Monday, January 28, 2013

Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet

 Painted in 1872, Monet's Impression, Sunrise seemed to be just another impressionist painting. There are many paintings that came before and after that more fully represent the impressionist movement's goals. So why is it special? Although it wasn't the best representation of the impressionist's aims or achievements, Impression, Sunrise is actually the the provider of the movements name. The critic Louis Leroy actually coined the term "Impressionists" on the 25th of April, 1874 in his critique of Monet's painting. Inspired by the name he wrote a hostile review in the Le Charivari that read: 
Impression — I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it … and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.
Four days later in a review in Le Siècle on the 29th of April, 1874, critic Jules Castagnary was the first to use the term Impressionism in a positive way:
"The shared point of view that makes them a group with a collective force of its own... is their decision not to strive for detailed finished, but to go no further than a certain overall aspect. Once the impression has been discerned and set down, they declare their task finished. ...If we are to describe them with a single word, we must invent the new term Impressionists. They are Impressionists in the sense that they depict not the landscape but the sensation produced by the landscape."
 The name was quickly adopted by the group, to the dismay of some members, and was used to identify themselves in their third exhibition in 1877. Monet later explained the title of the work:
Landscape is nothing but an impression, and an instantaneous one, hence this label that was given us, by the way because of me. I had sent a thing done in Le Havre, from my window, sun in the mist and a few masts of boats sticking up in the foreground....They asked me for a title for the catalogue, it couldn't really be taken for a view of Le Havre, and I said: 'Put Impression.'

 The painting itself is literally Monet's Impression of a Sunrise through the mist over Le Havre harbor in  the spring 1872. His intentions were that of any Impressionist painting;  to capture an atmospheric moment in time. A quick oil sketch on site did exactly that. The painting is characterized by its short strokes of pure color overlaying muted washes of color in the background. The lack of intermingling colors and numerous layers set this painting apart from his later paintings.

Monet's style and approach are very similar to that of James Whistler's Nocturne series:

...the broad washes of thinly applied oil paint and the delicacy of the treatment of the background ships bear the clear imprint of Monet's knowledge of Whistler's Nocturnes.1 still water and port scenes like [Impression: Sunrise] water and sky alike are treated in liquid sweeps of colour which suggest that Money may have responded to Whistler's early Nocturnes.2


Another interesting part of the painting is the sun. If you've been trained in the "art of seeing" you can recognize that although the stark contrast in color makes the sun appear bright and stand out, it and the surrounding sky are actually the same tone. If you greyscale the image the sun almost vanishes completely. Dr. Margaret Livingstone, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard University, said that this caused the painting to have a very realistic quality, as the older part—shared with the majority of other mammals—of the visual cortex in the brain registers only luminance and not color, so that the sun in the painting would be invisible to it, while it is just the newer part of the visual cortex—only found in humans and primates—which perceives color.


1. Turner Whistler Monet by Katharine Lochnan, Tate Publishing, 2004, p132.
2. Monet: Nature Into Art by John House, Yale University Press, 1986, p183 and p79.

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