‘Wallpaper in its original state is more perfect than this seascape.’
This was how this painting, Impression: Soliel Levant, was described in a scathing review mockingly entitled, ‘The Exhibition of the Impressionists’, published in the satirical journal Le Charivari on April 25, 1874. Luckily the painter, 32-year-old Claude Monet, was impervious to such criticism: his friend Renoir once recalled that Monet’s reaction to the review was to shrug and say, ‘Those poor blind people want to see everything clearly in the fog!’
But from this painting and its scornful review comes the name of the avant-garde movement that would revolutionise the art world: Impressionism. And Monet would become one of its greatest proponents. Monet had been introduced to plein-air painting in his native Normandy where he studied with the noted seascape painter Eugène Boudin. Later in the Paris studio of academic history painter Charles Gleyre, Monet met Renoir, Bazille and other future Impressionists. Monet became part of an avant-garde circle that included Manet, Pissarro, Degas and others but this group’s modern style had little success at the official Paris Salons. So in 1874 the group organised their own unofficial salon and it was at this first Impressionist exhibition that this painting caused such a stir.
Monet had painted the scene while in Le Havre in 1872. At the time, he had just recently returned to Paris from London, where he had fled to avoid military service in the Franco-Prussian war. In London he had visited museums with Pissarro, admiring the works of Constable and Turner, whose famously atmospheric late work featured light, water and smoke blending in increasing abstract ways.
Clearly inspired, Monet filled this canvas with steam, fog and smoke, blending the mid- and background together. Still cloaked in the dawn haze, the port wakes as an impasto orange orb rises in the sky reflecting orange in the grey-blue water. Two indistinct boats move across the harbour and the docks and smokestacks are only hinted at by Monet’s broad, freehand strokes. The result is an evocative impression of a fleeting dawn moment just before the sun burns off the haze revealing a less romantic view of the port.
But Monet’s impression of a sunrise did not appeal to all: many thought his sweeps of liquid colour looked simply like an unfinished painting (Even Monet once said that he entitled this painting Impression, Sunrise, because it lacked the topographical detail and he thought ‘it would not pass as a view of Le Havre’). Critics also found fault with the subject; to the academic art world an image of France’s largest port was simply inappropriate. Art was to depict idyllic nature, not industry. But Monet and the Impressionists embraced the beauty to be found in the contemporary world in all its facets, be it nature, technology or an urban scene. For these young innovative artists, painting was about capturing the very act of perception, a fleeting moment, an impression; an approach that was to be the first step on the road to 20th-century modernism.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1872 Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Bower Garden, Manchester City Art Galleries
1872 Pierre Puvis de Chavannes: Hope, Paris, Musée d’Orsay
1872 James Abbott McNeill Whistler: Nocturne in Blue and Silver: Cremorne Lights, London, Tate