The Painting Techniques of the Impressionists, Cubists, and Fauvists
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries art styles were changing rapidly in France. Impressionism, Cubism, and Fauvism were three of the styles developed during this time. The painters involved were using new techniques with oil paint to change what was accepted as fine art. Their new techniques reflected societal changes happening all around them. The Age of Industrialization, economic fears, and Romantic ideology had mixed together to form a perfect storm of revolution all over Europe. The "old world" of the middle ages, with its fixed doctrines, philosophies, and methods, seemed further and further away. Artists therefore sought new techniques that would help them to "create illusions" (as the Cubists did) or to emphasize style over substance (as the Fauvists did) or to reflect a world and way of life that was quickly being lost (as the Impressionists did). These artists strove for originality, spontaneity, and fashion. As men, money and machines took over the world, these artists tried to capture the splendor of creation (Monet) or the primal spirit (Picasso) or the art of novelty (Matisse). This paper will analyze these three movements, place them within their historical context, and examine the techniques and works of the artists who embodied them.
What Was Happening in Their World
From 1875 to 1921 (the timeframe of our analysis), a lot had happened in Europe to affect the outlook and situation of painters in Paris, France. The Age of Enlightenment had given way to the Age of Romanticism. Romance had in turn given way to Industrialization. The core group of serious Impressionists -- Monet, Pissarro and Renoir -- each approached the art world in different ways. Monet wanted the attention and patronage of the Salon (Johnson, 2003). He focused on landscape paintings to get it.
The Franco Prussian War had brought Pissarro and Monet into acquaintance in London. Impressionistic works were new and filled a hole left by a change in "sophisticated taste" (Johnson, 2003, p. 600). Simplicity of style and "freshly colored paintings" were replacing large-scale Gothic portraits (Johnson, p. 600). Thus, there was a demand for smaller, more assertive paintings. This demand was met by the Impressionists.
Around this same time, art from other continents was becoming popular. African and Native American art, for example, was being admired by fashionable circles in Europe. Tom Wolfe calls these circles "le monde" -- or, "the world." This "world" was different from any other of the past: it was the "artist's arena…the place where he seeks honor, glory, ease, Success…" (Wolfe, 1975, p. 12). At the turn of the 20th century and "the era of Picasso, Braque & Co., the modern game of Success in Art was pretty well set…the artist would do work that baffled or subverted the cozy bourgeois vision of reality" (Wolfe, p. 13). Subverting convention was important to the Fauvists and the Cubists. The Impressionists had sought to push the boundaries of convention. The Cubists sought to destroy convention.
As Picasso's career took off, World War I broke out in Europe. The fracturing of society, of nations and of peoples made the work of the Cubists seem all the more profound. As societies splintered and generations of men were killed, the lack of "reality" or of any real meaning to life was reflected in the Cubists' abstract works.
Why Were These Artists Doing These Styles?
In 1875, it was important to Impressionist painters that they be able to capture "a transitory glimpse of an atmospheric event, the colors changing with the light" (Johnson, 2003, p. 602). The ability to express some "felt" knowledge was very important to Impressionists like Van Gogh. To others, like Renoir, it was important to illustrate the magic of youth.
The Fauvists expanded the Impressionistic movement. They emphasized a simplistic style and splashes of color. Matisse, for example, depicted his wife in 1905, using more primitive techniques than had previously been popular. Rather than effecting light and shadow, Matisse used simple planes of color to delineate depth. It is another push away from realism, away from Impressionism even. It is a push towards the abstract, which Picasso and his group of Cubists would take to the next level. Matisse and the Fauvists were attempting to move away from the Impressionists by breaking down the rules of painting. Like the Impressionists, they were interested in emphasizing color and style. Unlike the Impressionists, the subject of the painting was almost irrelevant. Looking at Matisse's portrait of his wife, one may suspect that it would not have mattered whether Matisse were painting his wife or the broad side of a barn. His only care seems to be how to emphasize color planes.
From 1910 to 1921, the Cubists dropped the notion that an artist needed to have a clearly defined subject. Definition was blase. Identification was not required. Cubists were leading the way in Abstract "fashion art." It was fashionable to "suggest," and to paint in a way that had never been done before was to place oneself at the height of fashion. Others, like Kandinsky were making strides in Abstractionism. Kandinsky's Composition VII in 1913 was a tremendous, sweeping abstract portrait. But of what? Kandinsky emphasized the spiritual dimension of life and tried to represent it in abstract art. The Cubists, beginning with Picasso, emphasized the "lack" of spirituality in life and represented this "lack" in Cubism. Picasso was a materialist. He joined the Communist Party in 1944 after painting Guernica for the Rebel Republicans in Spain. Picasso was from first to last a revolutionary fighting the code of the "old world" just as the Spanish Republicans were fighting the "old world" Catholic Spaniards led by General Franco and his army.
Technique -- What Colors, Brushstrokes, Methods Were Used?
Pissarro was, for a time, a pointillist. He used small, dotty brushstrokes to produce an effect in the viewer's eye. The viewer was meant to "interpret" the image, implied by the points of paint applied with the tip of the brush. There were no brushstrokes in Pissarro's pointillist paintings. There were only dots of paint, put together in the same way that a printing press would form a picture on paper using dots of color. Pissarro used softer colors to emphasize a sweeter aspect of life. He used nature as his subjects -- landscapes, peasants working on farms as in Hay Harvest at Eragny (1901). Although he experimented with pointillism, he was not tied to it, and Hay Harvest shows more depth of brushstroke. The colors are not as muted as in other works. There is a lively calm in the short strokes.
The Fauvists used a technique that was a bit different. They used rushed, wild brushstrokes and tended towards simplistic representations. They preferred using color rather than line to illustrate borders and boundaries. Like the Impressionists, they emphasized color. But while the Impressionists used color to represent light and the glories of the natural world and the simple people in that world, the Fauvists used color in order to be "loud" and to draw attention to their works. A hint of the primal Africanism that would inspire Picasso's African phase is noticeable in the works of the Fauvists.
The Cubists took the message of the Fauvists to the extreme. They destroyed all concept of line, border and boundary. They reduced human and natural subjects to "shapes" without dimension. They flattened and obliterated what they sought to represent. The technique of the Cubists was based on the work of African and Native American art, which was becoming popular in Europe at the time. Cubism was the artist's attempt to be "fashionable" or to incorporate the "wild" and "primitive" styles of these uncivilized peoples into the art of the "civilized" world. Picasso, Braque and Gleizes, for example, used geometric shapes to portray their subjects. Gleizes' Man on a Balcony (1912) looks like a man viewed through a prism. His body is shattered and fragmented into parts. Yet, these parts produce a kind of harmonious whole. The colors are earthy -- the opposite of the Fauvists' splashy canvases.
Examples -- Who Was Working in This Style?
There was a core group at the center of each of these movements. For example, Van Gogh is one of the most easily recognizable artists to work in the Impressionist movement -- but he was not one of the core founders of the movement. At the core of Impressionism was Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Each had his own distinct take on Impressionism. Each approached the movement from his own particular perspective. Monet focused primarily on landscapes, but gave some attention to picturesque settings of persons (like in the painting Woman with a Parasol). Some of Pissarro's works can easily be confused as belonging to Monet. But Renoir was primarily a figure painter, who focused on the joys and beauties of human nature/sexuality.
In Fauvism, the core group consisted of Henri Matisse, Andre Derain and Maurice De Vlaminck. Each…