The period of Impressionism saw artists begin to paint in new and exciting ways. For centuries artists had been painting realism, making paintings exact reproductions of the subject matter. Strict rules had been followed and subject matter often was religious or portraits of family members of the upper class. There was also still life and landscape. Every painting had been done to "perfection" rendering an eternal picture of how a person or place actually looked.
What changed artists and their visions in the nineteenth century?
The answer was simple. It would be romantic to think it was all about artistic vision and the desire to always create something new. While those things were definitely part of the equation, the main driving force behind artists painting in a new way was one of the most basic: survival.
You see, the camera had been invented and was becoming more and more effective at taking photos. What use would there be for artists who took weeks and months to finish a portrait when a photographer could be hired? True, the photographs were not in color. But artists realized that it was only a matter of time before that would no longer be true and, if they did not change their style, they would become obsolete.
Another problem compounded the dilemma. Class structure had changed. Now there was a middle class. The lower middle class was called proletariat. The lowest of these proletarians were the artisans. All of a sudden, more and more artists who painted found themselves on their own and struggling to put food in their mouth.
You see, for centuries artists had been employed by the very wealthy to paint family portraits and history, many times staying on permanently as a staff member to continue to paint that history over the years. They had a place to sleep, food, and sometimes were even treated like a family member. It really depended upon the family how the artist was seen. Some families considered the artist another servant, and provided minimal lodging, food, and a small wage. Others loved their artist and had them sit with them at family meals, gave them a room in the main house that was luxurious and paid them quite well.
The trade off? The artist had no freedom to paint what their soul cried for them to paint. All of their time was taken up painting for the family. Many artists mourned the fact that they spent their life painting things they would rather not be painting, just to make a living. Still, the fact that they had food, shelter and a wage was nothing to turn one's back on.
Then the camera came. All of a sudden, it became more and more rare for an artist to have permanent employment with a family. Sure, they could be hired once in awhile for a painting, but even that was not guaranteed. Now they had the freedom that all people blessed with artistic ability long for...but no money! No place to live and, very often, nothing to eat. Artists began living in squalor, sometimes going door to door with paintings begging for buyers at any price, just so they could eat. Even Renoir and Degas had to peddle their paintings just to make rent at times.
It seemed there was no happy medium. Artists today still struggle to make it.
These artists began gathering and talking with each other. Ideas fed off of each other and soon the images that were talked about began to appear on canvas. They knew everything that they painted going forward had to have something different about it or it would never sell.
I, for one, am happy that all of this change occurred. Realism generally bores me. Look, anyone who can paint can do a vase of flowers exactly how it looks. All artists can create a still life in exact replica of the items places in front of them. So can a camera. If you want a reproduction, for God's sake just take a picture.
The new mantra for these bohemians was "Show me something different". And did they ever! We will talk more about those crazy bohemians in future posts. For now, I will just end by saying this: If you want real art hanging on your walls, go for the piece that shows the ordinary in an extraordinary way. As those bohemians realized, THAT is what art would and should be, moving forward. Once art becomes stagnant it ceases to be the driving force it is meant to be.
Art should always be fresh and alive. Art should always strive to reinvent itself; to be something different. Anything less tarnishes the very definition of art.