from the traditional higher-class subjects had modeled. This allowed the lower classes to relate to the paintings in a way that had a great effect on the ideals of class. The Impressionist were also believed to hold revolutionary potential, which the upper class believed would encourage free thinking to the lower classes, creating contempt. On the contrary, however, it could be argued that the movement was not hated as some higher-class individuals allowed the Impressionists to exhibit their work in the Salon. Additionally the lower classes mocked the Impressionists and were not encouraged to think freely because of them. Although art did not have a direct influence on the lower classes, the changes in atmosphere in Paris at the time left art as an opening for free thinking and influence, creating contempt between the upper classes and the Impressionists.
One of the most fundamental reasons for the contempt felt by the upper classes for the Impressionists is due to the untraditional painting methods they employed when creating their works. The movement of Romanticism dictated culture at the time, which both encouraged all artistic types to conform to the ‘old methods’. But in total disregard to this the Impressionists created their art works liberally; paint was applied in ‘dabs’ of colour, used to represent light, leading the viewer to ‘interpret’ the piece. In traditional paintings, colour was blended and light was only a part of a painting, rather than the basis of it. But for the Impressionists, their subject was something to be interpreted. The Impressionist also went against the traditional and formal, composed way to create paintings. Where traditional art practices had dictated that a painting must take into account the rule of thirds and have the correct ‘weighting’, Impressionists instead created their images in a raw form. This unconventional way to paint forced the viewer to interpret the artwork and in turn created freethinking in their responses to art. Art historian, Bernard Myers remarked that: “In the name of realism the Impressionists had thus created an idiom that had to be learned before it could be read.” The Impressionists focused on what the eye saw, not what the brain preconceived, consequently many of their works were ‘slabs’ of colour creating the ‘impression’ of a setting. This allowed the viewer to exhibit free thinking in interpreting the Impressionist’s art. Claude Monet was perhaps the Impressionist who used the most liberal techniques in his work. Rather than painting what the brain dictated should be seen, he once told one of his students: “When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have in front of you…Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow…until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene.” His Haystack series (see Appendix 1a, b and c) exhibit his use of colour as a medium to display the light present, with total disregard to what the rules of nature present to the eye, stating: “I observe that this haystack is purple at dusk so I paint it purple.” This was further reinforced by his colleagues reaffirming “It matters little whether the haystack is yellow or purple, we shall paint it red if we wish.” . Monet also used a similar technique when painting his Impression Sunrise, (see Appendix 2) which was seen as more of a swirl of juxtaposed colours rather than two-dimensional forms. Bureaucratic art critic, Jules Castagnary, criticized it by stating without praise; “They are Impressionists in the sense that they render not the landscape, but the sensation produced by the landscapes.” Describing the untraditional format of their paintings and how the upper class looked down on it. This influenced a wave of contempt felt by the higher class due to the lack of traditional technique used in the Impressionist paintings and the fact it allowed the lower classes a more liberal approach to art.
Additionally Impressionists’ choice of models strayed from conventional subjects, instead painting everyday individuals, allowing the lower classes to relate to art in a way which was once unheard of, giving the lower classes equality and a sense of free thinking, but additionally encouraged contempt from the higher classes. Traditionally artwork, especially Romanticism, dictated that paintings should be based on mythology, religion and past historical events, and the models should be the perfect depiction of the human race. Impressionist, instead created art that held no social commentary or cultural description; they merely painted what they saw. Edgar Degas was one of the main offenders for painting like this, with numerous of his painting depicting lower class women in bars. Absinthe (see appendix 3), a depiction of a lone woman drinking alongside a middle class bohemian, depicts the ‘low life’ of the era and was hence ridiculed due to the ‘vulgar’ image it portrayed. As a result of the uncharacteristic content of his paintings Degas was named as a ‘misogynist’ due to the unflattering way he depicted women seeming to be discrimination and as a result of hate rather than artistic idealism. Additionally, should the Impressionists paint a mythological event and submit to the higher-class regulations, they still did not conform to idealism. This is seen namely in Manet’s Olympia (see appendix 4), where the mythological individual has been painted in a way which projects her without the charismatic qualities of a goddess and depicts her as ordinary. It is argued that the woman is painted to resemble more of a prostitute than a goddess, looking directly at the viewer unperturbed, rather than classically bashful. The painting also uses symbols such as pearls, to symbolize Venus the goddess of love and flowers being brought to her suggesting an admirer. The entirety of the painting indicates sexuality and consequently the upper class was in uproar due to the collapse in morals it suggested. This frightful approach to the classic painting created a wave of contempt, exhibited with Jules Claretie, a French literary icon of the era, stating in regard to the painting: “Who is this yellow-bellied odalisque, disgraceful model found I know not where and who pretends to represent Olympia? Which Olympia? Doubtless a courtesan, Monsieur Manet will not be reproached for idealizing foolish virgins, he who makes dirty virgins.” Claretie hence exhibited the contempt the upper class felt for the Impressionists. Art historian Bernard Myers believed that the attitude projected towards this painting was something not yet seen in the art world, stating: “The execrations hurled at this painting [Olympia] established a new ‘low’ in painter-public relations.” This is further reinforced by John Gaisford who believes that the upper class though that Manet had “…deliberately chosen to sneer at tradition” by creating artwork that related to ordinary life and people. The viewers of the paintings were hence encouraged to think differently about their class determined ideals, creating contempt within the upper classes to a high degree.
It can also be seen that due to the revolutionary capacity that the Impressionist movement held, due to the freethinking they provided the lower class, the upper class felt contempt for the Impressionists. In 19th century France, the country was volatile, the upper class was in fear of the lower classes rising up against them and breaking the traditions and protocols they had set. The upper class felt a sense of contempt for any groups who provoked any liberal idea’s in the lower class, and potentially encourage them to feel differently about their place in society. In the time of the Impressionists, Paris had two million people living in it, and by 1870 five hundred thousand of those people were the working class citizens, providing a perceived threat to the minority upper class should they choose to rise up. As a large bohemian group, who gathered regularly to discuss ideas and thoughts, the Impressionists presented revolutionary ideas to the lower classes who could realize this threat. Many of the upper class feared what the ideals the Impressionist provided could do. Bureaucrat Leon Gerome stated, “They are doing shitty painting, I am telling you. People are joking and saying, ‘This is nothing. Wait…’ No. It is the end of the nation, the end of France.” Exhibiting the fear and contempt the upper class held for the Impressionist due to the freethinking and revolutionary ideas they could instill. As stated by historian Rebe Huyghe; “Painting is related to the psychology of the period which produced it. It reveals and expresses the relationship of a society to the world.” And the Impressionists were not creating what the upper class wanted projected to the world. By going against all painting traditions the Impressionists were not only damaging artistic idealism, but the very idealism of the country. Creating freethinking in the lower classes and contempt from the upper.
Yet it might be argued that not all of the upper class actually felt contempt for the Impressionists but rather some grudgingly accepted this new style of art, nor did Impressionists encourage any freethinking within the lower classes. The bureaucratic Salon was the most highly regarded French art gallery at the time with four hundred thousand people visiting it in 1880 alone. The Salon allowed an artist to potentially sell their work and was one of the few places, of the era, that an artist could present himself for recognition. But to have work submitted it had to conform to the expectations of the Salon Jury. From this it can be presumed that if the jury felt contempt for an individual or group their work would not be exhibited, however every Impressionist in the late 19th century movement exhibited at least one piece in the Salon. Emperor Napoleon III even created the “Salon des Refusés” or the Salon of the Refused, where all the work refused by the Salon could be exhibited and shown to the public, much of this work being the Impressionists. Napoleon III, being the pinnacle of upper class, obviously felt that the Impressionists artwork would not provoke unwanted liberal ideas and it can be presumed that contempt was not universally shared by the artistic upper class. It can also be stated that the lower classes may not have been provoked with liberal ideas by the artwork created by the Impressionists as many who attended the Salon des Refuses, when to ridicule the art, rather than to be inspired by a new way of thinking. The impressionist art exhibited was said to provoke ‘jeers’, ‘fury’ and ‘scandal’, not liberal idea and freethinking. Upon the beginning of the Impressionist movement the majority of the public seemed to disregard the art form. Art historian, Rene Huyghe stated; “The public was nothing less than the well-to-do middle class…which now made fun of them.” It could hence be stated that the entire upper classes did not feel contempt for the Impressionists, and that their art pieces did not always provoke freethinking in all of the lower classes.
Nonetheless it is still the case that during the 19th century the Parisian upper class were dissatisfied with the Impressionists due to the freethinking that they provoked in the lower classes. The untraditional methods of painting the Impressionists used forced the viewer to interpret the artwork, creating more liberal ideas when it came to art. The Impressionist additionally used unorthodox models and settings in their paintings, meaning that the viewer thought differently about their art and traditional ideology. It is also argued that the Impressionist held revolutionary potential through influencing the lower classes and were hence disliked by the upper class. The Impressionist created a movement that changed the way society looks at art, irreversibly changing the art world into a more liberal and contemporary place.
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