'The Day That Launched The Avant Gardes': Revisiting The First Impressionist Exhibition

'The Day That Launched The Avant Gardes': Revisiting The First Impressionist Exhibition

As the Musée d'Orsay reassembles works from the inaugural exhibition, Jackie Wullschläger revisits the controversial birth of Impressionism 150 years ago.
As the Musée d'Orsay reassembles works from the inaugural exhibition, Jackie Wullschläger revisits the controversial birth of Impressionism 150 years ago.

W hen Claude Monet wandered across Paris in December 1873, trying to whip up support for what would become the inaugural Impressionist exhibition, he did not consider himself to be a rebel. But crossing from left bank to right – “I’ve spent the whole day running around, and I’ve returned empty handed... I’m going to try the other side of the river, will I be any luckier?” – he was surprised by the range of refusals: “Everyone has a different excuse.”

The idea of a group exhibition was utterly new and some artists simply couldn’t grasp it. Others, such as Édouard Manet, believed that status and sales would only come via the jury-approved, government-sponsored Salon, or were afraid “to oppose the French state” by showing elsewhere. Monet and Paul Cézanne, boldest of the 1870s young bloods, had been refused by the Salon multiple times.

Edouard Manet’s sketches – including Guerre civile, 2ème état, 1871, of the Franco-Prussian war – open the Musée d’Orsay exhibition. Courtesy: the National Library of France

Yet within two decades, the Salon was moribund and a fresh paradigm had replaced it. Impressionism, with its loose, visible brushstrokes, abandonment of traditional careful finishing in favour of conjuring atmosphere and momentary light effects, and subjects drawn from the artists’ daily lives and surroundings, was antithetical to the academic art dominating the Salon. It needed a new showcase, and achieved one when the artists banded together to stage the first Impressionist exhibition, which opened on 15 April 1874.

Ever since, radical art has joyously gone hand-in-hand with radical exhibition-making. Insisting that new developments in art demanded new ways of showing it, the Impressionists were trailblazers for artists in the 20th century, who forged their own groundbreaking shows: from Dada performers at Zürich’s Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 and Paris’ International Surrealism Exhibition in 1938 – indoor rain, falling coal dust – to, in 1988, Damien Hirst’s Freeze in London’s Docklands.

In spring, 150 years after “the day that launched the avant gardes”, the Musée d’Orsay is staging the blockbuster Paris 1874: Inventing Impressionism, which will transfer in September to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Including many now-famous pictures from the original show – Cézanne’s grainy, compressed La Maison du pendu (House of the Hanged Man); the sumptuous, dizzyingly close-up couple of Renoir’s La Loge (The Theatre Box); Edgar Degas’ intimately viewed ballerinas rehearsing poses in La Classe de danse – it seeks to recapture what Impressionism’s success sometimes makes us forget: the shock of the new, the audacity of the venture, the heady political climate that fuelled it.

Paul Cézanne, La Maison du pendu, Auvers-sur-Oise (House of the Hanged Man), 1873. Courtesy: Peter Horree/Alamy Stock Photo

Modern French art had soared on waves of change impelled by the revolutions of 1789, 1830, 1848 and, following defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the 1871 Commune. The Musée d’Orsay show begins with Manet’s sketches recording the slaughter and tragedy of the latter event, from which the Third Republic emerged as a new, secular, democratic state.

We see now that, although repulsed by the art establishment at the time, Monet, Renoir, Degas and Camille Pissarro were poster boys for that modernising society. In their embrace of contemporary, approachable, everyday subjects, painted mostly at domestic scale and affordable to middle-class buyers, they represented the future of art. By contrast, the vast religious and classical narratives displayed and purchased at the annual Salon were throwbacks. But 400,000 visitors passed through the 1874 Salon; the Impressionist exhibition attracted just 3,500.

In a separate gallery, the exhibition includes some Salon grandes machines to emphasise how unprecedented the new paintings, most displayed for the very first time in 1874, appeared. Their sketchy renderings, lack of finish, glaring light – the cheer, spontaneity and sense of fleeting immediacy that makes Impressionist painting irresistible – were unintelligible to contemporary audiences. The public thought the young artists were “presumptuous ignoramuses seeking attention through eccentricity”, the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel said at the time.

Berthe Morisot was an already established artist at the Salon when she displayed works such as La Lecture ou l’Ombrelle verte, 1873. Courtesy: the Cleveland Museum of Art

“Impressionism was not born fully formed,” says Anne Robbins, the Musée d’Orsay’s curator of paintings and co-curator of the anniversary exhibition. “It wasn’t a common aesthetic that bound the artists, but a common desire to show independently and away from Salon.” The 1874 show was a cleverly strategised provocation: it opened shortly before the Salon “to guarantee the availability of critics and maximise impact,” says Robbins, and was held in a symbolic space: the studio of the celebrated photographer Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) in the Boulevard des Capucines. Monet exhibited a view of the street as seen from the gallery, and this painting – hazy, dramatically cropped, a rush of movement and light, the people rendered as little black slicks – challenged photography on its own ground as a modern medium. The show’s most controversial picture, it was attacked as “a chaos of indecipherable palette scrapings”, but praised for introducing alienated urban experience into painting.

The organisation of the exhibition was shambolic and fraught with disagreement. Degas, upset by the presence of too many en-plein-air painters, demanded a more “realist” show. Manet’s refusal to participate also stung (“I definitely believe him to be more vain than intelligent,” Degas complained). Despite promises of help, Renoir ended up single-handedly hanging the exhibition, and simply left some works out. For all his efforts, the assembled pictures had no unifying theme or style. The participants couldn’t even agree on a title, settling on the neutral Societé anonyme des artistes, peintres, sculpteurs et graveurs, until a critic coined the derisory term “Impressionist” after seeing Monet’s 1872 painting Impression, Sunrise.

“Critics declared the 1874 show ‘anarchy’ and ‘a war on beauty’”

Monet named this work to suggest “something done out of my window, sunlight in the mist with a few masts... it couldn’t really pass as a view of Le Havre”. The name caught his breezy brilliance, fixing a subjective impression as a defining image, and established him as a leader of the avant-garde. But the term hardly described Degas, who hated it, or Cézanne’s solid architectonic forms. Cezanne, dismissed as “a sort of madman’, received scathing reviews, but was particularly championed by Monet.

In reconstructing the 1874 exhibition, the surprise, Robbins says, is “that the content was so mixed, such a diverse bunch of artists, so many technical media, sculptures, enamels, twice as many works on paper as paintings”. In this context the show reintroduces works by lesser-known and fascinating figures connected with the Impressionists: airy, light Japonisme interiors by the art critic Zacharie Astruc – a supporter – and subtle tonal etchings by Félix Bracquemond, who taught printmaking to Manet and Pissarro.

The 1874 show took place in the Boulevard des Capucines studio of the photographer, Nadar. Courtesy: the National Library of France

Outstanding among the works on paper on show are Berthe Morisot’s pastel of her sister Edma, and watercolours of her family – On the Cliff at Portrieux and In the Woods – which perfectly balance carefree spontaneity and decisive control. Wealthy, refined and already successful at the Salon, Morisot risked her social and artistic reputation by throwing in her lot with Monet and Renoir, against pressure from Manet, who she loved despite being married to his brother Eugène. She sold nothing in the 1874 exhibition, and the involvement of a gracious, educated woman bewildered the critics, who declared the show “anarchy” and “a war on beauty”.

Braving insults, Morisot had an inspired sense from the start that Impressionism opened the doors to freedom and a subjective, individual approach. She showed at all other Impressionist exhibitions except one, when she was pregnant.

Her grandson Denis Rouart believed the 1874 exhibition “marked the awakening of these artists to the realisation of what they had in common”, a reciprocity that deepened. The dazzling reflections in Morisot’s La Psyché, of a woman looking in a mirror as light floods the room – a highlight of the Third Impressionist exhibition in 1877 – demonstrates her rapidly increasing sophistication and daring. Monet admired Morisot – “a great talent” – and their see-sawing mutual influence is evident, such as in the curling sinewy brushstrokes for aquatic foliage in her reworking of Boucher’s Two Nymphs Embracing, 1892, which Monet saw before beginning his Nymphéas (Water Lilies) cycle.

The show concludes with highlights from the 1877 exhibition, which Robbins says was “the moment when the artists’ plans properly came to fruition, the moment when Impressionism was at its most homogenous”. Of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, it marked the peak of their exuberance and confidence before divisions and doubts set in about how Impressionism could progress.

Realist works such as Edgar Degas’ La Classe de danse, circa 1870, were shocking to audiences at the time for their candid portrayals of modern society. Courtesy: the Metropolitan Museum of Art

We can time-travel there in this recreation of the show in microcosm: Monet’s La Gare Saint-Lazare and the lush chromatic blur of his dissolving Tuileries Gardens; Pissarro’s diaphanous The Red Roofs, its construction influenced by Cézanne’s geometry; the strangely angled, sharp street scene Les Peintures en bâtiment by Gustave Caillebotte. The 1874 show had been this affluent, sensitive young artist’s epiphany, and his own paintings merged responses to Degas’ off-centre compositions and Renoir’s vibrant palette.

Occupying its own wall in 1877 was the masterpiece of egalitarian Parisian society en fête, Renoir’s flickering Bal du moulin de la Galette (Dance at the Moulin Galette), which combined Impressionism’s dappled light with a feast of sensuous portraits. Gustave Caillebotte bought it and wrote his will the same year, even though he was only 29, leaving his burgeoning collection to the nation.

After his early death in 1894, 38 of these pictures went on permanent display at the Musée du Luxembourg – the first Impressionist exhibition in a French museum. While visiting, Monet noticed that Cézanne’s L’Estaque was badly hung, and tried to swap it for one of his own prominently displayed paintings. Two decades after the 1874 experiment, the Impressionists had broken the barrier to state acceptance – but some of its pioneers were still more equal than others.

Paris 1874: Inventing Impressionism is at the Musée D’Orsay, Paris, 26 March–14 July

Cover image: Monet’s Impression, soleil levant, 1872, inspired the term “Impressionist” to describe the radical new works exhibited in 1874. Photo: © Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris/Studio Baraja SLB

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