Commentary Magazine

Impressionism by Meyer Schapiro

Impressionism: Reflections and Perceptions
by Meyer Schapiro
Braziller. 359 pp. $50.00

“If Cézanne is right, then I must be right,” said Henri Matisse, succinctly alluding to what united and to what differentiated the two men in their respective struggles to create new forms of painting. In acknowledging a debt to Cezanne, Matisse, who died in 1954, was more generally acknowledging his debt as a modernist to the 19th-century movement with which Cezanné had been associated. That movement is the subject of a new book by the late Meyer Schapiro.

Impressionism: Reflections and Perceptions is an expansion of six lectures Schapiro gave at Indiana University in 1961. A long-time professor at Columbia, regarded as America’s leading art historian until his death in 1996, Schapiro was, in the account of those who had an opportunity to hear him, a great teacher. Impressionism makes it very clear why he was so renowned. The experience of reading his transcribed words—Schapiro was famous for speaking extemporaneously, which allowed him to approach with renewed freshness the pictures he was planning to discuss—is one of pure pleasure. In these dense and richly rewarding essays, Schapiro addresses his subject with such lively and sympathetic understanding, and with such attentiveness to the needs of his audience, that one feels from the first an intimate and profound connection both to the man and to his scholarship.

The depth and breadth of that scholarship are breathtaking. In offering an explanation of what Impressionism was, and why it emerged in mid-19th-century France, Schapiro brings to bear a vast knowledge of history, literature, science, politics, psychology, music, and philosophy. Although it is impossible in a short space to do justice to the range, complexity, and subtlety of his thought, several points emerge from Schapiro’s account that are relevant not only to an understanding of Impressionism but also to a consideration of our art today and our efforts to come to terms with it.

The first is that Impressionism, while evolving from the tradition that began with the Renaissance—and in particular from the Realist movement of the early decades of the 19th century—entailed a fairly complete overturning of established ways of thinking about and making oil paintings. Artists in earlier periods had tended, among other things, to paint variations on themes from history, mythology, and literature; to depict nature with the aim of provoking certain psychological or spiritual states of mind; and to present daily life by means of narrative or anecdotal illustration. Although the Impressionists1 continued to paint people and places, they had no interest in giving their pictures dramatic or moral content. Their goal was to recreate on canvas the intensity of what Schapiro calls “the aesthetic moments in everyday life.”

In depicting such moments—a train arriving at a station, a group of Parisians out for an excursion along the Seine, or a stack of grain standing in a field—the Impressionists were acting on impulses that were deeply in tune with an incipient shift in social consciousness, in how people felt and thought and experienced their environment, both natural and man-made. As Schapiro writes:

The new themes of art were founded on pleasurable experience under conditions of freer movement—through the streets, the railroads, and the resorts—in a changing world that was beginning to show the effects of science on industry and of the energies of ambitious enterprise in other fields.

This was surely the underlying reason for the ultimate appeal of Impressionist pictures, which were initially greeted with hostility and derision on account of their jettisoning of traditional ideas about color, contour, and perspective.



But what enabled the Impressionists to make this breakthrough? According to Shapiro—and this is the second critical point to emerge from his account—it was a turning away from politics and social commentary within the world of the arts. Many French intellectuals, artists, and poets had been caught up in the radical politics of the mid-19th century; but now “they found new goals in the possibility of developing a sphere of art in which the individual sensation or perception [was] self-sufficient.” It was, writes Schapiro,

that brief moment in which a radical individualism in the arts inherited not only a political disillusionment and quiescence, but also the preceding insurgent Realism and the significance of color, sensation, and movement as values connected with freedom, rebelliousness, and authenticity in the experiences of nature and the urban surroundings.

In order to record their encounters with nature and the new urban world springing up in mid-19th-century Paris, the Impressionists invented extraordinary new techniques for transposing their immediate sensations of color, light, atmosphere, and movement. In Schapiro’s telling, the essential traits of the Impressionist style were four in number:

First, the predominance of the [brush] stroke as a building unit of the whole; second, the distinctiveness of the surface as a weave on the canvas; third, the taste for randomness as a mode of composition in which colors are averaged or brought into harmony; and fourth, the fact of transformation, whereby every canvas by an Impressionist is experienced both as an image and as a painted surface.

These innovations—and here is the third key point—proved vastly influential. For in their approach to the basic problems of painting, the Impressionists created much more than a new style; they set the stage for the entire subsequent development of modern art.

It is true, as Schapiro points out, that a reaction against Impressionism set in even before the movement had run its course. But without the Impressionists it is difficult if not impossible to imagine the achievements of Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gaugin, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec; of Georges Seurat and Pierre Bonnard; of Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee; or—to cite Schapiro’s own juxtaposition—of Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock. According to Schapiro, one can find Impressionist features in modern movements that seem the least Impressionist—including Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, and German Expressionism, as well as abstract painting. Those same values are still alive today, though admittedly spread a bit thin.



One reason they are spread so thin is that, over the past four decades, the aesthetic heralded by Impressionism has taken a terrible beating at the hands of a number of “postmodern” movements—perhaps fads would be a better word—whose goals have varied from the subversively frivolous to the overtly destructive. Much of what has been produced in the way of art in recent years amounts to a hollow triumph of ever more sophisticated and ever more sterile technique or of a proudly demonstrated lack of seriousness. To make matters worse, politics of the most virulent sort has come to be both the motive and subject of much artistic endeavor. The upshot is that a great deal of our art has become a barrier to understanding or responding to our shared experience.

This has led to considerable cynicism—and confusion—about modernism itself, which is seen in some quarters as being continuous with the careless excesses and dubious successes of the most alienating postmodern tendencies. Today, for example, one can read in a reputable weekly magazine a lengthy article criticizing the modern design of the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., that omits any discussion of the Matisses, Picassos, Modiglianis, or other great works of art on display there and never addresses the question of why so many people feel a desire to go and look at them and seem to enjoy the experience of doing so.

The irony is that it was precisely this sort of disillusionment with the expressive powers of art that modernism once protected us from. For it was the genius of the modern movement in painting (and other arts) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to break down the barriers between the experience of art and the experience of life, and to do so in profoundly original and uplifting ways. The fact that the forms and styles invented by modern artists were considered shocking at first or difficult to understand did not prevent their ultimate acceptance by a public that came to appreciate their beauty or humor; their complexity and weightiness; their immediacy of feeling; or their emotional and psychological resonance. In the modern world, with its loss of faith and certainty, this art came to provide a sublime alternative to despair.



Schapiro broaches the issue of modern art’s appeal in typical fashion: by taking the long view. Referring to the Impressionists’ choice of subjects, he writes:

The spectator who enjoys these sights in pictures may be unaware of or insensitive to the painter’s choice of tones and the painter’s refined expression of light . . . , but the spectator’s own response to that original scene is also an aesthetic one. Like the painter, the spectator delights in the colors and brightness of the landscape, . . . and he remembers afterward the charm of performers and the multiple sensations of the summer day in the country or at the beach. . . . How different is this unreflective response from the pious reactions to religious art in the past?

What applies here to Impressionism—which, as Schapiro reminds us, went from being scorned and dismissed by such figures as Henry James (he later changed his mind) to being universally admired—applies in a different sense to much of the art that followed it. And that is why, for anyone who still believes that modernism is the most viable artistic tradition we have, the Impressionists—so memorably described by one of their affronted critics as those “five lunatics and a woman”—will remain both a touchstone and a source of inspiration.



1 There was considerable variation in temperament, working methods, and subject matter among Impressionist painters, some of whom were given to quite radical experimentation. The names Schapiro cites as being most frequently associated with the movement include Claude Monet (whom he calls the “exemplary Impressionist”), Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Edouard Manet, Gustave Caillebotte, Edgar Degas, Frédéric Bazille, Armand Guillaumin, Paul Cezanne, and the American Mary Cassatt.


About the Author

Steven C. Munson’s contributions to COMMENTARY include “David Smith’s Vision” (May 2006) and “Inside the New MOMA” (February 2005).

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