Picasso, Degas and Renoir stayed here
Joanna Leggett goes chasing light and lifestyle in the locations loved by Monet, Manet and friends
In the footsteps of the Impressionists
Step into the Musée d’orsay and the wonderful world of the Impressionist painters can be seen at its best. Set beside the Seine in what was once a railway station, it’s loaded with paintings of Degas’ ballet dancers, Renoir’s wonderful ladies and all the luscious landscapes of the French countryside. Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Van Gogh – they’re all wonderful to contemplate. I love Renoir’s La Balançoire, the pretty girl sitting on a swing with her lovely white dress decorated with blue bows, and Cezanne’s landscapes of Mont Ste-victoire in Provence. They are a feast for the eyes and both on exhibition here. Impressionism began in Paris in the 1860s
City of light
Impressionism began in Paris in the 1860s, when artists rejected the traditional style of painting in fine detail. Instead they tried to capture the feeling – the impression – of a fleeting instant of a scene. Of course it wasn’t popular with the establishment of the day, but to say it flourished would be an understatement.
By loosening brushwork and lightening colours, artists such as Claude Monet and Pierre-auguste Renoir tried to capture changing light and reflect the effect it gave on sky and water, conveying changes in weather.
The advent of the movement coincided with a time of massive urban renewal in Paris. Under the auspices of Emperor Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann was sweeping away the capital’s medieval neighbourhoods and narrow streets and replacing them with wide tree-lined boulevards, grand apartment buildings and new parks and squares. All this, it is said, influenced this new way of painting. Impressionists such as Camille Pissaro captured this new essence of Paris (it sounds like something you could bottle!) in paintings. And then there are the evocative pictures of sailboats on the Seine, carefree conversations over food-laden tables, couples dancing in the countryside.
The Paris rejects
The first exhibition of Impressionist art was in 1863 in Paris. That year, work by Edouard Manet, Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne, among others, was turned down by the jury of the Paris Salon, the world-famous official art exhibition run by the French government and Academy of Fine Arts.
The conservative judges had taken offence to the unconventional themes presented by the Impressionists, especially Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe which featured (shock horror!) ladies who’d taken off their clothes to enjoy an afternoon picnic.
However, protests by the artists and their fans came to the attention of Napoleon who decreed that a second exhibition should be held, showcasing the rejected work. Although visitors to the so-called Salon des Refusés (literally exhibition of rejects) poked fun at the Impressionists’ unorthodox art, the event was a cultural watershed and it wasn’t long before the painters began to garner praise and respect.
In Montmartre’s celebrated Café Society, the Impressionists would meet to talk and drink and paint. Maurice Utrillo, who was famous for his cityscapes, was born in the neighbourhood and virtually lived at Le Lapin Agile off the Place du Tertre, which was a hub of Bohemian life.