How Did Photography Influence The Impressionists?
In 1839, a new means of visual representation was announced to a startled world – photography. While photographers themselves spent the ensuing decades experimenting with techniques and debating the nature of this new invention, its impact on modern society proved immense.
Today, it might be difficult to appreciate how revolutionary and challenging photography was, but when it first stepped into the scene, the art world quickly took notice. What started as a competition soon became an alliance of vision that changed the way we see forever. It radically changed how artists, particularly the Impressionist painters, looked at the world and depicted reality.
The upcoming exhibition at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza examines the repercussions the invention of photography had on the development of the visual arts in the second half of the nineteenth century. Titled The Impressionists and Photography, it brings together 66 oil paintings and works on paper and more than 100 photographs, offering a critical reflection on the affinities and mutual influences between painting and photography, including the debate it sparked among critics and artists.
A New Way of Looking At the World
Following the appearance of the first daguerreotypes in the late 1830s and the subsequent discovery of techniques for making photographic prints on paper, a very close relationship was established between photography and painting. The artificial eye of the camera of photographers such as Gustave Le Gray, Eugène Cuvelier, Henri Le Secq, Olympe Aguado, Charles Marville and Félix Nadar spurred Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas and the young painters of Impressionism Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet, Marie Bracquemond, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot and Gustave Caillebotte to devise a new way of looking at the world.
As photography evolved from a mere mechanical means of reproducing reality to gaining artistic credibility, it allowed painters a closer examination of light and asymmetrical, cropped spaces, as well as an exploration of spontaneity and visual ambiguity. This relationship was mutual, as the medium of photography became concerned with the materiality of their images and sought methods for making their photographs less precise and more painterly. Painters of Impressionism were keenly aware of the transient nature of reality and, for them, photography seemed to mark a symbolic victory of man over temporality and triggered a revolutionary transformation in their depictions.
The Range of Artistic Concerns
To illustrate the artistic concerns shared by painters and photographs and new artistic freedoms that emerged from their relationship, The Impressionists and Photography is divided into nine sections.
The section The Forest compares the landscape paintings of the forerunners of Impressionism, such as Gustave Courbet, Camille Corot, Théodore Rousseau and Charles Daubigny, with the photography work of Le Gray, Cuvelier and Le Secq, who carted their photographic equipment into the forest. The influence of photography is visible in the painters’ instantaneous approach to their subject matter, their asymmetrical compositions and the effects of light filtering through the trees.
In the section Figures in the Landscape, the visitors can see the comparisons between Manet’s schematic landscape backgrounds and the decorative backdrops used in photographic portraits, such as those made fashionable by Aguado or between the outdoor portraits of the relatives of Frédéric Bazille and the photographic group portraits made by Édouard Baldus.
In the section The Water, we can see Le Gray’s seascapes, synthetic closeups of choppy seas and clouds off the coast of Normandy, brought into dialogue with various pictures of seas and skies painted by Eugene Louis Boudin and Monet, but also comparisons between the ghostly reflections of the trees in the tranquil river waters in the photography work of Aguado and Camille Silvy and the paintings of Monet and Sisley.
Leisure activities in the countryside and outdoor scenes are the subjects of the section In the Countryside. It juxtaposes the instantaneous and fragmentary approach to the scene by artists such as Renoir, Sisley, Monet and Caillebotte and the manner in which photographers such as Achille Quinet, Eugène Atget and Charles Marville captured reality.
In the mid-19th century, several photographers such as Baldus, Le Gray and the Bisson brothers were hired by the French government to take photographs of the historical monuments of France. Years later, these pictures aroused the interest of the Impressionists on account of the Gothic buildings, as visible in Claude Monet’s depictions of the façade of Rouen cathedral. This is the subject of the section titled The Monuments.
In the section The City, we see modern urban views by Gustave Le Gray, Charles Soulier and Adolphe Braun that are found later in the paintings of Berthe Morisot and Gustave Caillebotte, as well as a dialogue between Charles Marville’s photography work and Camille Pissarro’s paintings of the boulevards.
The fast growth of commercial photography and the rise of portrait photographers such as Nadar steered painted portraits in a new direction. The section The Portrait shows paintings of Manet, Cézanne and Degas that were based on photographs of their sitters at certain stages.
The Body features naturalistic, spontaneous poses photographed by Le Gray and Paul Berthier alongside a selection of nudes painted by the Impressionism painters, especially Degas, the most photographic of the group of painters.
The exhibition concludes with the section The Archive, featuring a group of photographs of Manet’s works taken by Anatole-Louis Godet, commissioned by the painter himself who colored some with watercolors. The last piece on show is the album Vingt Dessins, a miniature retrospective published in 1897 featuring a selection of 20 chromogravures of Degas’ works selected by the artist himself.
The Impressionists and Photography at Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza
Impressionists and Photography will be on view at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid from October 15th, 2019 to January 26th, 2020.
Curated by the museum’s Paloma Alarcó, chief curator of Modern Painting, and Clara Marcellán, curator of the Department of Modern Painting, it is accompanied by a catalog with texts by Paloma Alarcó; digital publication in the Quiosco Thyssen app and educational guide with texts by Clara Marcellán.
Featured image: Eugène Boudin – Harbor of Brest, 1870. Oil on canvas. 47.6 x 65.4 cm. Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Bequest of Charles Francis Adams © Portland Art Museum. All images courtesy Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza.