Monday, September 1, 2008

"Black Tongue Lickings"

Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, 1873

It is hard for us to imagine a painting like this causing such a fuss. To us, it is an appealing, and entirely innocuous, example of Impressionism, perhaps the most popular art movement ever. But the critics, and the public of the day, found this picture to be deeply shocking and even offensive.

This painting appeared in the first Impressionist Exhibition in April of 1874 held in the studio of the famous photographer Nadar. The subject of this painting is the view out the window of the very studio where this painting was first shown. We can clearly see the influence of photography here. It looks very much like a now famous early photograph made almost 40 years earlier by Louis Daguerre. The camera sees and takes in everything without distinction. Monet gives exactly the same attention, the same broad brush stroke, whether it's trees, buildings, balloons, the sky, carriages, buildings, or people. That is what the critics found so offensive and so shocked the public. Human beings, the human figure, the very center of the Classical aesthetic and the center of the humanist philosophies that sustained it, were now reduced to a few indefinite strokes of paint, "black tongue lickings" in the words of one hostile critic. The people in the street are reduced to the role of color notes equal to every other color note in the painting.
There is no central focus in this painting at all, nothing specific that Monet fixes his gaze upon. The center of this painting is an indefinite mass of umber paint that is supposed to be tree branches. The painting is not about any one thing. It is about the whole over all effect in light and color, an "impression" of the whole scene.

The Impressionists began as a very loose group of about 30 artists, most of whom are forgotten, who wanted to bypass the whole state Salon system (a series of annual exhibitions organized by the government to showcase the nation's talent), and exhibit independently. about the only things they had in common were their attention to the reality of modern urban Paris rather than to myth or history, and a broad sketchiness of execution. If the public was behind, then it was only by one step. They soon overcame their hostility, and by the end of the century the influence of the Impressionists was global inspiring imitators in Germany, America, Russia, Spain, and even in Mexico and Japan.
Claude Monet was not born into money like Edouard Manet. Monet was the son of a grocer. The public hostility cost him very dearly. In his younger years, he was so poor that fellow artist Pierre Renoir stole bread to rescue him and his wife from starvation. He even attempted suicide. By the beginning of the 20th century, he was one of the most famous and successful artists in the world. He was inducted into The Legion of Honor, and the famous and powerful (especially Clemenceau) called upon him at his estate in Giverny down the Seine from Paris.


Anonymous said...

what an interesting article. I just wonder, since this was new to me, that Daumier had supported him when he was in trouble. Do you have any source you might be able to mention? if so, I would like to metnion this on our daumier website.

Counterlight said...

Dear D. Noack,

Your question sent me back to reread some things that I haven't touched in many years.
Alas, I seem to be wrong about Daumier, or at least I can't find, or remember, where I read about that.
What I did find is certainly interesting enough. According to Robert Rosenblum in his big survey book, "19th Century Art," Renoir stole bread for him in the mid 1860s. Christoph Heinrich, in his book "Monet," says that Frederic Bazille frequently bought Monet's pictures to support him and his wife. Monet's family did not approve of Monet's marriage and cut off his support. He wrote back to them and told them (falsely) that he and Camille were separated. They promptly restored his allowance. He attempted suicide by throwing himself in the Seine after the birth of his first son Jean over anxieties about financially supporting a family.

Anonymous said...

The more I think about it, the more I think this was a brain fart. I'm going to fix it.