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Tuesday 3 November 2020

Art Skills – Impressionism and Orleans House Gallery

In the next article from our volunteer Madeleine, we return to our Study Gallery to examine the Impressionist movement through a Richmond landscape by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.

As part of the Art Skills focus at Orleans House Gallery, I am embarking on a mission to delve into a handful of artistic movements throughout history and explore the artistic techniques which set them apart. The Richmond Borough Art Collection features an incredible array of artworks which span across a multitude of artistic genres and movements. My aim is to take key works from the Collection and use those as my starting points drawing on historical context and specific artistic practice.

First up, we will explore one of the most well-known and popularised art movements: Impressionism.

Here at Orleans House Gallery, we are lucky enough to house Richmond près de Londres by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Despite his focus on landscape painting, Corot’s artistic techniques mirror those found within key Impressionist works and consequently, he has been referred to as the ‘Father of Impressionism’.

Corot, Jean-Baptiste-Camille. Richmond pres Londres. 1862, oil on canvas, Richmond Borough Art Collection, Orleans House Gallery.

Let me first introduce our artist in focus.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was born in 1796 to a bourgeois family in Paris and died in 1875. Unlike other artists, Corot did not demonstrate much artistic talent as a young boy, and it was not until 1815 when Corot showed any interest in painting. This change of heart was thought to be triggered by his daily country walks with the Sennegon family with whom he lived at the time. However, Corot apprenticed to a draper and remained in the trade until his father allowed him to pursue his artistic ambitions aged 26. When Corot devoted himself fully to oil painting in 1821, his primary subjects were landscapes.

At the time, landscape painting was becoming a much more popular and well-respected genre by academicians. Whilst there were varying approaches to landscape painting, one aspect remained consistent throughout Corot’s works. He would begin outdoors with sketching and any preliminary painting, and then would move indoors to complete the work. Here, Corot seemingly anticipated the Impressionist approach to painting ‘en plein air’, meaning ‘in the open air’. Towards the end of his life, Corot became known as “Père Corot” (‘Father Corot’) within Parisian artistic circles and even Claude Monet famously referred to him as the master of painting in 1897 exclaiming “there is only one master here – Corot. We are nothing compared to him, nothing” (Tinterow, 1996).

Corot’s work Richmond près de Londres, which hangs in the Study Gallery, was created during his only visit to England in 1862 for the International Exhibition. The International Exhibition was a world’s fair and was held beside the gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society in South Kensington, London. The fair was sponsored by the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Trade and showcased over 28,000 exhibitors from 36 countries.

Overall, Richmond près de Londres (1862) is a work full of Impressionist technique which has been delicately employed by Corot as he depicts Hotham House along the River Thames. Interestingly, the work is said to be one of four Corot rendered during his time in England. However, I have only been able to locate two others: The Crystal Palace (1862) and Londres, vu de loin, des bords de la Tamise (1862). Both are housed within private collections.

Corot, Jean-Baptiste-Camille. Richmond près de Londres. 1862, oil on canvas, Richmond Borough Art Collection, Orleans House Gallery.

But what exactly do I mean by ‘Impressionist technique’? Thus far, it has been established that Corot was a notable French landscape artist, not a member of the Impressionist group, so in order to answer this question, and to draw the correct links between Corot and Impressionism, we need to first take a look at the movement’s beginnings.

Impressionism was a 19th-Century art movement beginning in Paris which sought to use contemporary, scientific research into the “physics of colour” within artworks (Lucie-Smith, 1984). This was thought to result in a more exact representation of colour and tone on the canvas. It was this philosophy which would serve as the ultimate Impressionist ideal.

After being rejected by the art establishment, the diverse group of painters connected with the movement came together in 1870-1 and defiantly set up their own exhibition in 1874: The First Impressionist Exhibition. This exhibition included works by Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Cézanne, Degas, Guillaumin, Boudin and Berthe Morisot who are all household names today (Lucie-Smith, 1984). Exciting scientific discoveries and changing attitudes of the 19th-Century directly influenced the new artistic techniques which would become synonymous with Impressionism as we know it.

Here are just a few of those techniques which have become pointers to Impressionist works…

Firstly, artists were encouraged to experiment with a palette consisting of complementary colours. It was thought that the contrast between complementary colours on the canvas would result in a brighter, more vivacious composition. While this is not necessarily demonstrated within Corot’s work here at Orleans House Gallery, Gustave Caillebotte’s Skiffs on the Yerres (1877) is a great example of the results of such an experiment with colour.

Caillebotte, Gustave. Skiffs on the Yerres. 1877, oil on canvas, 116.2 x 88.9 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., United States of America.

Secondly, often within Impressionist works, close attention has been paid to the reflection of colours from object to object within the composition. It was a newfound fascination with the human body and psyche that meant that the Impressionist group would seek to convey the human experience of seeing to those who were gazing upon their works. As The National Gallery explains, when we first lay our eyes onto a crowd of people, for example, we do not see individual faces in detail but rather a mass of colour and light (The National Gallery, accessed 2020). In this sense, there was a greater focus on the accurate portrayal of naturalistic light and colour. This technique, I believe, is best highlighted within Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872), which became the source of the movement’s name.

Monet, Claude. Impression, Sunrise. 1872, oil on canvas, 48 x 63 cm, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, France.

Next, look out for the short, visible brushstrokes found on the canvas. One of the most defining characteristics which separates an Impressionist work from another are these brushstrokes which are often referred to as applying paint impasto. They were thought to capture the pure essence of the subject in a fleeting moment. The Industrial Revolution brought about new means of production and manufacturing and the innovation and production of ready-made paint in tubes meant that artists could now work outside and at a much greater speed. Often the Impressionists would apply the paint straight from the tube without using a brush making the brushstrokes even more visible (The National Gallery, accessed 2020). This technique of applying paint in small, quick touches would ultimately work in conjunction with others that I have mentioned in order to create a dazzling yet naturalistic piece of work. Berthe Morisot’s Summer’s Day (1879) is a great example of a piece where the brushstrokes seem to come alive on the canvas!

Morisot, Berthe. Summer’s Day. 1879, oil on canvas, 45.7 x 75.2 cm, National Gallery, London, United Kingdom.

Finally, it is also worth considering the subject matter. The Impressionists completely altered the way both urban and suburban modern life was captured. Industrialisation and urbanisation meant that traditional art seemed inadequate in comparison to the dynamism of modern life. The flâneur was defined around the same time and was essentially a “gentlemen stroller of the streets” (Saltz, 2008). The flâneur had a key role in understanding, participating in, and portraying the city; he was a detached observer of modern life (Saltz, Modern Machinery, 2008). Thus, the artist became an active flâneur depicting everyday life as he/she observed it. Alongside this, the innovations of photography would have also acted as a sort of competition for artists to emulate a truthful reality, which would also include everyday subject matter. One of Impressionism’s most celebrated masterpieces Bal du Moulin de la Galette (1876) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir demonstrates just this and is one of my favourite Impressionist pieces.

Renoir, Pierre-Auguste. Bal du Moulin de la Galette. 1876, oil on canvas, 131 x 175 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

Now that I have gone over just a few of the elements which make an Impressionist piece, I will let you draw the links between Impressionist techniques and Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot’s Richmond près de Londres (1862).

To get a much better and detailed look at the work, make sure to stop by the Study Gallery when you visit the Gallery! You can also view the work online here.

What techniques can you spot? Do you think Monet was right in referring to Corot as the “master of painting”? Let us know!

Madeleine Luxton

I have recently graduated from the University of East Anglia with a degree in History and History of Art. I am thoroughly enjoying my time exploring the art world and have already become enamoured with one of London’s hidden gems – Orleans House Gallery! Volunteering at Orleans House Gallery has allowed me to meet fellow art enthusiasts and to broaden my passion in helping the art world become much more accessible. My favourite artists are Edouard Manet, Diego Rivera, Robert Rauschenberg and Tracey Emin.

As Madeleine mentions, you can view this painting in person in our Study Gallery, or browse the entirety of the Richmond Borough Art Collection on our website at the links above.

You can read all of our volunteers’ articles on works from the collection on our News page.

Join our volunteer team and you can write about the collection! For this, and other opportunities, visit our Volunteering page.