Looking for something more, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and the others took their easels outdoors and tried to capture the real effects of color, light, and shadow. They were looking for a painting method that would render something closer to objective reality. What they got was a new understanding of what art was about.
For a clear view of the divide between Barbizon and Impressionism, compare Monet’s “Rising Tide at Pourville” with Courbet’s “Isolated Rock.” The Courbet is brooding and dark, presenting a melancholic, almost angry, narrative mood. The Monet takes an unusual point of view, looking slightly down at rows of parallel whitecaps, and the result looks odd and experimental, even more than a century later. The subject here is a record of the relationship between the scene and the artist, rather than an idea the artist wishes to express. We are looking at an attempt to allow us to see this moment through the eyes of the painter. This was a profound difference, a new understanding of the function of art.
This new understanding was needed. The world was indeed changing. Transportation, at least in Europe, was becoming fast and safe. Monarchies were on the verge of disappearing, as were hereditary aristocracies. The telegraph had spanned the world, so instantaneous communication was become routine. Photographs were becoming common and were taking over much of the documentary function that had been the staple work of artists.
This is a lot easier to see in retrospect than it was while they were living it. Monet, who is represented so well in this show, was the linchpin of the movement. His commitment to seriousness and his ability to follow his ideas with concentration and courage brought him to some outstanding results. His painting “Vernon in the Sun,” with its view across the water to a town with a cathedral, still looks radical. It glows as if the bright sunlight day it depicts were shining out into the gallery.
For Monet it was much more than a style, it was a vocation. Painters like Gustave Caillebote, who came late to Impressionism, and indeed to painting at all (he started as a collector) couldn’t bring his work to the pitch of intensity that Monet almost always achieved. That’s clear from Caillebote’s work here, “Apple Tree in Bloom.”
The Americans who came to France tended to see a successful style without apprehending the greater importance of what was happening. Compare the American Willard Leroy Metcalf’s “Early Spring Afternoon — Central Park” with Monet’s “Vernon in the Sun.” Both are in the Impressionist style, but the Metcalf lacks the sense of urgency that radiates from the Monet along with its sunlight. Julian Alden Weir’s “Willimantic Thread Factory” has the same problem; it has the look and feel of an Impressionist painting, but not the same vibrant coherence.
There are some fine pictures by Americans here, though. John Singer Sargent’s astonishing “Stream in Val d'Aosta” seem almost abstract in its jumble of strong colors that fill the whole of the small picture. It only resolves into a view of a downward view of a stream at a distance.