CONTEMPORARY

CONTEMPORARY

“L’IMPRESSIONNISME EST LE JOURNAL DE L’ÂME.”

The title of this piece is a quote from artist Henri Matisse, which means “Impressionism is the newspaper of the soul.” In the same way that newspapers report events from a political standpoint, impressionists do it from a personal one.

Impressionism is a 19th Century artistic movement that was born and bred in the French capital city, Paris. The term “Impressionist” was coined by reporter Louis Leroy, after an exhibition containing Claude Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise.” For Leroy, the work lacked substance and depth, giving away only an “Impression” of the intended subject matter. It is interesting to think that something that was meant as an insult was transformed as a means of identifying one of the most famous and influential movements in art history, and my personal favourite.

The middle of the 19th century was a time of much change and unrest in France. With constant shifts in power, the most dominant and consistent force of power was the Académie des Beaux-Arts. This was an esteemed artistic institution that dictated the rules contemporary artists were expected to follow. The standards set were often consistent with traditional French painting, with predominantly historical and religious subjects

Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882

Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882

that were expected to be highly stylised and idealised. As well as enforcing said rules, the Académie held an annual art show, the Salon de Paris, in which artists could exhibit their work and win prizes, commissions and ultimately fame and prestige.

 

The Impressionists, on the other hand, cared less about the notoriety of being a conventionally established artist but focused instead on creating works motivated by personal feelings and experiences. One of their main influences was poet Charles Baudelaire, who in his work “The Painter of Modern Life” encouraged modern artists to create works with more realistic and personal subjects. As a result, they were more inclined to paint landscapes and contemporary life rather than follow in line with their contemporaries at the Académie.

Due to the modernisation and expansion of Paris, brought about by Emperor Napoleon III and carried out by architect Georges-Eugène Haussmann, there was increasing poverty, illness, and general unease amongst its modern citizens. The city was growing in size and wealth, and its entertainment industry blooming, and while the bourgeois were profiting from these improvements, those who were less educated and well off did not reap such benefits. Also, the growing size of the city emphasised the disconnect between its citizens and heightened the rising feeling of depression and isolation. Parisians would often take advantage of lavish clubs, inexpensive prostitutes and an obscene amount of absinthe to mask their sadness.

With this in mind, it is no surprise that the Impressionists felt contemporary life would make a much more interesting subject matter than historical or religious works. With an abundance of material in their everyday lives, it would be illogical not to take inspiration from it.

Edgar Degas, L’Absinthe, 1875-76

Edgar Degas, L’Absinthe, 1875-76

Baudelaire also encouraged artists to act as “flâneurs” painting works “en plein air.” They would wander the city streets, with painting materials in hand, ready to capture any moment that inspired them.

Due to the lack of French paintings depicting contemporary subject matter, the Impressionists took inspiration from photography and, somewhat surprisingly, Japanese woodblock prints. The composition of these Japanese works was the primary influence for the Impressionists as they highlighted space and enlarged landscapes. The Impressionist style was characterised by loose brushwork, with the paint being applied impasto (the paint was layered on very thick, creating the illusion of depth).

In hindsight, the Impressionist influence on modern art is undeniable, with artists like Monet, Manet, Degas and Cezanne becoming some of the more revered and celebrated names in the art world. However, like with most artists, this fame was posthumous, and the majority of these painters were unable to reap the rewards of their talent while they were alive. They were rejected continuously from the Salon de Paris. However, it got to the point where there was enough independent work that needed to be exhibited, and the Salon des Refusés was created. Here, some of the most famous impressionist paintings were displayed, and at some point, it even garnered more attention than the traditional Salon de Paris.

The reason for my love of Impressionists is their confidence, independence and creative rebellion. This was a group of artists who were in the midst of one of the most unstable periods in French history and were not confined by societal norms and expectations and were more inclined to create works that they were passionate about. They possessed

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863

immense talent in accurately portraying the contemporary climate and established a precedent for using art as a means of social commentary, something very few artists before them had done.

CONTEMPORARY

DONNA PRUDENTE, DONNA ECCELLENTE: THE REPRESENTATION OF THE FEMALE FORM IN ITALIAN RENAISSANCE ART.

Donna prudente, donna eccellente” an Italian folk saying which translates as “A prudent woman is a good woman.”, and one of many quotes originating in the Renaissance that encapsulates the obsession with depictions of women that is emblematic of the era.

The “Renaissance” is a French word, meaning rebirth, and is used to define a period from the 14thCentury to the 17thCentury, a time of cultural revival and renewed interest in classical antiquity. This rebirth touched multiple sectors of society, namely Literature, Philosophy, Science, Music and most importantly, for the purposes of this post, Art and Architecture. This occurred in a time of growing wealth throughout Italy, particularly in the Catholic Church, and saw more and more works of art being commissioned not only by independent patrons but by Popes throughout the centuries, thus heightening the status of artists of the age.  Unsurprisingly, however, despite the profound socio-economic transformation, women encountered a negligible improvement in autonomy and independence, and were often seen as extensions of their male relations – be they fathers or husbands. More on that in a moment.

Back to the Renaissance, with its style which saw stylists and artists strive for perfection, or as close to it as is humanly possible. Artists like Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci led this movement by creating highly idealised works of awe-inspiring beauty, whilst simultaneously making use of mathematical precision.

This obsession with both stylistic and realistic perfection was most visible in the Renaissance depictions of women, among which the three most common representations of women were women of court, the Virgin Mary and mythical women.

In the most obvious case of life imitating art, women at the time were essentially expected to emulate and imitate the practically perfect representation of them seen in artworks. And as the vast majority of artists at the time were men, this therefore affected their female renditions, with their works often being a projection of their own fantasy of the female form.

Consequently, there appeared a dichotomy between the different depictions of women in art works: some were sexualised and objectified – often depicted in the nude – while others were idealised in their facial features.

  • Contemporary Women

Due to the growing wealth and status of many families at the time, particularity those in Florence, they were more and more inclined to commission portraits of their family members which would encapsulate said wealth and status. It was not uncommon to include all members of their family and the court, and thus the female members of the family. Women of the court fell into one of two categories: wife and mother or daughter, or potential wife. Despite this distinction, both groups of women were expected to be represented in almost the same way, though in the depictions of the wives it was important to highlight their fertility and beauty. All the same, while men were portrayed as most puissant and intellectual, women were used as symbols of wealth as they were often clothed in heavily adorned dress, emphasising the status of their family. Furthermore, it was not uncommon for women to be depicted with children or animals, by way of highlighting their maternal traits and ability to care for others. For the daughters of the court, it was essential for them to be as beautiful and desirable as possible for potential suitors, hence why their facial features were highly idealised.

 
Bronzino, Portrait of Eleanor of Toledo. 1545 & Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine, 1489-90

Bronzino, Portrait of Eleanor of Toledo. 1545 & Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine, 1489-90

 

The Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary, often called the Madonna, was another popular subject for Renaissance artists arising from the fact that the majority of works commissioned at the time were done by the Vatican. The Madonna was a symbol of purity, faith and maternity – characteristics expected of women at the time. Despite being held to such a high standard, her existence is in itself paradoxical as for contemporary women, the “Immaculate Conception” was an unattainable goal set for them by patriarchs.

Raphael, Madonna del Cardellino, 1505-06 & Titian, The Aldobrandini Madonna, 1532

Raphael, Madonna del Cardellino, 1505-06 & Titian, The Aldobrandini Madonna, 1532

 

Mythical Women

Lastly, we have the representation of mythical female figures, with Venus as the most popularly. As the most represented mythical goddess of love and beauty, her rendition is (unsurprisingly) often in the nude, and she is portrayed as a submissive object that is worthy of admiration and desire. This objectification of the female mythical nude represents not only innocuous male fantasy but is yet another form of patriarchal oppression in how it sets unrealistic expectations for the female spectators of who view the works.

Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1484-86 & Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1534

Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1484-86 & Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1534

All in all, these different representations give us an insight into the way people thought of women at the time. Unlike the modern, not all women were objectified and sexualised. Although they were merely extensions of their male relations, women of the court were able to maintain their dignity and purity in a way that mythical women were not able to. These were highly sexualised and served as fulfilment for male fantasies, as male artists chose not to portray real women in the nude in order to restrict women by suggesting that their only realistic aspiration was one of incredibly wealthy and beautiful women.